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Relations between Hungary and Ukraine in the Light of the “Language Law Problem”

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Diplomatic relations between Hungary and Ukraine were established after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Until recently, bilateral relations have been progressing in a positive atmosphere. However, with the amendment made to the Education Law in the Ukrainian Parliament on September 5, 2017, relations have come to a standstill. With this new regulation, Hungarians in the country were prevented from receiving education in their mother tongue at secondary education institutions and universities.

Hungary claimed that with this new regulation made in the Education Law, the rights of the approximately 150-thousand Hungarian minority living in the southeast of the country (Transcarpathia) were violated. Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Peter Szijjarto said, “Ukraine stabbed Hungary in the back with the amendment it made to the Education Law.”[1] Hungary-Ukraine tensions tensely deteriorated after this form of response.

Budapest gave considerable support to Ukraine’s integration into the European Union (EU) before September 5, 2017. However, after this date, it started to take an anti-Ukrainian stance on international platforms, especially in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Ukraine relations. Due to the political crisis, Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjarto announced that they would veto all the steps that would allow Ukraine to advance in the European integration process. Therefore, Hungary vetoed the NATO-Ukraine Commission Summit in the same year by putting its reaction into action. Furthermore, the government put forward the condition that Ukraine withdraw the new education law in order to restore its cooperation with NATO.[2] The Kyiv administration, which did not want to undermine its cooperation with NATO in the face of the Russian threat, made concessions in line with the reactions of Budapest and decided to extend the transition period until 2023 to add the aforementioned language article to the Education Law.

The political crisis between the two countries increased in 2018. In March, Ukraine took a step that increased the tension with Hungary and announced that it would restore an old military base in the town of Beregovo, 10 km from the Transcarpathian border, where the Hungarian minority lives. Szijjarto described the placement of the military base in the region where the Hungarian minority lives as “a disgusting decision”[3] and reiterated that they will continue to block Ukraine’s attempts towards the EU and NATO. The Ukrainian side, on the other hand, stated that the military base in the Transcarpathian region was wanted to be put into operation due to the provocations in the region and the increasing security concerns, and emphasized that Russia could also have an impact on Hungary’s reaction.[4]

In September 2018, some images were shared at the Beregove Consulate of Hungary, showing some Ukrainian citizens being given the oath of allegiance to Hungary and Hungarian citizenship being given. These images, which were “viral” on social media, were met with a reaction in Ukraine. For this reason, the crisis between the two countries escalated. Ukraine, taking action against the situation in question, did not allow dual citizenship and expelled the Hungarian consul. the Hungarian government argued that the diplomat did not do anything illegal also decided to expel the consul of Ukraine on the same day as part of the “proportionate response” in the Budapest Embassy.[5] Consequently, the political crisis between the two countries deepened as a result of mutual reactions.

Before the Ukrainian Presidential Elections on March 31, 2019, Hungary announced that if the new administration changes its attitude towards the Hungarian minority living in the country, relations between the two countries will improve, but there has been no development towards the resolution of the crisis. On the contrary, the Kyiv government argued that Budapest violated the Vienna Convention by claiming that Hungary interfered in the Parliamentary Elections held in July 2019.This situation has caused the tense atmosphere between the two countries to continue.[6]

Despite Hungary’s demand that Kiev abandon its language policy in education, Ukraine enacted the Language Law on July 16, 2019, which stipulates the mandatory use of Ukrainian as a state language in authorized bodies and other public areas. With the law, employees of educational, health, and scientific organizations at high levels and other officials were obliged to use Ukrainian in the workplace.[7] Although the Budapest administration, which accuses the previous President of Ukraine, Petro Proshenko, of following anti-Hungarian politics, sees the political change in Ukraine and the new President, Volodymyr Zelenski, as an opportunity for the improvement of relations between the two countries, despite all the crises, the situation of the bilateral relations remained the same.

In the ongoing tense bilateral relations, Ukraine’s signing of a 15-year natural gas contract with the Russian energy company Gazprom on September 27, 2021 by Hungary angered Ukraine.[8] Within the scope of the signed contract, the fact that natural gas will be supplied through Serbia and Austria in a way that will bypass Ukraine has drawn the reaction of the Kyiv administration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine declared that the gas agreement with Russia is in the interest of the Kremlin and harms Ukraine’s national interests and political and economic relations with Hungary.[9] In the face of this Hungarian man, the Kyiv government suspended the Ukraine-Hungary Joint Intergovernmental Economic Cooperation Commission and called for an investigation by the European Commission into the compliance of the relevant agreement with the European Energy Law.[10]

Another development that caused tension in the Hungarian-Ukrainian relations was the Russia-Ukraine War. A high-ranking official in Kiev claimed that Budapest was aware of the impending war. In addition, in the news in the Ukrainian press, it was claimed that Hungary wanted to annex the Transcarpathian region. These allegations were denied by the Hungarian authorities. Hungarian Minister of State for Public Diplomacy and Relations, Zoltan Kovacs, said the allegations were in retaliation for Hungary’s refusal to supply arms to Ukraine.[11] Despite its close relations with Russia, Hungary condemned the invasion of Ukraine and joined all existing EU sanctions against Russia, except for sanctions on energy imports. In addition, the Hungarian government announced that it hosted a large number of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.

As a result, the challenges that began with the Language Law Problem on the Budapest-Kyiv line have gotten much more problematic as a result of the Russia-Ukraine War at this moment. Budapest’s ambition to provide inexpensive energy and its multifaceted diplomatic strategy, which is centered on building positive ties with Russia by taking into account the east-west balance in its foreign policy, elicit a response from Ukraine in particular and Western governments generally. As a result of the process, Hungary is now Russia’s closest ally in the EU. Kiev’s response was specifically in response to Hungary’s opposition to the proposed sanctions against Russia related to the energy sector. As a result, it is possible that the tension between the two countries will persist.

[1] “Hungary’s FM: Ukraine “Stabbed Hungary in the Back” over Law That Violates the Rights of Hungarian Minority”, About Hungary, https://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/hungarys-fm-ukraine-stabbed-hungary-in-the-back-over-law-that-violates-the-rights-of-hungarian-minority, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[2] “Hungary blocks Ukraine-NATO Commission meeting in December due to education law”, Unian Info, https://www.unian.info/politics/2212494-hungary-blocks-ukraine-nato-commission-meeting-in-december-due-to-education-law.html, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[3] “Hungary’s FM: Ukraine…”, op cit.

[4] “Ukraine Restoring Military Base Near Hungarian Border”, The Jamestown Foundation, https://jamestown.org/program/ukraine-restoring-military-base-near-hungarian-border/, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[5] “Diplomats thrown out in Ukraine-Hungary passport row”, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45753886, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[6] “Foreign interference in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine: The 2019 elections and beyond”, New Eastern Europe, https://neweasterneurope.eu/2020/05/06/foreign-interference-in-the-zakarpattia-region-of-ukraine-the-2019-elections-and-beyond/, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[7] “Ukrayna’da ‘Dil yasası’ yürürlüğe girdi”, Kırım Haber Ajansı, https://qha.com.tr/haberler/ukrayna-da-dil-yasasi-yururluge-girdi/56140/, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[8] “Russia’s Gazprom Inks 15-Year Gas Contract with Hungary”, The Moscow Times, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/09/28/russias-gazprom-inks-15-year-gas-contract-with-hungary-a75156, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[9] “Gazprom Gas Deal Rekindles Tension Between Hungary and Ukraine”, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-09-27/gazprom-gas-deal-sparks-clash-between-hungary-and-ukraine, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[10] “Ukraine reacts to Hungary’s new gas deal with Russia”, Ukrinform, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-polytics/3322847-ukraine-reacts-to-hungarys-new-gas-deal-with-russia.html, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

[11] “‘Fake news’: Hungary denies reports it was warned about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, Euronews, https://www.euronews.com/2022/05/03/fake-news-hungary-denies-reports-it-was-warned-about-russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine, (Date of Accession: 04.06.2022).

Sibel MAZREK
Sibel MAZREK
Lisans eğitimini Gazi Üniversitesi İletişim Fakültesi'nde tamamlayan Sibel Mazrek, yüksek lisans eğitimine Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Lisansüstü Eğitim Enstitüsü'nde Gazetecilik Ana Bilim Dalı'nda devam etmektedir. Çeşitli medya kuruluşlarında muhabirlik, spikerlik sunuculuk görevlerini üstlenen Mazrek, ANKASAM'da Medya Koordinatörü olarak çalışmalarına devam etmektedir.