In recent years, the Transcarpathian Question has been extremely important in shaping the relations between Hungary and Ukraine. In fact, this situation also plays a critical role in determining the position of the Budapest administration regarding the Russia-Ukraine War, which began on February 24, 2022.
To clarify the situation, the Hungarian Government is disturbed by the policies applied by the Kyiv administration to the minority communities in Transcarpathia, which broke away from Hungary after the First World War and is currently a region of Ukraine. Transcarpathia was under Hungarian rule for almost 1000 years until the First World War. Certainly, this historical link reveals why Hungary attaches importance to this region.
However, Transcarpathia is located at the intersection of Ukraine’s border with Hungary and Slovakia and is home to a significant Hungarian population. As a matter of fact, the number of Hungarians living in Transcarpathia is estimated to be 140,000. In other words, this region is a place where Hungary’s historical and cultural ties are strong.
At this point, it should be noted that the basis of the tension between Budapest and Kyiv stems from an education law adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament in 2017, which imposes restrictions on the use of the languages of national minorities in school education, including Hungarian. Although Ukraine’s main goal is to restrict the field of activity of the Russian language in Ukraine, Hungarian has also had its share of this. The Budapest administration reacted strongly to the law and 2017 was a turning point in terms of relations between the parties.
As can be seen, the relations between Hungary and Ukraine deteriorated due to this dispute much earlier than the war. For this reason, the Budapest administration was accused of trying to influence the outcome of the elections in the region in 2019 and Hungary blocked Ukraine’s membership negotiations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) due to this disagreement.
Therefore, when evaluating Budapest’s current policy in the war in Ukraine, it should be taken into account that this problem also occupies an important place. In other words, Hungary is trying to influence Ukraine’s policy towards the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia through the war. In this respect, Hungary’s attitude towards the war cannot be explained by its mere pro-Russianness, as some circles claim.
On the other hand, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pointed out in an interview on October 24, 2022, that after the war in Ukraine, a comprehensive agreement on Hungary-Ukraine cooperation guaranteeing the rights of the Hungarian minority will be needed. In addition to Orban, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated on November 29, 2022, that his country would continue to block the convening of the official body responsible for developing the NATO-Ukraine relationship due to its dispute with Ukraine over minority rights. Szijjarto also stated that Budapest had made it clear many years ago that Ukraine would not accept the convening of this body until it restores the rights of Hungarians living in Transcarpathia.
As can be understood, the Transcarpathian Question has an important place in Hungary’s attitude towards the war. Moreover, the Budapest administration is trying to use both the European Union (EU) and NATO factors against Kyiv within the scope of this problem. Therefore, it can be argued that Ukraine’s membership and integration process in these two organizations is in a sense dependent on Hungary. In this regard, Budapest will try to gain some concessions so that Kyiv can join these organizations.
On the other hand, in January 2023, the news was reflected in the world press that Hungary would veto the planned EU military aid of 500 million euros to Ukraine. However, on January 23, 2023, Szijjarto stated that Budapest would not adopt such a stance. Nevertheless, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary has again raised the Traskarpatya Question. Szijjarto urged the Ukrainian Government to respect the rights of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia and suggested that ethnic Hungarians had recently been subjected to attacks by local authorities. Furthermore, Szijjarto stated that this attitude of the Kyiv administration will make it difficult for Hungary to take decisions in support of Ukraine in the future.
In this context, it can be argued that Hungary is implementing a carrot and stick strategy against Ukraine. Within this scope, Budapest will continue to intimidate Kyiv through international organizations until it gets what it wants. Therefore, it can be said that Hungary will try to use the EU aid packages for Ukraine as an element of bargaining.
To summarize briefly, it is extremely difficult for Ukraine to become a NATO member without some reforms in the Transcarpathian Region, with which Hungary has historical ties. Therefore, it can be said that Hungary perceives Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO as an opportunity to realize its ambitions in Transcarpathia. In fact, Budapest used its veto power because of this problem when Kyiv’s membership in the alliance was on the agenda years ago. In the current situation, Hungary continues this policy.
In conclusion, it can be stated that the Transcarpathian Question has been overlooked many times while evaluating the relations between Budapest and Kyiv. This issue plays a critical role in shaping Hungary’s policy on the war. If Budapest does not get what it wants from Kyiv, it is foreseeable that Ukraine’s integration processes with NATO and the EU may be disrupted.
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