The “unexpected” way in which Hungary has behaved has two prongs: one has to do with nationalities and the other is economic. In this article, we will look at the first one.
The title of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, the famous painting by Francisco Goya, could also be phrased: often we fear and denounce what we don’t know. This also goes for those who would denounce Hungarian policy vis-à-vis the East, and especially toward Ukraine.

So what has made Hungary rebuff Ukraine but treat Russia in a friendly manner? Two factors: 1) the desire to protect Hungarians living in Ukraine and 2) the desire to make its economy less vulnerable and improve the people’s well-being. As Ukraine stands in Hungary’s way in achieving both goals, but Russia serves (and already has served!) as a loyal ally, Hungary’s leaders have gradually assumed an anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia course.

Ukraine administers an ancient Hungarian area

As the Ukraine crisis became deeper, the attentive gaze of Hungary’s leaders turned increasingly to the westernmost region in Ukraine Transcarpathia. It is home to a considerable number of Hungarians 150,000 to 200,000 of them of whom many hold Hungarian citizenship. Hungarians make up about 12% of the population of Transcarpathia. 

Many fear that Hungary will take advantage of Ukraine’s weakened state and take over Transcarpathia. This fear has been expressed both in the Ukrainian media and by politicians. At first glance, one might ask: “How could this be technically possible, if there is such a small percentage of Hungarians in the region? How could Hungary go against the other 88%?

The answer is simple: most (at least 75%) of the inhabitants of Transcarpathia are ethnically Rusyns, who are, mildly put, hostile to Ukraine, but revere and support Hungary and Hungarians.
Rusyns and Hungarians are both indigenous to Transcarpathia. They have lived and fought side by side for at least 1,000 years. The territory that is known as Transcarpathia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary from the 10th century to the end of WW1 and again from 1939-1944. Neither people had much in common with Ukraine until the end of WW2, when under an agreement between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, the former ceded the area to the latter.
Under the Treaty of Trianon concluded on 4 July 1920, which ended WW1, Transcarpathia was ceded to Czechoslovakia. The indigenous people were not asked for their opinion on this, and no referendum was held, even though Hungarian and Rusyn intellectuals had gathered at least 35,000 signatures in support of a referendum petition in a short time.
The disregard for Hungarians and Rusyns continued not only in Czechoslovakia and the USSR but from 1991 on in independent Ukraine. To understand why the Rusyns are pro-Hungarian, two facts should be recalled. One, Hungarian authorities have always considered the Rusyns a separate people, but the Soviets and later, the Ukrainian government considered them a subset of the Ukrainian people (even though the Rusyns are considered a separate nationality by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and even Russia). Second, Rusyn educational and cultural life developed while under Hungarian control, with more and more Rusyn-language schools founded, while Soviet and Ukrainian rule dealt a setback and Rusyn schools were closed.
Both the Rusyns and Hungarians were bitterly insulted when on 15 March 2002, when Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma posthumously gave the title of hero of Ukraine to the leader of Carpatho-Ukraine August Voloshin (1874-1945). Voloshin had ordered all Rusyns who clung to their non-Ukrainian identity interred in concentration camps. Most Rusyns did not identify as Ukrainians then and do not now either.) The attitude of the Carpatho-Ukraine government was also negative toward Hungary and Hungarians. The lifespan of the statelet established on 15 March 1939 proved fleeting the same day, Slovakian forces arrived, followed a couple days later by Hungarian forces, and on 18 March, after battles between the Hungarians and Slovakians, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist.

It was “self-evident” that neither of the indigenous Transcarpathian peoples was asked in either 1945 or 1991 whether they wanted to live under (Soviet) Ukrainian rule.

Hungary seeks autonomy for Transcarpathia

“The Hungarians living in the Carpathian region have the right to dual citizenship, civil rights and autonomy,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in May 2014 after a landslide victory at the general elections. He stressed that this was precisely what the Hungarian government expected of Ukraine’s leaders.
The actual reason for Orbán’s words was concern for the situation of his compatriots, as after the change of government in February 2014 in Kyiv, the situation of Hungarians and Rusyns in Transcarpathia had not improved one iota. In fact, one of the first projects taken on by the new authority in Ukraine was to repeal a law that had ensured Hungarian, Rusyn and Romanian regional language status in Transcarpathia.
The Transcarpathians and the Hungarian government were concerned by punitive incursions by the Right Sector, an extremist movement, against majority Hungarian areas, which were intended to wean local Hungarians off anti-Ukrainian ideas. The Hungarian foreign ministry expressed strident protest against it, taking the role of defender of both of the indigenous peoples of Transcarpathia. When in May 2014, armed individuals took a Hungarian hostage in Ukraine, the Hungarian military’s anti-terrorist unit mounted a search operation on its own.
Ukrainian-Hungarian relations became tenser in summer 2014 when the Ukrainian government announced a partial mobilization and Transcarpathian Hungarians were among those called up for the war in the east. Hungarian authorities expressed clear dissatisfaction over the decision, while the Transcarpathians even organized mass demonstrations in August.

The training of Transcarpathian reservists had been so poor during the Ukrainian state’s existence that they would not have not have been taken seriously as an adversary of Russia’s troops and mercenaries. They would have been cannon fodder. The Ukrainian authorities were also criticized for not bothering to repatriate well-trained Ukrainian peacekeepers from conflict zones abroad but rather would send poorly trained rank and file citizens to the front.

Administrative division of western Ukraine. Source:

Electoral games for neutralizing the Hungarians

The actions of the Ukrainian central government with regard to the Transcarpathian Hungarians at the elections added more strain to Hungarian-Ukrainian relations.

Namely, Petro Poroshenko misled Hungarians when he was still a candidate for president. On 1 May 2014 in the city of Ungvár (Uzhgorod) city, one of the two Hungarians’ influential political advocacy organizations, the Hungarian Cultural Union of Transcarpathia, signed a cooperation memorandum with Poroshenko, in which it pledged to support the magnate at the presidential elections.
In exchange, Poroshenko agreed in the same document that he would ensure the Hungarians got a seat in parliament.

When it turned out that the parliament elections (26 October) would still be held according to the old rules, the Association petitioned the national electoral committee to create an electoral district in Transcarpathia that would function according to the majority electoral system and take into account the interests of the Hungarians. The committee rejected the motion, the reasoning given being that majority electoral district boundaries could not be changed during the electoral process.

At that point, the Hungarian government intervened, calling this regrettable and in violation of the rights of Transcarpathia’s Hungarians. The government said that the situation in Ukraine, where, it claimed, the rights of minorities were not guaranteed by law or political promises, bred anxiety. The Association responded by saying it would file a complaint against Ukraine to the European Court of Human Rights.
Poroshenko managed to defuse the situation, ordering that the Association’s representative, Transcarpathia oblast council deputy chairman László Brenzovics, be given the 62nd position in his party’s election list. This was supposed to ensure a certain seat in parliament. And it did: on 10 November, Brenzovics met with Prime Minister Orbán as a Ukrainian MP.

The districts had been gerrymandered to the detriment of the Hungarians during the Yanukovych administration. Before the 2012 parliament elections, the borders of the 73rd electoral district were amended (Hungarian voters have always had a majority there) so that the Beregszász (Beregovo) region was split between two electoral districts where the share of Hungarians did not exceed 33.6 per cent in either. This prevented a Hungarian candidate from winning and ensured access for the oblast’s deputy governor Ivan Bushko.
At the 2012 elections, the Hungarians did not go without a seat in parliament. A mandate went to István Gajdos; who ran in the Party of Regions list. He is the leader of the second influential Hungarian political force in Transcarpathia, the Democratic Party of the Hungarians of Ukraine, and received 72nd place, which ensured a seat in parliament. 

The start of the Hungarians’ exclusion from political life can be traced to the middle of the last decade. For instance they did not receive a single place on parties’ electoral lists sufficient for gaining a seat in parliament at the 2006 or 2007 elections, which were held according to proportional representation procedure. In all of the elections before that time, the electoral procedure and boundaries of electoral districts had ensured that at least one Hungarian candidate was elected.

Incidentally, Brenzovics told the media in September 2014 before getting the instrumental position in Poroshenko’s party list that the Association would not give up its plan to go to the Court of Human Rights under any circumstance.

Plan: Rusyn-Hungarian confederation

The bid for Hungarian and Rusyn autonomy stems from the results of two referenda held in 1991. On 1 December 1991, Transcarpathian residents were asked whether they wanted autonomy for the oblast, while the residents of the Beregszász region were polled on whether they favoured the establishment of a Hungarian electoral district. The first question drew a 70% yes vote; the second one had 81.4% in favour. As the Ukrainian independence referendum and presidential elections were held the same day, turnout was very active and was a good expression of the sentiments of the Transcarpathian population.
The Ukrainian government declared both local referenda void. The only thing it was prepared to grant the indigenous residents of Transcarpathia was implemented: they pledged to establish a free economic zone.
Both indigenous peoples continue to consider the referenda the basis of their aspirations for autonomy. Having experienced the recalcitrance of the central government to satisfy their needs, both developed a joint plan for an administrative unit. Its name would be the Regional Confederation of Rusyns and Hungarians of Transcarpathia. The authority would be equally distributed between the Rusyns and Hungarians. The capital of the Rusyn-majority area would be Munkács (Mukachevo), while the Hungarian-majority area would be ruled from Beregszász. The legislative power would be vested in a joint parliament the Hungarian-Rusyn National Assembly.
The primary reasoning of the framers of the confederation plan is the following:
1) the Hungarian majority settlement part would be created as an autonomous oblast in the framework of EU regional policy (keyword “Europe of regions”) ;
2) the autonomous oblast of the Transcarpathian Hungarians would be simultaneously a bridge between Ukraine and Hungary, Ukraine and NATO and Ukraine and the EU;
3) the said autonomous unit could become the engine of the region’s economy.
After the plan was released (in the Transcarpathian publication Tribuna in 2013) a heated argument broke out in Ukrainian media, in the course of which the plan was mainly decried, while the legal basis (the two 1991 referenda) was hushed over. The Ukrainian central government has tried to ignore the autonomy plan for a long time, afraid of unwittingly promoting it and thereby worsening Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. Hungary on the other hand has offered assistance to the Rusyns to fine-tune and distribute their proposals, such as pledging to hold related events in Hungary. 

The increasing influence of Transcarpthians on politics in Hungary

The Transcarpathians have had an increasing influence on policy in Hungary proper in recent years. After all, they have double citizenship and thus the right to vote in both countries. The law on dual citizenship was adopted by Hungarian parliament in May 2010 (results: 344 in favour, 3 opposed and 5 neutral) and it took effect in 2011. The rationale: moral support for Hungarians who for some reason have wound up living outside the current Hungarian borders. Applicants for double citizenship are required to submit a certificate stating that they have not been punished judicially, and proof of Hungarian origin (archive extract that would substantiate that close relatives were born in former Hungarian territory) and basic Hungarian language proficiency. A person who gains citizenship in this manner is not required to move to Hungary. On the contrary, the drafters of the law presumed that most of the new dual citizens would remain in their country of location, especially if this were a neighbouring country.

As of this spring, there were about 70,000 such citizens among the residents of Transcarpathia. The source of this figure is local Hungarian organizations. The exact number is not known, as Hungarian government is reluctant to disclose it.

The consideration for most applicants for dual citizenship is economic (it allows them freedom of movement and employment in the EU), but the opportunity for influence in politics is not insignificant, either. For this reason, Hungarian political forces are forced to take into account the sentiments of Hungarian in Transcarpathia and other neighbouring countries. Because the Hungarian diaspora’s patriotism (as well as that of Hungarian citizens of non-Hungarian origin) tends to outstrip that of the average Hungarian in Hungary, the Young Democrats Union led by Prime Minister Orbán (FIDESZ in Hungarian) and nationalist Jobbik tend to garner the highest vote totals of any party in these regions.

Politicians in both parties “keep their hand on the pulse” of Transcarpathia, too. They often visit there to meet voters and hold other events. Béla Kovács, who was elected to the European Parliament on the Jobbik list, had an office and charity fund in Beregszász until September 2014. On 1 October, however, Transcarpathian Internet sites announced that a court had shut down the Kovacs office by demand of the oblast’s prosecutors. The prosecution accused Kovács of interfering with Ukrainian internal affairs and separatism. This court ruling will not diminish the influence of Transcarpathian dual citizens on politics in Hungary – on the contrary. A palpable share of them is people who gained Hungarian citizenship before the birth of the enabling piece of legislation, yet also kept their Ukrainian passport.

The situation is complicated significantly by the fact that dual citizenship is not permitted under Ukrainian law. (This in spite of the fact that key politicians in the new Ukrainian regime include many Ukrainian-Israeli dual citizens.) This is why Hungarian authorities, led by Orbán, call so insistently for Ukraine to allow dual citizenship for Transcarpathian inhabitants.
The best way to defuse the situation is to follow the principle of “Europe of regions” and to allow a confederation of Rusyns and Hungarians to be established in Transcarpathia. Otherwise, the Ukrainian authorities would have no cause to be astonished if the region broke away completely. It should be recalled that the renowned Italian geopolitical journal Limes predicted back in 2009 when there was no sign of the Ukraine crisis that Ukraine would split into (at least) three parts as tension grew. Will Ukraine’s leaders make the necessary conclusions or not? Time will tell.

Tõnu Kalvet
is a journalist and translator proficient in Hungarian, and the editor-in-chief of the Estonian publications Rahvuslik Teataja (National Herald) and Eesti Maleelu (Estonian Chess Life).