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Is Ukraine facing a risk of losing Zakarpattia?

Ukrainian media has been recently mentioning Zakarpattia region of Ukraine quite frequently. They say the central government in Ukraine may lose control of the region. For instance, Zakarpattia Governor Mikhaylo Rivis, from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, complains about disproportional financing of the regions.

“I think if the government wants to see Zakarpattia as part of Ukraine, it must not forget about its existence,” Rivis said.

Ukraine’s disintegration started with the coup d’etat. As state institutions are degrading, local elites have turned the regions into their own feudal estates trying to grab the financial flows “generated” in the territories under their control. That is why the Cabinet of Ministers, the Supreme Rada and President Petro Poroshenko receive so many applications from local councils demanding decentralization/special status for the regions/division of powers between the center and the regions, which Kiev often interprets as manifestation of separatism.

In particular, in April 2016, members of the Zakarpattia Regional Council demanded the central authorities to recognize the region as a “special self-governed administrative territory,” by implementing the results of the referendum held on Dec 1 1991 when 78.5% of local residents supported the given initiative. Immediately after it, ex-governor of Zakarpattia Hennadiy Moskal filed a claim demanding the court to recognize invalid the “referendum orchestrated by the KGB and communists of that period.”

Perhaps, that application looked to protect the interests of business clans in Zakarpattia. The most powerful is the clan of the Supreme Rada deputy, former governor of Zakarpattia Viktor Baloha, who is an outspoken critic of the central authorities. The other influential persons in the region are Viktor Medvedchuk who is engaged in exchange of POWs within the Minsk process, MPs Nestor Shufrych (the Opposition Bloc) and Mikhail Lanyo.

For instance, last year’s bloodshed in Mukacheve, when the Right Sector, an organization banned in Russia, started shooting with heavy guns and grenade launcher, is linked to the conflict of Baloha and Lanyo for the control over traffic of contraband goods – the main source of income for the local elites and residents.

The local elites seek maximum independence from the central government to grab as much as possible from the local taxes. This should not be confused with secession attempts (withdrawal from Ukraine), as for the local establishment of unrecognized republics means a dramatic decline of the capitalization of assets. Unless there are strong guarantees of, for instance, Budapest, that the elites will retain their political influence and business assets in the region, they will not attempt to change the region’s jurisdiction.

Talking of Budapest, it is no secret that Hungary takes interest in its compatriots residing abroad and considers the places that are densely populated with Hungarians as its area of influence. These are Serbian Vojvodina, South Slovakia, Romanian Transylvania, part of Zakarapattia (Beregovsky and Vinogradsky regions) where ethnic Hungarians are an overwhelming majority. In Zakarpattia, Hungarians account for 13% or 150,000 of total population. Budapest is actively providing passports, preferential terms of employment and education to ethnic Hungarians in Zakarpattia, funds Hungarian language schools, higher educational establishments, theaters and mass media in Zakarpattia.

Since 2015, the public and political processes have intensified in the areas densely populated by Hungarians. After Party of Hungarians of Ukraine won the local elections in Zakarpattia’s Vinogradsky region (where the Hungarian language received a regional language station in 2012) and Beregovsky region, 114 communities in Zakarpattia expressed a desire to establish a separate Hungarian region with the center in Beregovo city. Kiev ignored the petition, but took no repressive actions like those that it usually takes with regard to the activists of the Southeast of Ukraine. The only restraining factor was the Hungarian passports of the petition initiators.

Budapest supports the Hungarians of Zakarpattia in this issue and calls for dual citizenship and national-and-territorial autonomy for them. Both the parliamentary factions of Hungary and Prime Minister Viktor Orban support the idea. It is noteworthy that Head of the Hungarian Government Staff János Lázár said after the shooting in Mukacheve: “If Hungarians are being hurt” in western Ukraine “and have to flee, then we’ll help everyone and will admit everyone” to Hungary.” According to some analysts, Lázár said, Ukraine is drifting on the edge of collapse, and this process strengthens aspirations for autonomy."

Despite evidently growing irredentist propaganda, the risk of losing separate regions of Zakarpattia is theoretic now. Yet, the Kiev government creates social-economic conditions (deliberate social genocide of the population) and legal preconditions to face territorial losses in favor of foreign sovereigns in 4-5 years. Talking of legal preconditions, the Supreme Rada adopted a range of enactments calling “criminal” the Soviet regime, under which Halichina, Zakarpattia, Bukovina and Bessarabia were attached to Ukrainian SSR.

Besides, Poroshenko is actively pushing the idea of providing national-territorial autonomy to Crimean Tatars. If Crimean Tatars have the right to autonomy, why shouldn’t Hungarians or Rusyns of Zakarpattia have such right? The Ukrainian government does not recognize Rusyns as ethnos and have been making separatism allegations against them (10,000 people in Zakarpattia) throughout 25 years of Ukraine’s independence. Establishment of national autonomies will trigger disintegration processes and a drift towards titular state. This thesis applies to not only Zakarpattia, but also Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia that will be claimed by Romani, which like Hungary supports national minorities. The current ruling class in Ukraine does not think of the far-reaching consequences for the country.

Igor Federovsky, Kiev

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