The new law on education ratified by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Sept 25 has caused a wave of criticism abroad. Most of foreign mass media have called it “disputable.” But the loudest was the voice of Hungary, where Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has qualified the law as “shameful” and has promised to henceforth block all pro-Ukrainian initiatives in all international organizations, especially within the EU. “Poroshenko wanted Ukraine to be closer to Europe, but he can forget about that,” Szijjártó said.
The Ukrainians have qualified Szijjártó’s words as “blackmail” or even “interference in Ukraine’s affairs.” But the Hungarians have gone even farther: their foreign ministry has filed complaints to the OSCE, the UN and the EU.
Its key point is that until now the Hungarian minority in Ukraine has been free to study Hungarian. For example, in Berehove, Zakarpattia, almost 80% of the population are Hungarians. The district has 30 Hungarian kindergartens, 32 Hungarian schools and 1 Hungarian university, namely, the Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute. That institute trains teachers for the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia.
Article 7 of the new law on education abolishes the whole system of Hungarian education in Ukraine. It imposes restrictions, which may ruin the culture and the traditions of the Zakarpattia Hungarians and cause their assimilation.
The new law affects as many as 150,000 Ukrainian citizens who consider themselves to be Hungarians. It has deprived them of the right they have enjoyed for almost a century no matter what regime there was in Ukraine – the right ensured by all the other neighbor states with Hungarian communities.
One of Hungary’s key concerns is that in the new Ukrainian law, the terms “indigenous people” and “ethnic minority” are interpreted differently.
It qualifies Hungarian not as the language of the Hungarian minority but as an EU language, that is a language from the outer world.
According to Hungary, this law is contrary to the international law and Ukraine’s external and internal obligations.
It is contrary to article 22 of Ukraine’s Constitution, which says that “the constitutional rights and freedoms are guarantee and shall not be abolished” and that “the content and scope of existing rights and freedoms shall not be diminished in the adoption of new laws or in the amendment of laws that are in force.”
The law contradicts article 53 of Ukraine’s Constitution, which says that “citizens who belong to national minorities are guaranteed in accordance with the law the right to receive instruction in their native language, or to study their native language in state and communal educational establishments and through national cultural societies.”
The law contradicts article 6 of Ukraine’s law on ethnic minorities, which says that “the state shall create for citizens who belong to national minorities the conditions for realizing the rights of national minorities to study in their mother tongue or learn their mother tongue in state and community educational establishments or through national cultural associations.”
The law is contrary to article 10 of the Ukrainian-Hungarian Friendship and Cooperation Agreement (1991), which obliges the sides to ensure the right of a national minority to study its native language at all levels of education.
The law also contradicts articles 8 and 10 of the Ukrainian-Hungarian Declaration on the Principles of Cooperation on the Question of National Minorities, signed on 31 May 1991.
And finally, the law is contrary to Ukraine’s obligations to the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
When the law was at the Supreme Rada, Hungary asked Ukraine not to approve it the way it was. When it was pending the Ukrainian president’s ratification, Hungary requested revising it. Ukraine ignored both requests.
The Ukrainians’ main counter-argument is as follows: according to the country’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, the state of the Ukrainian language is a matter of national security for Ukraine. “We have people who do not speak Ukrainian. So, this is a matter of our national unity and our national security,” Klimkin said. While discussing the law with eleven ambassadors, including the Hungarian Ambassador, Ukraine’s Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych said the same: “The Ukrainian language is a factor of our national security.” That is, the law is aimed against the Russian language, Russia and the heritage of the “Russian World” and all external forces should accept it as a way that will help Ukraine to transform and to strengthen its national identity. If compared with the almost 356,000 children attending Russian schools in Ukraine, the 16,000 Hungarian schoolchildren are hardly a significant figure for the Ukrainian authorities. According to Hrynevych, in 2016, over 36% of Zakarpattia school-leavers failed the Ukrainian language exam. In Berehove, where almost 80% of the population are Hungarians, the percentage of those who failed the exam was almost 75%.
During the meeting, Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said that it was not the Ukrainian Government’s obligation to educate students for Hungarian universities. The Ukrainian authorities believe that the new law will improve the quality of education in Ukraine and will make the Ukrainian youth more competitive on the labor market. It will enhance the role of Ukrainian in education and will ensure equal rights for all people living in Ukraine, including Hungarians. And it makes the rights of ethnic minorities even wider.
On top of this, Hrynevych laid a counter-claim that none of the states having claims against Ukraine, including Hungary, has any single Ukrainian school - quite a ridiculous argument as a law should be compared with a law rather with a practice applied by some neighbor state.
In Hungary, Ukrainians have the status of an ethnic minority but they are mostly immigrants, who do not have a compact community. In the times of the Kingdom of Hungary, there was not ethnic identity like “Ukrainians” – this is a product of modern times. In contracts, the present-day Ukrainian Hungarians live in the lands that were part of the Kingdom of Hungary for over 1,000 years.
Hungary’s law on the rights of national minorities says that if in some municipality, a national minority represents more than 20% of the population, the language of that minority shall be recognized as the second official language in that municipality. So, theoretically, the Ukrainian language can become official in some municipality in Hungary. The only problem is that Hungary has no municipality where Ukrainians account for over 20% of the population. This is why though being a minority language in Hungary, Ukrainian is not officially used anywhere.
Hungary also has a law on education, which says that the language of education in the country is Hungarian but there are also a number of options for national minorities:
- pre-school education for representatives of national minorities;
- primary school education for representatives of national minorities;
- hostels for representatives of national minorities;
- secondary school education for representatives of national minorities;
- vocational secondary education for representatives of national minorities;
- specialized education for representatives of national minorities;
- extra native language lessons for representatives of national minorities.
According to the law, a school should organize education in the language of a national or bilingual education if it has a first grade class of at least 15 children from that minority. Such a decision should be approved by the Education Ministry after a consent by the minority’s council. In the net, you can find lots of primary and high school curricula for Serbian and Gypsy school classes. But in Hungary, national minorities can have not only school classes in their native languages but also bilingual schools.
So, in Hungary, Ukrainians have all chances to organize Ukrainian classes. All they need is to have 15 first grade pupils in a school and to ask their national council to file an appropriate petition to the education ministry.
Ukrainians have such a council in Hungary and just a few days ago, the chairman of that council slated the new Ukrainian law. The Ukrainian minority in Hungary does not accept Ukraine’s policy in the sphere of education. Hungary has 13 national minorities and each of them has its own national council. Those councils act in line with national cultural autonomy rules and have the right to consult the Budapest authorities on their education and some other policies.
Unlike Hungary, Ukraine does not have national cultural autonomies. Consequently, it has no policy on education for national minorities. National cultural autonomy is a general practice in Europe. It has nothing to do with territorial autonomy – something the Kiev authorities are afraid even to mention.
According to Hrynevych, next year, Ukraine will allocate money for developing Ukrainian education abroad. But in Hungary’s case, there is no need for this money – for if a group of Hungary-based Ukrainians decide to open an Ukrainian class for their children, they will have to appeal to Hungary’s education ministry and should the ministry approve their initiative, it will receive money from Hungary’s budget.
One more of Ukraine’s counter-arguments was that the criticism of Ukraine’s law on education was just a way for Hungary to divert public attention from its own problems with the EU. According to Head of Poroshenko’s Administration Konstantyn Yelisieiev, the opposition, particularly, the Jobbik party, is using the Ukrainian incident against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz alliance. But the actual reason is that Organ and Fidesz are implementing a new national policy in the Carpathian Basin and Ukraine’s step against Hungarian schools in Transcarpathia has stung them to the quick.
On the other hand, the Hungarians are not very consistent in their attitude towards Ukraine. Despite their criticism of the Ukrainian law, they have promised to enlarge their humanitarian aid to Kiev.
And when during the last V4 meeting, Czech Ambassador to Ukraine Radek Matula expressed hope that the V4 members would manage to solve their education-related problems with Ukraine, the Hungarian ambassador was silent.
And most importantly, since 2014, the Hungarians have had excellent chances to force the Ukrainian authorities into serious concessions for their compatriots in Ukraine but they have done nothing so far. For many years, they have been among the most ardent advocates of Ukraine’s sovereignty and European integration, but in exchange, they have received none of the benefits they sought for the Hungarian community in Zakarpattia: neither territorial autonomy, nor even dual citizenship or wider electoral rights.
Unlike the Romanians, who have adopted a tough parliamentary declaration saying that the Ukrainian law restricts the rights of Romanian citizens to obtain education in their native language, the Hungarians are referring to their Ukraine-based compatriots as just representatives of the Hungarian minority rather than Hungarian citizens – even though most of those people have long had Hungarian passports.
This proves that Orban cannot be very tough as far as geopolitical interests are concerned and is forced to stick to the West’s policy to drive Russia out of Europe. The Ukrainian law on education is aimed at transforming national identity in Ukraine. And this is why the Americans are enthusiastic and the Germans are silent.
Orban is strongly restricted in his policy to push Hungary’s national interests in the Carpathian Basin. This incident was a chance for him to consolidate Hungarian national minorities around his foreign policy. The Ukrainian law has pushed the Ukraine-based Hungarians even farther away from Ukraine and this is good news for Orban.