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Ukraine pushes the Hungarians from Transcarpathia into the arms of Hungary




Nikolett Dankulinec

“Although they greatly depend on the Hungarian Government in their everyday lives, the Hungarians in Transcarpathia still won’t massively exercise their right to vote during the parliamentary elections in Hungarian for certain subjective reasons” said László Zubánics. According to the President of the Hungarian Democratic Federation in Ukraine [UMDSZ], the aid coming from Hungary still maintains the region at an acceptable level, but because one can easily find work abroad as a Hungarian citizen, people leave Transcarpathia as the days go by.

Editor’s note: this interview was taken before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in January 2022.

News abound on Ukraine due to the increasing tensions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. However, Transcarpathia located in the western part of the country has always slightly differed from the rest of Ukraine. On the one hand, it is geographically far from Kyiv (Budapest or even Bratislava can be more easily reached than the Ukrainian capital), on the other hand it hosts several ethnic groups: Hungarians (12%), Russians (2.5%), Romanians (2.5%) and Gypsies (1.17%).

But how many Hungarians are there in Transcarpathia? The last census in Ukraine was in 2001, and from then on there has been a constant decrease in the number of the population.

One third of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia works abroad

The SUMMA 2017 project assessed the demographic situation of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia in the very same year with the support of the Bethlen Gábor Foundation. It revealed that the estimated number of Hungarians living in Transcarpathia is 125,000. Adding the Gypsies who declared themselves of Hungarian nationality, we get around 131,000 people.

Compared to the 2001 census, the data in the SUMMA project show that the number of Hungarians ethnics decreased by 13.7%. Due to the economic uncertainties in the country, many inhabitants have found work abroad: 22% of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia (30 of the active population) spent at least 1 month abroad during 2016. 9% (more than 10 thousand people) spent more than half a year abroad.

Kyiv turns a blind eye to the aids from Hungary

Due to the large number of Hungarian speakers, Hungary and especially the Fidesz government have shown an interest in the region; however, this interest has not always been appreciated by Kyiv. There have been tensions between the two governments because of the simplified naturalisation process and the Ukrainian language act.

During the last years, the Hungarian state has taken on some roles in areas that should have actually been supported by Ukraine. Hungarian-language education mostly functions thanks to Hungarian financing; additionally, the teaching, healthcare or even people working in media receive supplements to their salary, which the Ukrainian side turns a blind eye to. In 2019 for instance, the additional payment in healthcare was 120-300 thousand HUF per capita, whereas for the teaching staff and journalists, it amounted to around 190,000 HUF per year.

However, no further supplements can be found among the decisions of the Bethlen Gábor Fund thereafter. Ukraine has tried to catch up and increase the public servants’ pay cheque in the last 4-5 years: the income in healthcare and education has increased by 30-40%. For example, a full-time teacher who’s been working for ten years now receives the equivalent of 150-160 thousand HUF.

Citizenship too easy to get and voter tourism

The Hungarians in Transcarpathia have not necessarily been depicted in a favourable light by the Hungarian news in the past years. Many abused and misused the simplified naturalisation process: Ukrainian organized crime and Hungarian law firms have forged documents for Ukrainians, Russians and Serbians. This is the reason why the United States of America has recently cancelled the visa requirement exemption for the Hungarians not born in Hungary. Ukraine currently forbids dual citizenship, and although it wishes to soften the ban, this will still not happen before the Hungarian elections.

During the elections held four years ago, they got into the Hungarian news because of the so-called ‘bus carousel’ voting fraud, furthermore it was also reported that massive numbers of Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizens registered for a new residence in Hungary. The latter practice has become legal by the amendment of the residency law: the rules of residence registration no longer set forth the habitual residence at the address of permanent residence.

How does the amendment of the residency law influence the elections? What kind of changes have occurred in Transcarpathia since 2018? What kind of current problems do the ethnic Hungarians face? How do Ukraine and Hungary tackle the issue of dual citizenship?

What about voter tourism? Could the Transcarpathian votes really impact on the outcome of the Hungarian elections? We discussed with László Zubánics, President of the UMDSZ (Hungarian Democratic Federation in Ukraine), a journalist and professor in Transcarpathia in December 2021 in Berehove.

History of the UMDSZ

The UMDSZ was established upon the KMKSZ [Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Sub-Carpathia] President, Sándor Fodó’s initiative. Fodó (1940-2005) had already participated in civil rights actions in the ‘60s and as an academic lecturer; he inoculated hundreds of Hungarian young people with national consciousness as well as his broader and narrower group of friends with cautious opposition spirit throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. With the evolution of perestroika, he was a true drive in the advocacy for the Hungarian interests becoming the most significant figure in the Transcarpathian Hungarian political life. It was mostly thanks to him that the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Sub-Carpathia (KMKSZ) was established under his leadership in February 1989.

Sándor Fodó also initiated and became the first president in 1991 of the pan-Ukrainian national umbrella entity under the name of Hungarian Democratic Federation in Ukraine (UMDSZ) joined by the Hungarian organisations in Transcarpathia, Lviv and Kyiv. It is particularly important that it was he who imagined and created both organisations as the two clusters later conducted a ruthless infight in Transcarpathia for over a decade and a half due to their commitment to the opposite sides both in the Ukrainian and the Hungarian high politics, complicating even more the situation that had not been simple at all. Since the UMDSZ had earlier been closer to the Hungarian left wing parties, its relationship with the current Hungarian government is not stress-free at all.

How many Trancarpathian Hungarians have Hungarian citizenship at present?

At present, in Ukraine, it is not forbidden but neither is it allowed to have dual citizenship. The whole issue is rather characterised by a passive consent. Transcarpathia is a multi-ethnic region, but the issue of dual citizenship concerns the whole country. Many people also hold the citizenship of other countries, many members of parliament are known to have it, and nevertheless it is not subject to sanctions.

Although we have no official records on the matter, but some years ago it was reported that hundreds of thousands countrywide hold other citizenships alongside with the Ukrainian. The estimated number of inhabitants that received the Hungarian citizenship via the simplified naturalisation has reached around 85-100 thousand.

It has critically been stated several times that even people who did not meet the criteria came into the possession of Hungarian citizenship. What have you noticed?

There was a time when the naturalisation application could be filed with any public administration in Hungary or registrar. The legal requirement was to know the language and prove your Hungarian origin, but it might have sometimes occurred that a representative of the applicants managed the whole process, and consequently the language knowledge could not be checked and it was not mandatory for them either. At present, the knowledge of the language and the document checks are stricter upon filing the application, and the police officers at the border crossing points may check whether an individual speaks or understands Hungarian, and may even press charges. Therefore, the reports on deprivations of citizenship are rather frequent.

László Zubánics, president of the Hungarian Democratic Federation in Ukraine (UMDSZ)


What percentage of Transcarpathian participation can we expect in the 2022 Hungarian elections?

We can only speculate about the number of Hungarians who benefitted from the simplified naturalisation, and it is neither very clear how many have residence in Hungary (who have changed residence and/or are legal residents in Hungary), and how many people only have a residence abroad.

Their participation in the elections process changes accordingly since the foreign residents can only vote for party lists. The foreign residents can cast their postal ballots in the polling stations established at the diplomatic missions in the respective countries. Their number is hard to guess, but given the earlier percentages, the number of those who will vote in this manner could amount to max. 15-20 thousand. (In 2018, this number of votes was sufficient to acquire a quarter or max. one third of one single party list mandate ‒ editor’s note) We can also expect invalid votes, as well.

We must address voter tourism, too. Could we expect any intervention, could the Transcarpathian organisations urge the people to participate in the elections?

There’s constant rumour about the number of people that was mobilised and encouraged to cast a vote in the past years. However, I know from experience that the numbers mentioned by the press when referring to eyewitnesses or ‘stakeholders’ are not really accurate. The active participation in particular local elections is more credible as they could also be personally acquainted with the candidates.

Obviously, there are ‘socially sensitive’ individuals who want to exercise their right to vote. They would personally want to say thanks for the various subsidies they got.

There is appropriate information sharing and communication here in Transcarpathia as well, similarly to the other regions beyond the borders of Hungary. Due to their official duty, the diplomatic missions encourage people to register and vote (for instance by Facebook posts). Since we are talking about small communities, they are easier to be positively or negatively influenced locally. It may also occur that some individuals would misuse the influence they acquired while carrying out their duties.

Many times, the constantly provided subsidies proper motivate the people to be politically active as this makes them feel that Hungary does something for them and they haven’t been forgotten. Thus, they can give something in return during the elections occurring every four years. And when talking about subsidies, we don’t need to necessarily think about large sums of money; often it is a monetary grant for education and instruction given to the parents whose children attend school in Hungarian (around 20,000 HUF a year – editor’s note). But only until this is not done to the detriment of the people’s sense of security.

Why is the willingness to vote so low in Transcarpathia?

One can register on the electoral roll online or in person. After periodical data reconciliation, the citizens residing abroad can/must indicate the foreign diplomatic mission where they would exercise their right to vote. The low willingness to vote is mostly due to the atrocities of the past years.

People clearly fear the Ukrainian authorities, and that’s why they are not really willing to draw their attention on that they hold the citizenship of another country (too). It’s also living in people’s memory that the Ukrainian National Security Service (SZBU) surveiled several dual citizens after 2010, recorded the individuals who visited the diplomatic missions on the day of the elections, and a hidden camera recording also turned up at one point about a citizenship oath ceremony. That’s probably why there is a dual inner fight in people, and they do not want to interfere in politics.

Moreover, one more piece of news. The new citizenship act draft submitted to Parliament allows certain state bodies to verify by any means available among others if the citizens’ statements on whether they hold or do not hold the citizenship of another state are true and accurate. Because of the recent data phishing cases and the different hacking attacks people are extremely careful when it comes to registering on a various official platforms.

How does Ukraine intend to amend the regulation on dual citizenship?

In February 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a Presidential Decree on dual citizenship, which came into force, but the Constitutional Court pointed out that the matter needed to be regulated by a piece of legislation. In December 2021, the President submitted to Parliament a set of laws for the implementation of the decree. The essential point is that the Ukrainians living abroad or their descendants may count on simplified naturalisation. Moreover, the draft sets forth criminal liability to those Ukrainian citizens who intend to cross the border with the documents issued by another country.

All citizens must provide a self-declaration on whether they hold the citizenship of another country besides Ukrainian citizenship. The accuracy of the self-declaration will be checked by the aforementioned state body. If the legal package is approved, the individuals holding multiple nationalities will be registered, and multiple nationalities can become a ground for exclusion from active participation in public life.

Public political exposure as such would completely be forbidden to individuals with multiple nationalities: they could not be for instance politically exposed (institution managers), tellers or local administration staff

Nevertheless, we have heard of many decision-makers in Ukraine who hold multiple citizenships.

Knowing the Ukrainian legislative procedure all so well, there are going to be loopholes in this case, too. However, one needs to know that in the past years, mostly in Donetsk and Luhansk counties many people received the citizenship of the Russian Federation, as Russia is trying to set up some sort of autonomous regions within the boundaries of Ukraine.

Many of us see that this law has been especially designed to prevent individuals holding Russian citizenship as well from participating in Ukrainian public matters, the elections or getting involved by any means in the internal matters of the country.

Nevertheless, an act would refer to all dual citizens. Is it feared that it will push aside the Hungarians, too?

The emigration trend has sped up anyway in Transcarpathia: the Hungarians living here would be less likely willing to find opportunities in Ukraine. While the older find seasonal jobs abroad and live in both countries mostly in Hungary, we can say that the younger often leave the country with their families and venture more often to Western Europe. But this is not only the case of Hungarians; it’s a national trend. The number of Ukrainian citizens permanently residing/working abroad amounts to around 10 million people. In the schools in Bratislava, for instance, many Ukrainian classes were established upon the request of the families that live there.

The preferential naturalisation process contributed to the acceleration of the trend since it has greatly simplified employment not only in Hungary but also in other EU states. The cities become silently clearer every day, and there’s a shortage of skilled professionals and labour force.

What kind of future can the individuals wishing to live as Hungarians in Ukraine expect?

The Language Act provides for the mandatory use of the official language in all public services, which include the online platforms, too. For now, the non-compliances can’t be fined (yet), but the Ombudsman for languages issues warnings for these individuals, and later checks the observance of the language-related provisions. And accordingly, the service sector must hire staff that can provide services in the official language (as well as other languages).

The part of the Language Act referring to education is slightly more complicated than that: the students are divided into four ethnic and linguistic groups. The first category is that of the majority population i.e. the Ukrainians: they study in their native language from kindergarten to university. The second group is that of the indigenous people (actually the Crimean Tatars), who can also benefit from mother tongue education beside the thorough teaching of the official language (from kindergarten to the completion of upper secondary education).

The individuals of the ethnic minorities using any of the official languages of the European Union as mother tongue belong to the third category: this is the category of Hungarians, Romanians, Poles and Bulgarians. They can study in their mother tongue in kindergarten and primary school, but this changes in the 5th form when the time spent with instruction in the official language has to be constantly increased, and may reach 60% in upper secondary school. The applicable laws set forth that higher education can be only in Ukrainian starting with 2023, and private education cannot derogate from it either.

The private secondary educational system (mostly religious upper secondary schools) offer a solution for it. The law makes an exception in their case. Nevertheless, at present, many sent their children to school to Hungary, and the latter are most likely to continue living there. The Hungarian villages along the border are full of Transcarpathian children who imagine their future in Hungarian colleges or universities.

Currently, however, there are several kindergartens or educational institutions teaching in Hungarian in Transcarpathia thanks to the Hungarian Government. What would be the fate of these institutions?

As I was saying, the private-owned institutions (church- or foundation-owned) are exempted from the scope of the law. It’s likely that they will be the only institutions in the future that would provide some kind of instruction in mother tongue up to the end of upper secondary school. A network of institutions was established across the region, being able to meet the current needs. It’s an interesting piece of information that already almost 40% of upper secondary students sitting for the Ukrainian advanced level secondary school leaving examination graduate from private institutions.

Unfortunately, the situation in different in higher education for which the law sets forth that tuition can be provided only in the official language. This could mean the complete cessation of the tuition in Hungarian (Ferenc Rakoczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education financed by the Hungarian Government is in a similar situation – editor’s note). Obviously, it is not inconcievable that there won’t be amendments to the law or changes in the matter, but this is the cruel reality at present.

Hungary has created a huge institutional network in the regions beyond the borders of Hungary, and Transcarpathia is no exception. Here, it wishes to ensure labour force for itself on the one hand, making up for the inhabitants emigrating from Hungary. And here I’m thinking mostly about skilled labour.

How much aid is granted to Transcarpathia?

I think that even the Hungarian government bodies can give only an approximate amount. Unfortunately, the system is not really transparent. The concerned parties can get information about the aids for the regions beyond the borders of Hungary mostly from the webpage of the Bethlen Gábor Fund. There have been attempts to render the system more transparent (this was the aim of the online platform for national policies – NIR), but it hasn’t been truly successful.

Among the various open and individually assessed projects, the social assistance programmes have been a significant item in the Transcarpathian subsidies. They were granted to at least 8-10 thousand staff in the public sector in Transcarpathia (education, healthcare, culture, media etc.). This is accompanied by significant economic and church aid granted to the region.

We can say about the settlements where the percentage of Hungarian speakers in higher that they profit from the subsidies coming from Hungary in many areas. For example, Ferenc Rakoczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education in Berehove also operates thanks to the Hungarian Government, being one of the most important taxpayers in the region and increasing the revenues of the local administration. Almost all local administrations get a proportional share of the personal income tax coming for the aforementioned aids (almost 20% of the amount).

What kind of future awaits the region? Could we expect any changes after the 2022 elections?

Everyone has turned a vigilant eye to Budapest, and are looking forwards to the outcome of the elections and whether there are going to be any major, high employment impact investments in the future. Many of us agree that some major investments in Transcarpathia or in the regions along the border could slow down if not stop economic migration. But on a serious note, there’s no more hooray optimism. One can design plans, can apply for grants to bring them to life, but one of Ukraine’s most important problem is that we can’t see any strategy, not even now after three decades from its existence, we can’t see the direct causes of things and the goals, at least not as far as the Ukrainian politics is concerned. Beyond its own economic problems, Ukraine is fighting Russia, and is trying to keep the unity of the nation. Transcarpathia and the Hungarian minority are not currently among its priorities.

The Hungarian subsidies keep the region at an acceptable level, but we cannot expect a second blooming. The amount of subsidies for the regions beyond the border of Hungary has significantly decreased as compared to the previous years, which is partially due to the ‘freezing’ of the Egán Ede economic recovery programme. (According to the data available to Átlátszó Erdély, while the subsidies for the Transcarpathian organisations and natural persons had amounted to HUF 20 billion in 2020, the subsidies in 2021 decreased to 7.2 billion. – editor’s note)

The outcome of the Hungarian elections in April will probably not influence the everyday life and income of the inhabitants as Ukraine is still able to ensure the sufficient state services: salaries, social assistance and healthcare. And what’s going to happen next is now up to high politics…

Translation: Auguszta Szász. Original article, in Hungarian, available here.

This article is part of our project aiming to monitor the 2022 parliamentary elections in Hungary. The project was funded in part by a grant from Investigative Journalism Europe (IJ4EU) and a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the funders.