Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Was the Kyiv «reconciliation visit» of a Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto? a real reconciliation?

For the past three years, during the presidencies of both Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian side has been talking about Hungary's interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine and infringement upon on its territorial integrity. At the center of the controversy are about 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the Transcarpathian region. According to the Hungarian leadership, their rights are being violated. The stumbling block between Ukraine and Hungary was the law on education passed in 2017. Hungary considers it as a violation of the rights of ethnic Hungarians. The law presumed first-graders to be taught in the state language. National minorities are guaranteed the right to study in their mother tongue along with the Ukrainian language in certain classes only in kindergartens and primary schools. 

According to Hungary, this restricts about 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine from the right to get an education in their mother tongue. Budapest has blocked Ukraine's participation in NATO activities and, above all, the work of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. This veto has not yet been lifted, although Ukraine has made concessions and changed the law on education. Now it presumes that only the native language can be used in Hungarian schools in Transcarpathia, but from the fifth grade at least 20% of subjects should be taught in Ukrainian, and in high school, this share will increase to 60%. However, Budapest has recently announced that it will lift the blockade of NATO-Ukraine Council meetings only when the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia confirms that there are no problems with obtaining education in their mother tongue. The tensions also escalated due to the scandal in 2018 over the issuance of Hungarian passports to Ukrainians at the Hungarian consulate in Transcarpathia. 

In 2020, there was a new sour turn in bilateral relations between the countries. Ukraine has accused Hungary of interfering in its internal affairs after Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called on Ukrainian Hungarians to vote in the October 25 local elections for the Hungarian party and for the Hungarian mayor Beregovo. After that, searches were carried out in the institutions of the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia due to «possible interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine and against national security».

However, on January 27, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó arrived in Ukraine. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba expressed a hope that this would be a “reconciliation” visit after a long conflict between the two countries. Also, on the eve of Szijjártó's arrival in Kyiv, unknown individuals sent threats to the e-mail address of the Hungarian Embassy in Ukraine. «Someone really needs cheap provocations on the eve of Péter Szijjártó's visit», Kuleba said. 

During the joint briefing, Mr. Szijjártó said that he had asked Mr. Kuleba to start working together on the law on education. «We want to create a working group that will be empowered in terms of how the law on education should be implemented. And if these consultations are successful, we will be able to eliminate many factors of uncertainty. This is a question of 40 schools operating in settlements with a population of less than 50 thousand. The question is the number of hours of the Hungarian language. We have been promised that this will be resolved constructively. Mr. Minister assured me that the law on national minorities will be agreed upon, consultations will be held with the Hungarian minority», Szijjártó said. 

Kuleba, in turn, expressed the belief that legislation on national minorities should be inclusive. «Therefore, when it comes to, for example, drafting a law on national minorities, of course, the process of drafting this law should be inclusive and involve representatives of national minorities, including the Hungarian one», said the Ukrainian Foreign Minister. According to Szijjártó, legislation on language and education should be considered in conjunction. "I believe that both the law on language and the law on education should be considered together. And we received information that the Hungarian language no longer belongs to the regional ones. We also received information about the new provisions of the law on language. I asked the Minister that when they would negotiate with the national minorities, they would hold consultations on the merits, "he said. 

Thus, they agreed to hold talks between government representatives on language and education, as well as an online business forum between entrepreneurs of the two countries. Hungary, meanwhile, promised Ukraine a 50 million euro loan to build roads in Transcarpathia and said it was ready to modernize a bridge over the Tisza River. Kuleba also said that the meeting between the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán remains on the agenda.  

Eventually, both infrastructure and other, more painful issues are likely to be on the agenda during Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's visit to Kyiv and his meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It is planned that then the parties can finally reach an agreement on a number of these contradictory points, which will really mean reaching a new level in relations between Ukraine and Hungary. However, the date of the visit is not clear yet: there is still a lot of preparatory work, so it is too early to talk about progress.

Ukraine has already made many concessions to meet the demands of the Hungarians. However, everything depends on the conclusion of an agreement between the President of Ukraine and the Prime Minister of Hungary, about which there is no clear arrangement yet. Obviously, the Hungarian side will continue to expect a concession from Ukraine. This is the tactic of Hungarian diplomacy: the more concessions Ukraine makes, the more claims Hungary rises. And such tactics on the part of Hungarians justify themselves, because Ukrainian diplomacy accepts such tactics. Therefore, the long-awaited agreement can be signed only on the terms of Hungary and the next concessions of Ukraine. But then the question arises: if Ukraine needs such an agreement at all?