Peace is also crumbling far from the front line

‘A Hungarian in Ukraine today is seen as an enemy’

© Pieter Stockmans

Márta Popovics, the head of the Hungarian diocese of Munkács/Mukachevo in Transcarpathia, stated that the Hungarian flag displayed on the wall is a personal family treasure. She discovered it in her grandfather’s wardrobe. Her intention is not to reference the former Hungarian Empire. She underscored this point without strongly.

Hungary blocks EU financial aid packages for Ukraine. Prime minister Viktor Orbán also walked out of the EU vote to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. Political tensions between Budapest and Kiev are escalating. The Hungarian minority in Ukraine is caught in the middle. MO* journalist Pieter Stockmans reports from Transcarpathia.

‘Are you trying to cause trouble? We are in the middle of a war. You are endangering our security in Ukraine.’ Hungarian folk dancers, dressed in traditional attire, perform gracefully at the Hungarian House in Mukachevo.

However, the director of this cultural centre for Transcarpathia’s Hungarian community makes threats to remove us from the premises. Despite our attempts, he remains evasive when we ask questions regarding the political significance of the exhibition that showcases cultural clothing.

Often, cultural identity can become political when communities feel threatened.

Transcarpathia, situated in western Ukraine, has been home to ethnic Hungarians for centuries. However, due to emigration following the Russian invasion, their numbers have fallen from 150,000 to 90,000.

The cultural centre exhibition aims to showcase the similarities in clothing traditions between the Hungarians and their Ukrainian neighbors, emphasising their shared culture. This disproves the nonsensical reproach of “go back to your country,” which some Ukrainians direct at the Hungarian minority. Often, cultural identity can become political when communities feel threatened.

After World War II, Hungary lost Transcarpathia to Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. Since 2010, the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has aimed to reestablish connections with Hungarian minorities abroad by providing them with financial support.

Tensions have escalated between Hungary and Ukraine following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians suspect Viktor Orbán of being Russian President Putin’s Trojan horse in the European Union. They hear Orbán’s criticism of Ukraine and notice that Hungary has vetoed European aid packages for the country. As a result, the Ukrainian government took actions to restrict the rights of the Hungarian minority.

It was no surprise when this strategy backfired. A flood of fake news inundated the Hungarian media, aimed at alarming the Hungarian minority in Ukraine and portraying Orbán as their saviour. As a result, Ukrainian politicians and media amplified the fear of the Hungarian minority, presenting themselves as Ukrainian patriots.

© Pieter Stockmans

On the day prior to our dispute with the director of the Hungarian House, Mayor Andriy Baloha of Mukachevo removed Hungarian flags. However, the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe institution, has stated that such actions may infringe upon the right to freedom of speech.

‘The mayor of Mukachevo wants to get back into national politics in Kiev. Targeting Hungarians is useful for that.’

In early 2023, Mayor Baloha’s most controversial decision was to replace the Turul statue, a Hungarian national symbol, with the Ukrainian trident at Mukachevo’s medieval castle.

This action takes place in a region of historical ethnic tension. Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, the former non-Hungarian authorities in Transcarpathia, have previously taken similar actions.

Pál Popovics, a computer science teacher at one of the affected Hungarian schools, explains that the current mayor is not a Ukrainian nationalist as commonly believed: ‘Baloha previously served as a minister in Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government. He and other politicians frequently modify their stances for the purpose of maintaining popularity. Currently, they are surfing the nationalist waves. Baloha wants to get back into Kiev’s national politics. To achieve that, he finds targeting Hungarians beneficial.’

Hungarian solidarity

Márta Ádám resided with her mother in refugee camps during her first five years while her father fought on the front line. She is presently 83 years old and has been living in a nearby care home of Uzhhorod city, just a stone’s throw away from the village where she spent most of her life. A considerable number of Hungarians, including Márta, call these Transcarpathian villages home.

Following the Russian invasion in February, the Catholic church and Caritas made the decision to provide shelter for Ukrainians. The shelter is run by Hungarian Ukrainians who maintain communication with the Hungarian government.

The first floor houses elderly residents, while the second floor is reserved for refugees. Old Márta sees echoes of her own childhood in the refugees of the recent European conflict, where children are without their fathers and women are without their husbands. One of the refugees in the living room is pregnant. ‘When the baby was born, we all felt reborn’, Márta explains.

© Pieter Stockmans

The residential care centre of Márta accommodates both elderly individuals on the first floor and refugee Ukrainians, such as Lidia, on the second floor.

‘The mayor of Bucha is my friend. We talk about delivering humanitarian aid. We are working together for victory.’

Sitting next to her is Ukrainian woman Lidia Cherednichenko, who had to flee from her hometown of Severodonetsk and then from Kiev where she had taken refuge from the bombings. ‘I wish I had left earlier,’ she cries, ‘then I wouldn’t have had to witness the horrific scenes that no one should ever see: dead bodies lying on the streets, blood and rubble.’

Some Ukrainians blame Orbán for the hardships experienced by individuals such as Lidia. This could lead to a rise in hostility towards ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.

However, the shelter is not the only example of the Hungarian minority’s show of support for their Ukrainian compatriots who are seeking refuge. Gabriella Instisei, the head of the Hungarian Reformed Lyceum in Rachiv, has taken on the role of emergency coordinator at a shelter in her school.

Pastor Karol Laszlo of the Reformed Church in Tiachiv, along with representatives from other faith groups, addressed a ceremony mourning the victims of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Tiachiv’s twin town. Laszlo stated, ‘This country has been attacked and this conflict is also mine.’ The cleric spoke at his congregation and continued, ‘The mayor of Bucha is my friend. We frequently discuss delivering relief and working together to achieve victory.’

© Xander Stockmans

Hungarian pastor Karol Laszlo, of the Reformed Church in Tyachev, Ukraine: ‘The mayor of the Ukrainian city of Bucha is my friend. We talk about delivering humanitarian aid. We are working together for victory.’

Ferenc Taracközi, a fellow pastor, has offered sanctuary to 380 refugees in his parish in Berehove. ‘We used our connections with the Reformed Church in Germany and Hungary,’ he stated. “We facilitated the distribution of aid to Ukraine, including to the armed forces.’

Propaganda

Hungarians’ explanation of their support for Ukraine differs from that of most Europeans. The official Hungarian stance is that they stand in solidarity with Ukrainians, whom they consider victims of the West. According to Hungarian government propaganda, the West is responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

We found that the statements of the Hungarians we talked to were largely similar. Pastor Taracközi stated: ‘Orbán desires peace. Russia is the aggressor, and self-defense is essential, but not in the way as Ukraine is doing. Ukraine not supposed to join NATO.’

Márta Popovics, Pál’s sister and head of the Hungarian diocese in Munkács (the Hungarian name for Mukachevo) and Caritas Transcarpathia, stated: ‘There is consensus that the Russian invasion constituted an act of aggression, but most Hungarians assume that the West is using Ukraine as a battleground to fight Russia. The eastward expansion of NATO has disrupted the peace in Ukraine.’

‘In the Ukrainian media, under articles about Viktor Orbán, we read comments about “Hungarian dogs” and other dehumanising language.’

Both pastors and Márta Popovics repeat Viktor Orbán’s message that he will not provide weapons to the Ukrainian army due to concerns regarding potential bombing in Transcarpathia. Popovics states that ‘Orbán mentioned he has 150,000 reasons to avoid the war, and those reasons are the Hungarians of Transcarpathia.’

The Hungarian government provides significant support to Instisei’s Lyceum, Laszlo’s and Taracközi’s churches, and the diocese. A label on the printer at the Caritas office in Mukachevo displays the logo of the Gábor Bethlen Fund, a foundation that receives significant funding from the Hungarian government to support Hungarian minority organisations abroad.

© Xander Stockmans

Gabriella Instisei, principal of the Reformatory Hungarian Lyceum in Rachiv, transformed herself into coordinator of emergency shelter in her school.

Fear

The streets of Mukachevo are dark due to limited electricity. At night, when electricity come for a few hours, people wake up to complete household chores. Márta Popovics lives in a beautiful, century-old Hungarian house that has been passed down through generations. The house is located in an area with access to electricity.

Popovics wants her children to grow up here. However, she is concerned that Hungarians may have to leave the country for their safety. She invited us into her home, where she told us that her children had asked her if there would ever be war again. She replied that after two world wars, she couldn’t imagine war in Europe. Unfortunately, she was mistaken. ‘War is coming here too, and gradually, we are becoming victims of the victims,’ she said.

‘Even my intelligent Ukrainian friends believe the news reports that Orbán is going to annex Transcarpathia.’

Over coffee, Márta talks about kind-hearted elderly ladies who, despite having small pensions, donated their homemade jam to refugees. She also mentioned Hungarians who opened their homes to refugees. Márta personally organized millions of Hungarian aid funds for Caritas and the diocese. However, she expressed disappointment that the Ukrainian media never highlights this act of solidarity.

‘Instead, when we read articles about Viktor Orbán, we see comments in Ukrainian media using dehumanising language, such as “Hungarian dogs”,’ says Márta.

‘The situation reminds me of the start of the genocides in Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia. Even my intelligent Ukrainian friends believe nonsensical news about Orbán annexing Transcarpathia. They continually refer to him as ‘your Orbán’. A Hungarian in Ukraine today is seen as an enemy.’

Language

During breakfast at Márta’s house the next morning, we talk about the school where Pál Popovics is employed. ‘The headmaster has been sacked,’ says Pál. ‘It’s yet another decision by the mayor. This is in addition to the language laws that are causing concern in Hungarian schools in Transcarpathia.’

Pupils who are ten years old or older must now receive 20% of their educational instruction in Ukrainian. Once they reach the age of 16, this will increase to 60%. Schools will be inspected by a government ombudsman to ensure compliance with language laws. Failure to comply may result in the dismissal of the headteacher.

According to Pál, the nationalist reaction is understandable but unwise. It reinforces Russian claims that the Ukrainian government is Nazi.

We are visiting a school during holidays. Teacher Valeria Kovacs is teaching Hungarian to four Ukrainian children. According to Kovacs, the Ukrainian parents want their children to learn Hungarian, possibly due to their Hungarian heritage and the desire to obtain Hungarian citizenship and an EU passport.

The Hungarian government is using Hungarian identity to separate people from Ukraine.

© Pieter Stockmans

Teacher Valeria Kovacs tutors Hungarian to four Ukrainian children at a Hungarian school in Transcarpathia.

The Hungarian government is funding the renovation and expansion of the school. This includes bonuses for teachers and purchasing computers. The school was exclusively Hungarian from 1875 to 1944 when the Soviets took control. It reopened in 1970, but in a different building.

However, in 2023, the Hungarian nature of the school is at risk due to a new law on national minorities. The law affirms the rules from the 2017 Education Act and the 2019 Language Act.

The Venice Commission stated that the historical suppression of the Ukrainian language may justify efforts to encourage it. However, it also affirms that minorities should be able to learn in their own language. The Commission states that language policy is a delicate matter that has created tensions with the states of the minority languages before and may do so again in the future.

Flight to the motherland

The future is already here. The war in Ukraine has resulted in two significant incidents regarding compulsory military service and prisoners of war.

Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 and in good health are required to join the armed forces. However, Hungarians living in Ukraine are not keen on this idea. Márta explains: ’The Hungarians of Transcarpathia have belonged to five different countries in the 20th century. My husband’s grandfather was born, raised, and died in this house, but he was forced to change his nationality five times. It is not surprising that the loyalty of Hungarians to Ukraine is weak.’

‘Many friends have left and others have returned in body bags.’

According to Reverend Ferenc Taracközi, Ukrainian divisions during the 1940s were used by the Soviets to detain Hungarians suspected of collaborating with Nazi Germany. This has left a lasting memory of atrocities in the minds of all Hungarian families living here.

Hungarian media eagerly play on those Ukrainian atrocities of the past. Sensational headlines talk about Ukrainian police searching houses in Transcarpathia to conscript Hungarians to fight in the war as cannon fodder. The reports can be summarised by the headline, ‘The Hungarian casualties of Zelensky’s war.’

© Pieter Stockmans

The official Hungarian narrative is that Ukrainians are victims of the West. Reverend Ferenc Taracközi: ‘Orbán wants peace.’

Such reports reinforce the perception of Ukraine as an oppressor of Hungarians and of Orbán as their protector.

Pál recalls the first day of the invasion when thousands of Ukrainian Hungarians fled to Hungary, leaving behind pots of food and unmade beds. ‘It was a terrible ordeal, with many friends leaving and others returning in body bags’, Pál says.

This trauma came on top of the already skyrocketing emigration of Hungarians from Transcarpathia. Some families have been separated. Pál’s sons cannot come back because they study in Hungary and fear§( being drafted into the Ukrainian army while in Ukraine.

Prisoners of war

Even if ethnic Hungarians do join the Ukrainian army, the Hungarian government persists in its subversive actions. In June, Hungary agreed with Russia to hand over 11 Ukrainian prisoners of war to Hungary without the knowledge of the Ukrainian government. These prisoners belonged to the Hungarian minority.

Hungary’s vice prime minister supposedly made the agreement with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church’s leader is currently under EU sanctions, which impose an entry ban and freezing of assets on specific Russians.

Ukrainian diplomats complained that the Hungarian government did not allow them to communicate with the 11 freed Ukrainians. Orbán seemed to signal that he saw them as Hungarians first and was protecting them from Ukraine.

© Pieter Stockmans

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán makes it seem that he considers the Hungarians of Ukraine as Hungarians first and only then as Ukrainians. However, the Ukrainian-Hungarian pastor of Tyachev in Ukraine expressed solidarity with Ukraine, stating, ‘This country has been attacked, and this war is also my war.’ He attended a vigil for Ukrainian victims of Russian atrocities in Bucha.


The European Commission and the Ukrainian government were surprised by what happened. Peter Krekó, from the Hungarian think-tank Political Capital, told Euronews that Orbán is playing the ethnic card by bringing Hungarians home without Ukraine’s knowledge.

During the same week in June, the Hungarian government vetoed the endorsement of a new €500 million tranche of EU military support to Ukraine. Budapest punished Ukraine for adding Hungary’s largest bank, OTP Bank, to its list of ‘global war supporters.’

The incidents will continue for some time. Marianna Kuni, a Hungarian from Transcarpathia, expressed her frustration as we met her at the border. She plans to leave Ukraine and Hungary, saying, ‘I don’t want to be used as a tool. The Ukrainian government has enough reasons to be suspicious of the Hungarian government. I don’t understand their connection to the Kremlin. I feel ashamed to be Hungarian.’

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