In Ukraine, a minority group feels ambivalence about the war

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TRANSCARPATHIA, Ukraine — Under dark clouds unleashing a summer rain, officials in a southwestern Ukrainian border village quietly gathered and slowly hung wreaths from branches to commemorate the destruction of a nation.

The wreaths were not decorated with the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag; instead, they were laced with the red, white, and green of Hungary. And the nation they honored this month was not their beleaguered land, but a homeland of their collective history, torn apart more than 100 years ago.

Transcarpathia — now a hardscrabble region of Ukraine bordering Hungary — is home to as many as 150,000 ethnic Hungarians who, through the complex horse trade, conquest and border adjustments of more than a century of European geopolitics, have found themselves within Ukraine’s borders.

Before the war with Russia, the desires of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine were usually brushed aside as a benign nostalgia for a time when they lived in one country with other ethnic Hungarians. Now the divided loyalties within the small community — which have absorbed Hungary’s ambivalence toward the Russian invasion — is seen as something of more concern by their fellow Ukrainians, some of whom fear they are susceptible to pro-Russian propaganda from Hungary.

The ambivalence some feel is a reminder of the problems Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orban can cause to his neighbors, in this case by playing on their government’s feelings of discrimination against ethnic Hungarians. And it adds another layer of complexity for Ukraine’s leaders as they try to keep their sprawling, multi-ethnic country united in the face of a brutal Russian invasion, even as they struggle to win allegiance from minorities, including ethnic Russians and Hungarians.

“It’s like standing on a football field between two opposing teams,” said David Arpad, a pastor who led one of the commemorations for the lost Hungarian homeland, which were kept small to avoid further tensions during the war. . “We are stuck in the middle of the field because on one side is Hungary and the other side is Ukraine.”

Hungary and Ukraine were not always rivals. In the last days of the Soviet Union, they were partners in the nationalist struggle for greater self-determination. Hungary was one of the first countries to recognize Ukraine, in exchange for ethnic Hungarians within Ukraine’s borders who have the right to preserve their language and culture.

But in recent years, tensions have increased as Mr Orban has increasingly sought to bring under his rule ethnic Hungarian enclaves in Ukraine and elsewhere. He has, among other things, encouraged Hungarians outside the country’s borders to claim citizenship, which helped him win over new voters to keep him in power.

In this poor region of Ukraine, along the Hungarian border, he donated money to run schools, churches, businesses and newspapers, garnering gratitude — and helping the fan’s resentment. The ceremony for a lost homeland did not exist until Mr. Orban came to power.

Feelings of otherness rose when Ukraine, under constant threat from Russia, passed a law requiring more teaching in Ukrainian in public schools. The law was primarily intended to curb the use of the Russian language, but for the conservative Hungarian community, where many still learn and pray almost exclusively in Hungarian, the law was seen as an unfair infringement of constitutional rights.

Between the villages on the rolling green plains below the Carpathians, life has long been a mixture of Hungarian and Ukrainian influences. Even the time of day is not certain. For the locals, there are always two choices for setting up a meeting: Kiev time or Budapest time.

During the war, the kinship with Hungary contributed to disagreements about who is to blame. Despite his country’s membership of the European Union, which has resolutely sided with Ukraine, Mr Orban – President Vladimir V. Putin’s closest ally in the bloc – has been ambiguous, condemning the invasion, but trying not to antagonize yourself. He tried to block European Union sanctions on Russian energy imports on which Hungary relies. And he refused to give weapons to Ukraine, or even allow them to be shipped across Hungarian borders.

That wariness has permeated the ethnic-Hungarian community, fueled by Hungarian television channels near Orban’s ruling party, which broadcast to Hungarian-Ukrainian homes along the border. Hungarian broadcasters question Ukraine’s stance that Russia invaded to steal Ukrainian lands, but instead shared Moscow’s perspective that it invaded to protect Russian-speakers – a minority with a different language, not unlike the ethnic Hungarians .

“I think this is the main reason for the war, not what Ukraine is saying,” said Gyula Fodor, a vice rector of the Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute, as she talked about traditional plum schnapps after the Lost Homeland ceremony. The institute, a private college, has received Hungarian funding and Mr Orban attended the ribbon cutting ceremony.

As the war continues, relations between Mr. Orban and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine have become increasingly frosty.

Suspicion is in the air in the border towns. Some ethnic Ukrainians claimed in interviews that Hungarian priests had urged believers in the early days of the Russian invasion to hope that their region would be annexed to Hungary after the fall of Ukraine’s capital Kiev, although there are there is no documented evidence to back this up. those claims.

In cities with an ethnic Hungarian majority, some people reported being harassed with mysterious text messages in Ukrainian: “Ukraine to Ukrainians. Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” They said the messages ended with a threat with another word for ethnic Hungarians: “Magyars to the knives.”

Ukrainian intelligence officials publicly claim that the texts came from a bot farm in Odessa that used Russian software, and labeled it a Russian attempt to destabilize Ukraine, but they provided no proof.

Tensions in Transcarpathia erupted publicly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Right-wing nationalists have marched through the streets of Uzhhorod in recent years, sometimes chanting “Magyars to the knife.”

And a Hungarian cultural center in the city of Uzhhorod was set on fire twice in 2017. In both cases, authorities said the perpetrators had pro-Russian ties. Dmytro Tuzhankskyi, the director of the Institute of Central European Strategy in Uzhhorod that promotes Ukraine’s alignment with the West, says he believes Moscow was behind other local provocations. Moscow would like to sow discord between Hungary and Ukraine, he claimed, as a way to create more trouble for the Western alliance that has been lining up against Putin.

Hungarian and local officials, he feared, could unwittingly fall prey to such designs: “They might think: one more little provocation – it means nothing. That’s a very dangerous mentality.”

But for many ethnic Hungarians, Ukraine is not flawless.

László Zubánics, the leader of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Ukraine, said locals watch Hungarian television partly because no Ukrainian cable channels reach the border areas, something he saw as a form of political neglect. But he acknowledged that ethnic Hungarians often choose to tune in to Hungarian, not Ukrainian, satellite channels.

Many ethnic Hungarians say they can only afford to stay in the region of family vineyards and farms because of Hungarian funding. That makes many ethnic Hungarians skeptical of Ukraine’s claims that it wants to help them integrate into society. Zubánics said: “Most kids and parents say, ‘Why do I need the state language? I don’t see my place here in this country.’”

Although the Soviets suppressed and exiled Hungarian nationalists, some ethnic Hungarians are also beginning to look back on the Soviet government as a time of relative cultural freedom. According to Zubánics, it was a time when Hungarians remember holding prominent official positions, unlike today’s Ukraine.

Nostalgia for the Soviet era angers local right-wing nationalists such as Vasyl Vovkunovich, once a political ally of Hungarian nationalists in the last days of the Soviet Union. In 2017, he said he led a march of supporters through the streets of Berehove, tearing down Hungarian flags that had been hoisted over many churches and buildings.

“These Hungarians aren’t worth it,” he said. “Their ancestors would turn in their graves if they knew Hungary side with Russia.”

For local residents like Zoltan Kazmer, 32, the present feels more complicated. He feels loyal to Ukraine, he said. But thanks to Hungarian funding, he was able to turn his family’s age-old winemaking tradition into a business.

“When we go to Hungary, we feel like Ukrainians,” he said. “When we are in Ukraine, we feel like Hungarians.”



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