Stuck Between Ukraine and Hungary: Life in Transcarpathia
14 November, 2018

BEREHOVE, Ukraine – Dmytro Korbynskyi, a historian and social activist, moved from the cosmopolitan capital of Ukraine Kyiv to the small western town near the border with Hungary Berehove ten years ago. Berehove reminds Korbynskyi of Podil, a district in Kyiv where he grew up: it’s just as green, cozy and picturesque. However, recently Berehove has been making headlines for quite different reasons.

In late September, a scandal erupted when footage emerged of the local consulate distributing Hungarian passports in Berehove. The video showed the new Hungarian citizens, who were also Ukrainian citizens, singing the Hungarian anthem and taking an oath of allegiance to the state. Kyiv has since expelled the Hungarian consul from the town.

READ MORE: Ukraine and Hungary Expel Each Other's Consuls Amid Diplomatic Row

The passport situation is just one of several shaping the tense relations between Budapest and Kyiv recently. Hungary is constantly boosting its presence in Transcarpathia, to support ethnic minorities, it says. But in Kyiv, especially following the start of the war in Donbas, there are cautious talks about possible separatism and Hungarian expansion in the region.

A City of Six States

To an average tourist’s eye, Berehove may not look like a Ukrainian town. Almost all signs here are duplicated in Hungarian, Hungarian flags hang on houses and Hungarian channels are shown on television.   

Dmytro Korbynskyi in the living room of his home in Berehove, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Dmytro Korbynskyi’s house has a library filled with books – also on the shelves are collections of gnomes. Berehove, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

During the 20th century, Transcarpathia switched between six different governments. Historically a Hungarian city, Berehove in 1919 was briefly occupied by Romania, then Czechoslovakia, and then in 1938 it was once again under Hungary’s rule. In 1944, like everything else in Zakarpattya, Berehove became part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk of autonomy in Transcarpathia. Mukachevo and Berehove councils initiated a referendum, based on a 1990 USSR law on the procedure for resolving issues related to leaving the Soviet Union.

Local supporters of autonomy took Crimea as an example, which in January 1991 received special status in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Transcarpathia referendum was held on December 1, 1991 – when a referendum on independence was held throughout Ukraine. 78% of voters were in favor of autonomy. But the Soviet Ukrainian government, which was then working to create an independent state, did not recognize this result. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, similar referendums were held in other areas – their results also remained only on paper.  

In Berehove almost all signs are duplicated in Hungarian and Hungarian flags hang from houses, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Most of the clocks in Berehove show European time, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

As a result of this history, a multicultural environment has emerged in Berehove, just like in many Transcarpathia border towns and villages. Ethnic Hungarians, Ukrainians, Rusyns and Roma all live here. That’s why Hungarian, along with multiple other languages, is frequently spoken here.

READ MORE: Ukraine and Hungary: Can We Still Be Friends?

 Working With a Hungarian Passport

The town of Vynohradiv – or Sevlush in Hungarian – is located just between Hungary and Romania, 20 kilometers to each border. Just like in Berehove, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Roma and Rusyns live here.

Hungarian is most popular language here. Store signs are usually in either in Hungarian or both Hungarian and Ukrainian. Berehove, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“Many came during the Soviet Union, people moved often then. A lot of people lived here from generation to generation. Not the Hungarians, but the locals, the aborigines as I call them,” says Robert Tivodor, a musician who was born and lives in Vynohradiv.

Tivodor’s father is Hungarian, his mother is Ukrainian, and his family is as international as all of Transcarpathia. His grandmother came from Mykolaiv, and his grandfather, or “didyk,” as Tivodor calls him, comes from Russia. He was sent here for military service but then he liked it so much that he decided to stay. The climate here is mild, with mountains and vineyards that earned the city its name. They used to make wine here, but now there are no plants left – although every self-respecting Transcarpathian has their own wine cellar.

The furniture store in the center of Berehove is painted in the national Ukrainian colors, with a Ukrainian flag hanging above the entrance. Locals call it "the center of Ukrainian culture." Berehove, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Tivodor is the frontman of local group Chalamada, which is also the name of the traditional Transcarpathian pickled vegetable salad. The musician considers himself Ukrainian, but he speaks a special Transcarpathian dialect in which Ukrainian, Hungarian and Czech words are mixed. He sings in that language too. But he barely speaks Hungarian.

A monument in memory of the heroes of the Heavenly hundred and the military killed in the Donbas on Kossuth Square in Berehove, Transcarpathia region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

The dominance of Hungarian culture is really not felt in Vynohradiv. Here it feels international. There are Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Orthodox churches. And in the former home of Hungarian princes is the local department of education. Hungary didn’t come to this city, it seems, but rather the city went to Hungary – many residents left to work in the neighboring country, where Tivodor says the salary is around $800.

The easiest way to go work in Hungary, or even further, is to get a Hungarian passport. Tivodor cautiously tells Hromadske that 30% of Transcarpathia residents definitely have one. Although there is no official data on how many Transcarpathia residents have received a Hungarian passport. In 2015, Budapest reported that during this time 125,000 people received a passport. Now the authorities don’t give out such information and generally avoid speaking with the press.

Uzhhorod is closer to 11 European capitals than to Kyiv. Ukraine is called the “big land” here, Uzhhorod, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Hungary simplified the procedure for obtaining a passport for its foreign compatriots seven years ago. All that is required of the applicant is to prove that their ancestors lived on the territory of Transcarpathia until 1944. During the first few years, any local could get a passport. Then Hungary began to control the process more carefully. Nevertheless, for many residents, proving their historical connection with Hungary is not a problem. Most of the time, they don’t give up their Ukrainian passport (dual citizenship is not recognized in Ukraine - ed.) but no one advertises it either.

Money For All

Because of its recent multicultural background, people in Transcarpathia have learned to co-exist peacefully.

“When you come to the store or to the market [in Berehove], the seller greets you with two words: teschek, proshu,” says Korbinsky referring to the word “welcome” in Hungarian and Ukrainian respectively. “This means that the person is ready to speak your language.”

The town of Vynohradiv is located between Hungary and Romania - 20 kilometers away from both borders, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Korbynskyi says it upsets him when people claim they were refused to be sold coffee, for example, because they asked for it in Ukrainian.

Robert Tivodor, a musician from Vynohradiv, is the frontman for local group Chalamada, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“Nobody would do that, it's just not accepted here,” he says.

READ MORE: National Minorities Oppose Ukraine’s New Education Law

But the proximity to Hungary is not just advantageous for learning tolerance and being able to have coffee across the border. Transcarpathia is strongly funded by the Hungarian government.

In 2015, Budapest offered a social assistance package to Transcarpathia in connection with the difficult economic and social situation in Ukraine and the war in the country’s east. Over the past two years, $60 million has been allocated to various projects in Transcarpathia – that’s one seventh of the regional budget. Hungary planned to provide another $11 million for Transcarpathian Hungarians in 2019, although initially this amount was much less. Budapest has assured that support for Transcarpathian Hungarians will only grow.

Robert Tivodor says that 30 percent of Transcarpathia residents have a Hungarian passport. Vynohradiv, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“All Transcarpathians benefit from this help in some way,” says Korbynskyi. “This means roads, and, for example, Hungary’s recent assistance with vaccines against diphtheria, I think. All Transcarpathian children, not only Hungarians, were provided with this vaccine. The infrastructure in Transcarpathia – this infrastructure is used by people of different nationalities – so this is a significant help.”

Local women stand near the monument to Taras Shevchenko in Vynohradiv, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Signs in the city are usually in two languages. This press kiosk also has a sign in English. Vynohradiv, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

In Berehove, when we walked past one of the few Ukrainian schools there (the majority of educational institutions in Berehove are in Hungarian), Korbynskyi pointed out to a sweeping irony. Opposite the school stands a monument to the great Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko. The project was initiated by community activists, but they came up short on funds and approached the government for help. But it was the government of Hungary, not Ukraine, that provided financial assistance, according Korbynskyi.

Radical Moods?

Hungarian schools are popular not only among ethnic Hungarians but also among Ukrainians – graduates then plan to enroll in Hungarian universities. Although there are other examples. Olivia Zhyho is an ethnic Hungarian. But she studied in a Ukrainian school and now attends Ukrainian college.

Writing on gravestones in the Vynohradiv cemetery is mostly in Hungarian, Transcarpathia region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Neighbors Threaten Its Euro-Integration Over Education Law

“Our family’s position is that despite the fact that we are ethnic Hungarians – I had Hungarian lullabies sang to me, I watched Hungarian cartoons – we live in Ukraine, and I should know this language. Firstly, for convenience, so that I can go to the store, and secondly, because it is our civic duty,” she says.

All Transcarpathian children, not only Hungarian, were provided with diphtheria vaccine. Ukraine received this assistance from Budapest. Uzhhorod, Transcarpathian region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Budapest assures that support for Transcarpathian Hungarians will only grow. Uzhhorod, Transcarpathian region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Zhyho comes from the village of Vyshkovo, located in the Khust district of Transcarpathia, a little further from the border than Berehove and Vynohradiv. Most of the inhabitants of the village are Hungarians. According to Zhyho, the Ukrainians and Hungarians in the region stick to different time zones.

“When something is happening in the village, for example a concert, the billboard is in Hungarian and in Ukrainian. The start time written in Hungarian will have the local time and in Ukrainian, the Kyiv time. People are used to it, it’s convenient for everyone. If you speak with a Ukrainian – and everyone in the village knows each other – you know that he is talking about Kyiv time. So, he will come tomorrow at one o'clock, and not at two,” she says.

There are those who are less accepting of Ukrainian, she admits, and oppose the integration into Ukrainian society.

“These people do not want to learn the Ukrainian language, but won’t leave [the region] themselves. I don’t understand them,” she says.

Local Hungarians live on European time and Ukrainians live on Kyiv time. Uzhhorod, Transcarpathian region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Radical sentiments among Transcarpathian Hungarians are present according to Hromadske’s other sources in the region too, but they’re a minority. Most Transcarpathian Hungarians are satisfied with the way things are, living as Ukrainian citizens but in their own Hungarian world. That’s why Kyiv’s attempts to Ukrainianize this region provoked resistance. This was the case with the law on education, which was adopted last year. Under the new legislation, all schools are to be taught in Ukrainian, with only a few subjects allowed to be taught in language of national minorities. That’s when another diplomatic scandal erupted between Kyiv and Budapest. The Transcarpathian Hungarians then decided that they would transfer their children to private schools. And Hungary promised that there would be more of them.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Education Reform Angers Neighbors Over Minority Rights


Hungary’s policy of supporting overseas compatriots is not in vain – Transcarpathia and the former Hungarian districts of Romania, Serbia and Slovakia loyally vote for Viktor Orban’s ruling party Fidesz. In the last parliamentary elections held in April this year, Transcarpathian Hungarians almost unanimously voted for Orban. Despite the fact that we are talking only about 398,000 people, following his victory, Orban specifically thanked foreign Hungarians who "helped defend Hungary." At the local level, the KMKS party (the Society of Hungarian Culture of Transcarpathia) receives steady support. In the regional elections it received 40,000 votes and eight seats in the regional council. The biggest support for the party comes from border areas – KMKS has the most seats – 12 – in Berehove city council and its own mayor.

READ MORE: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Wins Third Term

The financial assistance that Hungary provides to this region gives the government the right to dictate conditions of life here. Often this leads to conflicts between Kyiv and Budapest. In 2018, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense decided it would deploy the 128th brigade of Ukraine’s Armed Forces to Berehove. Hungary opposed this. Local residents told Hromadske that Berehove’s mayor was ready to rally people against this move – and nearly all Hungarians living here would have come to the protest. But in the end, an understanding was reached at both ministerial level – between foreign ministers Pavlo Klimkin and Peter Siyyarto – and at a local level. Nobody went to the protests.   

Most Transcarpathian Hungarians are satisfied with the situation as it is, living as citizens of Ukraine but in their own, Hungarian world. Uzhgorod. Transcarpathian region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

“The Hungarian government is certainly interested in the life of Hungarians abroad, including Transcarpathian Hungarians. As for the Ukrainian government, Transcarpathia is the same as Zhytomyr or Khmelnytskyi regions for them. In Kyiv, they think that since this region has existed all this time, it will just continue to exist,” Korbynskyi says.

Local Hungarians live on European time and Ukrainians live on Kyiv time. Uzhhorod, Transcarpathian region, October 18, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

Locals believe it’s unlikely that Hungary has any plan for annexing Transcarpathia, however its government won’t renounce its presence here either. Pictured - nighttime in Uzhhorod, Transcarpathian region, October 19, 2018. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Hromadske

He adds that it’s unlikely Hungary has plans for annexing Transcarpathia. But it also has no plans to renounce its presence here either. He is convinced that Berehove can’t be called a Hungarian city, even though there are Hungarian monuments and flags here.

The peculiarity of this city, as well as of the whole Transcarpathian region, is in its multiculturalism and the ability of its inhabitants to live together peacefully. They don’t want to start conflict here and distance themselves as much as possible from political conversations, carefully selecting the words they say on camera.

This is how they want life here to continue.

This project was done with the support of Russian-language News Exchange