Ukraine and Hungary: Can We Still Be Friends?
27 September, 2018

Tensions between Ukraine and its southwestern neighbor Hungary have been running high for a while. About one year ago, a new educational law came into effect abolishing minority-language schools in Ukraine. Although it was aimed at promoting the Ukrainian language (as opposed to Russian, for example) and making school graduates’ entry to universities easier, it sparked outrage in Hungary. 100,000 ethnic Hungarians are estimated to live in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya region, located on the border with Hungary. That’s one-tenth of Zakarpattya’s population of 1 million.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (L) and his Hungarian counterpart Péter Szijjártó chat during Szijjártó's official one-day visit in Nyzhnie Solotvyno, Ukraine on June 22, 2018. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/Janos Nemes HUNGARY OUT

Many hoped those tensions would decrease after Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and his Hungarian counterpart Péter Szijjártó met up during the UN General Assembly in New York. The two officials had a lot to discuss after all.

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

Other issues contributed to the tensions, such as the recent (unverified so far) video of Ukrainian citizens being issued Hungarian passports in secret from the Ukrainian authorities (dual citizenship is illegal in Ukraine), which caused turmoil and not just on a societal level. A number of Ukrainian officials made statements regarding the video and Klimkin even threatened to expel the Hungarian consul from the town of Berehove in Ukraine's Zakarpattya region if the video proves to be genuine.

Klimkin later published a video on his Facebook page saying that secret passports being issued is potential evidence “we can’t stay silent about.”

“We only have two options here,” the foreign minister said in the video address. “The first one is real cooperation and the second option is the road to nowhere. I know what we need to do, but the choice is actually up to our Hungarian colleagues.”

Viktor Orban (C) celebrates his party's victory (according to the first exit poll results) in the parliamentary election on April 8, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/Szilard Koszticsak

But after the talks with the “Hungarian colleagues,” (Klimkin and Szijjártó met on September 26 in New York) an agreement seemed no closer. The Ukrainian foreign minister said that no agreement can be reached between the two diplomats because “our visions on how to help the Hungarian society in Ukraine are completely different.”

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

Klimkin then said that Szijjártó didn’t want to expel the Hungarian consul in Berehove himself, something the Ukrainian minister offered to his counterpart.

“If the corresponding decision is not taken, [the Hungarian consul in the town of Berehove] will go home without a doubt,” he said.

What’s in the Video?

The controversial video, published by Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform on September 19, was allegedly recorded at the Hungarian embassy in the western Ukrainian town of Berehove.

“I vow to consider Hungary my homeland. I will be a loyal citizen, defend and serve Hungary. God help me,” the people in the video repeat three times in Hungarian with the Hungarian flag in the background. They then raise glasses of champagne and receive instructions on how to hide their Hungarian passport from Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies.

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

A week after the video was unearthed, dozens of people from the nationalist National Corps party carried out a demonstration outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv. They peacefully demanded the ministry expel Hungarian consul to Ukraine.

Why the Passports?

Advisor to foreign minister Taras Kachka told Hromadske that those passports are used by Ukrainians to be able to work in the European Union, something they can’t do with Ukrainian passports.

“We need to remind the Hungarians that these passports are used not to grow Hungarian society; usually they’re used as an opportunity to freely work in the richer countries of the EU, such as France and Germany,” Kachka said.

Dual citizenship, which is illegal in Ukraine, became possible in Hungary with the beginning of the premiership of Viktor Orban in 2010. Since then around one million Hungarian passports have been issued outside of Hungary. For comparison, the entire population of Hungary is 9.8 million. Most of the Hungarian abroad passports were issued in Ukraine.

Hungarian Foreign Minister (R) thinks that the crackdown on the Hungarian population in Ukraine's Zakarpattia region won't stop if Petro Poroshenko remains to be the president. Photo credit: Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Another reason why some Ukrainians could be obtaining Hungarian passports is to be able to illegally immigrate to the United States. Like other countries in the European Union, Hungary has a visa-free regime with the U.S.

READ MORE: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Wins Third Term

On May 12, an article came out on the Washington Post website saying that around 700 people with Hungarian passports received outside of Hungary tried to enter the U.S. Of those 700, 65 successfully entered the country and some are believed to remain there to this day.

“A common reason [for this immigration] is drug smuggling, organized crime, or illegal immigration,” a former employee of the U.S. Department of Defense told Hromadske. “Or for example, this could be used by Russian spies. They could come to Ukraine, buy a Hungarian passport and then fly to the U.S.”

/Translated and adapted by Maria Romanenko