Caught between the sometimes nationalist politics of Kyiv and interference from Moscow, the Hungarians of Transcarpathia, Ukraine, are mobilizing to preserve their identity and traditions.
In Berehove, Ukraine’s most Hungarian city, it’s best to keep two watches on your wrist: one set to Kyiv and the other to Budapest. Because in Transcarpathia, a region in the south-west of the country, members of the Magyar minority live their lives, without exception, according to Hungarian time. “It’s true it can sometimes create some small problems, but it’s always been like that,” says Norbert Bence with a smile. Wrapped-up in his coat, the 26 year old physics PhD student defies the January cold to smoke a cigarette as he welcomes participants to a seminar in a hotel not far from the city centre. Twenty or so young people from Transcarpathia, most of whom are physics, philology or history students, have come to share opinions about the problems facing the Hungarian communities of Ukraine. “Over the weekend we will create an association which aims to preserve Hungarian traditions,” explains Norbert, enthusiastically. Most of the participants are students from the regional capital Uzhhorod, 70 kilometers away. The Hungarian community of Transcarpathia isn’t that big, so everyone knows one another at least a bit.
In this region, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the First World War, around a tenth of the population – between 100,000 and 150,000 people – identifies as Hungarian. After the break-up of Hungary, and in light of the Trianon peace treaty in 1920, Transcarpathia passed from one country to the other to the drumbeat of war and conquest: first Czechoslovakia, then the Soviet Union and now Ukraine, which has been independent since 1991. But while governing authorities and passports have frequently changed, the inhabitants here remain the same.
For young people like Norbert who came to the seminar in Berehove – or “Beregszázs” as it is known in Hungarian – Ukraine has always been their country. The stocky young man hides a confident gaze behind a pair of black sunglasses. He grew up in the nearby village of Betove and like many of his peers, he studied at the University of Uzhhorod. But he also spent some time abroad to earn enough money to live. “I worked for a few months as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in Belleville (ed. a district of Paris).” His brothers, who had left before him, found him the job in the French capital. Unlike many young Hungarians who can barely understand Ukrainian, Norbert has a good command of the language.
“Let’s get started, we’ve only got til midday to solve the country’s problems,” jokes the moderator. Sándor, a 20 year old student at the University of Uzhhorod, is the first to intervene: “In general I wouldn’t say that the relations [between Ukrainians and Hungarians] are very good. You can feel the tensions on a daily basis.”
The participants in the seminar discuss the things that exasperate them most: bullying by the Ukrainian students at the university, the bars in Mukachevo “where Hungarian is not spoken” or the “provocations of Ukrainian nationalists” who attack symbols of Hungarian identity. The statute of Turul – the legendary Hungarian bird – in Mukachevo, for example, is frequently draped with a Ukrainian flag. Those gathered find this undeniably offensive. “Of course, most of the time things are fine, but these negative experiences do leave a mark,” says Alexa, a 19 year old philology student.
“We Hungarians don’t react to provocations”
The students aren’t afraid to share their feelings, including fears for the future. One young man mentions that he is afraid he’ll be forced into mandatory military service, something which, by contrast, most young Ukrainians are able to avoid (this story was written before the Russian invasion, ed.). Everyone has a story to tell about the coercions of the Ukrainian authorities. “We’ve heard a lot of stories about young Hungarians being forced into the military. And now they’re planning to enlist women too,” exclaims Alexa.
There’s time for a break and the young group goes outside to enjoy the sun, which is now starting to melt a thick sheet of snow that had been accumulating for weeks. Norbert chose a building owned by the local Catholic church as the venue for the seminar. From the street, passers-by can make out a Hungarian inscription in big golden letters “Pilgrims’ and community house.” On the wall of the opposite building, graffiti depicts two Ukrainian tridents, the national emblem. Norbert shrugs: “It happens all the time. We Hungarians don’t react to provocations. That’s exactly what the Ukrainian nationalists want: to trigger a circle of violence where the two sides will come to blows,” he states, a little annoyed by the sight of the mural. “Associations like ours are trying to reduce the tensions between communities.”
The return of ethnic tensions?
Back inside, the participants retrace the past few years of Ukraine’s history. Sándor describes the Euromaidan protests and later revolution as a seizing of power by the “nationalists.” “Since 2014 everything’s changed: they want to ‘Ukrainize’ everything,” he says. In the wake of Euromaidan, successive governments have pursued language policies, aimed at expanding the use of Ukrainian across the country. In 2017, the Parliament approved a law codifying Ukrainian as the only teaching language from secondary school onwards.
For the group gathered in Berehove, this law is a bitter pill to swallow. “Forcing students who often speak little Ukrainian to conduct all lessons including maths and physics in that language is counterproductive,” explains Norbert. He believes that mother tongue Hungarians should be able to continue studying in Hungarian, and instead commit to a significant number of hours learning Ukrainian as a foreign language. “If you want to integrate, find a job and have any economic prospects at all it’s essential to have a good level of Ukrainian. Speaking the language badly, or not at all, is a very difficult obstacle to overcome,” he states pragmatically. And he’s not the only one in the group who thinks so.
According to Norbert it’s important to show some willingness to integrate to avoid fuelling certain prejudices. “Ukrainians are really afraid of Hungarian separatism,” asserts Sándor. One of the main figures of the Hungarian minority, László Brenzovics – also a leader of one of the Magyar political parties – was accused of “high treason” and “separatism” in 2020. Since then he’s been in exile in Budapest. Despite this, Viktor Mykyta, the governor of the oblast (a term for an administrative region akin to a ‘province’), maintains that there are no tensions between the two communities. According to Mykyta, Russia is taking advantage of the situation to engineer skirmishes that would undermine the government in Kyiv. In 2018, three Polish citizens with proven links to a Russian organization burnt down the Hungarian cultural centre in Uzhhorod. This attack has given further weight to the hypothesis that Russia has been intervening to weaken Ukraine both domestically and internationally.
“All this talk of separatism shouldn’t be taken seriously”
After the vote on the Ukrainian language-teaching-law, there were significant diplomatic tensions between Budapest and Kyiv. Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, insisted that the legislation violated the fundamental rights of the minority group. The ultraconservative leader has repeatedly asked Ukraine to modify or retract the law, without any success. In response, Hungary has blocked all Ukraine’s attempts to get closer to Western institutions, particularly NATO, thereby fuelling latent tensions between the two nations.
Timea, a Hungarian teacher who lives in Uzhhorod, also thinks “the presence of the Russian hand” is likely. However, she insists these tensions do not characterize daily life for citizens in the region. Two years ago, the young woman opened a dojo where she teaches aikido. On the mats, her students count in Japanese rather than Ukrainian or Hungarian. “All this talk of separatism shouldn’t be taken seriously,” she says, “and there is no discrimination against the Hungarians.” Timea herself was born from a marriage between a Ukrainian and Hungarian. The young woman is keen to highlight the tradition of co-existence and tolerance in the region; she even goes so far as to lament the lack of effort to integrate on the part of the Hungarian population: “We live in Ukraine and the official language is Ukrainian, so we should learn to speak it.”
At the same time, Timea opposes the new teaching law: “It’s not even a question of mother tongues. The law was never approved with the Hungarians in mind: originally it was conceived to limit the use of Russian.” She remains optimistic about the future of Hungarian in the region. “I teach Hungarian as a foreign language. I can see that Hungarian is developing and that it has a real future as a foreign language: I teach it to children in Uzhhorod, just as I do to adults in Berehove, who don’t have Magyar origins.” In fact, since 2012 Hungary has been distributing passports to members of the Hungarian minority, despite Ukrainian legislation prohibiting dual nationality. Obtaining the document represents a vital economic opportunity in this region, which remains one of the poorest in Ukraine. “At first it was very easy to obtain a Hungarian passport, almost everyone had access. Over the past few years things have changed, you have to show that you can speak Hungarian to a certain level,” explains Timea.
Hungary does a lot for the region, without political motives.
In addition to the passports, the Hungarian government has begun offering very generous subsidies to minorities living in the Carpathian basin. In the twelve years since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010 over 115 million euros have been transferred to Transcarpathia in the form of grants or donations – the equivalent of a year and a half of the region’s administrative budget. Timea tells us that the Hungarian state paid to renovate her school; the students in the workshop, that subsidies helped renovate their office and a nearby football field; a university professor is grateful to the state for repairing the floor in his department.
Viktor Orbán’s weaponization of football among Hungarian diasporas
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, himself a notorious football lover and former 4th-division player, has turned football into a pillar of the nationalist propaganda led by his party Fidesz, both at home and abroad. In Hungary the symbol of this effort, which has cost Hungarian taxpayers around 2.5 billion euros over the last decade, is the lavish Pancho Arena, built in 2014 in Felcsút, where the Hungarian Prime Minister spent part of his childhood. The stadium has a capacity of 3,800, more than twice the size of the local population.
No region where Hungarian minorities live has been forgotten. As Balkan Insight revealed last year, Budapest has got involved in local football in Romania (Sfantu Gheorghe, Oradea and Miercurea Ciuc), Ukraine (Mukachevo), Slovakia (Dunajska Streda), Slovenia (Lendava), Serbia (Backa Topola) and even Croatia (Osijek).
How? Mainly by building arenas, sponsoring local teams or establishing football academies. According to Dan Nolan, a Guardian reporter who won the European Press Prize with the investigation Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession, “there is a Fidesz-linked football club in each of the countries containing former Hungarian territories that were lost in 1920.”
In some cases money is provided by Hungarian entrepreneurs belonging to the Prime Minister’s inner circle, such as Lőrinc Mészáros, Orbán’s longstanding pal and currently Hungary’s richest man. In some others, funds are channeled through the Hungarian Football Federation, or local minority associations such as the Slovenian MMONK, led by Ferenc Horvath, Slovenian MP and Orbán’s close friend. But sometimes it is the government that steps in directly through the Gábor Bethlen Fund, which was created in 2011 to coordinate financial assistance programs to Hungarian diasporas. Sources cited by the Hungarian Spectrum estimated that between 2016 and 2018 alone the Hungarian government spent more than 61.5 million euros on football-related projects targeting ethnic Hungarians living abroad.
György Rúsznák, the owner of a cafe in Uzhhorod, has also benefited from Hungarian subsidies to buy a fridge and a coffee machine for his bar. He maintains that this kind of investment is good for everyone: “Budapest’s aim is to help Hungarians continue living here, to stop them leaving. Hungary does a lot for the region, without political motives. It helps schools, hospitals and whole areas of the region.”
György (Yuri in Ukrainian) is the flesh and blood incarnation of this region: the son of a Ukrainian mother and Hungarian father, this smiling 50 year old grew up in a predominantly Romanian village. He started his school education in Romanian, before studying at University in Russian, where he also learnt Italian. He’s been managing the cafe for 35 years alongside his partner who is Slovakian and Ruthenian (a minority from Western Ukraine). György’s establishment is filled with trinkets that attest to the cosmopolitan history of the area, and he prides himself on giving a warm welcome to whoever comes inside. “I wanted to create a meeting place for people of all backgrounds, where it doesn’t matter what language you speak. And I think I’ve managed that.” The jazz and cultural evenings are for everyone. This is “a true Babylon”, explains György.
Quelling the exodus
Given the massive financial support it provides, Hungary – often called “the motherland” – enjoys a good press in Transcarpathia. Since 2010 Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has maintained a two thirds majority in the parliament, allowing it to govern alone, uncontested. The Transcarpathian vote is far from a secondary factor in reaching this majority: according to estimates, the region’s community gives Fidesz one or two extra seats. “Generally, those who don’t support Orbán simply don’t vote. Only those who support Fidesz bother to do so,” observes another student. Here, in fact, the opposition parties are often seen as the biggest danger: the end of subsidies, or even the end of the right to vote in Hungarian elections – a right that Fidesz has not only allowed but actively facilitated and encouraged.
For now, Fidesz is still in power. And many local Hungarians periodically travel to Hungary to work, or even move there for good. In 2021 the average monthly salary in Transcarpathia was just over 12,000 grivne (around 380 euros). This figure is below the national average, of 430 euros, and far from European standards. “For a long time the situation in Transcarpathia, Hungary and Slovakia was pretty much the same. But since 2014 the inhabitants have realized that nearby countries are developing much faster,” notes Dmytro Toujanski, a political scientist who specializes in the region. Having a Hungarian passport is not just attractive because it offers access to the “motherland” itself, but also to the European Union as a whole. “Germany and the Czech Republic are among the most popular destinations,” explains Toujanski.
Economic difficulties reinforce the sense of the region’s isolation. Yet, paradoxically, they also help to maintain Magyar identity and traditions. “Just look at what’s happening in Slovakia, where increased salaries and economic development have accelerated the assimilation of the Hungarian minorities,” emphasizes Norbert. “In the early 2000s’ we saw the same thing here, when Hungarian families were quite happy to send their children to Ukrainian schools. Yet since the crisis of 2008, things have changed.” That’s when the exodus began. In what sense? “Leaving here is the norm, because there’s no work. Some go away forever, it’s true. But most send money back to their families before re-settling here.” For now, the PhD student remains hopeful about the region’s future. He himself has made a decision: while becoming a physics researcher is not out of the question, his plan A is “to play a role in the community” as a socially-engaged entrepreneur. “People are attached to their own land. What they really want is to be able to stay here and live normal lives.”
*This report was made in January, before the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
In Stolipinovo, Bulgaria, the Turkish community is invisible
The first time I set foot in Stolipinovo in 2019, I thought I was visiting the “biggest Roma camp of the Balkans.” Before heading there, I had found the expression in almost every report about this suburban area of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second biggest city.
There I met Salih, a young student living in the area. When I asked what life was like in “the biggest Roma ghetto of the Balkans,” he surprised me by saying: “Actually here, many people will tell you they are Turks, not Roma people.” In Plovdiv, many know the ghetto for its high unemployment rate and its crime related issues. Only a few are aware that most of the inhabitants are Turkish. The Turkish language is spoken in the streets, on the TV and in the bars. “I can speak Bulgarian,” says Salih, “but there are families who only teach Turkish to their kids.”
Turks are the country’s largest minority group. They arrived at different times, but mostly during the Ottoman era. According to a census in 2011, there are around 588,00 Turks in Bulgaria, so almost 9% of the total population. It’s actually quite difficult to determine their exact number: many in the Pomak communities, the Tatars of Crimea, Circassians and Roma communities, identify as Turks too.
In some regions, or cities, Roma people and Turks live in different areas. But in Stolipinovo, both communities live side by side. In this context, one can often observe “ethnicization” related to poverty, from the outside world, which labels all communities as tziganes. “Many people put us in the same bag, using the same term, because they see we all have darker skin,” adds Salih.