Hungary on the Offensive: PACE to Debate Ukraine’s New Education Law

Hungary on the Offensive: PACE to Debate Ukraine's New Education Law

On October 12th, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will hold a debate on the new Ukrainian education law. This point was urgently added to the agenda of PACE’s autumn plenary during the recent session of the organization’s bureau. More specifically, it was Hungary and Poland’s parliamentary representatives who called for a discussion on the new Ukrainian law.

To refresh the reader’s mind, on September 5th the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new education law, entitled “On Education”, which instantly gained notoriety and drew ire from both Ukraine’s European neighbors and Russia. This law specifies that educational institutions should teach solely in Ukrainian. National minority languages, such as Russian, will be taught only up to fifth grade, and only until 2020, when Ukraine’s education system will be exclusively Ukrainian-language-based.

First, let us draw attention to the incorrectness and outright fallaciousness of Ukraine’s classification of Russians and the Russian language as a “national minority.” Russians are just as much the founders of Ukrainian statehood as are Ukrainians, and it is thanks to Russia’s imperial conquests and Soviet policies that what is now Ukraine exists as a state. The wars in the mid- and late-17th century by the Hetmans against the Polish Commonwealth ended with the defeat of the Polish crown and the acquirement of enormous territorial gains solely thanks to Russian intervention, and this despite the constant treachery of the Malorossiyan (“Little Russian” – Ukrainian) elite. Novorossiya historically refers to the lands conquered by Russia and inhabited predominantly by Russians themselves. As a result of all of these and other processes, the Russian language is now spoken at home by at least half of the Ukrainian population. Thus, Russians are the second ethnos composing Ukraine who by and large established Ukraine’s statehood.

The second people which the new education law strikes are the Magyars (Hungarians), who similarly cannot be called a mere national minority. Hungarians have lived on the territory of Transcarpathian Rus (currently Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region) for more than 1000 years since this land’s induction into the Kingdom of Hungary. It is Ukrainians, who migrated from Galicia, who are the real “national minority” of Transcarpathia.

Both Hungarian and Russian thus fall under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which has been practically annulled by Ukraine since the victory of the Euromaidan. Rather paradoxically, the Euromaidan stood under the slogan “Ukraine is Europe!”, but one of the first legislative governments of the new government was abolishing this European Charter and suspending the existing language law that was prepared on the basis of the former.

Both Ukraine and EU countries perfectly understand that this controversial new law’s sharp ends are aimed precisely against Ukraine’s Russian population. However, Kiev has not dared to go after the Russian language alone, as such a move would be too transparently and deliberately anti-democratic. The Ukrainian government and “patriotic public” are, moreover, also deeply worried by the influence that such countries as Hungary, Poland, and Romania have on their populations in Ukraine. Indeed, after Russians it is Hungarians who draw the most ire from Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis.

Official Budapest has not hid its irritation with the new law which deprives the 152,000-strong Magyar community in Transcarpathia of the possibility of education in their native language. Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already taken several steps with the hope of encouraging Kiev to drop or soften the law. On October 10th, in due course Hungary initiated a review of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó announced this during a meeting with representatives of the Hungarian diaspora in Ukraine’s Uzhgorod. Thus, Hungarian diplomacy has gone on the offensive on Ukrainian territory itself – or, more precisely, what is still left of Ukraine.

Given that Kiev’s cultural and language policies are causing growing irritation among regional groups of Ukraine’s population and Ukraine’s European neighbors, there are no guarantees that Ukraine will be able to preserve its sovereignty over some of its western regions.

Ukraine has observed Budapest’s actions with growing alarm. On October 10th, the First Vice-Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Irina Gerashchenko, stated that Hungary’s criticism of the Ukrainian law is part of the upcoming Hungarian parliamentary elections. This is, of course, a distortion of facts. While parliamentary elections are definitely an extremely important factor, and the patriotic front in Hungary includes both the ruling Fidesz party and nationalists from Jobbik, attention to the serious problems with Ukraine’s educational law should be reduced to pre-election calculations or rhetoric.

In an interview with Sputnik Radio yesterday, I drew attention to the fact that the Hungarian people’s more than 1,000 year historical experience of living in alien linguistic environments (Slavic and German) has led to the development of a particular mentality among this people. One of the characteristic features of this is increased sensitivity to respect for the cultural and linguistic rights of Hungarian compatriots living outside of their mother state. Thus, Ukraine has provoked harsh and very consistent criticism of its short-sighted and non-European language policy from such a tough EU member as Hungary.

Budapest will without a doubt make full use of its membership in the European Union to undermine all forms of cooperation between the EU and Ukraine if Kiev continues to push its luck. If Poland has been Ukraine’s main representative within the EU (at least until recently), then Hungary is becoming its main critic.

We can be sure that the PACE debates on October 12th will be very heated, and Ukraine will be slapped with some very harsh accusations from the Hungarian and Polish delegations. This has even been admitted by some sensible members of the Verkhovna Rada. After all, PACE has already recommended that the Ukrainian government reconsider the issue of education with respect to the languages of minorities and has emphasized that there should be no discrimination towards people belonging to either indigenous groups or national minorities.

Kiev cannot ignore Europe’s criticism. Thus, I predict that the education law will soon be amended. If not, then it will simply not be implemented in practice in those areas inhabited by the Hungarian minority. Nevertheless, a blow deepening ethno-cultural split in Ukraine has already been dealt. After losing the loyalty of the “non-titular” ethnic groups that make up Ukraine, Kiev could also start losing the very territories that it acquired following the Second World War thanks to the Soviet Union. And all of this will happen without any interference from Russia. Sergey Lavrov’s ministry has rather clearly stuck to routine in letting Hungary and Poland and Ukraine deal with each other.

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