Ukraine's New Education Law Threatens to Destabilize Whole Region

On September 5th, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada adopted a new education law which stipulates that, starting in 2018, national minority language classes will be held only in elementary school. Education in secondary school and higher education will be held exclusively in the Ukrainian language.

First and foremost, let us note that this new legislation on education is aimed against the Russian-cultured majority of Ukraine. At least half of the Ukrainian population uses Russian, hence why calling the Russian and Russian-cultured population of Ukraine a “national minority” is fundamentally inaccurate.

In an article from November 1st, 2015, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, declared that “providing all possible support to the Russian World is an indisputable foreign policy priority for Russia.” To this day, however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia has not protested Ukraine’s actions in this sphere. Of course, these actions would be de facto fruitless given the current state of Russian-Ukrainian relations, but on the international stage Moscow could by all means be more active in defending the rights of the population of Ukraine which identifies with Russian culture and speaks Russian.

Examples can be drawn from a number of Eastern European countries who have established effective mechanisms for supporting their communities in Ukraine.

The loudest voice among these is, of course, Hungary. Budapest has a demonstrated a hard-line approach to the policies of the Ukrainian authorities vis-a-vis the Hungarian population.

On September 11th, Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, instructed Hungarian diplomats not to support a single Ukrainian initiative in any international organizations following the Verkhovna Rada’s approval of the new education law which infringes on the rights of national minorities in Ukraine. This has been reported by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press secretary, Tamas Mentzer. On the same day, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Hungary, Lyubov Nepop, was summoned to Hungary’s foreign ministry to explain the issue.

To recall, Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region (historical Carpathian Rus) was from the early 10th century until 1919, and then again between 1939-1944, part of Hungary, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary. Today, approximately 156,000 Hungarians still live in compact communities in the region. The Hungarian minority has its own educational institutions, press, public and cultural organizations, parties, deputies in local councils and the Transcarpathian Regional Council, as well as a deputy in the Verkhovna Rada. Constantly aided by their Hungarian mother state, Hungarians living in Ukraine can afford to stand up to Kiev.

Besides the Russians of Novorossiya, the Hungarians of Transcarpathia are probably the most biggest thorn in the side of Ukrainian Nazi groups. It is thus no coincidence that in March 2016 in Uzhgorod, Nazi organizations held a torchlight procession with the slogan “Stab Magyars (Hungarians)!”

According to some testimonies obtained unofficially, Hungary is ready to send troops into Transcarpathia if the Hungarian national minority there comes under serious threat. For now, the new education law threatens the preservation of the language and culture of the Transcarpathian Hungarians and will only strengthen centrifugal tendencies in their midst. What’s more, Hungarians have centuries of experience of surviving in a linguistically alien, foreign environment. The Ukrainians, who have literally only the experience of a toddler when it comes to statehood, cannot compete with the Hungarians in this respect.

We have written more than a few times about the “passportization” policy which Hungary is enacting in Ukraine. According to the most minimal estimates, at least 100,000 Ukrainian citizens have acquired Hungarian passports. This number includes not only ethnic Hungarians, but also Rusyns and Ukrainians as well. Based on my own personal experience, I can say that practically all of my Rusyn friends and associates have a second, Hungarian passport.

Thus, Ukraine is doomed to defeat in any cultural-linguistic war with Budapest, not to mention that other European Union countries with their own communities in Ukraine, such as Romania, Poland, Slovakia, and Czech Republic, are on Hungary’s side.

Romania has also expressed concern over Ukraine’s new education law, and Poland has promised that it will be closely monitoring the implementation of the legislation’s provisions. Romania’s position is significant in that it, like Hungary, has numerous communities spread across several Ukrainian regions – Transcarpathia, Chernovtsy, and Odessa. Also like Hungary, Romania is pursuing a policy of “passportization”, with at least 100 passports already distributed. Although Bucharest and Budapest have a difficult relationship due to the problem of Transylvania, the two countries can unite against a common, weak enemy – Ukraine. Ukraine’s infringement on the educational and ethnocultural rights of Hungarians and Romanians yields sufficient grounds for putting forth far-reaching political demands. Both countries also feel slighted by the end of the Second World War, during which they fought on the side of the Hitlerite coalition (although Romania did join the liberating march of the Red Army in 1944), as the territories they lost were handed to Soviet Ukraine.

The glorification of such Nazi criminals as Bandera and Shukhevych in addition to such discriminatory laws in the sphere of education gives Budapest and Bucharest grounds to reconsider the territorial boundaries of contemporary Ukraine. Romania already set such a precedent in the dispute over the waters surrounding Snake Island, 78% of which were wrested from Ukraine over the course of an international lawsuit. Such was a local, but very important precedent which forewarned great danger for Ukraine.

Moreover, Moldovan President Dodon has also criticized the new law, stating: “I very much hope that the current political leadership in Kiev is aware of the negative consequences of this law and will take appropriate steps to abandon it. I count on the wise decision of my Ukrainian colleagues for the sake of good interethnic relations in Ukraine, and also in the name of good relations with the states whose diasporas live in the territory of Ukraine.”

Today, the collective West and its leader, the US, are not interested in any further crippling of their Ukrainian outpost in their struggle with Russia. But when destructive processes underway in Ukraine become irreversible, the question of dividing the disintegrating Ukrainian state will arise in full force. This is only a matter of time, as some experts and politicians from different Eastern European countries neighboring Ukraine have suggested to the author. This conclusions stems from an analysis of the fragmentation processes ongoing in Ukraine and Kiev’s loss of control over the regions.

We purposely will not touch on the problem of Polish-Ukrainian relations here, as they are worthy of individual consideration. Let us merely draw attention to the fact that Hungary and Romania’s case could also be joined by other countries which are rather cautious towards Ukraine – Slovakia and Czech Republic. These two countries will also express protest against Kiev’s policies that discriminate against national minorities, such as the new education law from September 5th.

All of this could, in turn, serve as the basis for a revision of the territorial status-quo in Eastern Europe. Both Czech Republic and Slovakia suffered territorially as a result of the Second World War insofar as Transcarpathian Rus was transferred in 1946 to Soviet Ukraine (in exchange for which Czechoslovakia received the Sudetenland from Stalin purged of Germans). It will be hard for them to refrain from participating in these partitions of the territorial inheritance of the “sick man of Europe.”

To sum up, the new education law opens a window of opportunity for a number of European countries bordering Ukraine to present claims against official Kiev under the pretext of reacting to infringement on the rights of national minorities. Suggesting that it is impossible for these minorities to be ensured safety as long as they are within the Ukrainian state would be the extreme expression of these countries’ discontent. This thesis might even turn into a political program at the next stage of partitioning Ukraine’s territory, which is likely to follow in the foreseeable future. Then these successor countries will present arguments to Kiev not only of an historical character (concerning the validity of these territories belonging to Ukraine given to it as part of the USSR) but also of an ethnocultural and civic character (infringement on the rights of national minorities in the educational and cultural sphere). These claims by themselves are not necessarily dangerous. But coupled with Kiev’s only worsening weakness, they could be fatal for the Ukrainian state.

Originally published on fort-russ.com