Ukraine’s language law sparks political storm in Hungary

September 11, 2017

Ukraine's language law sparks political storm in Hungary
Hungarian language class in 9th grade at a high school in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. Photo: MTI/János Nemes

As Hurricane Irma ravishes Florida, Eastern Europe is experiencing a storm of its own – a political storm.

A law passed by the Ukrainian parliament last Tuesday mandating that all public education beyond grade 4 take place in the Ukrainian language has been widely denounced, not only by the east European country’s Hungarian, Polish and Romanian minority communities, but also by a number of its neighbors.

The law limits the rights of Ulkraine’s national minorities to study in their mother tongue to nursery school, kindergarten and the first four years of elementary school.  A temporary act with similar provisions enacted by the Ukrainian parliament three years ago was roundly denounced both at home and abroad at the time.

The move appears to have caught the Hungarian government off guard. In his weekly Friday morning radio interview, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made no mention of the law affecting some 100,000 ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine.  Speaking to independent broadcaster ATV on Sunday, Hungary’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó called the law “shameful and insulting”, and warned that Hungary would not support any Ukrainian initiatives at any international bodies if the law comes into force.

Photo: Flickr/MID Rossii

“We will not support anything that the Ukrainians think important,” Szijjártó  said. “The Ukrainians should think over how they treat their minorities and how they treat Hungarians. Then we can once again discuss whether we can support those initiatives that are important to the Ukrainians on an international level, be it the European Union, United Nations or any other international forum. Presently, we cannot support any of them.  That is the present situation,” the minister said in unusually strident terms.

Szijjártó told other media outlets that “Hungary would take up the matter with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and every forum within the EU”, and Hungary would “obstruct matters important to Ukraine” until the law was rescinded.

He has reportedly summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to the foreign ministry on Monday.

Referring to the legislation as “a threat to the survival of Hungarian culture in Transcarpathia,” Magyar Nemzet contacted European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracics, who told the conservative daily that he had discussed the matter on several occasions with Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner responsible for the EU’s policies pertaining to its European neighbors and EU expansion.

“I called the matter to his attention and asked his help but we had to wait for them to adopt the law,” Navracsics said. “Now I will speak with him again, because the right to study in one’s mother tongue is a human right acknowledged by the European Union.”

Objections to the law were not limited to protestations on the part of the Hungarian foreign ministry.  Dialogue for Hungary (PM) co-chair Gergely Karacsony taped the name of three ethnic Hungarians who died fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine on the gate of the Ukrainian embassy in Budapest.  Karacsony, the mayor of Budapest’s 14th district (Zugló), said that “those prepared to give their lives for their country are entitled to education in their mother tongue”.

At the initiative of civil activist Márton Gulyás and his “Common Country Movement,” Hungary’s so-called democratic political opposition held a joint protest on Sunday in Budapest’s Kossuth square at which various leading opposition politicians spoke.

Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) MP Agnes Kunhalmi called the education law “completely unacceptable”, saying it limited the rights of children and national minorities.

“If we also consider the media law together with the language law, then the Ukrainian people were hit with a serious package,” said the MSZP politician and expert on education.

Movement for a Modern Hungary chairman Lajos Bokros said that what was happening in Ukraine was similar to what was happening in Hungary:  “They are trying to break the spine of democracy one vertebrae at a time.” He said such measures only helped the nationalist and populist opposition.

Although both ruling party Fidesz and radical right-wing Jobbik were invited to join the protest, they declined, the former on the grounds that “we do not participate in George Soros’ puppet theater”.

Jobbik refused to share a stage with DK chairman Ferenc Gyurcsány and Bokros. “Over the course of their political careers they have on numerous occasions betrayed and spat in the eye of Hungarians living in the near abroad, as well as besmirched the principle of national cohesion,” said Jobbik MP István Szávay at a press conference on Sunday. Szávay, who sits on parliament’s committee for national cohesion, said Ukrainian President Petro Porosenko no longer enjoyed a stable parliament. Szávay speculated that the law was an attempt on Porosenko’s part to win the support of the far right for austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund that will reportedly impact social security, pensions and government administration.

Jobbik MP István Szávay addressing the National Assembly. Photo:án Huszti

Szávay said he held Prime Minister Orbán “personally responsible” for the situation in Transcarpathia, saying there had been ample opportunity to lobby against the law.

“Not once over the past seven years has Viktor Orbán taken a single matter pertaining to ethnic Hungarians living in the near abroad before international forums,” said the Jobbik MP, adding that “apart from the migration issue, the government only fought a war of independence with Brussels when it criticized laws in the service of the creation of a Fidesz party state”.