Limiting Hungarian Pressure on Ukraine: Two Concessions Kyiv Should Reject on Its Way to EU

Friday, 24 November 2023 — , European Pravda
The areas of compact residence of national minorities are increasingly drifting apart from the rest of the state. In the photo - a procession on the occasion of the 168th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

The Ukrainian government is firmly committed to meeting the EU's conditions regarding minority rights as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the December EU summit.

A lot is at stake.

Following negotiations in Kyiv, first with [European Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen and then with [European Council President] Charles Michel, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine has decided to meet all the conditions, including those relating to minorities. In this way, it will be possible to isolate [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán at the summit and politically compel him to greenlight Ukraine.

A draft amendment to Ukraine’s legislation on minorities has been prepared. One version has been published by the State Service for Ethnic Policy, and EuroPravda also has received an updated version that reflects further consultations.

Unfortunately, this draft law does not seem acceptable. 

It crosses important red lines for Ukraine. However, there is still time for improvement.

At least one of these red lines is officially recognised by the government. However, the draft law, which is intended to be a government proposal, appears to violate it.

The first red line is that knowledge of the Ukrainian language is mandatory for members of Hungarian, Romanian, and all other minorities. There is no room for compromises here, except for a transitional period, since currently such knowledge is lacking.

The second red line is that Ukrainians travelling to areas with a concentrated minority population should not have to feel like they are abroad.

Therefore, any compromises made to ensure minority rights must protect these principles.

History of the Issue

Ukraine decided six years ago to resolve a long-standing problem: territories with a high concentration of national minorities were increasingly distancing themselves from the rest of the country.

The main places in question were Berehove and villages along the Tisza River in Zakarpattia, where ethnic Hungarians constituted an absolute majority, and the Romanian-speaking Hertsaivsky district in Bukovyna. The residents of these areas often did not feel like Ukrainian citizens.

The main catalyst for exacerbating the issue was the linguistic gap. Most of the children in these national enclaves did not speak any Ukrainian. Additionally, Ukrainian was also largely absent at school. All education was in Hungarian and Romanian, respectively. Ukrainian was like a foreign language class, more of a formality.

Many young Hungarians and Romanians in Ukraine did not have any career opportunities, opportunities for development, or self-realisation in the country where they were born. That's why they choose to emigrate to Hungary.

Let's be honest: the blame for this lies mainly with Kyiv.

For over two decades, Ukraine's central government unfortunately had little concern for the state of affairs in peripheral regions. While, before 1991, local Hungarians and Romanians had to learn Russian, which in the Soviet Union served as the 'language of interethnic communication,' then after independence, Ukrainian did not take on this role.

The Education Law adopted in 2017 was the first attempt to untangle this complex knot. However, the attempt was unsuccessful. The failure was not only because the adoption of this law triggered a well-known crisis in relations with Hungary. Criticisms also came from other EU states and from the Venice Commission. It is true that the Law was not ideal in the way it treated the language of education, and the process of its adoption made things worse. It was adopted in violation of agreements with minority representatives, whom the government had consulted in the drafting process.

Even beyond international issues, the problem is that six years after the adoption of the Education Law, its new rules regarding minority language education have not been implemented. Ukraine is once again postponing the enforcement of these norms, without making any concrete plans on how to launch bilingual education or other effective mechanisms.

No to "Linguistic Ghettos" in Ukraine

In 2023, Ukraine's accession to the EU became real and no longer purely theoretical. At the same time, addressing the "minority" issue has become one of the conditions for initiating accession negotiations.

This condition had initially been added, of course, at Hungary's request. However, it would be wrong to see the demand as solely a Hungarian one. Minority rights are a fundamental consideration for EU members. It's not just a Ukrainian problem.

Fortunately, the EU never imposes one specific model. The choice of legislative approach to regulating minority rights is a matter for the candidate country to decide. The only requirement is that the result be approved by the European Commission and, in this case, Romania (Hungary is not mentioned, since Orbán will never say it's enough).

Therefore, the draft law prepared by the government can and should be amended if it contains matters unacceptable to Ukraine. And it does..

One of these matters is the amendments to the language of advertising. The government proposes to allow advertising in minority areas to be exclusively in the minority language, without Ukrainian.

This is unacceptable.

Why pay so much attention to advertising?

Advertising includes all the signs we see around us in a city. If all the signs in Berehove or Hertsa are in Hungarian or Romanian only, Ukrainian-speaking citizens will not be able to meet their basic needs. The sense of a "linguistic ghetto" in minority areas will only intensify, giving rise to conflicts due to the resentment of those who feel like foreigners within their own country.

The current legislation does, indeed, need to be amended. But not like this.

The current law stipulates that advertising in Ukraine can only be in Ukrainian, with the exception that in areas with a predominantly minority population, any advertising (including audio and audiovisual) "may be duplicated in the language of the minority," and the duplication "must not exceed the volume and font size of the text in the state language."

This norm is ineffective, especially for non-textual advertising. First, how can one speak of fonts when it comes to radio ads? Second, why create an obligation to duplicate video advertising on the local channel of the Hungarian minority, when it can be produced in Hungarian from the outset? Third, why should Ukrainian be the primary language if the advertisement targets, let's say, Romanian speakers?

Therefore, it would be logical to make further amendments to the laws on national minorities and advertising: in places with a predominantly minority population that speaks one of the EU languages, allow advertising to be in the language of that minority, but all non-Ukrainian textual advertising must have a Ukrainian language version, and video advertising must have Ukrainian subtitles. This way, Ukrainians in Berehove can read all the information in the official state language, while at the same time ethnic Hungarians will not feel excluded.

By the way, the fact that according to this scheme, audio advertising on local radio will be in Hungarian/Romanian only does not seem to be a problem.

Another exception is political advertising, regulated by another article of the law in question. The government proposes allowing this type of advertising to be solely in the language of the minority. There is nothing wrong with that. Let national politicians communicate with Romanian-speaking voters in Romanian. This will help contribute to the unity of society.

"School" Red Line

Even with acceptable "advertising" rules, it is difficult to see how all citizens can feel at home in Berehove, for example, if the majority of local residents do not understand Ukrainian. The situation in the educational system in regions dominated by national minorities is responsible for this situation. The 2017 Education Law did not establish a sustainable educational model.

Moreover, educational issues played a key role in claims against Ukraine. The model adopted by the current law (20% of subjects to be taught in Ukrainian in primary school, 40% in secondary, and 60% in high school) does not work in practice. Achieving the required level of competence has proven elusive, making it impossible to fully implement the Education Law in the schools of European national minorities.

This situation elicits constant reproaches by the minorities themselves, followed by criticism from Bucharest and Budapest. However, the new educational model, approved on a preliminary basis by the government, is likewise unacceptable.

Now there is a proposal to return to the pre-2017 scheme.

Back then, only Ukrainian language and literature were taught in Ukrainian. History of Ukraine has been added, as well as Defence of Ukraine in 11-12 grades.

Adopting such a draft law would mean that Ukraine is not addressing the root cause of the linguistic problem. The proposal would limit the future of Hungarian and Romanian children to working in their village or at most in a small city. They will not have opportunities to pursue a nationwide career.

Therefore, the provisions of the current draft law regarding the language of education must be reviewed. But how, exactly?

One option is to add mathematics/algebra to the subjects that must be taught in Ukrainian or bilingually. The latter option is more effective. Why maths? Because the subject has special status in the education system. It is mandatory for anyone who wishes to enrol in institutions of higher education. It serves as a foundation for integrating students into the environment of Ukrainian universities. And learning maths cannot be ignored.

Drawing up a clear list of subjects to be taught in Ukrainian/bilingually will bring clarity to the interpretation of the Education Law. Moreover, it will make it possible to lift Brussels' objections that Ukraine does not adhere to European standards of respect for minority rights.

Other provisions of the law drafted by the government seem likely to gain approval. Of course, provided that it does not apply to the language of the aggressor. The main thing is to remove those points that violates the red lines that have been publicly defined, including by the government.

By Sergiy Sydorenko,

Editor, European Pravda

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