In Ukraine, Some Ethnic Hungarians Feel Ambivalence About the War

TRANSCARPATHIA, Ukraine — Beneath dark clouds unleashing a summer rain, officials in a southwestern Ukrainian border village gathered silently, slowly hanging wreaths on branches to commemorate the destruction of a nation.

The wreaths were not decorated with the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag; they were laced, instead, with the red, white and green of Hungary’s. And the nation they honored this month was not their besieged country, but a homeland from their collective history, torn up more than 100 years ago.

Transcarpathia — now a hardscrabble region of Ukraine bordering Hungary — has been home to as many as 150,000 ethnic Hungarians who, through the complex horse-trading, conquests and boundary adjustments of over a century of European geopolitics, ended up within Ukraine’s borders.

war with Russia, the yearnings of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority were mostly brushed off as benign nostalgia for a time when they lived in one nation with other ethnic Hungarians. Now, divided loyalties within the tiny community — which has soaked up Hungary’s ambivalence toward Russia’s invasion — are being seen as something more worrisome by their fellow Ukrainians, some of whom fear they are susceptible to pro-Russia propaganda from Hungary.

Viktor Orban, is able to cause for his neighbors, in this case by playing on ethnic Hungarians’ feelings of discrimination by their government. And it adds another layer of complexity for Ukraine’s leaders as they try to keep their sprawling, multiethnic country united in the face of a brutal Russian invasion, even as they struggle to win allegiance from minorities including ethnic Russians and Hungarians.

tensions have risen as Mr. Orban has increasingly sought to bring ethnic Hungarian enclaves in Ukraine and elsewhere under his sway. Among other things, he has encouraged Hungarians beyond the country’s borders to claim citizenship, which allowed him to win over new voters to keep him in power.

In this poor region of Ukraine, along the Hungarian border, he doled out funding to run schools, churches, businesses and newspapers, winning gratitude — and helping fan resentments. The ceremony for a lost homeland did not exist before Mr. Orban came to power.

The feelings of otherness intensified as Ukraine, under constant threat by Russia, passed a law that mandates more classes be taught in Ukrainian in public schools. The law was mainly meant to rein in the use of the Russian language, but for the conservative Hungarian community where many still learn, and pray, almost exclusively in Hungarian, the law was seen as an unfair infringement on constitutional rights.

tried to block European Union sanctions on Russian energy imports, on which Hungary relies. And he declined to give weapons to Ukraine, or even allow them to be shipped across Hungary’s borders.

That wariness has seeped into the ethnic Hungarian community, fed by Hungarian television channels close to Mr. Orban’s governing party that broadcast into Hungarian-Ukrainian homes along the border. Hungarian broadcasters cast doubt on Ukraine’s position that Russia invaded to steal Ukrainian land, instead sharing Moscow’s perspective that it invaded to protect Russian speakers — a minority with a different language, not unlike the ethnic Hungarians.

“I think this is the main reason for the war, not what Ukraine says,” said Gyula Fodor, a vice rector at the Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute, chatting over traditional plum schnapps after the ceremony for the lost homeland. The institute, a private college, has received Hungarian funding, and Mr. Orban attended its ribbon-cutting.

As the war has dragged on, relations between Mr. Orban and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine have grown increasingly frosty.

In the border towns, suspicion is in the air. Some ethnic Ukrainians claimed during interviews that in the first days of Russia’s invasion Hungarian priests had urged the faithful to hold out hope that their region would be annexed to Hungary after Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, fell, though there is no documentary evidence to substantiate those assertions.

In towns with ethnic Hungarian majorities, some people reported being harassed with mysterious text messages in Ukrainian: “Ukraine for Ukrainians. Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” They said the messages ended with a threat using another word for ethnic Hungarians: “Magyars to the knives.”

Ukrainian intelligence officials publicly claim the texts came from a bot farm in Odesa using Russian software, and labeled it a Russian attempt to destabilize Ukraine, but they did not provide evidence.

Tensions in Transcarpathia erupted publicly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Right-wing nationalists marched through the streets of Uzhhorod in recent years, sometimes chanting “Magyars to the knife.”

And a Hungarian cultural center in the city of Uzhhorod was set ablaze twice in 2017. In both cases, authorities said the perpetrators had pro-Russian links. Dmytro Tuzhankskyi, the director of the Institute for Central European Strategy in Uzhhorod that promotes Ukraine’s alignment with the West, says he believes Moscow was behind other local provocations. Moscow would like to sow discord between Hungary and Ukraine, he alleged, as a way of causing more trouble for the Western alliance that has lined up against Mr. Putin.

Hungarian and local officials, he worried, could unwittingly fall prey to such designs: “They might think: One more little provocation — it means nothing. That’s a very dangerous mind-set.”

Yet for many ethnic Hungarians, Ukraine is not blameless.

László Zubánics, the leader of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Ukraine, said locals watch Hungarian television partly because no Ukrainian cable channels reach the border areas, something he saw as a form of political neglect. But he acknowledged that ethnic Hungarians often choose to tune into Hungarian, and not Ukrainian, satellite channels.

Many ethnic Hungarians say they are only able to afford to stay in the region of family vineyards and farms because of Hungarian funding. That makes many ethnic Hungarians skeptical of Ukraine’s claims that it wants to help integrate them into society, Mr. Zubánics said: “Most kids and parents say, ‘Why do I need the state language? I don’t see my place here in this country.’”

Although the Soviets repressed and exiled Hungarian nationalists, some ethnic Hungarians have started to look back on Soviet rule as a time of relative cultural freedom as well. It was a time, according to Mr. Zubánics, when Hungarians recall holding prominent official positions, unlike in modern Ukraine.

Nostalgia for Soviet times stirs the ire of local right-wing nationalists such as Vasyl Vovkunovich, once a political ally of Hungarian nationalists in the final days of the Soviet Union. In 2017, he said he led a march of supporters down the streets of Berehove, ripping down Hungarian flags raised over many churches and buildings.

“These Hungarians are not worthy,” he said. “Their ancestors would roll over in their graves if they knew Hungary was siding with Russia.”

For local residents like Zoltan Kazmér, 32, the present feels more complicated. He feels loyal to Ukraine, he said. But it was Hungarian funding that allowed him to turn his family’s century-old winemaking tradition into a business.

“When we go to Hungary, we feel like Ukrainians,” he said. “When we are in Ukraine, we feel like Hungarians.”

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How the E.U. Allowed Hungary to Become an Illiberal Model

BRUSSELS — After long indulging him, leaders in the European Union now widely consider one of their own, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, an existential threat to a bloc that holds itself up as a model of human rights and the rule of law.

Mr. Orban has spent the past decade steadily building his “illiberal state,” as he proudly calls Hungary, with the help of lavish E.U. funding. Even as his project widened fissures in the bloc, his fellow national leaders mostly looked the other way, committed to staying out of one another’s affairs.

But now Mr. Orban’s defiance and intransigence has had an important, if unintended, effect: serving as a catalyst for an often-sluggish European Union system to act to safeguard the democratic principles that are the foundation of the bloc.

Early this year, the European Court of Justice will issue a landmark decision on whether the union has the authority to make its funds to member states conditional on meeting the bloc’s core values. Doing so would allow Brussels to deny billions of euros to countries that violate those values.

a new media law that curbed press freedom. It overhauled the country’s justice system, removed the head of its Supreme Court and created an office to oversee the courts led by the wife of a prominent member of the governing party, Fidesz. Election laws were changed to favor the party.

External factors strengthened Mr. Orban as well, including in 2015 when a record number of migrants made their way to Europe and when the right-wing Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski came to power in Poland. He suddenly had an ally there, and his tough stance against migrants won him support elsewhere, too.

Mr. Orban quit the conservative alliance when it became clear that it was going to oust his party.

Mr. Weber still regrets the loss of Fidesz. “On one level, it is a relief,” he said. “But Orban leaving is not a victory, but a defeat” in the effort to hold the center-right together as “a broad people’s party.”

It has helped Mr. Orban that the European Union has few and ineffective instruments for punishing a backsliding nation. Even the Lisbon Treaty, which gave enhanced powers to the European Parliament, has essentially one unusable tool: Article 7, which can remove a country’s voting rights, but only if passed by unanimity.

according to studies by R. Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University and Tommaso Pavone of the University of Oslo, the commission sharply reduced infringement cases after the addition of new member states in 2004. José Manuel Barroso, a former commission president, “bought into this to work more cooperatively with governments and not just sue them,” Mr. Kelemen said. Mr. Barroso declined to comment.

Attitudes have shifted. With taxpayer money at stake, the next seven-year budget in the balance and the disregard for shared values shown by Mr. Orban and Mr. Kaczynski on leaders’ minds, Brussels may have finally found a useful tool to affect domestic politics, with a mix of lawsuits charging infringement of European treaties combined with severe financial consequences.

A marker has finally been laid down, Mr. Reynders said.

The big moment comes this month, when the European Court of Justice issues its ruling.

If Hungary and Poland lose the case, as expected, it is unclear what will happen if both countries simply refuse to comply. The European Union will be thrust deeper into unknown territory.

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Hungary Transfers 11 Universities to Foundations Led by Orban Allies

Hungary’s Parliament voted Tuesday to transfer control of 11 state universities, along with billions of euros in related state assets, to quasi-public foundations led by close allies of the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Critics immediately denounced the move as a government handover of both public education and a vast network of public assets — including real estate and shares in Hungarian companies — to Mr. Orban and his supporters.

According to the measure that passed Tuesday, the foundations will “ensure the realization of vital public goals” by managing the universities more efficiently, regardless of who is in power.

But going forward, any changes to the rules governing the foundations will require a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Practically speaking, this means any effort to tinker with the new system of oversight will require the same level of political support as overhauling the Constitution.

advance nativist policies in Hungarian economics, education, and culture. Accusations that Mr. Orban has eroded the rule of law and democratic values have put him on a collision course with the European Union, one of the few meaningful checks on his power.

challenged the bloc’s effort to tie billions in E.U. aid to the countries’ adherence to the rule of law. Following months of tense negotiations, which required unanimity from the E.U.’s national leaders, a compromise was reached to limit E.U. oversight to matters directly tied to the bloc’s financial interests.

Within days, Mr. Orban’s governing coalition adopted a raft of sweeping measures to curtail the rights of gay people and to make it harder to monitor how the government spends public funds.

Higher education features prominently in the government’s proposal for how it plans to use a windfall of subsidies expected through the E.U.’s coronavirus recovery fund. According to Bloomberg, Hungary has asked the E.U. to channel one-fifth of the grants it is eligible to receive under the bloc’s €800 billion recovery fund to the “modernization of universities.”

The framework created Tuesday, Prof. Scheppele said, “removes all transparency from how E.U. funds are spent, and any assets that go into these foundations go off the public books — out of the purview of the state audit office, out of the reach of freedom of information requests, and out of all public accountability.”

An opposition lawmaker, Akos Hadhazy, likened Tuesday’s move to the contentious period during Hungary’s democratic transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s when members of Hungary’s communist elite secured access to key state assets.

“He may not be preparing to lose” next year’s elections, Mr. Hadhazy said of Mr. Orban, “but this will suffice in terms of a Plan B.”

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