The Eastern European ‘Game Of Chicken’ – Analysis


Hungarian-Ukrainian relations seem to hit an all time low as a result of a series of poor choices. The clash over the minority language rights and dual citizenship led to a diplomatic scandal, and none of the parties show intentions to compromise. The conflict hits hardest the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, whose interests both governments claim to serve with their actions.

About a year ago, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a new law on education. It was in the making since four years, yet being modified until the last moment. The law was presented as a reform bringing the educational system closer to the European Union’s Bologna system, but it contains something that the European neighbors do absolutely not approve: while leaving the opportunity for kindergartens’ and primary schools’ first four classes’ minority language usage untouched, the reform reduced minority language education in secondary schools to ‘special classes’.

Briefly this law makes Ukrainian the language of instruction in secondary schools all over the country; whereas prior to its acceptance the language of instruction could be any of the minority languages (there are officially 13 minority languages in the country). The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted immediately with vetoing Ukraine NATO integration process, as the law puts the Hungarians in Transcarpathia at a huge disadvantage.

As of early 2018, 15,400 children were attending 53 Hungarian schools in Transcarpathia. Ukrainian politicians argued that the new law is taken to broaden the Ukrainian job market opportunities for all citizens of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians is bilingual, given the fact that until 1991 the primary language was Russian. Therefore the often referred census data taken following the question ‘Which is your mother tongue’ is probably misleading, as respondents were not asked whether they spoke any other language, and for having purely Ukrainian as mother tongue, you must have been born after 1991.

The educational system inherited from the Soviet times provided a relative freedom to minority schools in terms of language usage, and all subjects could be taught in minority languages.

Language on the other hand is not the primary society-organizing force. There are millions of Ukrainians speaking Russian as their primary language (or they do not even speak Ukrainian) yet they consider themselves Ukrainian nationality-wise. The problem of language usage is predominantly acute among non-Slavic speakers such as Hungarians and Romanians, mostly living in the neighboring territories to their kin-states, not necessarily interacting with Ukrainian speakers.

There are territories where the majority of children go to minority schools, such as in Transcarpathia, where more than half of the students failed to pass the Ukrainian language entry exam to higher education, meaning they could not continue their studies at Ukrainian universities.

Officially this is one of the reasons why the new educational law was made; however, it does not provide any alternative for increasing the effectiveness of Ukrainian language-teaching at earlier ages, only designates the date of starting secondary school when children would have to switch overnight from their primary language to Ukrainian that in many cases they barely speak. Though the improvement of the minorities’ Ukrainian knowledge would be a goal to be greeted, teaching subjects on it when students poorly speak it would not increase their language proficiency, but obstruct them in understanding other subjects. It is rather the language teaching methods, methodology and conditions that should be revised considering the worrisome statistics on failing the university entry exam after having learned Ukrainian for 11 years.

The effective teaching of Ukrainian language would be the common interest both of Hungary and Ukraine, as it would not necessarily go against preserving the minority language. With education on the mother tongue until the end of secondary school but reforming Ukrainian language education, we could have the cake and eat it. With guarantees that the right to education on the mother tongue will not be violated, and the existing local Hungarian educational system will not be thrown up, the improvement of Ukrainian language would be an incentive to be greeted. Yet there are no such guarantees. The law’s approach seems to make a question of prestige out of the lessons to be conducted in Ukrainian, without taking into consideration the damage the insufficient level of language would cause in acquiring subject specific knowledge. And yes, it goes against the Ukrainian Constitution, and Ukraine’s international obligations that guarantee full education on the mother tongue. Therefore, unlike its stated goal, the education law seems to be taken in order to promote Ukrainian national identity through the common Ukrainian language, and the assimilation of minorities.

It is not difficult to see that this law puts minorities in a disadvantaged situation. Not speaking Ukrainian language is definitely a huge handicap that among others also hinders students wanting to enter higher education. A compromising solution would not be impossible, but apparently, neither the Hungarian, nor the Ukrainian aim to find it. The situation is rather describable with the game theory’s ‘game of chicken’. In this setup both players are heading toward each other. If the players continue on the same path, they bump into each other; if one swerves out of the way and other doesn’t, the swerver “loses” and is labeled the chicken, while the second, implicitly braver player, wins.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were several attempts on behalf of the Ukrainian governments to create similar reforms, but due to the protest of minorities and their kin-states. The Euro-Maidan brought significant changes in it, as the authorities became more sensitive to the demands of activists groups and parties, pushing a nationalizing agenda. After the Pro-European Euromaidan, strong Ukrainizing incentives gathered ground aiming to strengthen Ukrainian identity (primarily as opposed to Russian), leading to the pursuit of nationalizing policies. Hence, the mind to law-making inspired by the Pro-European movement’s triumph lead to an educational law going against European values and the regulations in force on regional and minority language protection. The fact that the law aimed implicitly the ban on Russian language usage, not primarily that of Hungarian or Rumanian does not make it any more legal or acceptable.

Immediately after the education law was passed in September 2017, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared to block Ukraine’s NATO integration process. It is doing so ever since living with its veto right already 6 times. Since Ukraine did not modify the education law even after promising it on the EU-Ukraine summit in June, Hungary is still blocking the NATO-Ukraine Commission’s meetings since more than a year already. As of recent news, even the NATO-Ukraine Summit planned for December 2018 in Brussels may not be hold.

The Hungarian minority’s vital interest is Ukraine’s euro-atlantic integration and Ukraine’s stabilization. Hence, Ukraine’s interest would be to not to make enemies out of its EU and NATO member neighbors, which are the kin-states of Transcarpathia’s ethnic minorities. Poland and Romania are such kin-states as well, with significant minorities in Transcarpathia. They chose however, a different path from what Hungary did and while also criticizing it, initiated negotiations on the implementation of the education law in order to reach a compromise or exemption from it.

The Hungarian government’s exceptionally intense relation with Russia is something that highly restricts its room for maneuver regarding the negotiations, or finding alternative, compromising solutions as Poland and Romania do.

In September 2018 a new frontline opened. The Ukrainian law does not recognize dual citizenship. Yet, several hundred thousands of Ukrainian citizens have it. Many of them are Hungarians, who benefitted en masse from the simplified Hungarian nationalization introduced by the Hungarian government in 2011, providing already more than a million citizenships to Hungarians worldwide.

This is remarkable not only due to the fact that actual population within the borders of Hungary is less than 10 million, but also because the simplified process allowed a massive passport fraud, allegedly helping criminals to receive the citizenship of a country within the Schengen zone and with a visa free regime to the US and Canada.

The practice of obtaining dual citizenship in Transcarpathia was not unknown to the Ukrainian authorities, but no measures were taken against it. Up until September, when the footage of the ceremony of oath-taking was leaked -with high probability as an action of Ukrainian Security Services- inciting a diplomatic scandal between Ukraine and Hungary. After the leaking, the list of more than 500 citizenship recipient Hungarians also leaked, along with their personal data and was available for months on the internet freely as ‘the enemies of Ukraine’. The leaking of the oath-taking video has put the Ukrainian government under pressure, as the ‘dual citizenship scandal’ has seen the light, and exploded the news. The government decided to expel the Hungarian consul to Berehove. The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Embassy to Hungary a persona non grata immediately as a response.

As if the diplomatic fallout wasn’t enough, apparently some are making efforts to intensify the ethnic tensions in Transcarpathia. Earlier this year the Trancarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association (KMKSZ)’s office was set on fire twice. The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately accused Ukrainian nationalist behind the acts, and so did the Russian media.

According to an international team of investigative journalists however, the attacks were committed by Kremlin-friendly Polish extremists. It is not difficult to see that to fuel ethnic conflicts in Transcarpathia stands in Moscow’s interests, and so does Hungary’s continuous veto of Ukraine’s NATO integration process. In October, billboards appeared overnight claiming to ‘we stop the separatists’, under the pictures of three local Hungarian politicians. Hennadiy Moskal regional governor suspected the FSB behind the hatred-fueling action, as the billboard’s text was ‘a mirror translation from Russian’, he said.

The tension between the two countries intensified even further as Budapest appointed an envoy for the freshly created position of ‘Transcarpathia envoy’. According to Kiev, Budapest crossed a line with this step and acts as if the territory belonged to Hungary (as it did until the Trianon treaty).

Ukraine threatened to ban the entry of this new envoy to the country. After more than a month of bitter messaging, the Hungarian government made a gesture and changed the name of the envoy to ‘authorized minister responsible for the development of cooperation between Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county and Transcarpathia region as well as coordination of the program of children’s educational institutions of the Carpathian region’. At the very moment this seems to be the maximum that any of governments do.

In accordance with the recommendations of the Venice Commission that expressed its concerns about the law, serious changes in it would be necessary. Yet the Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada did not pass even the extension of the transition period of the drastic changes ahead to 2023. As next year presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in Ukraine, following the nationalist agenda, easing or changing the law does not seem to be likely any time soon. On the other hand, on October 4th this year, the Ukrainian government passed the base of a new language law, abolishing the status of ‘regional languages’, such as Hungarian. It means that though still being elaborated, if the law enters into force, it would not allow minority language usage in situations other than ‘private discussions’, making the usage of Ukrainian obligatory for example at the post, in the shop or doctor’s office, even if all parties taking part in the conversation are of Hungarian mother tongue and they barely do speak Ukrainian, if at all.

The Ukrainian Parliament is playing off the nationalist card, but also the Hungarian government can always be counted on in pointing out enemies and using them effectively in their political campaigns, as they did this year April at the parliamentary elections. Hungary’s harsh and immediate response fitted perfectly into its combative rhetoric and the narrative of ‘defending the country from the attacks from abroad’ such as from Brussels, the UN, George Soros, and so on.

Therefore, the scandals with Ukraine prove handy for them as they could continue to play this role to the domestic audience. At the moment, neither the government of Hungary, nor that of Ukraine is interested in a fast conflict solving; therefore it is highly unlikely to find a solution for this until the upcoming Ukrainian Presidential elections next spring, and Parliamentary elections next autumn.

Permanently, both countries are accusing each other with aggravating the conflict. The game of chicken is to be continued.

*Dorka Takácsy is a foreign policy analyst specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe. She has a MA in International Relations from the Central European University Budapest. Currently a Széll Kálmán Public Policy Fellow in Washington DC.

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