By Gergely Varga*
A deepening diplomatic row between Ukraine and Hungary is beginning to draw the attention of the US foreign policy establishment. Tensions have increased recently between Kiev and Budapest in connection with a new Ukrainian education law and the issue of dual citizenship for ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine. The main reason why Washington has been paying increasing attention to the debate stems from a Hungarian decision to take the issue to the North-Atlantic Council, and to block all high-level NATO-Ukraine dialogue until the dispute over the education law is resolved.
From Washington’s perspective, Budapest is threatening the strategic interests of the Alliance, namely the goal of bringing Ukraine closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions, for narrow national interests with no relevance to strategic and geopolitical considerations during a time of crisis. Although Washington certainly is correct in considering the significance of Ukraine’s future geopolitical orientation and, as the leading NATO power with decades of investments in European security, the U.S. has legitimate interests in the region, it’s still worth taking a more careful view of the Hungarian perspective in this debate.
At the center of Hungarian-Ukrainian tensions is an education law adopted by Ukraine in the fall of 2017, which obliges secondary schools to teach only in the Ukrainian language. The new regulation would seriously harm the rights of ethnic minorities to education in their native language.
In its dispute with Kiev, Hungary is not demanding new rights for ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine or questioning Ukraine’s sovereignty, but defending existing rights guaranteed by the Ukrainian constitution and by international conventions to which Ukraine is a signatory. From this perspective, Hungary is not only stepping up for its own legitimate interests, but for the predominance of European conventions and for the international obligations of Ukraine, such as the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The issues at stake are thus not narrow-minded Hungarian interests, but the relevance of Euro-Atlantic norms and keeping Ukraine substantively on a Euro-Atlantic path.
Hungary never questioned the sovereign right of Ukraine to take measures for the protection of its state language; rather, it based its criticism – along with other countries, such as Romania and Poland – on legitimate legal arguments, primarily on the opinion of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. In its legal opinion about the controversial law, the Venice Commission stated:
Criticism seems justified due to a number of reasons… Article 7 contains important ambiguities and does not appear to provide the guidance needed from a framework law in the application of the country’s international and constitutional obligations.
From this perspective, Hungary is simply asking Ukraine to proceed according to the recommendations of the Commission. Even with strong legal arguments backing the Hungarian position, Budapest has demonstrated considerable flexibility, such as withdrawing its original request to revoke the law and instead asking for a multi-year transition period and for exemptions in the case of private schools. Within this context, Budapest exhausted all possible bilateral diplomatic avenues to resolve the issue before raising the question in NATO.
However, even within NATO, Hungary only blocks NATO-Ukrainian relations above the ambassadorial level. Furthermore, Hungary demonstrated its goodwill toward Ukraine at the Brussels Summit by allowing Kiev to participate at the Summit’s Black Sea conference and broadening the agenda of discussions to include topics considered to be important for Kiev. To summarize, it is not Russian influence or excessive Hungarian demands which are driving Hungarian policies against Kiev but legitimate Hungarian and Euro-Atlantic interests.
Unfortunately, during the past few months, tensions between Kiev and Budapest further escalated after “death lists” appeared on extremist Ukrainian websites involving Ukrainian Hungarians with dual citizenship. Kiev’s protests against Hungarian diplomats issuing passports in Ukraine to ethnic Hungarian Ukrainian citizens also heightened tensions.
According to Kiev’s narrative, Hungary violated Ukraine’s sovereignty with the passport issuance, but in reality these accusations are baseless. Even though Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship, the law does not ordain any penalty if a Ukrainian citizen obtains another citizenship. It is worth mentioning that many Ukrainian politicians also hold the passport of another country. Furthermore, easier access to Hungarian citizenship for Ukrainian citizens with Hungarian ancestors has been available since 2010 and up until recently, the Ukrainian side didn’t raise any major objections against the practice. Therefore, instead of legitimate rule of law and sovereignty considerations being stressed by Kiev, domestic political interests are driving Ukrainian motivations in the dispute, with a view on the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Hungary is as much interested if not more than any other NATO member in the successful Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine. Budapest has demonstrated its genuine commitment to this goal through the past two decades, and even since 2014 countless times. However, from a Hungarian perspective, the Ukrainian transition process has to be substantive and based on shared Euro-Atlantic principles to be lasting and successful.
Concerns are raised in basically every Western capital in terms of the level of commitment to reforms by Ukraine’s elite. The common interest of NATO allies is to provide Ukraine with the proper incentives to press on with the necessary reforms while pushing back those forces which pull Ukraine further from European norms and principles. The first line of defense against regional Russian meddling is a strong, stable, and democratic Ukraine which adheres to the rule of law and respects the legitimate rights of all of its citizens.
*Gergely Varga is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs and Trade in Budapest specializing in Trans-Atlantic relations.
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