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A tangled legacy: coming to terms with history in Uzhhorod

The Zakarpattia province of western Ukraine is home to various ethnic minorities including 150,000 Hungarians. With its complex past, how will the region fare as both Hungarian and Ukrainian right-wing groups ramp up their nationalist rhetoric?

February 26, 2019 - Nikolas Kozloff - Articles and Commentary

Uzhhorod castle. Photo: Sergiy Krinitsa (cc) wikimedia.org

As Viktor Orbán assumes an increasingly more bellicose nationalist posture, the Hungarian prime minister’s policies are causing ripple effects across the border. Recently, Budapest issued passports to ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, which not surprisingly did not go over well in Kyiv. In seeking to justify its policy, Hungary cited Ukrainian legislation which bans the teaching of minority languages in school beyond the primary level. The tit-for-tat developments prompted both countries to expel each other’s diplomats, leading many to wonder where this spat may be headed. It is to be hoped that nationalist hotheads on both sides will not exploit the delicate balance in the Zakarpattia province of western Ukraine home to various ethnic minorities including 150,000 Hungarians. But as politicians ramp up the rhetoric, the voices of more reasonable minority speakers in Ukraine have been lost.  

In an effort to address these shortcomings, I recently travelled to Uzhhorod, the administrative centre of Transcarpathia. Before it was called Uzhhorod, the town was a Hungarian settlement for centuries known as Ungvar. Touring around the city, I visited an old Hungarian fort sporting medieval fortifications and a subterranean dungeon. In later periods, Uzhhorod had an offbeat, colorful history and was traded back and forth between rival empires and countries, first being absorbed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But after the First World War and the fall of the Habsburgs in Vienna, the newly formed state of Hungary was obliged to sign the humiliating Treaty of Trianon. Under the 1920 accord, Hungary was dismembered, ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia were separated from their kinsmen in Budapest, and the region was ceded to Czechoslovakia for good measure.

But those Hungarian nationalists who cling to a sense of historic victimhood would do well to consider the Second World War. After the Nazis dismembered Czechoslovakia, Hungary seized and annexed Transcarpathia while promoting a policy of “Magyarisation[” in local Uzhhorod schools. Hungarian authorities, which collaborated with Nazi Germany, subsequently persecuted the local Jewish population. After the war, Uzhhorod was absorbed by the Soviets, until finally being incorporated into Ukraine following the dissolution of the USSR. Though Uzhhorod still has a minority Hungarian population, at present the city is predominantly Ukrainian

Though Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz government insist they have no plans to rebuild their age-old “Greater Hungary”, Budapest has established a national day of unity on the anniversary of the signing of the Trianon treaty. Not to be outdone, the far-right Hungarian Jobbik party has called for the outright annexation of Transcarpathia. Denis Pilash is an Uzhhorod native son, a veteran of Maidan’s progressive political protest and co-editor of Kyiv’s Commons Journal.  Though he speaks Hungarian, Pilash is hardly a defender of the government in Budapest.  “Hungarian authorities”, he told me, “play into this conservative idea of national trauma springing from the Treaty of Trianon one hundred years ago, our brothers and sisters were torn from Hungary, etc. Jobbik has been pushing nationalist claims and Fidesz isn’t so far behind.  It’s difficult to know how to stop this hysteria.”

Though Pilash and others would simply prefer to live in peace, ominous cloak and dagger forces have revived frictions and tangled history. Last year, arsonists twice attacked the headquarters of an ethnic Hungarian cultural association in Uzhhorod (though no one was injured in the incidents, the second attack incinerated the interior of the building). Not surprisingly, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry raised a stir and called for an OSCE mission to be deployed to Transcarpathia, but could this have been a case of agents provocateurs, designed to sow further divisions? Ukrainian law enforcement claimed to have identified two right-wing Polish suspects who had earlier fought in Donbas on behalf of Ukrainian separatists. Kyiv’s foreign minister  has suggested the arsonists may have been linked to Russia, and Poland has arrested suspects allegedly involved in the attacks.

Uzhhorod and the Hungarian perspective

In an effort to get beyond the nationalist bombast, I spoke with Zita Batori, a native Hungarian speaker and professor of sociology and social work at Uzhhorod National University. She remarked that she had never felt personally victimised by discrimination. “I love Uzhhorod,” she exclaimed, “and there’s no need to officially go back to calling my town Ungvar.” The professor added that she was pleased when Ukraine achieved independence, and for the most part distinct ethnic groups respect each other’s languages, culture, customs and religion.

Though Batori takes pride in her own community, she fully acknowledged that Hungary had sometimes wound up on the wrong side of history, adding perfunctorily, “I hate Nazism.” Her father, who served in the Hungarian army in the Second World War, was later imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp. After the war, “it wasn’t that easy to be Hungarian,” and her father’s property was confiscated by the state. Later, while working as a munitions expert in a mine, her father was killed in an unexplained explosion. Her mother, meanwhile, failed to graduate high school due to the lack of Hungarian language instruction. Batori added, however, that she was the beneficiary of a later Soviet policy which allowed for such instruction.

Now that Ukraine seems to be reversing course on the language issue, however, Batori has grown concerned. “I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” she remarked, adding “I still think in Hungarian and even count in my own language.” “Look”, she explained, “I agree everyone should speak the Ukrainian language, but not to the point that it’s forbidden to complete your high school studies in Hungarian.” The professor added that ironically, in more authoritarian Soviet times the authorities were more tolerant towards the Hungarian language than Ukraine is currently. 

Avoiding inter-ethnic strife 

But despite her criticism of the Ukrainian language law, Batori reserved harsh words for the Budapest government. “If you ask my mother-in-law”, Batori quipped, “Orbán is a god who is promoting freedom by pushing citizenship and financial aid. In my opinion, however, he’s a populist who wants to unite Hungarians just like Germany.” The professor was similarly disparaging toward Jobbik, remarking rather ominously “I think history can repeat itself, and this is a very dangerous direction.” 

In response to attacks on the Hungarian cultural association, the OSCE has closely monitored the situation in Uzhhorod which has generally remained calm. Other observers believe that Hungary is not about to send “little green men” into Transcarpathia in an effort to promote secession, as was the case in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Despite Hungary’s rightward drift, Batori was confident that Uzhhorod would weather the storm: to be sure, vandalism was a concern but the situation could be kept under control since extremists only constitute a tiny minority. 

Chiming in for good measure, Pilash believed that Transcarpathia was pretty stable and “I would say this is pretty much blown out of proportion as we haven’t had much inter-ethnic violence”. The issue of Hungarian passports had been “hyped”, since people simply used them as a means to travel to other EU countries besides Hungary. The fact is, Pilash explained, many in Transcarpathia seek to escape high unemployment and see the passports as an opportunity to make more money. In this sense, the situation in Transcarpathia has not played out exactly like Crimea, where Russia’s doling out of passports has resulted in a grand old imperial strategy.           

The Hungarian right versus the Ukrainian right

Having said that, Pilash added that he was alarmed by the attacks in Uzhhorod since “this brings a sense of inter-ethnic tension into a traditionally multi-cultural area. You have very mixed and inter-ethnic marriages within communities, but these developments mean that people may ultimately be forced to choose one side against another.” Moreover, the rise of the Hungarian right has encouraged the growth of new extremist political forces. 

“We didn’t used to have any far right in Uzhhorod, but now we have a small group called Carpathian Sich,” Pilash told me. “For two years they have been violently attacking feminist marches, LGBT people, Roma people and some Hungarian monuments.” In one case, vandals destroyed a monument erected in remembrance of Hungarian migration across the Carpathian Mountains some 1,100 years ago. “How can we forget this history?” Batori wondered. “Is there any point in fighting about these events which occurred long ago? This vandalism is committed by cowardly people and I don’t understand their hatred of history.”

In one case, Carpathian Sich attacked peaceful participants in Uzhhorod at a march honouring International Women’s Day. Pilash has not personally come across Carpathian Sich, but one of his friends was beaten by the group during the march. Following the event, Pilash reports that far-right street toughs hunted down other march participants and attacked several leftists and left-liberals. That very same month, Carpathian Sich brought in far rightists from other regions and together they conducted a neo-Nazi march with militants performing the Roman fascist salute. 

To be sure, there are probably only about twenty militants in Uzhhorod’s branch of the Carpathian Sich, plus scattered members in neighboring towns. Unfortunately, however, Pilash believed authorities had gone easy on the group. “They feel a sense of impunity since they are not prosecuted. They are a bunch of neo-Nazis who could easily be arrested and sent to jail… And we can presume they have some connections within the Ministry of the Interior or the security services.” For the moment, an uneasy calm hangs over Transcarpathia. But what if rightists in both Hungary and Ukraine continue to feud, and ethnic nationalism gets stirred up? “If you unleash these forces, then you cannot control them,” Pilash declared.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based author and a contributor to such venues as Al Jazeera, Huffington Post and Le Monde Diplomatique. For the past four years, he has been writing prolifically about the deterioration in East-West relations and the political crisis in Ukraine.

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