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Foreign interference in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine: The 2019 elections and beyond

The complex history of the Zakarpattia region explains the current geopolitical and cross-cultural dynamics of the region, as well as the persistent interest that neighbours Hungary and Russia have shown for it.

May 6, 2020 - 'Harry Nedelcu Dmytro Panchuk Myroslava Lendel - Articles and Commentary

Station hall in the Uzhorod central train station Photo: hakzelf (cc) flickr.com

This is the third and final article in a series of publications that have examined foreign influence in three select oblasts of Ukraine – Odesa, Kharkiv, and Zakarpattia. This discussion looks at Hungarian and Russian influence in Zakarpattia Oblast, which became especially important during Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

Ukraine’s westernmost oblast (region) of Zakarpattia (also known as Transcarpathia) has been at the crossroads of various cultures and political influences throughout history. This includes Kyivan Rus’, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, and – for a brief period – Horthyist Hungary, before being incorporated into the USSR after 1944. Since 1991, it has been part of an independent Ukraine. Its complex history explains, to a great extent, the current geopolitical and cross-cultural dynamics of Zakarpattia, as well as the persistent interest that neighbours Hungary and Russia have shown in the region.

Under various governments during the past century, Budapest has sought to exert influence on its former territories. A sense of nostalgia for a ‘glorious’ imperial past has continually influenced Hungarian geopolitical desires to protect co-ethnic communities across the Carpathian Basin. With the advent of Victor Orbán, these attempts to wield influence in nearby territories where Hungarian minorities live has only intensified. Hungarian officials have often advocated for the cultural and territorial autonomy of ethnic Hungarian minorities residing in other countries. In its most extreme form, present among some members and sympathisers of radical-right parties such as Jobbik, this has gone as far as claiming some of those territories into a reconstituted Greater Hungary.

Such assertive rhetoric has occasionally put Hungary at loggerheads with its neighbours. These include Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and more recently Ukraine, which hosts around 150,000 citizens of Hungarian descent. 

Hungary’s influence in Zakarpattia and Hungarian-Ukrainian relations

For over two years, Hungary has been blocking Ukraine’s rapprochement with NATO, demanding that Kyiv abandon its policy on the primacy of the Ukrainian language in education. Budapest considers this a threat to its minority in Zakarpattia. 

Ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2019, Hungary tried to exert its influence and shape the electoral outcome and representation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada). 

First, some Hungarian grant money given to the Association of Hungarian Culture (KMKS) in the city of Uzhhorod was used for the political campaign of its leader and parliamentary candidate Vasyl Brenzovych. Ukrinform reported that, in the first part of 2019, the Hungarian development agency, Bethlen Gábor Fund, allocated 800,000 Hungarian forints (or about 2,400 euros) to putting up KMKS billboards. While this amount seems too insignificant to make any serious impact on the electoral outcome, it violates Ukrainian law and sets a precedent for similar electoral interference by Hungary or other foreign actors in the future.

Second, in the weeks preceding the polls on July 21st, several top Hungarian officials, including Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó, openly visited the campaign events of Budapest’s favoured candidates in Zakarpattia. During these trips, the Hungarian officials stressed their ongoing economic and cultural support for Zakarpattia. They also openly endorsed candidates for the early parliamentary election. On July 12th, the most popular Hungary-backed candidate Vasyl Brenzovych even had a meeting in Budapest with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Deputy Prime Minister in charge of national policy, Zsolt Semjén. During the meeting, Brenzovych and the leadership in Budapest mulled over ways to boost voter turnout in Zakarpattia. Ideas included bringing home ethnic Hungarians from Zakarpattia who worked in Hungary.

In a more subtle way, Hungarian officials and diplomats also intervened in order to reconcile long-standing differences between KMKS and the rival Democratic Union of Hungarians (UMDS), which is led by Vasyl Zubanych. On June 27th, the leaders of the two organisations, in the presence of Hungarian state representatives, signed a memorandum on cooperation. The agreement included the nomination of a single candidate for the election and mutual support. As a result, Brenzovych’s parliamentary campaign could also count on support from the UMDS and its affiliates in Zakarpattia.

Ukraine soon argued that these activities were against the UN Charter and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. However, the Hungarian government dismissed Kyiv’s accusations, describing meetings with representatives of co-ethnic communities abroad as a normal practice. Some observers believe that the very fact that Hungary risked further damaging its already strained relationship with Ukraine shows its strong desires to interfere in the country’s elections.

Despite this interference, none of the candidates (Vasyl Brenzovych, Josef Barta, or Miklosh Tovt) supported by the Hungarian authorities managed to enter the new parliament. In the 2014 parliamentary election Brenzovych was offered a winning spot on the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko party list. His attempts to do the same in 2019 with Servant of the People did not succeed.

Russia and the Rusyns

In the context of its hybrid aggression against Ukraine, Moscow also regards Zakarpattia as a playground to exploit the so-called “Rusyn issue”, as well as fuel existing tensions surrounding the Hungarian minority.

The term “Rusyn” or “Ruthenian” had existed centuries before Zakarpattia became part of Soviet Ukraine in 1944. As far back as Kyivan Rus’, the name had been used by various states to denote the predominantly Ukrainian population of this region. Whereas some Rusyns consider themselves to be ethnic Ukrainians, others claim a distinct identity. According to the last census in Ukraine in 2001, around 10,000 Zakarpattia inhabitants, or about 0.8 per cent of the region’s population, identified themselves as Rusyn. A number of states where Rusyns also live have recognised them as an ethnic minority. This includes Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Poland, and Serbia. Ukraine, however, legally treats Rusyns as part of the Ukrainian ethnicity.

Kremlin influence in Zakarpattia

The ambiguous nature of Rusyn ethnic identification has been exploited by Russia in its hybrid war against Ukraine. Following Crimea’s illegal annexation, aggression in eastern Ukraine, and assistance to the self-styled “republics” in Donbas, the Kremlin encouraged the idea of creating a Rusyn state – a so called “Transcarpathian Rus” – in Zakarpattia.

In March 2015, Russia’s news agency TASS quoted the self-proclaimed “prime minister” of the “Transcarpathian Rus” Petr Getsko, who on behalf of a congress of Rusyn organisations in Zakarpattia demanded territorial autonomy from Kyiv. Getsko, who has been living in Moscow since 2008, has been long wanted by Ukraine’s law enforcement on charges of separatism. In his blog he continues posting Kremlin-friendly content that promotes the secession of Zakarpattia from Ukraine. Rusyn leaders based in Ukraine have not supported Getsko’s declarations and, at least for the time being, the controversy ended there. However, speculation regarding a “Transcarpathian Rus” has made many Ukrainians uneasy about Zakarpattia potentially becoming a new Luhansk or Donetsk. At the very least, the Kremlin hopes to produce new divisions in Ukraine in order to further weaken and destabilize the country, this time – on its Western flank. While the Rusyn issue did not feature prominently in Russian official rhetoric or media last year, it may surface again during Ukrainian local elections scheduled for 2020 and amidst ongoing debates on decentralisation.

Kremlin complicating Hungarian-Ukrainian Relations

Besides pushing the ‘Rusyn issue’ in Zakarpattia, Russia has also been complicating Ukraine and Hungary’s already tense relations. In February 2018, three Polish citizens, working through a German intermediary with links to the Russian far-right and the unrecognised “republics” in eastern Ukraine, placed a bomb at the KMKS building in Uzhhorod. During a subsequent trial in Kraków, Polish prosecutors stated that the goal of their actions was to exacerbate existing tensions between Ukraine and Hungary. Ukrainian authorities linked the arson attack to Russian security services.

In spite of foreign interference from Budapest and Moscow, Servant of the People and self-nominated candidates won all of Zakarpattia’s majoritarian districts during the 2019 parliamentary election. Although support for pro-Russian parties (Za Zhyttya, Opposition Bloc, and Party of Shariy) was relatively low (13.9 per cent) in Zakarpattia, they gained visibly more votes than in the neighbouring Lviv (2.6 per cent ) and Ivano-Frankivsk (2.5 per cent) regions. This difference may be partly explained by ­these parties’ more successful appeal to members of minority groups living in Zakarpattia. In addition, two prominent members of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform – Za Zhyttya (For Life) Viktor Medvedchuk (who is also a close friend and ally of Vladimir Putin) and Nestor Shufrych, also hail from Zakarpattia. Furthermore, the current Mayor of Uzhhorod Bohdan Andriiv actively campaigned as a member of the party Doveryay Delam alongside the pro-Russian Mayors of Kharkiv and Odesa, Hennadii Kernes and Hennadii Trukhanov. In June 2019, Doveryay Delam merged with the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc but still did not succeed in the election. While it is unlikely that Kremlin-friendly political parties will ever surge in Zakarpattia, it may be interesting to monitor the region’s political landscape for potential foreign interference in the run-up to local elections later this year.

Media debates

Both Russian traditional and social media actively discussed Zakarpattia during the election. Our media monitoring reveals that, in 2019, Russia-based websites and bloggers were responsible for over 25 per cent of global online debate about the region. This was nearly 50 per cent higher than the proportion of Russia-based websites and bloggers commenting on political conversations throughout the rest of Ukraine in the two weeks running up to the parliamentary election (17,4 per cent).

In addition, bots accounted for as many as 34 per cent of Russian Twitter accounts that discussed Zakarpattia politics. This is more than two times higher than the percentage of Twitter bots from Russia discussing Ukraine affairs throughout the two weeks ahead the vote on July 21st (12,5 per cent). These figures clearly indicate Russian traditional and social media’s higher than average interest in Zakarpattia compared to Ukrainian and foreign outlets. We could not uncover similar figures for Hungarian media, as its respective influence on debate was small compared to Russian media.

The Russian bots typically “complained” about alleged discrimination against the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia. They also re-tweeted the leader of the Hungarian far-right party “Jobbik” Tamas Schneider, who demanded the territorial autonomy of Zakarpattia from Kyiv in May 2019. The bots also promoted Petr Getsko’s blog, in which he criticises Ukrainian authorities and pushes for the idea of a Rusyn state in Zakarpattia.

What next?

Ultimately, whilst the 2019 elections in Zakarpattia saw interference from Hungary and Russia, there were no major violations. However, with local elections scheduled for late autumn 2020, the region remains vulnerable to ongoing influence from these countries. This influence could appear through electoral interference or in further calls for the region’s autonomy. For instance, in 2017, the Hungarian National Assembly approached the Russian Duma with a request to work together in order to protect ethnic minority rights in Ukraine. In response to this, in December 2019, Duma Speaker Viacheslav Volodin blamed the “plight” of ethnic minorities in Ukraine on nationalists and went on to say that the “oppression of small ethnic groups may lead to Ukraine losing a number of regions.”

Since the number of citizens in Zakarpattia belonging to the Hungarian minority and self-identified Rusyns is very low, fears surrounding regional separatism may be exaggerated. However, with Russian aggression against Ukraine still ongoing, it is essential to continue monitoring Kremlin attempts to work with Hungary on the issue of the Hungarian minority and plans to federalise Ukraine. These efforts may also involve promoting long-running narratives that Ukraine is an unstable, intolerant, ‘Banderist’ state, ruled by extremists. In this context, the Rusyn issue may also make a return to the Kremlin’s playbook.

Nevertheless, the last year has seen Budapest place high hopes on reconciliatory dialogue with Ukraine, including discussion on the Hungarian minority. Likewise, following the eventual lifting of travel bans due to COVID-19, a meeting between Zelenskyy and Orban is high on the agenda for both capitals. This seeks to reboot Hungarian-Ukrainian relations and pave the way for reconciling existing grievances.

You can find the first part on the Odesa region here

You can find the second part on the Kharkiv region here

Dmytro Panchuk, PhD is a project coordinator with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation dealing with the analysis and prevention of online foreign interference in Ukraine’s elections. In 2019, he also coordinated a long-term media monitoring team for the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) International Election Observation Mission to Ukraine’s 2019 Elections.

Harry Nedelcu, PhD is a senior advisor to Anders Fogh Rasmussen (Secretary General of NATO 2009-2014) and the Alliance of Democracies foundation. He works on issues around elections and democracy. He has investigated the way recent elections are affected by foreign interference and has helped uncover evidence-based accounts of foreign meddling in various states.

Myroslava Lendel
, Doctor in Political Science, Vice Rector for the International Relations of Uzhhorod National University, Professor of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. She is an expert in the international relations in Central and Eastern Europe, cross border cooperation in the Carpathian region, engaged in many international projects aimed on the research of those issues. Myroslava Lendel is the author of more than 150 publications, dealing with the international issues as well is the topic of the local democracy and regional policy in CEE.

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