Kyiv ready for talks on language use in Hungarian schools in Transcarpathia

September 12. 2023. – 04:37 PM



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Kyiv is ready to negotiate about the regulation which determines the framework for using the Hungarian language in secondary schools, Ukrayinska Pravda reported, quoting the Financial Times. The Hungarian government has claimed that the regulation, which is due to enter into force next year, will essentially make it impossible to provide education in Hungarian in the parts of Transcarpathia which are home to a Hungarian population.

It was Ukraine's minister for EU integration who said that the Ukrainian government was prepared to implement changes in the legislation if necessary. Olha Stefanishyna said talks could start as early as this week with both the Hungarian side and the Romanian side, the latter having also objected to the regulation.

However, the minister did not offer any details. She stressed that if amendments to the law on national minorities were needed, they would be made, but that bilateral negotiations needed to take place first.

The widespread perception in Kyiv is that the Hungarian government is only using the regulation of language use as a pretext for hindering Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration and that the slowing down of Ukraine's institutional Western rapprochement is in fact the NATO- and EU member Hungary’s gesture to Moscow.

Kyiv has already made some gestures

According to the Ukrainian government, Kyiv has already made a gesture by postponing the introduction of the language regulation part of the education law from 1 September this year to a year later. Under the new law, all classes in the lower four grades may be taught in Hungarian, while in grades 5-9 between 20 and 40 percent of lessons must be taught in Ukrainian, and in grades 9-12 this would be 60 percent. (The percentages refer to the number of lessons, not the number of subjects.)

Ukraine has also agreed to exclude private, foundation-run and religious schools from the scope of the law, where Ukrainian lessons still wouldn't be compulsory. However, students would still have to take the matriculation exam in Ukrainian. (The previous legislation allowed students graduating from Hungarian schools in Transcarpathian Ukraine to take their matriculation exams in Hungarian, with the exception of Ukrainian language and literature, and for the other subjects the questions were translated into Hungarian.)

The Ukrainian side has brought up Article 7 of the Education Law, i.e. the part on language proportions, arguing that this would strengthen the minorities' ability to assert their rights, since if they do not learn the official language of the state adequately, their employment and advancement will be more limited.

The Hungarian government, however, ultimately sees the law as an attempt to destroy the very essence of the Hungarian community in Ukraine.

Different types of minorities

There are some minorities in Ukraine that do have the opportunity to be educated entirely in their mother tongue: the law defines these groups as indigenous minorities which "emerged on the territory of Ukraine '' and do not have a nation state. Consequently, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Polish minorities are excluded from this option. Nor does the law count the Russian minority as an indigenous group, given that the original objective of the law was to suppress the Russian language, especially after Russia launched its war on Ukraine last year. The above groups are thus recognised as national minorities (but not indigenous) by the Ukrainian legislation.

Only the Crimean Tatars, the Karaims and the Krimchaks are thus considered an indigenous minority. The latter groups, which follow the Jewish religion, are essentially extinct. There are barely 1,000 Karaites and 400 Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, which had 45 million inhabitants before the war. Most of the 200,000 Crimean Tatars live in Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014.

The details of the amendment are not known, but in theory, there is a possibility of aligning the section on national minorities in the legislation on language use with the one on indigenous minorities in the case of EU languages," according to Dmyitro Tuzhansky, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy. However, the Uzhhorod-based political scientist says that it will only be possible to talk about potential solutions once bilateral negotiations have started.

A sensitive subject for both sides

Ukraine has been very sensitive to potential signs of separatism since the war started in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and then used covert armed support to create the separatist states of Donetsk and Luhansk, but especially since the invasion of the whole of Ukraine began last February. The term autonomy is also a trigger in Ukraine, which is not surprising given that Russia took military control of a fifth of the country last year – although the invaders have lost significant territory since then.

As a result, there are more reservations about the Hungarian symbols used by the Hungarian minority: in Berehove, where about half of the population – now less than 50 per cent – is Hungarian, the mayor's office has a Hungarian flag outside, but this is not legal.

Most recently, the Ferenc Rákóczi II Secondary School in Mukachevo posted about not being allowed to have the Hungarian national anthem sung at their opening ceremony at the beginning of the school year. It was not clear from the post which regulation and whose decision prevented the Hungarian anthem from being performed. On the other hand, the Hungarian anthem was allowed to be sung at the opening ceremony of the Hungarian school in Uzhhorod on the same day without any restrictions.

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