Ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine don't want to be Orbán's pawns

Ethnic Hungarians living in the Zakarpatya region, in the far south-west of Ukraine, have become an important piece in the political game of chess that Hungary's president Viktor Orbán has been playing since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Orbán refuses to support Ukraine internationally as long as the Ukrainian language law of 2017  remains in force. Yet not all ethnic Hungarians living in the Zakarpatya region are susceptible to Orbán's line of reasoning. Yulia Zhukova spoke to them and reports from Zakarpatya for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

 Street sign in Berehove, Zakarpatya, in both Ukrainian and Hungarian. Source: Rovás Alapítvány

By Yulia Zhukova

Some 1,500 kilometers west of the front line in Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in a mountainous region that borders four EU countries, lies a red-roofed town whose several thousand ethnic Hungarian residents have acquired an outsized role in the standoff between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the European Union over whether Ukraine's membership talks should go forward.

Berehove, just 7 kilometers from the Hungarian border, is the population hub for Ukraine's ethnic Hungarian minority of roughly 100,000 people. The street signs are written in both languages, Hungarian flags fly alongside Ukrainian and EU flags on government buildings, and a monument to a Hungarian national hero stands near the regional administration headquarters.

Orbán threatens to block Ukraine's EU membership talks

Orbán, who has refused to help Kyiv fight off the invasion, cites what he claims are the repressed language rights of the ethnic Hungarian residents of the Zakarpatya region when he argues against Ukraine joining the EU.

In late September, he declared Hungary would not support Ukraine on any international issue until Kyiv scraps a 2017 law that requires Ukrainian schools to teach students over the age of 10 in Ukrainian -- a measure he asserts will lead to the closure of Hungarian-language schools.

As a result, Orbán has suggested he would block EU membership talks with Ukraine – recommended by the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, on November 8 – when the proposal comes up for confirmation at a December 14-15 summit of EU leaders. Since all 27 EU member states must approve such a measure, a Hungarian veto would be enough to scuttle the proposal.

But in Berehove and the surrounding area, many ethnic Hungarians interviewed in October shrugged off the notion that they need the Hungarian prime minister to defend their interests.

'We live in Ukraine,' commented Laslo Zubanych, head of the Ukrainian Hungarian Democratic Union, one of two Hungarian diaspora organizations in Ukraine. 'For that reason, we should behave like citizens of Ukraine and get involved in those processes that exist in the state.

'Let what they're saying be decided at the [national] level in Kyiv,' Zubanych said of Budapest's complaints about language instruction in Ukraine. 'We've been living our own life here already for around 1,100 years.'

Region at crossroads

Zakarpatya's official website describes the region, which borders Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, as a 'crossroads,' with a dialect that reflects its past as home to people with Czech, Hungarian, Jewish, Roma, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian roots.

After centuries under the control of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I, before Hungary, allied with Nazi Germany, attempted to reclaim it in 1939. Following Germany's defeat in World War II, Czechoslovakia ceded the territory to the Soviet Union, which made it part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Hungarians in Zakarpatya

Zakarpatya is home to several ethnic minorities, of which the Hungarians are the largest group. The region was part of Hungary until the end of the First World War and then became part of Czechoslowakia. In the Second World War Hungary occupied the region, but had to cede it again in 1945, this time to the Ukrainian SSR and thus remained Ukrainian when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.


According to the most recent Ukrainian census in 2001, Zakarpatya was home to some 150 thousand Hungarians, 12% of the region's total population. However, it is estimated that the number of Hungarians in the region has fallen to 100 thousand over the past two decades. Many ethnic Hungarians have left for Hungary. An important reason for this exodus is a 2011 Hungarian law that allows anyone who speaks Hungarian or has Hungarian descent to acquire Hungarian citizenship. As dual citizenship is not allowed in Ukraine, many Hungarians have crossed the border to the west.

Zakarpatya region on the map: in the far west of Ukraine, surrounded by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
Source: Wikipedia

Decades after the Soviet collapse and Ukrainian independence, Hungary's lingering influence is hard to miss.

Between 2011 and 2020, the Hungarian government provided at least 115 million euros ($125 million) to Zakarpatya, a 2021 investigation by RFE/RL's Ukrainian investigative unit, Schemes, and a group of Central European journalists established. That amount was roughly one and a half times the size of Zakarpatya's annual budget.

Berehove Mayor Zoltan Babyak told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that the funds have gone to education, health care, and construction of infrastructure. He asserted they do not affect how the town views Orbán's policies toward Ukraine, which he said are Budapest's 'own domestic affair.'

'Russia is not an interesting topic for us,' he said. 'Because it's an enemy. An enemy is an enemy.'

Ethnic Hungarians are fighting for Ukraine

One middle-aged man visiting Berehove's recently opened downtown memorial to residents who have died fighting against Russia expressed frustration with Orbán's dismissive attitude toward Ukraine's resistance of the Russian invasion.

'I really don't like that policy because I don't know where the wind is blowing, where it's turning,' the man said, referring to Orbán's assessments of Ukraine's military capabilities.

Orbán, who has called for a cease-fire in Ukraine, asserted in a June 26 interview with the German newspaper Bild that U.S. and EU economic and military assistance has cost Ukraine its sovereignty, and that the country 'can only fight because we in the West support them.'

Ukraine is my motherland. If I have to go defend Ukraine, so be it

Atilo, a 26-year-old cafe owner and ethnic Hungarian who gave only his first name, prefers to turn a deaf ear to such remarks.

Describing himself as 'a Hungarian-speaker, but Ukrainian,' he said
he pays no attention to Orbán's utterances on language or criticism of Ukraine's fight for survival against Russia.

'Ukraine is my motherland. If I have to go defend Ukraine, so be it,' Atilo said.

Hundreds of ethnic Hungarians have fought or are fighting on the front lines in the east and south. When war between Kyiv and Russian-backed forces erupted in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Zakarpatya region's first fatality was an ethnic Hungarian, 19-year-old Roland Popovych, who was buried with military honors, Berehove Mayor Babyak noted.

Orbán is out of sync

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, many of Zakarpatya's ethnic Hungarians have consciously moved away from Orbán's positions on the war, according to Dmytro Tuzhanskiy, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy, a nongovernmental think tank based in Zakarpatya's capital, Uzhhorod.

Orbán threatens to block Ukrainian EU accession

Since the introduction of the 2017 Ukrainian language law, relations between Ukraine and Hungary have deteriorated significantly. In response to the law, Hungary has been blocking political meetings between NATO and Ukraine since 2018. Even in the war against Russia, Kyiv has never been able to count on full support from Hungary. The latter has consistently frustrated EU support for Ukraine and, unlike other EU member states, has not cut ties with Russia.

Orbán has recently spoken out against the possibility of EU membership for Ukraine. At the insistence of Hungary, one of seven recommendations by the European Commission that Ukraine must address in order to qualify for EU membership is adjusting its legislation regarding ethnic minorities. Hungary threatens to block the start of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine as long as Hungarian demands regarding the language of education are not met.

Each EU member has the right to veto the accession of new members. Therefore, Hungary has significant leverage over Ukraine's accession path to the EU. Earlier this month, the European Commission gave the green light for accession negotiations. At the upcoming European Council on December 14 and 15, the big question is whether EU heads of government will agree unanimously on the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine.


On October 17, in the first direct talks between an EU leader and Putin, Orbán stressed that 'Hungary never wanted to confront Russia.' He has refused to join EU sanctions against Russia or to allow, like other NATO countries, arms shipments to Ukraine.

Meeting between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán in 2017. Recently, they met again in China. Source: Kremlin.

The Hungarian diaspora is part of a cynical and pragmatic policy

Tuzhanskiy sees the Hungarian leader, who has maintained contact with Putin and Russia and has not visited Ukraine since the full-scale invasion began, as out of sync with the country's ethnic Hungarians: A 2023 study indicated that two-thirds of respondents in Zakarpatya supported Hungary supplying Ukraine with arms to fight Russia, he said.

'You know, Viktor Orbán is a politician. For him, the [diaspora] Hungarian community is part of a cynical and pragmatic policy,' Tuzhanskiy said. 'Knowingly or unknowingly, he basically made the Hungarian community the hostage of his policy.'

'Not everyone supports him that much'

One local ethnic Ukrainian man – like many here, married to an ethnic Hungarian – said Hungarian media influences many ethnic Hungarians' views of the war and of the government in Kyiv, but he advised caution.

'You shouldn't look at everyone through the prism of their prime minister,' said Ivan, a resident of a Hungarian-speaking village outside Berehove. 'There, he's a politician, an ideologue. He dreams about a great Hungary. But not everyone supports him that much.'

Seated on a bench in Berehove, two elderly men – one ethnic Hungarian, the other ethnic Ukrainian – suggested they have come up with their own approach for overcoming any Hungarian-Ukrainian differences.

The two understand each other's languages, said the ethnic Hungarian, who gave his name as Yanus, and speak to each other in whichever language suits their mood.

'If he pays for coffee, then, [we speak] in Ukrainian,' explained Yanus, as his friend laughed. 'If I pay for coffee, then, in Hungarian.'

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Explanatory text frames were added by Raam op Rusland.

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