In recent years, Ukraine has been fostering a national ideology that has significantly impacted the quality of relations with its western neighbors, notably Poland and Hungary. Ukrainian national ideology, on the one hand, helps it to effectively resist Russian aggression; but on the other hand, it has been raising tensions along the country’s western frontier. Relations with its bordering European partners reached a particular low point in fall 2017, when the Ukrainian government introduced a highly controversial new language law (Kormany.hu, September 7, 2017; Euromaidan Press, September 19, 2017). Budapest exhibited the toughest reaction and officially condemned the law, threatening that it was ready to block Ukraine’s perspectives of eventually joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. And indeed, in February, Hungary blocked further meetings of the Ukraine-NATO Commission (Pravda.com.ua, February 9, 2018).
One of the latest clashes in the bilateral relationship with Hungary was sparked by Ukraine’s announcement that it was restoring an old military base in the town of Beregovo (in Hungarian, Beregszász), just ten kilometers from the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, in Transcarpathia. On March 28, the Beregovo City Council voted for the restoration of the base (Goloskarpat.info, March 28).
Just prior to that vote, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó expressed his concerns about the plans, which would introduce almost 800 Ukrainian soldiers to a region of Ukraine populated by the highest relative proportion of ethnic Hungarians (Hirado.hu, March 19). According to him, the Ukrainian explanation for why it needs to base Ukrainian soldiers there—that is, to protect the country’s security and defend its territorial integrity—is particularly disturbing. As Minister Szijjártó declared, that official justification implies the Ukrainian government “considers the [local] Hungarian community a threat to Kyiv, and that fact is disgusting.” The response from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), through its spokesperson, Mariana Betsa, was more matter-of-fact: the decision to reopen a military base on one’s own territory “is a personal issue of a sovereign state and its sovereign right” (UNIAN, March 20). However, Betsa pointedly added that the restoration of the base is directly linked to the local activity of the Hungarian national monitory: “And of course, we are concerned about the provocations that are occurring today in Transcarpathia, and they have become more frequent almost every week, which was never the case almost 26 years ago; therefore, of course, there is anxiety. This is for reasons of security and we want to avoid any provocations. But such statements by the Hungarian side, they undoubtedly play into Russia’s narratives.”
Ukraine is preparing to deploy units of the 128th Mountain Brigade and the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade to Beregovo (Goloskarpat.info, March 21). However, there are still many legal questions surrounding the reopening of the base, which was closed in 2003. Moreover, since then, nearly all of the territory and facilities have fallen into disrepair, and it is unclear how the renovation will be financed or when it will be finished (Mukachevo.net, March 28).
Last autumn, Hungary’s Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén stated that the Hungarian expatriate minority has a right to autonomy wherever it resides. The Ukrainian response was acute and striking: “As a large European country of 45 million, we will not allow anyone to talk to us in a tone of blackmail” (Hvylya.net, November 17). As is clear from Kyiv’s rhetoric, Ukraine is palpably changing its attitude toward its neighbors. If during the start of the Crimean crisis Ukrainian political elites seemed cautious and desultory, following four years of war, Ukrainian society has clearly hardened. It is difficult to predict what geopolitical consequences this societal shift may augur.
Nevertheless, for the time being, Hungary has been persistently trying to bring the situation in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region to international attention. Budapest’s official representatives are raising their concerns in Brussels as well as at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—notably in meetings with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (Kormany.hu, February 28). Moreover, the Hungarian MFA has called for OSCE observers to be sent to Transcarpathia (Kormany.hu, February 8).
For Hungarians, the presence of an OSCE observer mission in this region is seen as a potential guarantor of stability and preservation of the Hungarian national minority; but for Ukraine, this would be perceived as quite a disturbing outcome. Ukraine has expended a great deal of blood and treasure to secure and stabilize its eastern frontier in Donbas and its de facto border with occupied Crimea. However, the opening of an OSCE mission in Transcarpathia could be detrimental to those efforts by raising the negative perception that Ukraine’s rear remains vulnerable and unsecured. Recently, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Szijjártó claimed he received assurances that an OSCE office will be opened in the Transcarpathian region, with a staff of around 12 persons (Fidesz.hu, March 10), which the Ukrainian MFA dismissed as completely unnecessary (Eurointegration.com.ua, March 11).
The ongoing bilateral confrontation has been encouraging Ukrainian nationalist groups to take more aggressive actions against local ethnic Hungarians. For instance, in September, members of Ukrainian nationalist groups “Karpatska Sich” and “Svoboda” organized an anti-Hungarian torchlight procession in Beregovo (Mukachevo.net, March 14).
Amidst these tensions, several considerations are worth keeping in mind:
First, the fact that Kyiv has announced it was reopening a military base ten kilometers from the Hungarian border means that Ukraine does not consider its western frontier truly secure.
Second, although the Transcarpathian region shares certain similarities with Crimea, particularly in terms of minority issues, in the event of a comparable crisis occurring there, Ukraine will almost certainly not behave as passively as it did in early 2014.
Third, the recent (April 8) massive electoral victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist “Fidesz” party in Hungary could be a key factor in the future deterioration of the bilateral relationship.
Fourth, the activities of Ukrainian nationalistic groups could trigger inter-ethnic conflict in the region.
Fifth, Russia has a particular interest in undermining peace and stability in Transcarpathia and beyond. For instance, Russia has recently been accused of organizing several arson attacks on a local office of the Party of Hungarians of Ukraine (Vsapravda.info, February 14).
Sixth, if the Ukrainian government’s decision to reopen the Beregovo military base is being driven purely by populist concerns, this may ultimately have harmful consequences for the country’s international reputation, especially in Europe.
What is clear, is that Ukrainian diplomacy has much work to do to secure and pacify the country’s western flank so that the military can focus all of its energy on the east.