It is not the first time that I write on Ukraine in this journal, and most probably it will not be the last. It has been a long way since President George H. Bush told Ukrainians in Kiev in the summer of 1991 to remain within the Soviet Union, together with Russia. At that time the West knew very little about Ukraine and the Ukrainians. Whereas the demand for the restoration of the independence of the Baltic States enjoyed worldwide support, the same could not be said about Ukraine, whose very name was thought of more as a geographic than a political term. By contrast Hungary, as well as Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia, the western neighbours of Ukraine, knew that eastern Slav country rather well, their histories were often intertwined, and their mutual borders kept changing. They welcomed the August 1991 Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, which was strengthened by a plebiscite on 1 December. Despite the fact that in the past parts of today’s Ukraine used to belong to them, those countries do not hold any territorial claim against Ukraine; on the contrary, they all strongly support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and they joined in the sanctions against Russia after Putin’s seizure of Crimea. Two recent pieces of news concerning Ukraine: fighting with Russia is intensifying in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region – and on 3 August the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry protested against some of the remarks made by Prime Minister Orbán on Ukraine’s western integration. Let me first comment on the second, then the first.


In Europe the language of instruction, from the elementary level to the universities, used to be Latin. It was the Czech-born Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský) in the 17th century who proved that the best way of teaching is using the mother tongue. Is it possible that the Ukrainian Ministry of Education is not aware of that? Or its aim is not bringing out the most from children? In my January essay I tried to show what is wrong with the new Education Law, and why all the national minorities protest against it.

Until recently Hungary had most cordial relations with its largest neighbour. On 6 December 1991 Hungary’s Prime Minister Antall signed the first international document of the newly independent Ukraine with President Kravchuk. The “Treaty on the Foundations of Good Neighbourhood and Cooperation between the Republic of Hungary and Ukraine” called for close friendly relations, recognised the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders and the parties mutually renounced any territorial claim between them. The treaty incorporated a previously signed Declaration which committed the two signatories to respect the political and cultural rights of their respective national minorities and to work internationally for advancing those rights. Ever since then Hungary has supported Ukraine’s efforts of becoming a democratic and prosperous European state and helped it in many ways. Hungary joined the European Union and the United States in condemning the unprovoked aggression of Russia in Crimea and in eastern Ukrainian territories, and voted for the international sanctions against Russia. Hungary has given humanitarian aid to the victims of the defensive war and ardently hopes that the international efforts to restore peace will succeed.

In the January 2018 issue I called attention to the controversial new Education Law of 5 September 2017 passed by Ukraine’s Parliament. Among other measures the law stipulated that from the age of 10 all schools must teach in Ukrainian, and the language and literature of the minorities would be taught only as one of the subjects, a few hours a week only. The purported aim is to improve the knowledge of the state language, Ukrainian, so that the members of the national minorities could compete on the job market on equal terms. An understandable, even commendable purpose, according to the first foreign reaction. The realistic view is that the aim is to reduce the use of Russian (at present that language is commonly spoken even in Kiev), but many worry that the aim is more far-reaching: by promoting the official language they want to change the identity of the new generations, to “Ukrainianise” the non-Ukrainians, who make up a quarter of the population.

Since my January article Hungarian–Ukrainian relations have further deteriorated. Despite the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe Kiev has not amended the anti-minority Article 7 of the Education Law, and, in return, Hungary announced the blocking of Ukraine’s efforts at integration with the EU and NATO. At the end of May an official appeal was sent by Hungary to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg calling for a review of support programmes for Ukraine, unless the language clause of the law on education for national minorities of NATO member countries is repealed. By June, most probably thanks to American pressure, at a meeting between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and his Hungarian colleague Péter Szijjártó, some progress appeared to have been made, but Hungary, quite understandably, is not ready to return to its earlier support of Ukraine’s European and NATO integration until the educational rights of the Hungarians of Transcarpathia (Zakarpattya, or Subcarpathia, as, seen from Hungary, the region is not beyond the Carpathian Mountains) are assured. Both sides expect Washington and Brussels to help end the stalemate. On 27 July, at the summer university at Tusnádfürdő, a Hungarian-inhabited spa town in Transylvania, Romania (Băile Tușnad in Romanian), Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said pointedly that he did not believe that Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO were realistic. “Russia doesn’t consider itself a safe country if it is not surrounded by a buffer zone. […] Ukraine is one of the victims of this [pursuit]. The Ukrainians decided they’ve had enough of this fifty-fifty arrangement of Western and Russian influences, they wanted to join the Western world, and therefore to secede from the Russian zone, get closer to, or maybe even join NATO, the European Union, and build modern Ukraine. I see no NATO membership, real prospects for EU membership are almost zero, and rather than a new Ukrainian state, I see a Ukrainian economy drifting towards debt slavery. The Russians’ purpose to tilt back to the earlier status doesn’t look unrealistic to me.” Such an unpleasant but realistic assessment of Ukraine’s chances led to a strong retort. In the belief that the Hungarian Prime Minister delivered a message from the Kremlin the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine expressed its protest to László Pap, the Chargé d’affaires of Hungary to Ukraine against Budapest’s “unfriendly steps” towards Ukraine. “Despite Ukraine’s constructive approach to resolve existing issues, Hungary’s recent actions indicate a choice of confrontation instead of cooperation, and direct interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs”, the statement of the Ministry reads.

However, in my reading, if Ukraine had indeed shown a “constructive approach” to the education of its national minorities (Russians, Romanians, Poles, Hungarians etc.) in the mother tongue the conflict would have never emerged.


The international public is of course far more interested in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict, its hybrid war with Russia. (According to Reid Standish in Foreign Policy [January 2018] hybrid warfare is a military strategy, “the blending of diplomacy, politics, media, cyberspace and military force to destabilise and undermine an opponent’s government”.) President Putin shows no signs of giving up the Crimean Peninsula and probably parts of Eastern Ukraine. Given President Trump’s recent performance in Helsinki, his customs and trade policies towards the EU, and his ambiguous statements concerning NATO many observers fear that the United States is ready to make a deal with the Russian President on Crimea and will be ready to lift the sanctions against Russia. Jonathan D. Katz of the German Marshall Fund wrote in a recent article that “Ukrainians had every reason to be concerned that their future in the West was being bartered away by Trump and Putin at Helsinki. Did the two leaders agree on new spheres of US and Russian influence impacting Ukraine’s future? This could explain why Trump did not push back at the summit against Russian aggression in Ukraine. His silence on Ukraine at his press conference with Putin was deafening. His failure to address Russia’s ongoing hybrid warfare head on could be interpreted as a green light by Moscow. There are other uncertainties for Ukraine coming out of Helsinki. Did Trump agree to recognise Russia’s claims on Crimea? He reportedly offered the simplistic view at recent G7 meeting that ‘everyone there speaks Russian’. There are reports suggesting Putin floated a new deal on Ukraine and may have agreed to other ‘security agreements’ with Trump.” If there is any element of truth in these suppositions President Trump would find very strong opposition in Congress, which seems to be the chief advocate for stronger US– Ukrainian relations, including the supply of defensive weapons for Ukraine. Six US Senators have introduced legislation to boost sanctions and other measures against Russia. Two of the Senators who are sponsoring the bill, Lindsey Graham and (the recently deceased) John McCain, visited Shyrokyne, Donetsk region, Ukraine, which is on the battlefront.

Under such circumstances the position of the EU is becoming more important. Is it possible that the EU might also be tempted to accommodate Russia to the detriment of Ukraine’s interests? That cannot be excluded. In my view it is primarily Ukraine itself who can prevent such a scenario by starting to talk to the Russian President about his conditions for peace. Removing the pretexts for Russia’s aggressive actions would make President Poroshenko’s (or his successor’s) position stronger and would increase the internal cohesion of the country if its sizeable non-Ukrainian population were befriended. Today Ukrainian nationalism is fervent and growing. It owes a great deal to Putin’s aggression, which made so many Ukrainian citizens rally behind the government in Kiev. That may be helpful in sustaining the war effort but can easily turn into excesses. The victims of extremism are the nationalities, the minorities of Ukraine, who make up about a quarter of its population. The illusion seems to be widespread in Ukrainian political circles that centralisation, combined with suitable language laws and education policies would soon turn the non-Ukrainian citizens into patriotic Ukrainians. As I have pointed out, the attempt has led to protests and serious tension with most of the neighbouring countries.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the command economy resulted in economic collapse, massive inflation and unemployment in Ukraine. That helps to explain 25 years of a very volatile political atmosphere ending in the Maidan revolution in 2015. The vast majority of the citizens of Ukraine thought that the end to their economic misery lay in integration with the EU, while their independence could be guaranteed by membership in NATO. Participating in a recent televised debate in Kiev on Central Europe and Ukraine I could repeat my conviction, which I had recently expressed also in an article published in a Ukrainian scholarly journal, that Ukraine’s best prospects lay in strengthening its ties to Central Europe. That would speed up eventual membership of the EU. I made the observation that since my first visit in 1991 Kiev has become a bustling European capital, with a lot of construction going on. Infrastructure, especially the condition of the roads, left much to be desired, but central Kiev looked impressive indeed. Fortunately I did not see signs that the country was at war, but fighting the aggression clearly puts great strains on the economy and the people.

“What is essential for the future of Ukraine is obviously peace, and that can be achieved only with the support and solidarity of the West. The rise of national feeling among the Ukrainians has both positive and negative consequences. A calmer political atmosphere, consensus about eradicating corruption, return to the tolerant policy towards the non-Ukrainian quarter of the population, which characterised the 1990s, seems to me essential for the rapid European integration of Ukraine. More contact with the democratic countries, openness to Western political ideas and practice, and their spread among the population will help Ukraine to overcome its apparent difficulties.” This is how I summarised my impressions after my trip to Kiev in the spring.


Ukraine is a young nation, with much confidence in its capabilities and future. Somewhat similar illusions and notions prevailed in 19th-century Hungary, but they resulted in failure and tragedy, offering an object lesson for all countries bent on overlooking the interests of their national minorities, trying to assimilate them. The Kingdom of Hungary was established in AD 1000 by its first King, St Stephen. In addition to the Hungarian-speaking founders there were Slavic natives living in the country and soon German and Cumanian settlers were introduced. In the Middle Ages what mattered was not language but social position. The large nobility included also non-Hungarian speakers. Hungary’s official language was Latin, and by the 16th century 70–80 per cent of the population was Hungarian in language and identity. Centuries of defensive wars against the Ottoman Empire led to the depopulation of the southern and eastern parts of the historical state. After the expulsion of the Turkish occupiers the partly spontaneous and partly organised repopulation of Hungary in the 18th century led to a large number of Romanians and Serbs, also Germans settling in Hungary, including Transylvania. Thus the proportion of Hungarians in the historical kingdom was reduced to barely more than one third of the overall population. Nevertheless the Hungarian element continued to dominate the country. With the awakening of national feeling in the 19th century Hungary changed its official language from Latin to Hungarian; that was resented by the non-Hungarian minorities. When in 1848 Hungary adopted a liberal constitutional system and sought internal independence within the Habsburg Empire (in which it had been practically incorporated since the 1526 battle of Mohács), most of the political and church leaders of the national minorities demanded language rights, some even territorial autonomy, and eventually sided with the Habsburg court when it provoked a war for Hungarian independence in 1848–49. The newly raised Hungarian Army was successful against the imperial forces but was crushed by the intervention of the Russian Tsar. Having reached a compromise with Emperor Franz Josef in 1867 and learning from their earlier mistakes, the Hungarian political class was ready to offer rights for the minorities, especially in the use of their language, in the Law on Nationalities passed in 1868, but still refused any form of territorial autonomy for the Slovaks, Romanians and Serbs. The reckoning came at the end of the First World War when the victorious Entente broke up the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The Paris Peace Conference detached the northern and southern part of the Kingdom assigning them to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia respectively, and transferred the eastern part of Hungary (Transylvania) to Romania. To make the partition worse 3.5 million people, Hungarians in language and identity, who lived in the detached territories, became minorities in the states neighbouring what was often called “Rump Hungary”. Ever since then those Hungarian minorities have been subjected to discrimination, expulsion and forced assimilation, reducing their number to around 2.5 million. But even after a hundred years the Hungarian minorities insist on retaining their language and culture.

Hungary is not the only country where intolerance and short-sightedness led to a national tragedy. The break-up of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 took place amid much suffering and bloodshed – because the non-Serbs did not accept being ruled from Belgrade by Serbs and by the agents of Serbian domination. Milošević tried to prevent the break-up or at least to maximise the territory under Serbian control but he failed. It is to the credit of the political leaders of Russia and Czechoslovakia that the break-up of those two involuntary federations took place peacefully. Since the consequence of intolerance is often uprising and secession, one can safely assume that the best antidote against separation is a tolerant policy towards the minorities, giving them extensive language rights and, where their size and settlement area makes it advisable, territorial autonomy. The best-known example is South Tyrol, but the Swedish-speaking Aland Islands in Finland, the German area of Belgium and Schleswig between Denmark and Germany are also worthy of attention and copying. And let us not forget to consider what happened when a number of Scots demanded the restoration of their erstwhile independence. The London government, instead of sending troops to suppress the movement, called for a referendum – and the unity of the United Kingdom was preserved. “Devolution” has also worked in Wales and in Northern Ireland. Do we need further examples of the advantages of local self-government?


Timothy Snyder, a historian of Central and Eastern Europe, who – due to the terrible events of the past – called that region “bloodlands”, observed a few years ago: “if Ukraine becomes Novorossiya, Europe becomes Eurasia – not because of Russia’s strength but because of the mental weakness of the West”. It is beyond doubt that the independence of Ukraine is an essential element of European stability, but is it possible to reconcile the divergent views about that country’s future held by the US, the EU and Russia? I think that it is the Central European neighbours of Russia who should be primarily listened to when seeking a solution to the present deadlock over Russian–Ukrainian relations.

There is no doubt that the conflict was started by Russia and the seizure of Crimea was a most serious breach of international law. Helping the Russians of Crimea was certainly only a pretext. The annexation boosted the popularity of Putin in Russia. Who can realistically imagine that any future Russian leader will return the peninsula to Ukraine? Sanctions will not lead to such a result, and I think there is a justified fear that the US and the EU will sooner or later swallow the annexation so as to appease Russia. Brussels will hope to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Trump’s reckless policies, while the US will most likely seek accommodation with Russia so as to strengthen its position against China. A face-saving device may be a new referendum in Crimea, with international observers present, and the result will most likely favour Russia.

My modest but bold advice is to prevent such an outcome while also ending the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It is a fact that in the eastern regions of Ukraine there are millions of people whose mother tongue is Russian. Not all, but many may think that the use of their language is not guaranteed in Ukraine and that life under Putin would be better. Even if that hybrid war had not been started I do not think that about 10 million Russian-speakers could ever be absorbed and turned into Ukrainians in language and identity. What failed in Hungary, also in inter-war Poland, as well as in Slovakia and Romania, namely attempts to assimilate their national minorities, is most likely not to succeed in Ukraine. Would it not be far better to kill separatism with kindness, to offer extensive rights to all the non-Ukrainians of Ukraine? Self-government of the towns and the regions with a mixed population, following the West European models? A centralised Ukrainian state might be popular today with the majority nation but will not win the support of millions of non-Ukrainians. The war can drag on in Eastern Ukraine, constantly draining the scarce resources of the state, and at best not spread further. A constitutional reform along the lines many sincere friends of Ukraine have proposed would pull the carpet from under Putin’s propaganda and would incredibly strengthen the moral position of Ukraine. International support would be strong, and the ground would be prepared for an international conference to resolve the Russian–Ukrainian conflict. In order to avoid the charge of a sell-out like the 1938 Munich Conference, the venue might be Vienna, where both facilities and the political atmosphere would be ideal. At such a conference the status of Crimea could be discussed and a compromise reached. A condominium over the territory by the two protagonists would appeal to all outsiders and would resolve the legal deadlock over sovereignty. The alternative can be Russia accepting Ukraine as the protective power over Crimea as Austria is internationally recognised as such, as the Schutzmacht over South Tyrol. In exchange Russia could be recognised as the protective power over the partly Russian-inhabited regions of Eastern Ukraine. International guarantees would safeguard such a settlement.

It might sound impossible for many Ukrainians to accept a compromise which does not fully restore the status quo ante. But the preservation or the restoration of peace always requires compromises. Russia is a great power that possesses nuclear weapons. It cannot be defeated militarily by Ukraine. Ukraine will never acquire allies for an all-out war against Russia. Hungary has lost much more than a Crimea: two thirds of its former territory. The effort to recapture some of it in the Second World War led to the death of one million Hungarian citizens – one tenth of the nation. By today Hungary has acquiesced in the present, unfairly drawn borders, while insisting on respecting the Hungarian identity of those detached from Hungary by the peace treaties. Hungary does not want political let alone military conflict with any of its neighbours on account of the mistreatment of their Hungarian minorities. It trusts that the conventions of the Council of Europe and the implementation of OSCE recommendations will protect those Hungarians. Hungary continues to sympathise with Ukraine in its present conflict with Russia, but expects Ukraine to respect the bilateral treaty of 1991 and to continue to allow the education of its small Hungarian minority in its native tongue. Ukrainians outside the borders of Ukraine would understand that wish.

If Ukraine had peace with Russia and strong friendly ties to its other neighbours, international confidence in Ukraine’s future would be boosted and investments would pour into the country. That would lead to a substantial rise in the living standards of the population and would curtail extremism. Is there a better vision than a peaceful, stable and prosperous Ukraine? Then there would be no more war casualties and the kiborgs, the brave fighters, too, could reunite with their families and friends.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email