Transcarpathia, once belonging to Hungary, only became part of Ukraine in 1945. Over 12% of the region’s inhabitants are ethnic Hungarians, and the majority of them live in the Berehove, Vynohradiv, Uzhhorod and Mukachevo districts bordering Hungary.
Until recently, the Hungarian government has not made any attempts to meddle in the political activities of its Transcarpathian compatriots. However, the profound political crisis which started in Ukraine in 2013 has caused a situation where, in light of Ukraine’s permanent instability, the security of the Hungarian community and its political status have become one of the most important foreign policy priorities for the Hungarian authorities.
Under pressure from this quarter, two formerly competing Hungarian political parties, the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association (KMKSZ) and the Hungarian Democratic Federation in Ukraine (UMDSZ), were forced to unite during the run-up to the local elections in Ukraine, which were held on 25 October.
“During Maidan, we feared the Right Sector”
Transcarpathia differs from the majority of other districts in western Ukraine because of its high level of ethnic diversity (over 30 ethnic groups). The influence of Ukrainian nationalists in the region has been incomparably weaker than in any other neighbouring district until very recently. The national minorities, the largest among them being Hungarians (over 150,000), have become the “nuclear” electorates of Ukraine’s left-centrist and even formally “pro-Russian” political parties of Ukraine.
The political career of the former leader of the UMDSZ, Istvan Gaidosh, serves as a mirror to illustrate the electoral orientation of the Transcarpathian Hungarians. In 2002-2005 he was a people’s deputy of Ukraine and member of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united) in parliament. In 2005 (after the victory of the Orange Revolution and Ukrainian nationalists’ ascent to power with Viktor Yushchenko at their helm) he switched over to the faction of the Socialist Party of Ukraine. From 2006 to 2012 he was mayor of Berehove, and in 2012 he entered parliament on the Party of Regions (PR) lists.
Overall, residents of the Transcarpathian Region cast 30.9% of their votes in favour of the Party of Regions during parliamentary elections in 2012. Up until the events of Euromaidan, Transcarpathia remained a region informally divided between the PR, with national minorities as its base, and the Ukrainian political clan of Viktor Baloha, leader of the party United Centre.
Transcarpathians in general and Hungarians in particular were not especially enthusiastic about Euromaidan. The discourse surrounding Ukraine’s forced European integration was of little interest for the region as it is practically in the European Union already (thanks to border cooperation and EU country passports for many inhabitants). Here is how a local activist described Hungarians’ attitude towards Euromaidan in an interview with Gazeta Po-Ukrainsky: “During Maidan, we feared the Right Sector. Rumours abounded in the city that buses full of them are coming from Lviv and that there will be a coup in city council. Our “Maidan” gathered near the House of Culture. But we didn’t have many. You can count them on your fingers.”
After the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich, political parties in Transcarpathia affiliated with him had to take a pause in their activities so as not to provoke a harsh reaction from the new authorities. In the opinion of Hungarian political scientist Imre Denes, Transcarpathian Hungarians found themselves in an ambiguous situation: on one hand, it was necessary to attain representation in the new session of the Upper Parliament; on the other hand, any ethnically orientated political activity could have been seen as separatism. “In these conditions, the local Hungarian elite decided to distance itself from politics. As a result, the district gave way to Baloha’s group,” the expert told Europe Insight.
In the outcome of the parliamentary elections, the ex-Minister of Emergency Situations of Ukraine, Baloha, brought two of his biological brothers – Ivan and Pavel – and one step-brother – Vasily Petevka – into parliament through Transcarpathia’s majority districts. Control over the region went to a single hand, and the local Hungarian political parties – the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association (KMKSZ) and the Hungarian Democratic Federation in Ukraine (UMDSZ) – were forced into the shadows for a while.
Jobbik, an opposition political party in Hungary, tried to supplant them in the political system of Transcarpathia, repeatedly voicing demands for national autonomy for Hungarians and Rusyns in Ukraine. However, the party’s attempt to gather strength in Transcarpathia was foiled through the joint efforts of Ukrainian and Hungarian authorities.
According to the Ukrinform agency, Hungary’s MFA had condemned Jobbik’s activities, which put Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in doubt, as well as supposedly ignored the interests of Hungarian national minorities, as far back as March 2014. In September 2014, the activities of the charity fund Office for the Independent Member of the European Parliament Bela Kovacs (of Jobbik) were suspended by the Transcarpathian Regional Administrative Court for activities aimed at interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine and encroaching on its territorial integrity. In December 2014 Jobbik deputy Istvan Szavay was banned from entering Ukraine for 5 years.
“Hungary is taking matters into its own hands”
Jobbik’s activism has attracted the attention of Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz (leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban), to the region. In late spring 2014, the Hungarian authorities undertook a tacit “probing of the soil” on the subject of possibly establishing control over the Hungarian national movement in Transcarpathia.
Transcarpathian Research Centre consultant Marta Munkacsi is certain that the interest shown by the Hungarian government in Transcarpathia does not by any means stem from intentions to weaken the opposition’s political influence in the region. “All of these talks about how Orban came to Transcarpathia solely to spite Jobbik are senseless. Claims of some kind of ‘geopolitical expansion’ or ‘widening the sphere of national interests’ are equally senseless … The goal of the government is to bring order to the diaspora, prevent strife and compel Ukrainian Hungarians to turn to Budapest in dialogue with Kiev,” said Munkacsi. The expert thinks that the situation in eastern Ukraine provides a stark testimony of how important it is for national states to maintain control over diasporas.
Compelling the political parties of the local Hungarians to unite has been the main step made by the Hungarian government towards strengthening its control over the diaspora in Transcarpathia. As Compatriots Assistance Foundation analyst Laszlo Tokodi stated in an interview with Europe Insight, the relevant consultations over the possibility of merging Transcarpathia’s Hungarian parties into a single party dependent on Budapest were initiated in May-June 2014.
“Petro Poroshenko’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential elections and Russia’s ultimate failure in restoring Viktor Yanukovich to power gave the signal that it would be insensible for Transcarpathia’s Hungarians to seek protection from the old president and they should rather come to an agreement with the new one. The locals (Hungarians – note) were given a condition: Hungary is taking matters into its own hands. It is protecting your rights and your lives from Ukrainian radicals. But they must do something, too,” said the expert.
In May 2014, pressured by Hungary, the KMKSZ signed an agreement on cooperation with President Poroshenko, and as early as June public statements were made on the necessity of merging the Hungarian parties of Transcarpathia.
The political position of the leader of the UMDSZ Istvan Gaidosh was a key obstacle on this path. He consistently advocated the idea of the independence of his political party. On 30 June Gaidosh resigned from his position as head of the party.
As the Transcarpathian publication Mukachevo.net described the incident: “Concerning the reasons, the main one is allegedly noble – Gaidosh dreams of uniting Transcarpathian Hungarians around a single common idea. He is also supposedly dreaming of making amends with Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association (KMKSZ). Well, and he is supposedly completing a certain political cycle – it’s been 12 years since the day of UMDSZ’s founding.”
According to Laszlo Brenzovich, head of the KMKSZ, serious changes are afoot in Ukraine and Hungarians “must make use of this situation.” Brenzovich added that following Gaidosh’s resignation, the KMKSZ is ready for any talks related to unifying Transcarpathia’s Hungarians.
However, the actual unification of the parties turned out to be very complicated and protracted. In the opinion of Marta Munkacsi, groups opposing the merger of the KMKSZ and UMDSZ were sufficiently capable of utterly disrupting the consultative process between the political parties or delaying them to the extreme. “Attempts to sabotage the negotiations were such routine occurrences that it seemed the sides would never come to an agreement without Budapest’s direct intervention,” said the expert in comments to Europe Insight.
As noted by the experts with whom Europe Insight spoke, direct intervention by the Hungarian authorities occurred in mid-August 2015, nearly half a year after the start of the consultative process. The agreement between the KMKSZ and UMDSZ envisaging “constructive cooperation in the interests of the Transcarpathian Hungarian community” was signed on 5 September. This time the Deputy Prime Minister of Hungary Zsolt Semjen – who is responsible for national policy – was personally involved. In Semjen’s opinion, the union was made possible thanks only to the support and assistance of the government of Hungary.
In Berehove, the Hungarian party organisations also held parallel meetings, where delegates approved a common document signed by their leaders – Laszlo Brenzovich (KMKSZ) and Laszlo Zubanich (new leader of the UMDSZ). The document was regarding cooperation in the local council elections of 25 October 2015. According to the agreement, the parties created a joint list on a parity basis for the regional council. The main goal of the agreement was overcoming the 5% barrier. The second aim was forming a majority in regions where Hungarians live compactly. The two Hungarian organisations also created a Coordination Committee in order to coordinate joint activities during the course of the election campaign.
However, an analysis of the lists of candidates for the Transcarpathian Regional Council demonstrates that in achieving the unification of the KMKSZ and UMDSZ, Hungary played against the interests of the diaspora by strengthening the position of Viktor Baloha’s group and the Opposition Bloc (OB). In the opinion of Imre Denes, the list from this party to the regional council is “a bit strange”.
“In his time, Baloha drove Miklos Kovacs from the leadership of the KMKSZ and made his creation Laszlo Brenzovich leader of the party,” said the expert. United Centre party activist Olexandr Doktor is also found in the Hungarian list. People affiliated with the OB on this list are Nikolai Pigulyak, head of Urban Planning, Architecture and Housing of the Transcarpathian Regional State Administration, and two employees of the Transcarpathian Regional TV and Radio Broadcasting Company, Atilla Shterr and Zoltan Kulin.
As Marta Munkacsi commented to Europe Insight, “in actively seeking the unification of Hungarian parties of Transcarpathia according to its own interests, the Hungarian authorities removed politicians who were dedicated to the people and country, like former UMDSZ leader Gaidosh, weakened the positions of both political parties, and simultaneously failed to follow up on what happened to them over the past year.” In the expert’s opinion, if the bloc of Hungarian parties wins seats in the local bodies of self-government, Budapest “will have to negotiate with Baloha and Ledida (Olexandr Ledida, former governor of Transcarpathia and OB supporter – note) instead of Brenzovich or Zubanich.