Why Hungary is Zelenskyy’s other big deal
VOLODOMYR ZELENSKYY, who is the president of Europe’s poorest country, faces a host of problems, including Russian separatism in the east, resurging populism and mind-boggling patronage in the country’s parliament, no foreign direct investment, corrupt courts, oligarchs galore, and enthusiastic but wavering attention from the West. The dynamic Ukrainian leader wants to end the war, enrich Ukraine and end corruption, all laudable but difficult goals. Moreover, he wants Ukraine join NATO now. Over the past two years, Zelenskyy and his team have devoted much of their energy to trying to bring peace to eastern Ukraine in order to lay the foundation for the integration of Kiev in the west, because Ukraine’s candidacy for membership has little chance of moving forward with open war in its midst. Despite many efforts, he failed. But there is another problem that could explode Zelenskyy’s plans for NATO. This problem is in the west of Ukraine, not in the east, and it is in Hungary.
On a recent trip to Ukraine, I had a bird’s eye view of the challenges the country faces. It was a reminder, among other things, that the country has no roads but lots of churches, as my driver and I drove around Labrador-sized potholes and came across a church in iridescent blue and gold onion bulb after another in Zakarpattia, Ukraine’s western mountainous region bordering the European Union. The region defies easy description. “In Kiev, everyone is Ukrainian. This is not true in Zakarpattia, ”Yevhen Hlibovytsky, social science researcher and partner at Pro.Mova, a consultancy firm, told me. A border region of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, Zakarpattia is home to Hutsuls, Romanians, Hungarians and a small Jewish population (people are more tolerant here than in other parts of the country). An attitude of live and let live permeates the region.
My guide to the area was Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, a 30-something bearded hipster and founder and CEO of the Institute for Central European Strategy. Living in Uzhgorod, the largest city on Ukraine’s border with the European Union, Tuzhanskyi specializes in the region’s many identities and provided insight. He is not from the mountains but cannot tear himself away from his differences, nor from his spiciness bograch, better known as goulash in the West, where red pepper flakes brighten up beef soup and castles watch over us as we sip the soup and inhale salo, pork fat spread on black rye bread. We pulled into a gas station in Solotvyno, a half-Romanian village and the rest is a mix of Hungarian and Ukrainian. Romanian, Hungarian and Ukrainian flags hang in the village hall. Cavernous, almost identical, soulless empty houses in various shades of terracotta line the main street. Tuzhanskyi says the big houses are owned by Romanians, who are better integrated in Ukraine than the Hungarian community. A large Ukrainian outcrop in Romania exists, although the figures are disputed. According to the 2011 Romanian census, there were 51,700 Ukrainians in Romania, but Ukrainians say the actual figure is between 250,000 and 300,000. Overall, however, Tuzhanskyi says Romanian-Ukrainian relations are strong. .
But Hungary, on the other hand, is adept at creating difficulties for Ukraine. Since Budapest is a member of the European Union and NATO, it can prevent Kiev from entering each of them. Hungary seeks to reunite its people and nation, and Budapest is more than happy to release the funds to do so. By virtue of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, scarecrow of the Hungarian nationalists, Hungary was divided. A third of the Hungarian population has found itself outside the borders of what constitutes modern Hungary. While the country has about ten million inhabitants, one million Hungarians live in Romania, 500,000 in Slovakia, 120,000 in Ukraine. In Ukraine and in the so-called historic lands of Hungary, Hungarian children receive their education in the Hungarian language and according to Hungarian standards. Over the past thirty years, Budapest has created a network of schools, arguing that if you are Hungarian, you should have the right to education in Hungarian from kindergarten to university. Personal relations between Hungarians and Ukrainians are good, Tuzhanskyi reassures me, but relations between Budapest and Kiev are another matter. Hungary regularly blocks Ukraine’s further integration into NATO and stubbornly make stories on the issue of language in western Ukraine.
The mix of identities could offer Moscow a chance to make life in Kiev even more difficult than it already is, a possibility that no doubt delights Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently argued that the belief in a Ukrainian identity is false. The Russian president mentioned the Carpathians in his recent article, using the term “Pidkarpatska Rus”, which was the name of the region during the existence of Czechoslovakia. The region has everything one needs for maximum monkey business: multiple identities with questionable loyalty to Kiev, many languages, high levels of corruption and one of the strongest levels membership in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
Moscow’s intentions in Zakarpattia are therefore not difficult to discern. Russia wants to destabilize western Ukraine. When Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and engulfed part of eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian Orthodox priests in the Carpathians quickly called the conflict a civil war in Ukraine. This fiction helps reinforce Moscow’s claim that it was simply claiming what had always belonged to it.
So far, geopolitical temperaments have not flared up in the Carpathians and there has been no serious attempt to secede from Ukraine. But thanks to the munificence of Budapest stock Exchange, the Hungarian community in Ukraine controls Influential Hungarian-language newspapers, websites and TV channels in Western Ukraine. Many locals have both Hungarian and Ukrainian passports. Fidesz, the political party directly linked to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has said irresponsible things about the conflict in Ukraine. “The actions of the Ukrainian government lead to a situation of civil war in Transcarpathia”, Fidesz wrote in a statement said in 2020. “They do not believe in the successful future of Ukraine. They don’t feel that Ukraine is a state, ”Tuzhanskyi told me. For Ukraine, a multi-ethnic country of forty million people in the midst of a massive state-building project, this is a big deal.
The difficulties are compounded by the fact that this region, located hundreds of kilometers from Kiev, largely escapes the attention of bureaucrats, leaving carte blanche to local elites. Enter the Baloha family. He ruled, or, to put it more accurately, ruled, the region for years. Victor, head of the presidential administration of Viktor Yushchenko between 2006 and 2009, is currently a Member of Parliament. His twin brothers Ivan and Pavlo also held seats in parliament, and his son Andriy served as mayor of Ukraine’s smuggling capital, Mukachevo, for some time.
A local joke captures the region brilliantly.
“Why is our region too rich and famous? Because we have two Christmases and three Balohas.
In the German-speaking town of Ust-Chorna (or Königsfeld), twelve to fifteen families attend the local German Catholic Church, which has recently undergone a roof renovation. Everyone participated, even if they were not present. Residents celebrate both Catholic and Orthodox Christmas, and people respect each other’s holidays.
But the region is diverse. Before World War II, about a third to half of the population was Jewish, but few of the region’s 85,000 Jews survived the Nazi invasion. To find the Jewish community of Transcarpathia today, you have to dust off a history book. Historically, there were synagogues in Mukachevo, Uzhgorod (a remarkable Moorish synagogue located on the Uzh River converted into a concert hall since WWII) and Berehove. One Transcarpathian Jew whose family survived is Alexander Rovt, a Ukrainian fertilizer billionaire, who comes from a practicing Jewish family in Mukachevo. But he too has moved: Rovt now lives in New York. Another Jewish family owns Chateau Chizay, an extravagant vineyard that easily surpasses anything I’ve seen in Maryland or Virginia. The owner also lives abroad.
This diversity goes beyond its ethnic minorities. In the small town of Nyzhnii Selyshche, Oreste Del Sol, a Frenchman, moved to Ukraine over twenty years ago and has never looked back. He married a local and now produces the best goat cheese I have ever had and a top notch Grüner Veltliner from the Selyska cheese factory, fitted with a secret air-operated passage between the factory and the restaurant. On May 18, the day before the opening of his new restaurant, Geleta Restaurant, he served us amazing fresh trout, goat cheese salad and ice cream and begged us to come back. Del Sol is also a local environmental activist, who urged Zelenskyy to protect the Carpathian forests that are being razed to build new resorts that will ultimately benefit their oligarchic owners, like Ihor Kolomoisky.
VIEW FROM Western Ukraine, Hungary’s strategy to return to its historic lands seems downright foolish. Young Hungarians in Ukraine have EU passports and are traveling abroad in increasing numbers. It is only a matter of time before the Hungarian population in Ukraine either joins the European Union or eventually disappears.
So what holds back the regional differences? Corruption, argues Hlibovytsky. “Corruption is the way out of conflict,” he said. “You coexist but you don’t cooperate very often.” Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians and Hutzels take the bus together and live with each other, but multiculturalism is thin. Of all the regions of Ukraine, Zakarpattia Oblast ranks first for its tolerance of corruption.