How Hungary and Ukraine fell out over a passport scandal

Ukraine’s border region of Zakarpattya is home to the country’s Hungarian community – and is now the centre of a diplomatic row. RU

Aleksei Arunyan
11 October 2018


In the school building in Palad-Komarovtsy. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

For several weeks now, Ukraine and Hungary have been mired in a diplomatic row. At its centre lies the region of Zakarpattya in western Ukraine, which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The row has come after a video was leaked online, showing ethnic Hungarians pledging allegiance to Hungary in a consulate in Zakarpattya. In return, Kyiv accuses its neighbour of a lack of respect for its laws, while Budapest complains that Ukraine is infringing the rights of the ethnic Hungarian minority, who make up 12% of Zakarpattya’s population.

Secret citizenship

“The first time I crossed the border with both ID cards, I got scared and hid my Hungarian one in my underpants,” admits Vasilii (not his real name), a builder from the village of Tisobiken.

This village is located in the Vinogradsk district of Ukraine’s Zakarpattya region, right on its border with Hungary. Vasilii was born there 35 years ago, and his family have lived in Tisobiken for generations. His father is an ethnic Hungarian, his mother a Ukrainian from the Odessa area. Vasilii looks older than his years: he has bald patches on his skull, the skin around his sad eyes is wrinkled and his beard is flecked with grey.

Vasilii hasn’t been back much to the village since he got Hungarian citizenship; he spends most of his time working in Hungary. Over the last few years he has become used to crossing back and forth across the border and no longer hides his ID going through the checkpoints – he keeps both cards in a shoulder bag.

“Yesterday, a Hungarian border guard opened my bag and saw I had two ID cards in it,” Vasilii tells me crossly. “He didn’t say a word. It’s perfectly legal over there. On our side of the border I keep my Ukrainian ID in my bag and the Hungarian one in my back pocket. Once it’s in my pocket they can’t ask to see it. I’ve nothing illegal on me, nothing needing customs clearance. I don’t have any cigarettes or palinka [a local fruit brandy – ed.] with me.”

The fateful video

Hungary has been handing out ID cards to people living in Zakarpattya since 2011, after Viktor Orban came to power the second time and his Fides party initiated changes to the country’s citizenship legislation. Now, people whose families were born in areas historically part of Hungary can apply for Hungarian citizenship. It doesn’t matter where they live now: the main condition is that they speak Hungarian.

Around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Zakarpattya fulfil this condition: the area only became part of Soviet Ukraine in 1945, and before 1920 it had been part of Hungary or Austro-Hungary for centuries. Budapest also ruled Zakarpattya between 1939 and 1944, during the Second World War.

In 2015, the Hungarian authorities announced that they had given citizenship to around 100,000 ethnic Hungarians living on Ukrainian territory, and over the last seven years the Kyiv government has been turning a blind eye to Hungarian passports being issued in Zakarpattya. Ukraine’s constitution states that “there is only one form of citizenship in our country”, but its legislation contains no reference to any potential consequences of acquiring citizenship of another country. The only people who are forbidden by law from acquiring dual citizenship are civil servants.

On 19 September this year, however, the Ukrainian government started making a series of sharp statements towards Hungary. This came after a hidden camera video showing people receiving Hungarian ID cards in the Hungarian consulate in Berehove was leaked online.

The video shows a group of people taking an oath of allegiance to Hungary and then singing its national anthem. Captions indicate that Hungarian diplomats were apparently instructing their new “citizens” and ordering them to “hide their acquisition of Hungarian citizenship from the authorities”. Who was saying this, and to whom, is unclear.

A few hours after the appearance of the video, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin posted a tweet stating that “the Berehove consul will have to go to Budapest if he wants to hand out Hungarian passports.”

“We will engage systematically with this issue,” said the minister in his video reply. “There will be more Ukraine there, and more each year. Zakarpattya specifically, and we will definitely achieve that.”

The next day, Hungary’s Foreign Ministry described Klimkin’s intention to deport its consul as a “risky and unfriendly step which will not be left without a response.”


Greek Catholic Church in the village of Tisobiken. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

On 26 September, the Foreign Ministers of both countries held a meeting at the UN headquarters in New York, but it did nothing to relieve the tension between them. After the meeting, Hungary’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that “the incitement to hatred against Hungarians in Ukraine will not cease, so long as the current president is in office”. The Hungarians also stressed that, as far as they were concerned, the issue of ID cards in Hungarian consulates in Ukraine was in line with international law.

The climax of the drama took place on 4 October: Kyiv declared the Hungarian consul in Berehove a persona non grata, and Budapest responded by deporting a Ukrainian diplomat of equal rank.

This is not the first conflict of this kind between Ukraine and Hungary. Relations between the two countries deteriorated in September 2017, when Kyiv’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted a new education law requiring all secondary schools to use only Ukrainian in the classroom. Budapest declared that this would discriminate against Ukraine’s ethnic Hungarian minority and deprive its members of the right to be taught in their own language. The law that has led to this row will come into force in September 2020.

A view from a regional council

“What Hungary is doing is in line with its constitution. It is doing it legally, without hiding anything, and doing it with the aim of uniting its nation,” says Iosip Borto, deputy chair of the Zakarpattya regional council. “The unification of the nation isn’t happening in terms of territory. Revising borders is unrealistic in our day, and Hungary knows it. A nation can only be united politically, economically and legally.”

Borto is also deputy head of the Hungarian Cultural Society of Zakarpattya, known in the region by its acronym KMKSZ. This body has been acting as both a public organisation and a party representing the interests of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority since 1989. Its leader Vasilii Brenzovich is a member of the presidential Poroshenko Bloc of the Ukrainian parliament. In 2015, KMKS and the Democratic Party of Hungarians of Ukraine joined forces to fight local elections, and now have eight seats out of 64 in the regional council.


Iosip Borto, deputy chair of the Zakarpattya regional council. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

“Twelve percent of Zakarpattya’s population are ethnic Hungarians,” Vasilii Brenzovich tells me. “So we have proportional representation in the regional council. We are part of an informal majority and our proposals are taken into account at regional level. There is a similar situation at district and city level. There are ethnic Hungarians in regional and district councils and at local level as well.”

In Iosip Borto’s spacious office, two three-metre flags – the Ukrainian and local flag – hang to the left of his chair. On the wall behind his desk hangs a portrait of Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko. Borto says that he has only one ID card, a Ukrainian one. But he nonetheless approves of Hungary’s decision to offer citizenship to the descendents of its historical population, on the grounds that Budapest wishes to unite the millions of Hungarians who were scattered around the countries of the Carpathian Basin by two world wars.

“When someone is in Ukraine,” says Borto, “their Hungarian citizenship doesn’t operate. It operates only in Hungary and the EU. That’s why most people want to have this citizenship, because you then become an EU citizen as well. It also gives you certain advantages in terms of movement and work.”

The Zakarpattya regional council shares its building with the regional administration. It also believes that there is no risk to Ukraine in giving people in the region Hungarian citizenship.

“There’s absolutely nothing new here,” regional administration deputy head Yaroslav Galas says of the scandalous video. “The text of the oath of allegiance was known and was heard and read in the media, so it’s a bit strange that there was such a fuss about it.”

Galas’ office walls are hung with photos of regional governor Gennady Moskal in military uniform: before coming to Zakarpattya, Moskal headed the Luhansk regional administration during the height of the Donbas conflict, and Galas worked for him as his press officer. “We know, here in the administration, that the 100,000 people who received Hungarian citizenship did not become any less patriotic Ukrainians,” he says. “They did it for purely pragmatic reasons, to be able to live and work in Europe. And their Hungarian ID cards take them not just to Hungary, but to Britain, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Then they bring their earnings back home and spend them: building houses, giving their children an education and so on.”

In Galas’ opinion, the fuss around the Hungarian ID cards was mainly a result of the fact that the question of dual citizenship hasn’t yet been settled in Ukraine. To avoid the problems arising from this, he believes that the Ukrainian parliament should either introduce penalties for dual citizenship or legalise it.

One village, two national anthems

The hall in the cultural centre of Palad-Komarovtsy is ringing with song. A group of women in snowy white blouses, aprons and blue skirts have taken the stage in this village near the border with Slovakia. They are the local Nefelejcs (“Forget-me-not”) vocal ensemble, and are the opening act in the 28th Festival of Hungarian Folk Art.

In the front row, special guests – the Hungarian consul, officials from the regional and district administrations and Laslo Zubanich, leader of the Democratic Party of Hungarians of Ukraine – have been following the performance. Now everyone stands for the Ukrainian national anthem. The audience is silent, although a few participants of the ensemble mouth the words. Then comes the Hungarian anthem, and nearly everyone in the front row sings along, including the village head and the head of the Regional Board for Ethnic Affairs.


Former building of the Society of the Hungarian Culture of Transcarpathia, injured by an explosion in February 2018. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

Two MCs are on the platform: one introduces the Ukrainian acts, the other the Hungarian ones. Iosip Rezesh, a regional administration official, makes a speech in both languages; everyone else, including the village head, sticks to Hungarian.

“Our first festival took place in 1989 in the town of Chop, and many of its organisers are no longer with us,” says Yuri Dupko, the head of the Zakarpattya Hungarian Intellectuals’ Society. “That was when we said that while there are ethnic Hungarians living in Zakarpattya, we will run an event like this annually.”

Palad-Komarovtsy, where the festival is taking place this year, is a small village on the border with Slovakia. It has about 1,000 inhabitants, 80% of them ethnic Hungarians. Dozens of Zakarpattya villages have a Hungarian-speaking majority, especially in the Berehove district where, according to the 2001 census, 75% of the population is ethnic Hungarian. And there are sizeable Hungarian settlements in the Vinogradov and Uzhgorod districts, where Palad-Komarovtsy is situated.

While the concert continues in the cultural centre, preparations for a banquet are going on in the village school next door. Ukrainian and Hungarian flags hang over the entrance and the facade is covered in colourful placards relating the history of the village. One of them carries a statement reading: “This school was built as a gift to the children by the ‘Road to Communism’ kolkhoz in honour of the XXV Congress of the CPSU, 1976”. Another placard tells us, in both Ukrainian and Hungarian, that “the modernisation of this building was carried out in 2013-2014, with financial assistance from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the Zakarpattya Regional Administration.”

Iosip Rezesh, who heads the regional administration’s Department of Ethnic Affairs, heads out of the cultural centre for a smoke. I ask him:

“Here at the festival we’ve heard the Hungarian national anthem and there are Hungarian flags all over the place. Pavlo Klimkin, head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, recently expressed concerns about this situation, and said that there should be ‘more Ukraine’ in Zakarpattya. What do you think about this?”


Iosip Rezesh. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

“There’s no question,” he answers, a crafty look on his face. “Let there be more of Ukraine. Let there be more roads, more finance. Let people have higher wages. Then there really will be more of Ukraine. But what did Klimkin mean? More of what? Everybody being forced to speak Ukrainian? That’s wrong as well.”

Rezesh himself, unlike many officials of Hungarian descent, speaks absolutely fluent Ukrainian with a barely noticeable accent. He says he doesn’t have Hungarian citizenship, since civil servants don’t have the right to this. But in his opinion, there is no ban on any other Ukrainian citizens acquiring citizenship of another country.

“There can only be a final resolution of the citizenship question if changes are made to the Constitution and the laws that regulate it,” he says. “But now everyone interprets it whatever way they like. I’m a specialist in international law by profession, and after the row with the video I read every law in the book. And, to be honest, I didn’t find a single one that regulated or banned dual citizenship.”

A day before the festival in Palad-Komarovtsy it was announced that the Zakarpattya prosecutor’s office had launched criminal proceedings of “state treason” over the matter of Hungarian citizenship. The law prescribes a prison sentence of 10-15 years on conviction under the article, but so far no one has been charged.

I ask Iosip Rezesh to comment on the prosecutor’s decision and a serious and concentrated look replaces his usual slight smile: “It’s a terrible mistake, I believe. It’s just wrong. It reminds me of the days when anyone could be charged with anything.”

Forints for separatism and cucumbers

On the edge of the Uzhgorod district, near the village of Bobrintsy stands a memorial sign to the memory of Edmund Egan (Egan Ede in Hungarian), the Hungarian economist, philanthropist and agricultural specialist who initiated land reform to improve the lives of Ruthenian villagers in the late 19th century.

This memorial to Egan was built in 2002, with money raised by local residents. A few years later the people of the village of Baranovtsy, where it stood, placed two large boulders underneath it, and as a sign of friendship between Hungarians and Ukrainians, one of them was painted in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag and the other in the red, green and white of the Hungarian one. Recently, however, unknown people repainted the “Hungarian” boulder in the black and red of the Ukrainian nationalist banner, and some time later it was repainted yet again, in Hungary’s national colours. I am shown the memorial by Adreana Fuks, the deputy head of the Hungarian intellectuals association which had organised the festival in Palad-Komarovtsy. She tells me that the boulder has been painted and repainted at least six times.


The memorial sign to the memory of Edmund Egan. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

“Egan Ede brought Ukrainians and Hungarians together. Who has this mania for driving to the edge of the village just to paint the stone red and black?” Adreana says, irritation in her voice. “There’s no point in going to the police, because the boulders weren’t included in the original village plan. They were placed there after the memorial.”

There is now a foundation named after Egan Ede, used by the Hungarian authorities to fund Hungarian business owners in Zakarpattya. Budapest has allocated almost 104 million euros to this fund over the last two years. In May this year, the Egan Ede Zakarpattya Centre for Economic Development, headed by KMKS leader Vasilii Brenzovich, provided grants of between two and three million Forints (£5,500-8,000) to 1214 businesses.

In June, Ukraine’s Security Services (SBU) launched a criminal case against the Centre, accusing it of “separatism”. The police suspect the foundation of providing 30 million hryvnya (£1.65 million) to finance “illegal movements linked to encroachment on Ukraine’s territorial integrity”. The SBU didn’t name any of these movements, and the foundation itself rejected the charge, calling it “just another attack against the Hungarian community in the region”.

In 2016, the Egan Ede Foundation held a competition to provide grants to 1,444 agricultural businesses, to buy equipment. One of the grant recipients, farmer Istvan Pavo from the village of Tisobiken, is a smiling man with a grey moustache. His family owns a small business growing cucumbers, which are then sold to a processing plant. And thanks to the grant from the Hungarian foundation, the farm now has a refrigerated chamber to store the vegetables and a sorting machine.

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Farmer Istvan Pavo. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

We didn’t have the money for this kind of equipment,” Istvan tells me as he opens the door to the chamber, a room-sized fridge. “A lot of the cucumbers used to spoil in the hot weather, so we’d get just maybe 200kg to sell out of a tonne. But now we can store them for a week or more.”

The refrigerated chamber can hold 20 tonnes of cucumbers, but so far the small business hasn’t had more than 12 tonnes in it at one time. Istvan has a team of 5 to 8 people working for him, and says that if the business closed he would probably have to look for work on the other side of the border, in Hungary.

The big issue

You won’t often hear Ukrainian or Russian spoken on the streets of Tisobiken: according to the 2001 census, 97% of the local population are ethnic Hungarians. The village isn’t, however, so monolithic in religious terms; it has four churches: Reformed, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic.

Vera Udut has come to the Sunday morning service in the Roman Catholic church. She and her husband have crossed over from the Hungarian village of Tisobech, next to the border with Ukraine. They have been living there for four years, and before that Vera taught Ukrainian at a school in the Zakarpattya town of Khust. She has no regrets about their move: “Life is fine, people treat us as though we’d been born and bred there.”

After taking Hungarian citizenship, Vera and her husband renounced their Ukrainian citizenship, although they still have a house in Khust and continue to look after it. Vera’s main reason for changing her citizenship was the fact that pensions were higher in Hungary.


Vera Udut with her husband. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

“Hungarian, Ukrainian – it makes no difference to me. I’m fluent and can read in both languages,” she tells me. “But my sister comes on a visit and says, ‘I couldn’t live here, not for the world’. I say: ‘Hang on, but why shouldn’t I live here?’ Back in Ukraine I had to count the kopecks towards the end of the month.’”

Since 2001, 14,000 ethnic Hungarians have left Zakarpattya, and according to figures from the Summa-2017 demographic survey by sociologists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Zakarpattya Hungarian University, the emigration rate is increasing. Twenty eight thousand ethnic Hungarians have also spent more than a month abroad and 19,000 – more than three months. All of them for work and study. Just over half of them visited Hungary; another third, the Czech Republic; 7% Germany, 2.3% the UK and 8.5% – other countries.

“I came back from a stint working abroad the day before yesterday,” Vasilii, the builder from Tisobiken tells me. “It’s no kind of life: a month here, a week there. My wife works at a school, and she went abroad for work during the school holidays as well. She went to the Czech Republic, I went to Hungary; the children stayed at home. What a way to live!” he says with desperation in his voice.

Vasilii and his friend Laslo (not his real name) are cooking bograch, the local version of goulash, in the yard of the Catholic church, for the parishioners to eat after mass. Meat and vegetables are stewing in a large cast iron cauldron over a crackling fire, and the air is full of smoke and spices.

“In Hungary I can buy meat for 90 hryvnya, but here it’s 120-130 hryvnya, and 150 for the lean stuff,” grumbles Vasilii as he throws pork fat into the mix.

“And do you earn a good living there?” I ask.

“Of course, I wouldn’t go otherwise. I can earn as much there in a week as my wife earns here in a month. I get around 1400 forints an hour”.


In the Hungarian village of Transcarpathia. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

“That’s 140 hryvnya (£3.80) an hour,” Laslo translates. His financial situation is a little better than Vasilii’s. Vasilii may want to take his family to live in Hungary, but Laslo wants to stay in Zakarpattya, despite all its problems. He is concerned, however, about the international row over citizenship that has erupted now. Almost everyone in his village got their dual citizenship long ago, he says.

“I think,” says Laslo, “that this is all just a political strategy to divert attention from the main issue.”

“So what’s the main issue?” I ask.

“The fact that more and more people are leaving Ukraine,” he tells me. “The second most important issue is that when this government came to power, it promised the earth – but it hasn’t done anything. The war continues, prices keep rising and the hryvnya keeps losing in value,” says Laslo as he tests the bograch with a large wooden spoon.

Vasilii, hearing this, nods in agreement. The reasons for the present conflict cited by Laslo can be heard from ethnic Hungarians everywhere in Zakarpattya.

“You probably know that the prosecutor’s office has launched a criminal case over the issue of Hungarian passports. Aren’t you afraid of any consequences for yourselves?” I ask the two men.

“We’ll get out of this situation”, says Vasilii confidently.

“People have come out worse than this”, adds Laslo.

They have reason to be concerned. For the moment, neither the SBU nor the prosecutor’s office has presented any suspicions relating to this criminal investigation, and they are unlikely to do it in the future. Ukrainian legislation contains no reference to any potential penalties for acquiring citizenship of another country, and certainly doesn’t regard having a passport of another country as tantamount to treason.

Everyone – the ethnic Hungarian community itself, the regional authorities and even Foreign Minister Klimkin in his recent article – is clear that the issue requires additional legislative regulation. But while no one has found an answer to the problem, how many more tens of thousands of Hungarian Ukrainians in Zakarpattya will go on living with uncertainty?

Update, 12/10/2018: the wording to describe the diplomatic tension between Hungary and Ukraine has been changed in the second paragraph.

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