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Ukraine Crisis: Hands Off Transcarpathia!

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As the Ukrainian crisis worsens, and the central government is revealed as incompetent and ineffectual, outside powers are stirring up mischief within the country's restive regions. Having already annexed Crimea without a hitch, Putin has now set his sights on Eastern Ukraine. But while the world remains fixated on Donetsk, Kharkiv and Slovyansk, another area far to the west could also turn into a key flashpoint. I'm referring to Transcarpathia, which is known in Ukraine as Zakarpatts'ka Oblast', though the region has had a bewildering array of other names throughout history. For the most part, ethnic minorities of Transcarpathia have gotten along with each other in recent years, though the area's delicate social balance could be upset by outsiders like Putin and his nationalist right wing allies in neighboring Hungary.

So, just what is Transcarpathia? John Haines of Foreign Policy Research Institute writes that the region is a multi-ethnic area lying on Ukraine's western border with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Though most of Transcarpathia, which takes its name from the Carpathian Mountain chain, lies within Ukrainian boundaries, some of the region falls within modern boundaries of the aforementioned neighboring countries. As Ukraine falters, poverty-stricken Transcarpathia may be a tempting target for outside opportunistic agitators. Though the region is only about 250 miles long by 60 miles wide, Transcarpathia is home to 1.2 million people and encompasses not only Russians and Ukrainians but also a variety of other ethnic groups.

Rusyns and Andy Warhol

Take, for example, the Rusyns or Ruthenians, an eastern Slavic people. The Rusyns comprise their own distinct ethno-linguistic group, and generally espouse a branch of Eastern Catholicism (perhaps the most famous person of Ruthenian heritage is none other than Andy Warhol or Andrij Warhola, whose parents spoke native Rusyn). Traditionally, Rusyns have lived in small, rural villages though in recent times they have migrated to larger cities such as Uzhhorod and Mukachevo. Economically, Rusyns prefer humble farming and according to the World Academy of Carpatho-Rusyn Culture, 70 percent of the population still works in agriculture. Due to a shortage of arable land, men must seek seasonal work and unemployment in the region is high.

As if Transcarpathia wasn't complicated enough, the Rusyns themselves are divided into a number of subgroups which are surely of interest to modern ethnographers. Take for example the Boikos, who were historically rather patriarchal people influenced by Pagan practices. Then there's the Lemkos or Lemkos/Rusnaks, humble farmers whose culture "retained archaic elements that have disappeared among neighboring groups" such as language, "primitive cults based on belief in the forces of nature" and local native dress. Other peoples include the Hutsuls, whose origins remain obscure, and the Dolyniane, the numerically largest group of Rusyns within the region. More than any other group, the Dolyniane has been responsible for inculcating and developing a sense of separate Rusyn identity in modern times.

Today, the Rusyns are doing their utmost to preserve their customs and traditions. In villages and larger towns such as Mukachevo, the Rusyns have their own schools where children are instructed in local history, culture and language. However, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education does not fund the schools, which receive most of their support from Rusyn immigrants in North America. Moreover, Rusyns have recently grown alarmed by Ukrainian nationalists who employ xenophobic rhetoric against the community. Such trends are hardly a novel development: During Soviet times the authorities even banned the term "Rusyn" while the word "Ukrainian" was applied to all Rusyns living in Transcarpathia.

Michael Blain, a World War II survivor from Transcarpathia, recently wrote about this painful history in Cleveland Jewish News. In his piece, titled "My Country, Carpathia, was stolen," he writes that the Kremlin took over lands which did not belong to the Soviet Union. Prior to the war, Blain writes, Transcarpathia was in fact part of Czechoslovakia. In 1945, Blain looked for lost relatives in his Carpathian village, but found that his homeland was no longer part of Czechoslovakia. Instead, he observed Soviet troops in the area, who eventually annexed the area and incorporated Transcarpathia into the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Blain writes, "Natives were told they weren't really Rusyns but Ukrainians, and it was said that the Rusyns asked to be incorporated into Ukraine. I saw no evidence of this."

Transcarpathian Hungarians

In light of the history, then, Rusyns have just cause to be wary of Ukrainian nationalism. To make matters even more complicated, Transcarpathia is also home to 162,000 Hungarians, the region's largest minority group. Reportedly, the Hungarians are Ukraine's "least assimilated" ethnic minority. A full three quarters of them live within 30 miles of the Hungarian border, and nearly all hold their mother tongue to be native Hungarian. Like the Rusyns, Transcarpathian Hungarians are reportedly feeling increasingly nervous as Ukraine's far right groups become more politically visible.

Take, for example, Pravy Sektor or "Right Sektor," a paramilitary outfit which recently stormed government buildings in the Carpathian towns of Berehove and Uzhhorod. The group was reportedly able to carry out its actions owing to a lack of central government control in the immediate aftermath of the Maidan protests back in Kiev. Pravy Sektor militants claim they're not anti-Hungarian or anti-minority, though sensitive ethnic politics could exacerbate tensions.

Like many Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Hungarians of Transcarpathia voted strongly for Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 election, believing the candidate would be supportive of minority rights. Pravy Sektor, on the other hand, opposed Yanukovych during the Maidan protests and perceived the Ukranian president as being too beholden to outside Russian interests. Reportedly, some Ukrainians see the Hungarians as being "anti-Maidan," and in Uzhhorod a member of Pravy Sektor told Agence France Presse that while he had nothing against the Hungarians, "we have to fight the Russians."

Ukrainian Right and Hungarians

Recent developments in Berehove and Uzhhorrod are somewhat troubling, particularly in light of the past. According to a report by the American-Hungarian Federation, "there has been a great deal of attention given to issues related to the conflict between ethnic Ukrainian and Russian communities in Ukraine and debate over laws designed to permit or limit the use of the Russian language in official parlance, [but] the needs of the Hungarian minority have been largely ignored."

The organization claims that Ukrainian nationalists have "shown a penchant" for vandalizing Hungarian monuments in Transcarpathia and photos posted on the group's web site lend credence to such reports. What is more, the American-Hungarian Federation reports that "hate speech describing Hungarians as enemies of the Ukrainian people" surfaces on a regular basis. In light of such pressure, the American-Hungarian Federation hopes to foster a democratic and tolerant Ukraine, as opposed to a weak and corrupt country which "would enable Russia to fish in muddy waters." Above all, the outfit is concerned that the "pro-Western" Hungarians might find themselves "inadvertent participants in the middle of a growing ethnic and East-West conflict."

Treaty of Trianon: Nail in the Stake

Just how fraught is the political situation confronting the Hungarian minority? In Transcarpathia, history is a potent reminder of long-held ethnic and cultural fissures. For 1,000 years, the area formed an integral part of Hungary and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I and the fall of the Habsburgs in Vienna, Hungary was dismembered by the Entente powers. Under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, ethnic Hungarian speakers in Transcarpathia were separated from their kinsmen in Budapest, and then the region was annexed to the newly created nation of Czechoslovakia for good measure.

Needless to say, the Hungarians living in Transcarpathia had little say in the matter as the allies ignored the principle of self-determination in this case and a plebiscite was denied. Not surprisingly, some on the Budapest far right scene have sought to capitalize on this history. Gábor Vona, who heads up far right Jobbik ("Movement for a Better Hungary"), the country's third largest party, has stated that "What happened in the Trianon Palace in Versailles after the First World War was that the enemies of Hungary dictated the fate of our country on the basis of lies, manipulated figures, and false reports."

Hostility toward minorities is all too common in Ukraine, Vona adds, and Kiev seeks to "forcefully assimilate" the Hungarians. On the party's website, Jobbik posts incendiary articles with titles such as "Hungarians under threat in the Lower Carpathians." Kiev authorities are "illegitimate," Jobbik claims, and can't protect the country's ethnic minorities. Somewhat ominously, Jobbik recently held a protest outside the Hungarian Foreign Ministry in Budapest with participants holding signs reading "Hungary wants Transcarpathia back!" Jobbik MP Tamás Gaudi-Nagy said the goal of the protest was to "support the sovereignty demands of our Hungarian and Rusyn brothers and sisters in Transcarpathia."

Jobbik, Orbán and Transcarpathia Imbroglio

If they wish it, the Rusyns and Hungarians certainly deserve autonomy, though it is to be hoped that both will firmly reject outside rightwing meddling by the likes of Jobbik. Fortunately, the Budapest protest wasn't too large -- just 200-300 people showed up. Nevertheless, Jobbik cannot be entirely dismissed: In April, 2014 the party placed third in Hungary's elections for the European Parliament and polled a full 20 percent of the vote. As such, Jobbik (whose members dress in Nazi-like uniforms), has some influence on the overall political narrative in Hungary. Indeed, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a staunch nationalist and his conservative Fidesz party competes with Jobbik for right wing votes.

Recently, Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi traveled to the Transcarpathian city of Uzhhorod and remarked "Transcarpathia's troubled ethnic Hungarian minority has to face new dangers but Hungary will not leave any insult at them unanswered." The Guardian of London notes that "Orbán thrives on conflict. He has used the many attacks on him - not least from the European commission - to justify what critics correctly see as a comprehensive attempt to undermine checks and balances, and remake the entire country in the image of one political party. According to Orbán, only Fidesz truly represents the nation; to be against Fidesz is not to be properly Hungarian."

Meanwhile, Orbán has told lawmakers that he believes ethnic Hungarians are entitled to dual citizenship. Recently, the prime minister remarked that Ukraine must observe "community rights" of local Hungarians. If Kiev fails to observe such community rights, Orbán states, Hungary would have a "legitimate reason to be worried." When he was asked what he meant by "community rights," Orbán was vague and replied that the Hungarians of Transcarpathia would themselves decide what rights they wanted to pursue.

Fanning the Flames

It is to be hoped that Orbán will not rile the waters much further in Transcarpathia, though the Prime Minister may be pushed to the right by Jobbik. Indeed, the far right party has released a statement remarking that the party is "dumbfounded" by Orbán's move to recognize the new government in Kiev, which represents a "threat" to the Hungarian minority. Moreover, Jobbik "demands" that Budapest take measures to "protect" the Hungarians in Ukraine and calls on Orbán to abandon its "submissive" attitude toward the west while standing up for ethnic Hungarians.

Recent developments suggest that Orbán may be caving in to base and far right impulses. Indeed, Budapest has reportedly been handing out passports to Hungarian compatriots in Transcarpathia. In an effort to absorb as many Hungarians as possible, the Orbán government has lowered the bar, only requiring applicants to demonstrate mastery over the Hungarian language and possessing at least one distant Hungarian relative. Needless to say, such moves come as an affront to Kiev which strictly prohibits dual citizenship. While it's unclear how many Transcarpathians have obtained Hungarian passports, the number may be in the tens of thousands.

Hungarian-Russian Links

As if all of this was not ominous enough, Orbán has cultivated ties to none other than Vladimir Putin who already seeks effective partition of Ukraine. Indeed, the Hungarian prime minister has made a point of not supporting Western sanctions against Moscow following the latter's recent annexation of Crimea. Moreover, Hungary relies heavily upon Russia for its oil and gas needs, and recently Orbán signed a loan agreement with the Kremlin to upgrade a nuclear power plant.

In cozying up to Putin, Orbán is merely following in the footsteps of far right Jobbik. Last year, in fact, party leader Vona traveled to Russia and during his stay Kremlin-connected right wing nationalists at Moscow State University invited the Hungarian politician to speak on campus. Vona also met with Russian nationalist Aleksandr Dugin, a key architect of conservative "Eurasian" ideology. Dugin supports the notion of Ukraine's "decomposition" into several parts with some areas being annexed by Russia [Transcarpathia however is too alien for Dugin so presumably the region could be absorbed by Hungary]. Márton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik's deputy leader, has remarked that Hungary "should make alliances with all the countries that have ethnic minorities in Ukraine," adding that "Russia could be our ally."

During his stay in Moscow, Vona additionally met with Russia Duma leaders, and there have been "persistent rumors that Jobbik's enthusiasm is paid for with Russian rubles." Jobbik later characterized Vona's trip as "a major breakthrough as it became clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner." A Jobbik report on the trip goes on to note that the U.S. is the "deformed offspring of Europe," and the EU is the "traitor of our continent." Reportedly, Vona hates the EU so much that he advocates Hungary joining Putin's Eurasian Union. As if on cue, Jobbik recently praised Russia's "exemplary" referendum in Crimea and the party even sent election observers to validate the results.

Building a Progressive Future

With so much crass geopolitical jockeying occurring on their immediate borders, Ukrainian authorities are justly concerned about preserving their country's territorial integrity. Kiev has already lost Crimea and the government could also be defeated by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Sensing weakness, right wing forces in either Hungary or Russia, or both, might be tempted to try and separate Transcarpathia from Ukrainian rule. Perhaps, Moscow would prefer to see a rump-like like client state emerge in Transcarpathia, just like Abkhazia or South Ossetia. If that were to happen, however, East-West relations would be set back yet further.

In the midst of escalating tensions, it is incumbent upon Kiev to rein in and restrain the Ukrainian right. Moreover, as it confronts nothing less than the threat of dissolution, Ukraine must redefine itself along multi-ethnic, progressive and tolerant lines. Failure to do so could provoke the Rusyns and Hungarians, and give further ammunition to rightist elements in both Budapest and Moscow which may be tempted to push interventionist policies. The big question, however, is where the Transcarpathian Rusyns and Hungarians actually stand politically. To be sure, both would like greater cultural autonomy and perhaps more of a say over their own local affairs. It is to be hoped, however, that they will seek to ally with progressive forces in Ukraine rather than Putin or Orbán.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based author who writes frequently about Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter here.