THE BLOG
12/19/2014 08:37 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Ukraine: What Is the Position of Ethnic Minorities? An Activist Speaks

While the media has focused on political and even military friction between Ukrainians and Russians, few have paid much attention to the status of other ethnic minorities living within Ukraine. Recently, while I was conducting research in Kyiv, I interviewed Denis Pilash, a left-wing political activist who hails from the western region of Transcarpathia, also known as Ruthenia or Zakarpatts'ka Oblast'.

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. Though most of Transcarpathia lies within Ukrainian boundaries, some of the region falls within the modern day borders of the Slovak Republic.

Transcarpathia is home to not only Ukrainians and Russians but also a variety of other ethnic groups including the Rusyns or Ruthenians, eastern Slavic people related to Ukrainians. In addition, Transcarpathia is home to 162,000 Hungarians, the region's largest minority group. Like the Rusyns, Transcarpathian Hungarians are reportedly feeling increasingly nervous as Ukraine's far right groups become assertive. Such trends are of interest in light of the recent upsurge of Ukrainian nationalism often associated with the Maidan protests which removed the unpopular Viktor Yanukovych government from power.

NK: How would you define yourself ethnically?

DP: I'm an internationalist and cosmopolitan, so I usually avoid such labels. I guess I'd define myself however as a Rusyn, though I also have Hungarian, Croatian, and perhaps German, Tatar and Jewish roots. I speak Ukrainian or Russian with my friends in Kyiv, while at home I speak Rusyn with my family. I also speak Hungarian.

NK: As a participant at the Maidan protests in Kyiv yourself, how did outward expressions of nationalism make you feel?

DP: In part, somewhat strange. The main stage at Maidan was occupied by the mainstream opposition and there was a lot of foolishness including nationalist slogans and the like. However, I don't believe that nationalism was the main driving force at Maidan. The demonstrations constituted a genuine grassroots movement sparked by social injustice, economic inequality, police brutality and political exclusion. In this sense, you could say that Maidan was politically linked to Tahrir Square as well as Occupy Wall Street.

NK: Do Rusyns feel any discrimination on a daily basis?

DP: Personally, I don't think there's much of a conflict with Ukrainian identity, and in fact the majority of Rusyns in Transcarpathia believe they are ethnically Ukrainian. There are 1.2 million people of Rusyn descent worldwide, but only 10,000 identified as Rusyns in the 2001 Ukrainian Census - less than Slovakia or the former Yugoslavia. There's a debate as to whether Ruthenians are actually Ukrainian or constitute a separate people. After 1945, when Transcarpathia was incorporated into the USSR, local Rusyns weren't recognized as a separate ethnicity, and it was only recently in 2007 that authorities recognized them as a distinct group. Nevertheless, there is significant support in Transcarpathia for greater autonomy. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a referendum on Ukrainian independence was held. In Transcarpathia, local residents were also asked on the ballot if they favored autonomy, and seventy percent said yes. I want to be clear that people favor autonomy and not secession as claimed by Russian propaganda, though some say that if Ukraine disintegrates then we can always join Hungary or Slovakia. Interestingly enough, there is a lot of nostalgia for Czechoslovakia before the country split in two. Indeed, Transcarpathia was part of Czechoslovakia, but only for a brief twenty year period during the interwar years. Some people wax eloquent and say "ah, those were the days! We were decent people then and we were respected." Well, to be sure we were more of an integral part of Europe back then. Under Tomáš Masaryk, who served as its first president, Czechoslovakia was a rather tolerant democracy in contrast to its authoritarian neighbors. Of course, this is all somewhat idealized since there was a lot of poverty and hunger at the time in Transcarpathia, the least economically developed part of Czechoslovakia. That's why the Czechoslovak communist party was so popular in the region before World War II.

NK: Is there any concrete evidence that Russia is trying to encourage Rusyn separatism in Transcarpathia?

DP: Of course some individuals who oppose Ukraine seek outside assistance from the Kremlin. In fact there was even one case in which Dimitry Sydor, an Orthodox priest from the city of Uzhorod, was tried for allegedly promoting separatism. Meanwhile we have the case of Petro Hetsko, a strange man in Slovakia who calls himself the "Prime Minister of Carpathian Rusyns in exile." He has participated in pro-Russian international events, and perhaps the Kremlin provides him with tickets so he can travel to Moscow or the Crimea. However, these are isolated cases and the Rusyns are largely unresponsive to such overtures.

NK: What is the Hungarian mood and what do you make of Hungary issuing passports to people of Hungarian descent within Transcarpathia?

DP: The Hungarians watch Hungarian TV and read Hungarian newspapers. They are only loosely integrated into society and in general they haven't been very pro-Ukrainian. On the other hand, Hungarians haven't been that responsive to Jobbik, a far right nationalist Hungarian political party. Recently, peasant mothers hailing from largely Hungarian populated villages within Transcarpthia staged protests in support of their sons who had been conscripted into the Ukrainian army. In the midst of war with Russian separatists in the east, many young men didn't want to be shipped out. Right wing parties in Hungary such as Jobbik and ruling conservative Fidesz sought to capitalize on such sentiments, but interestingly enough they got no support from this anti-draft movement in Transcarpathia.

NK: Have you seen any evidence of the Ukrainian right in Transcarpathia and destruction of historic Hungarian shrines?

DP: There's some evidence of that, but in general these incidents are sporadic. Svoboda and Jobbik, Ukrainian and Hungarian far right parties respectively, used to collaborate but then had a falling out over the Transcarpathia issue. Some people, presumably Ukrainian right-wingers or just provocateurs, have vandalized a monument to Hungarian poet and revolutionary Sándor Petőfi; there was also a case in which a monument erected in remembrance of Hungarian migration across the Carpathian Mountains some 1,100 years ago was destroyed.

NK: What's been the response to such actions?

DP: There's been very little support in Transcarpathia for such actions. Bear in mind that Transcarpathia is a very tolerant region and there's not a lot of interest in right wing activities. Historically, Transcarpathia has been an area where different cultures intermixed. We have always had lots of Hungarians, Romanians, Germans and Jews. There are also Roma, but there's still a lot of prejudice against Gypsies and they are not very well integrated into society.

NK: How do the Gypsies experience discrimination?

DP: The discrimination is very structural. When Gypsies are excluded, they wind up not sending their kids to school. This lends itself to even greater exclusion. The Roma try to secure financial assistance from the government in the form of child support. Meanwhile, Gypsies perform the most menial and low-paying jobs. What's more, many people don't grasp the Gypsy nomadic lifestyle, and there's a lot of prejudice against them as a result. The Roma need help, but their unique problems must be understood and addressed. Those Roma who are well educated and more integrated into society should be involved in such problem-solving.

NK: Thanks for your time!

Denis Pilash is a left-wing political activist in Kiev. Nikolas Kozloff is a political writer who recently conducted a research trip to Ukraine. For a full archive of his articles on Ukraine click here, and to follow on Twitter click here.