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Hungary denounces Ukraine’s discriminatory language law

The language law that Ukraine’s parliament approved on Thursday is unacceptable, according to the Hungarian Foreign Minister.

Published: May 1, 2019, 9:59 am

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    The law which violates the rights of the Hungarian community in the neighbouring country reflects the ideals of outgoing President Petro Poroshenko who pursued an anti-Hungarian policy, Peter Szijjarto told public media on Thursday.

    Voters in Ukraine elected a new president, Vladimir Zelensky, with a large majority, Szijjarto said, adding that it put an end to the Poroshenko era.

    He expressed hope that the situation concerning the rights of the Hungarian community in Ukraine would soon be “clarified in a dialogue with the country’s new president on the basis of mutual respect and in pursuit of finding a solution to the issue”.

    “We will do our utmost to restore ties between Ukraine and Hungary” after Zelensky enters office, Szijjarto said.

    Hungarian FM Peter Szijjarto. Photo supplied

    “Our aim is to have friendship return between Hungary and Ukraine and the outcome of this recent presidential election gives some hope for that,” the Foreign Minister said.

    The law which makes the use of Ukrainian compulsory as an official language in several areas was passed with a large majority. Hungarian organisations in the Carpathian Basin protested against the legislation saying that it eliminated all of the minorities’ rights to the use of their own language.

    In 2017, Ukraine passed a similar law that would have banned teaching in languages other than Ukrainian beyond the primary school level, but quickly ammended it after a major outcry. The law had angered the significant Hungarian, Romanian and Polish minorities as well as their governments.

    Findings of a poll conducted jointly by the Levada Centre in Moscow and the Kiev Institute of Sociology earlier, showed more than 57 per cent of Ukrainians have a positive attitude towards Russia – sharply up from 30 per cent in 2015. And an even greater proportion said they were favourably disposed towards Russians.

    Zelensky posted a diatribe over the weekend in response to Russian President Putin’s offer of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens both inside and outside the areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian speakers.

    Days after Zelenskiy defeated Poroshenko in a runoff election on April 21, the Ukrainian parliament passed a new language bill Poroshenko had backed.

    It decreed the exclusive use of Ukrainian, not just by state officials but by all service personnel such as waiters and shop assistants, and requires that all media use Ukrainian as their primary language.

    This move is a major shift in a country where top news media have always used Russian first. Officials and military personnel will now be fined for not speaking Ukrainian in official contexts.

    Ukraine’s newly-elected leader however, will have to contend with more than one foreign state issuing its passports to Ukrainians as a result of his predecessor’s divisive language and citizenship policy.

    Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long demanded autonomy, dual citizenship and language freedom for the more than 150 000 Hungarians in the Ukrainian Transcarpathia, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the time of the 2001 census – Ukraine has not held another census since.

    When it became clear that President Petro Poroshenko was set on making the Ukrainian language dominant throughout the country, Hungary quietly started issuing passports to Hungarian-speaking Ukrainians, but Ukraine expelled a Hungarian consul for the practice.

    Romania, which has issued at least half a million passports in neighbouring Moldova, may face hundreds of thousands of applications from Ukrainian citizens who speak Romanian or practically identical Moldovan. Applications for Romanian citizenship have increased since 2017, when the country scrapped consular fees for applicants.

    Russians are Ukraine’s biggest ethnic minority and Russian remains the biggest obstacle to the dominance of Ukrainian, because most people in Ukraine speak Russian, and many speak it better than the country’s now-only official language.

    The reason for this is that Russia will always be a much bigger market for books, popular music and other cultural products, while Russian social networks such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki have remained popular in Ukraine even though they were banned under Poroshenko.

    Ukrainians have used virtual private networks to access Russian social media networks under the current ban.

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