Ukraine's Imperfect Path | Opinion

This August, Ukraine will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence. Although the events of the last seven years, such as the Revolution of Dignity, Russia's armed-aggression, the invasion of Crimea, occupation of territories and complex reforms have been monumentally challenging, it also demonstrates that, while imperfect, Ukraine has the ability to meet multiple crises, survive and increase its fortitude validating its independence and sovereignty.

As all stakeholders and observers know, Ukraine continues to face both internal and external challenges as it had never faced before. One of the key challenges Ukraine has embarked upon is to forge a united political nation within a multiethnic state. Such an undertaking is extremely difficult as the histories of many of the world's developed democracies can attest, requiring decades, if not centuries, to meet such a challenge.

However, it is not only a question of time that appears to be critical for Ukraine. The hybrid threat coming from Russia is of utmost importance. In 2014, it annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea and occupied the territories of Donbas, using an "ethnic card" as a pretext.

Moscow continues to insist that its interference in Ukraine is to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking populations from fictitious threats posed by supposed Ukrainian fascists, falsely adding that Ukraine has been pulled into a quagmire of a civil war. It is hard to believe this in view of the fact that more than 14,000 people have died in this war while protecting Ukraine, who were either Russians or Russian-speaking. The tactic of protecting by killing sounds insane at best, diabolical at worst. Even though Europe went through several wars in the 20th century that had been provoked by the same methodology, too many people and politicians in the West not only still believe in some of these absurd Russian narratives, but consciously or unconsciously repeat those narratives.

An example of this gaining commentary is the overblown tensions between Kyiv and Budapest. The disagreement regarding the rights of the Hungarian minority residing in the westernmost region of Ukraine in the Zakarpattia Oblast began in September 2017, after Ukraine passed a bill on education. This launched one of the most important reforms needed for the modern state building and unification of Ukraine.

Budapest, however, saw it differently, and has been blocking Ukraine's rapprochement with NATO ever since. The Hungarian government has publicly announced that the Hungarian minority's rights on education and language are being constantly restricted with this law and that "the Ukrainian government's actions are bringing about the situation of a civil war in Zakarpattia."

At the same time, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues insisting on the Hungarian minority's rights for autonomy. Since 2011, Hungary has been issuing passports for effectively the whole Hungarian community of Zakarpattia, which numbers 100,000 Ukrainian citizens. This seems to be a page from the "Disrupt, Undermine and Divide your Neighbor" playbook used by Ukraine's neighbor to the east. Little wonder such a development became a déjà vu moment and was met with resistance from Kyiv. Admittedly, Budapest is pursuing goals different from those of Russia. Hungary, of course, does not want to repeat the Crimean or Donbas scenario in the Ukrainian region of Zakarpattia.

So what might be Hungary's goal? While Russia is attempting to herd Ukraine back into the modern Soviet Union, Hungary may be trying to reunite the Hungarian nation symbolically—emotionally and politically, and not in terms of territory.

The fact that Budapest is publicly condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, at the same time supporting Ukraine's sovereignty, offering rehabilitation services for Ukrainian soldiers and for children from Donbas, does not always seem convincing for Ukraine. The speaker of the Hungarian parliament László Kövér wrote letters to his Russian counterpart, Vyacheslav Volodin, with a proposal to jointly counter Ukrainian laws.

A Ukrainian flag flies in the wind
A Ukrainian flag flies in the wind at the top of the Parliament in Kyiv on February 3, 2020. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

It would certainly be futile to put all responsibility for the current Ukrainian-Hungarian tensions on Russia. Both Ukrainian and Hungarian elites are making attempts to speculate on it.

Nevertheless, it is Russia whose actions are systematic and most destructive. Since 2014, regular provocations (fake and misleading information in the media about Hungarian separatism in Zakarpattia, and blowing up offices of Hungarian organizations, et cetera) have been taking place in Ukraine with their sole aim being to pit Ukrainians against Hungarians. Most believe Russia has been behind a vast majority of these provocations, which has been corroborated by not only Ukrainian law enforcement units but also by Polish court and journalist investigations.

It is time for Ukraine and Hungary to acknowledge this fact and start jointly countering Russian malign influence. It is likely Ukraine's leaders would invite Hungarian leaders to mutually endorse the following principles: reject false narratives, acknowledge that Hungarians are invited to maintain their language and culture in Ukraine and solve the essence of the problem that has occurred.

Budapest's claims about Kyiv trying to limit the usage of the Hungarian language at schools and public just to private communication or religious services do not correspond to reality. According to new Ukrainian legislation on education and language that have been criticized by Budapest, the Hungarians living in Ukraine will be able to further obtain education totally in their mother tongue up until the fourth grade. Starting from the fifth till ninth grade the total hours of studying in Ukrainian for Hungarians will increase from 20 percent to 40 percent. Subsequently, in the tenth and eleventh grades, 60 percent of all classes will be taught in Ukrainian. The rest of the time Hungarians can still study in public schools in their native language. Moreover, Kyiv is ready to actively develop its system of bilingual education and has allowed private schools to freely choose the language of education (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak or even Russian).

Ukraine wishes to afford Hungarians in Ukraine new opportunities for self-fulfillment through the Ukrainian language. After all, without knowledge of Ukrainian, the Hungarian community will not be able to stand up for its rights in Ukraine.

Therefore, why not direct Budapest's energy and passion at supporting Ukraine's attempts to build up a new Ukrainian political nation to which a full-fledged Hungarian community would belong? This is what Kyiv would welcome from its Western neighbors in the context of containing Russia. Hungary knows perfectly well just how difficult it is to break free from the Russian yoke and why this is vitally important for Ukraine's independence.

Yes, Ukraine is imperfect and has much to accomplish in its future. But it also has a lot of company in that arena. To those on the jury, rather than condemn, partner with Ukraine for mutual benefit, progress and protection. Judge not.

Dmytro Tuzhanskyi is director of the Institute for Central European Strategy (Ukraine), Think Visegrad Fellow 2020 and IVLP alum.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.