On September 1st, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet President Biden at the White House to discuss ways to expand strategic cooperation between Ukraine and the U.S. This cooperation, however, must be based on shared universal values – including respect for the fundamental rights of ethnic minorities.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Ukraine has been an independent, multiethnic country. The largest minority are the Russians, but there are significant communities of ethnic Bulgarians, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, and others such as the Crimean Tatars.
For the first 25 years of its recent independence, Ukraine ensured the fundamental rights of ethnic minorities: the right to be educated in their native language and, within reasonable limits, to use minority languages in public affairs.
However, things changed in 2014, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. To counteract Russian influence in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government radically changed its minority policy. While these measures primarily target the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine, the radical restrictions on native language use have devastated other ethnic groups, too.
- Since 2017, new laws on education and the state language severely restrict ethnic minorities in using and studying in their native language.
- As of July 1, 2021, a new law limits the definition of ‘indigenous’ minorities. The law not only contravenes common sense, but is also highly discriminatory. While certain indigenous peoples are recognized, the Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Poles—and of course, the Russians – are not recognized, nor are their language rights.
- The current draft Law on National Communities, too, is built upon vague concepts that limit rather than protect existing rights. Instead of ‘minorities,’ it talks about “communities” – an apparent bid to evade Ukraine’s existing commitments to internationally recognized minority rights instruments.
The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe in which the U.S. is represented, established that Ukraine has failed to ensure the linguistic rights of minorities, and recommended that Ukraine implement measures to ensure a sufficient level of teaching in minority languages. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy called on Ukraine to ensure the rights and non-discrimination of national minorities. So far, Ukraine has completely ignored the Council of Europe recommendations.
Hate speech and hate crimes against ethnic minority groups continue to be tolerated. Over the past three years, ultra-nationalist groups set fire to the office of the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Subcarpathia; posted ‘stop the separatists’ billboards with photos of Hungarian community leaders, including me; and run a website that lists the addresses of ethnic Hungarian community leaders, branding them ‘enemies of Ukraine’ – all with impunity.
Ukrainian authorities themselves also intimidate the Hungarian minority. Last year, based on false charges, armed security commandos raided several Hungarian minority institutions in Subcarpathia. President Zelensky has intentionally encouraged anti-Hungarian sentiment, publicly comparing the Hungarian ethnic community to the situation in the Donetsk Basin – knowing full well that the comparison is absurd.
National minorities in Ukraine are not new arrivals; this region has been our home for more than a thousand years. As Hungarians in Subcarpathia, we do not want special or privileged treatment. We do not want to be labeled as enemies of the state; we have always been loyal to Ukraine. We only want to be recognized as the indigenous national minority we are; to preserve our language and cultural identity; and to work together with the majority population as equals to ensure a successful future for Ukraine.
President Biden has said that the United States should be able to ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’ – that is, to implement a foreign policy based on both national interest and principles of human rights. In engaging with Ukraine, this means that the U.S. must also insist upon respect for the rights and equal treatment of ethnic minorities.
László Brenzovics is president of the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Subcarpathia, which represents the 150,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine. Born in 1964, in the village of Zápszony, Ukraine, he holds a doctorate in history and has been active in local and national community affairs since 1990.