Laslo Arpad is a cooper and winemaker from the little village of Orosievo and represents the fourth generation of Ukrainian-Hungarian cask makers in the west Ukrainian region of Zakarpattia, or Transcarpathia. The area’s geography, defined by the Carpathian mountains, is beautiful and cherished by its inhabitants. But it is not wealthy and remains a flashpoint in relations between Kyiv and Budapest. Unless that is settled, it will also become an issue for Ukraine’s entry into the European Union (EU). 

Arpad is unconvinced that politicians in Kyiv can make much difference to his life and the challenges facing his Hungarian-speaking region. “I am not old, but not young either. And I am sure that whoever is sitting there in that chair, will not be better off. We kept thinking that it would be better, but in reality, everything is only worse,” he says. Pouring glasses of Chersegi white wine for his visitors, he adds: “I don’t care who’s president or who’s the regional governor. I will make casks, I will sell them and sell wine. I will earn money, and feed my family. If I don’t, they won’t eat.” 

We’re seated in his small kitchen, the only escape from the midsummer heat of the Zakarpattia summer. This is amplified by a tall fire charring an oak cask just outside. The clock on the wall says it’s only 3 pm, and I glance at my phone. It’s 4 pm Ukraine time. The household lives by the time according to Budapest and Western Europe. A small poster above the table, after a minute of close inspection, turns out to be The Lord’s Prayer, in Hungarian.  

Photos: From the visit to Zakarpattia. Credit: Courtesy of Kateryna Panasiuk

Orosievo is located about 15km (9 miles) from the Hungarian border and is completely populated by Ukrainian Hungarians. Many of their relatives chose to seek a better life in Hungary once the all-out war started. Arpad says: “I have a different opinion [than the majority]. I was born here, I will try to live here.” 

By any standards, the Hungarian community in Ukraine is tiny. It was assessed at about 156,000 in the 2001 census — 0.3% of the population — but the numbers have certainly fallen as younger people have left to pursue better opportunities abroad, both in Hungary and elsewhere. Yet the group is tightly concentrated in the region of Transcarpathia close to the Hungarian border and it matters quite a lot. The EU is insistent that minority rights be respected and Ukraine will have to meet these standards.  

Hungary is already making life difficult for Ukraine by vetoing EU aid disbursements, while the language used by Hungarian officials is sometimes inflammatory. One senior official referred to “atrocities” against the Hungarian population — something apparently triggered by the removal of flags and the dismissal of a school principal. The Hungarian media meanwhile runs warped stories suggesting Hungarians are forcibly conscripted. 

Yet there are serious issues at play that concern Ukrainian Hungarians. After 2017, there was a sharp deterioration of relations following the adoption of the Ukrainian Law on Language and Education, and in 2018 the situation worsened after arson attacks on Hungarian organizations. Following the law’s passage, Hungarians lost the legal ability to receive education solely in their own language. Full implementation has been postponed, and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission recommended in June that it be completely reconsidered. 

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Meanwhile, many Hungarians have taken Hungarian passports, which give them access to EU labor markets. (Ukraine says this issuance of official documents is unwelcome and in contradiction to the country’s laws.) For example, Arpad’s daughter cannot imagine life in Ukraine. “I am very sorry for that,” he says. Many people are not interested in the news, do not have enough knowledge about Ukraine, and often have never been outside their region.  

Arpad, like the majority, watches both Ukrainian and Hungarian news because he understands both languages. “From here, from Ukraine, I hear what I want to hear. From there I hear what really happens. Even if I don’t want to hear it,” he says and makes it clear that he largely shares the narratives of the Hungarian media (research shows Hungarians themselves have exceptionally low trust in their media.)  

Thus many in Orosievo wrongly believe that Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity was a coup organized by the West (as Arpad confidently tells us.) It’s easy to dismiss this as conspiracy theorizing, but Arpad has solid reasons to believe in the power of large and unseen forces. His plot of vineyard was secretly (and illegally) sold from under his nose two years ago to an unknown buyer, and the documents were then destroyed. Other winegrowers were also targeted. And in the same way, 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 acres) of oak forest, where Arpad sources wood for casks, were also sold.  

“I grew up there, I can’t even say how many times I planted oaks and ash trees there. I can’t even go there now to pick mushrooms, because everything is fenced off.” 

Somewhere far to the east, Ukraine’s Hungarian speakers are fighting against Russia. Many joined the Zakarpattia’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade and some have laid down their lives for Ukraine. On August 2, President Zelenskyy visited the region, awarded medals to soldiers, and thanked the Hungarian community for its war effort. “Strategic border issues” and economic development were discussed. 

It has to be hoped that this marks a sea change in policy and that the government will take more note of local concerns. Because coercive integration is doomed to fail, while genuine efforts on both sides promise a better future. 

Kateryna Panasiuk is an author, a journalist, and a translator, studying Political Science at the Ukrainian Catholic University. When war came to Ukraine, she set up a volunteer project to collect and share the stories of Ukrainians affected by the war.  

Mykyta Vorobiov is a Political Adviser, Journalist, and Political Science Student at Bard College Berlin. Over the previous three years, he has studied at the Ukrainian Catholic University, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the University of Tartu, and the University of Zagreb. For the last two years, he has been developing articles for VoxEurop, the Center for European Political Analysis (USA), and JURIST(USA). 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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