The Budapest government of prime minister Viktor Orban says ethnic Hungarians face rising discrimination and violence in Ukraine, and it has repeatedly lambasted Kyiv in the run-up to Hungary’s parliamentary election on Sunday.
Critics, by contrast, accuse his government of alarmism and exaggerating the problems that Hungarians face in Ukraine, to boost its patriotic credentials, shore up the diaspora vote and distract from corruption allegations against Orban’s allies and relatives, The Irish Times reports.
One victim of recent events is the local Hungarian cultural association in Uzhgorod, capital of the ethnically diverse Zakarpattia region in southwest Ukraine.
In February, arsonists twice targeted its office. No one was hurt in either incident, which Orban’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto attributed to an intimidation campaign against the 120,000 or so ethnic Hungarians in Zakarpattia.
An investigation into the first attack led to Poland, however, where police arrested two suspects with links to a local pro-Russian nationalist group called Falanga, whose members have allegedly fought alongside Moscow-led separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Three people from central Ukraine were detained over the second attack, which officials said was planned by an agent from the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova, to where he allegedly fled to escape arrest.
Read alsoOrban's game pulls Hungary closer to Russia - mediaUkraine’s authorities believe both incidents were orchestrated by Moscow’s FSB security services, as part of a multi-faceted war that the Kremlin has waged against the country since it pivoted to the West after a 2014 Revolution.
“Russia is trying to destabilize the situation in Zakarpattia,” said Ukraine’s foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin.
“Therefore, all those who demand that we talk about allegedly anti-Hungarian manifestations or even anti-Hungarian campaigns should turn to Moscow, the Kremlin and the central FSB office.”
Szijjarto placed the blame squarely on Ukraine however, and called for international monitors to establish a mission in Zakarpattia to protect ethnic Hungarians.
Such alarming views are often heard from Hungarian officials and pro-government media, but it is hard to find a resident of Zakarpattia who shares them.
Read alsoUkrainian MFA: Deployment of troops to Zakarpattia is Ukraine's sovereign matter“We live peacefully together here. I don’t believe someone from Zakarpattia would do something like that,” Uzhhorod-born Maria (52) said of the arson attacks. “Lots of nationalities live here and no one wants to make trouble.”
Slavik Miachyn (27), who works as a wedding planner in Uzhgorod, said “there has been no big reaction from people here".
"We don’t have many 'Ukraine for the Ukrainians'-types here; no one takes them seriously."
Hungary’s suggestion that inter-ethnic violence is brewing in Zakarpattia outraged officials in Ukraine/ Budapest’s view chimes with the Kremlin’s claim that far-right groups are terrorizing ethnic minorities in Ukraine.
Read alsoTransnistrian mastermind behind arson at Hungarian NGO in Uzhgorod – Governor MoskalPeter Kreko, director of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest, wrote recently that “when the chairman [of the cultural association in Uzhhorod] thanks Ukrainian law enforcement agencies for their work, yet Peter Szijjarto accuses the Ukrainian authorities of not doing anything to combat extremism, one might suspect there are other motives in play for the Hungarian government.”
In another move amenable to Russia – which enjoys good relations with Orban’s government – Budapest has vowed to stop Ukraine moving closer to the EU and Nato until it scraps plans to slash the amount of teaching that children from ethnic minorities can have in their native language.
Read alsoGeneral situation calm: OSCE updates on recent developments in ZakarpattiaThe problematic reforms also worry other nations with diaspora groups in Ukraine but none has reacted as dramatically as Orban’s government, which has added Ukrainian nationalists to its list of things Hungarians should fear, including migrants, the EU and liberal philanthropist George Soros.