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Hungary, Ukraine Clash Over Kyiv's New Language Law


Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto gestures during an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary, Jan. 27, 2017.

The foreign ministers of Hungary and Ukraine clashed on Thursday over Ukraine’s new law banning teaching in minority languages, with Budapest threatening to retaliate by blocking Ukraine’s aspirations to integration in the European Union.

Hungary said on Tuesday it would ask the EU to review its ties with Ukraine over Kiev’s decision to stop secondary school instruction in ethnic minority tongues including Hungarian.

Ukraine, which has sizable Hungarian, Russian and Romanian minorities, passed legislation on Sept. 5 obliging teachers to use only Ukrainian in secondary schools, saying it wanted to help minorities integrate and get public sector jobs.

The move triggered protests in neighboring Russia and Hungary — a region where nationalism is historically deep-seated and language and ethnic identity have been highly sensitive subjects prone to escalating into conflict.

The language issue has driven relations between Ukraine and Hungary to their lowest point since Kyiv won independence with the Soviet Union’s 1991 break-up, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin testifies before a Senate subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington March 7, 2017.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin testifies before a Senate subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington March 7, 2017.

At a joint news conference with Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin following talks, Szijjarto said Budapest was also worried about two other bills about citizenship and language now in the Kiev parliament.

“We see the situation in a totally different light. This can lead to a suffocation of minority language public discourse, which should be avoided,” he said. “We would like for the citizenship law not to curb (local) Hungarians’ rights further. If they ask us to fight, that’s what we will do. We will not back down one inch.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Kyiv did not intend to crack down on the Hungarian community in Ukraine, including their right to the use of their mother tongue.

“We will not close a single school, fire a single teacher,” he said. “Our logic is simple: every citizen must speak Ukrainian beside their mother tongue to ensure their future success. The education law replaced the old, post-Soviet laws.”

He added that Hungary’s approach to minority Hungarians living in Ukraine itself undermined European integration.

“Giving out Hungarian passports to Hungarian Ukrainians, that is no way to promote integration,” he said.

The two leaders ended the news conference in agreement to disagree. “I do not want to close any doors,” Szijjarto told his colleague on their his way out of the briefing room. “Me neither,” Klimkin said.

Kyiv's legislation has also ruffled feathers in Romania.

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