BEREHOVE, Ukraine -- Some 1,500 kilometers west of the front line in Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in a mountainous region that borders four EU countries, lies a red-roofed town whose several thousand ethnic Hungarian residents have acquired an outsized role in the standoff between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the European Union over whether Ukraine's membership talks should go forward.
Berehove, just 7 kilometers from the Hungarian border, is the population hub for Ukraine's ethnic Hungarian minority of roughly 100,000 people. The street signs are written in both languages, Hungarian flags fly alongside Ukrainian and EU flags on government buildings, and a monument to a Hungarian national hero stands near the regional administration headquarters.
Orban, who has refused to help Kyiv fight off the invasion, cites what he claims are the repressed language rights of the ethnic Hungarian residents of the Zakarpattya region when he argues against Ukraine joining the EU.
In late September, he declared Hungary would not support Ukraine on any international issue until Kyiv scraps a 2017 law that requires Ukrainian schools to teach students over the age of 10 in Ukrainian -- a measure he asserts will lead to the closure of Hungarian-language schools.
As a result, Orban has suggested he would block EU membership talks with Ukraine -- recommended by the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, on November 8 -- when the proposal comes up for confirmation at a December 14-15 summit of EU leaders. Since all 27 EU member states must approve such a measure, a Hungarian veto would be enough to scuttle the proposal.
But in Berehove and the surrounding area, many ethnic Hungarians interviewed in October shrugged off the notion that they need the Hungarian prime minister to defend their interests.
"We live in Ukraine," commented Laslo Zubanych, head of the Ukrainian Hungarian Democratic Union, one of two Hungarian diaspora organizations in Ukraine. "For that reason, we should behave like citizens of Ukraine and get involved in those processes that exist in the state.
"Let what they're saying be decided at the [national] level in Kyiv," Zubanych said of Budapest's complaints about language instruction in Ukraine. "We've been living our own life here already for around 1,100 years."
Zakarpattya's official website describes the region, which borders Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, as a "crossroads," with a dialect that reflects its past as home to people with Czech, Hungarian, Jewish, Roma, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian roots.
After centuries under the control of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I, before Hungary, allied with Nazi Germany, attempted to reclaim it in 1939. Following Germany's defeat in World War II, Czechoslovakia ceded the territory to the Soviet Union, which made it part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Decades after the Soviet collapse and Ukrainian independence, Hungary's lingering influence is hard to miss.
Between 2011 and 2020, the Hungarian government provided at least 115 million euros ($125 million) to Zakarpattya, a 2021 investigation by RFE/RL's Ukrainian investigative unit, Schemes, and a group of Central European journalists established. That amount was roughly one and a half times the size of Zakarpattya's annual budget.
Berehove Mayor Zoltan Babyak told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that the funds have gone to education, health care, and construction of infrastructure. He asserted they do not affect how the town views Orban's policies toward Ukraine, which he said are Budapest's "own domestic affair."
"Russia is not an interesting topic [for us]," he said. "Because it's an enemy. An enemy is an enemy."
One middle-aged man visiting Berehove's recently opened downtown memorial to residents who have died fighting against Russia expressed frustration with Orban's dismissive attitude toward Ukraine's resistance of the Russian invasion.
"I really don't like that policy because I don't know where the wind is blowing, where it's turning," the man said, referring to Orban's assessments of Ukraine's military capabilities.
Orban, who has called for a cease-fire in Ukraine, asserted in a June 26 interview with the German newspaper Bild that U.S. and EU economic and military assistance has cost Ukraine its sovereignty, and that the country "can only fight because we in the West support them."
Atilo, a 26-year-old cafe owner and ethnic Hungarian who gave only his first name, prefers to turn a deaf ear to such remarks.
Describing himself as "a Hungarian-speaker, but Ukrainian," he said
he pays no attention to Orban's utterances on language or criticism of Ukraine's fight for survival against Russia.
"Ukraine is my motherland. If I have to go defend Ukraine, so be it," Atilo said.
Hundreds of ethnic Hungarians have fought or are fighting on the front lines in the east and south. When war between Kyiv and Russian-backed forces erupted in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Zakarpattya region's first fatality was an ethnic Hungarian, 19-year-old Roland Popovych, who was buried with military honors, Berehove Mayor Babyak noted.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, many of Zakarpattya's ethnic Hungarians have consciously moved away from Orban's positions on the war, according to Dmytro Tuzhanskiy, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy, a nongovernmental think tank based in Zakarpattya's capital, Uzhhorod.
On October 17, in the first direct talks between an EU leader and Putin, Orban stressed that "Hungary never wanted to confront Russia." He has refused to join EU sanctions against Russia or to allow, like other NATO countries, arms shipments to Ukraine.
Tuzhanskiy sees the Hungarian leader, who has maintained contact with Putin and Russia and has not visited Ukraine since the full-scale invasion began, as out of sync with the country's ethnic Hungarians: A 2023 study indicated that two-thirds of respondents in Zakarpattya supported Hungary supplying Ukraine with arms to fight Russia, he said.
"You know, Viktor Orban is a politician. For him, the [diaspora] Hungarian community is part of a cynical and pragmatic policy," Tuzhanskiy said. "Knowingly or unknowingly, he basically made the Hungarian community the hostage of his policy."
One local ethnic Ukrainian man -- like many here, married to an ethnic Hungarian – said Hungarian media influences many ethnic Hungarians' views of the war and of the government in Kyiv, but he advised caution.
"You shouldn't look at everyone through the prism of their prime minister," said Ivan, a resident of a Hungarian-speaking village outside Berehove. "There, he's a politician, an ideologue. He dreams about a great Hungary. But not everyone supports him that much."
Seated on a bench in Berehove, two elderly men -- one ethnic Hungarian, the other ethnic Ukrainian -- suggested they have come up with their own approach for overcoming any Hungarian-Ukrainian differences.
The two understand each other's languages, said the ethnic Hungarian, who gave his name as Yanus, and speak to each other in whichever language suits their mood.
"If he pays for coffee, then, [we speak] in Ukrainian," explained Yanus, as his friend laughed. "If I pay for coffee, then, in Hungarian."