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RFE/RL Investigation: Why Is Hungary Funding Diaspora Communities In Western Ukraine?

A bilingual sign in Hungarian and Ukrainian, in western Ukraine, which has a sizable ethnic Hungarian population. (file photo)
A bilingual sign in Hungarian and Ukrainian, in western Ukraine, which has a sizable ethnic Hungarian population. (file photo)

UZHHOROD, Ukraine -- Ethnic Hungarian communities and civic groups in western Ukraine have received at least 115 million euros from the Hungarian government over the past 10 years, a new RFE/RL investigation found.

The findings by the investigative program Schemes underscore how Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has dramatically increased financing for diaspora Hungarian communities, not just in Ukraine but also in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia.

In Ukraine, where around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live -- primarily in the western Zakarpattya region, which borders Hungary -- the issue has taken on a political hue in recent years, as some Hungarians there have pushed back against government regulations on the use of languages other than Ukrainian, particularly in education. Ukraine’s security service has raided Hungarian cultural groups in the past, alleging hints of a separatist movement.

The figures on funding for Ukraine’s ethnic Hungarian communities comes from data shared with Schemes by a project of investigative journalism organizations in Eastern Europe. The organizations tracked Hungarian government spending on diaspora groups across the region.

The consortium found that, since 2011, the Hungarian government paid at least 670 million euros to ethnic Hungarian organizations across six countries.

Much of the money appears to have been channeled through the Bethlen Gabor Fund, which is Hungary's largest state fund and focused on supporting Hungarian organizations abroad.

Other Hungarian groups, such as the national soccer federation, the national branch of the Roman Catholic Church, and other philanthropies, have also funded programs for Hungarians abroad: things like children's summer camps and the restoration of churches. But spending and other data are harder to track through Hungarian records.

The 115-million-euro figure for Ukraine's Hungarian communities since 2011 came via the Bethlen Gabor Fund, according to the investigation. It's unclear how much funding came from other Hungarian sources.

It's not an insubstantial sum, amounting to about 1 1/2 times the Zakarpattya regional government's annual budget and equaling the estimated cost of the proposed regional airport, according to calculations by Schemes, an investigative program run jointly by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and UA: Pershy, Ukraine's public broadcaster. And it has increased markedly since 2011, the year after Orban began his second term as prime minister following an eight-year stint in the opposition.

Complex History

Zakarpattya, better known in English as Transcarpathia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. In the decades that followed, control flipped between the briefly independent Ukraine, then Czechoslovakia, and finally Hungary, which invaded and annexed much the territory six months before the start of World War II.

After the war, it was absorbed by the Soviet Union, to become part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Some of the Hungarian public funds targeted for Ukraine have gone to help restore or repair cultural monuments.

In Uzhhorod, a border city of 115,000 and the capital of the Zakarpattya region, Andriy Lyubka, a Ukrainian writer and poet, has spearheaded an effort to compile local literary writings and translate them from Hungarian to Ukrainian.

Uzhhorod, Ukraine
Uzhhorod, Ukraine

He said that applying for and receiving Hungarian funding for the effort is a simple process. He has sought Ukrainian government funding, but his proposal was denied.

"When local businesspeople receive money from Hungarian funds for business activities, they think they will be forced to take an oath in the name of Orban, Hungary…and this is not the case," Lyubka said. But "they've received money, without bribes, without obligations to serve Hungary, so they think and make everyone around them think that 'look, Hungary is a cool state without imperial aims,' and thus they turn into foot soldiers of Hungarian influence locally."

The Hungarian funds also help subsidize Hungarian-language media in Ukraine. The Bethlen Gabor Fund provides financing to at least four.

"Most of the newspapers which are published [here in Ukraine] are either funded by the readers or receive some sort of grant assistance, in particular from Hungary," Laslo Zubanych, the head of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Ukraine, told RFE/RL. "There are no state or communal newspapers currently, therefore there is no influence."

Zubanych also suggested that the Hungarian-language media in remote regions of western Ukraine were filling a void after Ukraine's main TV channels switched to digital signals -- which he said were harder to receive in mountainous areas like the Carpathians.

"A child cannot watch a Ukrainian cartoon or listen to Ukrainian music. The information space is already lost for the state," he said.

"Hungarians sometimes say 'Crimea was stolen from you, different territories were stolen from us,' said Serhiy Sydorenko, editor of the online newspaper Yevropeyska Pravda, "and in fact Zakarpattya is only the smallest among them."

Diaspora Support

It's not uncommon for foreign governments to provide funding for cultural and social events for expatriate and diaspora communities around the world. Funding political parties is another matter.

There are no publicly available comparative figures, for example, for the Russian government's funding for ethnic Russians or Russian speakers abroad, or for the British government's support for British expatriates.

Some in Ukraine assert that Hungarian funding has a deliberate intent; Hungarian officials deny it.

A billboard for a civic organization set up for the "protection of the rights and freedoms of the Transcarpathian Hungarians" is seen in western Ukraine during parliamentary elections in 2019.
A billboard for a civic organization set up for the "protection of the rights and freedoms of the Transcarpathian Hungarians" is seen in western Ukraine during parliamentary elections in 2019.

Pavlo Klimkin, who was Ukraine's foreign minister under former President Petro Poroshenko, asserted the Hungarian money was aimed at building support for Fidesz -- Orban's ruling party, which dominates Hungary's political and civic life -- among diaspora Hungarians.

"They constantly try to mobilize voter support by bringing in Hungarians, whom they do not consider to be diaspora Hungarians by the way," he said. "Thus, most of them have Hungarian passports and vote for the Fidesz party" in Hungarian elections.

Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff, denied there was political intent in funding such community groups.

It is "a really important task for the Hungarian state to support its minorities. This is our constitutional duty," he told RFE/RL in an interview. "I think it is not also an opportunity for the Hungarian state but a good privilege for Ukraine and other countries who can enjoy this support from the Hungarian state."

There are two political parties in Ukraine that have a mainly ethnic Hungarian composition or advocate for issues more specific to Ukraine's Hungarian communities. The parties have held seats in parliament in the past, but currently do not.

In 2019, Orban met in Budapest with the head of the Party of Hungarians in Ukraine, Vasyl Brenzovych, who was running for a seat in Ukraine's parliament.

Vasyl Brenzovych (left) with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Vasyl Brenzovych (left) with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Some Ukrainian diplomats later condemned the meeting and others like it, calling it interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

According to the Schemes findings, 2017 and 2019 were the biggest years for Bethlen Gabor money flowing to Hungarian-Ukrainian groups.

For example, an organization called the Transcarpathian Hungarian Pedagogical Association received about $11 million in 2017 and 2019 from Hungarian state funds to construct and renovate kindergartens in several villages in western Ukraine.

In 2019, an election year, some of the political advertising that appeared on billboards in the Zakarpattya region included those in support of the Party of Hungarians in Ukraine. According to the database reviewed by Schemes, Bethlen Gabor provided funding "for the manufacture of billboards" for the party.

"When such money is invested it certainly presupposes influence and loyalty," said Dmytro Tuzhanskiy, who heads an Uzhhorod-based nongovernmental organization called the Institute for Central European Strategy. "This means loyalty in elections, different types of elections. This means there is a group of people who you supported and on whom you can call in the need of help or voting."

"It's a funny coincidence that the influx of grant money rises half a year, a year prior to elections," Tuzhanskiy told RFE/RL.

Language Laws

Budapest and Kyiv have repeatedly clashed over what Hungary says are curbs on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to use their native tongue in Ukraine.

The complaints stem mainly from a law passed in 2017 restricting the use of minority languages in Ukrainian schools.

Two years later, lawmakers cemented Ukrainian as the country's primary language. That measure ordered middle schools that taught in Russian and other minority languages to switch to Ukrainian and also mandated that the Ukrainian language be used for online retailers.

The measure came in the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan protest movement, which pushed a Moscow-friendly president from power and led to Russia's seizure of Crimea. Moscow has also backed separatists in a war in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people.

In January 2021, another restriction on the use of language entered into force: obliging shops, restaurants, and the service industry to engage customers in Ukrainian unless clients specifically ask to switch.

Hungarian diaspora groups have drawn the attention of Ukrainian security agencies in the past.

In 2018, a video surfaced from the western town of Berehove that purportedly showed ethnic Hungarians being handed Hungarian passports from the local consulate.

Two years later, Ukraine’s main security service, known as the SBU, raided the Hungarian Cultural Association in Transcarpathia looking for evidence of "activities aimed at violently changing the borders.”

The SBU said the searches were aimed at checking "information about the involvement of the foreign fund in activities aimed at violating the state sovereignty of Ukraine."

The incident prompted Hungary to summon the Ukrainian ambassador in Budapest to complain.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Bathory contributed to this story from Budapest
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    Valeria Yehoshyna

    Valeria Yehoshyna is a journalist for Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. Yehoshyna was recognized as one of the "Top 30 Under 30" by the Kyiv Post in 2019 and has won a number of awards, including the top prizes at the V. Serhienko Investigative Journalism Competition in 2017 and the Mezhyhirya Festival in 2018. An investigation she co-authored in 2023 about Izyum and the Russian invasion of Ukraine received a Special Certificate of Excellence at the Global Shining Light Awards from the Global Investigative Journalism Network.