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Archive for the ‘Defiant Land of Ukraine’ Category

Ukraine’s Hungarian minority threatened by new education law

November 14, 2018

CHOP, Ukraine (AP) — The Hungarian minority in western Ukraine is feeling besieged. A new education law that could practically eliminate the use of Hungarian and other minority languages in schools after the 4th grade is just one of several issues threatening this community of 120,000 people in Transcarpathia, a Ukrainian region that in the past century has been part of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

In February, the headquarters of the minority’s biggest political organization, the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association, or KMKSZ, was firebombed. More recently, mysterious billboards have appeared in the region accusing its politicians of separatism. And a dispute has erupted over the legality of the community acquiring dual Hungarian citizenship.

The incidents have left many worried that even as Ukraine strives to bring its laws and practices closer to European Union standards, its policies for minorities seem to be heading in a far more restrictive direction.

“There is a sort of purposeful policy, which besides narrowing the rights of all minorities, tries to portray the Hungarian minority as the enemy in Ukrainian public opinion,” said Laszlo Brenzovics, the only ethnic Hungarian in the Ukrainian parliament. He called the separatism charges “extraordinarily absurd” and a means to distract from Ukraine’s domestic problems.

Brenzovics’ party, the KMKSZ, has launched its own campaign with bilingual billboards reading “Let’s not allow peace to be destroyed in Transcarpathia!” “This is a peace campaign to calm the mood,” said Livia Balogh, a party official in Chop, a once-booming railroad city of 9,000 people on the border with Hungary. “Hungarians here are mostly surprised and tense but also angry that the minority card is being played.”

With a presidential election expected in March, Ukraine is also facing an ongoing armed conflict on its eastern borders with Russian-backed separatists. Officials say the new language rules in education, to be implemented over several years, serve a unifying purpose.

“Education is the fundament to social cohesion, which is also the fundament of security in the country,” said Anna Novosad, a senior official at Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. She attributed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 partly to the disintegration and linguistic isolation of the local, mainly Russian-speaking population from the rest of Ukraine.

“This is something that we would like not to repeat in the western part of our country,” Novosad said. Vasyl Filipchuk, a Ukrainian diplomat and chair of the board of the International Center For Policy Studies in the capital Kiev, said the anti-Hungarian campaign was being used to distract voters.

“It’s artificial, manipulative technology” to overshadow the real problems of the people — corruption, lack of jobs and lack of economic prospects, Filipchuk said, adding that the use of patriotic, nationalistic rhetoric is “very dangerous.”

Some of the issues have triggered a diplomatic dispute between Ukraine and Hungary, with Hungary blocking Ukraine’s talks on integration with the European Union and NATO until the language stipulations in the education law are revised. In early October, Ukraine expelled a Hungarian consul after a secret video surfaced of Ukrainian Hungarians taking the oath of Hungarian citizenship. In response, Hungary expelled a Ukrainian consul.

Almost all members of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority live in Transcarpathia — called Zakarpattia Oblast in Ukrainian and Karpatalja in Hungarian. The last census, from 2001, counted 151,000 Hungarians, but unofficial estimates now see around 120,000.

Scores have emigrated to Hungary and western Europe, driven in part by Ukraine’s economic crisis and facilitated by the possibility of acquiring dual Hungarian citizenship, which comes with a European Union passport.

It’s a community that is still strongly tied to Hungary — everyone seems to set their watches to Hungary’s time zone, an hour behind Ukraine’s. Jozsef Kantor, principal of a high school with some 700 students in Velyka Dobron, a village near Chop with a majority Hungarian population, acknowledged that a more modern education law was needed. Still, he lamented the “much harsher and unfavorable education law” now proposed.

At Kantor’s school, which is undergoing renovations paid mostly by subsidies from the Hungarian government, Ukrainian language and literature are the only classes not taught in Hungarian. National authorities seem open to developing Ukrainian language textbooks which would take into account the fact that many Hungarian children enter school without speaking much, if any, Ukrainian.

Many of the school’s graduates are taking advantage of having an EU passport to get their higher education in Hungary or elsewhere abroad. “What affects us negatively is that many of them don’t come back,” Kantor said. “Ultimately, if this continues for 20 or 30 years, there’s a risk that the intellectual class among Hungarians in Transcarpathia will shrink significantly.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has made a name for himself in Europe through his unrelenting anti-immigration and nationalist policies, has made supporting the estimated 2.2 million Hungarians living in neighboring countries — lands that Hungary lost after World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — a key objective.

Subsidies totaling some $60.1 million have been given to institutions, businesses and families abroad since 2017, and Brenzovics, the lawmaker, said the payments have helped establish 3,000 new businesses.

Officials have simplified steps for Hungarians abroad to acquire dual Hungarian citizenship. An initial goal of adding 1 million dual citizens — on top of Hungary’s population of some 10 million — was achieved nearly a year ago.

Orban’s efforts have created a political windfall. In April’s elections, over 95 percent of voters casting ballots by mail — mostly from neighboring countries — backed Orban’s coalition led by his Fidesz party, helping him to a third consecutive term.

In Chop, teacher Zsuzsanna Dzjapko, a Hungarian whose husband’s family is Russian-Ukrainian, has accepted the fact that the best educational prospects for their 11-year-old daughter Rebeka — who speaks all three languages and is a talented singer and musician — are across the border.

“I don’t have hopes that she’ll come back, because as a Hungarian folk singer in this country, she wouldn’t have much of a future,” Dzjapko said in a small apartment shared by three generations. “We hope the times will change, the winds will change and the laws will change, as well.”


Ukraine rebel regions vote in ballot that West calls bogus

November 11, 2018

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Residents of the eastern Ukraine regions controlled by Russia-backed separatist rebels voted Sunday for local governments in elections denounced by Kiev and the West. The elections were to choose heads of government and legislature members in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, where separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since the spring of 2014 in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

Although a 2015 accord on ending the war calls for local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, critics including Ukraine’s president, the U.S. and the European Union say the vote is illegitimate because it is conducted where Ukraine has no control.

But the separatists say the vote is a key step toward establishing full-fledged democracy in the regions. “It’s another exam for the civic position, political position for the whole Donetsk Republic,” said Denis Pushilin, who became acting head of the Donetsk separatist regime since predecessor Alexander Zakharchenko was killed in a restaurant bombing in August.

His Luhansk counterpart, Leonid Pasechnik, said Sunday that “we are a free republic, a free country” and denied that the voting was being held contrary to the 2015 agreement signed in Minsk. The leaders of Germany and France, which helped negotiate that accord, dismissed “the illegal and illegitimate elections … held today despite numerous appeals by the international community.”

“These are elections for entities that have no legitimacy under the Ukrainian constitution,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, said last week. “The people in eastern Ukraine will be better off within a unified Ukraine at peace rather than in a second-rate police state run by crooks and thugs, all subsidized by Russian taxpayers,” he said Sunday on Twitter.

Both regions reported voter turnout of more than 70 percent as of two hours before the polls closed at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT). Later Sunday, the spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he discussed the elections with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron amid ceremonies in Paris commemorating the end of World War I Sunday.

In a statement after the meeting, Merkel and Macron said that holding “so-called” elections undermines Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and urged all sides to respect the ceasefire and release political prisoners.

Germany, France and Ukraine are part of the so-called “Normandy format” countries seeking a resolution to the conflict. Russia is the fourth country in the format, which has not held talks in two years.

Andrei Yermolaev, an analyst at the New Ukraine think-tank in Kiev, said “conducting the elections despite the opinions of Kiev and the West means that the Kremlin completely controls the situation in the region and intends to use this ‘frozen conflict’ as a lever of pressure on the Ukrainian authorities.”

Jim Heintz in Moscow and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.

Ukraine’s president meets Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul

November 03, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — Ukraine’s president has met the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as some Ukrainian clerics prepare to break ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. President Petro Poroshenko and Patriarch Bartholomew I spoke in Istanbul on Saturday, weeks after the patriarchate’s Oct. 11 decision to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Russia in turn broke off ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate.

Poroshenko thanked the patriarch, who is the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, for supporting the Ukrainian church’s independence. The Ukrainian church had been under the Russian Orthodox Church since 1686. Ukrainian clerics are now being forced to pick sides, to join the independent Ukraine Orthodox church or remain within Russian influence, as the fighting persists in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels.

Birth of a new Ukrainian church brings fears of violence

October 21, 2018

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Tensions are escalating in Ukraine as it prepares to establish a full-fledged Orthodox church of its own. The planned religious rupture from the Russian Orthodox Church is a potent — possibly explosive — mix of politics, religious faith and national identity.

The imminent creation of the new Ukrainian church raises deep concerns about what will happen to the approximately 12,000 churches in Ukraine that are now under the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the late 1600s, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine had been a wing of the Russian Orthodox Church rather than ecclesiastically independent. Many Ukrainians chafed at that arrangement.

The Istanbul-based Orthodox patriarchate has now removed an anathema against Ukrainian church leaders, a major step toward granting full recognition to a Ukrainian church that does not answer to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Ukrainian nationalists honor WWII-era paramilitary group

October 15, 2018

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — About 10,000 people have marched through the capital of Ukraine in an annual nationalist commemoration of the formation of the World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army. About 1,000 police officers were deployed for the Defender of Ukraine Day march. Demonstrators lit colorful flares and shouted slogans such as “We are returning Ukraine to Ukrainians.”

There was a scuffle when riot police intervened to stop some protesters attempting to destroy a Soviet-era monument near the parliament building. The march in Kiev took place amid growing concern about radical far-right nationalists attacking Roma encampments and LGBT and women’s rights activists.

Sunday was the 76th anniversary of the formation of the paramilitary group, known by the acronym UPA, that fought against the Soviet army, sometimes in collaboration with Nazi forces.

Ukraine demands access to filmmaker imprisoned in Russia

September 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry is demanding that Russia allow consular access to an imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker who has been on a hunger strike since mid-May. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa made the demand Saturday on Twitter. Russia’s penitentiary service said Friday that an unspecified “correction” in Oleg Sentsov’s treatment had been ordered; it published a photo of him being examined with a stethoscope.

Betsa also called for allowing Ukrainian doctors to visit Sentsov. The filmmaker is an opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 for conspiracy to conduct terror attacks.

Sentsov denies guilt and has refused to seek a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. His lawyer said this month that Sentsov’s health was irreversibly damaged. Prison officials say he is receiving a nutritional formula.

Ukraine rebels say bodyguard died with leader in bombing

September 01, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The health minister of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region says a cafe bombing that killed the separatists’ leader also killed a bodyguard and wounded 12 others. Alexander Zakharchenko’s death on Friday is re-escalating tensions in the conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. Separatists claimed that Ukraine was preparing new offensives.

Zakharchenko was prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. His death was reported soon after the cafe explosion, but the extent of the casualties was not revealed until DPT health minister Alexander Oprishchenko reported them on Saturday.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014, but mostly has waned in recent years.

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