This story originated in VOA’s Russian service. Pete Cobus reported from Washington. Some information is from Reuters.
NEW YORK – Hungary’s foreign minister is objecting to the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring Ukraine, even as he defends his government’s goal of preserving Hungary’s own ethnic identity by shutting out migrants.
Sitting down with VOA’s Russian service in New York, Budapest’s top diplomat and trade minister, Péter Szijjártó, decried the treatment of an estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia border province, where public schools recently came under a nationwide mandate to teach the Ukrainian language.
Ukraine’s April 2019 language law, championed by former President Petro Poroshenko, obliges all citizens to know the language and mandates its use by civil servants, soldiers, doctors and teachers while performing their official duties.
Hungary, Russia object
Hungary and Russia have condemned the law as politically divisive, saying it denies basic rights to ethnic minorities on Ukrainian soil.
Hungary, a NATO member, has retaliated by blocking meetings of the NATO Ukraine Commission, a regional security consultation forum for alliance members and Ukrainian officials.
“In Ukraine, these laws were passed which violated the rights of Hungarians … and this is something that we cannot tolerate,” he said. “That’s why we made the decision that, until this situation changes, we [will] block the convention of the NATO Ukraine Commission.
“But,” he added, “we’ve made it very clear that, immediately after rights are given back to the Hungarians, we [will] lift the veto.”
Several days prior to the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Szijjártó visited the country’s Transcarpathia region and met with members of the Hungarian community there, against the advice of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. Kyiv subsequently accused Hungary of election interference, a charge Szijjártó rejected.
“In Hungary, we encourage minorities to live according to [their own sense of] national pride and dignity,” said Szijjártó, mentioning ethnic Ukrainians, Serbs, Romanians and Slovaks, but not Roma, who face widespread discrimination, poverty and exclusion from mainstream society throughout vast swaths of Eastern Europe.
He added that ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine should be viewed as a “source of strength” and represent an opportunity for improved ties between Budapest and Kyiv.
Asked if this position contradicts Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hard-line stance on immigration, and whether that stance is sustainable for a member of the EU bloc, which calls on all member states to accept some migrants, he described it as an entirely separate matter.
“It’s two totally different issues,” he said. “For example, Hungarians in Transcarpathia have not moved there, they had been living there for centuries.”
After an estimated 400,000 illegal migrants entered Hungary in 2015, Budapest deployed troops to the border to erect razor-wire barricades and detention facilities.
Although the border lockdown followed years of anti-immigration rhetoric by Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, members of the country’s long-established Roma and Muslim minorities said they were the real targets.
Hungary is home to around 30,000 Muslims, most of whom arrived after World War II, and to 800,000 Roma, or gypsies, present in this part of Europe since the Middle Ages.
In March, the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s main center-right grouping, suspended Fidesz over its anti-immigration campaigns, claiming they violated EU principles on the rule of law.
In May, Fidesz rode the hardline anti-immigration platform to a 52% victory in European parliamentary elections, in what Orban called a mandate to “protect Christian culture in Europe.”
WATCH: Szijjártó Notes Hungary’s ‘Clear Policy’ on Nation’s Preservation
SOT WE HAVE A VERY CLEAR POLICY video player.
“We have a very clear policy,” Szijjártó said. “We want to preserve Hungary as a Hungarian country. We have a right for that. It’s a sovereign right of Hungary to decide whom we would like to allow to enter the territory of the country, and with whom we would like to live together.
“That must be a national decision … a matter of national sovereignty, and we don’t want to give that up,” he said. “And we do not accept either Brussels, New York or Geneva taking these kinds of decisions instead of us.”
Although some EU nations see “migration as something desirable — and, you know, I don’t agree with them, definitely don’t agree,” he added, he also expects that Hungarians won’t be judged “just because we think differently.”
Threat to ‘European civilization’
“We think that the illegal migration is a threat to the European future, a threat to the European culture and to the European civilization,” he said. “We are a country which sticks strictly to national identity, which would like to preserve religious heritage, historic heritage and cultural heritage.
“We do not want to lose them,” he said.
Szijjártó then extolled the policies of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini aimed at stopping illegal migration on the sea.
WATCH: Szijjártó: ‘We Hungarians Have Proven’ Migration Can Be Stopped
SOT WE HUNGARIANS HAVE PROVEN video player.
“We Hungarians have proven that, with the support of the Central European countries who send troops and policemen to our southern border, that the migration can be stopped on the western Balkan route,” he said.
“But it can be stopped on the maritime route as well, and the way to do so would be the way Mr. Salvini would like to do. But unfortunately, instead of being supported by Brussels, he was enormously attacked by European institutions,” said Szijjártó. He was referring to a recent event in which a German charity ship carrying 42 refugees and migrants rescued off the coast of Libya entered Italian waters in defiance of an explicit ban by the far-right Salvini, who also serves as Italy’s interior minister.
“You know, I think it’s very important to understand what is a human right and what is not a human right, because migration is definitely not a fundamental human right,” he said. “It is not written anywhere.”
Security at home
A fundamental human right, he said, “is to have a safe and secure life back at home.”
“That’s why I think that, in the case of people who have to escape their homes because of armed conflict, then we have to bring the help where it is needed instead of bringing problems where there are no problems,” he said.
“Just give you one example: We have a program called ‘Hungary Helps,’ which focuses on helping Christian communities in the Middle East,” he said, explaining that the program has allocated $35 million to home reconstruction and medical expenses for Christians in conflict zones.
“This must be the policy — to help people where they live and not to encourage them to, you know, leave their homes and then move all over.”
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said 14 EU member states had signed on to a “solidarity mechanism” for allocating asylum seekers evenly across the bloc.
Italy’s Salvini did not take part in the meeting, which sought to break a long-standing deadlock over a new set of rules on how to deal with a large influx of asylum seekers.
Italy has long been adamant about distributing migrants equally among the bloc, while Hungary, along with Poland, has refused to take in people.