CHOP, Ukraine – 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."