Fateful Hungarian questions in Transcarpathia

More and more people are realising that we are heading towards a linguistic-cultural collapse as well as a disaster threatening the Earth's wildlife. On the occasion of the International Mother Language Day, we would also like to draw attention to the fact that the two accelerating but perhaps not (entirely) irreversible processes of destruction are linked at several points.

This year, however, I'm not looking at the dying rainforests of Amazonia, the frozen hydrocarbon- rich landscapes of Siberia, or even the ordeal of the native languages of the dwindling indigenous peoples.

Sajnos a Vereckei-hágón innen, Kárpátalján is „csokorba kötve” találjuk mindazt a bajt, amelyet az anyanyelv használatának törvényi tiltása okoz. Ellehetetlenítés a köz- és a felsőoktatásban, a könyv- és folyóirat-kiadásban, anyanyelvtilalom a hivatalos érintkezésben, szájpecek a mindennapokban az otthon és a templom falain kívül. Mindez nemcsak a nyelvészeti szakirodalom nyelvkihalási skálái, hanem a józan paraszti ész szerint is erodálja a nyelvet. A következmények jól ismertek: igazodás az asszimilációs kényszerhez vagy elvándorlás. Manapság sokan állásukat vesztik, mert életkoruknál fogva nem érettségizhettek ukránból és ukránul. Így mind kevesebben maradnak, akik helyben, napról napra küzdenek azokért a jogokért, amelyek természetszerűen, az ukrán állam által aláírt ‒ bár több esetben felemásan ratifikált vagy később annullált ‒ nemzetközi egyezmények alapján megilletnék őket. Ők, a napról-napra küzdők, minden tiszteletet és támogatást megérdemelnek!

Unfortunately, in the Vereckei Pass, in Transcarpathia, we also find a "bundle" of all the harm caused by the legal ban on the use of the mother tongue: discouragement in public and higher education, in the publication of books and periodicals, prohibition of the mother tongue in official contacts, gagging in everyday life outside the walls of the home and the church. All this is eroding the language, not only in terms of language endangerment scales used by linguistic literature, but also in terms of common sense. The consequences are well known: adaptation to forced assimilation or emigration. Today, many people are losing their jobs because their age prevented them from graduating from and in the Ukrainian language. Thus, there are fewer and fewer people who are fighting locally, day after day, for the rights that they would naturally be entitled to under the international conventions that have been- albeit in many cases only ambivalently - signed by the Ukrainian state. Moreover, some conventions are later annulled by Ukraine. They, who struggle day by day, deserve all the respect and support they can get.

Why do we have to fight beyond the imperatives we have learned from the great Hungarian poets, Kölcsey, Vörösmarty and Madách? Because we Hungarians have known since the Battle of Mohács, since the lines of János Sylvester, that without a mother tongue and native language education there is no nation. Countless times our greats have put into words the inseparable link between mother tongue, national existence and prosperity. Indeed, as a perennial admonition, they have also expressed the same concept from the opposite angle, including Zoltán Fábry, the 'hermit of Stósz', who wrote: The only way a nation can be elevated is in its language and by its language; from which it logically follows that it can also be emasculated by paralysing its language.

Ilona Zrínyi with the young Rákóczi in the castle of Munkács (Photo: Péter Pomozi)

The Ukrainian state seems to have learnt the “Little Entente lesson" well; the second half of Fábry's thought referred to this power threat in Czechoslovakia - and after the subsequent tire-burning turn in 2014, Ukraine moved towards a quick "paralysis". Up until 2017, Ukrainian laws considered the right to the free choice of the language of education as a civil right. However, according to Article 7(1) of the new Law on Education of September 2017, "The language of education in educational institutions is the state language." In July 2019, the law on the national language was adopted, in line with the law abolishing education in the native language of the national minorities.  

The end result is that non-indigenous peoples (none of the ethnic groups in Transcarpathia are considered indigenous under the legislation) can only learn in their mother tongue with restrictions. At the basic level, 100 percent; from the fifth to the ninth grade, maximum 80 percent; from the ninth grade, maximum 60 percent, and at the intermediate level, maximum 40 percent of the subjects are taught in the native language. At upper secondary level, the situation may be even less favourable. Please note that this is the legal maximum, the minimum is not specified, nor are the guarantees that the Ukrainian state will aim at achieving the maximum. The 2020 law on public education, which abolished the autonomy of minority language teaching institutions, proves that the state does not provide any guarantees. Therefore, where there would still be local opportunities to make full use of the limited framework, the facilities are being eliminated... Under these conditions, Hungarian education can – if, at all - be maintained almost only in the elementary schools of Hungarian-dominated small villages. For there is more: although Hungary has rightly protested against the anti-minority clauses of the Ukrainian Educational Framework Law, citing the Hungarian-Ukrainian Basic Treaty, the key sentence of the text, which is 'equally authentic' in both languages, differs in a seemingly innocent, but as we shall see, key clause that provides a huge political playing field. According to the Hungarian version, the parties will ensure "that national minorities learn their mother tongue and study in their mother tongue." In the Ukrainian version, "and" has been substituted by "or", and the treaty was signed by both parties...

In Transcarpathia, due to the games played by Kiev, the centuries-old state of multilingualism, which had previously flourished peacefully at the level of people-to-people diplomacy, which was key to the development of the region and to the linguistic and cultural survival of its inhabitants, is in the process of disappearing.

The post-2014 Ukrainian legislators have committed the old strategic mistakes of the Little Entente (also) in Transcarpathia, although they could have learned that violently disrupting the historically established ethnic and linguistic-cultural status quo of certain regions can only lead to the deterioration of previously peaceful inter-ethnic relations. This is what has happened and is happening in eastern Ukraine, and the poisoned arrows of the incidents may also strike in Transcarpathia.

At the same time, if Ukraine could see that the South Slavic crisis of the 1990s and the horrendous events of the civil war have not only done a great deal of harm to local minorities, but also to the local majority nations, then the eternal truth of "live and let live" would immediately prevail again in Transcarpathia. It is impossible to predict today when there will be a turnaround, after which Hungarian native speakers will once again be free to speak their mother tongue in Transcarpathia.

The article written by Péter Pomozi, Director of the Research Centre for Hungarian Historical Linguistics, on the occasion of the International Day of Mother Tongues can also be read on the website of Magyar Nemzet.