ECMI Minorities Blog. Ukraine’s National Minorities Trapped by the War: The Cases of Ethnic Romanians and Hungarians
*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***
Author: Kateryna Haertel | https://doi.org/10.53779/CMXX5297
* Kateryna Haertel is a political and policy analyst, human rights advocate, and project manager in the fields of conflict prevention and democracy promotion. Her expertise in human rights and national minorities stems from her work with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Her research interests focus on specifics of minority politics and intersection between minority issues and security in the post-Soviet space.
Western Ukraine as a hub of civil society activism
The war has led to the displacement of many Ukrainians, including active members of civil society that traditionally operated in northern, eastern or south-eastern regions of the country and the capital Kyiv. Some activists relocated themselves to the neighbouring countries, with Poland being a frequent destination. Many others settled in a relatively safe western Ukraine, turning the region into an epicentre of civil society activism. In cooperation with local partners, such civil society organizations (hereinafter: CSOs) and volunteers have been advocating for a more efficient response by local authorities to the influx of refugees. They have been also fulfilling the function of ‘watch dogs’ regarding human rights of the war-affected vulnerable groups, recording war crimes, and serving as focal points for international partners delivering humanitarian aid and other types of assistance through the country’s western borders. Ethnic Romanians and Hungarians, with traditional settlement areas in Ukraine’s two western regions – Chernivtsi and Zakarpattia – are among those mobilized for the common benefit, both as individuals or through their associations, religious or educational institutions.
Ethnic Romanians’ contribution to a stronger regional responsiveness
According to the 2001 census, c. 150,000 ethnic Romanians reside in Ukraine, predominantly in the country’s south-west and west along the border with Romania. When the war began, the community was unanimous in condemning the aggression against their host state. As one ethnic Romanian from Chernivtsi described it in a conversation with the author: “we [Romanians] immediately felt that our home Ukraine was attacked and we needed to protect it”. Since then, the minority’s engagement has been observed in different contexts. Some members joined the Ukrainian army and, at the time of writing, first casualties among ethnic Romanian soldiers have been reported. The community has supported refugees arriving to the region by accommodating them locally or transferring to the border. The minority has repeatedly lobbied for more humanitarian aid from the kin-state and participated in redistribution of aid either regionally or to the front. The engagement was also visible on the level of private households: many ethnic Romanian families decided to host internally displaced people. This is because the community predominantly resides in remote border areas, which are particularly attractive for evacuees out of security reasons. In the first eight weeks of the war, the Chernivtsi region alone was estimated to have hosted more than 100,000 internally displaced people.
Either individually or as members of minority CSOs, ethnic Romanians, due to their bilingualism, were instrumental in facilitating better communication between various stakeholders from both states. Romania, alongside Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, was among the first evacuation destinations. Representatives of the Romanian community, especially in the Chernivtsi region, took part as local activists in organizing ad hoc transfers of refugees fleeing through their region to the border. They also helped in communication with Romanian border guards or citizens willing to host Ukrainians. Prior to a more systematic deployment of professional humanitarian workers and translators by international missions, such bilingual volunteers were crucial in facilitating information exchange on the border. A bilingual community volunteer, who assisted refugees with crossing the border, described his role and that of other community members as ‘bridges’ between the two nations.
The role of ´bridges´ can be assigned to several CSOs representing ethnic Romanians too. Humanitarian aid deployed by the kin-state and initially targeting minority members, was swiftly redirected to suite wider community needs. The minority associations, along with churches and village councils, were made eligible by the Romanian authorities to receive extra funding for projects strengthening regional responsiveness to the war. The minority leader affiliated with the Chernivtsi-based CSO ’The Bukovynian art center for the revival and promotion of the Romanian traditional culture’, in a conversation with the author, informed that, due to such a grant, his organization’s premises had been partially converted into a refugee shelter. With seventeen stationary beds, at the time of writing the place has temporarily hosted around one hundred people, mostly on the way to Romania. With a similar grant, the same CSO will implement another project – the refurbishment of another place, to function as a refugee shelter on the territory of the Hertsayivska hromada. The intention is to set up 40 sleeping places for evacuees with additional provision of clothes, hygiene items, and meals.
Such a massive displacement of people from the Ukraine’s east to west might eventually contribute to a stronger unity among Ukrainians. At the same time, the war has revealed some ‘gaps’ in the pre-war minority politics, and those, if unaddressed, could hinder stronger societal cohesion in the future. In the case of ethnic Romanians, two specific issues have been observed. One concerns the scarcity of media provision in Romanian language, foremostly in print format and by public service broadcasting. After the state ceased to fund print minority media in 2019, only two of such newspapers remain in regional circulation, both funded privately. As the war has negatively affected many businesses, both media outlets face the risk of closure. Their potential disappearance may go unnoticed among the younger audience but will be painful for the elderly. As for public service broadcasting, the community reported reduced availability of content in Romanian language after the integration of a network of regional broadcasters into one entity.
It was also repeatedly stressed by several community members that, when finding themselves among ethnic Romanians, some refugees demonstrated apprehension vis-à-vis the community and their kin-state, especially at the initial stage. Such concerns were never described as lasting and, eventually, never led to conflicts. Nevertheless, this could mean that the politicization of ethno-linguistic issues by the previous administration, negatively affecting minority languages through education and language-related legislation in 2015-2019, is having long-lasting effects and will need additional efforts to mitigate.
Ethnic Hungarians: supporting war victims in spite of bilateral tensions
The Hungarian minority, with c. 150,000 members, has traditionally been primarily concentrated in Ukraine’s far-western region of Zakarpattia. The town of Berehove, together with the surrounding area, is the centre of the community.
Since the beginning of the invasion the oblast has faced an influx of refugees, at the time of writing estimated at 380,000. Similar to the engagement of ethnic Romanians, the Hungarian minority responded through mobilization on the individual level, as well as through the community-affiliated civil society and religious organizations. At the same time, the role of educational institutions in providing assistance to refugees features more prominently in this case. This is due to the involvement of the Berehove-based Ferenc Rakoczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education that offered refuge to evacuated scientists and their family members. Many of those placed there are the institution’s long-standing academic partners from all over the country. A similar type of engagement is observed in relation to smaller educational institutions in other parts of the region. As remote schooling in the region continues, refugees are frequently accommodated on the premises of schools and kindergartens, e.g. in multi-ethnic hromadas of Vynohradiv or Velykodobronsk. School staff often helps with refugees-supporting tasks, such as preparation of hot meals.
As the Hungarian minority has been traditionally well-represented through their civil society network on the regional level, this created additional opportunities for the internally displaced persons. For example, the CSO “Union of the Transcarpathia Hungarians’ Large Families” launched group activities for pre-school refugee children settled in Berehove. Another regional CSO, “The Procultura Subcarpathica”, began organizing workshops familiarizing newcomers with local traditions; some of such activities were organized in connection to Easter. Among facilitators of aid from the kin-state there are also community-affiliated religious organizations. In this regard, the regional network of churches is actively supported by the Hungarian Interchurch Aid.
Since the beginning of the war, Hungary is reported to have accepted around 350,000 Ukrainians. It is difficult to estimate the share of ethnic Hungarians among the overall number. However, according to sources consulted by the author, members of the minority were not the main group fleeing through the Ukrainian–Hungarian border. It is important to note that, based on the information of the Ukrainian public service broadcaster, Hungary is considered one of the biggest aid contributors among individual countries. Importantly, the first-hand recipients are the regional state authorities and not the minority CSOs. As in the case of Romania, a significant share covers regional needs, whereas another is distributed to the front or eastern regions affected by the war.
Despite significant humanitarian support from the kin-state and an active network of donors, both governmental and non-governmental, several members of the community were disappointed with predominantly negative news coverage by the Ukrainian state media concerning their kin-state. To a certain extent, this can be explained by the past bilateral tensions between Ukraine and Hungary over language and educational rights of the Hungarian minority. The current domestic political landscape in Hungary plays a role too. At the same time, such news coverage is problematic for ethnic Hungarian Ukrainians, as it automatically puts the community in the spotlight, despite its overall pro-Ukrainian position and strong regional mobilization. As in the case of the Romanian minority, there is a similar lack of sufficient and state-supported media coverage produced by the minority itself.
The war as a litmus test for the state and its minorities: reflections for the future
Having looked into the war experiences of four of Ukraine’s national minority communities (see also the earlier entry on the cases of ethnic Greeks and Bulgarians) makes it possible to draw some reflections on potential ‘lessons learned’.
Firstly, the two national minorities discussed here, either through the engagement of their civil society, religious, and educational institutions or individuals, have become a well-integrated part of an overall civil society architecture in western Ukraine emerging during the war. They were instrumental in facilitating more humanitarian support from their respective kin-states, which overall has contributed to the increased capacity to act of both regions, especially regarding the in-take of refugees and assistance to other war-affected vulnerable groups such as Roma. Participation in redistribution of resources to the front or eastern regions, e.g. fuel or humanitarian items, was also observed. The connections between minority-affiliated institutions and donors from kin-states established prior to the war, enabled the communities to launch the facilitation of aid during the earliest stage of the war. The overall contribution by both communities is particularly noticeable as both regions in question are considered as lagging behind economically, with unemployment rates higher than national average.
Secondly, identification with the state of Ukraine and all-Ukrainian civic identity feature prominently, in tandem with national (minority) identity, in interviews with members of both communities conducted by the author, as well as among their community networks.
Thirdly, further evidence was collected supporting the need for more inclusive and integration-oriented minority politics in Ukraine after the war. If political elites want to manage multiethnicity to the state’s benefit, minority media should be granted state support and bilingualism, or even multilingualism, especially in ethnically mixed communities, needs to be promoted. This is particularly important considering the ongoing information warfare on the side of the aggressor state. It is easier to invest in pro-Ukrainian information channels in different languages rather than fight fake news and disinformation coming from ‘alternative’ media sources.
Finally, and most importantly, the geography of the war, in a way, poses a unique opportunity for ‘sewing the country together’. The displacement of people from east to west leads to increased direct contact between communities, creating an impulse for Ukrainians as a nation to overcome past identity-related tensions (of which minorities-related ones are only a part). By going through one of its most tragic historical periods, independent Ukraine is granted an opportunity to achieve a more cohesive society at last.