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Vol 2, No 40
20 November 2000
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Multi-Ethnic Outpost
Brian J Požun

Throughout its millennial history, Trans-Carpathia has known many names and rulers. Under the Hungarians, it was Kárpátalja. In Masaryk's Czechoslovakia it was referred to as Podkarpatská Rus, Rusínsko, or Ruthenia. For several hours in 1939, it was the independent Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. The Soviets and now the Ukrainians call it Zakarpatt'ja, or Trans-Carpathia. Its chief inhabitants, the Rusyns (who themselves are called by many names) traditionally refer to it as Pidkarpatska Rus', or Sub-Carpathian Rus.

A monument stands in the Trans-Carpathian town of Rahiv, where in 1911 the Vienna Geographical Society proclaimed it the geographic center of the continent. Its central location and numerous overlords have made it home to numerous ethnic and national groups, including Rusyns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians, Russians, Slovaks and Roma.

A small Jewish community still exists, but it is a pale shadow of the community that was destroyed by the Holocaust. Despite the prejudice that regions of such diversity in Central and Eastern are hotbeds of intolerance and ethnic strife, the residents of Trans-Carpathia pride themselves on their cosmopolitan outlook, multilingualism and inter-ethnic cooperation.

In 1991, residents of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic participated in a referendum on independence from the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, residents of Trans-Carpathia participated in a referendum for regional autonomy; notably, more than 78 per cent supported the idea. In the Berehovo district near the Hungarian border, 81.4 per cent voted in an additional referendum in support of making Berehovo a Hungarian autonomous district.

Crimea had been awarded autonomy from Kiev, although in the interest of staving off conflict from Russia. The supporters of autonomy for Trans-Carpathia and Berehovo had little leverage over Kiev, and so the autonomy referenda were confidently ignored.

Population statistics from the 1991 census stand as a testament to the diversity of Trans-Carpathia. Of a total population of 1,245,618, there were 976,749 Ukrainians (78.4 per cent of the population, of which an estimated 650,000 to 750,000 are mislabeled Rusyns); 155,711 Hungarians (12.5 per cent); 49,458 Russians (four per cent); 29,458 Romanians (2.4 per cent); 12,131 Roma (one per cent); 7,329 Slovaks (six per cent); 3,478 Germans (three per cent); 2,639 Jews (two per cent); 2,521 Belarusians (two per cent) and 6,144 other (four per cent).

It is commonly held that the Rusyns are the region's majority group, however Soviet and Ukrainian officials have never counted them as anything except Ukrainians. Rusyns are recognized as national minorities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia, but in Trans-Carpathia, the traditional Rusyn homeland, they are not only denied minority rights, but they are also denied recognition of their very existence as a people.

An informal survey conducted by the Ukrainian Web site Brama showed that in October 1999, 52.7 per cent, of the more than 700 participants, view Rusyns as being nothing more than Ukrainians. Only about 37 per cent believe that Rusyns are not Ukrainians, while almost 11 per cent were undecided.

Rights in word, but not in deed

Minorities in Ukraine can theoretically enjoy a high level of protection under several laws, but they are generally not used, or under-used. Kiev can pass as many laws as it would like to in accordance with international standards of protection for national minorities, but they mean nothing since they are not fully implemented. This situation has not gone unnoticed.

Several international NGOs are working with ethnic issues in Trans-Carpathia, including the Institute for East-West Studies' Fund for the Development of the Carpathian Euroregion the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). ECMI has already staged several conferences related to minority issues in Trans Carpathia and Ukraine. Also, Copenhagen's Danish Cultural Institute has been active with the Rusyn minority problem in Ukraine.

Additionally, each national group has at least one, if not several ethnic organizations, and 12 of these organizations have joined force under the umbrella group Democratic League of Nationalities of Trans-Carpathia, which is based in the regional capital Užhorod. This group is primarily composed of Rusyn, Hungarian, Roma, Slovak, Jewish and German ethnic organizations.

The international NGOs have staged successful conferences in Trans-Carpathia, but have made little headway into changing government policy. The Democratic League of Nationalities of Trans-Carpathia is the first major step towards active cooperation among the various groups within the province. Perhaps acting in tandem with the international NGOs they may have some degree of success in convincing Kiev to better respect its own laws and Constitution in the area of minority rights.

Minority rights practices vary

The Verecke Pass, the gateway the Magyars used into Europe in 896 AD, is located in Trans-Carpathia, and the local Hungarian population is the remnant of the thousand-year Magyar rule over the province, which ended only in 1918. Thanks to its neighboring "mother country," the Hungarian minority fares moderately well in terms of educational opportunities.

There are about 20,000 children who speak Hungarian as a mother-tongue in Trans-Carpathia, and there are about 100 Hungarian or Hungarian-Ukrainian language schools. There is also a Hungarian faculty at Užhorod State University, where 700 ethnic Hungarians currently study.

The Russians have not fared as well. Earlier this year, in May, there were protests in the West-Ukrainian regional center of L'viv denouncing the Russian minority there. The protests came on the day of the funeral for composer Ihor Bilozir, who was condemned by Russian speakers for singing in Ukrainian, not Russian, in a L'viv cafe.

Bilozir became a martyr for Ukrainian nationalists, and one month later, the L'viv City Council passed a ban on the singing of Russian songs in public. The city also moved to shut down a Russian-language radio station and to discourage the sale of Russian-language media and literature. No similar moves have been made in Trans-Carpathia, per se, but the Russian minority throughout Ukraine suffers from varying degrees of repression, and in this sense the Russians of Trans-Carpathia are no different.

As mentioned, the Rusyns are not accorded any minority rights, but the Roma have not fared better for the minority rights they do have. Under Czechoslovak rule in the 1920s, Trans-Carpathia was home to the first Roma-language elementary school in Europe. Today, Roma must worry about day-to-day survival so much that educational rights are of little concern.

Local experts believe that the official figure of 12,000 Roma in Trans-Carpathia is inaccurate and put it much higher at 45,000. Roma have placed the number as high as 60,000. According to a report by the European Centre for Minority Issues, "the overwhelming majority of Roma are unemployed and the primary sources of income today are reported to be scrap metal collection, paper recycling, begging, etc."

Their living conditions are even worse than their working conditions: "their housing is without running water, wastewater drainage, and only seldom with electricity." According to the centre, everyone in the province suffers from the low-level of development and the stagnant economy, but the Roma surely bear more than their share of the hardship.

Solving the Rusyn question

Even though official figures cite Ukrainians as the majority population in Trans-Carpathia, most agree that the majority is actually Rusyn (variously referred to as Ruthenian, Ruthene, Carpathian Russian, Ugro-Russian, Lemko, Hutsal, Bojko, et al). Independent experts put the size of the Rusyn population somewhere between 650,000 and 750,000.

Even though the majority of Rusyns consider themselves a completely separate nation from the Ukrainians, as well as being the indigenous inhabitants of Trans-Carpathia, Kiev sees them either as Ukrainians or as some sort of subset of the Ukrainian nation. Therefore, they see no need to give them minority rights.

There is no Rusyn-language education in Trans-Carpathia, since the official view is that Rusyn is a backward dialect of Ukrainian. Some Rusyn-language media does exist, but it has none of the government funding other minority groups receive.

After Kiev refused the results of the 1991 referendum on regional autonomy, the Rusyns sought to rectify the situation by other means. In the early 1990s, there was a movement, primarily among the Rusyns, to have Trans-Carpathia given back to Prague, but the 1993 "Velvet Divorce" made that even more impossible than it in fact was.

The Rusyns then set about forming a "Provisional Government of Subcarpathian Rus" in May 1993, as a vehicle for their political demands. What started as demands for autonomy within Ukraine quickly became demands for outright independence. However, the independence plan was unable to garner much support even from Rusyns in other countries, and now the Rusyns are back to their demands for minority rights and autonomy.

Ukrainian authorities have not taken the Rusyn autonomy/independence demands lightly. A document of the State Committee of Ukraine on Nationalities and Migration from October 1996 called the "Plan of Measures to Solve the Ukrainian-Rusyn Problem," shows the lengths to which Kiev is willing to go to stamp out the Rusyn "problem."

As part of the plan, various ministries and government offices agreed to not only put down the Rusyn movement in Ukraine, but to try to put it down in other countries as well. Under mandate, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to convince Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary that the Rusyns are Ukrainians and that those countries' internal policies towards the Rusyns must reflect this.

Ukrainian groups in those countries were also to be supported in the face of similar Rusyn groups. Various ministries were mandated with imposing "Rusyns are Ukrainians" propaganda campaigns, and those affiliated with the provisional government were to be tried and imprisoned.

Seemingly, the plan was never fully implemented, though there are indications that some parts were and continue to be. The fact that the Fifth World Congress of Rusyns, a biennial gathering of Rusyn organizations from around the world, was allowed to take place in Užhorod in June 1999 was seen as a major step forward. However, the fact that Kiev allowed it to take place did not stop the government-sponsored media from portraying the event as a subversive gathering of traitors.

Ukraine will undertake a census in 2001, and early signs seem to indicate that Kiev will actually allow "Rusyn" to be listed among the possible choices under the question of ethnicity, either as an independent group or as a sub-group of the Ukrainian nation. While the Rusyn community would welcome this, it could prove disastrous for Kiev.

The number of Ukrainians will no longer be padded with the number of Rusyns. The central government must be prepared to recognize the Rusyns as a national minority, since the census will show that the minority does in fact exist.

The future of Trans-Carpathia

In 1993, Trans Carpathia became a founding member of the Carpathian Euroregion, together with Ukraine's Galicia and Bukovina provinces, Eastern Slovakia, Southeastern Poland, Northeastern Hungary and Northwestern Romania.

The region had high hopes for the project, but for now, there is little to show. Ukraine, suspicious of the project from the start, has not been able to put much into it due to its economic crisis. Hungary and Poland were initially major supporters, but as they became more and more involved in their EU membership bids, their attention fell away from the Euroregion.

Even the regions that form the Euroregion have not been able to do much, given the fact that in every case they are the least-developed regions of their respective countries and do not possess the administrative capacity or infrastructure to handle the project.

In recent years, the Euroregion faced two major disasters, flooding in 1998 and the cyanide spill in the Tisza in 1999, but was unable to assist in either case due to its lack of capacity. The flooding in November 1998 ravaged Trans-Carpathia, killing nine and leaving more than 21,000 without homes.

Almost 350,000 kilometers of highways and 22 bridges were destroyed, further reducing the already poor quality of the local infrastructure. Ukraine, facing a general election that year, transferred large amounts of emergency aid, and the international community did the same. But the Euroregion was paralyzed.

Only one year later, cyanide from a gold mine in northern Romania spilt into the Tisza, one of the region's major rivers. The spill was one of the worst ecological disasters in recent memory, and once again the international community provided significant emergency aid. However, once again the Euroregion did little, if anything.

Given that the structure of the Euroregion is already in place, much could be accomplished if national governments and the international community would just take the initiative to further develop it. Perhaps if Hungary and Poland are accepted into the EU in the near future, they will be able to take the lead in increasing the capacity and effectiveness of the Carpathian Euroregion.

In September, Trans-Carpathia was the setting for a NATO Partnership for Peace exercise. The exercise involved more than 300 participants from ten regional countries and concerned disaster relief. Poland and Hungary became members of NATO last year, which drew a line down the middle of the region. But the biggest problem Trans-Carpathia will face in the coming years is actually the line that will be drawn by EU expansion.

The problems caused in the region by EU expansion are already starting. Until June of this year, Slovak and Ukrainian citizens had enjoyed visa-free travel between the two countries. This proved highly important both for members of minority groups with families across the border, as well as for those who found jobs in Slovakia, where the economic situation is significantly better than in Trans-Carpathia.

Slovakia introduced a visa regime for Ukrainian citizens on 28 June 2000. Officially, the reason was that Slovakia had to do this to meet EU requirements. In reality, Bratislava was under pressure from Prague, which already has visa restrictions on Ukrainians in order to protect its market from a deluge of cheap labor.

Slovakia is well aware of the impact this has on Trans-Carpathia, and actually attempted to set up an arrangement with Ukraine whereby residents of the region would be exempted. However, Kiev insisted that Ukraine is a unitary state and refused the plan. Still, Slovakia decided that at least ethnic Slovaks in Trans-Carpathia would get their visas free—the standard cost is USD 20, the equivalent of a month's salary in most cases.

The question now is how to decide who is a Slovak. Slovak minority leaders in Trans-Carpathia believe that this situation will lead to a fantastic rise in self-declared Slovaks in the 2001 Ukrainian census. Current statistics show about 7,000 Slovaks in Trans-Carpathia, but minority leaders say this number could end up as high as 80,000 after the census.

Given the 2001 Ukrainian census, the potential of the Euroregion project and the problems that will result by extending the EU's eastern border to that of Poland and Hungary, the next few years could see a total transformation of Trans-Carpathia, for better or worse.

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It is highly doubtful, however, that these changes will lead to open conflict amongst the diverse ethnic groups in the region. But given the fact that almost every country in the region has their own Rusyn minority (Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Croatia), violent nationalist movements among the Rusyns could prove tremendously destabilizing in a very wide context.

In an article published in the 22 April 1999 edition of the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash discussed the Rusyns in those terms during the height of the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia. Wondering if the future of Trans-Carpathia will see the ethnic violence other diverse Central and East European states have seen in the 1990s, Ash posed the question: "Are the Ruthenian rumblings an exception, inspired by the relatively recent experience of autonomy in pre-war Czechoslovakia? Or are other suppressed nationalities even now forming provisional governments in remote hospital offices?"

The fact that Trans-Carpathia has not experienced any significant degree of ethnic intolerance or radical nationalist movements may well be due to the fact that the Rusyns, as the largest group in the region, pride themselves on their "Peaceful Rusyn Way," the title of a book of essays by Transcarpathian Rusyn intelligents Volodymyr Fedynyšznec', published in 1992.

The Rusyn national conscious holds peacefulness as one of its main tenants, and throughout the ten-year struggle for recognition and autonomy, the Rusyns have never attempted to achieve their goals through violence.

The next several years will be ones filled with opportunities for the region, but first, initiative must be found. One major motivating factor could come in the form of the 2001 Ukrainian census. As a result of a referendum held on 29 June 1945, Trans-Carpathia became the last territory added to the Soviet Union.

This year, the regional authorities celebrated the 55th anniversary of that decision, which also marks the 55th year Rusyns have been without rights in their native land. Kiev finally recognized the Rusyn population is the necessary first step towards any amount of comprehensive human development in the region.

Further, the Carpathian Euroregion could be the dynamo behind ensuring the development, both economic and human, of Trans-Carpathia and the wider region, but first the Euroregion structures must themselves develop. The European Union should take special note of this, given that the Euroregion could be used to mitigate many of the negative effects of EU expansion into Poland and Hungary.

Brian J Požun, 18 November 2000

Elsewhere in CER

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Moving on:

Rusyn links:

The Carpatho-Rusyn Society
Legacy Rus
Society of Friends of Subcarpathian Rus (Russian only)


Timothy Garton Ash, "Hail Ruthenia!"
Volodymyr Fedynyšznec', Our Peaceful Rusyn Way, (Rusyn'ska Obroda/Rusyn Rennaisance), Prešov, 1992
Tom Trier, Focus on the Rusyns/Zamirjane na Rusyniv. Danish Cultural Institute: Copenhagen/Datapress: Prešov, 1999
Tom Trier, Inter-Ethnic Relations in Transcarpathian Ukraine. European Centre for Minority Issues: Flensburg, Germany, 1999
East-West Studies' Fund for the Development of the Carpathian Euroregion
European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI)
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO)
Copenhagen's Danish Cultural Institute
Plan of Measures to Solve the Ukrainian-Rusyn Problem
Carpathian Euroregion



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