Ferenc Taracközi does not support his country’s war with Russia. Killing is a sin, he argues, even for soldiers defending against a military invasion.
“As Christians, we say that no matter which side you are on, this is still murder, and we do not agree with it,” said Mr. Taracközi, the pastor of a Hungarian Reformed church in Berehove, a small city of 23,000 that is the cultural capital for ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine.
He has a more personal reason for his opposition to the conflict, too. “This is not my war,” he said.
It is an echo of a mantra from the Orban government in Hungary, whose cozy relations with Russia and frequent diplomatic clashes with Ukraine have been magnified in the weeks since the war began.
Nowhere is the situation more fraught than in Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region, known locally as Transcarpathia. Before the war, Zakarpattia was home to roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, including Mr. Taracközi.
The community lives on Ukrainian soil, but their language and culture have sometimes fit uneasily within a country seeking to sculpt an independent national identity, in particular since the protests of 2013 and 2014 that saw a broad public rejection of closer ties with Russia.
Now, Hungarians in Ukraine say Russia’s invasion has brought new suspicions of their community – and new hardships. People interviewed by The Globe and Mail described state security questioning them over social media posts deemed to contain “separatist” content.
One person said they had been held at gunpoint for two hours at a checkpoint after delivering humanitarian goods – their licence plate indicated they were from Zakarpattia. In one home, people collected mobile phones and moved them to a different room when the conversation turned to the war, fearing security services might be listening.
“Everyone is sitting at home afraid,” said Viki Tarpai, a Hungarian actor who grew up in Ukraine. “You don’t need to do anything that is really separatist in order to be called one. It can happen to anyone at any time.”
The Globe was shown a large stack of conscription notices in one village where the mayor has been instructed to hand them out to every male of fighting age. Hungarians say they believe their communities have seen greater conscription demands than other parts of Ukraine
The Globe is not identifying some of the people interviewed for this article to protect them from reprisals.
The Zakarpattia Regional Military Administration said in a statement that the allegation that all men in some Hungarian communities had been issued conscription notices is “unsubstantiated.”
“Notification of draft-age citizens of Ukraine is carried out in the same way all over the country,” the statement said. It did not provide comparative regional statistics on conscription, citing “security reasons.”
“No distinction on the ethnic basis is applied,” the statement added.
It also rejected allegations that Hungarians in Ukraine have been targeted by security services.
“This is outright and quite widespread manipulation,” the statement said. “In this situation, as war started, to prevent internal disturbance additional security measures are being implemented. The relevant agencies are watchful over the subversive and disruptive activities, including the spread of Russian propaganda.
“There are no persecutions based on ethnicity for statements and posts in social media. What we really have, and it is applied to everyone without any exceptions, is that we are very watchful.”
But the war has raised tensions between Ukraine and Hungary. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been highly critical of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has maintained warm relations with the Kremlin and forbidden the movement of lethal weapons from Hungary to Ukraine.
“Everyone knows very well who in the European Union opposes humanity and common sense and who does nothing at all to help establish peace in Ukraine. This must stop, and Europe must stop listening to the excuses of Budapest,” Mr. Zelensky said in late March.
Mr. Orban, after winning a fourth consecutive election in early April, named Mr. Zelensky one of his “opponents.” During the campaign, Mr. Orban pledged to keep his country out of the war.
Hungarians living in Ukraine say they don’t support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
“It is extremely important for everyone to understand that we are not on Putin’s side in this,” said Gyorgy, a Hungarian shopkeeper. “No normal-thinking person would want to live in a war zone.”
But when the war broke out, many Hungarians fled, including men who swam across the border to Hungary to avoid conscription.
Viktor, another Hungarian shopkeeper, understands why some people might find it hard to understand local opposition to the war. But if you understand the situation for Hungarians in Ukraine, “you may draw your own conclusions about why we do not feel this is our war,” he said.
Ukraine “expects Hungarians to support this with everything we have,” Gyorgy added. “But I would ask this question: Why would I give my all? What did you do as a country to earn my respect?”
Recently, a Ukrainian man entered Gyorgy’s store and became aggressive toward his staff. “He kept provoking the people working there, saying, ‘You are only allowed to speak Ukrainian on Ukrainian soil,’” Gyorgy said. The situation grew so tense that “he needed to be thrown out.”
Viktor has similarly had Ukrainian people complain about the use of Hungarian. The best rebuttal, he said, is the local cemetery: “Before 1945, you would not find a single headstone with a Ukrainian name on it.”
But Hungarians, who today comprise just 12 per cent of the population in Zakarpattia, have been caught up in Ukraine’s efforts to promote national cohesion. Legislation passed in 2019 establishes Ukrainian as the country’s only state language, mandating its instruction from middle school onward and obligating citizens to be conversant. In shops and restaurants, the law requires employees to address customers in Ukrainian before switching to other languages.
The law has drawn criticism from human-rights groups and angered the Kremlin. Mr. Putin, in a Feb. 21 speech before the invasion, accused Kyiv of a “policy to root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation.”
“People who identify as Russians and want to preserve their identity, language and culture are getting the signal that they are not wanted in Ukraine,” he said.
For ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, sharing that opinion of the law with the Kremlin has done little to promote warm relations with their neighbours.
Still, those in Zakarpattia have joined the effort to help people who have fled eastern Ukraine for safer places, including Berehove, where no bombs have fallen.
“From the very first minutes of the war, our church has been open to refugees,” said Mr. Taracközi. All the Hungarian Reformed churches in the region have been similarly hospitable, he added.
But for communities with large Hungarian populations, the war portends lasting change. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians have travelled through the region, and large numbers have remained. Meanwhile, many Hungarians have fled, and some are unlikely to return.
Mr. Taracközi’s congregation has declined to less than half its size before the war. And “out of those people who have left,” he said, “20 to 30 per cent are not so much as considering the idea of coming back.”
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