The Hungarian Minority in Ukraine

Ukraine”s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood Roundtable XVI:
Ukraine and the ‘National Minorities’ Question

The Hungarian Minority in Ukraine

Yaroslav Pylynskyi

Remarks by Yaroslav Pylynskyi, UA-IAE Senior Fellow, delivered at Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood RT XVI: Ukraine and the ‘National Minorities’ Question, held in Washington DC on October 1, 2015. A PDF file of the slides for this presentation is also available.

If a country is governed improperly, all clever people will leave.
Lee Kuan Yew, the First Prime Minister of Singapore

The Hungarian Minority in Ukraine

Dear colleagues! I would like to thank the organizers for the invitation to take part in this representative meeting.

The fact that we are discussing the state of the Hungarian community in Ukraine after lunch does not diminish the significance of this topic in our agenda, since all the themes discussed today are of primary importance.

The Hungarian ethnic group in Zakarpattia region is a unique cultural and historical phenomenon of contemporary Ukraine. The presence right across the border of the Hungarian Republic – formerly communist and now democratic – is an important factor that helps Hungarians of Ukraine preserving their language and cultural identity. Besides, unlike Poles, Hebrews, Crimean Tatars, Greeks or Romani, Hungarians of Zakarpattia were lucky to avoid deportations, holodomor, and mass political repressions, therefore this ethnic group managed to survive Soviet totalitarian system almost intact.

In addition, assimilation pressure on Hungarians of Zakarpattia even in Soviet times was much lower than on other ethnic groups, as compact residence of mostly rural population protected them from dissolving in the melting pot called the USSR. At the same time, the policy of russification and sovietization in its Ukrainian variant did not presuppose that Hungarians of Zakarpattia learnt Ukrainian. Instead, it fostered learning Russian, thus hindering assimilation of Hungarians among Ukrainian population prevailing around.

Hence, in independent Ukraine, the Hungarian ethic group turned to be rather consolidated, distinguished and not integrated into the general Ukrainian cultural field.

Among wide known figures of all-Ukrainian scale, we may recall Yozhef Sabo – a famous football player and coach, a forward of Kyiv “Dynamo” in 1970s, and Gizela Tsypola – an opera singer, soloist of Kyiv Opera Theatre that gave concerts in 1970s – 1990s.
What are the external living conditions of the Hungarian community in Zakarpattia?


The territory of Ukraine makes 603 thousand square kilometers.

The territory of Zakarpattia region is 12,800 square kilometers that is somewhat more than 2% of the general area of the state. This is slightly less than the territory of Connecticut State (14,597 square km).

Historical Reference

The territory that is currently known as Zakarpattia region of Ukraine formed as a single political and administrative unit in modern borders almost one hundred years ago after the First World War. That happened as the result of the formation of Czechoslovakia, to which Transcarpathia, inhabited mostly by Ukrainians, was transferred according to the Treaty of Trianon (June 4, 1920) between the countries of Entente and Hungary.

After 1945, the territory of Transcarpathia together with the Hungarian community was included in the USSR and became a region of Ukraine. During the Second World War, Zakarpattia practically lost the Jewish community that made the majority in Mukachevo, as well as the German-speaking community. A part of Hungarians also migrated to the west and left the territory of the USSR. At that time, the modern ethnic picture of the region was formed.


On July 1, 2015 1,258,586 people lived in Zakarpattia, that is nearly 3% of the country”s population. According to official statistics, the Hungarian community counts 151 thousand people that is 12% of the population of the region. They live compactly in four districts on the territory that makes nearly 10-12% of the region.

Today Hungarians compactly reside in Zakarpattia region in the border zone of 20-25 km width in nearly 100 rural settlements on the border with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Thus, the contemporary Hungarian community of Zakarpattia is essentially a rural community. That is the reason why it did not undergo any assimilation. Almost 95% of Hungarians called Hungarian their native language – 149,431 persons, 5,367 – Ukrainian and 1,513 – Russian. Besides, nearly 60% of Zakarpattia Hungarians do not speak any other language.

Hungarians are the majority in Beregovo district – 76.1%, and considerable minority in Uzhgorod – 33.4%, Vynogradiv – 26.2% and Mukachevo – 12.7% – districts. According to the census of 2001, Hungarians make up (48.1%) in city of Beregovo, (6.4%) in Uzhgorod, (8.5%) in Mukachevo and (5.8%) in Khust.


Most representatives of the Hungarian community of Zakarpattia study at schools in their native language. There are 66 secondary schools in the region, which host 16,407 students.

In addition, in Zakarpattia there is a ramified system of Hungarian cultural and educational institutions, publishing houses, mass media, and civil associations. At four higher schools, there are groups with Hungarian language of tuition: Uzhgorod National University, Mukachevo Pedagogical and Humanitarian Institute, Uzhgorod College of Culture, and Beregovo Medical College. There is a Center of Hungarian Studies at Uzhgorod National University. Since 1996, Hungarian-language institute works in Beregovo, where over 1,200 students are trained as teachers of pre-school education, primary school, Ukrainian language, Hungarian language, etc.

However, if we refer to the data published in the yearbook of regional department of statistics, we can see significant reduction of the number of students at Hungarian-language schools over the last 15 years. Thus, in Beregovo district in 1990-1991 educational year there were 14 thousand students in rural areas, while in 2013-2014 – 5.7 thousand. This is a 2.5 times decrease, or now there is 40% of schoolchildren, who studied in early 1990s. At the same time, comparing with the whole region there is 216.3 and 153.4 thousand students respectively. That is the decrease in 1.4 times or 70%. The difference is essential.

Corresponding dynamics may be observed in pre-school educational institutions. Thus in 1990-1991, there were 3.6 thousand pre-school children, while in 2013-2014 – 1.7 thousand. This is a 2.2 times decrease, or now there is 47% of the number of 1990.

We think that these figures also allow speaking about significant decrease of the region”s population, and especially reduction of the Hungarian community. The matter is that data on children is collected by the Ministry of Education independently from regional statistical departments. It is difficult to judge, to what extent the real population size differs from official, but the difference is substantial.

In our opinion, the reason for this difference is that regional budgets are actually formed in the center, and regions and districts receive funds as direct transfers and subventions from the central budget.

As the famous Ukrainian economist A.Novak writes in the book How to Raise Ukrainian Economy, in the consolidated budget of Ukraine for 2015, a part of local budgets makes 18% against 82% of the central budget. According to the author, in the soviet budget of 1990 that was considered hyper-centralized, this correlation was 48% to 52% respectively.

It is known that the figure of the population size is one of important factors in calculating transfers from the central budget to local budgets. Therefore, each district and region is interested in showing the highest possible population size. Since most citizens of Ukraine, when going abroad in search of a job, do not register in any way, even those who live abroad for years are considered as such who reside on the respective budget territory.

There are probably other reasons for overstating the real population size, yet they are beyond the theme of this presentation.

Regional Economy

As we have already mentioned, most Hungarians of Ukraine are rural residents employed at agriculture. They own small farms, where they grow grapes, vegetables and fruits. The income of such farms is relatively small. In 2014, average monthly aggregate resources of one household made 5839.72 UAH or 2139.09 UAH for each member (around $100).

An objective look at an average Zakarpattia village inhabited by Hungarians suggests that a real income of most households is much higher than the official statistics states. The survey we have conducted in September 2015 among Ukrainian citizens of Hungarian ethnic origin certifies that almost in every family one or even two members work abroad.

This is not difficult for them, since Hungary issued its passports to 94 thousand Hungarians living in Zakarpattia.

It is known that over the last two years population in Beregovo has decreased by 1000 residents. Even during the last year, 330 people have permanently left the city. Now many residents go to Europe in search of a job, since average salary in the city does not exceed 1,500 UAH (50-60 Euros). Recently, workers from the region are actively invited to enterprises in Czech Republic and Germany, where the salary is around 1000 Euros per month, as those who have passport of Hungarian citizens do not need a permit for work in Europe. In local newspapers, there are many ads offering jobs in Europe for both men and women.

Hence, the money received from relatives working abroad is an important source of income of households in this region.

Besides, until recently serving illegal migration through Ukrainian-Hungarian and Ukrainian-Slovak border was an important source of income for some households. The price for crossing the border is agreed in each separate case, but it is known that it goes about amounts up to $1000 per person.

However, after Russia significantly limited the flow of illegal migrants through its territory and especially after the beginning of war with Ukraine, the stream of illegal migrants to Ukraine and through Zakarpattia substantially decreased. Therefore, the income of those citizens, who took part in this illegal business, reduced respectively.

Another important income item is participation in semi-legal border trade. Taking into account the differences in prices for certain goods in Ukraine and in Hungary, the citizens of border regions have arranged a considerable trans-border exchange of commodities. Assortment of such trade constantly changes depending on the state of the market. This may include transporting fuel in a tank of a private car to Hungary several times a day. Besides, in border villages there are many small private stores where residents of Hungarian border villages can buy cheap Ukrainian goods.

Recently, this type of economic activity is also reduced primarily due to persistent tendency of leveling of prices in Ukraine and in Hungary.

In addition, a minor number of citizens take part in the large-scale smuggling (first of all, cigarettes, as well as amber and other goods) and illegal financial activities.

Thus, on August 3, 2015 in Hungarian city Nyiregyhaza the police detained a famous lawyer who for many years was engaged in illegal dealings: he helped in establishment and liquidation of enterprises and even descended to earn from prostitution and smuggling. According to investigators of the tax inspection of Hungary, the lawyer started his activity back in early 2000s. He helped create and eliminate false joint Ukrainian-Hungarian enterprises. Many joint ventures worked on the basis of false documents and could provide fiscal bodies of Ukraine with relevant certificates and run a seemingly legal business. First of all, this referred to export of grain and unprocessed timber. Today Hungarian investigators have information about 48 such false Hungarian-Ukrainian companies.

Besides, on July 29, 2015 Hungarian police arrested 18 customs officers and 3 civilians. They are accused of fostering smuggling of goods from Zakarpattia and other abuse.

We must admit that in Ukraine, after famous smuggling scandal in Mukachevo on July 11, 2015, there was no significant arrest or even discharge except for changing the head of Zakarpattia region.

To overcome this shadow business, the government should stimulate the development of small and medium entrepreneurship to use its border position not only for transporting, but also for producing goods and services. Such orientation to small and medium businesses and self-employed citizens should be accompanied with their entire de-shadowing to ensure increase of tax revenues to finance social and transport infrastructure of border regions. Otherwise, some individuals will become richer on the background of impoverishment of other, while greater part of citizens not connected with smuggling and shadow business will leave the country forever.

To understand the prospects of the region”s development better, let us review the data on the general economic situation in the area of residence of the Hungarian community, since its future largely depends on major tendencies prevailing on these territories.

Economic Situation in Zakarpattia

Today Ukraine is in the state of war with Russian Federation. The Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are actually excluded from Ukraine both administratively and economically. Certainly, this affects general processes in the economy of the state. At the same time, for instance, the defense industry and related machine building branches have grown significantly and influenced the level of wellbeing in certain regions, changed the structure of employment and increased the income of separate citizens and households.

However, these processes did not affect Zakarpattia, since defense enterprises that used to operate there (particularly in the areas of the Hungarian community”s residence) were closed or reshaped back in 1990s.

What is the current structure of industrial production in Zakarpattia?

In Beregovo (unofficial capital of Zakarpattia Hungarians) the basis of industrial production is constituted by manufacturing industry: including food industry – 77%, woodworking – 10%, machine building – 8%, light industry – 4% and printing trade – 1%.

The same picture is in the biggest industrial city of the region – Mukachevo, where many representatives of the Hungarian community work.

Uzhgorod is the administrative center of the region that has a smaller economic potential than Mukachevo. Yet, on the territory of this district, there is a big railway junction Chop, where a part of Hungarian workers is high.

According to official statistics, in Zakarpattia similarly to Ukraine in general, there is a descending tendency of economic development.

In 2013, the index of industrial production made 81.6% compared to 2012.

In addition, repayment of labor at enterprises of the region is too low even taking into account Ukrainian realities. Let us take as an example one of few big enterprises of Zakarpattia – Tochprylad factory in Mukachevo. The official site of the company reports that it works with raw materials supplied by the customer and dispatches all of its products abroad. This looks like good news. However, if we look further we can see that the factory offers employment with base salary of 2000-2200 UAH ($100). A high staff turn-over is certified by the proposal of free job training for 3 weeks. Offering such remuneration of labor and working for abroad, the factory may not essentially influence development of industry or wellbeing in the region, as it does not employ any local resources except for labor.

Similar situation is at Fischer (Austria) factory producing skis and other sports outfit. Ukrainian-Austrian joint venture Fischer-Mukachevo is the world top producer of Alpine and Nordic skis.

And here are the vacancies for September 2015 in Beregovo district.

Hence, most offers are between 60 and 80 Euros per month.

Another important criterion of region”s development is the use of science and innovation in production activity. According to the regional department of statistics, the number of scientific institutions made 13 in 2013 compared to 18 in 2000. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of enterprises that implemented innovations reduced from 23 to 12. The number of specialists conducting scientific and technical works decreased from 647 in 2000 to 416 in 2013. In 2013, only one innovative proposal was implemented.

Hence, it is not surprising that the financial result before taxation of big and medium enterprises of Zakarpattia (except for agricultural enterprises and budget institutions) for January-June 2015 made net loss that makes 70% of income. For January-June 2015, almost one third of Zakarpattia enterprises were loss-making, most of which in industry (64.7%), including machine building.


Intercultural exchange is one of the brightest and most positive segments of life of the Hungarian community in the benevolent and tolerant environment of Zakarpattia. Some cultural events happen almost every week, certifying high activity of representatives of almost all kinds of art. There are concerts of classical music, performances of folklore groups, exhibitions of artists, film festivals occurring not only in regional center, but also in other cities of the area. There were several artistic exhibitions, song festivals, concerts over the last few months. The miniature statue of liberty, beloved by Uzhgorod residents, is dressed in Hungarian national colors for all holidays important for Hungarians. Many events are financially supported by various charitable programs from Hungary, yet this does not affect their popularity among all Zakarpattia residents.

Sometimes there happen exceptional awkward incidents. Thus, according to Zakarpattia-online, the monument to Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi was damaged. Police investigators established that an unknown person damaged the monument”s sabre. The monument is made of bronze at full length with a sabre at the waist. It was further established that the offense was committed by a 64-years old pensioner from Dnipropetrovsk, who temporarily lived in Uzhgorod. He damaged the monument of mercenary motives, as he wanted to sell the sabre and apply the money to his own use.

In general, such incidents are so exceptional that they may not affect the entire mood of tolerance and intercultural dialogue existing in Zakarpattia for a long time.

With this, I would like to finish my presentations and thank the organizers for the opportunity to speak at such reputable meeting.