Ukraine's Tenuous Minority Relations

The relationship between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians has largely dominated the discourse over the course of the last ten years in Ukraine. As the war continues the discussions surrounding this relationship have only expanded. Putin has claimed that ethnic Russians face extreme persecution in the country, stating Kyiv has unfairly targeted Russian speakers through laws and regulations. While Ukrainian officials and outside NGOs have refuted these accusations, the Kremlin has continued to turn towards ethnic divides to sow mistrust within the country. Ukrainians and Russians are the largest two ethnic groups, but the country also has significant minority populations including Roma, Hungarian, and Tatar, among others.


Ukraine’s relationship with these various groups has been tense throughout the last twenty years. Back in 2017, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law declaring that all educational instruction be conducted in the Ukrainian language. This drew the ire of various ethnic groups whose first language is not Ukrainian. Proponents claimed that it was essential for national security, but many minorities viewed it as an infringement on their culture.


The tenuous relationship transcends language instruction. For the Roma people who fled at the onset of the war, many have had a hard time entering other European countries or even returning to Ukraine. A majority of Roma people are stateless, with either Soviet-era documents or none at all, thus unable to prove nationality or place of birth. The group has faced systemic barriers in trying to acquire passports from Ukraine further perpetuating the issues they face in establishing themselves or traveling throughout Europe.


The Kremlin’s media apparatus is well aware of the issues among the minority communities in Ukraine. With their acute focus on the ethnic divisions of the country, Ukraine’s complicated relationships with its minorities could be exploited as part of their multi-faceted attack. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. who has distanced himself from the European Union’s isolation of Russia and defended Putin at times, is seeking to exert more influence and control over the Hungarian minority population in Ukraine. Orban has sent funding to local schools and businesses in Ukrainian cities with large Hungarian populations. This sway is causing some in Kyiv to worry that Hungary’s leader’s ambivalence toward the war will seep into the minority population in western Ukraine. Outside observers say that Hungarian media, widely broadcasted in western Ukraine, is sharing similar dialogues with Russian media. Broadcasts have stated that Ukraine shares part of the responsibility for the war and questioned its territorial claims to the Donbas.


As the war continues to rage in Ukraine, Kyiv will need to find ways to show that they are supporting the various minority groups within the country. Ukraine is in the position of being surrounded by enemies and hesitant allies. With Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, and Hungary to the west, each country has ties to ethnic groups within Ukraine. Ukraine must remain acutely aware that these connections which can be exploited against them.


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