Politics, War Drive Depopulation in Ukraine’s Ethnic Hungarian Villages

Verbovets, Ukraine — Verbovets lies a few kilometers from the Hungarian border, one of the few areas of Ukraine yet to be targeted by Russian missiles.

Despite its distance from the war, Verbovets — like many of the villages in Ukraine’s remote Zakarpattia region — is largely empty. Houses are boarded up, businesses permanently closed, gardens overgrown and abandoned.

There are an estimated 75,000 ethnic Hungarians living in the region, which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Since he came to power in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made it much easier for this sizeable Ukrainian minority to gain Hungarian citizenship. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many Ukrainians with Hungarian ancestry have used this route to flee Ukraine, either to escape the conflict or — for men of fighting age — the draft.

In Verbovets, women, children and the elderly account for most of those left behind. Every day, Natalia Sipos commutes back and forth across the border to her job at a battery factory in the Hungarian town of Komarom.

“Many thousands of men left for Hungary, Austria, Germany. … There are plenty of empty houses, and there are many who will not return. There are many who have been enlisted, and they are not going to come back,” Sipos told VOA.

“Since the war began, life is hard. Many families left here, and there are not many places to work. For ethnic Hungarians in Zakarpattia, Viktor Orban is good. He gave us jobs. Hungary is very different,” Sipos said.

In 2017, Kyiv passed a law making the Ukrainian language compulsory in most aspects of public life, aiming to reinforce Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity after Russia-backed rebels took control of two regions in the country’s east and Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. However, ethnic Hungarians and other minority groups complained of discrimination.

Orban supported their cause, accusing Kyiv of “Hungarophobia” and citing it as a reason to block Ukraine’s accession talks with the European Union. At a Brussels summit in December, other EU leaders persuaded Orban to leave the room when they voted to begin membership talks with Kyiv.

Ukraine has since amended its language laws, allowing the use of minority languages such as Hungarian in schools and other institutions. Kyiv sees the matter as closed, but Hungary complains of continuing discrimination.

“We don’t see at all that the issue of national minorities has reached resolution,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said during a visit to Zakarpattia on January 29.

Some local residents say they resent being used as pawns in a political game.

“Very often, the ethnic tensions that enter this multiethnic space come from outside,” Constantinovits Milan, deputy director of professional affairs at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which teaches in Hungarian, told The Associated Press. “The people who live side by side here, the natives of this area, basically have no problems with each other. Many times, this is an artificially generated flaring of tensions.”

Orban has courted support in Zakarpattia, a relatively poor region of Ukraine, even sending seasonal gifts to ethnic Hungarians.

“Viktor Orban is a good, decent man. We got a present from him for Christmas and for New Year’s Eve,” said 81-year-old Verbovets resident Marika, who did not want to give her family name.

Many locals say poverty, not politics, is the biggest problem.

“The whole village has left. There is nothing to do here, and they would die here starving anyway. There is no work. When we had the farm collective, at least we could live here off the few coins we got,” Marika said, recalling the region’s communist past under Soviet rule.

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