Transcarpathia: next Ukrainian flashpoint?

Reuters reported May 5 that Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft stopped diesel shipments to Ukraine and Hungary last month "due to uncertainties over the pipe's ownership," with the Ukrainian prosecutor's office filing a claim of ownership over the Soviet-era duct. We are actually asked to believe that the stoppage is "unrelated to the Ukraine crisis." Meawnhile, Voice of Russia reports that Hungary is stepping in as the protector of minorities in the Zakarpatie region of western Ukraine (also rendered Transcarpathia). These are principally the ethnic Hungarians and the Rusyns (also rendered Ruthenians). The regional parliament, the Hungarian-Rusyn National Congress, is now seeking autonomous legislative powers under a proposed "Transcarpathian Regional Confederation of the Hungarian and Rusyn People." While ethnic Hungarians are considered a "national minority" in Ukraine, the Rusyns do not have such status, according to Denis Kiryukhin of the Kiev Center for Political Studies and Conflictology. "Problems with the Rusyns have come up for several years already," Kiryukhin said. "That is the only ethnic minority in Ukraine, which Kiev has always refused to acknowledge. The relations between Rusyns and Ukrainians have been complicated and remain such to date." Despite the fact that Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship, Budapest has started issuing passports to residents of Zakarpatie—an open affront to Kiev.

The authoritative Ethnologue states: "Rusyn is called a dialect of Ukrainian, but speakers reportedly consider themselves distinct from Ukrainians." This is a view certainly shared by the Carpatho-Rusyn notes that there is also a Rusyn population on the Slovakian side of the border. The Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base states: "Carpatho-Rusyns live in the very heart of Europe, along the northern and southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Their homeland, known as Carpathian Rus, is situated at the crossroads where the borders of Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland meet. Aside from those countries, there are smaller numbers of Carpatho-Rusyns in Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic. In no country do Carpatho-Rusyns have an administratively distinct territory."

In other words, the Rusyns straddle the borders of several countries, and if they start getting slapped around in Ukraine, there is potential for international escalation. Interestingly, Ruthenia was among the easternmost territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that wound up (partially) in the Soviet Union, and today Ukraine. Ruthenia was appended to Czechoslovakia after World War I, and the eastern part of it taken by the Soviet Union after World War II, annexed to the Ukrainian SSR in 1945. During World War II, it was briefly in Hungarian hands and even more briefly—exactly one day—a declared independent state. That day was March 15, 1939, when the Nazis grabbed and promptly dismantled Czechoslovakia. Rather than live in a Nazi-satellite Slovakia, the Ruthenian leadership declared the "Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine"—which lasted just 24 hours before Nazi-aligned Hungarian troops invaded and annexed it. Stalin would take it as the Axis was driven back in '44, and then declined to return it to Czechoslovakia. (See Slate, Jan. 24; Czechoslovakia: A Country Study)

In both world wars, Hungary (the first time around, Austria-Hungary) was pitted against Russia in a struggle for control of the territory. Now, due to Russia's rivalry with Ukraine, the current ruler of Ruthenia, Hungary finds itself in a de facto alliance with Moscow—at least to the point that its renewed claims are being enthusiastically reported by Voice of Russia…

We wish the Ruthenians all luck  in asserting their autonomy without being drawn into Great Power machinations. We think they're going to need it.