Ukraine-Russia: Where is the Ukrainian territory of Zakarpattia and why are far-right politicians in Romania and Hungary laying claims to it?

The Oblast of Zakarpattia is home to a small, but significant minority of Hungarians

It is one of Ukraine’s most peaceful western regions, located further from invading Russia than any other part of the country.

Now, Zakarpattia is facing an under-the-radar territory row from far-right parties in its European Union member border nations, which want to take it under their control.

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Laszlo Toroczkai of Hungarian party Our Homeland, which holds six seats out of a total of 199 in Hungary's parliament, and Claudiu Târziu, one of the leaders of Romania's far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) party, which has 12 seats of 136 in the Romanian senate, have both said their countries should take control of the region, if and when Ukraine is forced to capitulate to Russia.

The town of Berehove is in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine, also known as Transcarpathia. Around half of Berehove's population of 22,000 is ethnic Hungarian.The town of Berehove is in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine, also known as Transcarpathia. Around half of Berehove's population of 22,000 is ethnic Hungarian.
The town of Berehove is in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine, also known as Transcarpathia. Around half of Berehove's population of 22,000 is ethnic Hungarian.

Although unlikely to happen in the near future – neither of the parties have significant influence in government – the issue raises the possibility of instability in the region, which has historically seen borders move due to the creation and fall of the Soviet Union and two World Wars.

Mr Toroczkai has argued his country’s claims come from the sizeable Hungarian population in Zakarpattia, which borders Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

The Oblast is officially home to more than 150,000 Hungarians – around 12 per cent of the population – although is understood many left for Hungary following the Russian invasion. In the town of Berehove, around half of the population of 22,000 is ethnic-Hungarian, the bilingual street signs, architecture and historical plaques testifying to its Magyar heritage. Romanians number only around 2 per cent of the population.

The region, also known as Transcarpathia, which had reverted from Hungary to Czechoslovakia in 1944, was ceded to Ukraine in 1945 by a Czech-Soviet government agreement.

Zakarpattia’s local government has had a long-running dispute with Hungary over Ukrainian language laws passed in 2017, which deem 70 per cent of education above fifth grade level must be in Ukrainian, scrapping ethnic Hungarians’ right to education in their own language.

"If this war ends up with Ukraine losing its statehood, because this is also on the cards, then as the only Hungarian party taking this position, let me signal that we lay claim to [Zakarpattia]," Mr Toroczkai said at a party conference in Budapest last month.

Days later, Mr Târziu, whose party is described as ultranationalist, took a further step to say Romania should take control of not just Zakarpattia, but other Ukrainian Oblasts of southern Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina – and even the country of Moldova, once part of the Romanian state in the interwar period until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

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"We will not be truly sovereign until after we restore the Romanian state within its natural borders," Mr Târziu said during a speech in the Romanian city of Iasi.

Russian president Vladimir Putin denied in a lengthy interview with American broadcaster Tucker Carlson this week that he has offered parts of Ukraine to Hungary, if he wins the war, saying he had “never once” had that conversation with Viktor Orban. "But I know for sure that Hungarians who live there [Ukraine] wanted to get back to their historical land,” Mr Putin added.

Rick Fawn, professor in international relations at the University of St Andrews, said international observers should not dismiss the groups’ claims.

"I wouldn't say that these groups are crazy and this is part of the problem,” he said. “I think they're very serious in what they're thinking and they do have enough elements of support. Generally, there is a serious lurch to the right to Europe and particularly in the post communist countries. My hunch would be that it's unlikely that either of the two parties in Hungary and Romania would get a commanding say, but having a reasonable share is possible.”

He points to a lack of backing for minority groups within Ukraine, due to the need for the country to create a cohesive Ukrainian identity in the face of Russian adversity. Prof Fawn said this could change if Ukraine becomes established in Euro-Atlantic groups and more confident in its identity.

"This is a region that has been very deeply fractured,” he said. “Ukraine is in this very vulnerable situation. It's a country that has, very literally, territorial amputation and the loss of populations.” Prof Fawn described Ukraine’s years of fear of the actions of the “big brother next door”, even before the Russian invasion two years ago.

“The Ukrainian government's onus has been on forging a common national identity and it's within doing that as a beleaguered Ukrainian entity that seemed to others to downplay or even denigrate minority rights protection for others,” he said. “Now the upshot here is that both of these far right parties are claiming territory against Ukraine.”

Prof Fawn said the far-right parties’ groups play into Russia’s hands by threatening the basis of the European Union – and warned of a “Pandora’s Box” of territorial claims in the region.

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"In that way, these far-right parties have much in common with [Orban’s party] Fidesz in Hungary, with [party in majority government] Law and Justice in Poland,” he said. “So they're not that far, in some of the things that they're saying, from ruling government. That’s concerning, because it is an indication of a wider trend that is undoing some of the EU project. And that is something that delights Moscow.”

Dr Joanna Szostek, senior lecturer in political communication at Glasgow University, carried out research about national identity in the Zakarpattia region in 2021.

"The important thing to bear in mind is that they're not large minorities,” she said. “The large majority of people living in Zakarpattia are Ukrainians and also quite patriotic Ukrainians. I don't see any potential for these territorial claims to really make an impact.

"It sounds like those particular political groups might be be playing to their own audiences, domestically.”



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