KIEV / BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday released a joint statement pledging to respect minority rights in Ukraine, a move hailed by Hungarian authorities who had threatened to block Kiev’s NATO membership on the issue.
Hungary has clashed with Ukraine over what it says are restrictions on the rights of around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use their mother tongue, especially in education, after Ukraine passed a law in 2017 restricting the use of minority languages in schools.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was visiting Kiev to show military alliance support for Ukraine the same week Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Hungary.
Hungarian diplomats had vetoed an earlier draft Ukraine-NATO joint declaration because it contained no reference to its neighbor’s obligation to fully respect the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has spilled over 13,000 deaths.
Language is a sensitive issue in Ukraine, where some Ukrainian speakers argue that the importance of Russia is a legacy from the Soviet era that undermines Ukraine’s identity.
In recent years, efforts have been made to promote the Ukrainian language in public institutions, schools, television and media.
But the language law passed in 2017 sparked a European Union investigation, which ended with a report and recommendations here by the Venice Commission, an EU rights body.
“With regard to the protection of the rights of national minorities, we have assured our allies that Ukraine is complying with all the recommendations of the Venice Commission on the law on education,” Zelenskiy said at a briefing alongside Stoltenberg.
The Commission had urged Ukraine to ensure a substantial level of education in the official languages of the European Union, such as Hungarian and Romanian, both of which have significant minorities in Ukraine.
He also said that Ukraine should ensure a sufficient proportion of education in minority languages in addition to Ukrainian, allow more time for gradual reform, exempt private schools and start a new dialogue with minorities.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the NATO statement showed Ukraine must restore the rights it had deprived of its national minorities.
“Hungary is ready for consultations with the new Ukrainian leadership,” he said in a statement.
“New president, new hope.
Writing by Marton Dunai; edited by Matthias Williams and Hugh Lawson