Victor Orbán’s suggestion that Hungarians in Western Ukraine be given autonomy is unhelpful. However, the real issue Ukraine faces is immigration: how many people leave Ukraine over the next few years could determine the success of the revolution.
So far, the crisis in Eastern Ukraine has occupied the attention of journalists and politicians in the West. Rightly so, of course, for what is at stake is not much less than the territorial integrity of a country the size of France, and the role of Russia in the international community. The results of a separatist referendum in the Donbass, held on 11 May, have raised big questions for political actors – not least in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has equivocated on whether another big absorption of Ukrainian territory would suit his purposes.
Yet little attention has been focused on the West of the country. Partly, this is because it is assumed that western Ukrainians are still loyal to the interim government in Kyiv. A survey by Pew, carried out in April, suggested 60% of western Ukrainians believed the government was having a good influence on the way things were going in their country, but nearly three-in-ten believe the opposite. In the East, those figures were reversed.
Western Ukraine is seen as the depository for Ukrainian national identity, and indeed, support for the Ukrainian language is high there, with 66% believing it should be the sole official language of the country. So commitment to the idea of a Ukrainian state, for political and cultural reasons, should ensure that one exists regardless of events in the East.
Nonetheless, neighbouring countries in the European Union will be bracing themselves for a rise in immigration from Ukraine. The number of Ukrainian economic migrants in Poland was estimated at 168,000 before the crisis, having risen more than 40% since the mid-2000s. With a commitment in the EU to visa liberalisation as a means of helping Ukraine economically and politically on its route to a free-trade agreement, there is unlikely to be less migration westwards.
Indeed, Franck Düvell, of the Oxford COMPAS Group, wrote on a blog recently “In the years to come, migration pressure from Ukraine is more likely to increase than not, resulting in migration, irregular migration and in the worst case even refugee flows. The EU and its member states might soon find themselves in a position where they need to deal with increased migration or even refugee flows from Ukraine.”
However, there is also an issue of ethnic minorities within Ukraine. Hungary’s recently re-elected premier, Viktor Orbán, suggested over the weekend that up to 200,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine should be given “autonomy”, as well as dual citizenship that would entitle them to EU passports. While Orbán says he is a supporter of Kyiv and its efforts to build a democratic government, he is clearly no friend of the country, and has significant dealings with Russia that long delayed his willingness to criticise Putin over his approach to Ukraine.
Clearly, it is in the interests of both EU member states and Ukrainians to restore as much stability to Ukraine as is feasible. Efforts to remove Russia’s gas veto, if they do emerge, will be a big part of this. So too will IMF, EBRD and EU loans. Yet the real test of Europe’s commitment to Ukraine will come if and when migration flows increase. A healthy rotation of economic migrants could bring benefits to Ukraine and to neighbouring countries, but the country can ill-afford to lose another 3-7 million migrants as it has done since 1991.
Josh Black has an MSc in Russian and Eastern European Studies with a focus on politics in Ukraine and the European Union’s external relations. A historian by training, he is also a part-time journalist. He currently edits Vostok Cable.