Ukraine, NATO issue statement on minority rights after Hungary threat

KIEV/BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday issued a joint statement committing to uphold minority rights in Ukraine, a step welcomed by the Hungarian authorities who had threatened to block Kiev’s NATO membership over the issue.

Hungary has clashed with Ukraine over what it says are curbs on the rights of roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use their native 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 the military alliance’s support for Ukraine in the same week as Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Hungary.

Hungarian diplomats had vetoed a previous draft of the joint declaration by Ukraine and NATO as it did not contain a 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 Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Language is a sensitive issue in Ukraine, where some Ukrainian speakers argue that the prominence of Russia is a legacy of the Soviet era that undermines Ukraine’s identity.

There has been a push in recent years to promote the Ukrainian language in state institutions, schools, television and the media.

But the language law passed in 2017 prompted an European Union inquiry, which ended in a report and recommendations here by the Venice Commission, an EU rights body.

“Regarding the protection of the rights of national minorities, we assured allies that Ukraine is complying with all the recommendations of the Venice Commission on the education law,” Zelenskiy said at a briefing alongside Stoltenberg.

The Commission had urged Ukraine to ensure a substantial level of teaching in official languages of the European Union, such as Hungarian and Romanian, both of which have significant minorities in Ukraine.

It also said 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 enter into a new dialogue with minorities.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the NATO declaration showed Ukraine had to return the rights it had stripped from 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; editing by Matthias Williams and Hugh Lawson