PRAGUE, September 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Last week the Transcarpathian Oblast Council appealed to Ukraine's president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker to grant Rusyns in the region an official status of ethnic minority (nationality).
Rusyns, who live in a more or less compact territory in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland, are officially recognized as a minority by Bratislava and Warsaw, while Kyiv considers them to be a Ukrainian subgroup. Their struggle for official recognition in Ukraine has continued for more than 15 years now.
Similar appeals to grant official recognition to Rusyns in Ukraine were already issued by the Transcarpathian Oblast Council in 1992 and 2002. But official Kyiv ignored them.
Will the situation repeat itself this time too?
Activists of the People's Council of Transcarpathian Rusyns (NRRZ), an umbrella organization claiming to represent the interests of all Rusyns in the oblast, believe that it will not.
Rusyns In High Places
There are at least two reasons for their optimism.
First, after President Viktor Yushchenko came to power and political life in Ukraine became more democratic, Rusyns in Transcarpathia managed to organize several cultural events with official support and to present their cause on local television, where they were allowed to speak in their mother tongue. This year Rusyns also opened 26 Sunday schools instructing in the Rusyn language and culture.
Second, the Rusyn movement now seems to have an advocate with meaningful political leverage in Kyiv -- Viktor Baloha, former Transcarpathian governor and former emergency situations minister. Baloha -- a councilor of the Transcarpathian Oblast Council, who backed last week's appeal for the official recognition of Rusyns -- was recently appointed by President Yushchenko as head of the presidential staff.
NRRZ deputy head Fedir Shandor tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that a nationality status for Ukraine's Rusyns would considerably boost their efforts toward developing their linguistic and cultural heritage, which they see as distinct from Ukrainian.
"According to the census in December 2001, 10,069 people [in Transcarpathian Oblast] declared themselves to be Rusyn. Thus, even despite the fact that such a nationality is not in the [official] register, there are people considering themselves to be of Rusyn nationality," Shandor says.
According to Shandor, the most urgent tasks for Transcarpathian Rusyns include launching a regular television program in the Rusyn vernacular, establishing a chair of Rusyn studies at a university in Uzhhorod, the capital of Transcarpathian Oblast, and working out a standardized version of the written Rusyn language.
Some estimates say there may be as many as 1.5 million people of Rusyn origin, first of all in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, the United States, and Canada. But their Rusyn identity is generally weak, primarily because Rusyns have never had their own state or political independence.
The history of Rusyns -- East Slavic inhabitants of the Carpathian Mountains -- is quite convoluted and subject to many scholarly controversies.
Throughout the 19th century and until World War I, when overwhelmingly rural and agricultural Rusyns produced their own intelligentsia and articulated the idea of their ethnic distinctiveness, their fatherland -- Transcarpathia (Carpathian Rus) -- belonged to the Austro-Hungary.
After World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian state, most of Transcarpathia found itself within the borders of Czechoslovakia, where Rusyns enjoyed a sort of self-rule with their own governor, schools, a national anthem, and a national theater.
After World War II most of Transcarpathia was annexed by the Soviet Union, which did away with the idea of Rusyn distinctiveness and declared all Rusyns to be Ukrainians. The communist regimes in post-World War II Czechoslovakia and Poland adopted the Soviet line and also decreed that Rusyns within their borders were Ukrainians.
Rusyns reemerged after the collapse of the communist system in Poland and Slovakia and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
A census in Slovakia in 2001 registered 24,000 Rusyns, up from 17,000 Rusyns registered in a census 10 years earlier. A census in Poland in 2002 found that there were 6,000 Lemkos (local name for Rusyns) in the country.
The officially established numerical strength of Rusyns is not particularly impressive but the general trend seems to be propitious for them -- having started from nil, Rusyns continue to gain in number.
Shandor believes that the official unwillingness to grant recognition to Rusyns tarnishes Ukraine's international image.
"It is very important for Ukraine to register this nationality, in order to avoid various manipulations at the level of the European Union," Shandor says. "There is a league of unrepresented peoples [the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization], which creates a negative image for Ukraine in connection with the fact that the Rusyn nationality is not recognized."
According to a final document of the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Copenhagen in 1990, "to belong to a national minority is a matter of person's individual choice." Moreover, the document says that "persons belonging to national minorities can exercise and enjoy their rights individually as well as in community with other members of their group."
But many Ukrainians, including intellectuals and academics, would argue whether European standards could be applied to Rusyns in Ukraine. One of them is Mykola Zhulynskyy, director of the Institute of Literature in Ukraine's National Sciences Academy.
"I think that in this case the European experience is of no use. This is simply a big problem that arouse in connection with the fact that Ukraine had not been united, that she had been torn apart by different empires. [The Rusyns constitute] the indivisible Ukrainian body," Zhulynskyy says.
However, historical arguments can also be used to question Zhulynskyy's reasoning, if not to discard it altogether. No later than a century ago many Russians used to argue in almost the same way, asserting that Ukrainians ("Little Russians") and Belarusians ("White Russians") constituted "the indivisible Russian body."
Now that Ukrainians have an independent state, do they really need to behave toward their own "younger brothers" -- Transcarpathian Rusyns -- like their erstwhile oppressor, tsarist Russia, behaved toward them?
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Nadiya Petriv contributed to this report.)