Status of Rusyns not determined
by Elisabeth Sewall, Assistant Editor
Kyiv Post, 25 January 2007
Despite having been granted official minority status by Slovakia and Poland, the Rusyns, a little-known ethnic group inhabiting the vicinity of the Carpathian Mountains, are still awaiting recognition from Kyiv, which considers them to be a Ukrainian subgroup.
Kyiv’s reluctance and the persistence of those who champion the Rusyn’s cause may, however, be motivated as much by politics and religion as by national identity.
According to the State Committee on Nationalities and Migration, around 30,000 out of 47 million Ukrainian nationals claimed to be Rusyn in the last national minority census, conducted in 2001 by Ukraine’s State Statistics Committee.
There are also Rusyns living in more or less compact parts of Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania, in addition to resettled communities in Serbia and Croatia and a Diaspora in the United States and Canada.
While the exact number of Rusyns in the world is uncertain, Rusyn organizations and scholars claim as many as 1.6 million Rusyns worldwide, with 45 percent of them residing in modern-day Ukraine.
Other estimates, determined by data from official censuses taken in several Eastern European countries alone, indicate a population of around 55,000.
Ukraine’s State Committee on Nationalities and Migration is the government body responsible for implementing and protecting the rights of minorities in Ukraine in accordance with the law on national minorities. Ukraine is also bound by its ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which outlines legislation designed by the Council of Europe to protect National minorities in European countries.
But the State Committee, the official list of which is updated every 10 years in line with state censuses, has still not recognized the Rusyns as a minority.
Ukraine currently recognizes around 130 minorities, which comprise about 11 million people, or 22.2 percent of the country’s population.
Granting Rusyns ethnic minority status would mean that Ukraine is required by law to provide them with certain privileges, including the establishment of Rusyn-language schools and funding to preserve their cultural heritage.
Geopolitics and religion are also believed to play a role in the issue, as recognition would give greater political power to the group.
“There are two reasons why the authorities are reluctant to recognize the Rusyn nationality,” according to Fedir Shandor, a sociologist at the University of Uzhgorod and a member of the People’s Council of Transcarpathian Rusyns, which boasts up to 3,000 active members.
“Firstly, it is believed that Rusyns are the hand of Moscow. Secondly, there is a belief that, if the Rusyn nationality is recognized, Transcarpathia Region will attempt to separate from Ukraine and gain independence.”
“Moscow is financing the Orthodox Rusyns. The majority of Rusyns are Greek Catholics. Rusyns were never Orthodox. Now there is a Rusyn Orthodox movement, and Moscow gives them money,” he said.
Shandor added that it is difficult to determine exactly how much money is funneled to Rusyn causes, because it is done indirectly and through religious and political institutions.
According to Oleksandr Solontai, chairman of the National Foundation for Regional Initiatives, 60 percent of Transcarpathia Region’s population consists of impoverished and poorly educated rural residents, some of whom play up or down their national identity for financial gain.
Solontai said that other Rusyns, lacking a strong sense of ethnic identity, are easily manipulated by outsiders.
Shandor said that the politicization of the Rusyn identity, especially its association with Russian interference and fears of secession, has led many Transcarpathian residents to disassociate themselves with their cultural roots.
“Rusyn means politics. It’s not pretty, it’s dirty,” said Shandor, adding that
people of Rusyn ethnicity often refer to themselves as the more neutral sounding “Transcarpathians.”
“The most important thing is for Ukraine to recognize [Rusyn identity]. If Ukraine would recognize [the Rusyns], the problem would become much smaller,” Shandor added.
In a December 1991 referendum, 78 percent of voters in Transcarpathia Region voted for regional autonomy, which was never implemented.
Today, the Transcarpathian Special Economic Zone enjoys tax and custom duty breaks meant to stimulate economic growth and development. It is also a major border crossing for trade with the EU.
Slovakia, now an EU member, also boasts a sizeable Rusyn population.
According to Yaroslav Joganik, a professor of Ukrainian language and culture at Matej Bel University in Banska Bystritsa, Slovakia, Slovakian Rusyns are also divided over their ties to Ukraine.
“The pure Rusyns say they don’t have any relation to Ukrainians or Ukraine. They are a separate nation,” said Joganik, who is himself a Rusyn.
In 1991 in Slovakia, 17,000 people said they considered themselves Rusyns, while 13,000 considered themselves Ukrainians. In 2001, the number of Rusyns rose to 24,000, while the number of Ukrainians decreased to 11,000.
Joganik said it has now become fashionable to call oneself Rusyn.
In the U.S., which is believed to have one of the largest Rusyn Diaspora communities in the world, Rusyn and Ukrainian communities are not close, according to Shandor.
“In Diaspora communities in America, Ukrainian and Rusyn communities do not get along – they have conflicts,” he said.
“Transcarpathia Region has been ruled by 22 different states over its history. If this hadn’t been the case, we would have assimilated,” according to Shandor.