Harmony reigns in an unexpected place

Five countries and four faiths intersect peacefully in multiethnic Subcarpathia.

In the borderlands between empires and religions – places like Israel, the Balkans, Kashmir or Northern Ireland – conflict often erupts. But there are exceptions. In a pocket of land below the Carpathian Mountains, where five countries and four religions meet, peace has reigned for a thousand years.

The many and varied peoples of Subcarpathia – Hungarians, Germans, Gypsies, Poles, Romanians, Russians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Tatars, and Ukrainians – have never turned against one another. Instead, they have developed an oasis of pluralism hidden deep in Eastern Europe.

"This is a hundred miles of forested no man's land, claimed by every empire and controlled by none," says Valeriy Padyak, a quiet scholar and publisher in the province's capital, Uzhgorod. "Wars have passed over us and around us, but we are like a rock in a stream. Of all the riches in these mountains, the real gold is peace."

Both UNESCO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have dubbed Subcarpathia a model for "the peaceful coexistence of various national groups" and suggested that it might offer a positive example for Europe's conflict zones. Despite dozens of brutal foreign occupations, the local inhabitants have never been provoked to interethnic violence.

No nation claims the majority of the population, but the Ruthenians, a native Slavic tribe, comprise the largest group.

There are schools and university departments teaching in Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, Romanian, and Hebrew, as well as Ukrainian and Russian. Newspapers and television stations cover the same wide spectrum, and Romanies (Gypsies), persecuted in many other parts of Europe, attend mainstream schools and have preserved their language to a high degree.

"What is our secret?" Mr. Padyak asks, bouncing his small son on his knee. "People here simply don't go in for racial insults and we let each community make its own choices. When the Hungarians wanted street signs in Hungarian, the Slavic groups simply agreed. The Hungarians should be able to use their language in their settlements. It makes sense and it avoids conflicts."

It seems so simple in Subcarpathia, but a similar debate over language rights touched off the war in Macedonia just last year.

But while Subcarpathia has been blessed with harmony among its various groups, it has been afflicted with economic woes. "The mountain villages are cold and bleak," says Oksana Stankyevich, a young Hungarian-Ruthenian woman. "The soil is poor, and all it grows is potatoes. Every new ruler strips our natural resources. Even now, the Ukrainian government is clear-cutting the timber, leaving big gashes in the landscape. There is no hope for young people here, so we are leaving."

The isolated province is the poorest region in the Ukraine. Most of the population of 1.3 million people lives in what the UN considers absolute poverty, subsisting on less than $1 per day. As a result, hundreds of thousands of young people have emigrated over the past 10 years, mostly Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, and Germans who are sometimes able to gain residency in their ethnic states.

"We are the same as Hungarians in Hungary, except that their standard of living is five times higher than ours," says Mihlos Kovac, president of the Hungarian Cultural Association in Uzhgorod. About 1,500 Hungarians emigrate from the tiny province every year.

"It saddens me to see the Hungarians go," says Padyak, who is from a village of mixed Polish, Slovak, and Ruthenian descent. "Ninety-five percent of the Germans and Jews are already gone. They are our people, too, and we will never be the same without them. I want my home to be diverse and colorful. I would not trade this for a pure state, no matter what."

Local leaders from the various ethnic communities argue that autonomy for the region, which would allow for more political representation from the various ethnic groups, might help. In 1991, 87 percent of the population voted for autonomy in a referendum, but the Ukrainian government denied their request.

Father Dimitri Sydor, the priest of Uzhgorod's Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, was among a group of local leaders who visited Western Europe in 1998 to ask for international assistance. "The European Commission told us that they have no time for us, with all of the real conflict zones in Europe," Sydor says. "One German even told me that we might get more attention if we had a war, but we will never resort to violence."

This land and its inhabitants have gone by various names under many different rulers – Carpatho-Ukraine, Transcarpathia, and the Russia beyond the Carpathians, to the eastern Slavs – but its first official name was Terra Incognita, when it was just a white patch on old Hungarian maps in the 10th century.

Since then Uzhgorod has flown 37 different flags, from the banners of Hungarian princes, to that of Genghis Khan, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Czechoslovak First Republic, a Nazi protectorate, and the Soviet Union. There was even one lonely day in 1939 when Carpatho-Ukraine was an independent state.

"For lack of their own state, the various peoples in the mountains were united by folk heroes," says Padyak, who is busy putting local history, songs, and folk tales into print. "Aleksey Dobushi was a sort of Robin Hood character who protected the mountain people, regardless of ethnicity, from the abuses of conquerors. Of course, he is mostly just a fairy tale, but sometimes that is what it takes to form unity."

Padyak's family has lived in six different countries over the past century without ever moving. He grew up in a small Soviet village, which was two miles from Poland and two miles from Slovakia, and he spent a good part of his childhood chasing his father's cows back into the right country. Now, his seven-year-old son Milan is growing up in cosmopolitan Uzhgorod, and Padyak is delighted with the results.

"Milan decided he wanted to go to a Jewish school because he has Jewish friends," Padyak says with a proud grin. "I wondered, but the school was happy to have him. Now, he is learning to speak and write Hebrew and he has e-mail friends in Tel Aviv. I am overjoyed that he has this chance, and I hope it will remain."

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