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Analysis: The Legacy Of Trianon

  • Michael Shafir --> Women in traditional Hungarian dress voting in Veresegyhaz, some 30 kilometers east of Budapest The results of the referendum held in Hungary on 5 December defuse the potential danger of new tensions among European states with ethnic Hungarian minorities. Preliminary official results show that voters failed to approve a referendum on whether to give ethnic Hungarians living outside the country the right to become Hungarian citizens and whether to scrap the state health-care system.

Countries such as Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Serbia and Montenegro have ethnic Hungarian minorities resulting from the post-World War I dismemberment of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the 1921 Trianon Treaty, in which Hungary lost some two-thirds of its territory. Historians and political scientists have often characterized Trianon as a "living wound" for Hungarians on both sides of the country's current borders. To the same extent, however, for many of Hungary's neighbors, Trianon has acquired an equally symbolic value signifying independence, territorial integrity, and historic justice.

In the 5 December referendum, voters had to answer two apparently unrelated questions: whether to grant dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries and whether to keep the current state-run health-care system or continue its privatization. There was one link between the two questions -- politics and politicking. And that link produced some paradoxes.

Role Reversal

The conservative opposition FIDESZ, headed by charismatic former Prime Minister Victor Orban, supported the dual citizenship measure and opposed the privatization of the health-care system, urged by the Socialist-Liberal government of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. This position is hardly in line with Orban's self-attributed "Thatcherite" ideology; precisely for this reason, Orban's political allies, the largely conservative Magyar Democratic Forum, opposed keeping in place the costly health-care system and were thus on the government's side.
However, for many of Hungary's neighbors, Trianon has acquired an equally symbolic value signifying independence, territorial integrity, and historic justice.

Undoubtedly, though, the dual citizenship question was the major issue at stake. Gyurcsany, who took over from his predecessor Peter Medgyessy some two months ago, called on voters "not to vote yes." This odd formulation was not accidental. According to Hungarian legislation, for a referendum to count it must either have a turnout of at least 50 percent, or have a minimum of 25 percent of the participants vote "yes" or "no" to the questions posed. Plebiscite precedents, as well as previous low electoral turnouts, made the likelihood of a 50 percent turnout close to nil. The real question was whether 25 percent of the participants would cast a ballot on either side.

At the end of the day, turnout was just over 37 percent. With some 99.8 percent of the vote counted (final results will be released in a couple of days), votes in favor of granting double citizenship were somewhat ahead (51.56 percent) of votes against it (48.44 percent), but neither camp garnered the 25 percent that would have made the outcome binding for parliament to debate and enact legislation. The proposal to end hospital privatization failed due to the same reason, though the pro-Orban vote on it was higher in this case (65.02 percent).

A New Irredentism?

Orban certainly remembers the conflicts with neighboring Slovakia and Romania over the "Status Law," approved by his government in 2001, which had to be amended by the successor Socialist-Liberal cabinet of Medgyessy following criticism from European institutions. Under the law, ethnic Hungarians living abroad were entitled to certain benefits and subsidies. This time around, in both Slovakia and Romania, there was criticism of the ethnic Hungarian leadership for its support of the Orban-backed proposal.

This is precisely what Orban is counting on. The "symbolic" significance of Trianon is far too powerful to leave Hungarians living beyond the borders of the kin-state indifferent. He thus garnered support from the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) leadership, with which relations have been strained for some time, and from the leadership of the Slovak Coalition Party (SMK), part of which is also opposed to Orban's particular strand of nationalism. Not when it comes to overcoming the hated symbol of Trianon, however. Does this mean territorial irredentism? For most ethnic Hungarians abroad this is not the case. But carrying a Hungarian passport would have a powerful sentimental value.

Whatever the result of the referendum, Orban did not have much to lose. Had the "yes" vote come out on top, he could have counted on many more fresh votes from those who had acquired (or reacquired) Hungarian citizenship thanks to him. If he lost, he could point his finger at those who argued against the move on mainly economic grounds. Indeed, according to the government, there was a danger that after gaining citizenship, some 800,000 ethnic Hungarians from less-developed neighboring countries would want to move to Hungary. That would supposedly entail yearly costs of 537 billion forints ($2.8 billion) -- about one-half of the 2005 budget deficit.

As a politician, Orban has long been moving toward a conservative, nationalist populism. He may thus try to use this instance to reach the patriotic-inclined Socialist electorate. It is not by chance that the skillful manipulator of words told a gathering in Budapest's Hero Square on 27 November: "The invitations to the 5 December wedding were sent 84 years ago," before adding that "recreating a 15 million nation from a 10 million country is a historic deed." And emulating former West German leader Willy Brandt's famous 9 November 1989 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Orban told the crowd that the vote was about "forging together what history has broken to pieces."