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Hungary: New Government Feels Responsible For Minorities Abroad

  • Kitty McKinsey

Budapest, 21 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly after his election as Hungarian Prime Minister this summer, Victor Orban made a victory tour of ethnic Hungarian towns and villages in Transylvania.

The hero's welcome he was given by the large ethnic Hungarian minority, thrilled by his promises to help preserve their identity and expand their rights, set off alarm bells not only in Bucharest, but also in Bratislava and Belgrade.

After just a few months in office, it has become clear that the new Orban government is taking a more vigorous approach to supporting the claims of ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries of Romania, Slovakia and former Yugoslavia.

Nearly half as many Hungarians (5 million) live outside Hungary's borders as inside the country itself (10 million). Orban has made it his mission to represent all of them.

Tensions between Hungary and her neighbors have been further raised by statements by Zsolt Nemeth, state secretary at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. On a recent trip to Transylvania, Nemeth proclaimed that the "nation-state" is a thing of the past and "the Hungarian nation's borders do not coincide with Hungary's borders."

At the newly-prominent Office for Relations with Hungarians Beyond the Borders in Budapest, the head of the office, Undersecretary of State Tibor Szabo, gestures to a large map on the wall. "This is a geographical fact. If you look at the map you can see that the areas where the Hungarians are living do not coincide with the Hungarian borders. So, in this sense the Hungarian nation does indeed not coincide with the borders of Hungary. This is not a viewpoint, this is a fact."

The situation at hand is a legacy of the Trianon Treaty at the end of World War I. The 1920 treaty between Hungary and the Allies reduced Hungary's geographical size by two-thirds and its population by half, and left Hungarians scattered across international borders after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Jozsef Botlik, an expert on ethnic Hungarian issues and a journalist with Magyar Nemzet, praised the Orban government for raising the issue to 3its proper place.2 He said, 3I would say the majority of Hungarian Hungarians support this idea. The reason is that you can hardly find one Hungarian family in Hungary which would not have relatives among the ethnic Hungarians, or the family itself fled to Hungary to within the Trianon borders, either from Slovakia, Transylvania or some other area. My family, for example, on my mother's side, we come from Slovakia, and from my father's side we come from Transylvania."

Istvan Csurka, leader of the far-right nationalist Hungarian Truth and Life party, also applauds Orban's efforts to bring the issue to the forefront. Csurka told RFE/RL that the problem in the past has been that "Hungarians are tame, while our neighbors are more aggressive towards their Hungarian minorities."

Hungary's main accusation is that her neighbors do not live up to the international commitments they have made, in particular to the Council of Europe, to respect the rights of minorities.

In Romania, the chief issues have been demands for the reopening of a Hungarian language university closed in the 1950s and demands for kindergarten-to-university education in mother tongue Hungarian.

In Slovakia, the nationalist government of outgoing Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar was widely seen as discriminating against ethnic Hungarians by limiting minority language rights and redrawing administrative borders to dilute concentrations of ethnic Hungarians.

In Serbia, ethnic Hungarians in the northern Vojvodina province have been protesting against being conscripted to fight in the Serbs' war against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Estimates are that hundreds, or possibly thousands, of ethnic Hungarian Yugoslav citizens have been sent to Kosovo as unwilling participants in a fight in which they have no stake. A small number have reportedly been killed.

Even if they applaud supporting fellow Hungarians abroad, some Hungarian critics see a danger in Orban's more aggressive approach.

Pal Eotvos, editor in chief of Nepszabadsag newspaper, told RFE/RL that the Orban cabinet's outspokenness has encouraged the more radical elements in ethnic Hungarian parties in other countries.

Alojas Dornbach, a member of parliament for the opposition liberal Free Democrats, is also slightly critical of the government but remains convinced that most ethnic Hungarian politicians in other countries are reasonable. He said, "It is only a very noisy minority which voices these extreme views," such as redrawing borders.

At the same time, Dornbach said, 3It is not perhaps very wise for Hungarian politicians to make statements which try to teach the other side what to do or how to behave, because this can aggravate the situation." He added, 3There is a danger in Romania... that no matter how justified the demands of the minority are, that these are viewed by the majority as irredentism."

Labeling the Romanian attitude toward its ethnic Hungarian citizens as "paranoid," Dornbach concluded that "the only way you can treat paranoia is with patience. You can't treat it with power. You cannot counter it with rationalism."

Szabo, Undersecretary of State for Relations with Hungarians Beyond the Borders, plays down fears that the Orban government's approach could feed extreme demands for overturning the Trianon Treaty or redrawing international borders. He said, 3When trying to find a solution to these problems, there is never any word of changing the borders or redrawing the map."

Most proponents of ethnic Hungarians' rights are pinning their hopes on further European integration and on Western European solutions for Central European problems.

Botlik said ethnic Hungarian minorities deserve wider rights, similar to those that citizens of Wales and Scotland have recently gained within Great Britain.

"What should be done is (to) persuade the neighboring countries that they should treat their national minorities properly because they are people who have not left their homeland, but in effect, it was the homeland which left them. They are citizens of that country, they are living there, they are working there, they are paying their taxes... to the Romanian budget, or the Slovakian budget, or whichever budget, so they should be given certain rights according to the democratic traditions."

Recently, tensions between Hungary and its neighbors have eased.

In Romania, after weeks of debate, the ethnic Hungarian party decided to remain in the Romanian government. At the same time, the government took steps to meet the demand for a Hungarian language university. It said it is prepared to set up a Hungarian-German university called Petofi-Schiller, which has appeased some Hungarians, but angered many Romanians. Observers say the issue is far from resolved, and the government's patchwork approach to minority education may still drive the minority Hungarian party out of the coalition government.

In Slovakia, the nationalist government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar was voted out of office at the end of September. It seems likely that Slovakia's Hungarian Coalition Party will be included in the new coalition government now being formed.

Hungary also reports some progress in saving new ethnic Hungarian conscripts from being sent to Kosovo. However, Szabo said the government is still not entirely satisfied because a number of conscripts are still forced to risk their lives in Kosovo.

Szabo concluded, "Obviously what we would like best is that each Hungarian conscript should be allowed to return safely and in one piece to their family."