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East European Perspectives: March 5, 2003

5 March 2003, Volume 5, Number 5


By Richard Andrew Hall


All communities are imagined; some are clearly more imagined than others. No one perhaps learned this lesson better -- or more bitterly --than communist rulers and ideologues in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Ethnic and national identities may indeed be artificial, constructed, and malleable, but not infinitely so. Moreover, in comparison to other identities they are remarkably enduring and particularly resistant to orchestrated efforts to eradicate them or diminish their relevance once they have become established -- even where a regime may have played a critical role in their formation and early formulation, as occurred with certain national identities in the former Soviet Union.

For all the works in the tidal wave of recent research educating us that ethnic and national identities are not, after all, organic -- a battle, one might argue, that has often been joined and won largely by taking on a journalistic and pop-culture straw man -- the reality remains that certain myths have historically proved more resilient and durable than others. In Eastern Europe, the most "fit" from a Darwinian standpoint has been the national myth -- even if the reason for its resilience has been a derivative of broader political, economic, social, and cultural conditions. (One can, for example, argue that religion in the Middle East, and class in Latin America, have been the most recurrent and galvanizing myths in those regions -- thereby suggesting the contingent and historically determined character of which myth emerges preeminent.)

Such generalizations, however valid in the comparison of different geo-historical regions, do not help much in the way of explaining variations within those regions, however. After all, there has rarely been an era in which there was such strong institutional and ideological similarity -- even if far from identicalness -- across a single region as during the communist era in Eastern Europe. And yet, as we well know, the role and impact of ethnicity and nationalism on politics varied sometimes greatly from place to place in communist Eastern Europe.

One puzzle that continues to intrigue is why Serbian politics became seized with and was eventually captured by nationalism in the late 1980s? One is tempted to ascribe this almost singularly to the personality and ruthlessness of Slobodan Milosevic -- and certainly many single-case studies analyzing Serbia, especially journalistic and popular accounts, do just that. Without Milosevic's advocacy and incitement of the nationalist cause -- especially after his famous "moment of truth" in Kosova* on 24 April 1987 -- clearly this outcome might not have happened. Yet such an argument presupposes -- as many longtime scholars of Yugoslavia have rejoined -- the existence of a nationalist sentiment that could be exploited. Hence, their focus in the analysis of causes tends to turn the clock further back, to the fall of 1986, and the publication of the famous SANU (Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts) Memorandum outlining Serb grievances and demands against the Federal Yugoslav state. Without Milosevic's willing scribes among the Serb intelligentsia, these scholars suggest, the opportunistic and ideologically colorless Milosevic might never have undergone his nationalist conversion, with its tragic repercussions for the future of Serbia and Yugoslavia as a whole.

Still, such explanations suffer somewhat from having been argued largely in a vacuum. Serbia was not the only place in Eastern Europe where the diaspora issue played an influential role during the late-communist era. The role of nationalism -- and "diaspora politics" specifically -- in the Hungarian transition is easily forgotten in the wake of the brutal wars of Yugoslav succession, Hungary's comparatively smooth postcommunist evolution, and the eventual postcommunist warming of relations between Hungary and Romania. Yet at the time -- as literature from the period indicates -- it was a significant issue.

In comparison to a country such as Romania, the communist regime's embrace of nationalism in Hungary and Serbia was belated, but it did emerge, particularly during the late-communist era. In both the Hungarian and Serb cases, the issue of ethnic diaspora -- for Hungarians in Transylvania (Romania), southern Slovakia (Czechoslovakia), Vojvodina (Yugoslavia), and Subcarpathian Ukraine (the Soviet Union), but particularly in Transylvania; for Serbs, in Kosova, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but particularly in Kosova -- was a key catalyst in the resurgence of nationalism into the political arena. In both cases, a progressive loss of ethnic representation, power, and influence in these regions, and emigration to the homeland from a region considered to be THE primary cultural source of the nation -- but where that nation now constituted a "besieged" minority in the face of the policies of the political authorities who controlled the region -- forced this issue onto the agenda of dissidents and communist politicians alike. As in Serbia, diaspora politics in Hungary galvanized regime opposition and helped draw populist and liberal regime critics together as never before. And, as in Serbia, declining regime legitimacy and a process of leadership succession allowed for, and encouraged the mobilization of, nationalism in the political arena.

Yet, as is well known, the outcome of the nationalist resurgence was very different in Serbia from in Hungary. In Serbia, the question came to transfix the Serbian state and society, unleashing a politics of nationalism that played a central role in the destruction of the Yugoslav state and the horrendous loss of life in the wars of succession of the 1990s. In Hungary, by contrast, the fate of Transylvanian Hungarians that was such a fundamental feature of politics in the late 1980s receded from center-stage and became merely A characteristic -- rather than THE characteristic -- of the broader transition. What happened? I try to answer that question in this five-part article by comparing the differing role and impact of diaspora politics in late-communist Serbia and late-communist Hungary. I do so in the hopes of better highlighting, from a comparative standpoint, what it was specifically that contributed to and enabled the tragic outcome in Serbia.

A word on the comparability of the two cases before I embark on this comparison. Clearly, Serbia was not an internationally recognized "nation-state" during the period under investigation. Nevertheless, I treat it as comparable to one -- and thus comparable to Hungary -- for analytical purposes. As early as 1984, Ramet compared post-Tito Yugoslavia to something approximating a "balance of power" state system, with ethnic groups and their titular republics/provinces essentially assuming the role that states would in the international system (Ramet, 1992, pp. 3-18). Moreover, it is debatable, for example, whether the Serbian republican leadership under Tito had significantly more autonomy than the Hungarian leadership did vis-a-vis Moscow. Certainly, during the 1980s, it can be argued that Moscow's influence on the leadership and policies of the Hungarian party was at least equal to and perhaps greater than the Yugoslav Federation's on the leadership and policies of the Serbian party. Finally, it is clear that, particularly during the 1980s, knowing the relationship between the party-state and society for Yugoslavia as a whole, or in any (one) particular republic, was a weak predictor for understanding that relationship in any (other) particular republic.

A Theoretical Overview Of The Evolution Of Ethnic And National Identity In Communist Eastern Europe

Ethnic and national identities became politicized in communist Eastern Europe precisely because communist rulers tried to negate their influence and raise the profile and salience of competing class, institutional (the Party), and inter- or supra-national identities (especially loyalty to the Soviet Union). Because much of ethnic identity and nationalism is informally institutionalized -- and thus is not the exclusive province of any particular political party or societal organization -- these identities were able to survive the communist onslaught -- focused as it was primarily on destroying formal institutions that lay outside the control of the Party -- and became a natural rallying point and metaphor of opposition to the communist authorities who sought to diminish their influence.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution against a leadership that even by comparison with other communist leaderships in the region was particularly determined to make a definitive break with national tradition; the success of the East European communist regimes in destroying independent societal organizations and initiatives and in creating new institutions based on competing concepts of identity (the agricultural collective, for example); and the simultaneous, if somewhat paradoxical scaling back of expectations regarding the potential for remaking identity ("socialist man") -- all contributed as factors to the tacit and carefully measured recall or "return of the nation" in communist rhetoric and ideology, and, to some extent, policy in Eastern Europe in the 1960s (the era described by Ken Jowitt as the era of "Inclusion," see Jowitt, 1992, pp. 88-120). The move from being a "party of the working class" to being a "party of the whole people or nation" -- ostensibly in part because the goals of the "socialist revolution" had allegedly been fulfilled -- was intended to reflect the communist regime's changing view of, and relationship, to ethnic identity and nationalism.

But if the growing acceptance of and accommodation with nationalism in party ideology and policy represented a stage in -- a reflection of -- the delegitimation of communist rule in general, such insights remain generally unhelpful in explaining for us the wide variations in the degree to which communist regimes embraced nationalism in the middle (1964-76) and late (1977-89) stages of communist rule in Eastern Europe. Mobilizing ethnic and national identity was only one of several alternative "elite survival strategies" that East European leaderships pursued in order to indirectly address their widespread illegitimacy with their populations and to insulate themselves, however imperfectly -- the instability of the interregnum of 1953 to 1956 had been enough to convince them -- from the power struggles and policy shifts of the Kremlin. The other primary models included a generally un-reformist "consumerism" -- financed by loans from Western governments and institutions -- or a continued pursuit of Stalinist repression and breakneck development policies -- political reform outside (post-1956) or inside (post-1968) the party having been eliminated as a practical option because of the Soviet response. In fact, most regimes tended to combine elements from each of these "survival strategies" but in different measures.

Nor was the nationalist option equally attractive or feasible for every communist leadership in the region. The approach to nationalism during the middle and late stages of communist rule in Eastern Europe varied widely, with Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania and "normalized" Czechoslovakia perhaps forming the two opposing poles of this approach. Nationalism in Romania allowed the continuation of "Stalinism in one state" -- as it did in Albania -- even when the Soviet Union itself opted, as under Nikita Khrushchev, and later Mikhail Gorbachev, to engage in de-Stalinization. One can argue, however, that the nationalist option was chosen by the Romanian leadership -- first by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and then by Ceausescu -- not solely out of the need to protect the party's development prerogatives, but because the "colonial" history of the Romanian nation and state (particularly as regards Transylvania) meant that the nationalist discourse could be woven into the official ideology without triggering major contradiction and ideological delegitimation. (By contrast, arguing that nation and oppressed class had overlapped in Hungarian history was more ideologically challenging.) Opting for the nationalist palliative to popular illegitimacy was thus conditioned by both the manner in which elites perceived prerogatives and by structural circumstances deriving from a people and state's history.

Nevertheless, in the cases of Hungary and Serbia -- the two cases in which history (pre-Trianon Hungary and Serbia's primacy in interwar Yugoslavia) was in theory arguably the most problematic for and seemingly incompatible with communist ideology -- communist elites did end up embracing the nationalist cause. The sources for this lay in the communist era itself. The early- and middle-communist eras in Kosova and Transylvania saw a period of ethnic supremacy for Serbs and Hungarians -- though it lasted longer for the former than it did for the latter -- followed by a steady decline in influence. During the initial period of ethnic supremacy, the comparatively favorable conditions for Serbs in Kosova and Hungarians in Transylvania combined with the strongly "anti-national" content of communist ideology dominant in Belgrade and Budapest at the time to largely remove the issue of Kosova and Transylvania from the political agenda.

The shift in ethnic balance and power within Kosova and Transylvania changed things, however, both within these ethnic peripheries and within the kin state. The change in ethnic power spurred emigration where possible to the kin state -- although it was still relatively small at this point. The deteriorating ethnic balance and the nascent emigration it triggered inevitably began to bring "the problem" of Kosova and Transylvania home to the kin state -- "the problem" of which intellectuals there increasingly became aware and concerned.

Kosova, 1944-1968: Ethnic Domination Under The Auspices Of 'Yugoslavism'

In Kosova, the period from the origins of communist rule in 1944 until the removal from senior party and state posts in 1966 of Aleksandar Rankovic, the leading representative of Serbian hegemonism within the League of Yugoslav Communists, can be regarded as a period of Serb domination in the region. Significantly, as World War II drew to a close, and the Partisans extended their control over the territories of interwar Yugoslavia, Tito abandoned earlier pledges by the Yugoslav Communist Party to Kosova joining an independent Albania (1928, Fourth Congress) or gaining republican status (1940, Fifth Congress) when the communists came to power in Yugoslavia (Vickers, 1998, pp. 121-143). In late 1944 and early 1945, Tito and the Partisan leadership largely looked the other way as Serbs and Montenegrins settled scores with Kosovar Albanians and crushed an ethnic Albanian uprising in the region. Miranda Vickers characterizes this state of affairs as follows:
Because of their co-operation with Axis forces, the Kosovars were perceived as politically unreliable and thus a possible threat to the stability and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. Tito realized that only by retaining Kosovo within Serbia's borders could he hope to win over the Serbs to communism (Vickers, 1998, pp. 141-142).

Yugoslavia's expulsion from the Cominform in 1948 put an end to the essentially open border policy between Kosova and Albania that had existed in the interregnum following the end of the war, when visions of an eventual Danubian confederation predicated upon the erasure of historic state boundaries in the region were still entertained. Enver Hoxha's decision to throw in his lot with Stalin and the Soviets in the Tito-Stalin dispute rather abruptly reinforced the perception that Yugoslavia's Albanian population was a security threat (Vickers, 1998, p. 149). The new 1953 Yugoslav constitutional law further codified this situation by amending the 1946 Federal Constitution's reference to autonomy as a federal matter -- the amendment therefore essentially made Vojvodina and Kosova ordinary districts of Serbia -- while simultaneously the Yugoslav government's Chamber of Nationalities was abolished (Vickers, 1998, p. 155).

During these first two decades of communist rule in Yugoslavia, Serbs and Montenegrins held a disproportionate amount of power and influence in Kosova in comparison to their numbers. According to Vickers, in 1958, Serbs and Montenegrins comprised 27.4 percent of the population of Kosova but constituted 49.7 percent of local Party membership (Vickers, 1998, p. 156). Party documents released after the purge of Aleksandar Rankovic revealed that within the security services in Vojvodina and Kosova, there had been a systemic policy of discrimination against Hungarians and Albanians respectively: Not a single Hungarian or Albanian was employed by the republican secretariat of Serbia for security affairs and only one Albanian could be found in the secretariat for Kosova (Burg, 1983, pp. 34-35). Ramet cites Branko Horvat's figures as showing that in 1956 Albanians were 64.9 percent of the population but accounted for only 13.3 percent of security police and 31.3 percent of the regular police, while by contrast the Serbs accounted for 23.5 percent but held 58.3 percent of positions in the security forces and 60.8 percent of all positions in the regular police (Ramet, 1992, p. 188).

Marina Blagojevic has noted that census data from 1948, 1953, and 1961 indicate that during this period the proportion of Serbs in Kosova was relatively constant, at 23.6 percent, 23.6 percent, and 23.5 percent, respectively, and that fertility rates for Serb and Albanian women in the region were not sharply different at the time (Blagojevic, 2000, pp. 215-216). Nevertheless, there were concerted efforts by Serb authorities to dilute the Albanian presence in Kosova. A policy of "Turkification" that had been advocated by some Serbs (for example, the infamous Cubrilovic) during the interwar period was revived in the post-1948 Cominform climate when Albanians increasingly came to be seen as a potential fifth column. The policy saw not only the introduction of Turkish language schools in Kosova and pressure for Albanians to declare themselves as ethnic "Turks" -- of which there was still a very small population in, for example, Prizren -- but a campaign to encourage Albanian emigration to Turkey (Vickers, 1998, p. 149; 171). Vickers maintains that between 1954 and 1957 as many as 195,000 Albanians emigrated to Turkey (Vickers, 1998, p. 157).

The fate of Serbs in Kosova was not a galvanizing issue in Belgrade as long as Serbs dominated the region. That all changed with the removal of Aleksandar Rankovic -- he was head of the federal security services and vice president at the time -- in July 1966 at the famous Brioni Plenum. Rankovic's fall was welcomed enthusiastically in Zagreb, Novi Sad, and Prishtina and was interpreted by Serbs and non-Serbs alike as a defeat for Serbs (Burg, 1983, p. 35; Vickers, 1998, p. 163; Ramet, 1992, p. 91). Rankovic's dismissal rather rapidly unleashed a process of indigenization of the communist party "nomenklatura" and security structures in Kosova -- to the extent that an immigrant from Albania was appointed chief of police (Vickers, 1998, p. 163). 1968 was the 500th anniversary of the death of the Albanian national hero, George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, and saw a series of ethnic Albanian demonstrations in Kosova and in neighboring Macedonia. Constitutional amendments in December 1968 gave the renamed Socialist Autonomous Province -- the additional term "Metohija," considered offensive and a symbol of Serb hegemony by Albanians, was dropped from official usage thereafter -- representation in the federal parliament, and legislative and judicial authority was passed to the provinces (Vickers, 1998, pp. 169-170).

In January and February 1969, Kosova was able to pass its own constitutional law, and its autonomy was further strengthened. 1969 also saw the creation of an independent University of Prishtina -- it had previously been merely a branch of the University of Belgrade -- and the rapid Albanianization of both faculty and student body (Ramet 1992, p. 191). The new Yugoslav constitution promulgated in February 1974 gave Kosova and Vojvodina substantial powers as autonomous provinces of Serbia: They were now full constitutive members of the federation; they were represented in the Federal Presidency (where they essentially could exercise veto power if they so chose), the Federal Assembly, and in the federal and constitutional courts; and the Republic of Serbia was forbidden from officially intervening in provincial affairs against the will of the provincial assemblies in Prishtina and Novi Sad (Vickers, 1998, pp. 178-179). The 1970s would see an intensification of this indigenization process and pressure -- both indirect and direct -- on Serbs that would lead many to abandon the province.

The Slow Marginalization Of Ethnic Hungarian Influence In Transylvania: 1944-68

Serb influence in Kosova during the first two decades of communist rule owed something to Tito's effort to mollify Serbs concerned that the concept of federal Yugoslavia was a conspiracy to dilute Serb power, and to fears of irredentist and hostile neighbors Albania and Bulgaria. By contrast, Hungarian political influence in Transylvania was widely regarded as the price Bucharest had to pay for having all of Transylvania returned at the end of the war and as a sop to communist leaders in Budapest who had to defend a deeply unpopular concession.

The Romanian Workers' Party did not deliver on its interwar promises of awarding parts of Transylvania to Hungary, but it also did not completely abrogate such commitments. Between 1952 and 1960 a Hungarian Autonomous Region (RAM) brought together three of the majority ethnic Hungarian counties -- according to one Hungarian populist scholar, thereby granting at least "some measure of symbolic self-government to the solidly Hungarian Szekely population" (Joo, 1994, p. 115). In 1960, the RAM was gerrymandered into the new Mures-Maghiar Autonomous Region, which diluted the proportion of ethnic Hungarians from 77 percent to 62 percent of the total population in the jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the majority Hungarian region existed until 1968 -- when, perhaps ironically, Nicolae Ceausescu's brief embrace of reformist policies and of overtures to the ethnic Hungarian community allowed him to argue that ethnic issues in socialist Romania had been superseded and the region's autonomous status was eradicated.

Unlike Serbs in Kosova, ethnic Hungarians did not rule in the Autonomous Region as a clear minority that disproportionately occupied the seats of political, security, and administrative power. The 1956 census showed that the region had a population of 731,387, of whom 77 percent were Hungarian, while statistics from 1958 claimed that 80 percent of the deputies to the people's councils and 78 percent of civil servants were non-Romanians, mostly Hungarians (King, 1973, pp. 150-152). Hungarians in the RAM constituted only one-third of the Hungarian population in Romania as a whole, and outside the region they had substantially less representation and influence in the structures of power than they had inside it. Moreover, it can be argued that because of the relationship of religion and land to a dwindling ethnic minority, the state's moves against religious institutions -- especially the Catholic Church -- and collectivization were felt acutely by the Hungarian minority (Deletant, 1995, p. 109).

Nevertheless, as Robert King concludes: "the fact that most of the officials [in the RAM] were Hungarians was an important concession to the minority" (King, 1973, p. 150). Even Smaranda Enache, one of the leading proponents of interethnic harmony in Transylvania during the postcommunist era and hardly one who can be accused of being a Romanian nationalist, admits that in the RAM "it was a job to be a Romanian during that time" (Enache, 1991). As so often happens, ethnicity became intertwined with far-reaching social change -- in this case collectivization -- and in the minds of the Romanian peasant in the RAM, they were left with the bitter memory that "it was a Hungarian who came and took my land" (Enache, 1991).

However unsatisfying and fictional aspects of the RAM, totalitarian rule and elite commitment to notions of "socialist internationalism" largely removed the diaspora issue from the political agenda in Hungary. According to Kurti: "During the 1950s and 1960s, themes of Magyarness and Transylvania were rarely found in artistic or literary works" (Kurti, 2001, p. 103). Schopflin writes: "In effect, during the period up to the revolution the issue of ethnic Hungarians all but disappeared from Hungarian public life, although it evidently remained beneath the surface" (Schopflin, 1988, pp. 2-3). Joo highlighted in 1988 the absurd lengths to which Budapest's denial of its coethnics extended during the early communist era:
The basically unaltered official position was that Hungary had nothing to do with the Hungarians of neighboring countries. Accordingly, press and educational establishments also remained silent about the issue. Even the sports celebrities and artists who were ethnic Hungarians had their names printed in the Hungarian press according to the rule of Romanian spelling (e.g. Iolanda Balas, Stefan Ruha), and Budapest newspapers employed the Romanian designation for centuries-old Hungarian settlements and towns of Transylvania (Joo, 1994, p. 98).

Ludanyi maintains that the situation of ethnic Hungarians in Romania began to deteriorate with the crackdowns that followed the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (Ludanyi, 1995, p. 315). Even if ethnic Hungarians in Romania had not protested in solidarity with the aims of the revolutionaries in Budapest as they did, they were bound to be viewed with suspicion by the Dej regime in Romania that so obediently backed the Soviet crushing of the uprising. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Romania in 1958 -- in part, interpreted as an acknowledgement of and reward for Romania's fealty to the Soviet Union -- gave the Romanian leadership wider latitude in dealing with the minority question as it saw fit (Ludanyi, 1995, p. 315).

Nevertheless, indicative of just how much removed from the political agenda in Budapest was the issue of the Hungarian minority in Romania was the response to the events of 22 February 1959, when -- with then CC Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu presiding -- the Hungarian Bolyai University of Cluj was merged with the Romanian Babes University and renamed Babes-Bolyai -- an event that initiated a process of Romanian schools absorbing Hungarian schools at all levels of education (Shafir, 1985, p. 160). Despite the subsequent suicide of the pro-rector of the Bolyai University, Laszlo Szabedi, Budapest was essentially silent over the event. Moreover, according to Joo, "when in 1962 a few Hungarian intellectuals protested at international forums against the merger of the Hungarian and Romanian universities of Cluj, the protesters were found guilty of violating state interests by a court of law in Budapest" (Joo, 1994, p. 98). As Joo describes, not even the comparatively more relaxed ideological atmosphere in 1960s Hungary had much impact:
The increased tourist traffic between countries of Eastern Europe in the early 1960s made it easier to strengthen family relations and friendship ties between Hungarians living in Romania and Hungary. Still, the existence of the more than two million strong Hungarian minority in Romania remained a taboo topic in Hungarian public discussions. Representatives of official (mainly cultural) policy manifest not only indifference but vehement opposition to any consideration of the problem (Joo, 1994, p. 98).

Those intellectuals who spoke up at this point on the diaspora question were few and far between -- essentially nationalist voices in what was then the political wilderness -- as we shall see.
*Author's Note: Spelling per editorial request.

(The author wishes to thank Indiana University's Russian East European Institute for a Mellon Grant-in-Aid that made possible the interview with Smaranda Enache cited above.)

(Richard Andrew Hall holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University and a B.A. from the University of Virginia. He currently works and lives in northern Virginia. Comments or questions can be sent to him at


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