Under fire

It was one of the great hopes after the fall of Communism that the problems of the East European and East Central European national minorities would be eased and their rights asserted, without the nation-states feeling that this would be a threat or a humiliation to them.To this promise was linked the hope of European federalism, that withering away of physical borders which the liberal Romanian foreign minister Nicolae Titulescu (1883-1941) promoted in vain between the two World Wars and which seemed to be about to be realized through the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union.

In fact, quite a different scenario unfolded. The existing confederations (USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia) disintegrated,harsh discrimination was enforced against members (Russians, Serbians) of those once-dominant nations who were left outside their nation’’s bordersin Croatia and the Baltic states (Serbs were simply hounded out of Krajina, Russians in Estonia lack even a  modicum of rights as citizens), and then even what was left of Serbia was broken up (Montenegro and Kosovo have split off), and the one remaining multi-national structure (Bosnia under NATO and EU supervision) is close to breaking up.In Austrian Carinthia the provincial government of Jörg Haider is persecuting Slovenes, while Slovenia itself has ordered tens of thousands of its inhabitants – those former citizens of Yugoslavia without Slovenian passports – to leave.   In Macedonia, the Slav majority confronts an Albanian minority consisting of almost half the population and peace is maintained by US and other NATO forces.The EU structures supposed to be protecting minorities have proved to be helpless.

In this context the Hungarian minorities in East Central Europe have, after a number of dramatic battles, achieved for themselves a status that is more favourable than that of some others.This is partly thanks to the initially more flexible minorities policy of Hungary, the residual prestige of a Hungary that was in the 1990s economically successful (supported by the skilful compromises of a series of ‘‘basic contracts’’ which abandoned the chimaeras  of ‘border revision’’), and the desire for peace by Hungary’s neighbours.  After some initial horrors (the first Iliescu presidency and the Târgu Mureș pogrom, the rule of Mečiar, the crazed times of Milošević), the politicians of Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine realized, for a time, that development required a period of calm, and that the prioritization of the Hungarian question could create a situation much more dangerous than any hitherto.

This was particularly appreciated by the rulers of Romania.The presidency of Emil Constantinescu may have been unsuccessful in some ways and the policies of Prime Minister Adrian Năstase may in some ways have been much criticized (even among the Hungarians of Transylvania it was not popular), but the position of the Hungarians in Romania improved considerably under their rule, and this was not affected even by absurd activities (chiefly symbolic and to do with internal power-struggles) within Hungary such as the Hungarian certificates and the still-born initiative on the referendum based on a variant of dual citizenship which would have been unacceptable to all parties (including Hungarian public opinion, irrationally dreading a wave of immigration), even if the referendum had come down in favour of its proposers, which was out of the question in any case.

The efforts of the Hungarians of Romania to buttress their de facto autonomy and regional influence by legal means are doomed, because of Romanian political tradition and the nature of its conception of the state (the disintegration or federalization of the relatively new [1859] unitary Romanian nation-state is a fundamental phobia of Romanian politics, only exacerbated by the South Slav developments) and today plays a role (and a purely symbolic one at that) only in the internecine struggles of the political circles in Transylvania. One of the fundamental dilemmas of Romanian Hungarian politics is that little more can be achieved in the given framework.The Budapest media made a protracted song and dance about the fact that in the Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj/Kolozsvár the administration was not prepared to display bilingual notices, something that had distressed and embittered people even in my time as a student there. Now that the problem has been, at least partly, resolved- here and there bilingual notices and signs have appeared – no-one feels or at least no-one shows any joy at this outcome. My heart always leaps when the train rolls in after the border and I first set eyes on the Hungarian sign Nagyvárad next to the Romanian sign Oradea, followed by Élesd, Egeres, Bánffyhunyad… all in Hungarian.  (But Hungarian political etiquette demands that we must not rejoice at anything that happens amongst those parts of our blood and nation that have been stranded beyond our borders, even if the positive results are achievements of long battles, the exertion of sustained pressure, and enduring negotiations by minority Hungary politicians.  It would seem to be unpatriotic to recognize that there can exist some talent and original ideas among the Hungarian communities outside Hungary and that it is not the case that their lives consist solely of misery and death-rattles.)

The problems of Transylvanian Hungarians are not primarily legal. They are to do with the economy, with mobility, with demographics (population decline, spontaneous assimilation), and with culture, and to these minority politicking by the Hungarians of Romania has not found any answers – it’s no easy matter! – and a section of the intellectuals there has responded to the extremely important concerns regarding the future with intensive appeals to outdated mythopeia, which may have its charms  but does not lead anywhere.

However, the Hungarian minorities elsewhere in the successor states are battling quite different kinds of problems.

In Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia the main issue is the frightening rise of chauvinism by the majority nation-state and the fact that this has once again become official state policy.  Slovakia is, of course, the most striking illustration of this. The Fico-Slota-Mečiar (social-nationalist) coalition has launched an extraordinarily rabid and crude anti-Hungarian assault, very provincial in conception. I have to say that I would not have believed that, almost 20 years after the fall of Communism, the government of a member-state of the EU can take a step so reminiscent of the darkest age of Ceaușescu: declaring that place names in the textbooks used in minority schools must be given only in the state language (the hypothesis of state language having been expressively forbidden in internationally valid legal documents that are part of Slovak national law also).This is the symbolic humiliation of the Hungarians, which even the Ceaușescu regime managed to achieve only after extensive underground battles with its own apparatus at the very end of the 1970s.(These scandalous textbooks are now being returned by the Hungarian-language schools in Slovakia to Slovak Minister of Education Ján Mikolaj, who represents the semi-fascist Slota-party, the SNS, in the government. This is a noble political gesture with which we herewith express our solidarity). This is now being followed by the demotion of the Hungarian Selye János University of Slovakia, back to the status of a technical high school and, if Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Kinga Göncz is to be believed (some do not think she is, see Tibor Kis’’s article Mumusok in the Budapest daily Népszabadság of 8 October 2008), Hungarians will also be discriminated against in the allocation of EU funds for education in Slovakia.

What the commentators in the mother country cannot gauge accurately, in the absence of appropriate personal experience, is the psychological effects on the minority peoples of such unbridled, despicable anti-Hungarian state propaganda.  When official sources – led, as is well-known, by the idiotic, drunken, provincial, and fascistoid politician Ján Slota (MP, president of the SNS party) and thoroughgoing besmircher of the international good name of Slovakia – rain down a torrent of abuse and disgusting, paranoid accusations on Hungary and Hungarians, the abandoned minority, which is expected to swallow every humiliation, feels at least as threatened as if concrete restrictions had been imposed upon it.  When Vladimir Mečiar (ex-prime minister, MP, LS-HZDS) alleges that the late József Antall (former Hungarian Prime Minister, MDF) demanded the return of the Csallóköz region of Slovakia (complete nonsense), when Robert Fico (Prime Minister, SmeR-SD) abuses his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Gyurcsány (MSZP), when Ján Slota (SNS) heaps offence on a Hungarian lady (Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kinga Göncz) in an outrageous, boorish, ungentlemanly and unchivalrous tone – then, irrespective of what the Slovak Hungarian thinks of Antall, Gyurcsány, Kinga Göncz – a mood of lynchmobs and pogroms develops.  That this is no joke is shown clearly by the dreadful case of the unfortunate Hedvig Malina.  (We are all fortunate that Hedvig Malina, the innocent victim, is such an outstanding human being, who has restored respect for human rights when this is a topic of mockery throughout Europe and especially East Central Europe.) [Translator’s note: Hedvig Malina is an ethnic Hungarian student from Vámosfalu (Horné Mýto, Slovakia) who was allegedly physically assaulted in a hate crime incident in 2006.]

It matters not at all whether Hungarian politicians (from Pál Csáky MP, president of the Hungarian Coalition Party in Slovakia, to Katalin Szili, MSZP, Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament) have committed errors in the field of territorial autonomy or the matter of the Forum of Carpathian basin MPs, this onslaught of Slovak chauvinism afflicts the Hungarians of Slovakia, none of whom can have anything whatever to do with this.They are whom we are talking about, they are the ones who need protecting.

It is time to rally round for those Slovak democratic intellectuals, newspapers, politicians, media personalities who, despite the great popularity of Robert Fico, and the ultranationalist mood, have the civil courage (and the Bratislava newspaper Sme has shown that there is indeed such a thing as civil courage in Slovakia today) to somehow or other bring to end this wave of intimidation.This is causing genuine suffering in Hungarian areas of Slovakia, among people who are already struggling to survive because of the renewal and maintenance of the infamous Beneš decrees (population exchanges, resettlement).

But let us not think for a moment that we in Hungary proper are any better. Not just because the Hungarian Jobbik (a non-parliamentary Fascist party) and its assault troops, the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) in the course of their incendiary stage-performances, comically, erect everywhere crosses of lorraine like those of Ján Slota a few hundred yards away, but because discriminatory action against the Slovak minority in Hungary was met with complete incomprehension and denigratory disinformation and actually simply denied by Academician László Sólyom, the (independent) President of Hungary. My own protest, in the Budapest daily Népszava (24 May 2008), fell on deaf ears.

The mistrustful, rash, uninformed, and stupid anti-Russian political turn of the USA, NATO and the EU, of which the leading Hungarian supporter is Viktor Orbán neocon MP (FIDESZ-KDNP) has given so much encouragement to Ukrainian nationalism that the chaotic Ukrainian government is trying to simply ban education in minority languages and the public use of minority languages, and the fate of the Hungarian-language section of the University of Uzhorod/Ungvár hangs in the balance.  While all this is aimed at the Russians of Ukraine, that is, it is a provocation to Russia (if Russians in the Baltic states can be persecuted, why not in Ukraine?).This is rewarded by NATO, which is in the business of exporting bourgeois democracy, by placing the membership of Ukraine (as well as Georgia) on its agenda.And no-one cares at all about the 180,000 or so forgotten Hungarians in western Ukraine.

In Serbian Vojvodina the local authorities have cut by half the time devoted to certain Hungarian-language programmes on radio and TV. In today’s world, the arena of collective self-presentation and self-recognition of national (and other) groups is to be found in the media. The truncation of broadcast times symbolizes the truncation of the public presence of the community concerned. These are not innocent acts.

The world context is worrying, too. In some of the most important states of Western Europe xenophobic, primarily anti-Muslim governments are in power; Roma – EU-citizens – are illegally finger-printed for purely ethnic, i.e. racist reasons; the rich Italians of northern Italy are not prepared to finance infrastructrural investment in the poorer south of their country; in Belgium the better-off Flemings would deprive poorer Walloons of budgetary benefits from their taxes, and similar efforts characterize the extension of autonomy in (well-off) Catalonia in Spain, as economic nationalism (i.e. naked selfishness) tears apart (in polite language: federalizes) nation-states.  And the accelerating world economic crisis will drive these tendencies further in the worst possible direction.

The protection of the Hungarian minorities of East Central Europe is becoming increasingly difficult.Europe’s democrats and humanitarians must stand firm in ever more stormy times.This is the task before us; this is our duty.


Translation: Peter Andrew Sherwood

This article was originally published in Hungarian in the Népszabadság on 18 October 2008.

We are grateful to Tamás Gaspár Miklós for the permission to publish this text in English.