Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hungarians Beyond The(ir) Borders

by Gyula Zsombok

Once a Hungarian, always a Hungarian? Nothing would appear to suggest this interpretation more eloquently than the expression “határon túli magyarok”, whose most straightforward translation in English would probably be ‘Hungarian disaspora’, i.e. individuals of Hungarian origin living abroad. However, as we shall see, much would be lost in translation by jumping from “beyond the borders” to something as vague and general as “abroad!"

Hungarian Diaspora in the Carpathian Basin
“Hungarians beyond the borders” are Hungarian-speaking ethnic minorities living in neighboring states that have acquired two brand new rights regardless of where “beyond the borders” of Hungary they are actually located: they have been on the fast track for naturalization as Hungarian citizens since 2011 and they have legally participated in the Hungarian parliamentary elections in March 2014. This unified legal picture viewed from “within the borders” of Hungary, however, quickly dissolves into many complex local stories and histories when statistics and historical events in the 20th century are taken into account.

According to the latest state censuses, whose numbers vary substantially between 2001 and 2011, Hungarians are an ethnic minority in Slovakia (8.5%), Ukraine (0.3%), Romania (6.5%), Serbia (3.5%), Croatia (0.3%), Slovenia (0.3%) and in Austria (0.2%).

Despite the reign of the Austrian Habsburg kings from 1526 on, the Carpathian Basin in Central Europe was, for the most part, ruled by the Kingdom of Hungary and its allies between the 11th and 20th centuries. Thus, the situation was exactly the opposite of what we can observe today: Hungarians were a populous ethnicity, but a sizeable portion of the population has always been composed of ethnic minorities of Slovak, Rusyn, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, German or other origins. The defeat of Austria-Hungary by the Entente Powers in World War I had severe consequences for the country: Hungary lost two thirds of its territory by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.  The newly established states of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the enlarged Romania became new homelands for around 30% of Hungarians – now ethnic minorities – in the Carpathian Basin. Fast forward to the early 21st century: since all neighboring countries signed and ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the rights to be valued members of society, in principle, are guaranteed for all of these Hungarians “beyond the(ir) borders”.

Everything seems to be in order then, isn’t it?

Not quite. While surely, borders represent strong physical and legal barriers, group membership can easily be contested, for instance by extending it “beyond its current limit”. Citizenship rules turned out to be one such case in Hungary. In 2004, the left wing government MSZP – Hungarian Socialist Party – and the SZDSZ – Alliance of Free Democrats – held a referendum on this matter. The question that they asked concerned the installment of an easier procedure of naturalization for those who did not live in Hungary, but declared themselves ethnic Hungarian and were able to prove their Hungarian origins. Contrary to all expectations, the results were disappointing: although 51.57% of the participants supported the initiative, they constituted only 18.90% of the electorate. Since the law required at least 25% of the total votes in supportive of the measure, the referendum in 2004 was a failure and left little hope for extended citizenship rights for Hungarians in the neighboring states. 

Did Hungarians of Hungary abandonHungarians beyond the borders?

The most recent parliamentary elections took place
on April 6, 2014, where Hungarians beyond the borders
had the right to vote for the first time.
Not quite, yet. When the right wing party (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance) came to power in the 2010 general elections, a nationalist tone again became dominant in the government that quickly signed into law much easier naturalization procedures for “ethnic Hungarians beyond their borders”. As the 2 § (2) of the law XLIV of 2010 declares, a non Hungarian citizen can be easily naturalized, if any of the person’s ancestors was a Hungarian citizen or if the person is likely to be of Hungarian origin, and if the person shows evidence of knowledge of the Hungarian language.

Problem solved?

Yes, and no. On the one hand, reactions from the governments of neighboring countries ranged from complete ignorance to acceptance and refusal. The most intense reaction came from Slovakia whose Hungarian minority constitutes 8.5% of the population: the Slovak state passed a law that bars Slovak citizenship from those who apply for another country’s citizenship, considered as a threat to the Slovak nation. On the other hand, according to the current Hungarian electoral system (established in 2011), citizens who are not permanent residents of the country are also entitled to vote in the parliamentary elections. The first such election took place on April 6, 2014.

So, do people who might have never lived in Hungary decide who the next prime minister of Hungary can be?

"This is the time! Only the Fidesz!"
Campaign for the parliamentary elections of 2014
Precisely, and this is another conflict that has been raised by granting citizenship for “Hungarians beyond the borders”. The current electoral system allows non-permanent resident citizens vote by mail, while it requires permanent resident citizens not living in Hungary to go to an embassy or a consulate. This measure provoked yet another dimension of conflict between “new” and “old” Hungarian citizens because a large number of seasonal workers in the EU and abroad had to travel in some cases hundreds of miles to be able to vote in their home country’s elections, while newly acquired citizens could easily vote by mail. Since the Fidesz party was the one that granted this right to ethnic “Hungarians beyond their borders”, it was expected that these new citizens would express support for this party. Indeed, according to the latest information about the latest parliamentary elections, 95% of the Hungarian minorities in the Carpathian Basin voted for the Fidesz party. It fits of course the party’s aspirations: no matter in what minority situation they are in, Hungarians belong together, Hungarians are one nation: once a Hungarian, always are Hungarian. As far as borders are concerned, theirs or ours, old or new, some appear to be truly in the eye of the beholder!

Reports on demographic statistics:
Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia
Magyar Közlöny (Hungarian offical journal for publications of laws) (link)
Nemzeti Választási Iroda (National Office of Elections) (link)

The author of this blog entry is Gyula Zsombok, a graduate student in French Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Gyula is planning on continuing his work on graduate studies at the PhD studies in Illinois and wrote this text in the ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ seminar in the spring of 2014.


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