The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has recently called for administrative and cultural autonomy for ethnic Hungarians living beyond the borders in Romania (1.2 million), Slovakia (500,000), Serbia (250,000), as well as the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia (150,000). This claim comes in a troubled period for the whole East-Central-European region, and stirred angry reactions not only in Bucharest and Kyiv, but also in Warsaw.
Viktor Orbán at GLOBSEC 2014
Some experts have gone on to claim that Hungary would act as a Trojan horse of Russian expansionism, and that the quest for territorial autonomy hides the Hungarian willingness to participate in Vladimir Putin’s plotting to dismember Ukraine. In fact, the effort to secure more rights to “indigenous” minorities can hardly be considered a new feature of Hungarian foreign policy. The promotion of ethnic Hungarian communities represents a stable driver regardless of the orientation of the incumbent government.
A hostile climate to Budapest’s demands
The tone and substance of the Hungarian claims (decentralization, cultural autonomy, bilingual local administration) has not changed since the early 1990s. It was rather the international context of the debate on territorial autonomy that has suffered dramatic changes in recent years, after the financial crisis and the increasing political instability of the European peripheries put an end to the post-1989 illusion of a continent finally unified by market economy and liberal values.
The psychological impact of Scottish and Catalan referendums on independence, combined with the most recent Ukrainian events and the increasing intolerance of the EU mainstream for “unorthodox” ethno-nationalistic claims, help to create a hostile climate even to the moderate demands of Budapest, nourished by the contradictory policy pursued by the governments of neighboring states.
This impasse can be best illustrated by the situation in the region of Szeklerland, inhabited by roughly 600,000 Hungarians but located in the geographical middle of Romania. During the interwar period, the Romanian authorities regarded the Szeklerland as a corpus separatum the population of which passively accepted what they perceived as “foreign occupation” of their homeland but refused any civic commitment to the state and its local agencies. After the Hitler-sponsored Second Vienna Award, Szeklerland experienced a period of short-lived Hungarian rule (1940-1944) during which Budapest made considerable efforts to re-establish Hungarian social and cultural supremacy even through the mistreatment of ethnic Romanians, and promote economic development.
After the controversial Hungarian intermezzo, the early Romanian communist regime provided the Szekler community with some cultural and linguistic rights. Between 1952 and 1960, Soviet-style territorial autonomy was granted to Szeklerland in the form of the Hungarian Autonomous Region (HAR). But the enthusiastic reaction of a great part of the population to the 1956 Hungarian revolution revealed the contradictions of the Soviet-style ethnic pacification based on the coexistence of a Romanian civic identity and a Hungarian cultural one.
As a logical consequence, the Romanian communists, who had never been enthusiastic about the HAR, decided to eliminate it in 1960. Nicolae Ceauşescu’s population policies did not aim to dissolve the Szeklers and their Hungarian cultural identity into the Romanian one, but rather to suppress/subordinate it to that of the ethnic/national majority.
This fluctuating, often contradictory central policy could also explain why popular dissatisfaction with the Romanian authorities’ actions both in the interwar period and in the communist era did not result in major riots, uprisings, or ethnically motivated clashes produced by secessionist movements or terrorist actions (limited violence only occurred during periods of political turbulence or warfare: 1919, 1940, 1944 and 1989-90).
The lack of economic development and administrative know-how prevented the Romanian state from nationalizing this minority-inhabited region. As a result, the Hungarian/Szekler community still lives in a compact mass in the geographic middle of Romania.
A low-potential conflict
Almost 100 years after the end of the First World War, the Szekler issue still holds the marks of a low-potential conflict and remains politically and culturally unsettled. Criticisms of the Hungarian efforts of “virtual reintegration” were boosted by the fact that almost half of the Szekler population have already applied for Hungarian citizenship. Are Szeklers to become the next Crimeans? And may Orbán become the next Central European Putin?
I think it makes no sense to compare Orbán’s Hungary and Putin’s Russia neither in their foreign policy, nor in the kin-state politics. Putin’s Russia is a superpower, deliberately acting as such in what it considers its exclusive area of influence. Hungary is a small Central European state, whose economy and political system depends on the benevolence of the European Union.
Orbán has no strategic plans for the Hungarian minorities, except for the granting of voting rights to Hungarian citizens all around the world. Incidentally, this step made the Hungarian communities beyond borders part of the Hungarian internal politics and greatly weakened their elites’ commitment towards territorial autonomy. That is why Orbán’s verbal endorsement of autonomy claims during an electoral campaign should not be confused with Russian tangible support of secessionist forces in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Stefano Bottoni (PhD in history) is a senior research fellow at the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, with main expertise in the comparative history of contemporary East-Central-Europe. His current research is about ethnic relations and nation-building practices in communist Romania, with a special focus on the Szekler region of eastern Transylvania.