Hungarian autonomy in Central Europe

Plain rhetoric or real goal?

Gábor Egry
15 May 2014

The autonomy of minority Hungarian communities has been a declared goal of Hungary’s foreign policy since the change in regime, when the new constitution declared the country’s responsibility for minorities. According to strategy documents, it can vary in its form and extent (territorial, personal, cultural, local), although successive Hungarian governments have treated it as the only lasting solution for the “Hungarian question,” the danger of the disappearance of Hungarian minorities either through emigration or through assimilation, the latter was often perceived as a forced and deliberate process.

orban's world

Orbán’s World: Illustration by topcrats

In some neighboring countries one or another forms of it exist. The Hungarian National Council in Serbia is elected by a self-declared, separately registered Hungarian electoral body and exerts certain cultural rights, while the autonomous region of Voivodina, home to the bulk of Hungarians gives a territorial aspect to this self-government. In Croatia and Slovenia, certain state-approved organizations also embody the personal autonomy of minorities, among them Hungarians. Meanwhile, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine continuously reject any call for considering one or another form of autonomy as a means to widen the rights of minorities either collectively or at the personal level.


Necessary national reintegration

However, the goal of autonomy has never stood alone in foreign policy strategies; it was and is accompanied by two equally important aims: good bilateral relations with neighboring countries and successful Euro-Atlantic integration. One could rightly imagine that proper balance of these priorities was never kept, right-leaning governments laid more emphasis on the issue of Hungarian minorities, and leftist ones were seen as prioritizing integration and consequently good bilateral relations. Nevertheless, even the official strategy of the second Orbán government speaks of a triangle of relationships with neighboring countries, bundling together Hungary’s relation to minorities, to the other state, and with international organizations that could influence minority policy and the development of international law on minority rights.

What it really means and whether it is a realistic goal remains to be seen. The first decade after 1989 was a decade of autonomy plans, supported by extensive research and elaboration of strategies that were realized only in the successor states of former Yugoslavia. The next decade brought about membership in the European Union that overshadowed autonomy, and for many the prospect of rising living standards and open borders seemed to offer the chance for the survival of Hungarian minorities without autonomy, especially as minority Hungarian parties started to cooperate with the majority elite rather promisingly. But it was also the period when the issue of Hungarian minorities was addressed differently, in a more sophisticated way: framed as the necessary national reintegration. Attempts to provide minorities with special status in Hungary and later to offer them Hungarian citizenship practically on the basis of their ethnicity were initially advertised as methods to further the goal of autonomy. However, in the mid-2000s a new rhetoric appeared on the Right that emphasized the “truncated” nature of the Hungarian nation, the still ongoing suffering due to it even at personal level and stated that the only remedy was autonomy and Hungarian citizenship simultaneously. After 2010 the second Orbán government made the latter the most important aim of its respective policy and passed the necessary legislation.


Reconfiguring Hungary

As it was not simply a practical policy but part of an ideology driven effort to reconfigure Hungary, it is hard to tell how far this newly declared goal and demand is just rhetoric or whether it expressed a real goal. Orbán honestly thinks that his mission is reinstating the authentic form of existence for the whole Hungarian nation, according to an organicist, ethnicist, essentialist understanding of this community. Autonomy is seen as essential part of this effort just as Hungarian citizenship is for every Hungarian, as it would provide them with the nation state they are entitled to have. Many experts note the visible contradiction of autonomy and Hungarian citizenship, and few see it realistic to expect from Romania or Slovakia to establish autonomous territorial units for the citizens of another country, but in the ideological foundations of the regime (the Orbán government refers to itself as a regime of national cooperation) these are not irreconcilable; to the contrary, they are necessities for the authentic existence of the nation that should be the main goal and mission of everyone. Thus, I tend to think the demand for autonomy is not just a threat or a maneuver in order to preempt Jobbik utilizing this demand in its electoral campaign.

Furthermore, although in 2004 Orbán supported the Orange Revolution and aligned his Hungarian vassal organization with Viktor Yuschenko the issue of minority rights also made it possible to cooperate with Viktor Yanukovych. The broadening of the rights of Russian speakers brought with it new language rights for the small (around 150,000-160,000) Hungarian community and Yanukovych did not oppose the mass distribution of Hungarian citizenship. On the contrary, Rightist, nationalist parties, such as Svoboda started a campaign against the symbolic presence of Hungarians in Ruthenia (Karpatho-Ukraine), for example with the desecration of an important Hungarian monument at the Verecke Pass. During the Maidan crisis, Hungarian parties – parliamentary opposition and government alike – saw the events only from the narrow perspective of the Hungarian minority and were ready to accept tacitly even the repression of the demonstrations partly because of their fear of Ukrainian nationalism, and partly because of the favorable linguistic status quo. In a sense, it was a telling example of why the strategy of three priorities or the triadic approach is not workable if one of them becomes more important than the others. I’m sure the public demand for autonomy is a sign of the reconsideration of this strategy too, the opening of the public acknowledgement of the new strategy of national reintegration and authentic existence as the only goal of Hungarian foreign policy, very much in line with the newly announced support for the idea of the Europe of the Nations and the often advertised specifically Hungarian economic “unorthodoxy.”


No clear vision of the future

It is still not certain what this change will mean in terms of support for initiatives from other V4 countries or in terms of practical alliances. The Orbán government had never had moral scruples over contradictory claims in public or supporting anything that did not affect Hungary directly if they had expected to have some advantage from such cooperation. But concerning Ukraine, the Hungarian government doesn’t really have a clear vision of its future apart from the Hungarian minority. Hungary’s recent “partnership” with Russia to build a replacement for the nuclear plant in Paks raises further suspicions. The deal is uneven, it suggests an asymmetric relationship between the parties and some desperation from the Hungarian side to conclude it at almost any price. It puts every risk on Hungary and offers every benefit for Russia in exchange for the building of a plant that will – according to every estimate – offer electricity at highly uncompetitive prices. Currently, the whole venture is at the mercy of Russia, who can stop the construction at any moment and still walk away with a huge profit.

But here one can also find the motives if one takes Orbán’s rhetoric as a true reflection of his beliefs. For him, the Paks plant seems to bring about the real independence in energetics – an embodiment of national self-reliance – as it will be a Hungarian plant, operated by Hungarians, and owned by the Hungarian state, capable of providing as much as seventy to eighty percent of the electricity consumed in the country. From this perspective, a common energy policy is even a profitable enterprise, opening up EU markets for “cheap” Hungarian electricity that would – following this logic – also raise Hungary’s position in the community. Whether there is a political price to pay for it in the form of more effective control from Brussels is a matter they will consider only when the attempt takes shape and poses a realistic threat to the authentic Hungarian existence.


Gábor Egry is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Political History, Budapest.