With the judicial and educational reforms of countries perceived as recalcitrant within the European Union occupying the limelight, affected minorities often fly under the radar.

Hungary’s and Poland’s recent reforms concerning the structure and curriculum of their educational systems were put under the international microscope as examples of efforts to raise a more “patriotic” generation of citizens. While these policies can be seen as overly nationalistic, they are being implemented in societies where the size of ethnic minorities, compared to other countries in the region, is rather small.

In Poland, more than 97 per cent of the population identify as being of Polish ethnicity. Hungary, alongside Czechia, is considered to be ethnically largely homogenous. Given the lack of ethnic minorities of significant size in these societies, “nationalisation” efforts often focused on the integration of small ethnicities into the majority nation (retaining their identity, as opposed to the assimilation of these minorities).

Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have much larger ethnic minorities. Romania, Serbia and Slovakia have majority ethnicities which make up between 80 and 90 per cent of these societies. Elsewhere in the region, in countries such as Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine, ethnic majorities constitute less than 80 per cent of society.

The ethnic composition of these societies can be even more multi-layered than that shown by official statistics, as due to the historical development of the region, and self-identification used in the national census can be problematic. In such societies with large ethnic minorities, nationalism can feed off existing ethnic divisions.

Aggressive policies

After the fall of communism, several scholars warned that nation-states formed on the ruins of the Soviet empire would pursue aggressive nationalising policies in order to reinforce a sense of belonging to the nation. As early as in 1988, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that the “growing sense of national distinctiveness (…) will soon make the existing Soviet bloc the arena for the globe’s most acute national conflicts.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski

The countries which poised to embark on the road to the European Union singularly focused on abiding by the conditions set by the EU in order to join the club. Retrospectively, it is visible that detailed provisions for the protection for ethnic minorities were notoriously absent from the conditions these countries had to fulfil. Over the last three decades, little headway was made in terms of protecting the cultural heritage of autochthone ethnic minority communities in Central Europe.

According to a study by László Marácz, who focused on the situation of Hungarian minorities in the Carpathian Basin, the question of minority rights depends on several factors: the size of the minority, the presence of a reciprocal minority of comparable size on the Hungarian side, and the structural relations between Hungary and the host country of the Hungarian minority.

Marácz describes the Slovakian, Romanian, and Ukrainian language policies as ‘nationalist’ legislation because these policies are “characterised by inequalities like hierarchies, subordination, asymmetries, additional provisions, anomalies, discrimination or language laws restricting the use of the minority languages or promoting the use of the official language discriminating against the Hungarian language in the official and public domain.”

These provisions primarily aim at the promotion of the official state language, harking back to practices popular in the 19th century.

Proportionality not respected

Both in Romania and Slovakia, a strong emphasis is laid on the availability of official documents in the state language. As the Venice Commission put it in their 2010 opinion on the Slovak language law, these provisions can serve a “legitimate aim”. However, the principle of proportionality is not always respected. While state-level legislation in the region shows signs of inclusivity, the implementation of these policies is often less than perfect.

Such is the case in Slovakia, where public broadcasting officially dedicates airtime to the country’s minorities proportionate to their size in the total population according to a 2016 law. However, according to the Hungarian Community Party (MKP), in 2018, only 0.6% of Slovak public television broadcasting was in Hungarian, a fraction of the proportion of Hungarians in the country (8.5%). According to MKP, other ethnic minorities are also similarly underrepresented in public media.

Given the complex ethnic makeup of the region, education and language policies might also have unpredicted fallouts, such as the Ukrainian language and education laws, which aimed to inspire a strengthening of Ukrainian identity (mostly in Russian speaking communities), however, resulted in Hungary blocking the country’s negotiations with NATO.

With approximately 150,000 Hungarians living in Western Ukraine, the Hungarian government declared that it would block any NATO ascension talks with Ukraine until they restore their rights curbed by recent education and language laws.

Political gains

Historically, ‘traditional’ diplomatic efforts have also been employed to assist ethnic minorities; however, these endeavours have not always fulfilled their promise. This failure can partly be attributed to the sincerity of the assistance from the homeland. Whenever countries reach out to assist their diaspora, questions of political gains from homeland politicians inevitably arise. Lincoln Pigman showed in his analysis of Russian foreign policy that the communities of the Russian diaspora are viewed as “valuable assets”.

Viktor Orbán

Tamás Kiss, a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities told Balkan Insight that he sees the Hungarian state bankrolling “ethnic parallelism”; Viktor Orbán has been frequently criticised for “courting voters abroad.” This view stems from the assumption that the Orbán-government’s primary aim is motivated by party politics: it attempts to win the votes of Hungarians who hold dual citizenship and live in beyond Hungary. Considering that the domestic politics of heterogenous nations with large ethnic minorities might see fuelling nationalistic sentiments as an easy way to win support, ‘official’ support given to ethnic minorities has serious limitations.

Bypass state-level constraints

As an alternative to national politics, civil initiatives show a way to bypass the constraints placed upon state-level assistance to ethnic minorities beyond a country’s borders. The Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), the largest umbrella organisation of Europe’s autochthonous national minorities, nationalities, and language groups launched its Minority SafePack initiative in 2018. The European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI), which asked for the protection and the promotion of minority languages and cultures, became the fifth successful ECI with over a million European citizens supporting the initiative in more than 11 member states. Together with their local organisers, FUEN handed over the signatures to the European Commission.

In February 2020, the representatives of FUEN discussed their proposals with Věra Jourová, the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, and Marija Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.

Loránt Vincze MEP, President of FUEN, told us that he witnessed “genuine interest” during the meeting and that despite the current uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are “hopeful that the upcoming period will bring the necessary support and conviction and in the end the EC will decide to start legislative action based on our proposals.”

While a final decision on the initiative is yet to be made, it appears that the ground-up approach inspired others to attempt to influence EU policy on minorities. An ECI launched in 2019 is close to reaching 230,000 signatures, and it aims to secure direct funding from the EU cohesion funds to regions “with national, ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic characteristics that are different from those of the surrounding regions.”

While under the current circumstances, it seems unlikely that this project will reach its target, FUEN’s success remains inspirational.

Initiatives like these can not only bypass national politics ready to play the nationalism card whenever profitable but can also foster the kind of civic values on which the European Union’s foundations rest.

However, even a stronger EU regulation would need national, regional, and local authorities to follow the letter of the law, which would require that the ethnic majority populations change their perspective on the ethnic minorities living in the country. To perceive them not as guests, but as co-habitants; as fellow citizens and not as minorities; as part of an ‘us’ and not as an ‘other’; and as constructive parts of society and not as threats to national unity.

Hungarian freelance journalist at Magyar Hang and a reporter for The International Cybersecurity Dialogue. He completed a Russian and East European Studies master's at the University of Oxford and currently serves as a researcher and analyst.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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