Over the past 100 years, the borders in Central and Eastern Europe have been redrawn time and time again, often leaving groups of people separated from their home country by new borders. Although land often changed hands relatively peacefully, suddenly finding one-selves as an ethnic minority in a new country was bound to lead to tension and resentment.
While these resentments may reveal real disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities in Central Europe, politicians, especially populist figures, have seized on the outsider narratives inherent in the diaspora experience.
As the April 2018 election approaches in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been reaching out to the Hungarian minority in Romania, drawing criticism from Romanian leaders, while his supporters insist he is trying to lend his support Hungarians everywhere.
Rooted in History
Tensions between Romania and Hungary can be traced back to World War I and the Treaty of Trianon.
Although the Treaty of Trianon ended hostilities between the Allied Powers and the Kingdom of Hungary, the peace came at a great price to the Austro-Hungarian successor state. Hungary lost 2/3rd of its population and territory, leaving the former imperial hub landlocked in the heart of Central Europe. Most of its territory was ceded to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, as well as Austria, Italy, and Poland. Romania was granted the entire region of Transylvania, where an estimated 1.3 million ethnic Hungarians reside, making Hungarians Romania’s largest minority.
The loss of such a large chunk of territory and population would certainly leave its mark on national memory. Recently in Hungary, politicians have been revitalizing this narrative.
Speaking on the June 4th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, Jànos Làzàr, Minister of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, called on the beneficiaries of the treaty to apologize, insisting, “Trianon was a diktat, a historic injustice against a nation. The entire western world is indebted to Hungary.”
Lazar was careful to say that Hungary does not advocate for the redrawing of borders, rather they merely mean to ensure that the rights of minority Hungarians are protected everywhere. Romania has not taken it that way. The Romanian authorities used words like “provocative” and “dangerous” to describe the Hungarian government’s treatment of the issue.
This isn’t the first time Lazar has intervened on behalf of Hungarians in Romania. Last spring, Lazar interceded in the case of an ethnic Hungarian brewer, Andras Lenard, in Romania who was being pressed by Heineken. Heineken was suing the upstart brewer claiming that their names, although different languages, were too similar. Hungarian politicians reacted by calling for a boycott of Heineken products as well as proposing legislation to ban the use of the Heineken red star as a communist symbol. Heineken responded by dropping the charges against Lenard.
The intervention of Hungary on behalf Lenard reflects a larger government policy of considering the Hungarian minority in Romania as Hungarians. In 2010, the Orban government expanded Hungary’s citizenship laws, making ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries eligible for citizenship and therefore voting privileges. As the 2018 parliamentary elections appear on the horizon, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been encouraging Hungarians in other Central European countries to register to vote.
By The Independent – https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=iau.31858029095456;view=1up;seq=427 (Jump to 391)
The Independent, (New York), June 14, vol. 98, 1919, p. 391 (Primary source, if any, not cited), Public Domain, Link
Orban’s critics claim that he is merely trying to leverage the 1 million eligible voters in Romania to attain a coveted 2/3rd majority in parliament for his Fidesz party. Fidesz is just two seats away from a majority that would allow them to make constitutional changes. Considering that in the 2014 elections 95% of the vote from citizens domiciled outside of Hungary went to the Fidesz party, mobilizing the Transylvanian vote is of key importance to the Orban administration. The fact that Orban may be able to mobilize thousands of votes in the diaspora is a sign that minority protection in Central Europe is an issue that should not be overlooked.
Orban doesn’t just encourage the dual-national Hungarian minority in Romania to vote in Hungarian elections, drawing further criticism from Romanian figures. In a trip to Transylvania just before the 2016 Romanian elections, Orban stirred angst against the government, claiming that the government is failing to help the ethnic Hungarians. Orban went as far as to say that the Romanian government lacks respect for the Hungarian minority. He urged them to vote in their own best interest in the elections.
Romanian critics of Orban have accused him of trying to meddle in their politics. Former President Traian Basescu even called for the removal of the Hungarian ambassador from Romania.
ReConnect Hungary is a birthright program for Canadian and American young adults of Hungarian heritage. The program aims to help Hungarians in North America forge a sense of Hungarian patriotism through travel in the region and volunteer opportunities. Interestingly, the study trip is not limited to the country of Hungary, rather participants visit Hungary, as well as the Hungarian Diaspora in Serbia, Ukraine, or Slovakia to witness, “how young Hungarians outside Hungary are maintaining their identity and traditions.”
As of 2017 the program offers a three month long ReConnect Transylvania program. Participants in this program will spend 3-6 months working with an NGO in Transylvania to “discover the deepest layers of being Hungarian.” ReConnect Hungary also now offers a week long extension on the original two week long ReConnect Hungary program to explore Hungarian culture in Transylvania. By including the Diaspora in the discussion about Hungarian culture, this private-public partnership builds a concept of a Hungarian nation that traverses accepted borders.
ReConnect Hungary is part of a larger trend called diaspora tourism. Proponents of the trend argue that it cultivates a sense of cultural heritage abroad and encourages tourism, while critics claim local leaders are using it to manipulate foreign nationals.
Cultivating strong national identity abroad can be a powerful tool, and not just in dual-citizens. Hungary has already seen some success in this regard. In 1987 the Hungarian Human Rights Foundations, comprising of second generation American citizens, successfully lobbied congress for the removal of Romania’s Most Favored Nation status. The lobbying efforts were in response to the human rights violations of Ceau?escu’s communist regime, as well as specific abuses of the Hungarian population in Romania.