Hungarian Minorities Abroad: A Discussion

by Michelle Adams, On June 23, 2015

There are approximately 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in Hungary’s seven border countries as a result of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which shrunk Hungary’s border and displaced 3.3 million of its citizens. These declining populations of Hungarians live in their homelands, but their homelands no longer form a part of Hungary. Whereas 1.4 million people in Romania identified themselves as Hungarian in 2001, only 1.24 million did so in 2011. This could be a result of several factors, including assimilation and emigration. Another 200,000 to 300,000 Hungarians have emigrated from neighboring countries, most of them to Hungary.

On Friday, June 12, the Common Sense Society hosted a discussion on Hungarian minorities abroad, featuring Anna-Mária Bíró, Director of the Tom Lantos Institute, and Zoltán Kántor, Director of the Research Institute for Hungarian Communities Abroad. After a history of the concept of minority rights by Dr. Bíró, Mr. Kántor described the current state of minority rights of Hungarian minorities living outside of the “Hungarian Kin State” (i.e. Hungary).

The struggle for minority rights has been long and difficult, often bearing little fruit.  With the possible exception of the former Yugoslavia, true personal autonomy of minorities has not yet existed, and it remains a fundamental goal of minority rights activists. Hungary has taken major steps toward achieving rights for its minorities living beyond its borders. As an active Kin State, Hungary’s policy in support of autonomy is to endorse the preferences formulated by legitimate representatives of minorities in neighboring states. Among the first laws amended after the inauguration of the new parliament in 2010 was to create the right to dual citizenship for those living outside of Hungary. This crucial change has already prompted some 730,000 citizens of neighboring and overseas countries to apply for Hungarian citizenship, though the vast majority of them have remained abroad.

But who is “Hungarian”? Is this primarily a cultural or legal identity? The current legislation stipulates that in order to obtain dual citizenship one must be able to prove, or at least prove the likelihood of, former citizenship in one’s lineage, plus knowledge of the Hungarian language. In other words, this is non-nation-based citizenship. The current law even includes what is known as the Csángó clause, allowing those who left Hungarian territory before it was Hungary to also be included.

A year after the dual citizenship law was passed, a new amendment created a new electoral law, allowing Hungarians in neighboring states to vote; about 150,000 of them did so. Unsurprisingly, approximately 95% voted for Fidesz, the governing, center-right party. What was surprising, however, was that the radical Jobbik party received only 2% of votes, despite their strong rhetoric regarding Hungarians living abroad and the party’s on-the-ground organization in these states.

The impact of Hungarian dual citizenship laws has been felt as high as the European Parliament. Not only did Hungarians from Slovakia and Romania enter the European Parliament running as partisan candidates according to the rules of their particular countries, but candidates with dual citizenship in places outside the European Union, like Andor Deli from Serbia and Andrea Bocskor from Ukraine, also ran on the Fidesz ticket and now sit in the European Parliament.

In addition to the measures taken by Hungary and the views expressed by official minority representatives, the Hungarian diaspora is not known for its silence regarding contested language and cultural issues. For example, in the last three to four years, civic organizations have been forming and “guerilla” groups in Slovakia have put up bilingual signs overnight. In Kolozsvár, such groups promote the use of both languages in shops. More and more of these grassroots approaches are taking effect.

The time of EU succession represented a particularly positive period in the history of minority rights for Hungarians. As a result, about 80% of Hungarians in Romania now have access to education in Hungarian, although the decision whether or not to take advantage of this option remains a live debate within families. Hungary has spent approximately 20 billion forints ($72 million) in support of Hungarians abroad, 75-80% of which has been used for educational purposes such as one-week teacher training sessions in Hungary or purchasing Hungarian-language materials for students.

As the lively discussion at the Tom Lantos Institute continued, issues of education, core curricula, the role of the market, informal educational projects, and state support were all touched upon. The role of education was particularly stressed by attendees and further emphasized by Mr. Kántor, who insisted that “education matters” while saying that his own identity as a Hungarian comes from having been “forged” in a Hungarian educational environment.

Responding to a question about the connection between national and individual rights, Dr. Bíró explained that human rights in general, even when individually tailored, often have a communal dimension (e.g. freedom of assembly, use of language in public). Minority rights reflect this communal dimension but also “cast doubt on a conception of universality [of culture];” culture is unavoidable, Dr. Bíró explained, and “[rights] have to be relevant to survive,” or else they forfeit their purpose as “problem-solving mechanisms.” “If rights cannot solve particular issues of a human being or a human community,” Bíró said, “then they are nonsensical, we don’t need them.”

The discussion ended by focusing on concrete ways in which minority rights were expanding in Hungary. Two and a half years ago, for example, a report was published revealing that 73% of the Hungarian population supported dual citizenship for Hungarians abroad, although less than 40% supported the right to vote. The following report, currently in press, shows that these figures have increased. The issue will continue to play an important role in the domestic politics of Hungary and its relations with various countries in the region for years to come.

–Michelle A. Adams is currently a Pannonius Fellow with Common Sense Society Budapest


This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.