Budapest Seeks to Strengthen Ethnic Ties That Bind ; Next Year, 2.5 Million Ethnic Hungarians in Nearby Countries Will Gain the Right to Work in Hungary

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History casts long shadows in Central Europe, and today the past is presenting modern Hungary with a curious dilemma.

When this country of 10 million joins the wealthy European Union (EU) in the coming years - perhaps as early as 2004 - it will "leave behind" more than 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians living in poorer neighboring countries that were once part of the Austro- Hungarian empire.

In June, the Hungarian parliament overwhelmingly passed the so- called status law, which, beginning next year, will give ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, and Croatia the right to work in Hungary, as well as receive social, health, and education benefits.

In a continent striving to overcome nationalism and borders, the new Hungarian law brings into focus a debate across Europe regarding the role - and significance - of national identity.

Skeptics say the law is a throwback to 19th-century nationalism that, ironically, could end up endangering, rather than benefiting, the Hungarian minorities in question. Romania, with a significant Hungarian minority in Transylvania, has called the bill discriminatory and incompatible with European laws on minorities. Romanian nationalists, who nearly took Romania's presidency last year, are finding new ammunition in the prospect of ethnic Hungarians receiving economic advantages over Romanians.

Still, Karoly Gruber of Budapest's Office for Hungarians abroad, maintains: "It is a constitutional duty for any Hungarian government to care about Hungarians abroad." He stresses, however: "We do not say that we are their political representatives. We think that they are citizens of different states and should be loyal to them. But these two affiliations - the one to the host state and the one to the 'cultural nation' - are not contradictory."

"The main goal of the status law is to help them preserve their cultural and national identity in the homeland," says Mr. Gruber. "We don't want to bring them into Hungary. We want to achieve that all [Hungarian] minorities would be content in the country that they live."

Large numbers of ethnic Hungarians have been living outside Hungary's borders since the end of World War I, when the Allies broke up the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire.

Even today the 1920 Trianon Treaty, under which Hungary lost two- thirds of its territory and 60 percent of its population, remains somewhat of a national trauma. Just this month, a monument commemorating the peace treaty was unveiled in southern Hungary.

"Hungarians clearly have in their memory that they lost their brothers at this time. This is the feeling behind [the status law]. The problem is that we live in the 21st century," says Alain Bothorel, counselor with the European Commission in Budapest. "Doing things like this revives old feelings. Coming back to ethnic issues is not good for this region."

While many European countries provide support to ethnic minorities residing beyond national borders, it is generally limited to cultural and educational assistance. …