Hungary's 'Near Abroad': Minorities Policy and Bilateral Treaties

By Binnendijk, Hans; Simon, Jeffrey | Strategic Forum, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Hungary's 'Near Abroad': Minorities Policy and Bilateral Treaties


Binnendijk, Hans, Simon, Jeffrey, Strategic Forum


Conclusions

   NATO (and EU) enlargement has been successful in establishing
   incentives for aspiring members to resolve border and ethnic
   minority issues.

  Hungarian bilateral treaties have stabilized the situation more in
  Romania than Slovakia because, unrelated to its treaty, Slovakia has
  been moving in autocratic directions.

  Both treaties have marginalized nationalist extremists and helped
  transform Hungarian minorities from being a potential "bloc" to
  becoming a "bridge" for Euro-Atlantic integration.

  If Hungary enters NATO with no clear prospect for Romania, it could
  undermine recent positive developments in Bucharest.

Historical Legacy

Hungarian minorities are the legacy of the defeat and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. The Treaty of Trianon (1920) reduced Hungary's size by roughly two-thirds; the Romanian crown occupied Transylvania, the Serbs southern Hungary, and the new Czechoslovakia northern Hungary. Hence, the Versailles Peace settlement divided the states of Central Europe into winners and losers.

During the 1920s Hungary's appeals to the League of Nations on behalf of minority rights were undermined by its irredentist aspirations and by France who allied itself with the Little Entente of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia to protect the status quo. Hitler's rise to power gave momentum for revision; the September 1938 Munich agreement accepted dismemberment of Czechoslovakia as the British and French policy shifted to appeasement.

Hungary's revisionism occurred in stages. (1) In November 1938 an Italo-German "Vienna Award" returned to Hungary 4,600 square miles from Slovakia with predominantly Hungarian populations; and in early 1939 gave Hungary another Hungarian minority fragment--Ruthenia--from Slovakia. (2) In August 1940, the Second Vienna Award gave Hungary northern Transylvania, which left large numbers of Romanians and Hungarians on the wrong side of the border. (3) In April 1941 when Germany invaded Yugoslavia, Hungary followed suit and re-annexed the ethnically-mixed Vojvodina and formally allied itself with the Axis powers.

At the end of World War II, neither Britain nor the USSR supported any change in Hungary's pre-1938 borders, and the 1946 Paris Peace Conference restored the partitions of the Trianon Treaty. While Slovaks, Romanians, and Serbs retained grievances against Hungary for its role in the pre-Trianon era and during World War II, Hungarians remained bitter about their treatment as minorities in the inter-war period and after 1945.

During the Communist era, Marxist-Leninist ideology and Stalin's theory on nationalities considered nationalism to be a malady of Abourgeois capitalism." In Hungary, the minorities question disappeared from the political agenda. Communist hegemony guaranteed a facade of inter-ethnic peace while failing to secure a lasting accommodation of minority interests in unitary states.

The fall of Communism aroused the expectations of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries and left Hungary unprepared to deal with the issue. Hungarian politicians campaigned to formalize the rights of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries, thus causing anxiety in the region. They secured agreements on the necessity for guaranteeing collective rights and formed new Hungarian minority organizations to promote cultural rights and political participation. In Romania, Slovakia, and Serbian Yugoslavia, former Communists secured popular legitimacy by accommodating nationalist tendencies that were hostile to minority rights.

Contemporary Situation

Some 3 million Hungarians live in neighboring countries; 2 million in Transylvania, 600,000 in Slovakia, 350-400,000 in Vojvodina, Serbia, and 160-200,000 in Ukraine (see Map). Extremes in the treatment of Hungarian ethnic minorities are evident in Ukraine, where no major issues prevail, and Vojvodina, where the situation of those who live in the north and south-central regions has deteriorated since Serbian President Milosevic stripped the province of autono-mous status in 1989. …

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