Lot of Smoke,
Lot of Money,
but to Little Effect
Orbán’s policy exploits Hungarian minorities abroad to cement its power at home. His calculation is clear: The votes of the foreign Hungarians could secure the constitutional majority of his government in the parliament.
“We will fight with all our might to abolish the Beneš decrees that have deprived Hungarians of their rights,” declared the Hungarian State Secretary for National Policy, Árpád Potápi, on 5 June in the small town of Bonyhád at an event marking the 70th anniversary of the expulsion of a large part of the Hungarian minority from Slovakia (some of those displaced have ended up in Bonyhád). The event also celebrated what is known as the Day of National Solidarity, a holiday introduced by Viktor Orbán’s second government soon after taking power in 2010. The holiday falls on the 4 June, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, which sealed the breakup of historic Hungary.
It is worth taking a closer look at Potápi’s speech and its context, since it unwittingly sums up in a nutshell everything there is to know about Orbán’s government’s current policy with regard to Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.
The mere fact that Potápi’s speech was noticed by the Slovak and Czech media (the latter mistakenly promoted him to minister) and the Hungarian minority media, particularly in Slovakia, is noteworthy. However, in Hungary proper it was covered almost exclusively by the media controlled by the ruling party Fidesz (including public service media) and those close to the extreme right-wing party Jobbik. The statement has been virtually ignored by the rest of what is left of the independent media in the country, which is a good indication of its weight and significance.
A New Rift among the Visegrad Group
In February 2002, just before his first term as prime minister came to an end, Orbán created a stir when he declared that the Beneš decrees were incompatible with the European Union law, and Hungary therefore expected that the Czech Republic and Slovakia would automatically strike them from their law books. His statement caused a new rift among the Visegrad countries, whose cooperation had been briefly revived by the new Czech government under Miloš Zeman, who, unlike his predecessor Václav Klaus, was a supporter of V4 cooperation. In response to Orbán’s words, Zeman cancelled his participation at the planned meeting of V4 prime ministers in Hungary, as did the Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who was embroiled in other disputes with Orbán at the time.
There are, of course, several key differences between what happened then and now. To begin with, a statement by a prime minister carries much more weight than that by a secretary of state. In 2002, the Hungarian media began to comment on Orbán’s statement especially after its repercussions became evident. However, the situation in Hungary and the surrounding countries has changed quite a lot in recent years.
Even the scandal caused by the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament in 2015, László Kövér, (he told the Czech daily Právo that the Czech Republic and Slovakia should not have been admitted to the EU in the first place given that the Beneš decrees, based as they are on the principle of collective guilt, continue to be part of their legal system) died down rapidly and without any fallout. Hungary’s ambassador to the Czech Republic told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague that the Budapest government dissociated itself from Kövér’s words, did not wish to reopen the issue, and put the emphasis on developing friendly bilateral relations.
Potápi is just a foot-soldier whose job it is to visit his fellow countrymen, lay wreaths, and give symbolic speeches. Starting in 1998, he served for ten years as a backbench MP for Fidesz and twelve years as the mayor of Bonyhád. The fact that he was in charge of an ethnically mixed town whose inhabitants also include descendants of the Hungarians expelled from Slovakia was his main qualification for being appointed; first as the chairman of the parliamentary committee for national togetherness and later as the state secretary for national policy.
Kövér, on the other hand, is a key politician of the ruling Fidesz party, albeit not because of his role as Speaker of the Parliament, an institution that makes no significant decisions these days. Kövér is a founding member of Fidesz, and has long been one of Orbán’s closest associates. His position has weakened in recent years precisely because of his habit of speaking his mind. When abroad, he has often said aloud things that other Fidesz politicians have kept to themselves for tactical reasons or have only said in front of a domestic audience. Nevertheless, Kövér continues to be an important and emblematic figure in his party.
Words without Practical Impacts
This brings us to the main reason why the independent media paid little attention to Potápi’s words while, on the other hand, they were extensively covered by the government media.
What really matters is not that Potápi himself is no heavyweight but the fact that his words were not expected to have any practical impact. They are typical of Orban’s current “national policy” with regard to Hungarians abroad. Its main goal is to keep Fidesz in power in Hungary proper. Anything that does not directly serve this purpose, such as Potápi’s statements, is usually merely symbolic and of a propagandistic nature, intended to obscure the government’s real ambitions.
Orbán’s government has paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. One of his first steps after he came to power in 2010 was to pass a law on dual citizenship.
Some 2.5 million people who profess Hungarian nationality currently live in the neighboring countries. According to the 2011 census, most of them live in Romania (1,237,000), Slovakia (458,000), and Serbia (254,000). The number of those comprising the Hungarian minority in these countries has been in sharp decline. At the time of the previous census in 2002, there were still 1,434,000 Hungarians in Romania, while 521,000 were registered in Slovakia in 2001.
On the face of it, Orbán’s government has paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. One of his second government’s first steps soon after he came to power in 2010 was to pass a law on dual citizenship. Under the new legislation, Hungarians living outside of Hungary are entitled to Hungarian citizenship even if they do not have permanent residence in Hungary proper. Formally, this is not granted on an ethnic basis. They have to demonstrate that they themselves, or their ancestors, have in the past been citizens of Hungary and that they lost their citizenship as a result of the redrawing of borders in the twentieth century.
However, the authorities have been very lenient in granting citizenship in practice, and anyone able to prove some relationship to the Hungarian nation by, for example, having a command of the language, could receive it.
The Citizenship as an Attempt to Produce New Voters
Although the large-scale handing out of Hungarian citizenship met with resistance in the neighboring countries, the main problem is that it has been first and foremost an attempt to produce masses of new Fidesz voters. Along with citizenship, Hungarians abroad were also granted voting rights in Hungary’s general elections. The Hungarian government literally organized recruitment drives for new citizens and launched an intensive campaign urging members of the minority to apply for citizenship.
This has, indeed, brought Fidesz hundreds of thousands of new voters, as the assumption had been right from the outset that among minority Hungarians it would be mostly Orbán’s supporters who would be interested in applying for citizenship and going to the polls. For example, 95 percent of the new dual citizens cast their votes for Fidesz in the most recent parliamentary election in 2014, and it is estimated that these 123 thousand votes helped Fidesz garner one or two seats. That does not sound like a lot, but it was these extra seats that were just enough for the party to keep its constitutional majority.
Fidesz claims that minority Hungarians have to decide for themselves what they want and that Budapest’s job is solely to help them achieve it. However, the exact opposite is happening in practice.
Another example of the power-driven and highly counterproductive minority policy conducted by Orbán’s government is its constant meddling in the internal affairs of the Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries. Fidesz claims that minority Hungarians have to decide for themselves what they want and that Budapest’s job is solely to help them achieve it. However, the exact opposite is happening in practice.
Fidesz has been trying to control the political representation of the minority Hungarians, lending its support only to those politicians who unreservedly do Budapest’s bidding. In Slovakia, for example, Fidesz has provided the more radical Hungarian Community Party (SMK) with huge support (including funding), while refusing to even acknowledge the more moderate yet more successful Hungarian-Slovak party, Most-Híd.
“Unifying of the Nation across the Borders”
Whenever Hungary has not been happy with Hungarian politicians and parties in a particular country, it has not shrunk from trying to set up (usually without success) new parties to compete with the “disobedient” existing ones and try to steal their voters.
Fine-sounding measures with almost zero practical impact are meant to hide this kind of exploitation of Hungarians abroad for the domestic political struggle. For example, the government has established a separate department for national policy within the prime minister’s office, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister without Portfolio, Zsolt Semjén (Potápi’s boss).
Orbán’s government has been sending abroad substantial amounts of money from Hungary’s state budget. The effect is dubious, as the money is often spent on purely symbolic activities.
What officially passes for national policy in Hungary is the championing of a cultural and, to some extent, also political unity of the Hungarian nation at home and abroad. This does not amount to a redrawing of existing state borders but rather to “unifying of the nation across the borders,” as a popular Fidesz foreign policy slogan has it. This involves the bolstering of Hungarian identity among members of minorities and supporting their rights, including the right to some sort of autonomy.
The Budapest policy presents autonomy as an essential precondition for the survival of minorities and the preservation of their Hungarian national identity. The forms of the expected autonomy vary depending on the conditions in individual countries: from a straightforward cultural and educational autonomy right up to a territorial one, for which parts of the Hungarian minority in Romania are striving. In March 2015, the post of ministerial commissioner for developing various concepts of autonomy was created.
A number of further steps aimed at bolstering the relations among Hungarians at home and abroad have been taken, including the establishment of the Day of National Solidarity mentioned earlier.
Large Amounts of Money for Budapest’s Local Clients
However, most of these actions have been merely symbolic. The office of the deputy prime minister for national policy is basically a symbolic institution that carries out very few real activities. It organizes public appearances by its officials and their visits to Hungarians abroad. Nevertheless, it is partially in charge of the redistribution of funds from Budapest aimed at Hungarians abroad: to achieve its aims, Orbán’s government has been sending abroad substantial amounts of money from Hungary’s state budget. The effect of this expenditure, however, is dubious, as the money is often spent on purely symbolic activities and is allocated almost exclusively to Budapest’s local clients.
Budapest’s support for the DAC football club in Dunajská Streda in Slovakia has been similarly generous. The club, regarded as a cornerstone of local Hungarian minority identity, is owned by a former minority politician.
The greatest distributor of money to Hungarians abroad is the Gábor Bethlen Foundation, established by the government. The investigative server erdely.atlatszo.hu claims that last year the foundation distributed 60.1 billion forints (around 195 million euros). Hungarian minorities, however, have not by any means been the largest recipients of these funds. Exact amounts are difficult to pinpoint, since the payments come from various sources and the whole system lacks transparency.
Large amounts of money also flow abroad from various reserve funds, or are disguised as economic aid to fellow countrymen, or as subsidies for businesses or infrastructure projects in the areas where they live. Two examples will suffice to illustrate how these funds are really used.
In February this year a minor scandal broke out when it became known that in the previous year the prime minister’s office donated 220 million forints (around 710 million euros) to Libertate, a civic association in Slovakia. The organization was completely unknown in Slovakia as well as in Hungary and nobody knew what it was actually doing.
However, it soon transpired that it had only been registered six months before it received the funds and that its leaders were people close to SMK. And even they were unable to explain to the media how they were going to use the money. There is reasonable suspicion that this was a case of covert funding for SMK and Fidesz’s clients in Slovakia.
Orbán Has Failed to Take Any Steps towards Abolishing the Beneš Decrees
In January this year it was reported that Hungary was going to donate three billion forints (around 10 million euros) towards the construction of a new football stadium and a football academy in Bačka Topola, a city in Serbia with a majority Hungarian population. Officially, this is being presented as an aid of national solidarity and helping to foster the national pride of minority Hungarians through sport. In reality, it is rather an attempt to curry favor with the minority Hungarian voters in advance of next year’s general election in Hungary.
Budapest’s support for the DAC football club in Dunajská Streda in Slovakia has been similarly generous. Furthermore, the club, regarded as a cornerstone of local Hungarian minority identity, is owned by a former minority politician and currently the most powerful Hungarian oligarch in Slovakia with close links to Fidesz and Orbán.
Let us return to the issue of President Edvard Beneš’s post-war decrees mentioned earlier. By condemning the decrees, Potápi and Kövér said nothing that might differ from the view of all Hungarian politicians, including opposition ones. They cannot be really expected to approve of decrees based on the principle of collective guilt, which deprived the Hungarians of Czechoslovakia of their civil rights and property. At the same time, Orbán’s government has for years failed to take any specific steps towards abolishing the decrees.
This is partly because it is not quite sure what such an abolition might mean in practice while, on the other hand, it knows that it cannot succeed in this matter, especially now that it has lost its last ally. The Federal Republic of Germany had never pushed too hard for the abolition of the decrees, and in recent years the attitude of the influential Sudeten German Association has also started to shift. At their last congress there was even talk of placing more emphasis on cooperation between the Czechs and the Germans instead of pursuing a dispute that is not going anywhere.
Budapest Does Not Wish to Risk Ruining Its Relations with Prague and Bratislava
Orbán’s government is also aware that its controversial policy is driving it into isolation and that it has to rely on the support of at least its remaining allies in the Visegrad group. That is why it does not wish to risk ruining its relations with the Czech and Slovak governments over some ancient decrees, at least as long as it needs these two countries’ support against what it regards as more critical enemies, such as refugees and Brussels.
Speeches of the kind given by Potápi are part and parcel of the government propaganda aimed at Hungarians at home and abroad. Basically, they are meant to send a reassuring signal that the government is continuing to fight their corner while hiding the fact that it is actually not doing anything.
Orbán’s government is also aware that its controversial policy is driving it into isolation and that it has to rely on the support of at least its remaining allies in the Visegrad group.
Orbán’s government is interested in the Hungarians abroad only as long as it is to its own benefit and is ready to throw them overboard the minute it feels that supporting the minorities could prove damaging. Many foreign observers have welcomed this change, since, at least on the face of it, this has helped calm the relations between Hungary and her neighbors. However, we should bear in mind that this is pure calculation on Orbán’s part. Should he conclude that he would benefit more from a tougher stance vis-à-vis the country’s neighbors under the pretext of defending the rights of the Hungarian minorities, he will not hesitate one moment and will change course again.
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