Wednesday 23 June 2010

Battle of the Passports

I’ve sometimes heard it said that the European Union has somehow sublimated and overcome the conflicts and tensions of history; that it represents, to use an appalling cliché, a new horizon. Well, to those who believe tendentious tosh like that all I will say let them come to Hungary, let them come to Slovakia! These are places where the past is not cheated.

I think one would have to scour present day Germany pretty hard to find any passion left over the Versailles ‘Diktat’ of 1919, but Hungarians to this day still regret the dismemberment of their country in the Treaty of Trianon, concluded in 1920, which scattered significant Magyar minorities across all of the adjacent lands. In Slovakia, the country’s northern neighbour, no fewer than 500,000 people, or 10% of the population, are of ethnic Hungarian origin, mostly concentrated in the border region. And it is here where the tension arises.

Doing down Hungarians has a rather popular appeal among the Slovaks. It has enabled Robert Fico, the country’s prime minister, to win elections. And it was not all shallow demagoguery, no; for measures have been introduced to criminalise the use of the Hungarian language in certain contexts.

Matters have become worse since the success of Viktor Orban in Hungary’s parliamentary elections earlier this year. Virtually the first act of the new centre-left Fidesz government was to give some 2.5 million ethnic Magyars living abroad the right to a Hungarian passport. This was also a populist move, one that takes eyes off Hungary’s present economic troubles, and one that undermines Jobbik, the far-right opposition party. But what looks good in Budapest looks bad upriver in Bratislava.

Slovakia, only fully independent for seventeen years following the amicable divorce with the Czechs, was a Hungarian colony for centuries, a time of not particularly happy memory. In the light of the Hungarian legislation, Fico has now pushed a law through parliament requiring Slovak citizens to report the acquisition of dual nationality or face a fine of more than $4000. People in this position will also lose their Slovak passports, which in practice means losing their citizenship.

Fico is using the most emotive language, according to a report I read in The Economist, talking of a “Hungarian brown plague”, a clear reference to the war-time fascist Arrow Cross government. He has even raised the possibility that Hungary’s passport policy may be the precursor to irredentist claims. “Are we supposed to stand by”, he said, "when someone creates an enclave of their own citizens on Slovak territory?”

That’s nothing really compared with the words of Jan Slota, leader of the racist Slovak National Party, a junior partner in Fico’s coalition. He has even suggested the possibility of armed conflict in the face the relentless “militarisation” of Hungarian society. It actually gets worse for Orban has declared 4 June, the anniversary of Trianon, as National Unity Day, recalling the nostalgia for Greater Hungary.

Will no one tell me what she sings?--
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago…


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Yes, thanks, Adam. Sorry I wasn't able to post this last night. I'm not sure if the problem was with my lap-top or the site. This is from my PC!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Well, looks like we know where the next Yugoslavia is going to kick off then.

    How are relations in Romania?

  5. (continued):
    A new "bridge building" party (called "Most/Hid", from the word for "bridge" in both languages), whose primary focus appears to be to promote greater cooperation and ties between the Slovaks and Hungarians, on the other hand, gained seats for the first time.

    As such I think it'd be reasonable to predict that the ugly marriage of convenience between the greasy Fico and the unpleasant Smer (who if anything are populist, statist , leftists - I think they still sit in the Socialist Group in the European Parliament - although there was talk of them being thrown out when they first got into bed with the SNP) on the one hand and the SNP, on the other, is, very probably, on the brink of dissolution.

    Which is not to say that a government dominated by Smer in alliance with whoever else might prop it up would be very much preferable.

    In any case it would appear that the tensions between Hungary and Romania (which is where the largest number of those on the "wrong side" of the post-1920 boundaries are) have, mostly, more or less, subsided, compared with 10 or 15 years ago.) Although with Slovakia...more does remain to be resolved.

    And as for the role of the EU? Hmmmm. I am certainly no fan of its centralizing, federalizing tendencies. But I would, none the less, posit that for all its manifold and obvious faults, the EU has, at least in the short term, served as a balm to the tensions there, as well as (in the quite specific case of Slovakia - the only other country that I would say that it is true of in a similar way is Croatia) encouraging or demanding reforms that helped to undermine the more authoritarian or extreme elements that threatened to dominate the country (c.f. PM Meciar's government in 1993-98, which appeared to use kidnapping, even of the President's son, in its armoury of policies). I grant that since 2004, when Slovakia (and Hungary) joined the EU, it has lost the power to influence the powers of the region in quite the same way, and also that (with the admission in 2007 of two countries that by most objective measures should not have been let in, and the failures around the Constitutional Treaty/Lisbon Treaty), perhaps also the will.

  6. Funny that, just before I read this, I was looking at the website of Jobbik, which currently has a map of pre- and post-Trianon Hungary prominently displayed on its front page.

    These language and citizenship issues beween Hungary and Slovakia (as well as Romania) have been dragging on virtually since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, with peaks and ebbs as to how hot an issue they are, and the tide appears to have been on the rise for the last 18 months or so.

    (The current Hungarian president, Solyom, whose term is very almost at an end, has rather put his foot in it on numerous occasions. Whether his successor - whose identity now appears almost certain - will be more diplomatic, remains to be seen: but he will, at any rate, be loyal to the Fidesz machine and government, and much less of a loose cannon than Solyom)

    In Hungary, Orban is something of an ego-maniac and rabble-rouser who I think has begun to aspire to becoming something like the Magyar Berlusconi, devoid of all principles and decency. Although he probably lacks something of Silvio's flair and entepreneurship, and the scale of his ambition is less humumgous. Which in many ways is a pity, as Fidesz, in their early days, were an interesting, almost experiment, in anti-communist organization.

    Thankfully he seems inclined to keep his distance from Jobbik (and there is no electoral need for him not to), although one may have some concerns as to what his (and Fidesz's) coming to power may mean about, for example, the freedom of the media.

    If there is one positive thing to say it is that the recent elections in Slovakia (from which a new government has yet to be formed) appear to have considerably strengthened the positions of the moderates at the expense of the extremes (and I fully agree with your description of Slota's lot as racist: he himself is on the record as describing Hungarians as a "cancer that must be cut out of the heart of the Slovak nation": quite unambigious);

    Slota's SNP only just struggled into the new parliament, while the rather corrupt and discredited "Party of the Hungarian Coalition" failed to get any deputies elected at all. As indeed, for the first time, did the former ruling party of Vladimir Meciar, who did so much to isolate the country when he was PM in the 90s.

  7. Another point of ironic amusement, I suppose, is that whilst justifying their position in the high language of those who feel they may have brought about world peace, EU Federalists remain impressively unwilling to face up to these points of tension within the EU.

    Federalists seem to consider the pacification of Europe as a fait accompli, and complacently legislate without any proper prioritisation of these problems.

    ...coasting into dangerous waters, I fear.

  8. Dominic, thank you for that additional information. You are right to raise the issue of relations between Hungary and Romania because in the past these have been much more fraught than those between Hungary and Slovakia. Also the Magyar minority in Romania is far bigger. However as far as the passport law is concerned the Romanians are not in a position to complain because they have been doing exactly the same thing for their minority in Moldova.

  9. Invictus, Federalists are in a state of constant denial. I am convinced that if Yugoslavia had been in the EU the Bosnian war would have happened regardless.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Ha, but (as I'm sure you know) in Moldova Romanians are the majority, not the minority (and in any case most of historic Moldova is in Romania anyway)...which leads us back to the topic of Stalin's wicked genius in drawing up boundaries (not to mention the spurious "creation" of the "Moldovan language" a.k.a. Romanian re-cyrillicised)

    Maybe more worrying, I think, in the medium term, in terms of the potential for bloody clashes resulting from a combination of irredentist nationalisms and the sense of failed or illegimatate statehood is the situation in what the Greeks insist we must call the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

    In fact, it came pretty close to a civil war in 2001, already, thanks in large part to Albanian irredentism and the second-class treatment handed out the ethnic Albanian population by the Macedonian state. (And, for what is more, and for all the exagerrated claims of Serbian nationalists in particular about this elsewhere, reports suggest that Macedonia really is the one bit of the Balkans where there are a substantial number hardline Wahhabi Muslim agitators too).

    While the Greeks prefer to wail about nonexistent Macedonian irredentism, although the government of what they insist should be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia stir the pot by putting up monuments left right and centre to Alexander the Great.

    Just recently Bulgaria have started handing out passports to "ethnic Macedonians" (who they regard as essentially indistinguishable from Bulgarians) in the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (as the Greeks insist it should be called). Frankly, as that country continues to be excluded from international organizations (and the economic benefits that they bring in short-term and material terms) largely or purely as a result of Greek intransigence, I can see it becoming a largely depopulated space (the high rate of migration from Moldova to Romania and the EU seems a reasonable comparison), and one that could really become a battleground. At least Slovakia and Hungary are both members of NATO, which (whatever purpose that organization serves nowadays) does keep in check some wilder expressions of nationalism.

  12. Dominic, actually I did not know that. I knew that it had, as Bessarabia, been part of Romania until 1940 but I assumed that the Moldovan majority were of a different ethnicity. So the Romanian move then looks a bit like annexation by stealth, or it must seen so from the point of view of Transnistria.

  13. Oh absolutely. (the first acts of the independent Moldova's parliament were to adopt the national anthem, name of currency, and a modified variant of the flag of Romania, so concerns about what is usually termed there as "reunification" were certainly reasonable. I seem to recall reading that a pro-RUssian member of the Moldovan parliament objected to the country adopting a flag that was the same as that of another member of the UN, and when pressed indicated he was referring to Chad - although he could just as well have said Andorra)

    Though "Transnistria" (if one must call it that, but frankly I know not what one really should call it) is another creation of Stalin, too.... IIRC it was orignally established in 1924 as a subordinate unit of Ukraine (with the entirely expansionist-minded name of the Moldovan ASSR, despite clearly not being in Moldova), and was then transferred to control of the Moldovan SSR founded after the USSR gained territory during WWII.... the pity for the Republic of Moldova of its effective secession is that most of the wealth-generating industry of the old republic is located there.

    ...and now it is a merry gangster-state than has a good sideline in gun-running and has what is reputed to be one of the best football stadiums in Eastern Europe. Even more of a place for Soviet nostalgics than Belarus.

  14. Dominic, you have an expertise well beyond my own here.

  15. Funny-these hungarians. Hasn't anyone told them that "greater Hungary" had in fact only 54 % hungarians within its territory? NO? I suggest everyone starts reading some facts about the so called "greater Hungary".

  16. That's an excellent suggestion, Nata. :-)