Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

C S A R D A S:
Erosion or Survival?
The Culture of the Hungarians of the Vojvodina

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

During the Kosovo crisis the attention of the world's media focused on the Hungarian minority of the Vojvodina and on how its fate might influence the behaviour and attitudes of one of the newest members of NATO, namely Hungary. Many column inches were devoted to the subject of what might happen if the Vojvodinian Hungarians were to be attacked by NATO forces, if they were to be the next in line for a campaign of ethnic cleansing or retaliation actions aimed at causing maximum discomfort to Hungary. That they formed a vulnerable target seemed clear in everyone's minds. Now that the conflict is over, interest appears to have waned with the Hungarians of the Vojvodina left, quite literally, to pick up the pieces. As Jozsef Kasza, President of the Association of Vojvodinian Hungarians, pointed out in an interview in July (See Magyar Nemzet, 8 July 1999 in the supplement on minorities):

The fact that the country is in ruins and that in many areas everything was reduced to rubble doesn't interest them (Milosevic and his political clique). Nor do they bother themselves with the fact that the factories and institutions are out of commission and that the number of young people who wish to leave the country will soon reach 40%. The Hungarians of the Vojvodina are on a holding pattern. My feeling is that those who stayed behind immediately before the war or during the war do not wish to leave. In terms of numbers, the community did not incur huge losses, but the hopeless situation, the lack of prospects are potentially very dangerous. This continues to be true in spite of the recent and valuable help given to us by the homeland (that is, Hungary) in making the world familiar with the problems we face. We never experienced such vigorous diplomatic efforts either in the era of the Antall or that of the Horn governments.

The Vojvodina could, however, act as a model for the rest of the country, as it has always been a multicultural society. According to Professor Tibor Varady, lecturer at the Central European University, the relationship between the dominant cultural group and minorities needs to be regulated: "In my opinion, the relationship between the majority and the minority can only be regularised if both cross a certain threshold. The minority should say "We live here and that is final. It won't last just until the next worldwide conflagration". The majority must accept that we are staying here as Hungarians for good, not just until the next evacuation or wave of colonisation and that the Vojvodina will always be a multicultural area, which includes its being a Hungarian area" (See interview in Magyar Nemzet, 16 September, 1999).

How is it possible to maintain a cultural identity under such difficult circumstances? In order to gain some insights into this and related issues, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Alpar Losoncz, economist and philosopher, lecturer in both the Vojvodina and at the University of Szeged.

GK: Could you tell me a little about the differences between Serbian and Vojvodinian Hungarian culture? What factors have influenced the development of Hungarian culture in the Vojvodina?

AL: Each one of these questions could be the subject of a separate study! Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture is more Central European than Serbian culture, in spite of the fact that it was cut off from the territories of Central Europe on several occasions. Living as a minority after the First World War was one factor which determined its dynamic, and I should mention that the middle classes were always very weakly represented amongst the Hungarians of the Vojvodina, particularly that section of the middle class willing to spend money on art. Another factor was the more liberal regime which existed in Jugoslavia during the Communist era and which opened up opportunities to engage in certain cultural activities. In the 1990s, a large number of artists have emigrated. Emigration on the part of the younger generations is worth particular mention, since we can only understand it in the context of the war. The effects of this may be discerned in, for example, the crisis experienced by the journ al of young writers "Uj Symposion" ("New Symposium"). This journal plays an important role in wider Hungarian culture as well. Art, I think, is not so effective when it comes to preserving the ethnic identity. The media are far more important in that respect, though they are in the hands of the State.

GK: How did Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture "survive" Communism? What is its role in today's society? Does it help in preserving personal or ethnic identities? What is its relationship with Hungarian culture in general? What role do politicians play in influencing culture?

AL: Under Communism there was a concept, which emphasised the unique features of Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture, placing it within the broader framework of Hungarian culture in general. Indeed Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture never renounced its links with broader Hungarian culture. Nevertheless, once it became possible to stress the national character of this culture in the 1990s, it also became far easier to win acceptance for its place within Hungarian culture as a whole. I do believe, however, that the losses incurred by Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture currently prevent it from defining its own identity. This is also the reason why I have been unable to discern the emergence of the kind of forces that would be able to provide an effective counterbalance to globalisation with its pressure towards cultural homogeneity. Politicians do influence culture, but as far as I see it, the degree to which they attempt to influence it is exaggerated.

GK: Does the Hungarian government support Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture? How might Hungary's membership of the EU or of NATO effect Hungarian culture in the Vojvodina?

AL: Yes, the Hungarian government does support culture here. The real issue at stake is whether it has succeeded in creating a system of allocating the available resources transparent enough to ensure that the support actually does reach those in need of it. Without this support, however, it is absolutely certain that Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture would be unable to survive. Hungarian membership of the EU fills the minorities with dread, as they fear that a cultural Iron Curtain will descend between the Hungarians of the Vojvodina and Hungary. This would considerably encumber the relationship with Hungarian culture, the influx of books, relations with the Hungarian intellectual and cultural elite, opportunities for students to study at Hungarian universities, etc. Representatives of Vojvodinian-Hungarian culture are afraid that their culture will part ways with broader Hungarian culture, in other words, that a situation would arise in which culture here would be cut off from its Hungarian and Central European roots.

GK: Thank you very much.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 23 October 1999



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