Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999

Debate: Nation and ethnicity in Central and Eastern Europe D E B A T E:
The Defence of 'Ethnic Hungarians'

Cas Mudde

As a political scientist with an interest in nationalism coming from the West and living in the East, I have always been stunned by the different discourse on minorities used in the two parts. At least until the beginning of the 1990s, the term 'ethnic minorities' was, at best, debatable, and generally outright rejected. Rather, one would speak of 'German speakers in Italy', for example. Not so with Hungarians.

Have you ever seen the term 'Hungarian speaker'? I haven't. There are 'Russian speakers' everywhere, and there are 'Hungarians of Slovak origin', yet there are only ever 'ethnic Hungarians'. Why?

During my one-and-a-half years in Hungary, I have asked myself this question on numerous occasions and have troubled my Hungarian colleagues with it as well but to little avail. Most of the time, my conversation partner would not even get the point, stating only, "They are ethnic Hungarians!"

And this has, for them, nothing to do with being nationalist; most academics, the ones I know in any case, have little time for the likes of Istvan Csurka, head of the radical Hungarian Justice and Life Party, or for the nationalist voices within the current government for that matter. But while many other countries, for example the Netherlands and Germany, treat the matter of 'lost territories' and 'national minorities abroad' as a non-issue, Hungarian politics is at times obsessed with them.

Except for the former Horn government, Hungarian governments have pushed the issue to the centre of their foreign policy. This is remarkable given that, though the issue does probably interest a majority of the Hungarian population, the masses seem to give it far less priority than the (right-wing) elite.

That said, one has to acknowledge the great success of Hungarian governments in this respect. Both Slovakia and Romania became almost pariah states as a consequence of their 'brutal' minority policies, which were constantly brought up at international forums by the Hungarian governments. I often had to explain my Dutch colleagues and friends that Hungarian speakers in Slovakia were not ethnically cleansed and that actually the major bone of contention at that time was the fact that school reports had to be issued exclusively in the Slovak language. Try to explain this to, for example, a French person - in fact, the very controversial Slovak language law is almost an exact copy of the never disputed French one.

A good example of this Hungarian anti-Slovak rhetoric is given in the recent article by Gusztav Kosztolanyi ('International Controversy at the Fidesz Congress', The Electronic New Presence, 17 May 1999). Therein, he points to extremist claims by Jan Slota, leader of the nationalist Slovak National Party and implies that these are widely supported by the Slovak population.

What Kosztolanyi fails to mention is that this style of political campaigning was one of the reasons for Slota's dramatically dismal 2.4 percent result in the presidential elections and has even led to internal opposition within his party. Moreover, one does not read that today, Slota is more at the margins of Slovak politics than his counterpart Csurka is in Hungary.

But here lies one of the explanations of Hungary's success in championing the rights of their 'brethren'. Hungary has played itself up as the (Western-oriented) liberal-democratic state among (Eastern-oriented) autocratic-nationalist states. It was thereby helped by the almost autistic behaviour of Romania's Ion Iliescu and, most notably Slovakia's Vladimir Meciar, who hardly tried to please the West. Moreover, while the two 'populists' primarily addressed their national audience, the Hungarian governments spoke to the (Western) world.

Having learned from the early disaster of Jozsef Antall's 'prime minister of 15 million Hungarians' speech, they have learned to talk the Western talk - that is, they learnt to paraphrase nationalist demands in terms of human rights discourse. In addition, having Magyarised their own minorities some hundred years ago, the Hungarian government designed an extremely liberal, pro-minority policy within its own country, with the sole aim of demanding similar policies in countries with (unassimilated) Hungarian minorities.

I am sure that by now there are still readers who are asking themselves, 'so what, what is the problem?' The problem is this: there are no ethnic groups - just as there are no racial groups. There is no scientific evidence that substantiates the existence of different groups of people with significantly different biological or genetic structures.

Some may find the terms 'Hungarian speakers' or 'Hungarian-speaking' a bit clumsy, but calling people 'ethnic Hungarians' is simply wrong, and however freely interpreted, the term's use legitimises a dangerous ethnic discourse. In that discourse, assimilation and integration are not feasible, as Hungarians are 'ethnically' different from Slovaks and can thus not change. This takes away the strongest argument one has against ethnic nationalists, i.e. the non-existence of ethnicities.

Does this mean that the Orban government should not look out for the Hungarian-speaking minorities outside of its own state borders? Yes and no.

I see little reason for a non-nationalist to take such interest in linguistically linked people outside of their country. For example, the Dutch hardly ever meddled in matters regarding the Dutch-speaking Flemish in Belgium, despite decades of 'oppression'. Moreover, it would be both more convincing and more reassuring (not least for those 'paranoid Slovaks') were the current government to really start addressing minority rights proper, including those of the Roma in their own country, rather than only the rights of the Hungarian speakers abroad. Moreover, are there really no more pressing issues on the agenda in Hungary than the building of a Hungarian (and German) language university in Romania or the autonomy of Hungarian speakers in the Vojvodina?

Cas Mudde, 9 August 1999

The author is assistant professor at the Central European University in Budapest.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi replies to this article in this week's issue of Central Europe Review.




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