Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 34
17 May 1999

C S A R D A S:
International Controversy
at the Fidesz Congress

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

At the League of Young Democrats' (Fidesz) party congress held on 8 and 9 May, controversy was stirred by a speech made by the Vice President, Laszlo Kover. His call for the re-establishment of Vojvodina's former autonomy in Yugoslavia overshadowed the proceedings, including the Prime Minister's contribution. Foreign observers and foreign politicians have misinterpreted these statements and accused Hungary of irredentism.

Orban's optimism

The Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was voted in again as President of the party, with the resounding approval of its members, receiving 549 votes out of a possible 550. Following this success, he took stock of the party's achievements in the last two years, looking back on the coalition government's activities. The party had managed not only to strengthen its basis of support, but had also created unity in the country, since, together with its coalition partners, Fidesz represented the interests of the country as a whole, not merely those of its electorate. The impact of the recession inherited from the government's predecessors had meant that the bulk of income tax paid by Hungarians (approximately 700 billion forints) had to be spent on paying off the public debt, but Fidesz had not allowed itself to be daunted by the task and had acted without hesitation. The social security administration had been radically altered in an effort to put paid to the squandering of national resources by promoting more responsible management. As a result of this intervention, according to Orban, Hungary's current growth rate was double that of the EU, and exports could probably be increased by ten per cent in the course of the year. The forecast for inflation was equally rosy, with the figure for the first quarter dropping to ten per cent, compared with last year's seventeen.

The Prime Minister was also keen to draw attention to the advantages enjoyed by families under the new system that pays out child and maternity leave benefits on the basis of individual entitlement. This had led to 26 billion forints extra filtering through to families. Wage earners had likewise seen an improvement, with pay packets going up by 16.5%. Pensioners would not be left out: they could expect at least 42 thousand forints more spread over the year as a whole.

Orban's speech, with its upbeat optimism, was simultaneously an attempt to preach to the converted and evangelise amongst the unbelievers by portraying his government as competent and legitimate in terms of its level of support. The "something for everyone", consensus-building approach has been a hallmark of the Fidesz style of running the country, and it is a crucial component of its image. This deliberately places the party in favourable contrast with the bad old days of technocracy and authoritarian steamrollering tactics that once dominated Hungarian politics. Fidesz has also had to emphasise that it is capable of acting in a mature and responsible manner at the helm of power, to demonstrate that it is level-headed and by so doing to dispel any nagging doubts that might have been caused at the sight of the comparative youth of many of the cabinet members drawn from its ranks. This has been the motivation lying behind the serious and authoritative tone so often adopted by its figurehead, Orban.

The question of Vojvodina

If anything threatened to jeopardise this project, it was the reaction to Laszlo Kover's remarks concerning Vojvodina and its future. The Fidesz Vice President began by condemning the opposition for its cynical exploitation of the understandable fears felt by ordinary Hungarians in conjunction with the Kosovo crisis. The Socialists, according to Kover, were attempting to turn these fears to their own advantage. Fidesz would welcome it if the West were not merely to make do with bringing the conflict to an end, but if it were to make full use of the opportunity available to come up with a comprehensive plan for the reorganisation of the region. It would be a serious error on the part of the West if it were to fail to let this chance slip through its hands. In spite of resistance, it was justifiable to speak in terms of autonomy for the minorities living in the Balkans when looking ahead to the future. Vojvodina should not be left out of consideration, and its former autonomy should be re-established in the framework of a settlement for the region as a whole. The Hungarians of Vojvodina could rely on the Hungarian government for support in this context. Kover went on to point out that if more favourable treatment were to be meted out to the Albanians than to the Hungarians, this would entail unforeseeable consequences.

The Foreign Minister, Janos Martonyi, announced on Hungarian radio that, once the general preconditions of a settlement had come into being, the issue of autonomy for Vojvodina would feature on the agenda for political debate.

Balint Magyar (of the Alliance of Free Democrats or SZDSZ) confirmed his party's undiluted opposition to any direct or indirect demands for a revision of Hungary's frontiers. At the same time, he made it clear that he endorsed efforts aimed at guaranteeing the individual and collective rights of the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina, though determining the shape and form this would assume was primarily the responsibility of the legitimate political organisations active there rather than that of the Hungarian government.

The historical content of Vojvodinian autonomy is examined by Jozsef Mate in an article in Nepszabadsag (15 May). "The present Constitution guarantees the free development and expression of the special national characteristics, the language, culture, historical and other typical features of all national and national minority groups as well as the right to set up organisations in the interests of enjoying the rights defined by this Constitution" is the opening passage of the Vojvodinian Constitution of 1974. This arrangement remained in place, granting the Vojvodina broad-ranging powers of autonomy, until 1989-90 when the Milosevic regime revoked it.

Until that time, Vojvodina was an autonomous province, with the Constitution blurring the distinctions between its obligations it owed to the Serb Republic and those it owed to Yugoslavia. One of the first provisions of the provincial Constitution was to emphasise the equality of all languages spoken in the province, with Hungarian, Serbo-Croat, Slovak, Romanian and Ruthenian deemed official for every aspect of daily life and transactions.

According to the Constitution, the Vojvodina had a 245-strong legislative body, elected once every four years, which was responsible for policy, regulating the province's political, economic, social and cultural life as well as debating questions of social and military significance. It was also responsible for relations between the province and Serbia and the province and the central Yugoslav government, but it did have a say in foreign policy matters that had a direct bearing on the interests of the Vojvodina.

The province was also in possession of a government, an executive responsible for implementing the decisions taken by the House of Representatives and for supervising the work performed by the administration. Defence and law and order were in the hands of that government. In both spheres, efforts were made to ensure representation of the national minorities commensurate with their relative numerical strength. Apart from a Presidency and a Constitutional Court, the province enjoyed a fairly high degree of economic autonomy. The Vojvodina was in charge of its own resources, its own budget and its own national bank which determined the conditions for the use of monetary instruments in the province.

Exaggerated fears in the neighbourhood

In Slovakia, Laszlo's comments were seized upon as an excuse for electioneering. When political campaigns are in full swing, the information transmitted to the general public is not exactly renowned for its accuracy, more for its effect at catching the eye and stirring the emotions. According to Jan Slota, President of the Slovak National Party, Hungary wishes to complete a programme of frontier revisions by the year 2005, which is the date by which he reckons Hungary will join the EU. Hungary would by then have taken back tracts of Slovakia, Romania, the Ukraine and Yugoslavia. Slota is standing as his party's candidate for the Presidential elections and claimed to be in possession of a document from a completely reliable source that corroborated his allegations. He resolutely maintains that his decision to disclose the existence of the document, purportedly a confidential government paper has no link to the campaign, and that he altruistically made its contents available to the people of his country because it was in their vital interests for him to do so. The committee which is supposedly preparing for the irredentist revision is headed by Viktor Orban and Janos Martonyi with the collaboration of Hungarian minority members living beyond the present frontiers, including Laszlo Tokes, Bela Bugar and Miklos Duray. Slota said that he did not intend to take Bugar and Duray to court. Duray responded by labelling the Slovak nationalist as one of the politicians in Slovakia who wanted to obstruct co-operation amongst the countries of Central and eastern Europe at all costs.

The Slota case illustrates that there is a great deal of latent anti-Hungarian sentiment waiting to be stoked by ruthless and self-seeking individuals who attempt to turn it to their advantage. Not everyone in the Slovak Republic has yet learned that conciliation and consigning long-standing enmities to the dusty shelf of oblivion is the only acceptable course of action in a mature democracy. The fact that Slovakia was not deemed fit to be included amongst the "first wave" countries for EU accession had more to do with this type of attitude than with economic backwardness. Slota's comments must have been particularly galling to Hungarian leaders, who have made strenuous efforts to commend Slovakia to NATO as reliable a future candidate for membership, and to build on the spirit of detente that has entered into relations between the two countries since the new government came into power in Bratislava.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Janos Martonyi, tried to repair the damage done (which had undermined weeks of painstaking reassurances that Hungary had no intention of embarking on an irredentist course) by quashing the rumours fuelled by Kover's speech. Asked about nationalist leader Istvan Csurka's argument that the issue of the Vojvodinian Hungarians should be dealt with by means of a redrawing of the borders (for further information on this subject, please consult the 28 April entry in this week's article "Chronicle of a Conflict Foretold"), the Minister was quite firm: "We are not dealing with this question at all. The demand for a revision of the frontiers has only been raised by an insignificant actor on the political scene. I would like to stress that this issue is entirely alien to the serious political parties in Hungary. Changing the present frontiers is out of the question. I consider the statements made by certain extremists to be dangerous, and it is precisely such statements that could entail negative consequences for the Hungarians of Vojvodina".

The Minister also made it clear that the Hungarian government endorses the Vojvodinian Hungarian calls for autonomy: "We must however be careful to ensure that the issue of autonomy for Vojvodina is not automatically linked with the issue of autonomy for Kosovo".

Autonomy and re annexation are easily confused in the minds of those who suffer from virtually paranoid anxiety about a Hungarian conspiracy to reconquer her lost territories. If this were to be an indication that there is a certain amount of guilt about past oppression of Hungarian minorities on the part of those countries that showed no such scruples when banning the use of the Hungarian language in schools and public life, it would at least be a positive sign of change. The danger of distortion of the Hungarian official message is evidently still great. The old wounds have not yet healed, the old suspicions have not yet been finally laid to rest. It is too easy to blur the two issues where such sensitivities abound. This is all the more reason why the Hungarian government should keep on reaffirming its commitment to good neighbourly relations, to reiterate that it is in Hungary's most vital interests for trade and cultural links to be fostered, and that Hungary gives wholehearted and unequivocal support to her neighbours' progress towards the EU and the community of values its members stand for. Once the storm is over, the Hungarians should continue to steer this steady course in the hope that reason will eventually prevail.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 17 May 1999


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