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“Over the Last Ten Years, Expenditures have Grown Ten-Fold”: Exclusive Interview with Árpád Potápi, State Secretary for Policy for Hungarian Communities Abroad

Last month, Hungary Today interviewed Árpád Potápi, the Hungarian government’s State Secretary for Policy for Hungarian Communities Abroad. Over the course of the interview, the right-wing politician discussed programs aimed at helping Hungarian communities worldwide, the government’s ever-increasing expenditures on ‘national policy’ issues, the possibility of territorial autonomy for Romania’s Szekler Hungarian minority, and other related topics.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity, and translated from the original Hungarian.

Potápi in his office, with a portrait of controversial interwar ruler ‘Regent’ Miklós Horthy hanging on the wall.

Since 2010, Hungary has been spending more and more money on building relationships with Hungarians outside of the country’s borders. Last year, this financial support amounted to nearly 90 billion forints (290 million euros), a tenfold increase in expenditures from 2009. How does the government view its national-policy strategy in light of the seven years since it came to power?

2010 was much more than a simple change of government. This was very noticeable in the realm of ‘national-policy’ as well, since there were radical changes in this field.

But let’s go back a little further! Over the course of the past decades, views on the ‘diaspora’ (Hungarians living outside the Carpathian Basin) have undergone tremendous changes: for a long time, you couldn’t even mention them, while later their voices were silenced and they were described in negative ways. Later, when it was possible to speak about those Hungarians living in diaspora, they still were not viewed positively. Finally, after 2010, we stated that ‘diaspora’ Hungarians are part of the Hungarian nation, and are the type of people who are honorable, hardworking, ambassadors of the Hungarian people, who enhance our country’s reputation.

To begin, in 2010, an organizational structure had to be developed, since the MÁERT [Magyar Állandó Értekezlet—Hungarian Standing Session] did not meet between 2004 and 2010. We now view this meeting as a key organization, where various parties and organizations can maintain a continuous dialogue. In addition, in 2010 the State Secretariat for National Policy and the Parliamentary National Cohesion Committee were formed, and were followed in 2011 by the Hungarian Diaspora Council. In terms of our financial support policy, over the last ten years expenditures have grown ten-fold, a figure which does not take into account the separate economic development programs that we have launched to aid Hungarians living outside of Hungary.

What aspects of the state secretariat’s work would you emphasize?

The launching of the Körösi Csoma Sándor (KCSP) and the Petőfi Sándor (PSP) programs has been extremely successful. The former program operates globally, while the latter operates in the Carpathian basin, particularly with those Hungarian minority communities living in the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The KCSP scholarship program has been around since 2013, and this year is sending 115 people to Hungarian communities around the world. At the same time, the PSP will allow 65 scholarship-holders to travel to Hungarian-speaking regions in countries bordering Hungary. Their task is to strengthen these communities’ Hungarian identities, to organize cultural programs, including language, history, folk-dance, education, and scouting.

How does one apply for these programs?

First, the grant is officially announced, usually on March 15th. Last year, there were 580 applicants for us to choose from. After this, three parallel committees are set up, which examine the applications. The minimum age to apply is 20, but there is no maximum, meaning that there are people in their 50s who could be sent out through the programs. One advantage for younger applicants is that the program only requires a high school degree, meaning that university students can also potentially participate in the program. The KCSP and PSP scholarship-holders are overseen in the countries to which they are going by ‘mentors’ who are representatives of the organization that is hosting them, and are usually members of a church or civil society organization. They have a clear idea of what sorts of scholarship-holders they have need of to perform their functions, and for this reason they send that information on to us.

In the world of the internet, I would imagine these sorts of distances no longer represent difficulties in terms of communication, but at the same time possible misunderstandings are always possible.

There have been times when travel arrangements have encountered problems, but thank God, these sorts of occasions are rather rare. The most typical scenario is that scholarship-holders receive tasks from their mentors that have realistic goals, and they complete these tasks as well.

How have countries neighboring Hungary reacted to this cultural mission?

The countries of the Carpathian basin, at both the parliamentary and governmental levels, acknowledge Hungary’s national policies. In addition, they do not negatively impact the work our scholarship-holders perform assisting Hungarian communities in any way.

Numerous program participants have prepared books and interview collections. Will these writings ever see the light of day?

At the end of last year, we published a collection of the work of earlier KCSP and PSP program participants. I do think, though, that it would be worthwhile to further report on these successes in additional works and publications.

Over these past few years, we have come into the collection of such a huge amount of information, that processing it will take a serious amount, perhaps even decades, of manpower, since every month the scholarship-holders send reports on their activities. I don’t think it would be a bad idea if Hungarian universities gave credit points for these scholarship requirements.

How do you view the future of the Kőrösi Csoma Sándor and Petőfi Sándor programs?

As far as the Kőrösi (KCSP) is concerned, I hope that we will be able to further raise the number of people we send out, with a special emphasis on Western Europe, particularly those areas where larger communities of Hungarians who chiefly emigrated for economic reasons exist. Within these communities, it would be worthwhile to concentrate on those children who, in our experience, return to Hungary after 6 or 7 years abroad. It is important that these children not lose their connection to Hungarian education, the Hungarian language, or Hungarian culture.

In terms of the Petőfi Program (PSP), we have to place an even greater emphasis on the needs of those living in minority communities. For the programs to grow, it will be important for the two programs to work ever more closely with educational dormitories in neighboring countries, as well as weekend Hungarian schools.

To what extent are recently emigrated Hungarians open to or willing to engage with program participants?

There are examples of these people becoming involved in the cultural life of their local Hungarian community, but that is not generally the case. Those who have left Hungary recently did not, in general, leave with the goal of preserving their traditions, but rather are interested in gaining a higher income as quickly as possible. There are many, who view it as ‘embarrassing’ to return to Hungary, because they feel it would be seen as being reflective of failure.

 

A slightly different topic: it is possible to say that the Hungarian government supports the establishment of Szekler autonomy [in Transylvania]?

The Hungarian government provides all the aid it can for the Szekler [Székely] people to achieve autonomy. Naturally, first and foremost this has to be desired by people there, by public opinion, as well as by Hungarian organizations. And, of course, Romanian public opinion and policy must accept it as well. I would add that autonomy for Szeklerland cannot be achieved without the support of the European Economic Community.

These efforts, then, have to be at such a level, that not only do these three steps need to occur at once, we must also have a response ready as well. The Hungarian government is working toward Szeklerland gaining territorial autonomy.

Why does this effort receive such little emphasis in the international press?

Perhaps we could do a better job of emphasizing this issue at the EU level. In Europe today, indigenous national minorities receive far less attention that migrants, even though their population—according to FUEN [the Federal Union of European Nationalities] data—is close to 100 million people on the continent as a whole. They should not be treated as a problem, but rather as an issue to be solved, which cannot be placed in the same category as migration, homosexuality, or feminism, as it often is.

The Saint Ladislaus [László] Year is already in its ninth month. This program has organized events in Győr, Nyitra, Krakow, Zagreb, and Nagyvárad (Oradea). Are you planning any similar ‘memorial years’ in the future?

It’s import to note that St. Ladislaus was one of the most important historical figures of 11th Europe, who—although comparing historical eras is by no means my bread and butter—played an important role in the formation of Central Europe, and was extremely influential in the development of relations between the ‘Visegrád’ countries [Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia]. For these countries, the person of Saint Ladislaus can be a unifying link, since his mother was Polish, and the name ‘Ladislav’ itself is of Slavic origins, and can be roughly translated as “the glory of the Slavs.” As King of Hungary, he established episcopal seats in Zagreb and Oradea, and in addition he is venerated as the patron saint of border guards.

The high-point of the memorial year was in Győr, on Saint Ladislaus’ birthday, July 27th. There a two-day session of conferences, pilgrimages, and processions were held. As of now, I don’t know if there will be a similar memorial year next year, but I have heard that many would like to see King Mathias chosen for such a commemoration.

 

Reporting by Balázs Horváth

Images by Vivien Cher Benkő

Translated by Tom Szigeti