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A New Dawn? The Impact of the Aleksandar Vučić Era on the Hungarian Community in Serbia

The key role of Aleksandar Vučić in the Strengthening of Hungary-Serbia Relations and in Improving the Situation of the Hungarian Minority in Vojvodina

As a result of the Yugoslav wars, Serbia became a very complex country in the 1990s. Great tensions accumulated in the Western Balkan country that lost four consecutive wars over the course of that decade. Among these we must highlight the breakup of an existing federal republic (Yugoslavia), the huge number of refugees all over the Balkans, and all of Serbia’s territorial losses, particularly the loss of the southern province of Kosovo, the so-called “Heart of Serbia”. After the NATO air strikes in 1999, the country went into a serious political and economic crisis. A year later all this led to a rally against Slobodan Milosevic, which reached its peak during the so-called “October Revolution” on 5 October 2000. In addition to political and economic crises, the name of the country has itself changed several times, reflecting a series of territorial losses. The name Serbia, the official name of the ex-Yugoslav republic, has only been in use since 2006. In contrast to the region’s other post-socialist republics, in Serbia democratic changes took place with a ten-year delay, changes which involved a revolution against the dictatorial regime of Slobodan Milosevic. During the war years (1991-1999), many ethnic Hungarians in Serbia were forced to leave their homeland, most of them to escape military service. Roughly 50,000 ethnic Hungarians left during this period (In the early 1990s there were 300,000 Hungarians in Serbia; today their number is estimated to be between 200,000 and 250,000.)

Ethnic Hungarians in Serbia live mainly in the northern part of the province of Vojvodina, close to the Hungarian border (map by Vladimir Varjacic, 2002)
Ethnic Hungarians in Serbia live mainly in the northern part of the province of Vojvodina, close to the Hungarian border (map by Vladimir Varjacic, 2002)

Unfortunately, from the beginning of the 2000s, the new political situation that developed in Serbia was not as favorable as many Serbs had envisioned. The economic recovery was much slower than expected, and even public services were lagging: the series of blackouts in the early 2000s was also due to the poorly performing economy. This difficult situation was exacerbated by the fact that the elected Serbian president, Zoran Đinđić, was assassinated in 2003. During the wars, and in the post-war period, many Serbian refugees moved from the South to the Hungarian-populated northern areas of the country. The prevailing Serbian state leadership of the time greatly contributed to this process, while the Hungarian minority parties and the Hungarian government’s diplomatic efforts had little ability to defend their interests. They both did not know how to react and get involved in the process. Unfortunately, from the middle of 2000 to the years 2012-2013, multiple acts of ethnic violence were perpetrated against Hungarians. The main reason behind this was top-level political aggression against the Hungarian minority. The Serbian refugees, who suffered from some sort of “war syndrome”, were easy to provoke with anti-Hungarian slogans, especially before elections. The verbal and physical violence against local Hungarians had several waves, and one of the highlights was “the case of the Temerin boys” on 26 June 2004. In 2008, many attacks against Hungarians occurred as a form of reprisal after Kosovo become an independent state. After several countries recognized the independence of Kosovo, a series of demonstrations began, which also led to fatal tensions in Belgrade. There were several protests against the Hungarian Consulate in Szabadka (Subotica) as well as against symbolic Western companies, such as McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. The dangerous situation of the Hungarian minority has been examined by a European Union Special Committee for years.

The cultural and intellectual capital of ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina is the city of Subotica – Town hall (photo: szecesszio.szegedvaros.hu)
The cultural and intellectual capital of ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina is the city of Subotica –pictured here is its Town Hall (photo: szecesszio.szegedvaros.hu)

The great breakthrough came after the 2010 elections in Hungary. However, conflicts between Hungarians and Serbs did not disappeared completely, but remained until 2012-2013. Major changes appeared, first in the field of diplomacy, and few years later in the economy as well. One of the first political actions of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010 was to introduce dual citizenship for Hungarians around the world. This was a historic move, not just for the inhabitants of the Carpathian Basin, but also for the Hungarians in the diaspora. The two countries started the reconciliation process diplomatically, coming to terms with the WWII-era tragedies on both sides. This was followed by closer economic cooperation, particularly since 2014, the year when Aleksandar Vučić became prime minister of Serbia. He played a key role in improving cooperation. Vučić has been involved in Serbian politics since the early 1990s. He has served in several ministerial positions as well as former Deputy Prime Minister. In the 1990s, Vučić, a multi-language speaker, was a Serbian Radical Party member and a good friend and a close colleague of far-right leader Vojislav Šešelj.

Aleksandar Vučić with Vojislac Šešelj in the mid-1990s in the Serbian Parliament (photo: balkanekspresrb.rs)
Aleksandar Vučić with Vojislac Šešelj in the mid-1990s in the Serbian Parliament (photo: balkanekspresrb.rs)

The Serbian Progressive Party was established from within the Serbian Radical Party in 2008, pursuing a much more Europe-oriented policy. The breakup took place when Šešelj was kept in the Hague prison, being accused of genocide and other war crimes during the Yugoslav wars. In fact, Šešelj was never dismissed from party leadership and remained the president of the Serbian Radical Party, controlling party affairs. He was released in 2014, because the court failed to prove the charges against him. Šešelj has always considered his old party fellows as traitors for entering the new party. In the presidential election of 2017, Šešelj also ran for the office, competing with Vučić. Vojislav Šešelj’s role was important because he incited hatred against the national minorities in wartime and after. (Interestingly, the success of Viktor Orbán’s ‘nation-building’ policy is also acknowledged by Vojislav Seselj.)

A campaign that would have been unimaginable a few years ago: Vučić, Pásztor and Orbán . The caption, in both Hungarian and Serbian, reads "(source: Facebook)
A campaign that would have been unimaginable a few years ago: Vučić, Pásztor and Orbán .
The caption, in both Hungarian and Serbian, reads “Our candidate will be the president of all residents of Serbia (source: Facebook)

Today, the approach of the Hungarian and Serbian people to each other is visible and rather successful. In modern history, relations between the two countries have never been as good as they are now. In fact, there are 6 different Hungarian parties in Vojvodina, but the strongest is the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (VMSZ), headed by István Pásztor. The party is a strong ally of Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian government and also a coalition partner of Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian government, playing an important buffer role between the two sides. Hungary grants huge amounts of money to ethnic Hungarian living in minority in Serbia. This amount may reach HUF 50 billion, despite the fact that the development program is still in an experimental phase. This Vojvodina model can be an example to follow for other Hungarians communities in the Carpathian Basin. The main purpose is to prevent the emigration of Hungarians from Vojvodina. The money the Hungarian government provides mainly benefits those who earn their living from agriculture. Due to good diplomatic relations, the Serbian government is not willing to set up any legal obstacles, neither against the financial support, nor against dual citizenship. Furthermore, Serbia has also benefited from Hungarian funding, because it boosts the country’s economy as well. The attacks against Hungarians in Vojvodina have completely disappeared in recent years as a result of improving relations. The cooperation is so close that, before the recent presidential election, the Hungarian Foreign Minister visited Serbia to campaign for Aleksandar Vučić.

The President of Serbia is elected for a five-year term in a two-round procedure that is similar to the French system. The incumbent President – Tomislav Nikolić – is also a founding member of the Serbian Progressive Party. His term is scheduled to expire on 31 May 2017. Vučić has been criticized in the past decades over his attitude towards the Muslim minority during the South Slav wars; however, he now seeks peace with all minorities. He received a lot of votes from the Bosnian and Hungarian minorities in the presidential elections held on 2 April 2017. Thanks to extensive international support, he was able to win the first round, receiving an absolute majority (56%) of the votes, making a second round of voting unnecessary. (There were 11 candidates in total; however, apart from Vučić, no one gained more than 20% of the vote. The runner-up, Saša Janković, got just 16.2%.)

The question now is, why has Vučić maneuvered himself into the Presidency, when the Prime Minister has more power and influence in Serbian politics than the President? Vučić himself claims that he did not want to be involved in the parliamentary elections any more. However, there are two opinions in this regard: 1.) There was a shortage of strong candidates, and he was a well-known party member to take up the role of President 2.) He wants to introduce a kind of presidential system, such as we can see in progress in Turkey. In the near future, we will certainly see what Vučić’s political intentions are. This may be reflected in political reforms as well as in personal changes. We do not even know yet who Vučić’s candidate for Prime Minister will be. Although there are speculations in the media, it will be revealed only in early June.

Serbian presidental elections on 2 April 2017 (photo: efe.com)
Serbian presidential elections on 2 April 2017 (photo: efe.com)

Today’s improving relationship between the Hungarians and the Serbs can be also seen from a broader perspective. In terms of the economy, we can see the construction of the China-funded fast railway link between the two countries’ capitals. The megaproject, which is scheduled to start in 1-2 years, will deliver Chinese goods through the Balkans to Middle and Western Europe. As part of the project, a completely electrified railway track will be built between Budapest and Belgrade. Another field of cooperation is culture: this year the famous synagogue of Szabadka (Subotica) will be completely refurbished. There is also progress in religious cooperation: the Trinity statue has been restored in a city populated mostly by Orthodox Serb and Catholic Hungarians. Hungary has power to promote Serbia’s accession to the European Union. Therefore, a new border crossing point will be built in the near future between the two countries. The Hungarians of Vojvodina can be seen as the main winners of the friendly relationship between Serbia and Hungary, since after the war years a new economic upswing has begun, which brings much-needed peace and prosperity for the region. The good relations seem to be long-lasting because, of the two countries’ political stability, which may also pave the way for more deeply rooted relations between Serbia and the other Visegrád Four countries as well.

by Dániel Gerlovics

About the author:

Dániel Gerlovics was born in Szabadka (Subotica), Serbia in 1991 to an ethnic Hungarian family. Today he lives in Sopron, Hungary and studies political sciences at the University of Vienna, Austria. His main field of interests are foreign policy and security policy in Central and Eastern Europe.