The Rákóczi Association was founded exactly 30 years ago. By now, it has become one of the most significant organisations to connect and help Hungarians worldwide to preserve their culture, language, and identity. ‘Hungary Today’ had the chance to sit down with the Association’s president, Csongor Csáky.
Before the regime change, communists ignored beyond-border Hungarians. How bad was the situation of these communities in that period?
Unquestionably, after the regime change, Hungary faced a serious deficit in the aspect of the relationship towards Hungarians living beyond the borders. During the communist period, in education and in public life, it was forbidden to say that the actual borders were not the same as the borders of the Hungarian language and culture. This meant that it was impossible to talk about Hungarians living in foreign regions, their fate, and obviously, keeping contact with them was also limited.
How did the idea of the Association’s creation arise?
All the founders were already living in Hungary but with close ties to the Felvidék region (Upland or Upper Hungary), so they were in one way or another affected by the Beneš decrees.
They all were basically often in one another’s company at a café in that very interesting year of 1989,
when it was finally possible to talk about all those topics regarded forbidden or taboo beforehand, such as Hungarians beyond the borders.
This topic then quickly attracted those who could identify with the goals, including József Halzl, who, as the head of Hungarian Electrical Works (MVM), was an important player in the Hungarian economy at that time.
What kind of tools did the Association have in the initial period, 30 years ago?
Very limited options. It was first a Hungarian Benedictine monk living in the US, who put $100,000 on the table. Needless to say, this was a lot of money at that time and meant a lot in the first steps.
You yourself were born in Felvidék – did you experience any discrimination personally, as a Hungarian?
That’s right, I grew up some 80 km from Budapest in the Ipolyság region (Sahy). I was 10 years old when reality first hit me in the face. We were talking on the street with my schoolmates when someone told us “not to speak Hungarian here.”
This was when I first realized that I was a second-class citizen in that country.
Was this why you joined the Association?
No, an encounter with the Rákóczi Association’s former, iconic chairman József Halzl proved decisive in my case. I went to university in Budapest and at the fifth class during a seminar trip I had the chance to meet him.
What do you think are the Rákóczi Association’s most important programs?
Basically, one can imagine the Rákóczi Association as a network, an umbrella organization, with two main focus areas.
One is those Hungarian families beyond the borders, who have a Hungarian institution available close to them.
We seek to encourage these families to choose a Hungarian school for their child(ren), to make them realize the importance of this both for the kids and the community.
By now, it has become a diverse program; essentially we “map” newborn children, so that between the ages of 3 and 6, when parents are to make the decision, we try to convince them with thoughts, arguments, and smaller gestures, gifts.
The second most important element of our activity is addressing the youth. We try to create as many opportunities as possible to drive youth to realize that although they don’t live in the same country, they belong to the same Hungarian culture, language, and nation, which they shouldn’t renounce. At the same time,
our priority is to make them experience the strength and potential of cooperation and the power of the community.
In addition, three years ago, the Diaspora Program was also kick-started, thanks to the Hungarian Diaspora Council’s initiative, and the commission of the government. As a result, approximately 1,000 young people have the chance to visit Hungary every year in the representation of the diaspora, and to engage in programs aimed to reinforce their identity and attachment to Hungarians.
How big is the interest for the latter?
In the first two years, it was a great challenge for us to find, address, and build trust in the potentially affected youngsters. However, by now, we managed to reach and even exceed the yearly limit.
Important to note that beside Budapest, visitors also go to the countryside, in addition to one of the Hungarian regions beyond the borders.
How difficult is it for beyond-border Hungarians to keep their Hungarian identity?
First of all, I think that in the Carpathian Basin, there is no need to worry anymore -apart from unique, isolated cases- about physical atrocities. In general, Hungarian communities live in peace now.
The greatest threat these communities face is assimilation.
On the one hand, many left their birthplace over the last 30 years. On the other, those who stay are increasingly exposed to the abandonment of language, culture, and identity.
Despite all these, a positive trend can also be observed currently, as Hungary has undoubtedly gained a positive “vibe” enabling many to draw strength from.
In your opinion, why isn’t it obvious for the neighboring countries that Hungarians want to preserve their identity?
This is a complex issue. Over the past 100 years, the neighboring countries were interested in forming a homogeneous nation state by assimilating minorities. As a result, after World War I, the “minority problem” was sought to be resolved by various means, which, unfortunately, often included violence and deportation.
We, on the contrary, are set to strengthen the local Hungarian communities, prevent them from assimilation, so there is a kind of counter-interest with the majority nations. At the same time, we deem it extremely important to practice peaceful gestures towards the peoples of neighboring countries.
The fact that there is still a Hungarian majority in the Carpathian Basin as a whole, that in Felvidék, Slovakia, the proportion of Hungarians nears 10%, and that we didn’t disappear completely from Délvidék, Serbia is a miracle.
In which neighboring country is it the worst for the local Hungarian community’s situation right now?
Objectively, based on social, economic, and predictability aspects, in Transcarpathia.
However, if we look at where Hungarians are more exposed to give up culture or identity, the answer is no longer so clear and there are other parts of the Carpathian Basin where local Hungarians are more prone to assimilation.
You actively took part in the Minority Safepack signature drive. Why is that important?
Minority Safepack is undoubtedly a pioneer initiative, as it draws the European Union’s attention to the fact that it includes more than 50 million people who although belonging to indigenous communities, are in the minority in their countries. It seeks to draw attention to the rights of these people and call on the Union to finally create EU-level laws.
Do you see a chance that the European Union would raise the priority of minority issues?
Along with the FUEN’s representatives, we hope that the EU institutions, now with a new composition, will gain a better understanding of this issue, which would eventually be reflected in the legislation too.
The Association’s good relationship with the governing alliance is apparent, while with other parties it’s not so visible. Why is that?
The Rákóczi Association has been operating since 1989, with unchanged purposes and values since the very beginning. There were governments who valued this mission less and there were those who appreciated it more.
Undoubtedly, the current government’s national policies make it clear that those beyond the borders and the diaspora are important, and they want to help them on a systemic level. Obviously, we are pleased with this and it makes our work with them easier.
It is important, however, that as a civil organization, we don’t support any political parties. On the contrary,
we are open to cooperate with anyone else who shares our goals.
Looking back on the past 30 years, what is the Association’s biggest success?
Perhaps, that events over the past three decades haven’t derailed it; on the contrary, it has grown and expanded both in terms of membership and programs. Also, there has always been support behind it that made this possible.
What do you consider is the biggest challenge for the next 30 years?
I think the Association’s foundations have been laid down, and there is no need to change them. The biggest challenge at the moment is to reach out and find those young people who can take this mission further and to find new means and structures needed to effectively obtain our goals.
images: Attila Lambert/ Hungary Today