Apart from the citizens of neighboring countries, few people are aware of the fact that there are millions of Hungarians living outside the borders of Hungary. We have spoken about the history and current challenges of the Hungarian minority, and that of wider global diaspora, with Árpád János Potápi, State Secretary for Hungarian Communities Abroad.
You are the State Secretary responsible for Hungarian Communities Abroad. Why do you need such a post in the government when Hungary is surrounded by democratic countries?
I deal with the issue of Hungarians living beyond Hungary’s borders. It is important to distinguish between Hungarians living in the diaspora and Hungarians living in the Carpathian Basin. By diaspora, we mean those Hungarian communities that have settled in different countries of the world as a result of historical events, political persecution or emigration.
Hungarians living in neighboring countries, on the other hand, are Hungarian communities living in the territory of historic Hungary, who have found themselves beyond the borders of present-day Hungary through no fault of their own, as a result of changing borders. The issue has existed since 1918-20, after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This process was finalized in the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, and since then the borders of the Hungarian nation and the borders of the country have not coincided entirely. There are currently about 5 million Hungarians who do not live in Hungary. Of these, about 2.5 million live in neighboring countries, and 2.5 million live outside the Carpathian Basin in the diaspora. Within the diaspora, the largest number of Hungarians, 1.6 million, live in the United States.
It is the duty of the Hungarian government of the day to care for Hungarians living beyond the country’s borders and to help preserve their national and cultural identity, whether here in the Carpathian Basin or overseas. This responsibility is also enshrined in our Fundamental Law. It was on this basis that we launched a policy to strengthen national cohesion in 2010, which has been going on uninterrupted ever since. We have drafted laws, created forums and launched programs to support Hungarians living beyond our borders. We have made it easier for Hungarians living abroad to obtain Hungarian citizenship, which has been a historic compensation, especially for Hungarians living in neighboring countries.
In recent years, there have been regular comments from nationalist and even liberal politicians in neighboring countries saying that the Orbán government is paying too much attention to the fate of the Hungarian minority in the surrounding regions, in other words, that it is interfering in their internal politics. Could this be a simple lack of understanding with regards to the Hungarian government’s ambitions, or could it be a sign of shortcomings in general political culture?
Every country has a different approach to the question of indigenous minorities. It is in our interest that the Hungarian institutional system should be strong in the Hungarian successor states. This includes educational, cultural, social, but also political institutions. This is necessary in order to enable Hungarians living beyond our borders to represent their interests. They must be represented in every sense proportionally to the size of communities, at political (parliamentary) level, as well as in the educational and cultural spheres. Nationalist parties do not always like this, but the majority of the successor states have accepted it. There are countries where coexistence has been successful, such as Serbia, where the process of historical reconciliation has been strong over the last decade and a half, and serious steps have been taken to clarify the past and accept each other’s views. In Romania, the largest party of Hungarians, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ), is a governing party, and has several ministers and state secretaries in the Romanian government. Unfortunately, it is sometimes unavoidable that some parties in neighboring countries play the Hungarian card before elections.
There is a war going on in a neighboring country, and the government has decided not to send or allow the transfer of arms to Ukraine in order to protect the Hungarian population against a possible Russian response. The leadership in Kiev makes no secret of the fact that it takes a dim view of this. But what consequences could this have for the fate of the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia?
The situation of national minorities in Ukraine has been steadily deteriorating since 2014-2015. Legislation has been passed that represents a step backwards even as compared with Soviet times. This has affected all national communities. The Hungarians have not been included in the category of indigenous peoples defined by the Ukrainian government, despite the fact that the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia has been living in the same place and on the same territory for a thousand years, while only the borders have changed around them.
The situation is still deteriorating today, I am thinking of the Ukrainian education law and the language law. A long list could be drawn up of the atrocities suffered by the Hungarian minority. The Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Sub-Carpathia’s (KMKSZ) headquarters were blown up twice, many Hungarian politicians there were constantly politically undermined, and the leader of the KMKSZ has been forced to live in Hungary for a year and a half now. And all these things happened before the war broke out.
However, when we try to talk about this, we are accused of being pro-Russian or pro-Putin. Nevertheless, even before the war, Hungarian politicians were banned from Ukraine, including myself.
Hungary is on the side of peace. Our aim is for the war to end as soon as possible, for the two sides to sit down together and start peace negotiations. The consequences of this war are disastrous for Europe. Our vital interest is that Hungarians living in Transcarpathia should be able to remain in their homeland. The longer this conflict drags on, the less likely that the Hungarians there will be able to stay in their homeland.
Hungary stands in solidarity with Ukraine, because Ukraine is the one suffering aggression. We were the first to react after the outbreak of the war and launched the largest humanitarian aid operation in Hungary’s history to help refugees from Ukraine. We provided assistance to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees arriving in, or passing through Hungary, to families, children, or anyone who asked for help. But we do not supply weapons because we firmly believe that they do not serve the goal of bringing peace, but the opposite: they prolong war.
The primary justification for the Ukrainian language law was apparently that it had been designed to integrate and assimilate the Russian population in Ukraine, which was and is seen by Ukrainian politicians as a destabilizing force. However, this law is applied indiscriminately against all other national minorities, too. Have Hungarians become the accidental victims of this language law?
At first we thought the same thing, that it was accidental. Since then, we know better because it was no accident that the KMKSZ headquarters were burnt down twice. When a man is hit on the head a hundred times, it is not a coincidence. It is in Hungary’s interest that Ukraine, our neighbor, should be a sovereign, balanced, democratic state governed by the rule of law, where national minorities, including the Hungarians of Transcarpathia, can live in peace and security in their homeland.
Hungarian-speaking people are also fighting on the Ukrainian-Russian front; do you think that their sacrifice and patriotism could entice the Kiev leadership to reconsider its discriminatory language and administrative provisions?
I do not think they really care, they do not even keep track of who is Hungarian. It does not reach the threshold of either politics or public opinion. We are talking about a war between two Slavic peoples, a conflict that Hungarians have nothing to do with. Meanwhile, the blood of Hungarian people is being spilled. For this reason alone, we have the right to say that peace is the only solution.
The Friends of Hungary Foundation, which runs our news portals, considers it one of its most important objectives to find friends and allies for our country and our people, not only in neighboring countries, but also in the wider world. Do you think it is important to make other peoples understand our specific values and national aspirations, or is it enough if we ourselves believe in them and keep going against the tide?
The most important thing is that we ourselves understand these values, in Hungary as in the rest of the world, and that the majority of people can identify with them. It is also very important that these values are understood by others, and the Hungarian minority in surrounding countries has a significant role to play in this. Recently, for example, we have seen many examples of social, family support or development programs that work well in Hungary being adopted in other countries. Hungarians living in the diaspora are ambassadors for our country, and it is through them that Hungarians get to know the Hungarian people all over the world. In recent years, there have been countless examples of Hungarians living in the diaspora or Hungarian organizations standing up for Hungary and its democratically elected government when our country has been the target of unfounded accusations. We owe them our thanks for this. We are confident that we will be able to strengthen this network of relations and the ties between the diaspora and the Hungarians of the motherland even more in the future.
Featured Photo: State Secretariat for Hungarian Communities Abroad