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“This Government Thinks in Terms of Nationality, not in Borders” – Interview with Péter Szilágyi

Miklós Halász-Szabó 2019.07.18.

“The main purpose of our Policy for Hungarian communities abroad is to keep Hungarians living in these countries in their homeland, to prevail there and to preserve their Hungarian identities.”, claims Péter Szilágyi, the ministerial commissioner responsible for Hungarian communities abroad. Trianon means something different to a Hungarian than to a Romanian or Slovakian but Szilágyi thinks that Hungary could make them understand why 2020 – the 100th anniversary of Trianon – will become a memorial year so they would accept the decision. Also, the Hungarian parliament’s almost unanimous support of the proposal shows that this was a national decision. The Hungarian commissioner also states that they want to turn the Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin and the Diaspora into a resource, and the ‘Year of National Cohesion’ will also be all about this.

By an overwhelming majority, the Parliament has voted for 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Trianon Peace Treaty, in other words, the Trianon Dictate, as the ‘Year of National Cohesion’. What does this mean for the policy for Hungarian communities abroad?

This is another opportunity to better connect the 15 million Hungarians, and at the end of the memorial year, let all Hungarians know what really happened in Trianon. The fact that almost a hundred percent of the Parliament have stood behind 2020 as the ‘Year of National Cohesion,’ demonstrates that this is a national decision. The Memorial Year will also be part of a series of programs we hope the State Secretariat for Hungarian Communities Abroad will play a key role in organizing.

The fact that the name is the ‘Year of National Cohesion’ suggests that it is not a Trianon centenary mourning year.

Even on the National Day of Cohesion, we tried to emphasize that, although we mourn on the anniversary of the Trianon decision over what happened to Hungary on June 4th, the day is also a good time to express that we Hungarians are still made up of 15 million people, even one hundred years later, and that we belong together. From this we can draw strength for the future.

What are the programs being planned?

We will decide on specific programs later, but we are sure to involve beyond-border Hungarian organizations in the design and development process.

Shortly after the Hungarian Parliament declared 2020 the ‘Year of National Cohesion’, Romania stressed its concerns. Did you expect some countries to react in this way?

Even before that, Slovakia had already expressed its displeasure.

Unfortunately, in the matters of the policy for Hungarian communities abroad, old-mindedness, and ‘Little Entente-like’ thinking is still present.”

Yet there are historical figures who could connect nations as there is much in common in our past. Of course, Trianon obviously means something different to a Hungarian than to a Romanian or Slovakian. I trust that if we can make them understand what the memorial year and the events are about, then they will accept the decision.

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Especially true in the Carpathian Basin, the efforts of the policy for Hungarian communities abroad are in opposition to the representatives of the majority nations – while the leadership of the given country is also an ally of the Hungarian government in certain European affairs. How can the policy for Hungarian communities abroad be effective under such circumstances, as the two are simultaneously important to the Hungarian government?

I think that the work we started with the policy for Hungarian communities abroad in 2010 – education, culture, church support – was accepted by these countries. We have also received the support of the leaders of the respective countries for the billions of Euros worth of economic development programs, whether it be in Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, or Slovakia. These programs are often favorable for the majority nation. We didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, we played with open cards.

But there is no doubt that we could not reach an agreement on some issues, such as the nationality law in Slovakia, or about the law on language and education in Ukraine.”

How do the tools in place for the policy for Hungarian communities abroad differ when it comes to the Carpathian Basin as opposed to the Diaspora Hungarians?

Ten million Hungarians live in the motherland, another two and a half million beyond the national borders in the Carpathian Basin, and about two and a half million Hungarians in the diaspora, mostly in North America. Although many of them no longer speak Hungarian, or are less likely to practice the customs, the American and Canadian censuses still make it clear that they are of Hungarian origin.

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Hungarians went abroad in several waves: first between the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, and later on, decades after Trianon. Subsequently, after World War II during the Communist takeover, during the 1956 Revolution, and later dissidents who left the country. The fourth wave started after the regime change and after our accession to the European Union, at this point legally. Of course, we have to address them differently.

The main difficulty Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin have had to face is the political leaders of the majority nations trying to take away their identity and assimilate them. They were often in a bad spot financially. The diaspora’s Hungarians were generally better off financially, but they were more concerned that they were far from their roots. How much do you pay attention to these things when designing the programs?

The people living in the diaspora built well-functioning communities in the 20th century: civil organizations, churches, newspapers, Hungarian Houses, folk dance groups, and scouting organizations. Their spirit is also different, as are their material circumstances. The Diaspora’s Hungarians had a harder time retaining their language and culture than the Hungarians living in the Carpathian Basin, even if in case of the latter group, the leadership of the successor states had been trying to make their lives more difficult.

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However, they could freely experience their Hungarian identities. The Diaspora Hungarians who were forced to live abroad due to communism and firmly held on to their culture, are today more of an older age group. This is why it is important, for example, that within the framework of the Memory Project, under the leadership of Réka Pigniczky and Andrea Lauer, and the collaboration with the scholars of the Kőrösi program, that they do interviews with ’56-ers. For their work they were awarded a special prize from the Friends of Hungary Foundation last year. It is a challenge to find someone to take over the place of this generation in the leadership of the Hungarian communities. For this reason, we are also supporting a lot of programs for young people in the diaspora. This is the reason we send young people with the Kőrösi program to build relationships with young people of Hungarian origin living there.

That is why the diaspora camping program exists in which – together with the Rákóczi Association – brings thousands of young people to Hungary every year.”

Through the ReConnect Hungary program, we are addressing second- and third-generation Hungarians who do not, or hardly speak Hungarian, but are still familiar with their origins. We bring them home for two weeks to get to know Hungarian culture better and to take them to the settlements where their ancestors came from. In addition, at the end of the program, as compensation, they work for a Hungarian organization, and report on their journey in the community.

 In 2013, the Mikes Kelemen Program was launched to save valuable Hungarian artifacts ​​from disappearing, which might otherwise possibly end up in a junkyard. Many rarities and specialties have been saved this way, for example XVI-XVII. century artworks, Endre Szász’s drawings, and photographs of Mindszenty taken during his visit to Australia – these were placed in the National Széchenyi Library and the Hungarian National Archives. More than half the books that were found in Hungary were sent to Hungarian communities beyond the border. We support civil organizations, churches, folk dance groups, weekend schools, scout troops, and we have created the Hungarian Diaspora Council to bring the leaders of the organizations to Hungary every year- to be informed about what is happening at home, and allowing them to say what they’d like to achieve with the support of the government. In addition, our long-term goal is to create a Diaspora Center so that Hungarians and visitors to Hungary learn about the rich culture and achievements of the people living in the diaspora.

What are the most important programs for Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin?

The main purpose of our policy for Hungarian communities abroad is to keep Hungarians living in these countries in their homeland, to prevail there and to preserve their Hungarian identities. Accordingly, we have built the program so that Hungarian origin is an advantage from birth.

One of the most important programs is the long existing educational and child-rearing support, to which 5 billion forints is given each year to the families of approximately 250,000 Hungarian children. This means that once a year, the families of all Hungarian children who have already been enrolled in the Hungarian institutions by their parents since nursery school, will receive HUF 22,400. For example, in the Transcarpathian region it equals one month’s minimum wage.

It is also important to have a proper cultural institutional system and to have Hungarian intellectuals in place – this is a key to survival. We also support churches because it is also important to Hungarians. We have launched major economic development programs to improve those regions where the Hungarian population lives.

In addition, since 2012, the State Secretariat has been announcing thematic years: in the first years these were focused on education, and from 2015 onwards, we supplemented the economic and business issues with the added economic development package. Last year and this year we announced the year of foreign Hungarian families and children.

The goal is for more and more children to be born abroad, just like in Hungary.”

Since Trianon, perhaps the most important step is the Carpathian Basin Nursery School Development Program, to give every parent the opportunity to enroll their child in a Hungarian institution in the Carpathian Basin. This means building 150 new institutions and making over 450 renovations.

You mentioned a number of programs, but if we look at the Hungarian budget, we see that the proportion of resources for the policy for Hungarian communities abroad is not high at all.

That’s right. Approximately one hundred billion forints out of a budget of about 18,000 billion per year are spent on beyond-border purposes. This is an amount of around 0.55%, which, for such a large amount, could be a margin of error for the Ministry of Finance compared to the total budget. Diaspora subsidies amount to about two billion forints, which is really not much in percentage terms.

Generally, the usual question about the support of the policy for Hungarian communities abroad is why the Hungarian state should even spend on Hungarians living beyond the border, who are citizens of another country – but we could also ask if it is even possible to make effective policy for Hungarian communities abroad with this much money.

The answer to the first question is that the government that took office in 2010 made it clear that they think in terms of nationality, not in borders.

Every Hungarian, should they live anywhere in the world, is a member of the Hungarian nation.”

By facilitating the admission of citizenship, we have also created the legal opportunity for this, and as a result, the number of Hungarians with Hungarian citizenship has grown by one million.

If we look at the resource for the policy for Hungarian communities abroad currently in process, then we see that this amount has been doubled since 2010, when only about 10 billion forints were spent on this goal. Today’s money is enough for us that if we find good programs and distribute them well, in consultation with the beyond-border Hungarians, the policy for Hungarian communities abroad can be successful. The results also confirm this: more children have been enrolled in Hungarian schools in Slovakia for the current school year than in recent periods. In the Transcarpathian region, there is a renaissance of Hungarian language and education never seen before: even the Ukrainians and other nationalities living there are going to Hungarian schools because they see what developments have been made and with Hungarian knowledge, one can succeed. In Transylvania and in Vojvodina, large-scale developments have also been launched.

During the emigration waves, events that happened many decades ago are usually named as the reason for leaving the country, but hundreds of thousands have gone to live abroad in the past decade and a half since the accession to the EU. How are you trying to prevent them or their children and grandchildren from losing their Hungarian roots?

Indeed, many Hungarians have gone abroad, mainly to Western Europe since our EU accession. However, in their case, they have a livelier relationship with Hungary, their relatives; their friends live here, they can come home at any time, and many children as a private student take their Hungarian school exams. In their case, there is no separation, as there was among the ‘56-ers. In addition, they are often involved in the life of foreign Hungarian communities, or they create their own organizations.

From the figures we see that recently more and more people are returning home.”

The division of the Hungarian people is usually seen as a tragedy. Couldn’t the fact that a third of 15 million Hungarians living in other countries become a resource?

Yes, it could. This, like in the case of other nations – just think of the Jews, the Irish, or the Armenians – could be a strength indeed. Whether it would be lobbying power in the countries concerned in the affairs of Hungarians, or reinforcement through the success stories of Hungarians living abroad. We want to turn the Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin and the Diaspora into a resource, and the ‘Year of National Cohesion’ will also be all about this.

Translation by Péter Cseresnyés/Hungary Today

Photos by Zita Merényi/ Hungary Today