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The Hungary Today team have sat down with the Head of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Minority Rights (KJI) and Director of the Hungarian Atlantic Council György Csóti for an interview. The former politician has been involved in minority rights protection for decades, we have asked him to share his experience with our readers.
– How does an engineer become a politician dealing with Hungarian minorities beyond the borders? Please outline your career in politics, with particular reference to your commitment to national policy.
When I was about eleven or so, I found a book in my father’s library entitled “The Clock has Struck, the Story of the Trianon Peace Treaty.” This was the beginning of my commitment to Hungarians abroad. Gyula Illyés’ “Reply to Herder and Ady”, published in two parts at the turn of 1978 and 1979, made me realize that something had to be done for our minorities. In the 1980s, I started to visit Transylvania regularly, five or six times a year, with my family, and there I met Zoltán Kallós, an ethnographer, with whom I was good friends until his death. He sent me to see the writer Sándor Csoóri, because Csoóri was already banned from Transylvania. This is how I became a courier between the intellectuals of the town of Cluj in Romania and Sándor Csoóri. Csoóri invited me to the Hungarian Democratic Forum in September 1988, and I became a full-time politician at the request of Prime Minister József Antall (1990-93).
At the outbreak of the 1956 revolution, at the age of 16, I was already there on the first day of the Bem Square demonstration in Budapest. Much later on, between 1990 and 1998, as a Member of Parliament, I dealt almost exclusively with foreign, security and national policy. From 1999 to 2003 I was ambassador in Zagreb, Croatia. From 2005 to 2011 I was a national policy presenter on television and from 2010 I was a foreign policy advisor to the President of the Republic for one and a half years.
Between 2015 and 2022 I was appointed head of the Institute for Minority Rights (KJI). The institute deals with the legal protection of Hungarians living abroad. It provides free professional and financial support to any individual, group or institution in judicial and administrative proceedings if they suffer a violation of their rights because of being Hungarians, or are perceived to be Hungarians. My current main activity is to chair the Hungarian Atlantic Council.
– In the light of the latest census data from Romania and Serbia, how would you assess the situation of Hungarians abroad? Is the dramatic population decline bringing the Herder prophecy closer to being fulfilled?
Census data must be treated in their proper place. I do not want to start from the seemingly cynical quote of Churchill, who once said, “I believe only in the statistics I falsify myself.” But the former British Prime Minister has a point. The figures for Romania and Serbia should also be assessed with caution. Not everyone is declaring their nationality, out of calculation, fear or other reasons. So the absolute number is certainly higher by 10-20 percent. But the trend is an alarming warning, because ten years ago we had the same circumstances as regards the reliability of the data. The danger of Herder’s prophecy being fulfilled will finally disappear where and when the indigenous Hungarian national minorities are granted state co-ethnic status or effective and full autonomy. By full autonomy I mean one or a combination of territorial, cultural and personal forms of autonomy. There are many living examples of both within and outside the European Union.
– Last year the European Commission decided not to take any steps towards a new EU legislation to protect national and linguistic minorities. However, the post-WWII Benes Decress can continue to be part of Czech and Slovak law. How can the Minority Rights Institute, which you run, effectively support Hungarians abroad in such a headwind?
I ran the Institute for seven years, my mandate expired last summer, and since then I have only been the deputy chairman of the board of trustees of the Minority Rights Foundation, which provides the background for the KJI. That said, I can give you a substantive answer. In the first instance, I am accountable for compliance with the laws in force in the country concerned and with the principles of minority protection enshrined in international treaties in court proceedings and administrative procedures. For there are such laws and regulations, even if they are weak, but they are not respected either, and are being violated repeatedly, especially in Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. We are losing some of these cases, but we are taking some of them to the international arena, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg.
– Since the Institute was founded, which areas have been the most successful? What are the successor states where you had the most success in protecting minority rights?
In the areas of the use of the mother tongue, the use of national symbols, physical abuse, discrimination on the basis of nationality. The latter includes the tens of thousands of Hungarians excluded from the scope of the 2003 Slovak Compensation Act, the majority of whom were expelled from their homeland by the Benes decrees. Although these cases are very difficult to start, official positions from the European Commission suggest that they are likely to succeed. The situation is similar for restitution cases in Transylvania and to a lesser extent in Vojvodina.
In Austria, they do not need special protection, although our Austrian friends do not recognize the collective rights of Hungarians living in the territories annexed to them. In Slovenia and Croatia, they are constitutional elements of the state, although there are grievances here too. In these three countries there are basically no major problems. In Serbia, cultural autonomy is emerging and the rights of minorities are recognized, but there is still much to be done.
In Romania and Slovakia, there is a clear tendency among the politicians of the majority nation to force Hungarians living in the territories annexed to them 103 years ago to assimilate or emigrate. These two countries are characterized by a high degree of national disenfranchisement, poor legal protection and serial discrimination. In these two neighbors, there are “subtle means” to eradicate the Hungarian national community, but there is scope for legal protection and resistance. In Ukraine, on the other hand, national minorities are persecuted with brutal methods. Over the past eight years, they have been gradually deprived of the use of their mother tongue in all areas of life except private life, their national symbols are banned, their historical and cultural monuments are destroyed, and they are subjected to terrorist attacks and assassination attempts. Their situation cries out for help from international organizations. For my part, at the beginning of February, I sent an open letter to the UN Human Rights Council with 900 signatures of support. No response has yet been received.
To what extent does the Hungarian government’s policy of looking after national interests in the European Union and the way it is perceived affect your work?
Our work is less affected because the KJI works within the existing national and international legal framework. The problem is that ‘big politics’ finds it difficult to lobby European organizations to promote minority rights in our neighbors because of the limited international lobbying possibilities. We are not getting enough support. Yet we want nothing more than to give minority Hungarians the rights that exist in many EU and non-EU countries. But governments in any parliamentary democracy have no choice but to represent national interests everywhere. This is what they are empowered to do by the electorate.
FactIn 1791, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder published his Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, in the fourth part of which he formulated his only but dismaying statistical “prediction” for the Hungarian people. Its wording: “There they are now among Slavs, Germans, Vlachs and other peoples the smaller part of the country’s inhabitants, and after centuries their language will perhaps hardly be found.” This statement has occupied the outstanding personalities of Hungarian intellectual life ever since.
– Please describe for our readers the course of a minority rights procedure, from the time of the visit to the Institute to the hopefully happy outcome.
We operate about two dozen permanent legal aid offices in the annexed territories. These offices are staffed by lawyers, advocates and civil legal aid lawyers who provide free legal advice and assistance to those who have suffered legal harm because of their being Hungarians or being perceived as Hungarians. Court cases and administrative proceedings are funded by submitting an application to the Institute. The Foundation’s Board of Trustees evaluates the applications and decides on the financial support. We work with local lawyers in all cases, but in many cases lawyers from Budapest are involved to advise on the work if proceedings are likely to end up in international courts. We discuss successes and failures at a major conference in Budapest at the end of each year, because there are mutual lessons to be learned from both. Our services are widely distributed throughout the Carpathian Basin and all information is available on our website (www.kji.hu).
Via Ungarn Heute, interview by Ferenc Rieger. Featured Image: Courtesy of György Csóti