Budapest seeks to strengthen ethnic ties that bind

Next year, 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians in nearby countries will gain the right to work in Hungary.

History casts long shadows in Central Europe, and today the past is presenting modern Hungary with a curious dilemma.

When this country of 10 million joins the wealthy European Union (EU) in the coming years - perhaps as early as 2004 - it will "leave behind" more than 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians living in poorer neighboring countries that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In June, the Hungarian parliament overwhelmingly passed the so-called status law, which, beginning next year, will give ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, and Croatia the right to work in Hungary, as well as receive social, health, and education benefits.

In a continent striving to overcome nationalism and borders, the new Hungarian law brings into focus a debate across Europe regarding the role - and significance - of national identity.

Skeptics say the law is a throwback to 19th-century nationalism that, ironically, could end up endangering, rather than benefiting, the Hungarian minorities in question. Romania, with a significant Hungarian minority in Transylvania, has called the bill discriminatory and incompatible with European laws on minorities. Romanian nationalists, who nearly took Romania's presidency last year, are finding new ammunition in the prospect of ethnic Hungarians receiving economic advantages over Romanians.

Still, Karoly Gruber of Budapest's Office for Hungarians abroad, maintains: "It is a constitutional duty for any Hungarian government to care about Hungarians abroad." He stresses, however: "We do not say that we are their political representatives. We think that they are citizens of different states and should be loyal to them. But these two affiliations - the one to the host state and the one to the 'cultural nation' - are not contradictory."

"The main goal of the status law is to help them preserve their cultural and national identity in the homeland," says Mr. Gruber. "We don't want to bring them into Hungary. We want to achieve that all [Hungarian] minorities would be content in the country that they live."

Large numbers of ethnic Hungarians have been living outside Hungary's borders since the end of World War I, when the Allies broke up the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire.

Even today the 1920 Trianon Treaty, under which Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and 60 percent of its population, remains somewhat of a national trauma. Just this month, a monument commemorating the peace treaty was unveiled in southern Hungary.

"Hungarians clearly have in their memory that they lost their brothers at this time. This is the feeling behind [the status law]. The problem is that we live in the 21st century," says Alain Bothorel, counselor with the European Commission in Budapest. "Doing things like this revives old feelings. Coming back to ethnic issues is not good for this region."

While many European countries provide support to ethnic minorities residing beyond national borders, it is generally limited to cultural and educational assistance.

Under the status law, Hungarians living in neighboring countries will be able to work legally in Hungary three months each year. In the past decade, ethnic Hungarians, particularly from impoverished Transylvania, have been working illegally here, often as construction laborers, tolerated as second-class guests even as they have dug the foundations for Hungary's economic boom.

The EU's Mr. Bothorel sees pitfalls, saying, "Once you focus on employment and social-security benefits, you're applying some sort of extra-territoriality to your own law. And you can't do that."

The Hungarian government counters that most of the status law's benefits apply to the territory of Hungary. To obtain benefits, a person in a neighboring country will have to apply for a special identity card.

"The most problematic part of the status law is to give a kind of legal document to people who are citizens of another country," says Ferenc Koszeg, chairman of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization. Furthermore, he says the question of who is Hungarian cannot readily be defined. "It's a question nobody can answer," says Koszeg. "Officially, anybody is Hungarian who says he is, because ethnicity is a question of free choice."

While European leaders have officially taken a middle-of-the-road stance on the law, Bothorel says the reason for the lack of criticism is that EU member Austria, with a tiny Hungarian minority, was dropped from the original list of countries affected.

"For Hungary, it should have been no problem just to wait until its neighbors are in the EU," says Bothorel. That's what the EU is about - it's a union of minorities living together." He adds that once Hungary joins the EU, existing European legislation will supercede the status law, making it irrelevant." Why do they need this law?" he says. "They could have solved the issue by talking with their neighbors in the framework of bilateral agreements."

Observers say domestic Hungarian politics may have motivated the status law. With national elections next year, politicians would not want to appear negligent of their brethren abroad.

Meanwhile, in the heartland of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, people are not sure the new law will make their lives easier.

"On the one hand, it's advantageous because it helps with legal employment. But on the other hand, indirectly it creates the possibility for conflict," says Pal Peter, vice-president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania. "We can feel this already." Earlier this month, the Romanian government said it would propose a parliamentary debate on the status law. "Imagine the debates," says Mr. Peter. "It will give free way to nationalistic speeches with big media coverage. This isn't helping us at all."

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