Tension over Hungarians abroad: The fate of minority communities living outside Hungary is a new source of worry for central Europe. Tensions are at their highest since the

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The Independent Online
A FEW weeks ago a Romanian stood up in the Moldova, a restaurant in Bucharest, and began singing a nationalist, anti-Hungarian song: 'Brothers, with our open breasts let us defend Transylvania.' Other customers got to their feet and sang along.

Around the same time, Vladimir Meciar, the leader of newly independent Slovakia, alleged in public that certain unnamed forces in Hungary were scheming to annex Hungarian-populated regions of his country. Meanwhile, in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, the leader of the local Hungarian community warned that the very survival of Hungarians there was at risk from Serbian extremists.

The three incidents underline a growing source of tension in central and eastern Europe: the fate of ethnic Hungarians who live outside Hungary. War clouds are not gathering, but at no point since the fall of Communism has the problem been so bad.

Budapest, while broadly satisfied with the treatment of Hungarians in Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia, believes their compatriots in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia are suffering systematic discrimination. Istvan Zalatnay, deputy head of the government's Office for Hungarian Minorities Abroad, said that part of the problem was that the Romanian, Slovak and Serbian leaderships were Communists turned nationalists. 'In this region now, the only ideology which can be presented as an alternative to democracy is nationalism. The old regimes and structures are still very strong, but they can no longer articulate themselves through Communism, so they choose nationalism. It's a combination of the old forces with chauvinist ideology.'

Naturally, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia see things differently. They suspect that Hungary's keen interest in their Hungarian minorities is a screen behind which Budapest is at best trying to interfere in their internal affairs and at worst planning territorial claims against them. All Hungary's leading political parties reject expansionism, but it did not help matters when, in declaring their support for Europe's existing frontiers, they added the qualifier 'irrespective of whether or not they are just'. Similarly, Hungary's neighbours seized on a remark by the Prime Minister, Jozsef Antall, that he was 'in spirit' the prime minister of all Hungarians wherever they lived, as evidence of expansionist ambitions. The three neighbours are equally unimpressed with suggestions that Hungarians abroad should be allowed to vote in Hungarian elections.

A comparison of a map of Hungary in 1914 with a map of Hungary and its neighbours since 1920 illuminates the problem. On the first are place names unfamiliar to most westerners: Pozsony, Marosvasarhely, Ujvidek, Ungvar. On the second, these have turned into Bratislava (in Slovakia), Tirgu Mures (Romania), Novi Sad (Vojvodina in Serbia) and Uzhgorod (Ukraine). Having fought on the losing side in the First World War, Hungary was stripped of two-thirds of its historic territory by the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920. It lost almost a third of its ethnic Hungarian population to its neighbours. This was a calamity as terrible as the defeat of 1526 at the Battle of Mohacs which had placed Hungary under Turkish domination. It has meant that, since 1920, the fate of the minorities abroad has never been far from the top of Hungary's concerns.

Ivan Baba, Deputy State Secretary at Hungary's Foreign Ministry, says he is particularly concerned by the actions of Gheorghe Funar, the ultra-nationalist Romanian mayor of Cluj, the main city of Transylvania. Mr Funar has removed Hungarian-language street signs, banned some Hungarian publications and put a Romanian inscription on a statue of King Matthias, Hungary's 15th- century monarch. Rather in the way that Serbian and Croatian extremists argue that Bosnia's Muslims are not a genuine nationality, Mr Funar claims that Transylvania's Hungarians are actually Hungarian-speakers of other ethnic origins. 'We hope that Mr Funar will remain a marginal figure in political life,' Mr Baba said.

Ominously, Mr Funar's measures have radicalised some Hungarian communities in eastern Transylvania, which are now demanding the right to govern themselves. The authorities in Bucharest see this as a disguised attempt to break up Romania, and state television runs a programme, mainly aimed at soldiers, which stresses the alleged threats from Hungary.

The memory has not quite faded of December 1989, when ethnic Hungarians and Romanians joined forces in Timisoara to overthrow Communism. Mr Baba said it was a hopeful sign that many Romanians seemed keener than their government to build good relations with the Hungarians. Still, ties between Hungary and Romania remain frosty, with the former determined to win guarantees for its minority and the latter suspicious of Hungary's real motives.

Hungarians in the former Yugoslavia used to have a well-protected status, but two years of civil war have darkened the picture. The fighting in Croatia, and a subsequent Serbian 'ethnic cleansing' campaign in Serb-occupied parts of the republic, uprooted at least 25,000 Hungarians, Mr Baba said.

Serbia abolished the autonomy of Vojvodina province and curtailed the Hungarian-language education system there. Andras Agoston, the Hungarian community's leading politician, says that Hungarian reservists forced to serve in the Serbian army have suffered disproportionately high casualties. 'A civil disobedience movement is growing against the call-up of reservists, who do not want to be used as cannon fodder in the war against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but harsh measures are being taken against them,' a Foreign Ministry report said last year.

Mr Zalatnay commented: 'The West only really deals with such problems when they become very dangerous. Only when people are shot and houses are burnt down does the West take notice.'

Slovakia's emergence as an independent state has added to Hungary's worries. 'The anti-Hungarian tone of Slovak television and radio is increasing. We hope it's just a temporary sign. The main problem is the nationalistic atmosphere there, which has an exaggerated note,' said Mr Baba.

Hungarian officials say the minorities issue need not always be a problem in inter-state relations. They praise Ukraine for passing a progressive law on minorities last June and for encouraging the use of Hungarian in its Transcarpathia region. Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia have each set up joint committees with Hungary to tackle minorities questions, and Hungary believes they work well. 'Those governments which represent European values and tolerance, we can co-operate with,' Mr Baba said.

Hungary's basic aim is to ensure that the minorities can use Hungarian in public life and in education from kindergarten to university, and that they are properly represented in local politics and administration. At another level, Hungary wants to foster economic and cultural ties with its neighbours so that borders become less important (an example often cited is the Franco-German frontier at Alsace-Lorraine) and so that the Hungarian minorities are not seen as potential fifth-columnists.

Mr Baba said: 'Multinational states are disintegrating in this region, but trans-frontier co-operation is developing. Those political forces that are trying to work against this will not have a future for very long. Most Romanians, Slovaks and Serbs realise that to be excluded from this co-operation could have tragic consequences for them.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- HUNGARIANS LIVING OUTSIDE HUNGARY ----------------------------------------------------------------- Official Est Hung Est Romania . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1,600,000 2,000,000 Slovakia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 567,000 650,000 Serbia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 340,000 400,000 Ukraine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160,000 200,000 Croatia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25,000 40,000 Slovenia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8,500 10,000 Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2,700,500 3,300,000 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph and map omitted)