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  • Hanna Corsini

Hungary and the Trianon Treaty Between Questioning and Accepting Imposed Borders: An Analysis of its Relationship towards the Magyar Communities since 1989

Hanna Corsini is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is additionally a lecturer at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a seminar teacher at Sciences Po Paris.

 

Image by Krisha Cabrera


1990 to 1991 was an auspicious time to be in Hungary. Less than two years saw the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country’s soil, the first fair and multi-party elections since the end of the Second World War, and the swearing-in of a new government that pledged to rectify communist rule and usher in a new era. Yet all was not well in the newly independent nation. Swept under the carpet since the Communist ascendancy, a spectre lay ready to destabilise Hungary’s relationships with its neighbours. This was the issue of borders and the legacy of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon that concluded the First World War.


In this article, I chart key moments which, since the 1990s, have characterised Hungary’s position on the Treaty and indicate how it shapes the country’s politics today. While the Treaty was put to one side during the Communist supremacy over Eastern Europe, Trianon nonetheless had broken up the historic Kingdom of Hungary. It drew novel frontiers that shrunk Hungary to one-third of its former extent, leaving millions of ethnic Hungarians (Magyars) detached from the new state and resident in neighbouring countries. With the return of full sovereignty after 1990, the question arose as to how the Hungarian Republic would deal with this issue. Would it heed the revanchist call to recover lost territories, or rather accept the boundaries established seventy years before?


The issue of the Magyar diaspora is much more present in contemporary debates than a century-old treaty might suggest. Even though no government has ever actively questioned Hungary’s current frontiers, successive leaders have held diverging positions towards the issue. Fluctuating policies have fuelled tensions with Hungary’s neighbours and the completion of Western integration by the mid-2000s has not managed to resolve the problem at its core. Increased domination of Hungarian politics by long-time Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a nationalist-populist who has used memories of Trianon for his political advantage, has shown once more how fragile the region’s equilibrium remains on account of its legacy.


To better comprehend the complexity of the border issue, we can briefly draw on the general context of the Republic following the collapse of Communism. Although the new government in 1990 showed no intention of questioning the frontiers[a][b] drawn by the Trianon Treaty, its vision and interests clearly challenged those of its neighbours. These neighbours saw any aspirations from Budapest to defend Hungarian minorities as a potential threat, violating the independence and sovereignty for which many fellow post-Communist states had strived. Conversely, Hungary argued for its legitimate interest in the condition of Magyar diaspora communities. Advocating for their increased rights served[c][d] to redress the injustices of the Trianon Treaty without questioning established borders. NATO and the EU added pressure to this fraught standoff, signalling that Hungary’s membership of both organisations was contingent on successfully resolving these quarrels with its neighbours.[1]


After the collapse of Communism, the centre-right Antall Government (1990-1994) adopted an approach that[e][f] put Hungarian minority rights at the centre of its foreign policy[g][h].[2] The relevance of the diaspora to Prime Minister József Antall was presented from the very beginning of his mandate, when he claimed to represent 15 million Hungarians, a figure which added a further c. 5 million citizens to the population of 10 million people within the state’s borders. The central request was to grant autonomy to the diaspora, a demand that no country accepted. The second-best option was to sign agreements that would guarantee the widest-ranging rights for Hungarian minorities as possible. The Antall government managed to obtain such agreements with only three countries - Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine - all of which contained Hungarian minorities that comprised less than 1% of their respective populations. Relations with Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia – all containing larger Magyar populations – were comparatively more tense, as they remained firmly opposed to signing such agreements.


This deadlock was eased when a new coalition (composed of socialist and liberal parties) came to power in 1994. With Gyula Horn as Prime Minister, Hungary changed the focus of its foreign policy. Horn understood that, in the eyes of Western partners, signing bilateral treaties was both an example of good relationships with regional neighbours and a necessary precondition of Western integration. He thus signed agreements with Slovakia in 1995 and Romania in 1996, even if they did not include all of the rights that had been requested by Budapest (for instance, the creation of Hungarian-speaking universities). The decision to put matters of neighbourhood policy and minority rights second to Euro-Atlantic integration was made clear from the beginning of Horn’s mandate when he declared his wish to be the Prime Minister of 10.5 million Hungarians (thus excluding those who lived outside of its territory).[3] With this declaration, Horn drew a clear demarcation line between himself and former Prime Minister Antall.


With accession to both NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, the process of Western integration was complete. Yet, this put no end to discussions of state frontiers and Magyar minority communities. A watershed moment emerged in Hungary’s domestic politics during the very year that it entered the EU. Under the social-liberal government of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2006), a referendum on dual citizenship took place (initiated by the World Federation of Hungarians). It proposed to grant Hungarian citizenship to those Magyar minorities living in neighbouring countries, provided that they identified themselves as ethnic Hungarians and were already in possession of a so-called ‘Magyar Passport’ (a document that grants special status to Magyar minority members who request it– see details in endnote).[4] Gyurcsány and his government were against granting dual citizenship, whilst Viktor Orbán and his opposition party Fidesz were in favour of it.[5]


The referendum was not successful. Yet Orbán managed to become, on the domestic stage, the champion of the Hungarian minorities abroad. He used this role as one of the key pillars of his electoral campaign in 2010. After winning a two-thirds majority in Parliament that year, he decided to designate 4th June – the date of the signing of the Trianon Treaty – as the official National Day of Unity. Such a symbolic choice clearly demonstrated Orbán’s determination to put minority rights back on the governmental agenda.


Only one month after his victory, Orbán’s government passed a law that granted citizenship to the Magyar minorities who lived abroad.[6] It was the very law that had been rejected by the referendum. The cost of this decision at the foreign policy level was to re-ignite tensions with Hungary’s neighbours. The most virulent reaction came from Slovakia, whose Prime Minister, Robert Fico, argued that the new law was a security threat. This was especially because Budapest initiated no bilateral discussions before adopting the law, catching all neighbouring countries off-guard and obliging them to respond to decisions that had already been taken.


This forthright step was only the first of Prime Minister Orbán’s plan. The law did not automatically grant the right to vote to the new Hungarian citizens outside the state’s borders. This was settled one year later. On 23 December 2011, the reformed Electoral Law was approved by Parliament, which extended voting rights to Hungarian citizens without residency status in the country.[7]


The voting system that came with this law is worthy of further explanation. Members of Magyar minority communities who have their residency in countries adjacent to Hungary (i.e. those separated from the Hungarian state by Trianon) can only vote for the national party list and send their ballot via mail.[8] Such postal voting, however, is a privilege that is not granted to all citizens who live outside of the country. Rather, temporary Hungarian expatriates who retain a residential address within Hungary (such as students) may only vote at Hungarian embassies and consulates. [9]


Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have essentially bought the vote of Magyar minority communities by organising a straightforward form of distance [i]voting for them. 95% of post-Trianon diaspora voters back Fidesz, which secures the party an additional 2-3 seats in Parliament per election. It is striking that the same voting system was not applied to Hungarians who reside abroad temporarily (and mostly in the West). For them, it is often difficult to find an embassy or consulate. For instance, only three cities in either Germany or the UK have such facilities and, in Switzerland, Hungarian nationals cannot vote in Zürich and must travel to Bern to do so.[10] Such differences demonstrate Fidesz’s belief that émigré Hungarian populations are more likely to favour the opposition and that it is thus advantageous for the party to retain obstacles for emigrant voters, whilst removing them for [j]the post-Trianon diaspora.


Prime Minister Orbán’s policies towards Magyars are not only nationalist but also populist, as they correspond to the preferences of his electorate.[11] As many citizens have relatives who live across the Hungarian border, the Electoral Law has been extremely popular and demonstrates Orbán’s concern for domestic support over cultivating good relationships with neighbouring countries.[12] Power is more important for his Fidesz party than antagonising Hungary’s regional partners or integrating its emigrant population into Hungarian political life.


By extending the right to citizenship and voting to Magyar minorities, did Viktor Orbán’s policies conclude unfinished questions of Trianon’s legacy which re-opened in 1990 with Hungarian independence? Or rather, did he fuel tensions with neighbouring countries just for electoral gains? One could certainly argue that granting nationality to Magyars is a mostly symbolic measure with little practical necessity – primarily enacted to boost electoral appeal – because Hungary’s EU membership already offers Magyar minorities visa-free travel and work opportunities within the Hungarian state.


Nonetheless, a closer look suggests that the equilibrium is unstable, as a solution over minority rights has never been sought at the UN level (such as in the case of South Tyrol, where this contested region’s status was settled between Austria and Italy in 1992). Is EU membership – with its ‘soft’ borders – yet another carpet under which Trianon’s legacy has been swept? Or will time heal wounds that, a century on, seem to remain so painfully within the collective memory of the Republic of Hungary?


Notes

________________

[1] Károly Banai, ‘Permanent and Changing Features of Foreign Policy in Hungary since 1989’, Südosteuropa 63, no. 2 (2015): 228 ff.

[2] András Hettyey, ‘Die Ungarische Außenpolitik 1990 Bis 2018: Europäisierung Ohne Überzeugung’, in Das Politische System Ungarns, ed. Ellen Bos and Astrid Lorenz (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2021), 176.

[3] Banai, ‘Permanent and Changing Features of Foreign Policy in Hungary since 1989’, 233.

[4] During the First Orbán Government (1998-2002), the PM decided to introduce a ‘Hungarian Status Law’ to regulate the institutional relationship between the Hungarian state and the ethnic Hungarian minorities beyond its borders. Individuals who obtained this status received the ‘Magyar Passport’, featuring a map of ‘Great Hungary’, the enlarged historical territory encompassing all ethnic Hungarians. This was a clear break with his predecessors Antall and Horn, as until then rights of national minorities had been provided on the bases of the signed bilateral treaties, thus in full harmony with international legal norms (see Banai, ‘Permanent and Changing Features of Foreign Policy in Hungary since 1989’, 234; Hungary: Act LXII of 2001 on Hungarians Living in Neighbouring Countries [Hungary], 1 January 2002.

[5] ‘Hungarians Vote In Contentious Nationality Referendum’, Radio Free Europe, 5 December 2004, https://www.rferl.org/a/1056224.html.

[6] Mihai Varga and Aron Buzogány, ‘The Foreign Policy of Populists in Power: Contesting Liberalism in Poland and Hungary’, Geopolitics 26, no. 5 (2021): 1454.

[7] Szabolcs Pogonyi, ‘Non-Resident Hungarians Get Voting Rights’, Global Citizenship Observatory, 19 February 2019.

[8] Unlike Hungarians with a residency in the country, who can vote for both a party list and a candidate of their district.

[9] Interview with Hungarian diplomat (#1), 7 March 2022.

[10] Interview with Hungarian diplomat (#1), 7 March 2022 and with Hungarian diplomat (#2), 17 March 2022.

[11] Defined as “majoritarian preferences” in Attila Bartha, Zsolt Boda, and Dorottya Szikra, ‘When Populist Leaders Govern: Conceptualising Populism in Policy Making’, Politics and Governance 8, no. 3 (2020): 74.

[12] Interview with Hungarian diplomat (#1), 7 March 2022.



[a]Is there a reason you use the word frontier instead of border? Out of interest :)

[b]Not really, I wanted to try to find a synonym to avoid always writing border. I am not trying to do a conceptualisation of the difference between border and frontier. If that seems to indicate that, maybe it is better to continue using border to avoid any confusion - of course.

[c]You would use ‘would serve’, if the authorities had indeed not advocated for the rights of the Magyar diaspora (. I assume that they did actually advocate for those rights, and as such ‘served’ is a better word to use. I hope that makes sense!

[d]Makes sense!

[e]Be careful on ‘which’ and ‘that’ - it’s a mistake that is often made, but there is a clear distinction grammatically : https://www.grammarly.com/blog/which-vs-that/

[f]Thank you for that.

[g]Unless you know there to be a distinction between ‘cross-border’ and ‘foreign’ - I believe that this is a tautology.

[h]The idea was to refer back to the notion that these people were living ‚just‘ behind the border - differently from a diaspora living in another continent…

[i]Distance here because they have no residency, so technical they are not absent. It is not because they are away that they can vote via mail, but because they live in another country. So they are basically always absent.

[j]It is not for and not from because we are talking about the obstacles which are put in front of certain people, but not of others.

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