Ethnic Hungarian Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe: Normalisation in Sight?

A barrier on the Hungarian-Serbian border. Courtesy of Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea/Wikimedia Commons.

Ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states are still struggling with exercising their group rights, a century after Hungary was shorn of much of its territory.

It is rarely contested that the signing of the Treaty of Trianon 100 years ago, under which Hungary was carved up at the end of the First World War, represented a major trauma for Hungary as well as the region, as György Schöpflin excellently explored in his recent commentary. He also pointed out the failure of successive Hungarian governments to construct a viable solution for the challenges created by the treaty. The reason why this specific historical event refuses to become the ‘past’ and has remained at the centre of public discourse for over a century now is relatively simple: Hungarian minorities living in successor states are to this day frequently and systematically discriminated against.

Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry in a recent article drew attention to the fact that ‘the number of Hungarians living beyond [the current] borders decreased from 3.3 million to 1.8 million, whereas in the case of natural growth this number should be at least 4 million, even taking into account all those who moved [over the border to modern-day] Hungary. It is naïve to think that the dramatic decrease of the [transborder] Hungarian population was a result of voluntary choice.’

He argues that considering the policy of the new nation-states formed on the ruins of Austria-Hungary, one is justified to talk about ethnocide, a systematic campaign to homogenise the multiethnic societies of these new states. As a result of a tumultuous and tragic 20th century, the Carpathian basin has become significantly less diverse, with many Jewish and German minorities also largely expelled from the region.

While data regarding ethnicities is at best patchy, a 2013 study by the Hungarian statistical authority (KSH) provides some pointers regarding the most important figures. Approximately 1.238 million ethnic Hungarians live in Romania – 1.225 million in the historic region of Szeklerland (Secuimea, in the heart of Transylvania) – while 459,000 Hungarians live in Slovakia. In Serbia, 251,000 citizens identified as ethnic Hungarians in the latest census, while in Ukraine (according to data from 2001), there are approximately 141,000 Hungarians. In other neighbouring countries, there are about 2,000 Hungarians. In 2010, the Hungarian government adopted a simplified naturalisation procedure and also granted these ‘new’ compatriots voting rights.

The Good Example: Serbia

When it comes to minority rights, Serbia has made remarkable progress in recent decades. The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina with its six official languages, its multi-ethnic character and minorities’ participation in regional government, is an example of this. Hungarians are the second-largest ethnicity in the region and relations between Serbia and Hungary are at a historic peak. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in May and the leaders highlighted the strong cooperation between the two countries. The two countries also have several issues in common, most notably the management of the influx of migrants and refugees towards the EU. When it comes to realpolitik, the Hungarian EU Commissioner responsible for the enlargement portfolio might prompt the Serbian government to respect minority rights ever more attentively.

The Improving Example: Slovakia

Relationships with Slovakia have also changed for the better over the past few years. In 2009, Slovak authorities banned the Hungarian president from attending the unveiling of a statue in Slovakia citing ‘security reasons’. Hungarian-Slovak relations were put under additional stress after the 2010 decision of the Hungarian government regarding the naturalisation procedure and voting rights. However, a few years later, domestic anger over corruption resulted in the infusion of fresh blood into Slovak politics.

The electoral successes of President Zuzana Čaputová and Prime Minister Igor Matovič have not depended on stoking up nationalist sentiments but rather on successfully cultivating a public persona opposed to the old political elite, so strides towards a normalisation of relations with Hungarians came naturally to these two Slovak leaders. This process became apparent as Matovič addressed Hungarians on the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, followed by a historic visit to Budapest in late June 2020, where in an interview he indicated his preference for his country to move towards a more progressive stance on minority rights.

Additionally, having an ethnic Hungarian, Mónika Filip as a state secretary in the Slovak Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport, responsible among others for minority education, bodes well for minority rights. For both President Čaputová and Prime Minister Matovič, attracting Hungarian voters and having a good relationship with Hungary overwrites decades of institutionalised nationalism and, with the Orbán government’s increased focus on cooperation among the Visegrad Four, it would not be surprising to see changes in Slovak minority legislation soon.


Certain parallels between the position of Ukraine and Slovakia can be found, most notably in the election of an outsider, Volodymyr Zelensky as president. The Hungarian and Ukrainian governments have been in a tit-for-tat in recent years and Hungary is exercising its veto power in NATO and the EU to block Ukraine’s accession, subject to a number of changes in the educational and language laws regulating the daily lives of Hungarians in Transcarpathia, the Ukrainian region adjacent to Hungary and Romania. The autochthonous Hungarian community in Ukraine has been caught in the crossfire of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as Ukraine tries to exert pressure on its Russian ethnic minorities.

The Hungarian policy has been rather clear on this issue and there are voices that suggest that a bilateral meeting between Orbán and Zelensky might offer a chance to resolve outstanding questions. A potential avenue for the Ukrainian government might be to use the ongoing restructuring of administrative zones to create an administrative unit in which Hungarians are free to use their language and have access to education in their mother tongue. Nevertheless, it seems like the Hungarian government is not going to budge on its threat of blocking NATO and EU accession until substantive changes are made by the Ukrainian side.

Tense Romania

Hungary has a limited number of tools available to exert pressure on its other eastern neighbour. Romanian politics are characterised by a strong nationalistic undercurrent, regardless of who is in power in Bucharest; in many respects the situation in Romania is similar to the Slovak political landscape during the 2000s. For the Hungarians living there, there are limited standards for minorities to use their languages and ethnic symbols, as well as access minority-ethnic education; the legislative environment is characterised by ‘ethnocentric constitutionalism’: the country’s constitution itself is meant to ‘express and protect Romanian national identity’, essentially excluding ethnic minorities from the body politic. As a result of domestic politics and the historical development of Romania, individual rights take precedence over collective rights and the nation is ‘imagined’ to be, essentially, ethnically homogenous: Romanian. This is unlikely to change soon, as political parties are more than happy to exploit ethnic tensions for political gains. In this situation, the Hungarian government appears to be rather short on political resources when it comes to pushing for expanding minority rights, so another – cultural and economic – approach might take precedence.

The Ties That Bind

During the past 10 years a growing number of Hungarian investments found their way to various Hungarian-inhibited lands of the Carpathian basin, in forms of building infrastructure – educational, healthcare, sport – or direct ‘aid’ to these communities, as well as scholarships. These projects aim to strengthen these communities and to help them in persevering among ethno-national conflicts.

These investments are often criticised for enriching businesspeople close to Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, raising question marks about their efficacy. Projects benefiting the Hungarian communities, for example through the support of football-related initiatives, are (allegedly) primarily channelled through familiar businesspeople. Others argue that such ‘active’ participation of Hungary might harm the position of minorities, especially when the government is picking ‘favourites’ among the political parties representing these minorities. Still, and while questions about these projects should not be exempt from public scrutiny, the ‘soft power’ that these initiatives project serves as a foundational building block in protecting the identity of Hungarian communities.

Hungarian minorities had an extremely challenging 20th century and they are still under pressure from the so-called ‘successor states’, namely the countries which incorporated bits of historic Hungary, as well as many ethnic Hungarians. However, the fact that even under such extreme duress, these communities safeguarded their national identity may give courage for the future.

And maybe – hopefully maybe – the 21st century will be kinder not only to Hungarians but also to all the nations and ethnicities of Central Europe.

Károly Gergely is a Hungarian freelance journalist, writing for Magyar Hang, the International Cybersecurity Dialogue and Visegrád Insight. He completed a Russian and East European Studies master's at the University of Oxford and currently serves as a research analyst.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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