Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Belgrade Sidelines Milosevic-era Magyar Suspicions

The Yugoslav authorities underline their liberal credentials by giving go-ahead for Vojvodina Magyars to apply for Hungarian ID cards.
By Jan Briza

Thousands of ethnic Hungarians in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina have been snapping up Budapest-issued Magyar ID cards after the Yugoslav authorities gave the go-ahead for the move - unthinkable under the nationalist Milosevic regime.


The federal authorites, which a few years ago would have dismissed the initiative as proof of Hungary's territorial pretentions on Vojvodina, believe the new cards could alleviate economic problems in the province.


The only real criticism of the move has come from a few diehard Serbian nationalists and some liberal intellectuals.


Predictably, thousands of ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina are rushing to get their hands on the new identy cards following Budapest's enactment on January 1 of a law granting the IDs and related privileges to Magyars living abroad.


Vojvodina in northern Serbia is home to around 300,000 ethnic Hungarians, about 15 per cent of the population.


Among other advantages, holders of the new ID cards and members of their families gain access to free medical care and education in Hungary, pension rights and an annual three-month work permit.


When Hungary becomes a full member of the European Union in 2004, card holders will also find it much easier to get visas for foreign travel.


The Yugoslav government has welcomed the new law. Federal ministers for national minorities and foreign affairs, Rasim Ljajic and Goran Svilanovic respectively, have both stressed the positive aspects of the legislation and praised Hungary's concern for its minorities in neighbouring states.


The government hopes the ID cards and the advantages they bring could help alleviate social discontent in Vojvodina, which despite being one of Yugoslavia's richest areas is beset with economic problems. Unemployment in the region is around 40 per cent and is expected to rise in the wake of anticipated mass layoffs of state employees.


Embattled Serbian nationalists, among them Vojislav Seselj's tiny Serbian Radical Party, SRS, have attempted to exploit the ID card issue, accusing the Hungarian government of harbouring territorial pretensions towards Vojvodina.


In the past, the SRS has denounced the Vojvodina Hungarian Union, SVM, the minority's largest political party, as disloyal and secessionist. Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the SRS, has repeatedly accused Josef Kasa, head of the SVM and deputy president of the Serbian government, of viewing Hungary "as an alternative homeland" and of taking his lead from Budapest.


But the Hungarian ambassador to Yugoslavia, Janos Huszar, said he was not aware of any protests from the Serbian public regarding the Hungarian identity cards. "I think that Serbian society is open to this," he said.


But it is not only nationalist extremists who have voiced concern. Several observers have suggested that the advantages granted to ethnic Hungarians could sow division in the region should ID card holders become appreciably better off than their Serbian counterparts.


Dr Dusan Janjic, coordinator of the forum for ethnic relations in Belgrade, claims the Yugoslav authorities failed to gain vital concessions from Budapest. "The identity cards should have been available to all regardless of their nationality," he said.


Janjic pointed out that Romania had secured an agreement with Budapest granting the right to temporary work permits to all Romanians.


Huszar said the new law was designed to help Hungarian minorities preserve their national identity, culture and language. "The aim is for Hungarians in all these regions to survive as Hungarians," he said.


Others suspect Hungary may have an economic motive too - by granting privileges to ethnic Hungarians resident abroad Budapest may be hoping to avert an influx of impoverished immigrants.


Over the past ten years, around 40,000 ethnic Magyars have left Vojvodina for Hungary, some fleeing the wars in former Yugoslavia, others mounting poverty and unemployment.


The fact that those applying for full Hungarian citizenship lose the right to apply for identity cards adds credence to the idea that Budapest is seeking to encourage minorities to stay put.


A poll by Radio 021 in Novi Sad, regional capital of Vojvodina, indicated that economic reasons topped the list for those applying for the identity cards.


Atila Marton, a journalist on the Hungarian-language newspaper Maguar Szo and a local teacher, said he wanted a card because it offered travel discounts. Card holders over 65 and children under the age of six have the right to free transport in Hungary, while the remainder are entitled to a 90 per cent reduction on fares four times per year.


"I already visit Hungary often and I buy books there," Marton said. "Now I'll be able to do it much cheaper."


Offices of the Concordia Minoritatis Hungaricae, which processes ID card applications, have opened in six Vojvodina towns near the Hungarian border. Within days, several thousand ethnic Hungarians had applied. If the take-up rate continues, all Vojvodina's Magyars could have cards within six months.


Jan Briza is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik


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