Serbia: Hungarians Pressure Budapest

Serbs unmoved by call from Vojvodina Hungarians' for Budapest to grant them dual nationality.

Serbia: Hungarians Pressure Budapest

Serbs unmoved by call from Vojvodina Hungarians' for Budapest to grant them dual nationality.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

When Hungarian leaders in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina called for a dual citizenship arrangement for their community last month, one might have expected Serbian nationalists to react furiously. They didn't.

Instead, it was the government in Hungary that appeared to be caught off guard, first rejecting the idea out of hand and later saying it might be prepared to talk about it.

Three leading Vojvodina political parties - the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, AVH, the Vojvodina Hungarians' Democratic Party, VHDP, and the Civic Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, CAVH - agreed on July 22 to ask Budapest to grant them the right to dual citizenship.

The Hungarians want the right to a second passport so that they can travel unhindered to Hungary once it joins the European Union in May next year. From November 2003 citizens of Serbia-Montenegro will have to get visas to enter the country's northern neighbour. The measure will particularly affect the 300,000 Vojvodina Hungarians, many of whom cross the border frequently for business or to visit relatives.

In other times, such calls for dual citizenship would have been explosive. In the past - especially when Slobodan Milosevic was Serbian president - nationalist parties often accused the Hungarians of being separatists or of wanting a "second homeland". They also attacked Hungary for what they said were territorial claims on Vojvodina.

None of these claims have been made this time round. That may be because the dual citizenship request was backed by Serbian deputy prime minister Jozef Kasza, who leads the AVH, the largest and most influential Hungarian party. He is unlikely to have made such a move without getting approval from Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic.

Meanwhile, the government in Budapest - which has encouraged stronger relations with ethnic Hungarians abroad over the past decade - initially dismissed the idea of handing out passports in Vojvodina. Foreign ministry spokesman Tamas Toth said the impending EU accession ruled it out.

"Brussels would not support dual citizenship, because it would not solve any problems, but rather create new ones," he told the MTI news agency on July 29. "We would have an avalanche [of similar demands], because people would ask why the Vojvodina Hungarians had been given greater rights than their fellow Hungarians in, say, Slovakia or [the Austrian region of] Burgenland."

This was not good enough for Hungarian leaders in Serbia. Kasza said Toth's remarks amounted to " belittling and humiliating the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina".

"We are in favour of dialogue, and we expect this important issue to be resolved through negotiations," he told local media.

On August 1, five Vojvodina Hungarian party leaders sent a letter to Hungarian prime minister Peter Medgyessy asking him to put the dual citizenship issue before parliament. This was an unusual show of strength, since these parties rarely display such unity.

By way of concession, Hungarian foreign minister Laszlo Kovacs announced on August 3 that his country would be prepared to discuss the possibility dual citizenship with Hungarian minority representatives from neighbouring countries, as well as their respective governments and representatives of the EU.

He stressed, however, that when the visa restrictions come into force for Serbia and Montenegro, they will apply to ethnic Hungarians - although they may be granted some special concessions.

The Vojvodina parties are now hoping to increase pressure on Budapest by collecting signatures in favour of the change.

VHDP leader Andras Agoston, who has masterminded the dual citizenship campaign, claims that what the Hungarians are asking for is nothing out of the ordinary, and would not be in breach of EU rules.

"Many European Union members recognise and use the institution of dual citizenship, and no one has a problem with it," he told IWPR. He cited the example of Spain, which allows Latin Americans to come in with a special visa allowing them to stay within the country but not to travel to other European countries.

The campaign also has the backing of Serbia's main Hungarian-language newspaper, Magyar Szo, which has carried a spate of articles, editorials, opinion surveys and readers' letters on the issue. Another influential Vojvodina paper, Dnevnik, is one of a number of Serbian media outlets that has offered its support.

Despite Kovacs's comments, and the mounting campaign in Vojvodina, political analysts say there is little chance the Hungarian government will shift its position. Apart from complicating EU accession, officials in Budapest fear there would be a high cost to granting the vote and unlimited residence and social rights to the two or three million Hungarians who live in surrounding countries, mainly Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro and Ukraine.

Instead of dual citizenship, Hungary has offered these minorities certain privileges under the "status law" passed in 2001, which gives them a special identity document and the right to work in Hungary three months a year. About 100,000 people in Vojvodina have already acquired the ID card.

While it has proved uncontroversial in Serbia and Montenegro, the status law continues to be opposed by Romania and Slovakia, even though Hungary's Socialist-led government toned it down significantly in June this year in an effort to make it fit better with EU legislation. Over the past decade, the minority question has been a much more difficult political issue in Hungary's relationship with Romania and Slovakia than with Serbia.

Although the dual citizenship issue does not appear to be upsetting many people in Serbia and Montenegro, some Hungarians there are worried that if it actually happened it could anger Serbs excluded by the deal, and lead to an upsurge in nationalism.

"I am not sure that all my Serb friends would feel indifferent if - when visas are introduced - I get to cross the border and they don't," said one Hungarian from Novi Sad, who asked not to be named.

For the moment that danger remains fairly distant, since it is unlikely the Hungarian government will seriously consider issuing passports - if it ever does so - until well after the new visa regime has come into force.

Jan Briza is an IWPR contributor in Novi Sad

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