Status Symbols

In the border shuffling that followed World War I, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia all lost large portions of their ethnic populations. Since the Soviet withdrawal, all three countries have tried to fuel economic growth by attracting their compatriots back, sparking tensions over political autonomy.

The three are now turning to the establishment of so-called status laws, which would give members of their ethnic groups living abroad such perks of citizenship as the right to residence, work, and property ownership. With a dynamic economy and a large trans-border population, Hungary threatens to set off a brain drain within its two neighbors with the implementation of its law, which went into effect the first of the year.

The Hungarian press has reflected the resulting domestic and cross-border tensions. Hungary’s former Socialist prime minister, Gyula Horn, was quoted as condemning the measure (Népszabadság, Jan. 7): “The government should modify this screwed-up, ham-handedly slapped-together law.” In Bratislava, Budapest’s maneuvers were seen as bullying. Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan told Népszava’s Zoltan Simon (Feb. 16), “It is impossible to reconcile someone flexing his muscles and saying he wants to negotiate. I cannot accept this.”

Raising the specter of ethnic loyalties in the region could backfire, Tamas Gaspar Miklos predicted in Elet es Irodalom (Jan. 11): “In the offices in the West watching us, the consensus was quickly arrived at... [that] Hungary is a powder keg of regional instability.”

At least one of Hungary’s neighbors has apparently decided to strike back. On Feb. 7, the Slovak Parliament passed a resolution opposing implemention of the law on Slovak territory.

The reaction of Hungary’s press to the law has been generally negative. Regarding negotiations with Romania, Imre Bednarik wrote: “Only two people were happy” about the law—“Corneliu Vadim Tudor [leader of the Greater Romanian Party] and [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban, and we know the former to be anti-Hungarian” (Népszabadság, Jan. 5).

Passed just before an election year, the legislation has produced charges that candidates are inciting nationalism for political gain. “[P]arty affiliation is the basic criterion for opinion on the Status Law,” opined Peter Erdelyi in Magyar Hirlap (Feb. 11). A recent poll found that 78 percent of the ruling Fidesz Party supports the law, compared with 53 percent of the opposition Socialist MSZP. Many in Hungary see the debate itself as dangerous and provocative. Népszava’s Jozsef Szilvassy wrote (Feb. 12) that the Status Law is “politically exceedingly dangerous because the evil spirit of collective guilt and national autonomy, which has caused so many tragedies, is seeking resurrection.”