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May 27

Slovakia Hungary

(a quick blog posting from today)

Pandora’s passports

May 27th 2010, 13:50 by E.L. | LONDON

In some parts of the world, having two or even three passports is nothing unusual. Plenty of people in Ireland (north and south) have both British and Irish passports; a sprinkling have American ones too. Even countries that frown on dual citizenship rarely make much of a fuss about it (not least because it is so hard to police). That lesson seems to be lost on Slovak and Hungarian politicians, who are cooking up an almighty row about the Hungarian new dual citizenship law which will give all ethnic Hungarians outside the country the near-automatic right to a Hungarian passport. The new law, passed by parliament on May 26th, removes the requirement for permanent residency in Hungary; in future, applications will simply need to show they speak Hungarian and have some Hungarian ethnic roots (such as a Hungarian grandparent).

For Hungarians, that salves a wound that has been open since 1920, when the Treaty of Trianon dismembered old Hungary, leaving more than three out of ten Hungarians stranded in other countries such as newly independent Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and a much bigger Romania. Giving passports to these Hungarians, who now number around 2m, appeases the radical right in Hungary and also signals to other countries that the Magyar minorities have a protector. That does not matter much in places such as Serbia, Slovenia or Austria, where Magyars live happily alongside their fellow-citizens. But it is potentially explosive in Slovakia, where some in the Slav majority are twitchy about what they see as the uppitiness of the ethnic Hungarian minority, who number about 10% of the population. Slovakia has annoyed Hungary, and alarmed some outsiders, with a poorly-drafted language law that in some cases penalises the use of the Hungarian language.

So Slovakia has protested, appealed to outsiders, and now says it will strip dual passport-holders of their Slovak citizenship. In theory, the fact that both countries belong to the European Union should mean that passports are largely irrelevant. Hungarian passport-holders have the right to work and live in Slovakia just like any other EU citizen. But these sort of ethnic-historical squabbles are just the sort of thing that EU enlargement was meant to settle. It is troubling to see them bubbling up. When Slovakia’s new government takes office at the end of June, outsiders will be hoping to see some serious diplomacy between Bratislava and Budapest.

It is also odd to see ethnicity taking such precedence over more modern forms of political identity. The term “ethnic Hungarian” is convenient journalistic shorthand but a poor basis for legislation. There are people who speak excellent Hungarian but have no Hungarian ancestry, and others with pure Magyar blood (nasty term) who happen not to speak the language. It would take a new Nuremberg Law to determine exactly what level of Hungarian ancestry counts as sufficient.

Hungary would be on stronger ground if chose political-historical rather than an ethnic base for the law. For example, it could say that anyone whose ancestors were citizens of the old Hungarian Kingdom had the right to apply for a passport from the modern republic. (Estonia and Latvia took that approach when they regained independence in 1991, giving passports automatically to all citizens of the pre-war republics, regardless of ethnicity, while asking Soviet-era migrants to apply). If Hungary did the same, it is a fair bet that few non-Magyars would bother to take up the offer.

2 comments

  1. Vanes Sirac

    Giving a second passport to citizens of a neighbouring country might be tricky business. Remember how Russians handed free Russian passports to people in Abkhazian and South Ossetian part of Georgia and then protected their “citizens”? Thankfully, the overall relations between Hungarians and Slovaks are not merely as bad – both nations for example cooperate happily in the Visegrad Group and other institutions. All in all, it’s a fragile alliance. Slovak people are concerned about irredentism, because there are still some nationalist Hungarians who consider whole Slovakia to be natural part of Hungary the way it was in Habsburg empire (so called “Felvidek”, the “Upper Hungary”). On the other hand, political party of “moderate Hungarians” is currently part of the governing coalition of Slovakia and nobody sees anything wrong with it.

  2. jack_84

    Dear Mr. Lucas,

    The Hungarian citizenship law uses the exact approach you have outlined in the final paragraph of your post. Please consult someone proficient in both English and Hungarian if you have any doubts, and ask them to read the law and its norms of application. These state that as a prerequisite to a citizenship request proof of or demonstration of a strong probability that the petitioner has at least one ancestor who had Hungarian citizenship must be made.

    The Hungarian Citizenship Act, as modified this spring, does not use the notion of ethnicity but of descent from a proven Hungarian citizen, or strong probability thereof.

    By the way many states, including the Baltic States, Romania, and others have similar citizenship laws, as you yourself contend. There was genuinely no reason for the fuss in Slovakia (which by now has subsided) other then the political interest of local fascists like Jan Slota and the former prime minister there, who brought them into the governing coalition.

    After the elections in Slovakia, the matter has been relegated to its proper place as a footnote in foreign policy.

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