The end of empire leaves many orphans. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled after World War I, one third of Central Europe's ethnic Hungarians were cut off from the motherland. Later, under communist rule, their ethnic and national identities were actively suppressed. Now the Hungarian government is offering a belated homecoming to the 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries with a new "status law" that came into force last month. The legislation extends generous benefits to people of Hungarian descent in the region ranging from stipends for Hungarian-language schooling to subsidized travel and facilitated work permits but has stirred up vehement opposition in nearby countries.
Hajnal Varga, 43, an office manager in the Romanian university town of Cluj-Napoca, isn't complaining though. In the bad old days of communism, Romanian authorities discouraged the use of the Hungarian language in public and banned broadcasts of Hungarian media even though a quarter of the town's population is ethnic Hungarian. Varga recalls hauling her family's black-and-white TV up a nearby hillside to pick up Hungarian football matches from across the border 150 km away. Last week Varga submitted her application for a Hungarian status card, which resembles a passport with a stylized crown of Hungary's founder-king, St. Stephen, on its cover. "Now we can prove we are a part of the Hungarian people," she says.
Varga is one of about 50,000 Romanians who have applied for the status cards over the past month. In Serbia, demand is so high that 25 Serbs tried to pass themselves off unsuccessfully as Hungarian in order to get cards. Despite its popularity, the law has drawn fire from officials in some neighboring countries, who argue that it violates their sovereignty and discriminates against non-ethnic Hungarians. "This law is part of an attempt to reclaim old territories," says Gheorghe Funar, the mayor of Cluj-Napoca, whose civic initiatives include banning bilingual signs and painting everything from park benches to flagpoles in Romanian red, blue and yellow. "They will be defeated if they try."
Western diplomats concede that the law is more far-reaching than others of its kind. A European Union report last year noted the "appearance of discrimination" in its provisions. But the main problem is how the legislation was sold. "Now we shall realize the reunification of the Hungarian nation across borders," said right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban when he introduced the measure last year. This month he declared that the law will succeed despite those "who want to sprinkle salt on the wound torn open 80 years ago." Slovakia, not surprisingly, bridled at such talk. Earlier this month, its parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion protesting the law's implementation.
Romania has also objected. In December, officials in Bucharest pledged to block the law unless some of the benefits, such as facilitated work permits, were extended to all Romanian citizens a concession that Hungary, under pressure, agreed to make. Still, local officials like Mayor Funar have threatened to fire civil servants who apply for the cards. Ordinary residents of Cluj-Napoca are also also worried. "It's like a fence that is being put up between two neighbors," frets Marinella Oancea, 54, a travel agent. "It's a provocation."
Hungary continues to insist the effort is benign. Kinga Gal, a senior official helping to oversee the program, says Budapest's main concern is illegal immigration from poorer neighbors once Hungary joins the E.U., as is expected by 2004. Providing a leg-up to ethnic Hungarians in countries outside an expanded E.U., she says, might dissuade them from rushing the border in years ahead. But analysts point out that Hungary may also be using the law as a way of importing cheap labor to make up for a shortage of skilled workers.
Economic disparities are clearly part of the problem. When people in the Romanian region of Transylvania struggle to put food on the table, watching a neighbor receive preferential treatment because of his birth is divisive. "The key thing is to get all these guys into the E.U. as quickly as possible," says a Western envoy in Bucharest. Even then, ethnic ties will still run deeper than lines on a map.