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Hungary’s century of anger

A 100-year-old treaty is stoking tensions in Central Europe.

Hungary’s neighbors will be watching wearily on Thursday as Hungarians commemorate the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a post-World War I agreement that saw the country lose most of its territory — including parts of what are now Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.

“The diktat saw two-thirds of the country’s territory and 63 percent of its population shorn from us; thus 1 in 3 Hungarians found themselves outside our borders. The verdict was obviously a death sentence,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in his state of the nation address earlier this year.

Hungary is pulling out all the stops for the big day, with a special parliamentary debate, a flurry of commentary and new film set to air on state television. Budapest’s opposition mayor, Gergely Karácsony, has asked that all buses, trams and metro cars stop at 4:30 p.m. to observe a moment of silence.

“Romania has no reason to be worried about the regrets some are manifesting about the Treaty of Trianon.” — Valentin Naumescu, associate professor at BabeÅŸ-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca

The commemoration comes at a tense time for the region, weeks after Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was fined by the country’s National Council for Combating Discrimination over comments regarding Romania’s Hungarian minority. The president had accused the rival Social Democratic Party of “fighting in secret offices in parliament to hand over Transylvania to the Hungarians.” He was fined 5,000 Romanian lei, or around €1,000, but described the fine as “profoundly political” and said he would appeal.

Last month, Orbán sparked controversy across the region by wishing high school students good luck with a history exam in a Facebook post featuring a map of historical Hungary.

“It is understandable and right that the recurring postings of maps which could be understood as an expression of territorial claims are met with rejection and concern by the democratic public and politics, including me as the president of the republic,” Slovenian President Borut Pahor told local media in response.

For many Hungarian speakers living in surrounding countries, June 4, 1920 is a defining moment in history.

“Given that this is the date when the Hungarian community of Transylvania became a minority, it is certainly not a day for celebration for us,” said Loránt Vincze, a member of the European Parliament representing the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

“This is the starting moment of a long period of redefining us, of trying to find new ways to survive and to succeed,” he told POLITICO.

While some of Hungary’s neighbors are now fellow EU and NATO members, the Treaty of Trianon remains among the most controversial and sensitive issues in the region’s politics, made all the more complex by Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany and attempts to reclaim the lost lands during World War II.

Over the past few years, tensions have simmered as Budapest raised concerns over the rights of Hungarian-speaking communities in Romania and Ukraine, while officials in surrounding countries looked on with discomfort as Orbán’s government poured large sums of money into Hungarian-speaking areas in neighboring states. Last year, the Hungarian government withdrew financial backing for a festival in Slovakia organized by a far-right group after its support for the event came under scrutiny.

Keeping the memory alive

Unlike some of his political rivals, Orbán grasped early on the power of Trianon in the popular imagination, even for people who were born decades after the treaty was signed. A survey conducted in 1991 across Europe found that Hungary, which had just become a democracy, had the largest majority of respondents claiming that pieces of neighboring countries belong to them — 68 percent.

Each year, the Hungarian leader’s most important political speech takes place not in Hungary, but in Romania. He often refers to the treaty — telling his supporters about a glorious past that was unfairly taken away.

A decade ago, Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party extended citizenship and voting rights to Hungarian-speakers in surrounding countries — who have become among the party’s most loyal voters. The Fidesz party’s delegation to the European Parliament currently includes one member from the Hungarian-speaking community in western Ukraine.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán | Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary “has a constitutional responsibility toward Hungarians living abroad,” Vincze said. “This is not about turning back the clocks or questioning borders.”

He added, “What Hungary wants is a solid minority-majority relationship in each state, that creates the conditions for the Hungarian communities to flourish, doubled by a strong bilateral relationship with Slovakia, Romania, Serbia because that is again the way the Hungarian communities would benefit the most.”

But while Orbán has cultivated good ties with some regional leaders and avoided any talk of changing borders, some people close to Fidesz have hinted at such hopes.

“Both sides are exploiting ethnic issues for electoral gain,” said Romanian MEP Cristian Ghinea, who represents the Union to Save Romania.

“Iohannis used wording and a tone that were unprecedentedly aggressive,” Ghinea said. “But in my view the blame for the current tensions lies in Budapest. Orbán seeks to feed nostalgia and revanchism with his campaign around the Trianon anniversary.”

Yet experts say that Budapest’s nationalist rhetoric is not taken seriously in Bucharest.

“Of course Viktor Orbán will instrumentalize the Trianon anniversary” — Michal Šimečka, Slovak MEP 

“Romania has no reason to be worried about the regrets some are manifesting about the Treaty of Trianon,” said Valentin Naumescu, associate professor of international relations at BabeÅŸ-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca, who is also a former high-ranking diplomat.

Romania’s and Hungary’s membership of NATO and the EU “consolidates the post-war European order,” he said.

In Hungary, not everyone shares the government’s approach to history.

“Trianon currently has no relevance, it’s Fidesz’s nationalist narrative to create animosity with neighboring nations,” said MEP Attila Ara-Kovács, a member of Hungary’s opposition Democratic Coalition, who grew up in Romania.

All of Hungary’s current borders “were set not in Trianon but in Paris in 1947,” he said, referring to the postwar peace treaties, adding that the Hungarian government’s approach to Trianon “weakens the EU’s cohesion.”

Some politicians in neighboring countries see the EU as a tool for overcoming divisions over Trianon.

“Of course Viktor Orbán will instrumentalize the Trianon anniversary,” said Slovak MEP Michal Å imečka, a member of Progressive Slovakia. “Fortunately, European Union membership provides a powerful antidote, allowing Hungarians, Slovaks and others in Central Europe to relate to the past — and come to terms with the past — without reigniting old divisions and grievances.”

He added, “For me, it is crucial that ethnic Hungarians feel at home in Slovakia — that means not only the highest legal guarantees of their minority rights, but also the freedom to pursue and cultivate their Hungarian identity, which includes Trianon, even if Slovaks have a different perspective on the events of 1920.”

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