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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:171–174.


Variations on Autonomy


Since the end of World War II the main objective of peoples and their governments has been peace and stability and not expansion (even at the cost of waging war). Some two hundred years ago, at the time of the Congress of Vienna it was generally accepted that there would be peace and stability if everyone kept still and accepted the existing political and social conditions. Surely the existing empires, particularly the autocratic ones, could behave a bit more honestly but the map should be preserved as it is.

Then almost one hundred years ago another solution emerged. It was advocated and symbolised by the American President Woodrow Wilson. Empires were not good, for they were multinational, oppressing their peoples, therefore, based on the example of the western side of Europe, where most nations have an independent State, that principle should be applied everywhere and in Central Europe, too, each national group should be helped to set up an independent state of its own. In the central and eastern part of Europe, however, only fictitious nation-states were established with sizeable national minorities who either desired autonomy themselves or wished to belong to another country and to their fellow nationalities. The problem was not primarily antipathy between nations (going back usually to historical, or religious reasons), in other words not the relations between Poles and Lithuanians, Hungarians and Romanians, or Serbs and Croats, but the fact that the majority nations did not treat the minorities with the magnanimity that would have been dictated by idealism, honesty and good will.

Almost one hundred years ago an English political writer, Norman Angell stated that “if every Britain has its Ireland (at that time Ireland was not yet an independent state, it was a province of the United Kingdom), every Ireland has its Ulster”. In other words, there was a Northern Ireland of Protestants, insisting on British supremacy inside the Catholic Ireland demanding independence. Well, this holds true even today. In fact few among the present leaders of international life are aware of this fact. When Hungary was a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 1992, and I represented Hungary because of József Antall’s illness, I had a talk with UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. It happened before the Bosnian crisis. I told him that at last an enduring cease-fire had been reached between Serbs and Croats but further conflicts should be avoided by preventive diplomacy, by the deployment of observers and UN troop. This is how the talk reached the point when the UN Secretary-General said: the UN had at least 170 member states but the Secretariat had found that if every potential nation, nationality and separatist movement had accomplished its aim then about five hundred states would be formed. The UN would not be able to manage that situation. Therefore everything should be left as it was. Apparently the world is still thinking that way. It can be added that if stability is shaken somewhere, it will certainly result in huge motion and further conflicts.

Yet, I am of the view that if a very distant and totally unbiased observer was appointed to settle the conflict that has emerged in the Balkans, after getting profoundly familiar with the conditions there, he/she would realise the rather evident fact that it especially applies for the region what also characterises the majority of the world, namely that primary loyalty is not towards territory but to the nation, the clan, the tribe and to ethnicity. That is not altered by the fact either that the given group has lived under a different sovereignty for decades or even for longer. As it could be experienced in the case of Poles after their partition in 1795: the dissatisfaction of the nation living within the framework of three empires did not abate, and the separated parts constantly strove for and dreamed about ways of reunion. In these ‘Pan’ (Pan-Slavic, Pan-German and Pan-Arab) or ‘Irredentist’ (Italian, Romanian and later on Hungarian) movements for the reunification of territories it was always forgotten that other peoples also lived on the claimed and disputed territories. When Milošević declared the principle that every Serb had to live in one state he forgot or rather disregarded the fact that in the imaginary state where all Serbs would be united there would be several million non-Serbs as well.

The problem is the same, either in a narrower sense in Kosovo, or in a broader one in the entire Balkans. If the independence of Kosovo is realised, it can only be a short-term solution. It would solve the hottest problem, namely that the Albanians do not in any way want to live together with Serbs after the events of the past one hundred and particularly the past twenty years. Today they would even be able to show resistance (with highly effective means) if a Serbian military attack tried to restore nominal unity. At the same time nowadays the entire world is greatly worried for the few per cent of Serbs living in Kosovo. I am also worried, it is right to be anxious about all minorities and to support their survival. But here we have a very small community; about one hundred thousand people in absolute numbers, in addition a significant part of them live in diasporas, not close to the Serbian border. This makes their proper protection difficult. At the same time, if an independent Kosovo was acknowledged, there would emerge the threat of a chain reaction in the sense that if the Albanians of Kosovo were permitted to separate then why should the Serbs of Bosnia, the Albanians of Macedonia, or even the Hungarians of Vojvodina, etc. not do the same? Hence that unprejudiced observer who is not influenced by power relations would probably suggest to proceed in the way outlined by President Wilson in the White House in 1917–18. Well, if the peoples of Austria–Hungary do not want to stay together, let us see on the map how it can be realised. He did appoint a group consisting of expert scholars to study the ethnic and geographic maps and to draw the new borders. I would not even say that it would be impossible to create more just borders in the Balkans that would reflect the distribution of ethnic groups better than the present ones. Let us confess that more people would be satisfied than dissatisfied by a major redrawing of the Balkan borders. It has already been listed how many dissatisfied groups there are in the Balkans and if they were provided greater opportunity they would shout even louder where they wanted to belong to.

If we do not brave the redrawing of the borders in the Balkans because it is most rigidly opposed by the world today, the question arises whether there is a solution that would ease dissatisfaction and preserve peace? Because it is obvious that new problems would emerge if Kosovo became independent even inside the new country and in its immediate neighbourhood.

Another and apparently optimal solution is the one proposed by the international community, and particularly by the United States and the European Union, namely that Kosovo and the whole of Europe and even the world should become multiethnic and multicultural. This is a lovely idea, wishful thinking, the only problem is that it does not really work anywhere. People of different colour and religion, belonging to different tribes have been killing each other recently in Africa in Darfur and Kenya, yesterday in the Congo, the day before yesterday in Rwanda and Uganda, and earlier in Nigeria. In tolerant Western Europe the robberies, riots and other violent crimes of the recently immigrated Asians, Africans and Muslims have become daily events. Had the world consisted of saints or very sober people the multicultural model might work, for it is not nice to be prejudiced towards fellow human beings and citizens and neighbours even if they speak a different language and follow a different religion. But unfortunately this is not the case; the world is full of such prejudices, particularly if daily experience reinforces the difficulties of co-existence.

For a very long time I have considered autonomy (territorial self-government or collective rights for all members of a given national/ethnic group) as an ideal solution (at least here, in Central and Southeastern Europe). This is the only chance for the survival of peace and stability here, so that people should not be incredibly unhappy and the majority should not torment the minority. Autonomy is truly an alternative to separatism, though many states think that it is only the anteroom of separation. In many cases, however, there is no way of separation because the population is mixed or the given minority is an ethnic island. Autonomy based on ethnicity, i.e. the Swiss solution based on cantons where most of the cantons are unilingual and belong to one national group, is an excellent solution, but it is only possible in a few places in the Balkans. That had to be recognised at the time of the settlement of the Bosnian situation. Therefore it is autonomy based on the personal principle that offers a solution, which was raised more than one hundred years ago by Otto Bauer in the Monarchy. Even earlier Kossuth mentioned it as an example in his proposal for a Danube Confederation that religious denominations did not necessarily mean religious wars in Europe because autonomous religious groups could very well co-exist within a large area. The solution is to achieve that each ethnic group should have an opportunity to live as it wishes with a school system and local administration organised and led by members of their own nation. All this could be nicely elaborated and it would not only bring the Kosovo question to a standstill but also the broader issue, the matter of the entire powder keg of the Balkans. Unfortunately, however, the international community is not famous for its fantasy, but for seeking short-term solutions of as little complications and conflicts as possible. It appeases the most aggressive ones, those who happen to have lots of arms, or who are most belligerent. I have put forward my proposal as a modest wish and for the time being I see little inclination, and hence little chance for its realisation. We may still expect lots of problems and ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and all over the world.


* Former Minister of Foreign Affairs