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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 25:171–187.


The European context of minority autonomies


During the last two decades of the 20th century steps more significant than ever have been taken in the field of the acknowledgement and legal stipulation of minority rights in the majority of the 45 states of Europe. It is indicated by the extension of language rights, by the expansion of the protection of cultural heritage over minority cultures, respect of ethnic specificities, further on by the acknowledgement of community traditions and linking the minority regions and cultural centres to the developmental programmes maintained by the state.

The regulation of minority rights and their inclusion in laws from Spain to the Republic of Moldova, from Great Britain to Macedonia may be regarded as completed in an increasing number of multiethnic states under the influence of external as well as internal factors, particularly under the mutually strengthening influence of the legal institutions of the international protection of minorities. Exclusive concepts on the nation-state have become untenable for several reasons. Regionalism, that has become stronger all over Europe as an ideology mobilising the revolt of regions, has disclosed the existence and demands of regional minorities insisting on their historical traditions, or being in a disadvantageous position, pushed to peripheries. Huge crowds of immigrant minorities from Great Britain to Austria, and from Russia to Italy in the past decade have been increasingly making sharp distinctions between the indigenous and immigrant minorities impossible to maintain.

Nevertheless, Europe and the European Union itself are far from reaching consensus at least on a minimum of minority rights in the Member States. There are rather significant differences in the philosophy and policy of law concerning the assessment of individual and collective rights and of political rights to be ensured to minorities, including, for instance, the justification of the existence of ethnic parties and parliamentary representation, or of their rights to self-government.

In addition to territorial (local, regional) and non-territorial (cultural or personal) forms of autonomy various functional forms of autonomies may ensure the possibilities of the survival and development of the self-identity, culture, language, birthplace, and community existence of minorities. The most general descriptive definition of minority autonomy may, therefore be built of the following elements:

– Autonomy may be the form of self-determination in states where the currently prevalent idea of the state does not exclude federalism, regionalisation and the establishment of autonomies. When evolving autonomies it is not necessary to federalise the entire state, because autonomy is an asymmetric, sub- and super-ordinate division of labour, and the majority social group would continue to have more rights than the minority groups in the entire country, as the latter ones would acquire rights to self-government only in issues of language, culture, education, etc.

– Autonomy offers means to retaining the individual and group identity of those belonging to minorities. The minorities may represent their cultural, economic, and social interests autonomously, the groups involved would acquire legislative, executive and juridical authorisation for the management of their own affairs, and may set up autonomous sets of institutions.

– Consequently, autonomy means the division of authority between the central state authorities and the institutions of autonomy. Constant co-operation is needed between the central government and the executive body of autonomies, and the inclusion of arbitration forums and organisations is needed for disputed issues.

– Autonomy may be created in different ways: a) Based on international treaty, amendment of the constitution, minority statute, or on historical or customary law; b) By the reform of the internal public administrative system of the state; c) By an internal self-determination of the minority community acknowledged by the majority and by the state; d) As a corollary of the transformation or disintegration of the given state; e) As a consequence of an international legal decision in the wake of conflicts resulting in changes of the external borders of the state, or of its internal administrative boundaries and spatial ethnic structure, or aiming at those prevention or their closing; f) As a result of an agreement between the states involved; d) By the development of the special status of the characteristic conditions of an area that can be well delineated geographically, ethnically, historically, etc. (for instance, the so-called island autonomies like on Greenland, the Faroe-islands, the Aland-islands, or Corsica within France, or of the specificities of Scotland and Wales as historical provinces); g) The international community may also play a major role as it is shown by the examples of Kosovo or Gagausia.

– Autonomy may only be modified with the agreement of the state and of the autonomous community. The conflict-potential of the autonomy of minorities may decrease with the gradual limitation of the sovereignty of states, as, for instance, the separating borders of the 20th century are being replaced by state borders of the type of linking and permeability, the Euro-regions create opportunities for the development of autonomous multicultural regions by linking the border regions of states.

– The safest means for hindering the further “Balkanisation” of Europe and particularly of the South-eastern and East Central European regions may again be offered by the development of the system of autonomies, for the autonomous regions and communities share state sovereignty without the dissolution of the original states.

– Minority autonomy is the highest level of collective rights acknowledged and guaranteed by the state for the minority community capable of self-organisation.

– The central government would transfer part of the exercise of authority to the governing body of the autonomy in a region inhabited by the minority in matters of the minority language, education, culture, religion, etc. In the wake of the processes of European regionalisation the financial, developmental, and political autonomy of the regions becoming increasingly vigorously autonomous point to the direction of the autonomy of multiethnic regions. It necessitates the development of multicultural models in the case of minorities living along borders or in regions of mixed ethnicity even within a given region.1

The 1991 November resolution of the European Parliament, dealing with Union citizenship stated that the identity of the historical ethnic and linguistic communities on the territory of Member States, in other words not that of the new immigrants, and the coexistence of different ethnicities should be supported and the real equality of citizens should be ensured. In addition efforts should be made for the preservation of the special local, regional or group forms of self-governance and for the promotion of co-operation among regions and stretching over state borders.

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1201 (1993) on the additional protocol on the rights of minorities to the European Convention on Human Rights, passed on 1 February 1993, dealt with the possibility of establishing minority autonomies. Article 11 of the Council of Europe Recommendation states that minorities having territorial or regional base should have the right to have at their disposal appropriate local or autonomous authorities or to have a special status of the already existing administration.2

In case a state guarantees the most important minority rights only for individuals belonging to minority communities, in other words, if it continues not to acknowledge minority groups, this approach is an unambiguous proof that the given state, based on its self-definition as a nation-state, identifies the political nation constituting the state society with the majority nation, and does not wish to ensure separate legal status to minority groups within it. In these states the legal guarantees, meant to safeguard the equality of minorities, end with the declaration of the individual rights to the use of languages, of culture and religious rights.

Clearly the situation of the ethnic groups and national minorities of West, East, South, and East Central Europe have been increasingly often attempted to be settled in some comprehensive system by analyses and political planners in the late 20th and the early 21st centuries. In the case of minority groups having a territorial base and compact ethnic settlement network it is definitely the various forms of autonomy and systems of minority self-government that are considered as comprehensive models for solution. Partly, because they may lay the foundations to a practice acceptable by the majority as well as by the minority, and partly the historical antecedents, the ethnic and regional conditions, internal self-determination and self-governance as well as the needs of governmental control can be equally asserted by them. In addition cultural autonomy based on the principle of persons can be applied even in states where minorities live in Diaspora-situation, in dispersion, and in addition, elements of territorial and cultural autonomy may be jointly applied in many different ways.3

Of the currently existing 45 countries of Europe there are only five countries that have chosen federation or symmetrical regionalisation as the actual form of the state, covering the entire state, in keeping with its multiethnic structure, such as: Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republic of Moldova. Switzerland, though, is not the federation of the Swiss national communities but of cantons, but the cantons cover the ethnic structure of the state, too. The basis of the regionalisation of Spain was again the joint set of criteria of the historical and the national. In Moldova, concerning the Russian majority Transdnestria where the legal authority of Kishinev has been nominal only since the armed conflict of 1992, neither the statute on autonomy of 1997, nor the federal plan of settlement, published by the Moldovan government on 9 July 2002, was implemented.4

Of the European states of the early 21st century the ethnic and national minorities have rights to self-governance based on ethnicity only in 18 countries, in other words, they have some form of autonomy based on the territorial or personal principle. The colourfulness of the practice of self-governance is indicated by the rather variegated ethno-political alternatives and solutions of autonomy. Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Russia, Serbia-Montenegro, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden belong to this group of states.5

The central state has renounced part of the exercise of authority in favour of the minorities concerned or part of them, the legislators and executive bodies of autonomies may make decisions on their own, or jointly with the central government and governmental organisations, or may dispose about issues delineated by the basic law of the autonomy.

The legal order of three states, such as Belgium, Spain, and Hungary, ensures that all principles of minority self-governance may assert themselves to some extent.

Those states constitute the next group where all the resident and not immigrant minorities of the given state are equally entitled to enjoy rights to self-governance, though they may be different in view of the demands and possibilities of the various minority groups. Estonia, Finland, Italy, Norway, Serbia-Montenegro, Sweden and Switzerland belong to this category. Those states may be classified under the third category where the various minorities occasionally have large-scale self-governing authorisation and forms of territorial and cultural autonomy, at the same time communities that may be more populous than the former ones are excluded from the enjoyment of self-government rights by the laws of the given state. Lithuania, Russia and Slovenia belong to this category.6

As far as the three specifically mentioned European models of autonomy are concerned, here again, significant differences may be found. The rigorous linguistic and institutional division of Belgium into Walloonia, Flanders and Brussels, further on to the German autonomous community is the exemplary variant of the Swiss type of separating self-governance, but its operational disturbances, the survival of separating lines between the communities indicate that the reserves of the Belgian model may be exhausted within a foreseeable time. In addition, when the country was divided by languages and regions no separate region was created for the German community, therefore that community cannot enjoy a significant part of ethnic rights related to regional public administration.7


On the Hungarian model of minority autonomy

The Hungarian model of minority self-governance that has evolved on the basis of Act XXXVII of 1993 on national minorities ensures individual and community rights to thirteen ethnic and national minorities, and has made possible the election and operation of local and national minority self-governments. Elements of cultural autonomy are mixed with those of territorial autonomy through the local minority self-governments in the Hungarian model in so far as the minority self-governments supplement to some extent the local self-governments in decisions related to minorities in settlements inhabited by them, and they can operate as partners in the most successful cases. The national minority self-governments can turn to the government and parliament, or other national, regional, and county organisations in the interest of protecting their specific minority interests.8

After the experimental period of the first ten years, the Hungarian government and legislature initiated the modification of Act LXXVII of 1993, in two fundamental questions, besides some minor alterations, in the interest of ensuring conditions that would allow for a real cultural autonomy of minorities. Accordingly, participation in the election of minority self-governments is linked to electoral lists and registration on them; and local minority self-governments can be set up only in settlements that are approved of by the functioning national minority self-governments. It is a major question, however, in what numbers the minorities of Hungary would register on the electoral list of the different minorities as currently the vast majority of them have a dual identity and it is mostly Hungarian language that dominates among them, and to what extent dual identity and the background of Hungarian language would prove to be suited for the development and operation of separate cultural and educational institutions.

The parliamentary ombudsman for minorities has been initiating the revision of the election and competencies of minority self-governments since 1998. In fact he did not find it acceptable that “active as well as passive rights to election at the elections of (local) minority self-governments are equal, every citizen possessing the right to vote, may participate either as a candidate or as a voter”.9 In an optimal case minority rights, including the right to elect minority self-governments, should relate only to groups that can be defined by nationality criteria. The published results of the 2001 census indicate, however, that the vast majority of persons belonging to national minority communities inhabiting settlements, define themselves as of dual identity in respect of nationality, culture, and language, they stated their dual attachment, and even possessing two mother tongues.

The modification of the law passed by the Hungarian government in the spring of 2004 is able to present the electoral register, representing only a formal legal solution, as a new tool and it may presumably mean a way out of the blind alleys of ‘ethno-business’ for minority groups that are able to find their balance in identity policy.10

A further major question is whether the Gypsy linguistic, regional and cultural communities, presenting marked internal differentiation on levels of self-confession, and ethno- and identity policy, corresponding to reality, would accept the framework conditions of a uniform Roma policy, and whether the different Roma groups, already confronted to each other on the basis of party politics, would be able to strive to achieve consensus.11 The future of the Hungarian minority self-governance depends on the acceptance of specific ethnic realities in spatial and identity structure, on the evolution of adequate institutional forms, on expanding the possibilities of co-operation between the spheres of self-government and civil society, and on the success of ethno-political programmes of multicultural, regional and integrative types. The demographic decrease suffered by the minorities in Hungary, together with the majority nation,  with the processes of changing language and identity that are apparently impossible to stop in several small traditional minority regions and cities of the country, would hardly justify the measures making the regulations more rigorous and well-founded in the formal legal sense of the term.

The urban structures are even more of the nature of Diaspora than the rural ones, which makes the establishment and maintenance of institutions and institutional operation more difficult even in the case of cultural autonomies when the concentrated and compact structures are missing. The assertion of the will of more populous minorities during the modification of the law mostly pushed the presentation of the specific interests of small communities into the background: small groups of a membership of few thousand or even less people, having only one or two traditional settlements or not having even those, would be able to utilise the otherwise rightly more rigorous system of self-governance to their benefit under the more difficult conditions.12


Autonomies of Hungarian minorities

The Hungarian minority communities have the legally guaranteed means of cultural autonomy in three of the seven states neighbouring Hungary: In Slovenia Article 63 of the Constitution of 1991 stipulates that the indigenous Italian and Hungarian communities, irrespective of the number of their members, may establish self-governing bodies and may make autonomous decisions in issues jointly defined with the state institutions.

Based on Act 57 of 1994, the Italian and Hungarian indigenous minorities may participate in the work of local self-governments and have a decisive role in affairs related to the minorities in “areas of mixed nationalities”. Act 65 of 1994 on the self-government of ethnic communities stipulates that the two indigenous minorities may set up separate territorial self-governing bodies in villages (and small areas comprising several villages) inhabited by them.13

The Croatian Constitution also acknowledges only the autochthonous minorities, including the Hungarian minority reduced during the war years, as factors constituting the state. On 13 December 2002, the Act on national minorities made possible the establishment of minority self-governments. The first elections were held in 2003. The self-governing representative bodies elected earlier were enlarged by further minority representatives depending on the proportion of minorities. In addition the minorities set up their minority self-governments on county, city and district levels and they have significant decision-making competencies related to minority affairs.14

The issue of the autonomy of the Hungarian minority in Serbia (Vojvodina) reached the phase of a worded and approved programme of autonomy. The general assembly of the Hungarian Democratic Community of the Vojvodina, led by András Ágoston, and held on 25 April 1992 at Magyarkanizsa, passed the draft of autonomy linking elements of cultural and territorial autonomy to the setting up of local self-governments of settlements of special status.

The Hungarian autonomy movements of the Vojvodina are characterised by three important features if compared to the efforts to reach autonomy by other minority Hungarians. First of all it was the context of the Yugoslav crisis and the South-Slav wars that simultaneously lifted the issue of the Hungarian minority into an international legal environment and separated it from the hot zones and conflicts of the crisis zone on the Balkans. Another important distinguishing feature was regionally joining of forces aiming at the restoration of the former autonomy of the multiethnic province of the Vojvodina that was missing in the case of all the other efforts of Hungarians achieving autonomy. Finally, there is a grave negative burden on the Hungarian autonomy movement of the Vojvodina at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries: the presumably deepest cleavage caused by the rivalry among the minority Hungarian parties was made by the disputed optimal form of minority autonomy, and modes and alternatives of the path leading to it and of selecting the potential allies.15


Plans for autonomy of minority Hungarians

From 1990 onwards the efforts of the Hungarian national minorities in Transcarpathia (Ukraine), in Slovakia and Transylvania (Rumania) for autonomy also regarded the forms of cultural and territorial autonomy, and the combination of local and settlement-level rights to self-governance as the most adequate expressions of their rights of internal national self-determination. A significant part of the three communities, different in size, live in areas that are ethnically compact ones. It is particularly in the case of the Hungarian minority living at the Transcarpathia that an opportunity for autonomy would offer itself, for more than 80 per cent of the community lives in an ethnic stripe parallel to the Hungarian state border, in settlements of Hungarian majority and contiguous in the districts of Beregszász, Nagyszőlős, Munkács and Ungvár. Despite the successful referendum of 1999 the authorities of Ukraine and the Transcarpathia were not susceptible and understanding regarding the idea of territorial autonomy, more over, they do not even allow the development of the set of institutions for cultural autonomy.16

The first Hungarian party founded in Slovakia, the Independent Hungarian Initiative (FMK), in its declaration of the programme of 19 January 1990, laid stress on that “the national minorities should reach full self-determination in the field of culture (including school education)”, besides legislating on collective rights. It would have meant, as the programme stated, that they wished to create the “full educational system of Hungarians in Czechoslovakia from créches to higher education” within a short period of time.17 Standing for self-governance was even of a more general validity and was included in a document passed jointly by the representatives of FMK and Publicity Against Violence, the movement conducting the change of the system in Slovakia. The declaration wished to lay down the principles of the “coexistence of nations, national minorities and ethnic groups”: “Starting from the collective rights of nations, national minorities and ethnic groups they are entitled to have self-governance in all issues that pertain exclusively to them, further on, they are entitled to make equal and joint decisions in all issues that relate to them as well.”18

Representatives of the two other Hungarian parties of Slovakia, formed in early 1990, the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement (MKDM) and the Coexistence Political Movement submitted a joint draft Constitution to the president of the Slovakian National Council during the closing phase of the partition of Czech-Slovakia in December 1992 “on the legal position of the national minorities and ethnic groups of the Slovak Republic”. The draft called the “national minorities and ethnic groups” factors constituting the state, and the minority rights as such natural rights that “cannot be withdrawn and cannot be eliminated”. In addition to the right to identity of minorities and to its preservation the draft wished to ensure the right of minorities to representation in parliament, to controlling minority rights, and further on the right to the birthplace, to the preservation and development of national heritage and to the preservation of the ethnic structure of their place of residence. The draft wished to assert the principle of self-governance by recommending “the right to self-governance in the field of education, culture and informatics, and the right to the administration of regions inhabited by minorities”. In addition the proposal also contained the right to maintain international relations and a proportionate and fair share of the budget.19

The Hungarian drafts of autonomy, made in the 1990s, may be classified behind the drafts of the Vojvodina due to their unclear theoretical background and mixed type of demands. At the same time it is a great advantage of the idea enjoying the already declared support and continuous solidarity granted to the lopsided but existing Hungarian settlements’ self-governments in Slovakia that the Hungarians living there in a compact settlement structure may be able to launch a model of democratic association in a favourable legal and political power field even by a minor modification of the current Slovakian system of self-governance, for instance, on the basis of a minority law of liberal spirit within the framework of the European Union.

It is not accidental that the history of the Hungarian autonomy plans of Transylvania is the most far-flung and contradictory. The Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (RMDSZ), though, has put the demand for autonomy into the focus of its programme ever since its foundation, yet the cause of minority self-governance in Transylvania seems to be rather hopeless due to a number of external and internal reasons, similarly to the case of the Transcarpathia. Drafts, and alternatives, however, were not missing.20

The authors of the Transylvanian autonomy plans of Hungarians try to describe and systematise the theoretical foundations of a solution of minority self-governance, even if on the basis of different theoretical starting points and political motivations, but always in due humility granted to the legal status considered as optimal from the angle of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, while involuntarily they mostly disregard the conditions of the Romanian public administration and the anti-autonomy behaviour of governmental policy. The majority of documents are closely linked to the principles of self-governance and autonomy worded as a strategic aim fixed in the programme of the RMDSZ.

The authors of the drafts tried to clarify first and foremost which combination of the territorial and cultural autonomies would be best suited to the Hungarian ethnic group of Romania living under conditions of bloc, mixed and dispersed communities in an ethnic sense of the term. Each author of the drafts was aware that it was only the mixed models that may be considered under the Transylvanian conditions, and even drafts pertaining to the territorial autonomy of the Székler land referred to self-governmental rights to be ensured to other small regions inhabited by Hungarians and to people living in dispersion.

In addition the autonomy drafts well document the continuous quest for a way out that wishes to find the possible modes of the amendment of the Romanian Constitution indispensable to the realisation of autonomy. So far the undisputable growth of the weight of local and county self-governments and the utilisation of opportunities deriving from the process of regionalisation seem to be the most fertile ideas, but every document contains allusions and references to the West European models of autonomy, to European recommendations, and to challenges of the process of integration.

The Romanian majority parties and the practice and experience of the governmental and opposition co-operation of the RMDSZ divided, and during 2003 and 2004 even politically split the Transylvanian Hungarian public life in the assessment of whether if was permissible and possible to “suspend”, even if temporarily, the autonomy programmes in the interest of changing the rigid refusal of the various pragmatic forms of co-operation by majority public opinion and of the Romanian political class. The makers and analysts of the autonomy plans therefore are continuously facing the contradictions between a model of consolidation and the models of autonomy.21

The Hungarian autonomy plans of the Carpathian Foothills, of South Slovakia and Transylvania are rather far from realisation. The internal and external discussions around them and the related analyses, however, were not at all in vain. Partly the domestic and foreign political interrelationships of efforts made for autonomy can be clarified, together with the historical determination of the autonomy plans, the reasons of majority refusal, and the order of steps necessary to obtain international support. It also requires detailed analysis how the different interpretations of autonomy could become issues leading to internal conflicts and party splits, and what role participation in government played in changing the behaviour of the minority Hungarian parties of the three countries.


Minorities of the East Central European region in the Union

The relationship between the majority and the minority can be assessed usually by three complex considerations in multiethnic states, such as:

– 1. What is the majority acceptance of minorities like, how strong prejudices against and separations from the minorities are, and what is the loyalty of minorities towards the state and majority nation like?

– 2. To what extent the majority and the minority are separated, and how far the minority groups have been integrated into the common society of the state? Is it the processes of assimilation, or those of integration that determine the daily existence of minorities? Do the minorities follow community patterns of development, of preserving and mediating values, or, are they forced to settle down for a defensive, folklore-making and tradition-saving behaviour?

– 3. How far the equality before the law and participation at various levels of political life are ensured for minorities within the common state? Does the majority acknowledge the community rights of the minorities; does it ensure a legal status for them that grants dominant decision-making rights in issues indispensable in the regions and settlements inhabited by them, or to the cultivation and development of their community identity?

The legal institutes of minority self-governance, such as personal or cultural autonomy, various forms of local, regional, or territorial autonomy represent the highest levels of regulation. The most important precondition of the acceptance of autonomy is a well-functioning set of democratic institutions, majority support, constitutional background, the creation of legal safeguards, a demand for subsidiary policy close to people, mutual trust and respect, pushing ethnic prejudices and conflict situations into the background, respecting the traditions of coexistence, and the loyalty of the minority community.

The Union enlargement process has focused attention to the unsolved nature of several important basic issues, and that too not only in the acceding states, but on the continent as a whole. The issue of the often unsettled public law status of minority communities is one of them. A settlement, however, requires the clarification of the possible community answers of minorities, and of their ethno-political and identity-political alternatives as well. Partly it would be important to develop the legal institutes and organisational background of community-level co-operation with the majority society and the metropolitan country. Partly the chances and feasibility of community programmes that suit best the conditions and demands of the minority group by arranging the ranking of short and long-term tasks of community building should be surveyed, together with the missing and necessary means, the resources and external supporters indispensable to the implementation of the programme.

The preference laws, the legal institutes of European citizenship and dual citizenship may simultaneously offer assistance to the minorities in the integrating East Central European space, but may also become sources of undesirable conflicts if mutual agreements are missing. Ultimately those measures would prove to be advantageous for the community-building of minority groups that offer a free acceptance of identity, a free choice of the place of residence and work, of school within the relationship between the community and the individual, and offer resources to livelihood and living standards in the birthplace and chosen place of residence comparable to the other countries of the region.

The East European process of enlargement in 2004 called the attention of everyone also to the importance of European basic values; reference should be made to the preservation of multicoloured culture, to the elimination of disadvantages deriving from regional differences, to the freedom of scientific research, to the free exchange of cultural values, to the unhindered operation of the economy, and to the free flow of labour. All these values may mean a meaningful gain to the minorities essentially interested in the dismantling of state borders if neither assimilation nor migration would threaten more their community existence than today.

A growing role attributed to honouring the basic values of democracy, to the quality of political culture and the freedom of civic organisations is an important consequence of the enlargement process besides considerations of security policy. Such political values have been put to the limelight together with general principles like freedom from discrimination, self-governance, regionalism, contacts to be kept without obstacles between nations, ethnic groups and cultures, multicoloured culture, and safeguarding the rights of ethnic groups of different languages, religion and culture.

The applicant and candidate countries’ set of democratic institutions, internal stability, including the proper handling of domestic and foreign political risk factors related to minorities played an important role among the conditions of accession set by the Council of Europe in the 1990s and later on by the European Union (Copenhagen criteria). The legal regulation of linguistic and educational rights was made a compulsory “homework” for states wishing to accede. And Mečiar’s Slovakia and Milošević’s Yugoslavia and all the states of the region with the exception of Romania in the early 1990s tried to meet these expectations in their own way.

From May 2004 onwards and following Austria that had become an EU-member earlier of the East Central European region, Hungary and two states of the seven neighbouring ones, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, and two states of the Visegrád Group became parts of the Union, hence they have once again become members of a common federation of states and community of nations, for the first time since 1918. The six states and another two or three countries of the region that may, hopefully, accede soon, may create safeguards at the peripheral regions of the Union in the first decade of the 21st century that would make these states and the nations living there suitable to catch up with the development in progress in the cores, and to eliminate the logic of stocks of the nation-state and to the free co-operation of regions and national communities. All this may be guaranteed by the consistent and joint assertion of the common principles and decisions within the Union.

It is Hungary of the newly acceded countries of the European Union that is most interested in the settlement of the minority issue. It has at least five important reasons, such as:

– Slowing down the advanced assimilation of the minorities living in Hungary, a cultural and linguistic re-vitalisation of those communities;

– The culture carrier and culture creating ability of Hungarian minority communities living in the seven states neighbouring Hungary. The mediating potential of the bilingual minorities is an irreplaceable factor in the integration of the region and in the maintenance of its cohesion.

– Insistence on belonging to the universal Hungarian cultural, linguistic and national community of the 2.5 million non-Hungarian citizens belonging to the minority Hungarian communities, their Hungarian identity, the economic weight of those communities, their ability to maintain and create culture, their linguistic, cultural, and political mediating, stabilising and initiating role;

– The specifically mixed ethno-regional structure of the East Central European region, and the peripheral situation of regions along the borders that have accumulated serious problems;

– A common task of the region: the hopeless situation of the Gypsy/Roma communities is demanding an urgent and effective solution.

The minority issue is the Archimedean point of democracy as it was defined by Oszkár Jászi almost one hundred years ago. Jászi pressed for the free use of language of minorities, their education in the mother tongue, and a good public administration close to the people in the minimum programme of the Hungarian nationality policy of the early 20th century, when he took into account signs of the disintegration of the Habsburg Monarchy and of the internal disintegration of the historical Hungarian Kingdom within it.22 A system that is unable to guarantee even these minimum conditions to its minorities on an adequate level endangers to some extent its own democratic setup and the realisation of the principle of the equality of citizens. In the early 21st century the principles listed by Jászi for the management of the minority issue are still valid without change. The documents for the protection of minorities that regulate the rights of the European minorities on an international level since 1989, have basically laid down the linguistic and educational rights of minorities, too, and have partly made them controllable on the basis of reports demanded from states.

The most important safeguards of equality are still the assurance of rights to the mother tongue and to education for ethnic groups living in minority position and to people belonging to those communities, identical with the rights of those who live in majority position, as well as good public administration, and they constitute some form of autonomy in the current European ethno-political approach. Significant changes have already taken place in the East Central European minority communities and in the public administration of territories inhabited by them, further on, in the regulation of the use of language and cultural rights of minorities.

Is it possible to find reassuring solutions for all in an integrating East Central European space with the logic of the nation-state and the reflexes of a centralised state for issues like massive migration accompanying the free flow of labour, the free choice of school, and the differences of living standards among countries? Is it possible to halt the assimilation of minorities, separated for decades or centuries from the centres of their cultures, by governmental programmes, or the total squeezing of the Roma communities to the periphery of the society? How can a public life free of discrimination be guaranteed, how could those processes of segregation be stopped that push groups in a disadvantageous position, and primarily the communities of the Roma, and regions (such as the border regions along the Trianon borders that have become peripheries in the sense of economy, infrastructure and labour market) into ever more difficult situations? The right to self-governance of minorities and regions inhabited by them, minority autonomy is one of the most effective legal and political means to handle the above issues effectively. The autonomy of minority ethnic groups is not only the most important tool for sharing authority, but also for sharing responsibility and for a distributive nationality policy.

The development of autonomies is an extremely important legal institute for the prevention and management of conflicts, for ensuring the symbolic and real exercise of power, and representation of minority groups, for a fruitful dialogue between the majority and the minority, and for the elimination of differences among small areas and regions and of ethnic prejudices.

Emigration has been reduced to a practically negligible level in communities that are assured of their cultural and linguistic rights and that can exercise their rights to self-governance. Taking over the management of their own affairs by the minority Hungarian communities in Transylvania, in the Vojvodina (Serbia-Montenegro) and at the Transcarpathia, ensuring local decision-making competencies and the means to implementation would mean more than any subsidy granted by foundations for really progressing in their birthplace. Naturally it should be just as importantly in the interest of the respective states, for the fastest road not only to internal stability, but also to the economic strengthening of the minority regions currently in a difficult situation, would also lead via self-governance and forms of regional autonomy.23

Hungary unambiguously indicated by its committed activity for spelling out minority rights when the final text of the European Constitution was discussed, that it made efforts to play its role deriving from its additional interests and constitutional obligations. Luckily Hungarian diplomacy is not left alone in this effort. The Recommendation passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, based on the Gross Report made for it, advises the Council of Ministers to prepare an international legal agreement that would be based on principles worded in the draft of the European Charter of regional self-governments, and would consider the experiences of the Member States, and would allow for the acknowledgement and support of the common principles of the forms of regional and cultural autonomy.23

There is hope on this basis for the Hungarian national minorities living in the neighbouring countries and for the non-Hungarian ethnic groups living in Hungary that their efforts to obtain autonomy would not only be favourably received and supported by some states and governments. Despite every counter-effort and the phobia of autonomy in the case of some states concerned, the international organisations also begin to understand that minority autonomies under democratic conditions offer suitable legal frameworks for the prevention of conflicts as well as for a lasting and mutually advantageous, controllable regulation of the relations between majorities and minorities.




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