Pieter Stockmans volgt het mondiale optreden van de Europese Unie, het Europese vluchtelingenbeleid, de evoluties in Midden-Europa en de regio ten oosten van de EU.
How Viktor Orbán is annexing the Hungarian minority in Romania
In the heart of Romania, there is a Hungarian enclave: Székely Land. Since 2011, Hungarians living abroad have been able to apply for citizenship of their country of origin and vote there. It marks Viktor Orbán’s broader policy of incorporating these Hungarians into his sphere of influence. MO* journalist Pieter Stockmans cycled 530 kilometres through Székely Land. “The Hungarian government is exporting hatred of ‘Brussels’ and ‘migrants’ here.”
“Trianon!,” says Reverend Mihály Kiss. As he walks with Hungarian tourists among the tombs at his seven-century-old church, we put our bikes against the church wall. “If those walls could speak, they would tell our millennial history in this place,” he says.
We wanted to ask him some questions about the Nationality Act of 2011, but he says the word before we can finish our sentence: Trianon. It is the name of the treaty that forced the Kingdom of Hungary in 1920 to cede 70 per cent of its territory, including Transylvania to Romania.
Neighbouring Slovakia never accepted the possibility of dual citizenship.
91 years later, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán became the man who brought the lost Hungarians back home. His government created a simplified naturalisation procedure in 2011: anyone abroad who speaks Hungarian and proves Hungarian ancestry can get Hungarian papers. The law was supposed to “reconnect the cross-border Hungarian nation” and “contribute to a peaceful future based on cooperation of the peoples.”
A total of 1.1 million of the 4 million Hungarians living abroad (including in Serbia and Ukraine) have already been granted Hungarian citizenship. Ukraine recently abolished the possibility of dual citizenship.
The government of neighbouring Slovakia condemned the Hungarian Nationality Act as a “security threat.” It never accepted the possibility of dual citizenship.
The Romanian government did not budge. Attila Korodi, mayor of Csíkszereda, the de facto capital of Székely Land, explains: “The model for the Hungarian law was a Romanian law that allowed Moldovans to apply for Romanian citizenship.” Korodi knows this from his time as minister in the Romanian government.
Since 2011, 600,000 Hungarians in Romania were granted Hungarian citizenship. That is half of all Hungarians in Romania.
We connect villages and towns into a 530-kilometre cycling route. Székely Land has its own flag, which we see flying on houses. Inside, the Hungarian flag hangs next to it.
In this part of Transylvania, with the Szeklers in the far east, Hungarians are the majority unlike in the rest of Transylvania. The Szeklers are a Hungarian-speaking ethnic group who were stationed in this area by Hungarian kings as military border guards. Indeed, this had long been the border between Hungarian Transylvania and Ottoman Moldova. As a result of the Treaty of Trianon — 1920, you may recall — they suddenly found themselves living in the centre of Romania, far from the new Hungarian border.
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu implemented a policy of “Romanianization” in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Szeklers shudder when we bring his name up. “The feeling of being disconnected from the motherland became even stronger as a result,” points out journalist Peter Kovács. “That is why many Hungarians do not trust the Romanian state and political parties.”
‘I did not apply for those Hungarian papers. I don’t want to be associated with a dictator.’
Romanianization is still visible today in the town halls, such as the town hall of Farkaslaka, where everyone is Hungarian. Mayor Lehel Kovács casually walks past the wall on which only the village’s Romanian name is written: Lupeni. Once, the Hungarian language was not allowed here, even in a municipality with only Hungarians. Today, that identity is written in black and white on an identity card in that same mayor’s pocket. “Thanks to this card, we no longer feel like a minority in Romania, but as a majority connected to the country of our identity,” he says.
Should Hungarians abroad get Hungarian papers? Back in 2004, the government of then Hungarian prime minister Gyurcsány put that question to the Hungarian people. The referendum was invalid due to a low turnout.
“The Hungarian government helped spread propaganda that we would work at low wages in Hungary and take away the jobs of Hungarians,” says Andrea Bakai, a teacher in a Hungarian primary school in Ákosfalva. 2004 is etched in the memory of many Szeklers as a rejection by their own nation. A second Trianon, according to some.
Although that seems exaggerated, the ignorance and indifference in “the motherland” hurt Transylvanian Hungarians. Kata Szabo, a young teacher, testifies: “When I studied in the Hungarian capital Budapest, people were surprised that I came from Romania and spoke Hungarian so well. In Hungary we are Romanians, in Romania we are Hungarians.”
When the Orbán government decided to make Hungarian citizenship accessible, it was a historic moment for Székely Land. Kata did not cheer: “I did not apply for those Hungarian papers. I don’t want to be associated with a dictator.”
“We are not Roma”
Andrea Bakai waited five years and then changed her mind anyway. “I don’t need a piece of paper to confirm that I am Hungarian. But my mother is old. Should she suddenly need heavy medical treatment, then Hungarian healthcare is better. Which requires less hassle if you have Hungarian papers.”
Monika Fekete works in a bakery. She too says she does not need the papers, “but my children do. They will find it easier to build a future outside Romania. The Hungarian passport also has a better reputation. With the Romanian papers, many abroad think we are part of the Roma-people.”
Being able to travel more easily with her children, in turn, is Monika Bertalan’s motivation. “My husband and I just got Hungarian papers this week,” she says at a folk music festival in the tourist resort of Szovata. “With our Romanian papers we would have to apply for another passport for our children, with the Hungarian ones we would not.”
Judith Tar Ildiko also travels often, outside Europe. With the Hungarian passport, which can be applied for after getting the citizenship, you need visas for fewer countries.
At Erdőszentgyörgy cemetery, the headstones show only Hungarian names. One is Endre Szöts, Judith’s grandfather. Judith runs the grocery shop next to the church. She pulls out an original photograph of the man from 1916. He is wearing the military uniform of the Austro-Hungarian army.
‘I explained the procedure of the Nationality Act from a to z during my sermons.’
Iszloi Béla, pastor in Parajd, Szeklerland, Romania
When Judith heard about the Hungarian papers in church a decade ago, she asked the pastor to dig up her grandfather’s birth certificate in the church registers. With that, she went to the Hungarian consulate in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca. Shortly afterwards, they were granted Hungarian citizenship. “We didn’t get it, we regained what was taken from us,” Judith corrects us with a smile.
We cycle on to Parajd, where church bells lure the inhabitants out of their houses. Reverend Iszloi Béla towers high above the faithful on his pulpit. “The church is the place where the nation is held together,” Béla says as he welcomes us to his official residence after the church service.
The pastors play a leading role in the renewed attachment of Transylvanian Hungarians to Hungary. They still reach many people in the villages. The Hungarian consulates in Romania therefore sent information about the application procedure to the churches immediately. “I explained the procedure of the Nationality Act from a to z during my sermons,” says the pastor.
In the central square in Cluj-Napoca, a Eurotrans advertising panel catches our attention. It is in the display window of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), the Hungarian minority party. Their Eurotrans Foundation receives €800,000 a year from the Hungarian government to help with the application process. We step into the office. “You can apply every day at the Hungarian consulate,” says a staff member. “But not everyone can just go to the city, so Eurotrans itself goes to the villages.”
The campaign is running at full speed: advertisements appear weekly on Eurotrans’ Facebook page with specific dates and addresses where their staff will be present to help with the paperwork. Pastors also announce the days when Eurotrans comes to their congregations.
The Hungarian papers also give the right to vote in Hungarian elections. 318,083 of the 1.1 million Hungarians abroad actually did so in the Hungarian parliamentary elections in April 2022. Of the 600,000 Hungarians with Hungarian citizenship in Romania, just over a third of them — 205,257 — also did so.
Does Prime Minister Orbán really need their votes? Transylvanian Hungarians barely determine one or two seats in the Hungarian parliament.
Cycling through the heart of Székely Land, we philosophise on this question. “Not today, but yesterday and tomorrow he does need their votes,” says our interpreter, entrepreneur Szilárd Simon. “In 2011, Orbán’s Fidesz party was looking for every vote, to win its two-thirds majority. And in the future too, the Transylvanian vote may be decisive.”
It was so four years ago. Levente Kovács, chairman of DAHR in Marosvásárhely, said it’s “fake news” to claim that Transylvanian Hungarians are “electoral cattle for Fidesz”. But even he acknowledged: “In 2018, Fidesz reached the two-thirds majority with just one seat. So the Transylvanian vote can count.”
And that vote went almost entirely — 96 per cent to be precise — to Fidesz. Almost everyone votes for Orbán’s party. That has to do with the Hungarian minority party DAHR. They earned their stripes in the fight for minority rights in Romania long before Orbán came to power in Hungary. Teacher Andrea Bakai gets straight to the point: “I am voting for DAHR in the Romanian elections because I am Hungarian. Simple. I don’t vote based on ideology, but national identity. Ideologies don’t exist anymore anyway. Then I might as well support my community.”
‘Ideologies don’t exist anymore anyway. Then I might as well support my community.’
Andrea Bakai, Transylvanian-Hungarian teacher in Romania
DAHR has had a well-oiled electoral machine for decades. For Orbán, it came down to putting that machine at the service of his own party, so that he would bring in all Transylvanian Hungarians in one swoop. In other words: getting DAHR to behave like the Transylvanian branch of Fidesz.
Journalist Peter Kovács, who was active in DAHR, regrets this development. “The previous DAHR-president also wanted good relations with the Hungarian government, regardless of which parties were in that government.” But DAHR, of course, also knows that Fidesz is coinciding with the Hungarian state for more than a decade.
Hunor-János Koncz, mayor of the small town of Székelykeresztúr, explains the voting procedure for the Hungarian elections: “We have 2,700 voters in our municipality, so we receive 2,700 voting letters from Budapest. People receive those letters through the post. They vote at home, put their ballot papers in an envelope, DAHR picks them up and sends them to a Hungarian consulate in Romania.” But at the same time, DAHR is campaigning for Orbán. That looks like a conflict of interest.
This “overt campaigning” goes a long way. We learned from an anonymous source within a municipal administration in Romania that their officials called all voters to urge them to vote for Fidesz in the Hungarian parliamentary elections of April 2022. The mayor of the municipality concerned does not confirm this, but does say: ‘We encourage our residents to apply for Hungarian papers and use their right to vote in Hungary. For us it is simple: we support in Hungary the political party that supports us.”
Hungarian citizenship and voting rights for Hungarians abroad are just the tip of the iceberg. “Nationalism is just the cover to hide the grip on the economy,” says Attila Gáspárik, professor at the University of the Arts in Marosvásárhely. The Orbán enclave in Romania is taking shape in a blitz campaign of takeovers in media, education and the economy. The Hungarian government is buying up all the major Hungarian media in Transylvania, just as it did in Hungary.
‘The Hungarian government exports hatred of ‘Brussels’ and ‘migrants’ to Transylvania.’
Ufó Zoltán, independent journalist
We descend in a whirlwind from the roof of Székely Land, the Madarasi Hargita at 1801 metres, and arrive in the town of Székelyudvarhely. There we speak to Ufó Zoltán in a small room above a café, where he writes for the independent journalism website Átlátszó Erdély.
Átlátszó tries to gain insight into media takeovers by the Hungarian government. “Over the past three years, the Hungarian government has pumped almost €20 million into the Transylvanian Media Association through the Gábor Bethlen Fund,” says Zoltán. “That is as much as the total subsidies from the Romanian government for the entire Hungarian minority in Romania.”
There are still independent media outlets. Peter Kovács is editor-in-chief of Koloszvári Radio, a Transylvanian-Hungarian radio station that does not depend on the Hungarian government. During Hungarian elections, he invariably invites Hungarian opposition leaders, which has brought him fierce criticism.
Hungarians in Romania mostly watch Hungarian television channels. But the Orbán government’s propaganda messages, meanwhile, are already being spread through the newspapers and television channels of the Transylvanian Media Association itself. “The Hungarian government exports hatred of ‘Brussels’ and ‘migrants’ to Transylvania,” says Zoltán. “People with dissenting views are scolded as ‘liberals.’ That was certainly not the case here before Orbán.”
“I can no longer talk to my parents about politics. Even logical arguments they angrily reject,” our interpreter Szilárd adds. He has a hard time with it. One example: residents of Székelyudvarhely called the police after noticing a group of dark-skinned motorcyclists in their town. They thought they were “migrants.” They turned out to be tourists from Israel.
The Szeklers are sucked into the Hungarian media’s subtle pro-Putin messages, and this worries Peter Kovács. He says the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory awakened a deep longing in the Szeklers. “The idea that Putin will help us annex Transylvania to Hungary is completely irrational. But if you keep cherishing the trauma of Trianon, you make people long for that.”
Szilárd shows a picture of the Hungarian government’s new propaganda campaign: “Brussels sanctions are destroying us,” referring to EU sanctions against Russia. The word “sanctions” is written on a bomb. “Not Russian bombs, but Brussels ones,” Szilárd notes. That is what Peter Kovács means by “subtle pro-Putin messages.” It pains him that DAHR, a pro-Western party with deep roots in Romania’s anti-communist struggle, is being drawn towards Russia.
“Our attention is being focused on symbolic issues, while we taunt the services we can enjoy as Romanian citizens,” says Kovács. He gives the example of child allowance: “Hungarian papers give access to child allowance, on condition that the child attends a Hungarian school. But that is purely symbolic. Orbán gives us 60 euros of child money per year. The Romanian government, on the other hand, pays billions every year for free education.”
Under Ceaușescu, Hungarian schools were banned. Today, the Romanian Education Ministry also organises Hungarian primary schools. “But in the remote areas of Székely Land, the Romanian state remains absent. That gap is filled by Hungary. Schools and nurseries were built in these isolated valleys with funds from the Hungarian government,” says Kata Szabo. She followed Dutch Studies in Budapest and is an English teacher in Csíkszereda. She lives in a small village behind the Gyimes Pass.
‘Many Romanian policymakers don’t mind that Hungarians speak bad Romanian here. Then they will move to Hungary later and get rid of them here.’
Attilla Korodi, mayor of Csíkszereda
“Our children grow up in Hungarian at home, but in class we had to use the same textbook Romanian as Romanian children,” she says indignantly. “That’s absurd, isn’t it?” Romanian teacher Andrea Bakai concurs: “Hungarian children should learn Romanian as a foreign language, like English. Many children speak Romanian badly. That can cause problems later when they have to integrate into society and look for a job.”
Only recently, DAHR was able to obtain a ruling in the Romanian parliament that allows Hungarian schools to teach Romanian as a foreign language.
Mayor Attila Korodi thinks the Romanian government has been in no hurry to do so all this time: “Many Romanian policymakers don’t mind that Hungarians speak bad Romanian here. It’s a way to get rid of them, because some will move to Hungary later. Romanian education policy does not cover the needs of the Hungarian community 100%. And where Romania fails, only the mother nation can provide the services. This is the only way to break the assimilation and emigration trend.”
In doing so, the mother nation is taking a three-pronged approach. It founded the Hungarian Sapientia University in Marosvásárhely, even surprising the DAHR. It is a private university within the Romanian legislative framework, but it is fully funded by the Hungarian government. The Romanian state pays for higher education in the Hungarian language at only one place: the Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. But there are not enough available places for Hungarian students.
“Buying back Transylvania”
In Szentegyháza, we climb past a construction site with a ski station under construction. It is one of the many projects of Attila Balazs, a wealthy businessman and one of Orbán’s stooges in Transylvania. “With funds from the Hungarian government, he buys and builds tourist sites, hotels, castles and even airports,” says journalist Ufó Zoltán.
Orbán makes huge budgets available to all kinds of foundations in Transylvania. Those foundations award projects to companies owned by certain businessmen who act like oligarchs in the service of the Hungarian government and the Fidesz party. “They once lost Transylvania politically, but are now buying it back,” says Zoltán.
Since 2017, Hungarian farmers and Transylvania’s tourism investors have been able to get money from a Hungarian government economic development programme. The Pro Economica Foundation distributes those grants. “For example, our residents were already able to buy modern agricultural machinery and an investor was able to buy our Soviet-era milk powder factory and keep jobs,” says Elemér Laczkó, mayor of Gyergyóremete. That investor is, again, Attila Balazs.
‘You will find few Hungarians left in Romanian institutions such as the army, police or national sports teams. Orbán is weaning them off Romanian society.’
Attilla Gáspárik, professor
And then there are the many renovation projects. “A lot of Austro-Hungarian heritage. The Hungarian government decides on the projects, the money is disbursed to friendly construction companies through the Gábor Bethlen Fund,” says Ufó Zoltán. “In total, that Fund had 365 million euros at its disposal from the Hungarian government in 2020, and 91 million euros in 2021.” Churches are the biggest goldmine. Last year, the Hungarian government gave eight million euros in grants to renovate 262 Hungarian churches in Romania.
A year ago, it also opened the Szekler Border Guard Memorial Centre about the thousand-year-old history of the Szekler community. Everything is paid for by the Hungarian government: from the renovation of the historical building to the educational materials in the museum to the salaries of the historians who did the research. The museum’s location was strategically chosen: Csíkszépvíz, a village at the foot of the Gyimes mountain pass, for centuries the border of Hungarian Transylvania.
Guide Zoltan Szakacs leads a group of Hungarian tourists there. “In one year, we welcomed 10,000 visitors, mostly from Hungary,” he says. “Only five per cent of the visitors were Romanian. Nothing about the museum appears in the Romanian media, and we get no support from the Romanian government.”
Professor Attila Gáspárik explains why Székely Land current enclave formation is dangerous: “Every right we have acquired in Romania since 1989 is the result of our own democratic struggle in the institutions of the country we live in. But you will find few Hungarians left in Romanian institutions such as the army, police or national sports teams. Orbán is weaning them off Romanian society.”
Frustration about this in Romania is growing. Orbán’s blitz campaign in Transylvania could well come at the expense of peaceful coexistence between Hungarians and Romanians there. This has implications far beyond Budapest and Bucharest: quietly, Hungarian minorities abroad are becoming pawns of Viktor Orbán’s increasingly disruptive power in the European Union.
About this article
Journalist Pieter Stockmans: “A journalistic investigation by bicycle: the idea had been on my schedule for quite some time. With a Hungarian-Romanian interpreter and my brother and photographer Xander Stockmans in the support vehicle, I cycled across Szeklerland. The bike allowed me to experience the geography, culture, history and population of this enclave in a more intense way. On a bicycle, you radiate curiosity, which in turn stimulates people’s curiosity. That way, I found beautiful stories from ordinary people. But mayors, journalists, politicians, teachers and cultural actors were also clearly surprised by that cycling Belgian.”