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21 May 2019

Evolution of the Autonomy Ambitions of Vojvodina Hungarians – Constitution and Activity of the Hungarian Minority Council in Serbia


In recent decades Hungary has been supporting in various forms and with varying degrees of intensity the autonomy aspirations of the ethnic-Hungarian community living in Serbia. It has concluded a bilateral treaty with Serbia concerning the reciprocal protection of rights of Hungarians living in Serbia and Serbs living in Hungary (2003) and adopted a special medium- term economic incentive programme (2015) aimed at improving the prospects of Vojvodina Hungarians in Serbia and slowing down their emigration rate. Despite the disputes and conflicts that have marked their common past since the Treaty of Trianon (1920), finally the two countries have succeeded in building a healthy political relationship which positively affects the status and well-being of Vojvodina Hungarians, as well as their autonomous body, the Hungarian National Council in Serbia.

"Serbia has many friends, but Hungary takes a special place among them”, especially because the “current relations between Serbia and Hungary are the best they have ever been in history”, said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, while attending the commemoration, together with János Áder, President of Hungary, of the 320th anniversary of the Battle of Senta (Zenta in Hungarian),1 on 11 September 2017.

 

THE FIRST AUTONOMY PROGRAMS OF VOJVODINA HUNGARIANS IN THE NINETIES

 

The positive remarks of the Serbian President are actually the result of a long lasting process dating back to the beginning of the nineties when the Democratic Community of Vojvodina Hungarians (Vajdasági Magyarok Demokratikus Közössége, henceforth: VMDK), representing the newly formed political elite of the Hungarian national minority in Serbia formulated its notions of minority rights, including the right to self-governance, and put the issue of national minority autonomy on the political agenda. The first conception of Hungarian autonomy, based on three separate pillars, was a revolutionary idea at that time (and in the current political-legal climate some of its elements, especially those based on a territorial approach, continue to seem radical). These pillars contained 1) personal autonomy with competences in the fields of education, culture, information and the use of one’s mother tongue; 2) territorial autonomy in the form of an autonomous Hungarian administrative district comprising municipalities that make up an ethnic-Hungarian bloc in the Potisje (Tisza-bank) region; and 3) special local autonomy for municipalities with a Hungarian majority.2 As is stated in the document’s preamble, this so-called Memorandum on the Self-Governance of Hungarians Living in the Republic of Serbia adapted and modified to the Vojvodina Hungarian circumstances the Carrington–Cutilero Peace Plan (1991) which, treating different ethnic groups as independent political subjects, proposed ethnic power-sharing on all administrative levels in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or in other words granted certain collective rights. In fact, the application of the ethnic principle to the administrative reorganisation of the local municipalities in Serbia – taken from the peace plan – in favour of the Hungarian community was only one segment of the first autonomy proposal.

However, in the 1990s, the time of the Balkans Wars, when the country was falling apart and attempts at democratic decision-making were impeded by ethnic tensions, granting collective rights to a national minority was unacceptable for the Serbian governing majority. On the other hand, it was not only a Hungarian issue. Although autonomy aspirations were emphatically expressed by the representatives of the Hungarian minority, other ethnic-minority groups in Serbia were concerned too. So the aim was, on the one hand, to find a universal formula that would answer both the needs and the expectations of most national minorities with different cultural, linguistic, historical and religious backgrounds, and on the other hand would remain within the limits of acceptability for the governing Serbian majority. Unfortunately, the international community acted only as a passive observer in this process, and ultimately Serbia did not appreciate the fact that a well-working model might serve as an example of good practice in the former member states of Yugoslavia with their own significant ethnic- Serbian minorities. The solution everybody had been waiting for came only a decade later when the right to minority self-governance was regulated for the first time in Serbian law in the form of national minority councils, by adoption of a federal National Minority Act in 2002. But enactment of this law was preceded by serious conflicts that cannot be dealt with exhaustively in an article about the emergence of national minority councils in Serbia.3

Firstly, in 1994 because of internal conflicts within the VMDK some of its members left the party, and together with some politically independent Hungarian intellectuals, formed a new grouping under the name of Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (Vajdasági Magyar Szövetség, henceforth: VMSZ). Although this “refreshed” formation also stood up for national minority autonomy, instead of seeking special territorial autonomy for local municipalities with a Hungarian majority it promoted the restoration of the former normative competences of the multicultural Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, which was a separate political entity for many years in Tito’s Yugoslavia. In time the idea of Hungarian territorial autonomy was tacitly relegated to second place in the VMSZ’s outward communication as well as in programme documents, which primarily focused on the constitution of national minority councils, or in other words, on personal autonomy. Behind this decision there may have been an effort to distance the autonomy politics of the VMSZ from those of the VMDK, or to fight for goals deemed more realistic in the prevailing political, legal and social context of the period. In any case, representatives and sympathisers of the party took part in the work of committees responsible for drafting laws and by-laws concerning national minority rights both at the national and provincial levels. Some of the most fundamental elements of these acts (including provisions about the national minority councils) are the direct result of the VMSZ’s political stances taken around the turn of the century.

Secondly, the NATO military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (constituted by Serbia and Montenegro), lasting from 24 March 1999 to 10 June 1999 had drawn the attention of the international community to the status of national minorities in other parts of Serbia too, especially that of the Hungarians in Vojvodina. The operation was presented as a humanitarian intervention aimed at enforcing the withdrawal of the Yugoslav troops from Kosovo, the other autonomous province of Serbia. The ethnic maps and dimensions of the two provinces are fundamentally different, while comparisons between Vojvodina Hungarians and Kosovar Albanians would not be fair in terms of economic and social situation, political goals in internal and external affairs. But in the late nineties the frequency of threats, harassment, intimidation, and even violent incidents against Vojvodina Hungarians increased in line with intensifying hostility among the ethnic-Serbian and Kosovar Albanian groups in Kosovo. As a reaction to this situation, the Congress of the USA adopted a bill inviting the President “to call on the NATO allies, during any negotiation on the future status of Kosovo, also to pay substantial attention to establishing satisfactory guarantees for the rights of the ethnic Hungarian community of Vojvodina, and of other ethnic minorities in the province, including consulting with elected leaders about their proposal for self-administration”.4

Although this bill had not become an act commonly referred to in formal political discussions, finally Vojvodina Hungarians had an explicit legal tool laid down on paper for substantiating their autonomy aspirations. On the other hand, it was not the first time that Vojvodina Hungarians were mentioned in the context of conflict resolution in Kosovo. For example, on the suggestion of Brian Donnelly, UK Ambassador to Serbia at that time, the VMSZ elaborated a Draft Agreement on the Political and Legal Frames of the Self-Governance of Vojvodina and National Communities in Vojvodina (1997).5 That draft was built on the Hill Plan, as suggested by US Kosovo envoy Christopher Hill. It concerned the future status of Kosovo whereby the province (especially Albanians living in the province) would be granted wide-ranging competences.

Thirdly, on 20 August 1999, deputies of the VMSZ and the VMDK with mandates in the National Assembly or in local parliaments formed the Temporary Hungarian National Council. Although its formation lacked any legal basis and also drew criticism from within the Hungarian community itself because of the way its members were delegated – most were MPs linked directly or indirectly the VMSZ; the historical churches and the most influential NGOs had limited chances – Vojvodina Hungarians perceived it as a step toward self-governance. None of the other national minorities however followed the example, so the initiative failed to spread beyond the Hungarian community. The new body did however grant the Hungarian political elite a leading position among minorities in Serbia, concerning autonomy issues. Later, when the National Minority Act and the National Minority Councils Act were being drafted, the Hungarian approach was not overtly contested, at least by other ethnic groups. According to its statute, the council’s primary task was to set up the main principles of the constitution of special minority voters’ register that would serve as a starting point for direct elections to the national minority councils. This undertaking, however, was fulfilled only around a decade later.

Fourthly, following the presidential election when the candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (known as DOS), Vojislav Koštunica, won the majority of votes, Milošević’s rule was finally overthrown on 5 October 2000. The Vojvodina Hungarians actively supported this process by cooperating with progressive political and intellectual forces within the DOS, and due to this policy the VMSZ got one of the most important governmental posts: the then president of the VMSZ, József Kasza, became Deputy Prime Minister in the newly formed Ðindić government. However, this indisputable political success was partly due to efforts of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), a US-based international non-governmental organisation that had managed to bring together maverick political leaders and the most influential representatives of both ethnic and majority groups in Serbia in order to facilitate dialogue between them during the preparation phase of the abolition of the Milošević regime. At one of the roundtables, organised by the PER on interethnic relations in Vojvodina (Athens, 14–15 February 2000),6 participants, by their signature, ascertained that, on the one hand, an expansion of Vojvodina’s autonomy would grant higher level of minority rights in the country and, on the other hand, national minority councils as bodies of personal autonomy could be seen as modern institutional guarantees of minority rights. Not long after, in 2002, the two laws most relevant to the development of national minority rights in Serbia were adopted: namely the Law on Certain Competences of the Autonomous Province (also known as the first Omnibus Law) and the Law on the Protection of Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities (the National Minority Act, as referred to above).

 

LEGAL GROUNDING OF NATIONAL MINORITY COUNCILS IN SERBIA

 

During the 1990s a considerable number of scholarly writings and essays were published in Serbian, Hungarian, as well as in English and French aimed at making the notion of national minority autonomy, elaborated originally by Hungarians, more tolerable for both the Serbian society and the international community. Together with conciliation efforts by international organisations these articles undoubtedly contributed to the acknowledgement of several of the elements of the autonomy proposals.7 Independent intellectuals, including Hungarians respected within Serbian intellectual circles, had a much more important role in the enactment of the first post-Milošević acts than before (or even later). For example, the academician Vojislav Stanovčić, the constitutional law professor Marijana Pajvančić, or the professor and researcher Goran Bašić were seen as representing their own opinion rather than political parties; and hence their opinions were widely respected. Professor Tibor Várady, academician, Serbian Minister of Justice in the Panić government of 1992, one of the founders of the VMSZ and member of the Hungarian National Council between 2002 and 2014, also played an important role in this process. Due to his international reputation and good relationship with both sides (Serbian intellectuals and post-Milošević governing political forces, on the one side, and the Hungarian minority in Serbia, on the other side) the issue of collective minority rights which were subject mostly to scientific and informal debates during the 90s became part of legal regulations at the beginning of the 2000s. Várady’s mediation between politicians and experts was a key factor in introducing national minority councils into Serbian law without serious objections.

According to the National Minority Act which remains in force to this day, albeit with some modifications – persons belonging to national minorities may elect their national minority council with the purpose of exercising their right of self-government regarding the use of their mother tongue, education, culture and information. In contrast with the Temporary Hungarian National Council, national minority councils elected under this act shall be legal entities, registered by the relevant federal body (originally the National Minority Act was a federal law, but since the peaceful break-up of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 it has become a Serbian law only). Although national minority councils were finally institutionalised in the Serbian legal order, neither rules on elections to them nor detailed provisions on their competences were contained in the National Minority Act. Pursuant to this law national minority councils had very general competences, formulated in broad terms, like representation of the respective national minority, participation in decision-making and establishment of institutions in the fields of education, culture, information and use of language. In deciding on these issues competent governmental bodies had to request the opinion of the councils; however, in practice nobody really knew exactly in which cases the councils should give their opinion (except for a few issues regulated explicitly by sectorial laws; e.g. according to the Law on Local Municipalities national minority councils needed to be asked for opinion about new names of streets or squares in towns where the language of the respective national minority was in official use, along with the Serbian language).

But who had the right to elect a national minority council? Or in other words, how does the legislator determine which groups constitute national minorities under the law? Pursuant to the National Minority Act, a national minority is any, numerically sufficiently representative group of citizens of Serbia, who have a long-term and firm bond with the state territory and possess characteristics such as language, culture, national or ethnic affiliation, origin or religious denomination, differentiating them from the majority of the population, and who wish to nurture collectively their common identity. There is no minimum number concerning the size of a given minority group, or no definition of how long term and firm that bond with the state territory should be. Members of those communities who match this very general and broad definition can exercise collective rights by the constitution and management of their own national minority council. According to the classification of the Serbian population by ethnicity, there are the Slavic nations, former founders of the Yugoslav state (Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians) who became national minorities in the newly “born” unitary nation states after the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Still some other ethnic groups traditionally hold national minority status in the country, e.g. Slovaks, Bulgarians, Romanians, Czechs, Vlachs and Greeks. The ethnicities of Bunjevci and Egyptians were registered for the first time in the 1991 census, that of Bosnians and Ashkali only in the 2002 census. However, today they all have their national minority councils. On the other side, there are citizens with Western European origin, like Belgians, English, Danish, Norwegians, Swiss, Swedes, who appeared just after the democratic changes at the beginning of the nineties, but before the first time that recognised minorities were registered. These groups are not allowed to elect national minority councils. Since there has been no official list of national minorities in Serbia (contrary to the Hungarian regulation, for the sake of example), and due to the inclusive description almost any ethnic group with sufficient (political) support may meet the conditions of being a national minority, “ethno-business” has become a widespread phenomenon in the region in recent years.

Hungarians elected their first national minority council through an electoral assembly in 2002 under the new law, and they were followed by the Ruthenians, Romanians, Croats, Slovaks, Bunjevci, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Roma, Bosnians, Germans, Egyptians, Greeks, Macedonians and Vlachs. The size of the electoral assemblies and the method of their work were regulated by the above-mentioned ministerial by-law.8 Electors voted for lists of candidates that were submitted by one fourth of the present electors in the assembly. The electoral assembly decided by secret ballot the members of the national minority council (whose number was determined in advance in accordance with the size of the respective minority group, pursuant to the last census results, from 15 to 35).

Because of the indirect nature of the election the legitimacy of these bodies was usually subject to disputes within the respective community. Some of the Hungarian political parties boycotted the election; others criticised the composition of the Hungarian National Council because of the prevalence of VMSZ politicians among its members; even though, contrary to its ancestor (the Temporary Hungarian National Council), the membership of the newly elected Hungarian National Council was fairly divided between politicians and independent intellectuals (mostly cultural workers and university lecturers), in order to provide balanced decision-making in the council’s work. Negative remarks on this combination actually derived from the impossibility to create a real cultural autonomy with the tools of representative democracy. The question arose whether independent intellectuals in the field of education, culture and information had given up their independence by accepting the mandate in the council. A good formula to dissolve this duality has not been found up to this day: on the one hand, non-politician members have to enjoy political support in order to get mandates, on the other hand, they are required to represent the interests of their profession, and in practice political and professional interests may be different.

In the period between 2002 and 2009 numerous drafts were elaborated by both Serbian and minority (mostly Hungarian) experts regarding the nature of the elections, constitutions, authorisations and finances of the national minority councils, but the final codification was finished only in 2009. There are various explanations for this seven-year-long delay: the special circumstances of the transition to democracy in Serbia without sensible improvement of the economy; the indifference of the governing majority toward adopting a separate law to regulate all the issues on national minority councils in one single legal act; internal conflicts that culminated in Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008; and the government’s concentration of effort and energy toward Serbia’s application for EU membership. Meanwhile the national minority councils in this transitory period functioned without appropriate tasks and funds during this period. Although the Hungarian National Council became a kind of communication channel between Hungary and Serbia, and a link between Hungary as kin-state and Hungarians in Vojvodina, it was, like the other councils, unable to evolve into a real platform for ethnic self-governance. Undoubtedly, with the enactment of the National Minority Councils Act a significant change took place in this respect. It was the beginning of a new era in Serbia’s national minority policy, and was broadly welcomed by both the international community and neighbouring countries.

After the parliamentary elections of 2008 the Hungarian Coalition composed of the VMSZ, the VMDK and the Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians (VMDP, Vajdasági Magyar Demokrata Párt) became part of the governing majority in the Serbian Parliament. It got the opportunity to delegate representatives into the expert group of the newly constituted Ministry of Human and Minority Rights that was tasked with the elaboration of an act on national minority councils. The Hungarian parties attempted to push through as much as possible of their common autonomy project that was elaborated in 2008, but almost all ministries affected by the proposals considered the competences envisaged for the national minority councils to be too wide. Finally, the Serbian Parliament adopted the National Minority Councils Act in 2009 as a result of political bargains struck behind the scenes, even though intellectuals widely respected throughout society irrespective of their political affiliation or ethnicity had a significant role in the drafting of the 2009 version of the law. Since then it has been twice revised (in 2014 and 2018), and in 2014 during its normative control the Constitutional Court annulled almost one third of the law’s articles, mostly those concerning the councils’ competences.

On 6 June 2010, 19 national minority councils were elected in accordance with the 2009 law: 16 of these by direct vote through a proportional voting system (Albanians, Ashkali, Bosnians, Bunjevci, Bulgarians, Czechs, Egyptians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Romanians, Ruthenians, Roma, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Vlachs), and three indirectly (Croats, Macedonians and Slovenes). The Montenegrin community also succeeded in electing through an electoral assembly their first council on 26 October 2014; and from 4 November 2018, the list of the national minority councils in Serbia was widened by a Russian Council. Currently 23 national minority councils are legally operating within Serbian law. The Executive Board of the Union of Jewish Municipalities of Serbia, constituted according to a different procedure in accordance with the Statute of the Union of Jewish Municipalities of Serbia, was also granted the character of a national minority council under the law.

According to the 2014 amendment of the National Minority Councils Act, direct elections shall be held if until the day the elections are called more than 40 per cent of the total population of the national minority according to the most recent census is entered into the special electoral register of the national minority, otherwise the indirect method of elections must be followed (originally, in the first version of the law the requirement was registration of more than 50 per cent of the total minority population, decreased by 20 per cent).

Concerning the special electoral register of Hungarians, 55.46 per cent of 138,660 eligible voters participated in the 2010 national minority council elections. In the next two elections the Hungarian voters’ turnout decreased: 40.60 per cent of 137,111 voters voted in 2014, 36.54 per cent of 129,471 voters in 2018. Otherwise, the precondition for acquiring the active right to vote is registration in one of the optional special electoral registers (the special minority electoral registers are not part of the general electoral register, and declaration of ethnicity is not compulsory during the census). Adult citizens can be enrolled only in one minority register, but according to the valid legal norms someone’s ethnicity is a changeable category. There are no restrictions to freely “change national affiliation” in between council elections, meaning that the existence of national minority councils depends entirely on the free will of citizens.9

The national minority councils function as mini parliaments with 15–35 members, depending on the size of the respective ethnic group. The Hungarian council is the biggest one with its 35 members, followed by the Bosnian and Roma councils. Registered minority voters vote on lists of candidates (who should be registered in the minority’s special electoral register) proposed by minority political parties, NGOs whose activity is aimed at the protection of minority rights, or a group of other minority voters. Because of the strong influence of politics and political parties, even from the very beginning of the councils’ existence, the degree of politicisation of the councils’ work is often debated. In the case of the Hungarian National Council the VMSZ has had dominant status since the first direct elections: in 2010 from the 35 members 28 were proposed by the VMSZ, with the rest of the mandates divided among four other political formations; in 2014 the list supported by the VMSZ got 31 mandates, and 30 in 2018. Over the years the number of political forces competing with the VMSZ for positions in the Hungarian council has been decreasing: in 2014 three, in 2018 only one political formation succeeded to delegate representatives to the council not counting the VMSZ. The predominance of a single political party ensures more reliable implementation of campaign promises on the one hand, but also deepens the diversification within the community on the other. This polarisation is reflected by the continuous decrease in Hungarian voters’ turnout.

As well as confirming their legitimacy due to the direct nature of voting, the enactment of the National Minority Councils Act granted the councils key roles in the management of cultural institutions, schools and media houses, all of critical importance in terms of minority education, culture and information. In public schools, established by the state, the autonomous province or local municipality, where a minority language is used as part of everyday education, or which have a special school subject dealing with the language or culture of a national minority, the Act also ensured that a council is able to give its opinion on candidates for membership in the school board and on the candidate running for director of the institution. In those institutions where in the majority of classes the language of teaching is that of a national minority, the council can propose its own members of the managing board. Concerning the field of culture, in institutions which have been declared by the national minority council to be of particular importance to the respective national minority, the council has the right to appoint at least one member of the management board, and to give its opinion on the other candidates and on the process of election of the director. Unfortunately, due to a Constitutional Court ruling adopted in the review of the constitutionality of the National Minority Councils Act, most of the councils’ competences to participate in the management of the public media services were annulled with the following explanations: firstly, the public media services should represent the interests of the whole of society and it would be unfair towards other societal groups to include in decision-making only national minorities; and secondly, objective criteria of appointment procedures set down in tenders should ensure impartial competition among candidates regardless of their ethnicity.

Another option to participate in institution management is the establishment of institutions by the councils themselves or in cooperation with other legal persons, including the state, the autonomous province or local municipalities. Furthermore, the law contains a separate provision on the opportunity to delegate entirely or in part the founding rights of already existing public institutions of special importance for the respective national minority to the national minority council. According to the Constitutional Court’s position, the initiative of delegation made by the council does not bind the public founder to accept it, so these procedures have recently been placed in abeyance because of the original founders’ passivity and implicit denial of this question. In the case of already realised “transfers” mutual rights and duties are subject to a separate agreement concluded between the national minority council as the new co-founder and the original founder itself, in accordance with their freedom of contract. Both cultural and educational public institutions whose founding rights have been partially delegated to national minority councils have continued to operate without any substantial changes deriving from a transformed structure of the founders, and without putting additional financial burden on the councils, in accordance with the law.

The national minority councils, in addition, participate in the elaboration of school programmes expressing the special character of the respective national minority, especially in the field of history, music education and fine arts; they propose curricula for the national minority language and give opinion about the teaching programmes for the Serbian language; they give prior consent in the process of approving the manuscripts of textbooks in the national minority language; they determine which movable and immovable cultural goods are of particular importance for a national minority and give opinions and recommendations regarding space planning and design of urban development plans in local municipalities where these cultural goods are situated; they make proposals and recommendations to the management boards and programme councils of the public media services in relation to the programmes in national minority languages; they determine the traditional names of local municipalities, settlements and other geographical terms in the national minority language; they propose the establishment of a national minority language and script as an official language and script, and so on.

The councils’ regular activities (financing programmes and projects in the field of education, culture, information, and official use of the language and script, and the functioning of institutions, foundations and companies whose founder or co-founder is the council) and fixed costs (salaries and taxes of employees, renting or using the premises, bookkeeping, etc.) can be financed from public budgets, donations or other revenues. The funds provided from the state budget are allocated so that 30 per cent is distributed in equal amounts to all registered national minority councils in Serbia, while the remaining 70 per cent is in proportion to the size of the minority, the official status of its language, and the state of development of its educational, cultural and media infrastructure. In accordance with these criteria the Hungarian council gets much more funds than the rest of the autonomy bodies. Councils located in the autonomous province get additional funds from the budget of Vojvodina [the Hungarian National Council registered its seat in Subotica (Szabadka in Hungarian), in the Northern Bačka District of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina], but can acquire funds from those local municipalities too in which the minority population represented by the respective council reaches at least 10 per cent of the total local population (regarding Hungarians, this is the case in 20 municipalities), or the given minority language is in official use (the Hungarian language is in official use in 28 municipalities). However, the national minority councils can rely on financial support of their kin-states as well. In the case of the Hungarian National Council, in 2018 the amount of the foreign aid (around 11 million euros) significantly exceeded the level of the transfers provided from the Serbian public budgets (around 770,000 euros). The question then arises as to what would happen to the Hungarian National Councils’ activities in the case of cancellation or even a reduction of this substantial financial assistance by Hungary? And, whether too much dependency on the kin-state’s help means it gains more influence into the council’s policy-making at the same time?

 

ACTIVITY OF THE HUNGARIAN NATIONAL COUNCIL

 

According to the classification of ethnicity in the 2011 census, more than 44 ethnic groups were registered in Serbia. Officially the Hungarian community constitutes the largest national minority in the country, comprising some 3.5 per cent of the total population. However, in the last decades several factors have had a negative influence on the number of Hungarians in Serbia: periodic waves of emigration, assimilation, and low birth rates. Although depopulation is not an ethnic specificity, the number of newborns registered as members of the Hungarian national minority is lower than the Serbian average. In any case, while demography is by far the most significant challenge facing the Hungarian National Council, according to the law the Council has competences to positively affect demographic changes only indirectly, through activities related to the preservation of the Hungarian identity, language and culture in Serbia. These include maintaining Hungarian-language education and media, supporting cultural manifestations of the Hungarian community, and protecting Hungarians against breaches of their linguistic rights in official communication.

The Hungarian National Council has a central role in the protection of the cultural heritage of the Hungarian community in Vojvodina and the improvement of information broadcast there in the Hungarian language. It is co-founder of several media outlets including a daily newspaper (Magyar Szó), a weekly newspaper (Hét Nap), as well as a foundation that deals with the broadcasting of Hungarian television and radio programmes 24 hours a day (Pannon RTV). It also set up a publishing house (Forum), and runs the Hungarian Cultural Institute of Vojvodina, a historical archives, two theatres, two educational and cultural centres, one museum and four libraries. Due to the provisions of the National Minority Councils Act on delegation of the founding right of public institutions to the council, the Hungarian National Council has also become co-founder of eight secondary schools established by the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, and initiated delegation of founding rights of 20 elementary schools (although without success so far due to the competent ministry’s inaction). These schools are public, established and financed either by the state, the autonomous province or local municipalities. In most of them there are both Serbian and Hungarian classes, but there are eight elementary schools and two grammar schools with exclusive Hungarian education (without classes in Serbian).

In order to make the choice between education in Serbian or Hungarian easier for Hungarian parents, the Hungarian National Council supports Hungarian families through different projects, like a school-bus programme, school equipment packages, material help of the diaspora, university fellowships and preferential accommodation in halls of residence. There are also tenders for improvements in school infrastructure, libraries, organisation of excursions, etc. These projects are partially financed by the state and the provincial budget, but most of them are subsidised by Hungary.

During its first mandate (after the first direct elections, between 2010 and 2014) the Hungarian National Council dealt with the four major fields of its competences under similar conditions. Although educational and cultural programmes were prioritised, information and official use of the language were not neglected either. In its strategy for the official use of the Hungarian language the council – aware of the problem that enforcement of linguistic rights granted by law usually overburdens financially and technically the administration – provided low-cost or free programmes addressing as many public authorities as possible (informative programmes in Serbian and Hungarian, free legal aid, free translation services, Hungarian language teaching for non-Hungarian speakers, elaboration of vocabularies and terminology lists, seminars for translators, etc). Since the 2014 election the Hungarian National Council’s approach to the four fields of its authorisations has considerably changed; the emphasis is more on building networks for Hungarian teachers, cultural NGOs, restoration of sacral and cultural monuments, and maintaining current educational programmes than on creating new measures in field of official Hungarian communication.

Because of its well-developed and well-organised infrastructure the Hungarian National Council is usually referred to as the strongest national minority council in Serbia, one that sets a good (or even the best) example for others. Its success is partially due to the fact that in contrast to other councils it can rely on enormous political and financial help from the kin-state. Making up the majority within the Hungarian National Council, the VMSZ actively cooperates with the governing political power at each level of power-sharing in Serbia. Although the right to minority self-governance is a constitutionally guaranteed minority right, the question is what would happen with this accomplishment if there were any changes in power relations. Would the Hungarian National Council retain its prominence without the coordinated support of both Serbian and Hungarian minority policy? The legal grounding may be subject to change, as well as the political alliances. The goal is to have real ethnic self-governance permanently embedded in Serbian law, firewalling it from bargains behind the scenes. The current Hungary–Serbia relations have certainly created a good atmosphere between the national majority and the biggest minority in Serbia indeed, the number of aggressive acts against Hungarians has fallen in the recent years –, but unfortunately the latest amendments to the national minority legislation, including those on the national minority councils, can hardly be qualified as a leap forward.


 

Notes:

 

1 The Senta municipality is located in the Potisje Region, close to the Serbia–Hungary state border. The Battle of Senta was one of the most decisive defeats in Ottoman history, that resulted in a victory of Austria and recapture of the Hungarian territories until then under Ottoman occupation.

2 The original title in Hungarian: Memorandum a Szerb Köztársaságban élő magyarok önkormányzatáról.

3 See Tamás Korhecz, “National Minority Councils in Serbia”, in Tove H. Malloy, Alexander Osipov and Balázs Vizi (eds.): Managing Diversity through Non-Territorial Autonomy: Assessing Advantages, Deficiencies and Risks (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015), 69–91.

4 Congressional Bills 106th Congress, S.720 – Serbia Democratisation Act of 1999.

5 The original title in Hungarian: Megállapodás Vajdaság és a vajdasági nemzeti közösségek önkormányzatának politikai és jogi kereteiről.

6 PER organised two meetings on similar subjects in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, besides the meeting in Athenes; the first meeting was in Vienna, on 23–25 September 1999.

7 See Tibor Várady, “Minorities, Majorities, Law, and Ethnicity: Reflections of the Yugoslav Case”, Human Rights Quarterly 1 (1997), 9–54.

8 Elector can be any deputy in the Federal and the National Assembly, or in the parliament of the autonomous province, who was candidate of a minority party or who declared that he/she belonged to the respective national minority and spoke its language, or any other person whose candidacy was supported by a minority NGO or 100 citizens belonging to the national minority in question.

9 See Katinka Beretka and István Gergő Székely, “The National Councils of National Minorities in the Republic of Serbia”, Online Compendium Autonomy Arrangements in the World, January 2016, at www.world-autonomies.info.




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