|Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution|
Autonomy is not only a slogan, but a problem to solve. Taking it seriously means creating the possibilities to realize it.
In American and Canadian politics the very concept of "group" or "national" autonomy is unfamiliar, nay even alien. With this in mind, I think it is important to say a little about the concept so that semantic confusion does not lead to out of hand rejection of a dialogue on this subject.
In the American and Canadian context autonomy is used primarily to describe the defenses that individuals have within society or against government encroachment on their personal existence. In this usage the terms applies basically to "personal space", to matters of privacy, to concerns of the individual for protection against unjustifiable social intrusion into what belongs to the personal lives of people. In these societies the concept is rarely used to designate group or collective rights.
On the continent of Europe autonomy was widely accepted in relation to certain kinds of institutions, particularly churches and universities. In the Middle Ages, feudalism as a socio-economic and political order, also provided decentralisation of authority, which meant that there existed a great deal of territorial, regional, and local autonomy in day-to-day decision-making.
For example the pre-Mohacs (1526) Kingdom of Hungary this meant administrative decentralization which allowed Croatia and Transylvania significant self-government for hundreds of years, and extensive self-government for Saxon and Szekely settlements. Within the context of the Ottoman Turkish empire autonomy i.e., self-government was also guaranteed to the different non-Islamic religious communities or "millets". That is, their respective church leaders, while they could not exercise authority over territory, they could do so over their own believers in community legal matters as well as doctrinal concerns.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution destroyed not only the authoritarian legacy of the past, but also European commitments to decentralisation and institutional pluralism. Popular sovereignty replaced monarchy and divine rule of kings, but it also brought with it a majoritarians intolerance that undermined many long-established rights and oppurtinities for local self-government and interest representation.
Fortunately the United States and Canada inherited political traditions that did not follow majoritarian intolerance and centralisation as guiding principles. In both of these states, the size of their territories, the diversity of their religious and ethnic subgrups required the istitutionalization of decentralization. This meant that in both cases federalism guaranteed respect and maintenance of regional and traditional differences. In both these states it was economic development, industrialization and urbanization that produced integration, rather than assimilationist cultural policies driven by shauvinistic nationalisms.
The American and Canadian experiences also differed in one other respect from the European Continent. Aside from the reservations set aside for the conquered native Americans, the legal status of inhabitants were "never" linked to group rights. The never is in quotation marks because of the significant exception of Quebec. In relation to the latter Canadian province, the federalism of Canada has protected group rights with the guarantee of "territorial autonomy". Altough this not the name it goes by, this is what it boils down to.
For the rest of North America, excepting only Mexico where the fueros of colonial times did leave some group rights intact, individual rights became the norm. But because these individual rights also guaranteed the rights to economic, social, cultural, and political association and organization, this meant that groups could sustain their own schools (parochial or private), cultural clubs, churches and other significant "private" institutions.
In East-Central Europe in the 20th century, the French model of the centralized unitary nation-state and majoritarian democracy, combined with the vengeful aftermath of two world wars, and the institutionalization of Communist "democratic centralism", make it well nigh impossible for minorities to defend themselves against the homogenizing tyranny of the majority Staatsvolk nationalities.
An interesting twist to all this is the confusion of the concept of autonomy with the Soviet and Yugoslav attempts to overcome the nationally, ethnically and religiously fragmented conditions prevailing within their borders. Unfortunately, the use of autonomy by these now failed state-systems, makes autonomy suspect in the eyes of Western observers in the region.
However, these same observers forget to consider that the system worked while a modicum of tolerance and compromise prevailed. The system collapsed because of the emergence of exclusivist nationalist demands. In Romania it was the Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu that led the nationalist frenzy against the Hungarian Bolyai University and the Hungarian Autonomous Region of Eastern Transylvania (even when it was only symbolic autonomy). In Yugoslavia it was the Communist Serb Slobodan Milosevic who led the charge against the Autonomous Province of Kosovo (Albanians) and the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina (Hungarians and others). It may now be seen from these examples that political leaders who had gotten used to a monopoly of power now use the nationalisms of majorities to undergird their control. The mixture of Communist democratic centralism, French unitary statism and the veneer of majoritarian democracy can only lead to Bosnia-like solutions. It is in the light of these grave prospects that the major powers and Western Statesmen must take a serious second look at the institutialization of group rights and structural arangements like autonomy. if genocide and ethocide are to be prevented, the a viable legal and institutional framework must be adopted for the defense of minority rights.
Within the American setting, and the larger Anglo-Saxon legal word, the main defense of group rights and distinct community interest, has been achieved via strong constitutional and contractual traditions and garaantees. From the writings of the contract theorists, particularly John Locke, through the constitutional practices during the formative years of the early Republic to the legalese of present-day corporation lawyers: contracts, charters and constitutions, grant rights and define obligations in society. Implicit in all of this is the right to organize, the right to join groups that we can identify with in terms of our interests: economic, religious, cultural or political. From the Mayflower Compact to the latest variations on debates about "state rights" or "affirmative action" there looms the commitment to a "government of laws and not of men", a society in which both the public and the private, and the relationship between them, is defined by contract.
In the U.S.A. and Canada the concept of contract is ingrained in the political culture and enbedded in legal evolution. Unfortunately in East-Central Europe this tradition has been undermined by the legacies of the French Revolution, and the centralism championed by both the Fascism of the Right and the Left. Szalasi and Rakosi Antonescu and Ceausescu, Tiso and Husak are all part of this destructive legacy. For this reason, in the present context, within the last decade of the 20th century, as regimes, governments, states and nations come to a new sense of their roles within historic evolution, the most important lesson must be the entrenchment of law by contract, governments that become the defenders of rights rather than mechanisms of oppression and exploitation.
Minority rights mean civil and cultural rights. Where popular sovereignty is not yet restrained by constitutionalism and cultural acceptance of the formula majority rule with minority rights, it becomes imperative that minorities acquire specific protections via bilateral, multilateral treaty guarantees and specific "civil rights" legistlation that levels the playing field. Specific contract guarantees of cultural, territorial or personal autonomy may be the only way in which minorities might get to play on such a level field in East-Central Europe.
Ohio Northern University
|(Lord Acton: Nationality, 1862)|
The quotation mentioned above by one of the classics of Anglo-Saxon Liberal traditions proves that this prominent representative of Liberalism was well aware of the daunting consequences of unsolved national and minority questions as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. His readers today might find it contradictory that Lord Acton had a realistic knowledge of the existing problems facing mankind and at the same time had an unrealistic expectation of the steady growth of welfare and happiness.
Today we have more sober experience and fewer high-minded illusions. Which of us would dare to claim though that we are in a lot better position than our ancestors? European Liberals at the twilight of the millennium have to face again the challenges of aggressive nationalism and unsolved minority issues. Naturally, history does not repeat itself: the differences are more important than the seemingly ostensible similarities. Nowadays the approach of the Liberals, may they be thinkers, experts or politicians involves less idealism and more practicality.
They do not expect saving solutions from a mysterious invisible hand or from the self-accomplishing ideas of history. On the contrary, they do not believe in any single salutary solution. They hope for tangible results from persistent and purposeful efforts made on the stage of science and politics to achieve more useful and operative solutions. None of them believe in finding a single path towards truth.
There are several alternative and competitive attempts in the developed countries of Europe to solve this problem. These attempts are very difficult to compare and even more difficult to evaluate and rank. Just as minority communities are very different in size, economic and social status, geographical features and in various other characteristics, the same differences exist between these alternative solutions in their details. There is no single, unified model to solve this problem in a general way. Nevertheless, all these more or less acceptable models have something in common: all the minority groups think these solutions are more able to meet their demands and are more beneficial for the given communities than those in any earlier stages.
In the East-Central European countries there are many more promising plans and proposals than real, working solutions. We are behind the developed West in this respect just as much as in other fields of economic and social life.
The conference organized by the Hungarian Alliance of Free Democrats, the Dutch D66 and the German Friedrich Neumann Foundation had a dual purpose:
- to take all the different minority rights in the region into account and examine and map them in a historical perspective and to try and make a conclusive list of the problems as far as possible and
- to examine all the proposals aimed at assuring minority rights.
Since none of the organizers or participants expected any salutary solutions from the conference, we can be satisfied with the results. We had so many interesting and useful lectures and debates at the conference that we might well claim they can be useful for a larger public. I am fully convinced they have a message for everybody. Thus, I strongly recommend the book to everybody, may they be Liberals or their rivals, members and supporters of the government, those of the opposition or people who belong to a majority or a minority community. No book could find a larger audience.
Member of Parliament
|Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution|