[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution

The Autonomy Conception of the Hungarian Democratic Community of Voivodina
General Principles for Analysis

by András Ágoston

The fundamental principles of the Hungarian Democratic Community of Voivodina (HDCV) published under the title of Hungarian Autonomy - similar to any other significant document - can be analysed in several ways. It was published more than a year ago and it has had its own effect on several important fields of social and political life. Three of them are worth having a closer look at in a bit more detail.

The HDCV's conception of autonomy as a basic political document is principal especially from the point of view of the Hungarian minority in Voivodina. It proves that this native group of people - in spite of a period of more than seventy years of drawbacks in its history as a minority - is able to organize itself if the conditions and the historical possibilities are favourable. It has established an effective organization, which is built up in an upward hierarchy according to the basic principles of democracy and which is able to represent the political interests of the group efficiently. In accordance with the principle of democracy it has worked out its legitimacy, it has a distinct image of the future and a clear-cut programme how to assure the Hungarian national minority in Voivodina the rights for autonomy, which serves as an indispensable legal condition to assert and manifest national identity. Two other factors make these results even more significant, so important actually, that we can surely regard this event as a turning point in the history of the Hungarian minority in Voivodina. Firstly, these principles were drafted and adopted by the annual assembly of the HDCV during a period of fierce clashes when the organization and the whole Hungarian community were the target of unleased Serbian political terror. Secondly, these principles had been adopted and thus legitimized twice by an overwhelming majority of voters during the parliamentary elections. The document represents the beginning of a new era. From this time on the organization can become an active political factor and an independent actor on the stage of politics. Hopefully, if the historical conditions are favourable it might be able to survive in the forthcoming century.

This political document is of historic importance from the point of view of the whole Hungarian community all over the world. Although, none of the Hungarian national minority groups raise the issue of borders in the Carpathian Basin, the minority issue of the Hungarian nationalities is still an open and unsolved problem and a challenge for democracy in the East-Central European region. Since the demands of the Hungarian minority group in Voivodina are well-defined and put down in clear-cut political documents, they can be presented at different international forums and they can serve as a good example for other Hungarian minority groups for autonomy in a democratic way. In the present political situation it is a necessity for the legitimate factors of the Hungarian nationalities in the different East-Central European countries to cooperate and unite their forces. The well-defined demands drawn up in the autonomy conception of the HDCV do not confine the sovereignty of the state but at the same time serve as a legal framework to assure that the national identity of the minority may preserve and manifest itself. This way the Hungarian government, which tries to support the minority issues and cooperate with the Hungarian minority groups in the neighbouring countries, can minimize the risk of being charged with too much commitment and involvement. At the same time, taking the initiative there are more chances that the models aiming at defending the Hungarian minorities' rights in a more effective way might get a more favourable acceptance at different international forums and this way the general advantage for the whole of the Hungarian community all over the world can be maximized.

The autonomy conception of the HDCV has already been regarded as an important political document at different international forums. Not only because it has already happened that a state has assured minority rights to its own national minorities on the basis of these principles and has followed the mechanism "prescribed" in these documents. More important is the fact that the autonomy conception of the HDCV can be an integral part of a more and more acceptable international trend which tries to transform the whole economic and political structures of the East-Central European countries and make them market oriented societies. Regarding the fact that a market economy cannot be effective without the smooth operation of a democratic political system, establishing such states has become a primary task in this region for the whole of the international political community. All the more, because it has become very evident during the past few years that these transitions towards democracy are not easy at all in any of the ex-socialist countries. But that is not all. Now everybody must see it - even if he or she does not want to - that it is impossible to establish democratic regimes in these states without solving and closing the unresolved and open minority issues in a democratic way. There are several signs that the autonomy model of the HDCV is in full accordance with the international trend mentioned above. The political compromise that the conception offers seems to fit into the main currents since, on the one hand, it respects the principle of territorial integrity, it does not want to change any borders and, on the other hand, it is a viable model to assure national minorities to preserve their national identity. The model can become a general formula to be followed in the region. There is more and more evidence that international organizations should support this model for security reasons as well.

To summarize: the importance of the autonomy conception of the HDCV as a political document cannot be simplified and it cannot be said that its only merit and advantage is that it provides a legal framework for assuring nationality rights for the minorities and making them possible to preserve and manifest their national identity. It also serves general Hungarian interests and contributes to help the whole national community solve their problems and take steps to achieve the goal of joining a European community by solving its minority issues in a democratic way. Finally, the autonomy conception of the HDCV offers a compromise that can be considered to be the first step in the direction of finding solutions to more general problems that cannot be settled without arranging minority issues in a democratic way.

Secondly, the autonomy conception of the HDCV can be appreciated as a new constitutional incentive. The document itself contains several elements of a strong demand to define the principle and institution of autonomy in a constitutional way, but it is more of a political than of legal importance. The triple autonomy conception can also be regarded as a model of a democratic method of decentralization, since even the Serbian constitution in force makes it possible for the central authorities to invest a part of their rights to other institutions, especially to local self-governments. In this case, the principle of autonomy would lack the right for legislative power. We must say however, that in the present situation the demand to corporate the right for autonomy in the constitution is indispensable to settle a series of political problems, calm down and relieve the tensions and build up a a good relationship between the Hungarian national minority in Voivodina and the central Serbian authorities. We have to mention however, that the autonomy conception of the HDCV in its present form is actually only a draft list of legal provisions to corporate the minority's political demands in a compact form. It can get a final, more refined form only as a result of a long negotiation process between the HDCV and the central authorities. Nevertheless, the main principles are essential and they cannot be an issue of negotiation.

Thirdly, the autonomy conception of the HDCV, especially after having possibilities to set up local self-governments with HDCV majority and after the almost total destruction and disintegration of the entire educational and cultural system and the media, can also be considered to be a political base for the building of the new regime, which is just coming into existence with lots of pain and suffering. The Hungarian government's financial support to cover a part of the expenses of different Hungarian educational and cultural institutions and the media in Voivodina, can be sufficient to lay down the base of the institutions of a future self-government, and sometimes even to develop them, on the condition that we are aware of this double function of these institutions and we make efforts to develop them in this direction. At the local self-governments, where the representatives of the HDCV are in a majority, we can start building up favourable conditions for a territorial autonomy.

The first part of the sentence is unfortunately more emphatic, that is, we can start doing it, even if we cannot hope too much in the present situation, when due to lack of reasonable compromises with the Serbian authorities, there are too many obstacles and because of severe political pressures there are too few brave and original initiatives and purpose oriented and competent activities. In spite of this, even under these pressures and difficult conditions we can always practise democracy and try to learn and behave according to the principles of a constitutional state and a democratic civil society. We can always try to take and hold responsibility and start working within these pseudo-conditions and structures of autonomy. It is of vital importance to have the first experiences in how to operate multi-national self-governments. It is very important from political point of view that these first experiments of cooperation (or clashes) within the local self-governments make the principle of autonomy acceptable (or unacceptable) for the Serbian side. Cooperation - or even the conflicts and the development of conflict-solving mechanisms can do a good service to demystify the notion of autonomy, which has been demonized by the media. All this entails a relief of tensions, which can be beneficial and prepare the dialogue between the minority groups and the central powers. Although there are self-governments even in settlements, where the nationalities live geographically scattered, partly due to some special regulations of the local self-government still in force and partly because of strong political pressures from outside they have not really become conscious and self-confident representatives and supporters of the minority interests in the local governments. Nevertheless, all the rules and regulations and all the formal and informal "tricks" of making policy and political decisions can be learnt and these local representatives of democracy will surely do so in the near future. This way the local conditions are going to be more and more favourable for the conception of the idea of autonomy.

Civil Society and National Power

by Tibor Várady

Like in a caricature, all the main issues and tendencies of our time are reflected in an extreme way in the distorted mirror of Yugoslavia's social and political life. The picture is more cruel and drastic in this mirror, but at the same time, it reveals the true nature of the East-Central European countries more clearly and lucidly, because it attracts our attention to the most essential and most characteristic features of these societies without any veil or cover. The abnormal and extreme enhancement of national identity and the suppression and destruction of any other national identity resulted in such an escalation that naturally led to war. When ethnicity becomes an above-all criterion then minority issues always get a dramatic overtone and the fate and the existence of different minority communities - those who are fewer in number in a given area - always becomes insecure and questionable.

It is very important to see this problem in an economic context. When economic criteria are really dominant in a society, members of a minority group will take their place in society more or less according to their economic resources and their expertise. More or less I say, because of course there are no absolute measurements. But when ethnicity has to be the main criterion of whether to employ an engineer or not, it is very difficult to take economic reasons and mechanisms into consideration. It is a real danger of course - and we cannot ignore it - that by interpreting the problem in this way we might put two nation-states - a big one and a small one - on different sides of the battlefield. There is no doubt, though, that when measurements are so biased and tendencies so distorted we cannot leave it for economy and the rules of civil life to decide the fate of minorities. In such a context - but in others as well - struggles for autonomy are a completely understandable and legitimate demand, which can give us some hope for a real solution. I agree with Erika Törzsök when she claims that in our societies autonomy as a means is alien to the system and when I say this I mean all kinds of autonomy, not only national or minority autonomy. The concept of autonomy itself means a kind of devolution, distribution and decentralization of power. From this point of view unitary states fighting for absolute power always feel threatened by ethnical, regional, professional, or any other forms of autonomy. That is why I think that in theory the idea of autonomy - all kinds of autonomy including the one we are talking about here - can do a lot to make our civil life less strained.

Yugoslavia seems to be an ideal place to examine the problems of collective rights because these phenomena are more crystallized there. Discrimination is painfully extensive, hundreds and thousands of people are exterminated just because they belong to a certain group. They have no other sins, they are killed because they are Bosnian Muslims and not Serbs, or they are Serbs and not Muslims; Croatians kill Serbs and Serbs kill Croatians. I mention these nations because they are playing the main roles now, but it is not their special ethnical characteristic. The same phenomena can be experienced in any other country, among any other ethnic group - including Hungarians, of course - provided the historical circumstances are favourable for that. The problem that people are discriminated against just because they belong to a certain ethnic group, cannot be solved at a general human rights level. We live in such an age and atmosphere when even such extremely individual cases as sexual violence will take on an ethnic overtone and will become the means or rather the projection of ethnical fundamentalism somehow. It is very difficult to build up a defence system when we do not know the target of offence. In this case groups of people and minority communities have become the target of offence. If this fact is ignored, it is very difficult to build up a defence system. Thirty years ago, when the very sore issue of the Blacks was raised in the American Supreme Court, they had to decide whether to defend Black rights as basic individual human rights, or as collective rights, and whether to use some kind of positive discrimination. In a decision in 1963 the Supreme Court went "against the flow" in a way and took a very clear stand on the issue supporting the latter version and put it down straight that if we wish to solve racial problems, we cannot ignore the race itself. There is no other way. When the existence of groups and whole communities are at stake, it is very difficult to work out an adequate defence system without taking the ethnic aspects into consideration, and if we do so we have to get to the problem of collective rights. When talking about this issue, it is very important to find some kind of principles whether individual or collective rights are concerned. It is of crucial importance to find unbiased, generally applicable measures. We should try and find collective rights that are valid everywhere, or at least in this region where these problems were generated. Thus, especially in Yugoslavia, but in other East-Central European countries as well, we should find measures that are valid for all minority groups. There will always be differences of course. For example the Ruthenian minority cannot have an independent university in Yugoslavia, but the Albanians or the Hungarians might have one. The Hungarian national minority might not have its own university in the Czech Republic, but they can have one in Slovakia. It is possible for the Serbs to have their own university in Croatia, but not in Hungary for example, but they have the right to have primary and secondary schools in Hungary as well. It is a simple matter of ratio in a given country, but most of the issues are very similar or just as simple. In most cases it is very important to settle issues according to the principle of reciprocity. It is of vital importance, because when making a minority law we somehow ignore the issue of collective rights, the same way as we question the general validity of individual human rights when we negotiate with individuals one by one. Collective rights must be asserted somehow, that is why it is so important that the HDAR submitted a proposal concerning the rights of all minorities in Romania. At the same time, the proposal has tried to reckon with the potential differences as well. That is exactly what we would need in Yugoslavia even in a more comprehensive way if possible.

Zsolt Németh made a statement today which I completely agree with, namely that the idea of autonomy could and should be an important element of Liberalism. I can accept this statement provided that pluralism does not restrict itself to the ethnic aspects of autonomy, may they be minority or majority structures. It would be extremely dangerous from the point of view of any minority group, since a minority structure requires pluralism for its very existence. If a minority structure is prevailing it is of vital importance for the survival of the community to have pluralism. If it were not so, everybody who does not fit in this structure would fall out of his nation as well. That is why it is extremely dangerous to reduce ethnicity to a single structure. Pluralism has to step forward and go beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and nationality. It is essential, since the existence of a community might depend on it. It is very important to conceive the idea of autonomy and work out and organize its institutions, but we must always keep in mind how dangerous it might be to base a system on homogeneous ideas. In that case we might make the blunt mistake of simply confronting a small nation-state with a big one. We have to step beyond the obsolete idea of a nation-state, we have to find something better than that. We have to work out the possibilities of a society where all kinds of autonomies can blossom and prosper, no matter what kind they are, ethnic or other.

Liberalism and Autonomy

by László Vógel

I am not a professional politician, so let me start with a "literary" example. I can well imagine a person who belongs to a minority group in Romania, Serbia, or anywhere else in the region and who takes a very active role in his minority community, but at the same time he is a member of a Liberal party in the given country. I think this figure would be an East-Central European Faust, who has two souls to struggle with. It is a futile effort in this region to try and patch the concepts of individual human rights and collective rights together. We will not be able to resolve this contradiction and stop the conflicts between them until we have thoroughly examined all aspects of the problem. We have to talk about these issues, especially at Liberal forums like this. Actually, even today, when their balance is still very insecure we feel the desire and the necessity to fit these two ideas together and bring them into harmony somehow. Right before the war broke out, in response to the Serbian demands of regional autonomy in Krajina, General Tudjman gave a very definite statement at the newly established, freely elected Croatian Parliament clearly refusing these demands. Regional autonomy and minority autonomy were out of the question. His reasoning was not without any lesson: he assured everybody that he decided to do so not because he was against the Serbs, but because he was a convinced Liberal thinker. If individual human rights are guaranteed for everybody - and the Croatian Constitution does guarantee these rights - why need regional autonomy? At the same time he defined Croatia as a nation-state. That was the point when the representatives left the meeting of course and soon the war broke out. It does not mean the war would not have broken out without this, but it is certain that it would not have continued the way it did.

Slobodan Milosevic, another "great Liberal thinker", even managed to have it declared in the Serbian Constitution that by definition Serbia is a community of citizens. He claims that in Serbia each citizen is equal and everybody has equal rights and chances when for example applying for a job. Individual human rights have become a means of manipulation and abuse of power and the division of Liberals.

It is not true that the different minority demands for autonomy in East-Central Europe have been inspired and inflamed by the mother countries or by other outside stimulation; they sprang to life as a response to the post-communist regimes, to the newly organized nation-states. I often try to convince my liberal Serbian friend that from strategical point of view it is not advantageous to attack and criticize minority autonomy. They should create a liberal state first and then minorities will not need autonomy, the whole issue of minority autonomy will be a "tea party". I think it is an unacceptable and sinful luxury that Liberal thinkers oppose the idea of minority autonomy in East-Central Europe, because it gives the impression that they find these tendencies more dangerous than the strong nationalistic tendencies experienced in a lot of places or the unifying and centralizing, etatist tendencies of the nation-state. At this point they seem to be a bit disoriented. Minority groups respond to this behaviour by demanding autonomy. During the Communist era there was regional autonomy in Serbia, but the number of the minority communities rapidly decreased. It is not an invention by Milosevic. It is interesting to see that minority groups refer to general European values in every respect as well - except for one thing, namely a nation's rights. We always refer to such examples as Finland or the South Tyrol, but we tend to forget about the fact that these countries are governed by well-defined, clear laws rather than the spirit of autonomy or the wishes of the minority groups. Finland is an excellent example in this respect, because it is exceptionally well-regulated. The idea of autonomy is well-spread in the region and it usually appeared as a means of defence. Is it possible that it will simply be a victim of a contradiction: autonomies will come to life when they are not needed so much any longer? At the moment they are badly needed: they can serve as an efficient mobilizing power and through their mechanisms we can develop a kind of inside power and a certain ability to resist. Parallel to the slow but steady development of liberalism in the region the possibilities of autonomy are growing as well. I think there are special areas that the concepts of autonomy in use are not able to cover. One of these areas is that of economy. Is it not possible that with the growth of market economy strong unitary states will fall into their own trap? The idea of autonomy has great possibilities in the field of communication or education but regarding cultural life I am not convinced that it does any good. Even today, I can see some tendencies that seem to work against the development of a multi-cultural system. Instead of becoming a mobile nervous-system of the region, minorities are unfortunately getting more and more dependent on the mother countries in the sense that they expect all the positive impulses from them.

These are very important political thoughts, but everyday life is different and cannot be organized according to these rules and ideas. What can we do with mixed marriages, for example? How can they be categorized then? Industrial development and modernization involve the increase of mobility and then autonomy might serve as a mechanism of exclusiveness since it cannot do anything with categories that are mixed or hybrid . It is a real danger that on one hand, these hybrid zones will get farther from economy and on the other hand, as soon as possible, cultural relationships will transform autonomies into lovely "bunches of flowers" without any roots. I think it is important to see these contradictions even if our main concerns are just the opposite today: we are much more worried about politicians who are against the idea of autonomy than about those who support it - at least here in the East-Central European region.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution