The Angyalkert (Angel Garden) was opened by Hungarian deputy secretary of state Péter Szilágyi, Archbishop Gergely Kovács, Bishop József Darvas-Kozma and mayor Attila Korodi

Chasing votes on foreign soil

Viktor Orbán has created a pipeline of support for his Fidesz political project by granting full citizenship to thousands of ethnic Hungarians in Romania


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s a sunny, warm day in late summer. A brand-new, purpose-built kindergarten and nursery school is awaiting its official opening. Smiling small children line up, gently marshalled by quietly-spoken female teachers. Boys and girls are resplendent in impeccably laundered and fitted folk costume: white frilly-sleeved shirting and red-and-green waistcoats and skirts.

People gather to listen to the children singing, and to the town and Catholic church dignitaries making stirring speeches to mark the opening of this new educational establishment, the Angyalkert (Angel Garden), a free school for 180 children.

Banners and signage festooned with the green, white and red national flag, alongside the arms of state topped with its emblem of the Holy Crown of Hungary, indicate that the main source of funding for this state-of-the-art building — 850 million Hungarian forint (around £2 million) — is from the verbosely-titled Prime Minister’s Office State Secretariat for National Policy.

Except that this is not Hungary. By road, the nearest point in Hungary to the Angel Garden is no less than 260 miles away, a drive of around six-and-a-half hours.

The Angel Garden is in the town centre of Miercurea Ciuc. Until 1920, the town — Csíkszereda in Hungarian — was the county town of Hungary’s most easterly county, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, sitting in the centre of modern Romania, it has a population of around 34,000, more than 80 per cent of whom are indigenous ethnic Hungarians, most of whom can trace their family heritage back to the Székely people who were established in this idyllic region of mineral-water springs, mountains and forests at some point during the epoch when the Magyars arrived in the Carpathian Basin.

The position of the Hungarian majority in this region of what is now Romania has not been a particularly happy one since the 1920 Treaty of Trianon reassigned the region from Hungary to Romania. When Queen Marie of Romania made her bid for the whole of Transylvania in the precincts of the Palace of Versailles following the end of First World War, demographics were firmly on her side: Romanians were in the overwhelming majority in Hungarian-ruled Transylvania, historically part of Hungary in some form or another for the best part of 900 years.

But in the area of Transylvania delineated today by the Romanian counties of Harghita, Covasna and part of Mureş, the opposite was so, with Hungarians in the majority. Hungary, post-Trianon, was left with a sizeable cultural exclave, situated deep within an ascendant and historically antipathetic country.

Uneasily settling to a new political reality, the Hungarians of the Székely land got on with life, adapting and learning a new language (Romanian) whilst yearning for the old days in which a Hungarian ruling and administrative class ordered life to their advantage. In 1940, the alliance between Miklós Horthy’s government in Budapest and Nazi Germany secured the return to Hungary of northern Transylvania, but with Hitler’s defeat, the territory was returned to Romania.

Once communism was established after the Second World War, a Romanian nationalist version of it took hold. Nicolae Ceauşescu pursued a vigorous policy of diluting Hungarian populations in historically Hungarian urban centres, moving Romanian workers from distant counties into newly-built factory quarters and changing the demography. With the rise to power of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, an ascendant concept of Hungarian nationhood has re-emerged, promoting illiberal, eastern-facing nationalism. The notion of nationhood beyond the boundaries of today’s Hungarian state is encouraged.

The Angyalkert nursery

This is not necessarily as alarming as it might first appear. There is a view that Hungary was treated badly in the post-First World War settlement that deprived it of more than two-thirds of its territory and consigned a third of Hungarian speakers to life in other nation states. Over the course of the 20th century, newly “exiled” Hungarians became minorities in their own homelands, and they were often subjected to the kind of treatment which under the old Kingdom of Hungary had been meted out to that country’s minorities.

Orbán’s aim to bring “stranded” ethnic Hungarian life and culture in other countries back into the motherland’s orbit has a potent emotive appeal to the Hungarian consciousness. For several generations, ethnic Hungarians living in Serbia, Ukraine, Slovakia and — most numerously of all — in Romania, became used to living with a sense of ambiguity over their identity. Many lived through moments when their mother tongue and culture were actively persecuted or begrudgingly admitted only as something for the private sphere of home life, whilst Hungarian centres of population were often subjected to demographic manipulation.

The arrival early this century of a Hungarian diplomatic mission in Miercurea Ciuc was a step in a sequence of actions designed to capitalise on the deeply-felt cultural allegiance of the local people to their Hungarian language and ancestry. Following Orbán’s re-election in 2010, a law was swiftly passed in Budapest extending full Hungarian citizenship to those of Hungarian ethnicity living outside the country who wished to affirm their Hungarian heritage. To facilitate this, another office was established in a town centre building in Miercurea Ciuc to handle not only the applications, but also the solemn citizenship ceremonies which marked their newly-acquired status.

For those who had felt compromised as Romanian citizens with historical Hungarian heritage, the offer of a tangible, official connection to an apparently generous and resurgent homeland was both irresistible and reassuring. Church pastors and priests ensured the older generation heard this Hungarian gospel of citizenship of the motherland freely offered, whilst local Fidesz-affiliated operators organised and paid for taxis to help old people from outlying villages get to town centre offices to complete the formalities.

Emerging from those citizenship offices came a steady trickle from across the generations: smartly-dressed individuals and families holding flowers, pausing for photos and grasping grandly-worded certificates and Hungarian passports. For such people, around 600,000 according to a recent estimate, there would be no more awkward explanations when travelling. Few self-respecting Transylvanian Hungarians had felt unequivocally proud of saying they were Romanian citizens, yet that was what they were until Orbán’s government changed the law. Now, they can travel abroad and say without complicated explanations that they are Hungarian. They can vote in Hungarian elections, too.

Orbán’s government has been quick to capitalise on a receptive and loyal audience for its agenda in places such as Miercurea Ciuc. Orbán’s charisma and appeal to deeply-felt notions of heritage and identity have been highly manipulative and strikingly successful. As a result, the newly-enfranchised citizens have provided a strong and growing pipeline of Fidesz voters (estimated in 2018 at more than 90 per cent of all Hungarian citizenship-holders in Romania), a significant factor in the parliamentary elections which returned Orbán and his government to power with another substantial majority in 2022.

Orbán’s annual visit to a Hungarian-language political conference at Tusnád in Romania, a spa town south of Miercurea Ciuc, has become a focal point of this political synergy. Each summer he delivers a keynote speech, and each year liberal opinion is horrified by the thump and punch of Orbán’s incendiary rhetoric, whilst mainstream opinion amongst Hungarian-speaking Transylvanians assents rapturously.

In the summer of 2022, Orbán extemporised a concept of racial purity, prompting the immediate resignation of one of his most loyal senior advisors (a move she, puzzlingly, later reversed) and strong public criticism from Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis. Last summer, Orbán’s speech focused — amongst other things — on baiting the Romanian state by appearing to question the territorial integrity of present-day Romania, breaking diplomatic protocol in the process.

Outside the gates of the 2023 campsite conference, local police held at bay a vocal crowd of flag-waving, placard-bearing Romanian-speakers, brandishing pugnacious slogans about Transylvania’s intrinsically Romanian nature. Whilst the protesters outside last summer’s event could easily be dismissed as inconsequential, Orbán’s prolonged campaign in Transylvania has raised substantial mainstream worries about the long-term effects of all this political campaigning.

Whilst the newly-enfranchised Transylvanians constitute a stream of faithful postal votes for Fidesz in Hungarian parliamentary elections, those same Transylvanian voters are also vulnerable to being seen by the Romanian media and state as a foreign fifth column, undermining Romania’s status quo. A long-held suspicion that Hungarian individuals, businesses and government are acquiring too much influence in Transylvania is hard to disprove.

Currently the newly-enfranchised Hungarian citizens of Transylvania receive money from the Hungarian government on the birth of each new child. Their children can be educated free of charge in Hungarian government-funded facilities like the Angel Garden, and later at Hungarian-sponsored colleges such as the Sapientia University of Transylvania.

The Hungarian High Consulate to Miercurea Ciuc

In the context of Russia’s political machinations in Crimea before the annexation of 2014, and in eastern Ukraine prior to the 2022 invasion in which Moscow ensured fast-track Russian citizenship and passport-issuing, it’s hard not to be disturbed by some parallels with Orbán’s campaign in Transylvania — the more so given his unabashed affinity with Putin and his antagonism towards Ukraine.

What is the point at which Orbán recognises the limit of how far he can push his nation-building project in historically Hungarian territory? The reality of EU and NATO membership and a lack of economic heft mean the potential for Hungary to manipulate national borders could never succeed, even if such an agenda ever became part of the Fidesz project. That does not negate the potential instability caused by Orbán’s actions.

Orbán’s campaign to bring back into the national fold “stranded” Hungarians living in what have been foreign jurisdictions since 1920 is an unsettling and destabilising project. Whilst setting out to strengthen the heritage and culture of a historically fragmented and marginalised group of people, his project risks turning these new Hungarian citizens into vulnerable and manipulated foreigners in their home countries, increasingly withdrawn from participation in the mainstream of their homeland economies and politics.

Not everyone rises to the bait. Some voices in a more liberal and economically confident Romania articulate calmer perspective. As Dan Tăpălagă, a Romanian journalist, pointed out in July last year on the G4Media news website, “Orbán will leave at some point, Orbánism may survive for a whilst, but the Hungarians of Transylvania will stay here. It is Romania’s duty to take care of their future like any other of its citizens.”

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