Hungarians in the Carpathians (European minorities, chapter 1)

The rearrangement of national borders after World War I still affects the identity feelings of the people living in the region today.

Rafa Font avatar


My friend Dora, who is Hungarian, told me once, about Budapest: “Look at its size. It’s too large to be the capital of a 10-million people country. It used to be the capital of a bigger area.

I didn’t tune in to this comment the first time I heard it. It sounded nostalgic, like the memory of a once larger Hungary, beyond its current borders. I didn’t pay attention.

But then, when I wanted to write about minority populations in Europe living outside their home country, I found Hungarians all around Hungary. The (over)size of Budapest came back to my mind.

It came back by train.

A train connecting Vienna, Budapest, and Western Romania

In a previous article, we mentioned that the European Commission wanted to improve the current train connection from Vienna to Budapest, and further to the Romanian cities of Oradea and Arad.

Why to those cities and not to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania?

(Are you interested in travelling by train across Europe? Consider reading our story on the topic!)


The European Commission puts no political intention behind this proposal. They just asked train companies for routes, and chose from them based on technical criteria. But then, why did train companies select this route?

It turns out that 20% of Oradea’s population, and 8% of Arad’s, is of Hungarian origin. The proposal comes from the Hungarian Ministry of Transport.

Here we loop back to our opening, and find the political context of this (hopefully) improved train line: to better connect Budapest with some of the Hungarian communities living in Romania.

Our train (of thought) is now crossing the border.

1.1 million people living in Romania declare themselves Hungarian

When asked, in the census, for their national identity, they said “Hungarian”. They make 6% of the total population, but they’re not distributed evenly. Where are they living?

Source: Wikimedia.
Source: Wikimedia.

There are two regions within Romania that have a population which is Hungarian in its majority. Why are there located specifically there? Let’s look at the geography.

Source: Visual Wall Maps.
Source: Visual Wall Maps.

The red mountain fringe is the Carpathians, and the area at the centre of them is Transylvania. There have been Hungarian communities living here since this area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

It’s not the only case. When World War I ended, Hungary lost two thirds of its former territory. For this reason, there are Hungarian minorities all around present-day Hungary: 6% in Romania, 8% in Slovakia, 3% in Serbia. In Croatia, it’s only 0.33% nationally, but in the easternmost provinces it’s up to 40%. In Ukraine there are relatively small numbers of Hungarians, but very relevant near the border, with up to 12% in the Zakarpattia oblast.

Hungary and Hungarians all around. Source: Wikimedia.
Hungary and Hungarians all around. Source: Wikimedia.

Growing up as a Hungarian in Romania

We talked with Gabor (not his real name), a 40-year-old Hungarian born in Romania.

“I now live abroad. When I explain my personal journey to my colleagues, they don’t have a clue about how it was to grow in Romania as a Hungarian.”

Here are some clues about Gabor’s journey for the readers of The European Perspective.

“My grandparents didn’t move. I don’t remember exactly if, at that time, Transylvania was a Hungarian territory or not. But I once saw their identification documents and the birth country mentioned was Hungary. That area is now Romania. My grandparents tried, but never learned to speak Romanian correctly. As a kid, I could speak it better than them.”

The Romanian community has been a majority since the 19th century. When the territory last became part of the Romanian state, they offered perks for more of them to come and settle.

“Nowadays, everyone is bilingual in the area. But as kids, we learned each other’s language just by playing together. Sports clubs were mixed.”

He did his primary school in Hungarian, but when he got older and wanted to follow more specialised training, he had to switch to a Romanian school.

“In Maths, I was always good. But I had to relearn all my Maths in Romanian, starting by 2+2.”

For Hungarians living abroad, language is a key issue. We will get more details about this when we move to Slovakia, but before, let’s try to bring in a bit of the Romanian perspective. Because when we’re talking about Transylvania, each country looks at the topic very differently.

Modern Romania started when old Hungary ended

The history of Transylvania is complicated, with three ethnic groups traditionally established: Saxons, Romanians, and Hungarians. Power has changed hands several times.

Romania recently celebrated 100 years of their “Great Union”. In 1918, Romania got control of historical territories, including Transylvania. The modern Romanian state was thus created. But for their neighbours, this is the opposite of a celebration day, precisely because of the loss of Transylvania and other territories, which meant the end of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Relations between the two countries are still difficult because of this. Since Romania entered the EU, there haven’t been bilateral talks.

In order to explain the conflict, we can try to picture it as a cycle:

First – Hungarian populations in Romania complain.

They claim that they’re lacking adequate infrastructure, services, or language rights, to study or address the administration in their own language.

One example to illustrate this: In Romania, by law, a minority of more than 20% of the population in a city should get special language rights. In practice, this only happens in municipalities where Hungarians are a majority1.

Second – Hungary intervenes.

Since 2011, Hungary has a national plan and a dedicated foundation to support Hungarians abroad. They have given millions of € to churches, invested in sports equipment, and bought media outlets. Hungary has issued passports to the Hungarian-speaking community, and with them, the right to vote in Hungarian elections.

What Hungary pursues with this policy is the “unification of the nation”, considering that the Hungarian nation goes beyond the borders of the Hungarian state2. Then, the Hungarian state gives itself powers to intervene in other states on behalf of Hungarian nationals.

When we combine 1 and 2, the result is what Tamás Kiss, a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, describes as “ethnic parallelism – a system in which Hungarians can live their life as it would be not in Romania but in Hungary”3.

Third – Romania gets suspicious.

Romanian law is clearly in favour of minorities, and it’s difficult to find other countries so open to this.

In Romania there are Hungarian football clubs, churches, schools, theatres, newspapers, movies, several of them subsidised by the Romanian state. Isn’t it sufficient? Why is Hungary still pushing?

Issuing Hungarian passports, for instance, is a contentious issue, which the neighbouring nations dislike. When Hungary talks about “unification of the Hungarian nation”, this creates concern among its neighbours. When the Hungarian state intervenes in other countries’ internal affairs, tensions arise.

Fourth – Populism and nationalism find a way in.

In the Romanian football league, Hungarian players have been insulted. The Romanian President accused once Hungary in public of wanting to reclaim Transylvania. His Hungarian counterpart ironically stated: “We never said that Transylvania was Romanian”.

These attitudes at the highest level have a snowball effect in the society. If the leaders can behave in such a non-diplomatic way, people feel free to also engage similarly. This ends up reinforcing the first step of the loop: Hungarians complain that their situation is not good.

Let’s see now how are things in a different border.

8% of the Slovakian population declares themselves Hungarian

That figure used to be higher. After World War II, Germans and Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia lost their citizenship. Almost all Germans left, many Hungarians were deported, and some were lucky to stay. Then, Czechoslovakia was heavily industrialised, and this meant an influx of new people in areas with Hungarian population.

Today, almost half a million people living in Slovakia are Hungarian. In several cities near the southern border, the percentage is over 50%.

These numbers are declining. We talked with Miklós Krivánsky, a 73-year-old Hungarian from Košice (present-day Slovakia) who is an accredited journalist in Brussels. He explained the reasons to us.

“Young people are going abroad. Those who go to study or to work in Hungary never come back. In mixed marriages, it’s usually the majority identity that prevails.”

If someone says in the 2011 census that they feel Hungarian, maybe in 2021 they might change to Slovak?

“No, that’s unlikely. It’s rather the children’s feelings that bring about the change. Kids born from Hungarian-Slovak mixed families in Slovakia might feel more Slovak than Hungarian.”

In Slovakia, it’s possible to attend Hungarian-speaking primary and high schools. There’s even one University: Selye János, in Komárno. There are degrees in Teacher Education, Economics, and Theology.

“The University has been there since 2004, following a deal between Hungary and Slovakia. Hungary contributes funds to the University. However, it’s not enough. It should be larger, better funded, and with more studies.”

Hungarians would like to be independent of Slovakia when it comes to organise education and culture. And also, to raise their own taxes to cover their specific needs. Let’s touch some politics now.

A request for self-government – on hold

What are the main political issues of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia?

  • The population decrease, as we already covered.

  • The control of the cultural and education politics and funds.

  • The “autonomy” of the Hungarian-majority territory.

Note here an important nuance: “autonomy” has a different meaning in Slovakia. It’s not like in Spain, or Italy, where it means that a territory has a certain independence over a number of topics. In Slovakia, due to its history, “autonomy” means that you have a plan for your future independence. This is not well received by Slovakia, so Hungarians don’t use that word, they reclaim “self-government” instead4.

Is there any self-governed territory in Europe that what would be a good example? Here’s Miklós Krivánsky:

“Not South Tyrol, that would be too much for what Slovakia might concede. But look at Valle d’Aosta. Something similar could work.”

Valle d’Aosta is bilingual, French and Italian. It keeps 90% of the taxes it raises. It’s independent of Rome in many topics: tourism (its main source of revenue), water resources, and urban planning, among others.

The request for more self-government is currently frozen. The reason: it’s not convenient to raise it, in order not to alter the current understanding between the Slovak and Hungarian leaders: Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán.

Is this a single city, or two? Komárno, north of the Danube, is in Slovakia, but its Hungarian name is Komárom. Komárom, south of the Danube, is in Hungary, but its Slovak name is Komárno. Source: OpenStreetMap.
Is this a single city, or two? Komárno, north of the Danube, is in Slovakia, but its Hungarian name is Komárom. Komárom, south of the Danube, is in Hungary, but its Slovak name is Komárno. Source: OpenStreetMap.

Fico is back in charge of Slovakia (he was Primer Minister twice in the past). Before, he enacted anti-Hungarian policies, for instance through the law on citizenship, which is still in force. Hungarians are forced to choose: if they want the Hungarian citizenship, they have to renounce the Slovak. Let’s hear from Miklós:

“The Slovak far-right hated Roma people, migrants in general, and Hungarians in particular. These days they hate Roma people, migrants in general, but leave Hungarians in peace.”

Fico and Orban are aligned in their politics towards Europe. This leaves Hungarians in Slovakia in a standstill. Their social situation is better than it used to be, but the underlying political concerns are not resolved, just parked.

Let’s round our trip up, looking at another Hungarian minority, in Ukraine. They’re a bit more than 150.000, but their issues have strong implications in the big political game.

Being Hungarian in Ukraine has political implications

Gabor had mentioned when we interviewed him: “I’ve heard that Ukraine doesn’t treat the Hungarian minority very well.

What does it mean?

There are two important aspects: nationality, and language. In both cases, Ukraine is providing fewer rights to the Hungarian minority than other countries.

To start with, Ukraine doesn’t recognise dual citizenship. Its Constitution says that there’s just one citizenship Ukrainian. This is the same as Slovakia, and we just tagged this behaviour as “anti-Hungarian”. There might be a way forward in this area, though, as Volodymyr Zelenksyy recently announced the upcoming introduction of multiple citizenship5. Although this is mainly aimed at Ukrainians abroad, it could also benefit Hungarians at home.

Hungary, as we have seen, has an active policy towards Hungarians abroad, that includes issuing passports. This creates tensions between both countries, and also delicate situations for individuals. A notorious person that holds both passports is Andrea Bocskor, a Member of the European Parliament. She is a Ukrainian citizen, living in the Hungarian-majority area. At the same time, she is Hungarian, and vows to represent Hungarians in Transcarpathia.

Let’s look at language now. Ukraine, in 2017, wanted to reduce the use of Russian, which was widely spoken, and mandated that from the 5th school year onwards, there was only teaching in Ukrainian. The Hungarian language was caught in the crossfire.

This is a problem for Ukraine’s accession to the EU. It has to be reversed6.

According to the official reports, Ukraine has made progress. In 2020, it changed the law to increase gradually the percentage of school time taught in Ukrainian: in 5th year, 20%; in 9th year, 40%, and in 12th year, 60%.

This means that by the 12th year, there’s still 40% of school time in Hungarian. This is not the same as a 100% Hungarian school, but it seems as much as Ukraine is willing to do, and it’s aligned with what the international community requires. But, is this enough for Hungary?

The Hungarian government takes a strong stance when discussing these issues, mentioning “oppression” of Transcarpathian Hungarians. It’s threatening to block Ukraine’s path to the EU on these grounds7.

Zakarpattia – Beyond the Carpathians

Let’s round the article up as we opened it, with geography. And trains.

Hungarians in Ukraine live in the province called Zakarpattia. In Ukrainian, it means “at the other side of the Carpathians”. The Hungarians call this region Kárpátalja, which means “at this side of the Carpathians”.

Kyiv, on the other side of the mountains, is 800km away, while Budapest, on this side, is just 300.

When you look at the map, the mountains clearly stand between Zakarpattia and the rest of Ukraine. The Hungarian majority of Zakarpattia is close to Budapest physically, and culturally. But in the media reports that cover their situation8, people from the Hungarian community insist on this: despite the geography, we live in Ukraine.

Approximate extension of the Zakarpattia Oblast. Its main cities are in the Great Hungarian Plain. Original picture: Wikimedia.
Approximate extension of the Zakarpattia Oblast. Its main cities are in the Great Hungarian Plain. Original picture: Wikimedia.

Francisco the Hungarian

The last input we received for this article came from an unexpected place: Chile.

“My parents emigrated after World War II: my mum, in 1944, my dad, in 1947. They didn’t know each other in Hungary: they met in Santiago.”

Francisco Prochaska was born in Chile. He grew up listening to mythical stories about how his family escaped from the war aftermath.

“My mum is 99 now. She is from a noble family, and they left the place they had inhabited for centuries when the Russians entered. My dad had a mill and a wood business. He heard he had been condemned by a popular jury in his home town and decided to flee.”

Francisco discovered his roots gradually. Some years ago, he decided to ask for the Hungarian nationality. Then, he discovered that his parents had lost their citizenship many years ago: they had been born in territories that were outside the post World War I Hungarian borders.

“I felt that rejection like a punch in the face. I eventually got the citizenship when I proved that I could speak the language. Being Hungarian brings me a sense of belonging that I find difficult to describe.”

Being outside of Europe, Francisco has lived beside the territorial tensions that we have navigated in this article. By closing with him, we get closer to the feeling that we expected to describe when we started writing: living outside your home country.

We came by train, we leave by train

In this case, on the direct service between Kyiv and Vienna. It passes through Slovakia, and at the border the gauge changes between Russian (1520 mm.) and European (1435 mm.), and this requires a large station.

We say goodbye from Čierna nad Tisou, a train station with 916 tracks.

Čierna nad Tisou seen from Google Earth.
Čierna nad Tisou seen from Google Earth.

  1. Romania’s ‘Hungarian problem’: A minority caught between integration and self-segregation, Beáta Huszka, November 2021. ↩︎
  2. Policy for Hungarian Communities Abroad, Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, 2013 ↩︎
  3. Increasing Marginality, Ethnic Parallelism and Asymmetric Accommodation. Social and Political Processes Concerning the Hungarian Community of Transylvania, Tamás Kiss, 2015. ↩︎
  4. Looking to the Past to Survive the Future: The Hungarian Minority in Slovakia, Susan Divald, 2021. ↩︎
  5. Address by the President of Ukraine on the Day of Unity. ↩︎
  6. “(Ukraine) needs to finalise its reform of the legal framework for national minorities and to adopt effective implementation mechanisms”. From: Commission Opinion on Ukraine’s application for membership of the European Union ↩︎
  7. Orbán’s Ukraine-veto threat escalates ahead of EU summit. EUObserver, December 2023. ↩︎
  8. “Orbán is not the hero of my novel.” Special report on Transcarpathian Hungarians in Ukraine and their relations with Budapest. (in Russian). ↩︎
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5 responses to “Hungarians in the Carpathians (European minorities, chapter 1)”

  1. Lorcan Lyons avatar
    Lorcan Lyons

    Ironic they have a university abroad but don’t like foreign universities in Hungary…

    I wonder if Hungarian citizens abroad can vote? Sounds like a significant number

    1. Rafa Font avatar

      Hungarians living abroad that receive a Hungarian passport are also allowed to vote in the national elections. I’ve seen figures saying that Hungary wanted to reach between 500k and 1M people in the last years.

  2. Mohammed Irfanulla avatar
    Mohammed Irfanulla

    It’s good read Rafa, I learnt lot.

    1. Rafa Font avatar

      Thank you! I also learned a lot while researching and writing on the topic. And also how to talk about it, considering it might be sensitive for the people involved. I hope to have given a balanced account.

      1. Mohammed Irfanulla avatar
        Mohammed Irfanulla

        I found it well balanced Rafa

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