This article was published online by the Magyar Nemzet on 10 September 2021.
Hungarians and Serbians write the common future together
It is not widely known that one of the oldest architectural monuments to Serbian-Hungarian relations stands today on Csepel Island. The Serbian Kovin Monastery is a perfectly intact Gothic monument which has been in use as a Serbian Orthodox church since 1440. King Vladislaus I. of Hungary donated it to the Serbian community fleeing from the Turks in the Lower Danube region. The fact that there has been a continuously active Serbian Orthodox Church in the heart of Hungary, throughout all the historical trials and tribulations of the past 600 years since then, carries several important messages for us.
First, that Hungary does not need outside lessons on lasting, peaceful religious and ethnic coexistence – despite the fact that we have never felt the need to affix the label of “multiculturalism” to this peaceful coexistence. The other important message is we Hungarians and Serbians have a long tradition of helping each other in times of existential crisis, as in the Ottoman-Turkish conquest in South-Eastern Europe. This lesson is quite relevant today as our countries are faced with such serious challenges as the coronavirus pandemic and mass migration. Though the latter is of a different nature than what Hungarians and Serbs faced 600 years ago, it still poses a serious security risk and stems from the south-east, just as it did before.
It is important to discuss how we have supported each other because after all, our relations are not entirely free of conflict. Unfortunately, there are violent and bloody chapters in the history of Serbian-Hungarian coexistence. Up until the XVI-XX centuries, we know of multiple severe ethnic conflicts that left long-lasting tensions between the two peoples. The mass murders committed against Hungarians in the Vojvodina region around the 1848-49 freedom fight left a permanent mark in our national memory, just as the atrocities committed by Hungarians did in the Second World War followed by the mass murder retaliation in the Hungarian villages at the end of the war.
However, we must not forget that behind these conflicts, in most cases, the great powers of the time, seeking to influence our region, acted as instigators. Whether it was the Habsburgs seeking to assert their own dynastic interests by inciting inter-ethnic conflict, or the great powers building an anti-German force, haphazardly deepening national differences in our region merely to meet their own perceived strategy. And this incited hatred was exploited by National Socialist Germany in an effort to achieve their aspirations to conquer by turning the local people against each other. This is what Hungarian Prime Minister Pál Teleki was reacting to when in the spring of 1941 he tragically committed suicide in an act of protest against the attack on our southern neighbor.
If there is one thing we can learn from this for our future, it is that we must not hand over control of our regional affairs to a foreign power. Every time this happened, we Hungarians, Serbs and other nations living here suffered the consequences.
In connection with one of the most important regional issues today – the enlargement of the EU in the Western Balkans – it seems that even though Serbia’s EU membership would be essential for the security of the entire EU, not just Hungary and Slovenia, the Western powers do not want to recognize the strategic importance of this move.
As Serbian President Alexander Vucic said at the Bled European Strategic Forum: after Brexit, the EU needs enlargement, but instead they are pulling back and seemingly ignoring the bigger picture.
Yet the imminent, serious migration crisis looming in the wake of the events in Afghanistan would warrant the EU to deepen its strategic cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans, particularly with Serbia as it lies on the Schengen border, a key country in the region.
As Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated at the most recent Budapest summit: cooperating with Serbia in an effort to protect our external borders is of utmost importance for the security of Germany and other Western states.
After all, for most of the migrants, these countries are the true destinations, not our country nor Serbia. It seems though that once again, the protection of Europe’s borders will be the task of the Serbs and Hungarians. And we will fulfill this task, as we have done before. Even though, as the Hungarian Prime Minister has pointed out, we are alone and can only count on ourselves. The Hungarian government has emphasized repeatedly that we are dedicated to the accession of our southern neighbor to the EU and to putting bilateral relations on new footing. Hungary took the first step by making the Western Balkans enlargement a priority during their 2011 EU presidency. Fortunately, the obstacle in connection with this posed by the anti-Hungarian discriminatory elements of the Serbian property restitution act had already been removed.
The results of the past few years speak for themselves in terms of the turn in Serbian-Hungarian relations. The current government summit is a well- established forum for this – and without any exaggeration – is a success story.
The world has changed a lot since the Hungarian and Serbian presidents wreathed a monument to the Hungarian and Serbian civil victims of World War II in Csúrog, Vojvodina, in the summer of 2013. And cooperation is far from over as the development of joint infrastructure projects like the Budapest- Belgrade railway line and the gas pipeline from Serbia are underway.
Between 2014 and 2019, trade volumes between the two countries doubled and this growth was not even halted by the pandemic. Currently, after the Netherlands and Russia, Hungary is the third largest foreign investor in Serbia. In 2016, the Hungarian government launched the Vojvodina Economic Development Program, the aim of which is to develop enterprise in Vojvodina and, through this, create jobs, a supply industry, and indirectly, stop the emigration of the native Hungarian population.
As for symbolic gestures, perhaps the renovation of the Hungarian-Art- Nouveau-style synagogue in Subotica (Szabadka) funded in part by the Hungarian state, showed most spectacularly how well the two countries can cooperate to preserve our common heritage. As the Prime Minister put it at the inaugural ceremony with President Vucic, “the past opens the door to a common future” which “Hungarians and Serbs write together”.
The substantial improvement in relations is by no means just a message at the governmental level: in addition to the dynamic development within the private economic atmosphere, cooperation can also be seen in the general state of the population.
We can declare that Hungarians in Serbia and Serbs in Hungary have never lived in such peace with the majority nation before. A recent survey by the CEPER (Central European Perspectives) research institute also revealed that Serbia’s assessment of Hungary is very positive. Of course, however, the harmonious relationship between the leaders of the countries also plays a major role in these positive changes.
Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that after many centuries, the Hungarian and Serbian nations have been given a unique historical opportunity to shape their own and their common destinies. For our part, we will do everything we can to make the most of this opportunity.