Hungarians in Serbia

The Hungarian community in Serbia – Vojvodina

Vojvodina, Serbia’s northernmost province bordering on Hungary, has an extremely eventful history. The wider region was from the establishment of the Kingdom of Hungary a part of Hungarian history for a thousand years. Located in the southern part of the Carpathian Basin, the region is an area where in the last five hundred years repeated waves of conflicts alternated with peaceful periods, and migrations with organized colonization.

As a result of these developments, an exceptionally diverse ethnic mosaic had emerged in the area by the turn of the last century. The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina has a population of 1.9 million with 26 ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious communities registered in the area.

According to the 2011 census, the vast majority of the 251,000 Hungarians in Serbia live in Vojvodina, where they constitute the second largest community (13%) after the Serbians who now make up two-thirds of the province’s population.

While Hungarians do live in most settlements in Vojvodina, a significant part of the community (150,000 people) form the majority in local governments situated in a coherent bloc in northern Bačka and along the river Tisza, including Kanjiza [Magyarkanizsa], Senta [Zenta], Ada, Backa Topola [Topolya], Mali Iđoš [Kishegyes], Čoka [Csóka] and Subotica [Szabadka]. The remaining 100,000 Hungarians are dispersed in medium-sized towns and ethnically isolated settlements.

The size of the community has shrunk significantly over the past one hundred years, with the greatest drop suffered in the period after 1991 when the number of Hungarians fell by 100,000 in 20 years. The sudden deterioration of the economic and political situation and the Balkan wars sped up the pace of emigration and further deteriorated the already negative demographic indicators, while there was no reduction in the rate of assimilation. While the democratic changes in 2000 brought about an expansion of the rights of minorities, the community continues to shrink even today.

Political fragmentation is rampant even in comparison to other Hungarian communities in the Carpathian Basin. It has recently been reported that the province had up to seven ethnic Hungarian minority parties operating in it all at the same time. From 1990 the Democratic Community of Vojvodina Hungarians (VMDK) played the role of the most dominant ethnic Hungarian party; since 1994, the role has been played by its split-off group, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (VMSZ). The latter organization was a participant in the changes that took place in 2000, and has subsequently been a permanent actor on the provincial and (except for a brief gap) the national political scene, and part of both the Serbian and Vojvodina governments.

With varying degrees of emphasis in party programmes depending on political expediencies, minority autonomy and its various forms are the focus of Hungarian politics in Vojvodina. Thanks to the expectations of European institutions and minority participation in the government, there gradually evolved in Serbia during the 2000s a system of national councils, allowing the minority community to implement the main elements of cultural autonomy, develop a system of institutions, and directly elect representative bodies. The Hungarian National Council, based in Subotica, is competent in areas relating to minority education, culture and information as well as the official use of Hungarian. The self government body exercises the founder’s rights over minority institutions, and must therefore be involved in decisions affecting the minority. National councils also monitor the enforcement of language rights. As a result of the reform of the legal framework in its complexity since 2002, Hungarian has been given the status of official language in 28 municipalities as well as 7 settlements in Vojvodina. However, further efforts are required to promote the actual use of the Hungarian language.

The community was negatively affected by the public administration reform which took place in the 1990s whereby the most important Hungarian-inhabited municipalities fell under the jurisdiction of often completely alien districts with Serbian majority (e.g. Kikinda). An important political objective of Vojvodina Hungarians is to restore the natural centres of Hungarian self-government.

Vojvodina, including the municipalities home to a Hungarian majority, used to be among the most developed areas of the country. However, the ongoing negative economic developments since 1991 have resulted in a significant decline, both compared to the national (Belgrade) and the provincial capital (Novi Sad). If Vojvodina Hungarians, who are predominantly engaged in the agrarian sector, are to remain in the territory and the exodus of young people is to be halted – an objective aimed at by Hungarian government programmes launched in 2016 – the creation of an economic perspective is key.