By Ana Milosevic*
Hungary’s Victor Orban and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic are not interested in rectifying past injustices but in trading mutual benefits.
Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, inaugurated a reconstructed synagogue in Subotica on the border between the two countries.
The news was overshadowed by the crisis in Kosovo, however, and by the support that the European People’s Party, EPP, has given Orban in the upcoming election in Hungary on April 8.
The reconstruction of the synagogue, built in 1902 started four years ago, financed by the EU to the tune of 293,000 euros and with the support of local authorities and the Serbian and Hungarian governments.
“Respect for the Jewish community is what we have in common,” Orban said at the ceremony, adding: “Serbs and Hungarians have a future together.” Serbia’s Vucic was just as satisfied: “Relations between the two countries have never been better,” he said.
Behind this newfound friendship, however, is an untold story of how Serbia’s EU future is being built, one monument at a time.
Long process of converging interests:
Today’s friendship between Hungary and Serbia is the result of a ten-year process of strategic convergence of interests – and of concessions that Serbia has made to advance on the EU path.
Hungary’s strategic interest relates to its big diaspora in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina. Parties representing the ethnic Hungarian minority there have been the catalyst of the changed relations between the two countries. But they have also put forward their own interests, which Hungary has addressed during Serbia’s pre-accession process.
Serbia officially applied for EU membership back in 2009. Over that year, however, tensions emerged between Serbia and the Hungarian minority, with the Union of Vojvodina’s Hungarians, SVM, accusing Serbian President Boris Tadic of stopping the visit of Hungary’s President, Laszlo Solyom, to local Hungarian communities.
The reasons were not stated, but the media reported that Tadic’s office believed the visit could negatively affect the debate about the status of Vojvodina and some other open issues.
Despite Solyom’s wish to join commemorations of Hungary’s 1848 Revolution, the SVM had to commemorate this event without him, complaining about the “shortened private visit of the president of our home country” as “bitter and humiliating”.
Instead, the Hungarian President went to neighbouring Romania, where the Romanian authorities refused his plane a landing permit.
Tadic then worked on patching up relations with Hungary, visiting the Serbian diaspora in Budapest. The return visit of the Hungarian President came only two months later, a day after Hungary had recognised Kosovo. The two presidents met in Subotica to discuss the future, but also the past.
At that moment, Hungary tied its support for Serbia’s EU accession to dealing with past issues.
“As of now, Hungary will support Serbia’s candidacy for EU membership,” the two presidents said, signing a joint letter to the Hungarian and Serbian Academies of Science.
The two presidents urged the academies to scientifically analyse issues of atrocities and crimes committed against Hungarian civilians in Vojvodina towards the end of World War II.
Dealing with the past “for the sake of reconciliation,” by symbolically taking responsibility for the crimes, was not a process that involved both sides, however, nor was it dictated by a need to reconcile people.
Hungary was not interested in condemning the crimes of its own fascist state in wartime Yugoslavia. That was confirmed by the case of Sandor Kepiro, the Hungarian gendarmerie captain accused of war crimes over the massacre in Novi Sad in Hungarian-occupied Serbia in January 1942, when an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 civilians, mostly Serbs and Jews, were executed.
Kepiro admitted his part in the crime but, despite attempts to prosecute him, the case was not put to trial until July 2011 – when he was found not guilty.
Serbia’s Hungarian minority, meanwhile, sought symbolic recognition for the crimes committed against them in post-World War II Vojvodina, and Orban accommodated their plea after the 2010 elections when, as head of the Fidesz party, he became Prime Minister and Pal Schmitt, speaker of parliament until August 2010, became President of Hungary.
Orban rose to power in Hungary by playing the history card. He was deeply involved in the debate over the “Benes decrees” during the Czech and Slovak EU accession process – by which post-war Czechoslovakia had expelled several million Sudeten Germans as well as Hungarians.
In the years that followed, public opinion in Hungary perceived Orban as a person who had rectified historic injustices and restored the former glory of the nation. His new law on nationality and voting rights attracted millions of applicants from the Hungarian diaspora in neighbouring countries like Romania and Serbia.
However, unlike Romania, Serbia never opposed this. The proclaimed historical reconciliation of two countries favoured Orban’s national politics and electoral promises. But what was there for the Serbs?
Vital support for EU membership:
Serbia’s Tadic wanted to improve relations with Hungary and forge new economic ties. He obtained support for regional development programmes such as the Danube Initiative. The main motive, however, was to get Hungarian support for Serbia’s EU membership.
That came after the Serbian parliament adopted a 2013 resolution condemning crimes committed against Hungarian civilians in Vojvodina between 1944 and 1945.
The resolution was drafted and adopted by the Serbian parliament in 24 hours, proposed by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, and the Union of Vojvodina Hungarians with the support of the Socialists, as coalition partners of the SNS, and the Democrats in opposition.
The near-instant adoption of the resolution demonstrated that memories of World War II were now being employed as a political bargaining chip.
Dealing with the Yugoslav Partisans’ retaliation against the Hungarians was a win-win for both the Serbian and Hungarian governments, however. For a well-identified purpose – support for a start to Serbia’s EU negotiations – and from a distance of 70 years, the political costs of the resolution were extremely low.
The benefits, on the other hand, were significant: Serbia secured support for its EU candidacy and the promise of foreign investment. For Tadic’s party, this was significant political capital to exploit. For Orban, the resolution was about cementing support among his nationalistic core.
The resolution was voted through on the eve of the EU decision on awarding a date of a commencement of negotiations. Clearly, Serbia was making a gesture towards an EU member state that in return gave positive backing to the start of its negotiations.
However, it was framed as a “soft” condition of the EU, as part of an expectation of the EU for candidate countries to deal with the past. The proponents argued that the main aim was “to correct historical injustices and release the country from collective responsibility.” Crimes must be punished, and the victims were owed that, an SNS member of parliament said. [A reasoning never applied to many other crimes from the 1990s.]
Memory politics as a balancing act:
The history of Serbian-Hungarian friendship clearly shows that political actors have been using historical grievances as a tool to attain current strategic objectives. In this tactical game, the politics of memory is instrumental.
Since his rise to power, Vucic, “a reformed nationalist” of 1990s Serbia, has recognized the symbolic potential of the past. Yet, as the 2013 resolution shows, Serbia’s symbolic acknowledgement of crimes against Hungarians was nothing more than a political instrument to gain Hungarian support for Serbia’s EU accession.
When it comes to historical grievances, Vucic performs a political balancing act in making gestures towards the neighbours, appeasing the EU as well as his Serbian nationalistic core.
Like his predecessors, he is strategically using memory politics to support Serbia’s EU membership bid and economic interests. New monuments are built to celebrate economic investments, presented as friendships, with China or Azerbaijan. Old monuments, like the synagogue in Subotica, are restructured and made to bear witness to Serbia’s respect for European values.
The pompous inauguration in Subotica needs to be read in this light, as a symbolic gesture of Serbia’s respect for “unity in diversity.” It is also a courtesy returned to Orbán. In the midst of his own electoral campaign in 2016, Vucic hosted Orban to officially open a new Hungarian-owned factory in Subotica. This year, it was his turn to endorse Orbán in his electoral campaign.
The latest joint initiative is nothing more than a publicity stunt — made to appease the EU, the Hungarian diaspora and the Jewish community in both Hungary and Serbia, in the light of upcoming elections in Hungary on April 8.
Orban’s commitment to European values in Subotica sounds like a bad joke if we consider that, only a few kilometres away, on the border between Hungary and Serbia stands his anti-immigrant fence. Furthermore, over the last year, he has also made George Soros , the Hungarian-born Jewish financier and philanthropist, his number one political target, even if Hungary’s Jewish community is split over the question of whether antisemitism plays a role in Orban’s attack on Soros.
It is, therefore, insincere to look at the memory politics of this initiative as act of “dealing with the past,” as proof of “reconciliation” or as “a commitment to European values”. As it stands, the pompous inauguration of the synagogue in Subotica sends only a message that Hungary will continue to support Serbia’s European path — forged on an exchange of political and economic interests, and built one monument at the time.
*Ana Milosevic is a PhD Researcher at the LINES Institute (Leuven International and European Studies) at the University of Leuven, Belgium. The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.