Given my feelings about the Hungarian Status Law, some of my friends were surprised that I was so blasé about the changes to Hungary’s citizenship law. “Surely the changes, particularly the lack of a residency requirement, matter?” Well, probably, but the real question is: matters for what?

While I haven’t seen the text of the changes, recently I spoke with several people in Budapest who were closely following the issue. According to them, the general rule for obtaining citizenship was 8 year residency in Hungary and taking a Hungarian language/history/culture exam. If someone in your family in the past had been a Hungarian citizen (including pre-WWI Hungary), then the residency requirement was only 1 year. If you graduated from a Hungarian high school, then you do not have to take the exam.

The major change to the law is that there is no longer the 1 year residency for individuals who are a direct descendant of a former citizen. Indications are that they can now apply for citizenship and, if necessary take the exams, at the consulates.

Unlike the Status Law or even the 2004 proposal on dual citizenship, there is no ethnic requirement; i.e., one does not have to prove “Hungarian-ness.” For me, this discriminatory element was a fatal flaw in the earlier bills (which, by the way, was changed in the 2003 revisions to the Status Law). Many countries automatically grant citizenship to children of citizens whether or not the children have ever lived in the country. The argument here is that if dual citizenship had been allowed in these countries after World War I, many people who currently reside within the boundaries of pre-Trianon Hungary already would be citizens. Hungary’s law is now is almost exactly the same as Romania’s, which has allowed individuals in Moldova and a small slice of Ukraine to become Romanian citizens. In the early 1990s Latvia granted citizenship to those descended from individuals who were citizens in the inter-war period (and did not even require any test, language or otherwise). I remember in Poland in the summer 1989 there was a wave of Poles trying to figure out if their grandparents or great-grandparents had been among the many American citizens who moved to Poland in 1920 when it became independent as it would allow them a fast-track to American citizenship. In any case, now individuals who identify as Roma, Jews, Slovaks, Ruthenians, or whatever can obtain citizenship if they are descended from a Hungarian citizen and can pass the exam.

Of course, the other question is why at this point one would want to add Hungarian citizenship. It was a very different question before 2004. Now Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia are all in the EU. Serbian citizens no longer need a visa to travel to the EU. The feeling is that the primary draw will be the symbolic value of having a Hungarian passport, but no one seems to have any idea how many people this will be. There are still more practical rationales for Serbian and, more importantly, Ukrainian citizens.

In Hungary, the real areas of discussion are voting, employment, and social welfare. All of these require a residency card, which the FIDESZ people claim is difficult to get and everyone says is incredibly easy (apparently all you really need is a relative or friend willing to state you live with them). However, because there’s no absentee voting, you have to go to Hungary to vote, and no one knows how many of these new citizens are actually going to care enough to do this. The economy of Hungary is so bad that few worry people from other countries are going to come looking for jobs because there aren’t any. And thanks to the neo-liberal reforms, most social welfare provisions are tied to what you put into the various funds and just being a citizen doesn’t get you that much.

Given this, I’m not convinced huge numbers of people are actually going to become citizens. You still have to trek to the consulate and deal with the bureaucracy. If you didn’t graduate from a Hungarian high school, you have to study for the exam and pay to take it (while the Socialists dramatically reduced the costs several years ago, it’s still not free). So those who are predicting a hundred thousand or so maybe closer than those predicting millions.

This makes the politics of it seem even stranger. For all the talk of Hungarian concern about their “kin” in neighboring states, the issue has never been one to draw a lot of votes. The 2004 referendum failed spectacularly, partly over fears that Transylvanians were going to come in and take jobs away from real Hungarians or were going to find ways to take advantage of Hungary’s welfare system. In fact, many have argued it’s a political loser, which I think is more probable. In Budapest I heard the real push came from ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring states who had strong ties to FIDESZ and repeatedly told them how hurt the Hungarians abroad were about the defeat of the 2004 referendum. “If the Romanians can allow Moldovans citizenship, why can’t you do the same for us?” seems to have been the refrain. Even if people don’t get citizenship, it seems important to them to know they could.

Over the years, FIDESZ politicians have openly stated that expansion of citizenship would increase the number of their voters; however, their reluctance to bring up absentee voting makes me wonder if they are concerned that those who will actually go through the trouble to get citizenship might end up voting for Jobbik instead. Even in Hungary, the policy may have gained prominence as a way to decrease defections to Jobbik. Finally, passing a change to the citizenship law now gives the appearance that the government is at least doing something while FIDESZ tries to figure out its economic policy.

Finally, the more surprising politics have been in Slovakia (few in the other neighboring states seem to care). I suppose one shouldn’t have been surprised by Fico’s over the top response, quickly passing a bill that would strip Slovak citizenship of anyone who voluntarily becomes a citizen of another state (dual citizenship at birth would still be allowed); although in fairness I will add that other EU states have similar laws. Still, it was right before the election. But while it may have helped Smer pull votes away from the Slovak National Party, it does not appear to be nearly enough to have returned Fico to office. Perhaps more surprising is the apparently small but significant shift from the Hungarian Coalition Party, which supported the dual citizenship law and ended up falling just below the 5% threshold, to Most Hid, which was lukewarm at best about the law. Perhaps in the face of other problems, it’s not that important to Hungarians in Slovakia after all.

So, I’m not sure that Hungary’s changes to the law will matter that much in terms of politics inside of Hungary or relations with its neighbors. However, I do think the law matters in terms of how we think about national belonging and citizenship. In this globalizing world, people are already talking about post-modern belonging and see multiple citizenships as part of this trend of recognizing our multiple selves (I know enough people with 3 passports that even that no longer seems unusual). Still, how these multiple memberships impact the relationship between community and state remains to be seen.

Stephen Deets is an Associate Professor of Politics at Babson College.

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