Russia’s aggression against Ukraine not only opened a new era in geopolitics but also affected the political framework for the protection of national minorities.

A New Era in Geopolitics

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine not only opened a new era in geopolitics1 but also affected the political framework for the protection of national minorities. The Russian political leadership repeatedly argued that it was necessary to launch the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine to protect national minorities living in the eastern part of the country.2 Furthermore, the fact that the outbreak of the Second World War was partially caused by the disordered situation of national minorities cannot be totally separated from the current geopolitical situation either.

Even though these Russian justification attempts are obviously not valid, they may ‘demonize’ the problem of national minorities in a broader context. This has already been abused by certain politicians of the states bordering Hungary in order to turn down the just aspirations of national minorities in the respective countries. Recently the speaker of the Slovak Parliament, Boris Kollár stated that, by taking advantage of the Russian aggression, Viktor Orbán may soon want to redraw Slovakia’s borders and break up the country.3 Andrej Stančík, representative of the biggest ruling party in Slovakia (OĽaNO), also raised the spectre of the Hungarian occupation of Slovakia.4

The rhetoric of the Russian leadership regarding the minority issue is particularly worrying, because a few decades ago, in a similar geopolitical situation, the protection of national minorities disappeared from the agenda of international institutions. After the First World War, a specific system of minority protection was created within the framework of the League of Nations, which established obligations towards national minorities only for certain states. The League of Nations, with its minority protection system, failed. As a result, after 1945, a new human rights regime emerged in the UN which was based on an individual legal approach. The issue of national minorities was soon seen as a serious threat to the stability of states,5 and the narrative that human rights and fundamental freedoms alone can provide sufficient protection for minorities prevailed.6

When we talk about the new opportunities and challenges of protecting the rights and promoting the interests of national minorities, we must take into consideration not only the new geopolitical context created by the war, but also the new trends in shaping public thinking. In this paper, I am looking for answers to three basic questions, highlighting the opportunities and challenges I believe to be the most current in protecting the rights and promoting the interests of national minorities.

Why Is Advocacy for Minority Rights in the International Sphere Important?

We need to pay special attention to advocacy and interest representation, given that the framework for the protection of the rights of national minorities at the international and EU level has been thoroughly expounded.7 On the other hand, during my professional activity in the past years, in addition to examining minority issues with an academic approach and fulfilling the requirements of scholarly research, I have always tried to analyse the opportunities to successfully advocate for the interests of national minorities.

In terms of protecting the rights and promoting the interests of national minorities, three main spheres may be identified: domestic, kin-state (bilateral) relations, and the role of international (multilateral) organizations. By the domestic sphere, we mean that the respective national minority, through its representatives and by acting collectively, shall advocate for its own interests within its territorial state. Both political and civic actors shall aim to improve the domestic legal framework applicable to national minority groups and speak up against any violations of minority rights which may occur. Representing the interests of national minorities by their kin-states in bilateral relations with the territorial state is also an important sphere of political advocacy. However, this can only be applied in relation to those national minorities which have a kinstate able and willing to protect the interests of their national minorities living in the other country. This is obviously an important sphere of action for Hungarians living abroad, given that Hungarian constitutional traditions imply a close attention to ethnic Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries. The third sphere is the international one. The externalization of national minority claims—that is, the placing of minority claims and the ongoing violations of minority rights on the agenda of international organizations such as the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, or the European Union is especially important.8 In addition to targeting international organizations, raising international awareness about the situation of national minorities in their territorial states is also crucial. I shall focus on this third aspect: minority advocacy in the international sphere.

Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries have learned over the past three decades that it would not be wise to rely only on the goodwill of their territorial state. Apparently, the time has not yet come for these states to see their national minorities as an asset to their country and, accordingly, to provide adequate guarantees to preserve their language and identity. Hungarians living abroad have also learned that they cannot fully rely on Hungary, as their kin-state’s ability to defend their interests is limited. Although we consider current Slovak–Hungarian relations to be exceptionally good, the discriminatory provisions of the Slovak language law are still in force, dual citizenship is still prohibited, and under the Beneš Decrees private property is still being confiscated from individuals solely because of their Hungarian or German roots.9 Hungarians from southern Slovakia remember the years between 2006 and 2010, when the then socialist Hungarian government turned its back on the Hungarian communities living in the neighbouring countries; domestic political representation of Hungarians in Slovakia was weak, Slovak chauvinism under the government of Robert Fico flourished, and international organizations remained their last hope. These experiences also show that national minorities’ demands must also be voiced in the international sphere.

What Does Advocacy for National Minorities Demand Nowadays?

When advocating in the international sphere, minority rights have to be presented as a collection of specific rights that are part of universal human rights. However, certain debates continue regarding whether this statement is valid at all. On the one hand, the rights of national minorities—or more generally minority rights—are indeed part of universal human rights because they do have an individual dimension, the purpose of which is to ensure equal treatment for individuals belonging to the minority and the majority by providing them with certain rights through which they can enjoy individual freedom. At the same time, the rights of national minorities are more than a pure collection of individual human rights concerning persons belonging to minority groups. In addition to the individual dimension of the rights of national minorities, they also have a collective dimension that aims to protect the group itself in order to maintain the specificity of the minority group, and thus, to preserve the values national minorities represent in the society of the territorial state.10

‘The rights of national minorities are more than a pure collection of individual human rights concerning persons belonging to minority groups’

An undeniable challenge of minority rights, specifically regarding its collective dimension, is that the concept of collective/group rights is fundamentally alien to the individual human rights concept. However, a collective legal approach is necessary in the protection of national minorities, as certain rights of individuals belonging to national minorities can only be interpreted and provided as group rights. The linguistic, cultural, and educational rights of national minorities are exercised individually, yet we interpret them as collective rights, since the possibility of using them is due to the fact that they are provided to a specific group, and, in addition, certain individual rights, e.g. the right to education in the mother tongue, can only be enjoyed through the recognition of collective rights.11 This phenomenon is particularly evident in the demographic reality of Central and Eastern Europe.12 As Zsolt Németh and Csaba Lőrincz emphasized in 1992: ‘In Central and Eastern Europe, individual liberty cannot be promoted if the minority as a group is not protected. […] Among the peculiarities of our region is the increased presence of nationalisms. The characteristic of nationalism is that it is directed against the groups of individuals, and it reduces the freedom of the individual through endangering the existence of the group.’13 These characteristics also provide us with the opportunity to clarify the Central European interpretation of the nation and national belonging—if you want to understand why and what is happening in Central and Eastern Europe, you must also understand the issue of national minorities.

In other cases, where appropriate, advocates of national minorities should put more emphasis on other fundamental rights, instead of portraying the given case as a minority issue. A good example is the case of the Beneš Decrees and their contemporary application in Slovakia. In this case, the special focus should be placed on the right to private property and the principle of legal security, since these aspects themselves, regardless of minority-based discrimination, make the legal practice in question unacceptable.14

The other important requirement in the international sphere is traditional advocacy targeting multilateral international organizations, decision-makers, and human rights institutions (known as ‘inside advocacy’). In recent years, national minorities have experienced several disappointments in these institutions. For example, in 2021, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg rejected the application of Július Pereszlényi, an ethnic Hungarian plaintiff from Slovakia, on formal grounds after six years. In January 2021, the European Commission rejected in its entirety the Minority SafePack Initiative, a package of nine proposals calling upon the EU to adopt a set of legal acts to improve the protection of persons belonging to national and linguistic minorities in the Union. Moreover, in Slovakia, the Beneš Decrees are still being retroactively applied to confiscate the private property of individuals with German and Hungarian ancestors, solely on the basis of their ethnic belonging. This practice clearly violates EU law, not only the fundamental values under Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union, such as respect for human dignity, the rule of law, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities, but also by impeding the free movement of capital. And yet, the European Commission still refuses to act.

These examples tend to undermine the faith of national minorities in multilateral institutions. However, the importance of these organizations, such as the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, or the EU, cannot be emphasized enough, because the international legal guarantees that have been demanded for decades by national minorities can only be reached through these organizations.15 Precisely for this reason, the inside advocacy activity of national minorities targeting these organizations should be increased. Hungarian civil and political actors in the neighbouring states must permanently and on a daily basis inform these organizations about the challenges their communities face, as well as the legal practices in their territorial state that violate their human and minority rights, referring to the international obligations of the territorial states. Unfortunately, this possibility is not always fully utilized by Hungarian communities abroad. If we look at Slovakia, attorneyat- law János Fiala-Butora, commissioned by the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia, regularly prepares shadow reports for the monitoring mechanisms of the Council of Europe.16 However, there is no civil or political organization which has dedicated itself to informing all relevant international organizations and human rights bodies about the ongoing violations of the human and minority rights of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia on a daily basis.

The academic literature identifies a number of strategies and tools for minority advocacy.17 Such advocacy activity may have a purely legal character, but also a legal-political nature. The means of legal advocacy can be, among others, monitoring the violations of human and minority rights, providing direct legal aid to victims of such violations, and supporting strategic litigation in these cases. There are also several inside advocacy tools and tactics that combine the characteristics of the legal and political approaches when promoting the interests of national minorities. Advocates can prepare periodic reports for decision-makers, directly provide them with information on the status of the respective minority group at personal meetings and hearings, or send them letters and background materials with information on the violations of human and minority rights. Advocates may also prepare legislative proposals for decision-makers.

In addition to inside advocacy methods and tactics, ‘outside advocacy’ methods, aiming to raise international awareness about the problems of (national) minorities, are also increasingly important. Such tactics may include the organizational and mass mobilization of supporters, the organization of public events and protests, or the promotion of an active media presence. Obviously, when talking about outside advocacy in relation to the rights of national minorities in the international sphere, those ‘soft’ tools appropriate to influencing public opinion from a global perspective are especially valuable.

The Beneš Decrees expelled thousands of ethnic Hungarians from the Uplands, formerly northern Hungary, now a part of Slovakia, 1947 PHOTO: Fortepan

When promoting the interests of national minorities on the international level, inside and outside advocacy methods must supplement each other. If there is a lack of public awareness about the most salient issues of a given national minority, or if their challenges are not sufficiently publicized, it is much harder to advocate for the given minority at international organizations and global institutions, because the pressure coming from the media and the public is lacking.

These are also the conclusions I drew during my research fellowship in the United States. In 2021, I had more than sixty meetings with various American foreign policy experts, lawyers, and advisers from major think-tanks and human rights organizations, Congress staffers, officials of the administration, and academics, but none of my meeting partners knew, for instance, that the Beneš Decrees are still being retroactively applied in Slovakia to confiscate private property purely on the basis of ethnicity. As a lawyer of one major human rights organization explained, although the issue obviously appears serious, since it has no publicity, it will not attract the attention of professional organizations either. These experiences also underline the importance of soft advocacy tools and raising international awareness of the matter in question.

A unique opportunity for raising international awareness for specific issues is publishing opinion pieces (‘op-eds’) in daily newspapers and popular magazines.18 Op-eds combine the attributes of academic research, politics, and the media.19 They provide the opportunity to share opinions, or even the results of academic research, with a wider audience,20 but they may also be seen as tools of soft advocacy. Op-eds placed in leading dailies and professional magazines can generate a large outreach and provide an opportunity to bring important public policy issues into the public discourse, while they also reach those experts who specialize in Central and Eastern Europe in Washington and Brussels, who may have significant influence on the formation of foreign and human rights policies in the US and the EU. Op-eds published in widely distributed media outlets can also put political pressure on political decision and policymakers to place the given issue on the agenda within their organizations.

What Can We Expect from International Advocacy?

According to the critics, the problem with the abovementioned inside and outside advocacy is that it is difficult to measure its impact, and that ultimately these activities are not the ones that determine the political approach and policies of different international organizations and great powers like the US towards those territorial states where the rights of national minorities are violated. Instead, they are largely decided by political interactions between these states, and more generally the realities of world politics.

In 1996, Csaba Lőrincz wrote the following: ‘In geopolitics even a flick of a great power can have the effect of a punch when it reaches Hungary, Romania, or Slovakia. Even though we cannot influence the direction of punches of great powers in the geopolitical arena, we can possibly influence the direction of their flicks.’21 Advocates of the rights of national minorities, especially in the field of academic and public life, should focus on these welldirected ‘flicks’. Generally speaking, since Slovakia and Romania are constantly seeking attention and positive feedback from their Western partners, a well-directed flick in Washington or Brussels can influence political decisions in relation to the rights of national minorities with the effect of a ‘punch’.

And while the results of many advocacy tools are truly immeasurable, since we never see the full picture of a certain political issue, there are encouraging signs. Ján Marosz, the director of the Slovak Land Fund, for example, recently said that the lands expropriated by the state under the Beneš Decrees in recent years could be returned to their rightful and original owners.22


Over the past decades, the protection of national minorities has been on the periphery of European politics, but Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and more specifically the Russian justification that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary to protect the ethnic Russian population in Eastern Ukraine, may bring about serious unwanted complications in this domain. Advocates of national minority rights now face the challenge of avoiding this negative political effect, namely that the minority question and the legitimate aspirations of national minorities have fallen victim to Russian aggression. Some politicians, both within the member states and at the EU level, are already trying to use Russia’s doubtful reasoning to sweep minority issues under the carpet.

This should be prevented by constantly informing international human rights organizations, EU institutions, and the Western public about the violations of the rights of national minorities. In addition to the traditional, ‘inside’ minority advocacy targeting international institutions (i.e. strategic lawsuits, shadow reports, local actors providing trusted information), advocates of national minority rights must continuously use the soft, ‘outside’ advocacy opportunities in the academic world and the media to raise international awareness about the challenges national minorities have to face on a daily basis to preserve their identity, language, and culture.

Nowadays, in the age of social networks, public awareness and collective thinking regarding the rights of national minorities have a significant role in shaping the foreign and human rights policies of great powers and international organizations. The lack of international publicity makes traditional, institution-targeted advocacy much more difficult, because without it international organizations, human rights NGOs, and political actors are more inclined to turn a blind eye even to serious human rights violations affecting national minorities.

This article is the edited and revised version of a speech delivered by the author on 16 June 2022, at the Lőrincz Csaba Award ceremony in Budapest organized by the Pro Minoritate Foundation. The original Hungarian-language version of this article was published by Pro Minoritate. See Tárnok Balázs, ‘A nemzeti kisebbségek jog- és érdekvédelmének kihívásai és lehetőségei egy új világrendben’, Pro Minoritate (Summer 2022).


1 Áron Ternovácz, ‘Az orosz–ukrán háború után új világrend következik’ (The Russian–Ukrainian War Will Be Followed by a New World Order), Magyar Nemzet (2 March 2022), belfold/2022/03/az-orosz-ukran-haboru-utan-ujvilagrend-kovetkezik.

2 Niko Vorobyov, ‘Russia’s Ethnic Minorities Lament the War in Ukraine’, Aljazeera (2 August 2022),

3 András Balogh, ‘Slovak Government Spokesperson: Putin and Orbán May Divide Slovakia’s Borders’, Daily News Hungary (11 April 2022),

4 Zsolt Kolek, ‘OĽaNO-s képviselő az ukrán válságról: Mi lesz, ha Orbán is azt mondja, Szlovákia mindig
magyar volt?’ (An OĽaNO MP on the Ukrainian Crisis: What If Orbán Says That Slovakia Has Always Belonged to Hungary?), (22 February 2022),

5 Jennifer Jackson-Preece, ‘Minority Rights in Europe: From Westphalia to Helsinki’, Review of International Studies, 23 (1997/1), 75–92,

6 Balázs Vizi, ‘A kisebbségi jogok védelmének európai színtere napjainkban: normatív rezsim és politikai diskurzus (Today the European Scene of the Protection of Minority Rights is the Normative Regime and the Political Discourse), Pro Minoritate (Summer 2018),

7 Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Gabriel N. Toggenburg, ‘The Lisbon Treaty: A Rich Cocktail Served in an Only Half-full Glass’, Europäisches Journal für Minderheitenfragen, 5/2 (June 2012),; Ulrike Barten, ‘The EU’s Lack of Commitment to Minority Protection’, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, 15/2 (2016),ätze/Jemie-datensätze_2016/Barten.pdf; Erzsébet Szalayné Sándor, A kisebbségvédelem nemzetközi jogi intézményrendszere a 20. században (International Legal Institutions for the Protection of Minorities in the Twentieth Century), MTA Kisebbségkutató Intézet (Budapest: Gondolat, 2003),; Péter Kovács, Nemzetközi jog és kisebbségvédelem (International Law and Protection of Minorities) (Osiris Kiadó, 1996); Gábor Kardos, Kisebbségek: Konfliktusok és garanciák (Minorities: Conflicts and Guarantees) (Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 2007); Balázs Vizi, Európai kaleidoszkóp – Az Európai Unió és a kisebbségek (European Kaleidoscope. The European Union and the Minorities) (Budapest: L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2013); Vizi, ‘A kisebbségi jogok védelmének európai színtere napjainkban’; Bálint Ódor, ‘A nemzetpolitikai érdekérvényesítés lehetőségei az EU-ban Lisszabon után’ (National Policy Advocacy in the EU after Lisbon), Pro Minoritate (Autumn 2011),; Kata Eplényi, ‘A nemzeti kisebbségek védelme az Európai Unióban’ (The Protection of National Minorities in the European Union), Létünk (Special edition, 2013),; Zoltán Kántor and Kata Eplényi, eds, Térvesztés és határtalanítás. A magyar nyelvpolitika 21. századi kihívásai (Loss of Space and Borders. The Challenges of Hungarian Language Policy in the Twenty-first Century), Nemzetpolitikai Kutatóintézet (Budapest: Lucidus Kiadó, 2012),

8 Myra A. Waterbury, ‘Friends in High Places? The Externalisation of Hungarian Minority Rights Claims’, in Anna-Mária Bíró and Katrina Lantos Swett, eds, The Noble Banner of Human Rights. Essays in Memory of Tom Lantos (Leiden–Boston: Brill Nijhoff, 2018) 150–182.

9 János Fiala-Butora, ‘A kollektív bűnösség árnyékában’ (In the Shadow of Collective Guilt), in Iván Gyurcsík, ed., Gyönyör József-emlékkötet. „Lesz-e végre igazi hazánk?” (Festschrift for József Gyönyör. Will We Have at Last a Real Country?), Kisebbségekért–Pro Minoritate Alapítvány (Méry Ratio Kiadó, 2022), 173–195.

10 Szalayné Sándor, A kisebbségvédelem nemzetközi jogi intézményrendszere a 20. században.

11 Krisztián Manzinger, A területi fókuszú kisebbségvédelem szükségessége és főbb ismérvei Európában (The Need and Main Features of Territorially Focused Minority Protection in Europe) (Budapest: Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem, Series Jog és Állam, 26, 2019), 52.

12 Iván Gyurcsík, ‘Minorities and Democracy?’, in Iván Bába, Iván Gyurcsík, and Csaba Gy. Kiss, Central Europe 2020. A Hungarian Perspective (Kőszeg: Institute for Advanced Studies, 2021), 89–120.

13 Zsolt Németh and Csaba Lőrincz, ‘Nemzet, kisebbség Közép- és Kelet-Európában’ (Nation and Minority in Central and Eastern Europe), in Csaba Lőrincz et al., Nemzetpolitika ’88–’98. Tanulmányok, publicisztikák, beszédek, interjúk (National Politics ‘88–‘98. Studies, Articles, Speeches, Interviews) (Budapest, Osiris, 1998).

14 Balázs Tárnok, ‘Why Is Ethnic Discrimination Still Legal in Slovakia?’, Foreign Policy (12 March 2022),

15 This approach was applied by the Minority SafePack Initiative that aimed to improve the protection of persons belonging to national and linguistic minorities and strengthen cultural and linguistic diversity in the European Union by legislative proposals falling within the framework of EU powers.

16 János Fiala-Butora, ‘Árnyékjelentések Felvidéken’ (Shadow Reports in the Historical Upper Hungary),
in Magyarok jogvédelme a Kárpát-medencében 2018 (Legal Protection of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin) (Budapest: Kisebbségi Jogvédő Intézet, 2019), 161–186,

17 Barry Hessenius, Hardball Lobbying for Nonprofits. Real Advocacy for Nonprofits in the New Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007),; Christine Mahoney, Brussels versus the Beltway: Advocacy in the United States and the European Union (Georgetown
University Press, 2008); Markus Thiel, European Civil Society and Human Rights Advocacy (University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); Sheldon Gen and Amy Conley Wright, Nonprofits in Policy Advocacy. Their
Strategies and Stories
 (Palgrave Macmillan, Springer Nature Switzerland, 2020); Jo Becker, Campaining for
Justice. Human Rights Advocacy in Practice
 (Stanford University Press, 2013).

18 I am grateful to Anna Smith Lacey and the Hungary Foundation for the encouragement to be more engaged in writing op-eds, and to present the results of my research in opinion sections of well-read media outlets. In the past year, I have published several opinion pieces in such outlets, e.g. Foreign Policy, The National Interest, The Washington Times or Newsweek. See Balázs Tárnok, ‘Why Is Ethnic Discrimination Still Legal in Slovakia?’, Foreign Policy (12 March 2022),; Balázs Tárnok, ‘The
U.S. Ignores Human Rights Abuses in Slovakia at Its Own Peril’, The National Interest (3 May 2022),; Balázs Tárnok, ‘Ignoring Minority Rights is Part of Brussels’ Agenda to Homogenize Europe’, Newsweek
(10 September 2021),; Balázs Tárnok, ‘Why Is Hungary “Blocking” Ukraine’s NATO Accession?’ The Washington Times (27 June 2021) (print edition),; Balázs Tárnok, ‘Ukraine Is Fighting the Wrong War’, Newsweek (15 June 2021),

19 It is typically a short opinion piece (700–900 words), written in a reader-friendly manner, forming
a characteristic opinion, which typically starts with a recent event that is still fresh in the reader’s memory (the hook). When writing an op-ed, aspects of popular writing must be considered, so it would be interesting enough for an average reader, but at the same time it must not undermine the author’s academic credibility.

20 Larry Kirkman and Karen Menichelli, eds, Op-Eds: A Cost-Effective Strategy for Advocacy (Washington,
DC: Benton Foundation, 2000); Maggie Ornstein, ‘Op-eds: A Powerful Advocacy Tool’, (15 November 2021),

21 Csaba Lőrincz, ‘Kihasználatlan külpolitikai mozgástér’ (Unexploited Room for Manoeuvre in Foreign Policy), in Lőrincz et al., Nemzetpolitika ’88–’98, 232–235.

22 ‘A magyaroknak kedvezhet a földalap: visszakaphatjuk a Beneš-dekrétumok alapján
elkobzott területeket?’ (The Land Fund Could Benefit Hungarians: Can We Get Back the Land Confiscated under the Beneš Decrees?), (7 June 2022),

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