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Hungarians Vote in Controversial Referendum


Hungary began voting Sunday on a controversial referendum that would extend citizenship to roughly five million ethnic Hungarians, many of them living in neighboring countries. The upcoming ballot has split Hungary and lead to tensions with neighbor Romania.

Polls opened early Sunday for a vote on whether ethnic Hungarians should get Hungarian citizenship, an issue that is expected to reopen a decades old wound in the country.

Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, and one-third of its population when borders were redrawn under a peace treaty after World War I.

Millions of ethnic Hungarians suddenly became part of neighboring countries, and they never forgot what was known as the Treaty of Trianon.

Currently about three million ethnic Hungarians live in states bordering Hungary. Most of them, nearly two million, live in Romania and 300,000 in Serbia and Montenegro, countries that have not yet joined the EU.

About 600,000 other ethnic Hungarians live in Slovakia, which like Hungary entered the Union this year. Ethnic Hungarians have also settled in EU newcomer Slovenia and Austria, as well as in Croatia and Ukraine

With the referendum Hungary is seeing what analysts describe as the country's most intense debate since its transition from communism to democracy, in 1989.

In a debate broadcast live on radio and television on the eve of the ballot, Hungary's Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany went head to head with leaders of ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring

Prime Minister Gyurscany's government fears that up to 800,000 beneficiaries of citizenship could come to Hungary, costing the country up to $3 billion for social welfare.

Mr. Gyurscany says passage of the referendum will destabilize the region and cause migration of ethnic Hungarians.

The Hungarian government is also concerned about tensions with Romania, where the leadership has suggested it will refuse to allow double citizenship.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase has warned of a "very strong reaction" if citizenship is extended to ethnic Hungarians.

But an influential representative of Romania's ethnic Hungarians, Reformed Bishop Laszlo Tokes, defends the fight for a Hungarian passport.

Mr. Tokes, who played a key role in the 1989 Romanian revolution against Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, is also demanding autonomy for a Hungarian-populated region of northwest Romania, where many ethnic Hungarians live.

Opinion polls show most people participating in the referendum are likely to support the proposal to grant citizenship to ethnic Hungarians, however, it is unclear if turnout will be high enough to make the vote valid.

The national election office says it could project the "probable outcome" of the vote by late night Sunday.