Serbia

Hungarian citizenship offers escape route from troubled Ukraine

The Hungarian citizenship scandal is naturally growing by the hour, especially since today the second installment of Index’s revelations became public. Before I go into some of the details, let me first tell you about the official reaction of Fidesz and specifically of Zsolt Semjén, whose only job seems to be the “unification of the nation.” He claimed yesterday that the process of granting citizenship has been carefully monitored all along by the administration, which if necessary calls on the police and the Hungarian secret service to uncover fraud. The attack against the government’s citizenship program is most likely the work of  foreign powers who want to dissuade Hungarians from applying for Hungarian citizenship. I assume these foreign powers are Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. Semjén also had a few friendly words for his own compatriots: he warned them that cooperation with foreign secret service agencies is treason. So, Bálint Szalai of Index had best start preparing for a long jail sentence! The same fate might also befall those politicians who dare inquire about the irregularities.

Today Fidesz called on the “left” to refrain from inflaming the public “against Hungarians living outside the homeland.” The statement claimed that the news that broke about the thousands of phony new citizens was actually orchestrated by the opposition parties. It is “part of a campaign against dual citizenship” that the politicians of MSZP and DK opposed already in 2004.

Although the government and Fidesz try to minimize the gravity of the situation, if the news turns out to be true and the details are accurate, the European Union might be alarmed by these developments. As Attila Ara-Kovács, head of DK’s foreign policy cabinet, pointed out this morning on ATV’s Start, one reason that Romania has so much difficulty joining the Schengen nations is its earlier decision to offer Romanian citizenship to residents of Moldova. If the estimates of the number of people in Ukraine who now hold Hungarian citizenship legally or illegally as well as those who may apply for citizenship in the near future are at all accurate, it might mean an eventual exodus of as many as 120,000-150,000 people from Ukraine where the current political and military situation is grave. As the Ukrainian-Hungarian Miklós Kovács, whom I quoted yesterday, said today in an interview with György Bolgár of Klubrádió, a newly granted Hungarian citizenship is like Noah’s Ark for Ukrainians. These people are convinced that a flood is coming that will engulf the country in the form of the Russian army. In this case, they will have a means of escape.

Hungarian citizenship is Noah's Ark for Ukrainian citizens

For the time being there are no comparable problems in Serbia, but the country is in terrible financial straits and it looks as if Serbia will not be able to join the European Union any time soon. There are 250,000 Hungarians living in Serbia, in addition to all those non-Hungarians who can easily find an ancestor who was a citizen of Hungary before 1920. A fair number of those who took out Hungarian citizenship plan to use the Hungarian passport as a way to get to Western Europe.

In his second article Bálint Szalai gave more details about how the whole scheme works. As I wrote yesterday, right after January 2011 the government set out to acquire as many new Fidesz-friendly citizens as possible. Semjén appeared from time to time to triumphantly announce the latest figures. As it stands now, 654,534 people have applied for Hungarian citizenship since the beginning of the program.

The Index article has a breakdown of these applicants by country. Perhaps most shocking are the figures for Ukraine whose Hungarian population was 150,000 in 2001, a number that most likely has decreased since. Yet 91,275 people applied for and about 80,000 received Hungarian citizenship. The numbers for Serbia are also high: 124,811 out of a Hungarian population of about 250,000.  The Romanian figures are modest in comparison: 420,345  applied for citizenship out of a Hungarian population of 1,230,000.

Altogether only 20,867 applications have been rejected since January 1, 2011. These rejections most likely took place after March 2013 when the rules were tightened somewhat. Prior to that date even village notaries or mayors were allowed to grant citizenship, and we know they could easily be bribed. After March 2013 only government offices of járások, sub-units of counties, could handle citizenship matters. Instead of many thousands of offices, an applicant could get a passport at only 300 locations. That meant that the price of Hungarian citizenship went up considerably. The village notary might be satisfied with 500 euros, the officials higher up wanted more. And with tighter scrutiny corrupt officials could no longer approve every case that came to them. They had to be selective. Nonetheless, according to the article, people close to this business venture estimate that 30% of these phony cases still go through.

The Index articles obviously hit home in government circles. Suddenly the authorities became vigilant. The Kemecsei Járási Hivatal (Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg) just informed the county police headquarters that a twenty-one-year-old Ukrainian man tried to get citizenship in their office although he does not speak or understand Hungarian. The poor fellow picked the wrong time.

There might be a lull in the sale of Hungarian citizenship, but unless the whole procedure is tightened up the problem cannot be solved. Tightening up means abandoning the “simplified” procedure that was adopted for the sole reason of getting votes for the Fidesz government. Citizenship is a serious matter; it should involve a thorough background check that takes time. I doubt, however, that the present government is willing to be that scrupulous. Their “unification of nation” factory has a fast-moving citizenship assembly line with virtually no quality control. And hence the fraud will continue. It might just cost a little more money for the hopefuls.

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Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.

August 22, 1914

A change of pace. What else can we say about Viktor Orbán after his three recent public appearances and his decision to share his vision and wisdom with the world? Instead, let’s talk about history.

I must have mentioned how great the interest is in Europe on the 100th anniversary of World War I. German and Austrian papers in particular have been spending considerable time and energy telling their readers about events a hundred years ago. Often on a daily basis.

Hungarians who are so terribly interested in history seem to spend less time on the Great War, as it was called at the time. However, there is a company called Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. that specializes in the digitization of documents, maps, paintings, etc. They just offered free access to the issues of five Hungarian newspapers published one hundred years ago. I took advantage of the offer and read the August 22, 1914 issue of Népszava, the newspaper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Today I’ll share some of that hundred-year-old news.

Before I embark on my project let me note that the Hungarian social democrats, just like other social democratic parties all over Europe, forgot about their internationalism after the outbreak of the war and became enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. Thus no one should be surprised about Népszava‘s patriotism and its fierce attack on tsarist Russia. After all, Russia’s oppressive regime was one of the justifications for socialist support of the war effort.

I should also mention that by coincidence I happened to pick a day that is described by historians as the war’s “deadliest.” It was on August 22, 1914 near Ardennes and Charleroi that the French army lost 27,000 men. It was a much larger loss than the one the British suffered in the Battle of Somme, which is usually cited as the war’s worst. The Battle of the Ardennes lasted three days, between August 21 and 23. Keep in mind that the articles in Népszava, a morning paper, were most likely written the night before.

Népszava was a slim paper in those days, ten pages in all, but six of these were devoted to the war. Headlines: “The German army destroyed the French. The troops of the Monarchy advance in Russia. Revolution broke out in the empire of the hangman Tsar.”

The paper enthusiastically announces that the German advance this time is even swifter than it was during 1870-1871 and optimistically predicts that “the war will soon be over.” The first decisive battle has taken place. Although it was not on French territory, as was predicted, it was very close, only 12 kilometers from the border. “Brussels already belongs to the Germans”; this occupation was a magnificent military achievement. Liège is also in German hands.  “The German army will soon move all the way to the North Sea.”

The situation on the ground was not so rosy. Here are a few lines from a German soldier’s diary entry: “Nothing more terrible could be imagined…. We advanced much too fast–a civilian fired at us–he was immediately shot–we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in the forest beeches–we lost our direction–the men were done for–the enemy opened fire–shells came down on us like hail.”

Népszava, like the other papers, spends considerable time accusing the enemy of all sorts of beastly things. According to the paper, German soldiers write letters home in which they tell stories about the cruelty of the French toward prisoners of war. For example, “they cut both hands, poked the eyes out, and tore out the tongue” of a German prisoner.

After the Battle of Ardennes

After the Battle of Ardennes

On the Russian front the newspaper is unable to come up with such spectacular victories. The report simply says that “the Russians have been unable to cross the border of Bukovina,” which was  part of Austria-Hungary until 1918. As for the paper’s claim of a revolution in the Crimea, that might have been only wishful thinking on the part of the Hungarians because history books do not seem to know about it.

It is interesting to read about Russian-Ukrainian relations from the perspective of 1914. The paper points out that there are 30 million Ukrainians living in Russia who look upon this war as “a war of independence.” These oppressed Ukrainians are looking forward to the day when they can join their four million Ruthenian brethren who live in Austria-Hungary.

A Hungarian paper would naturally spend considerable time on the war next door, in Serbia. They relate stories coming from returning wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. According to a Hungarian lieutenant, the Hungarians “decimated” the Serbian forces. Those who were not killed escaped in the direction of Podgorica (in Montenegro) and Ada (Serbia). However, some soldiers climbed trees and kept shooting at the Hungarian troops. He claimed that the Serbs are cowardly and brutish soldiers who leave their own wounded men behind. The Serbs, according to the paper, don’t have too many fatalities, but they do have a lot of wounded soldiers. Two of them were brought to Budapest. They told the Hungarians that they did not want to join the army but their officers forced them with revolvers. These two also claimed that the army is tired, but the officers are trying to convince them to go on because the Russians will be coming momentarily.

A fair number of Serb prisoners of war arrived in Hungary already by late August.  The paper talks about 300 prisoners in Esztergom. Apparently another 3,000 were on their way, being transported by ship.

All in all, the usual war psychosis. The enemy is vile, cowardly, cruel while our side is brave and wonderful. Our victories are magnified, the enemy’s minimized. Hopes center around a Ukrainian uprising so they can join the Ukrainians living in the Monarchy. There is also speculation of a revolution in Russia. Much time is spent on the weariness, disillusionment, and hardships in the enemy country. This is especially the case when it comes to stories about Serbia.

Finally, something the journalists of Népszava did not know when they put the newspaper together. It was on August 22, 1914 that Austria-Hungary declared war on Belgium. A bit late, don’t you think?

Russia and the European Union on a collision course over the South Stream pipeline

It was a week ago that the European commission told Russia that the “South Stream” pipeline, already under construction, and the contracts between Gazprom and six members of the European Union, including Hungary, violate European Union law. Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director for energy markets at the European Commission, told the European Parliament on December 4 that the “intergovernmental agreements are not in compliance with EU laws.” The EU countries that signed agreements with Gazprom were told that “they have to ask for re-negotiations with Russia, to bring the intergovernmental agreements in line with EU laws.” The countries in question are Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria, as well as Serbia, which is a member of the Energy Community, an EU-backed international agreement covering former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Deli Aramlat

The European Commission identified three major problems with the South Stream. First, Gazprom is in violation of the so-called ownership “unbundling” rules, according to which a company cannot be both a producer and a supplier of gas. It cannot own production facilities and transmission networks. Clearly, Gazprom does. Second, according to EU law, non-discriminatory access of third parties to the pipeline must be ensured. In other words, Gazprom cannot have the exclusive right to supply gas through the pipeline. Finally, the Commission found problems with the tariff structure.

If these treaties must be renegotiated, there will be a delay of not months but, according to Borchardt, at least two years. Bulgaria has already protested. Bulgarian foreign minister Kristian Vigenin, who used to be a member of the European Parliament, made it clear that his country is not happy with Brussels’ decision. “It is not a nice move to slow the construction, because the parties to the track area are already in readiness to kick off.” He emphasized that “this is a very important project” for Bulgaria and expressed his hope that the European Union will not “stop the South Stream project.” Bulgaria already began construction of the South Stream at the end of October.

Brussels, however, seems to mean business. Borchardt said “in all openness and frankness that the South Stream pipeline will not operate on the territory of the EU if it is not in compliance with our energy law.” The Russians seem to be as resolute as the European officials are. A representative of Gazprom who was present at Borchardt’s announcement stressed that “nothing can prevent the construction of South Stream.” Russia’s position is similar to that of Viktor Orbán: EU law cannot prevail in EU-Russian relations, which are governed only by international law.

The Hungarian media covered the news coming out of Brussels, but the Hungarian government offered no response to the rather harsh verdict of the European Commission on the bilateral treaties that had been negotiated with Russia. Although here and there one could read about visits of Gazprom officials, nothing was known about the actual state of the negotiations and their particulars. Only yesterday Világgazdaság, a normally well informed paper dealing with economics and finance, reported that perhaps in the next week or so Orbán and Vladimir Putin will talk about the EU objections. Apparently Mrs. László Németh, the minister in charge of national development, was charged with preparing the prime minister’s visit to Moscow. I’m not sure, however, whether this meeting will actually take place. Because, as we just found out today, an agreement has already been signed.

As usual, details of Hungary’s negotiations with foreign powers came from the other side. The Hungarian public learned today that Aleksei Miller, president of Gazprom, paid a visit to Budapest yesterday and signed an agreement concerning the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Journalists immediately bombarded the head of Orbán’s press department for details. They were told that the prime minister and the head of Gazprom didn’t sign any agreement. He added that negotiations between Mrs. László Németh and Gazprom will proceed according to plans.

So we had two versions of the story. Someone was not telling the truth. At least this was the conclusion journalists of opposition papers came to. Stop, an online site, asked its readers whom they believed, the Hungarian government or the head of Gazprom. A relatively new online paper whose political views seem to me to be close to the Demokratikus Koalíció talked about the “selective memory” of the officials of the Orbán government.

It turned out that the spokesman for Viktor Orbán didn’t lie outright. It is true that Orbán himself didn’t sign anything. But something was signed all right: an agreement between Gazprom and MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd.), a state-owned company. As I understand it, MVM and Gazprom established a joint company called Déli Áramlat Zrt (South Stream Corporation), each with a 50% ownership. It is a large, expensive project that might pose serious financial risks to MVM, especially if the EU stands fast.

Experts figure that the Hungarian part of the project will cost around 300 billion forints, for which MVM will be responsible. Today’s Népszabadság points out, however, that MVM will be able to borrow such a large amount of money only if the project has the European Union’s blessing and financiers feel safe lending so much money to the Hungarian company.

I have the feeling that this is just the beginning of an extended imbroglio. Viktor Orbán is ready for his next battle with the EU, Hungary’s enemy.

Unintended consequences of expanding Hungarian citizenship

The Hungarian government has been actively recruiting new citizens from the neighboring countries, presumably to add to their vote total at the next national election. In order to be eligible for citizenship a person must have at least one ancestor who was a Hungarian citizen. He must also have some knowledge of the Hungarian language.

The first requirement is easy to fulfill. Everyone who lived in Greater Hungary was automatically a Hungarian citizens regardless of his ethnic background. The second requirement would seem to be a bit tougher. Learning a new language in a few months is a pretty hopeless task. However, as we will see, even that is no problem for those who are well schooled in the world of corruption. And the region’s citizens definitely are.

It seems that the hotbeds of corruption with respect to falsely acquiring citizenship are Serbia and Ukraine. For Serbian and Ukrainian citizens, getting Hungarian citizenship opens the door to the European Union’s job market. It allows people to visit the United States and Canada without a visa. It’s no wonder, then, that more than a third of Serbia’s Hungarian community, almost 92,000 out of  251,000 people, applied for and received Hungarian citizenship. Even Serbs who, although they may have had ancestors who were Hungarian citizens before 1918, don’t speak a word of Hungarian, are now bona fide Hungarians. Perhaps not even their ancestors, who lived in all Serbian-inhabited villages in the Bánát-Bácska region, knew any Hungarian.

After the government expanded the qualifications for Hungarian citizenship, several language schools opened in a great hurry in Serbia. These schools guarantee that in three months their students will be able to pass the Hungarian language exam. If someone cannot attend in person in Belgrade, Novi Sad or Subotica, he can always join the lessons via Skype. Apparently, the entrepreneurs who run these schools have friends in high places in the Hungarian administration who supply them with both questions and answers. The applicants have only to memorize a few sentences, and within a few months they are Hungarian citizens. Naturally, these people have no intention of either voting or staying in Hungary. At the first opportunity they will be somewhere in Germany or the United Kingdom. Recently a friend of mine encountered a Serbian woman at a party in New York. She came here as a new Hungarian citizen but spoke not a word of the language of her new country. But even those who are fluent in Hungarian are most likely interested in job opportunities somewhere west of Hungary.

Apparently the situation is no better in Ukraine. There businesses were set up to handle applications. Mind you, the price is steep–5,000 euros, but the result is guaranteed. If there are no ancestors with Hungarian citizenship, no problem. These outfits even manage to forge birth or christening certificates. Again, corrupt officials on the Hungarian side expedite matters. Although the applicants are supposed to appear in person for the swearing-in ceremony, these officials even allow others to stand in for them. These Ukrainian businesses openly advertise on the Internet. The most impressive is this particular site.

Ukrainian passport

Hungarian citizenship advertised

For more money–9,000 euros–even Russian citizens will have a chance to become Hungarian citizens. The people who are running this racket are so sure of themselves that they offer a “money back guarantee.”

They can also help those who want to acquire the Hungarian equivalent of a green card by investing 250,000 euros in Hungarian government bonds. The Orbán government is so eager to put its hands on cash that it welcomes wealthy investors who want to settle in the country. Apparently there are a fair number of takers. The Ukrainian companies that assist these people promise that they don’t have to pony up the whole amount. A 20,000 euro deposit will suffice. Naturally, the Hungarian government officials in charge of the program hotly dispute these questionable practices. They claim that out of the 430,000 applications, 11,000 were denied.

In Romania there is a very large Hungarian minority of 1.2 million, out of which about 300,000 asked for Hungarian citizenship. Hungarian leaders in Romania claim that “it is not Hungary that is so attractive but Hungarian citizenship” because with a Hungarian passport it is not only easier to get a job in Western Europe but Hungarians can migrate anywhere within the European Union. Citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are still subject to restrictions, for example, in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, France, Malta, and the United Kingdom.

I read several stories that highlight this trend among Hungarian Romanians. About a month ago a short article appeared with the title “Fidesz empties Transylvania.” It is about the quickening pace of emigration of Hungarians to western countries from Romania. The author tells stories about her acquaintances in Transylvania who spend a few days in Budapest to get a passport and in no time are on their way abroad in search of a job. So, the author concludes, Fidesz  might get a few thousand extra votes, but in the long run the size of the Hungarian minority in Romania will shrink due to emigration.

What if someone can’t come up with Hungarian ancestors and is incapable of learning some Hungarian? Especially if they are from Balkan countries south of Serbia. There is an agency that can handle this situation too. Men can “purchase” Hungarian, mostly Roma, wives for 150,000 forints. Well, that is what the women get. Those who arrange these marriages apparently receive millions. Enterprising Hungarians make preparation for the marriages between these women and men from Serbia or other countries in the Balkans. The “weddings” take place in Subotica and from there the grooms are off to Germany or some other western European country. A couple of months later the brides return “as if nothing happened,” says the Hungarian official. Although it happened in the past that the girl was left high and dry in Germany and the family had to scrape together the money to get her home. And don’t think that this is not a widespread practice. Just around Kiskunalas officials are aware of at least 100 cases.

So, these are some of the consequences of the Orbán government’s decision “to unify the nation.” As Attila Jakab, originally from Transylvania, wrote today in Galamus, the notions of nation, state, and citizenship have completely lost their meaning.