Hungarians demand own province in Slovakia: A campaign for better rights has brought warnings of ethnic conflict, writes Adrian Bridge

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THE leaders of Slovakia's large ethnic Hungarian minority will tomorrow call for the creation of a self-governing province in the south of the country, prompting fears of ethnic conflict.

Some 4,000 local mayors, councillors and regional politicians are expected to gather in the southern town of Komarno to make the controversial demand, which comes after months of tension between Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians.

The move, details of which were revealed in advance, has been furiously condemned by Slovak politicians, who see it as a direct challenge to the government's authority. While the parliament in Bratislava has described the proposed province as unconstitutional and an attack on the territorial integrity of Slovakia, President Michal Kovac has warned of possible parallels with the outbreak of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia.

''We should not forget that in the Balkans the fight with weapons was preceded with a fight with words,' said Mr Kovac, who urged the ethnic Hungarians not to hold their meeting. 'Displays of nationalism and intolerance on one side create a nationalist response on the other.'

Most observers are reluctant to draw parallels with the former Yugoslavia, pointing out that, unlike the various ethnic groups there, Slovaks and Hungarians have no history of conflict. But alarm bells are ringing all the same.

Ethnic Hungarians, who make up just over 10 per cent of Slovakia's population of 5 million, insist that they have been forced into demanding their own self-governing region because their constant pleas for dialogue and new laws safeguarding minority rights in independent Slovakia have fallen on deaf ears. They deny, too, any suggestion that the proposed province would be a prelude to a demand for a fully autonomous state and, ultimately, integration into Hungary proper.

'We have absolutely no intention of asking to join Hungary and those that claim we are have a distorted view,' said Laszlo Molnar, a spokesman for Co-existence, the main ethnic Hungarian party in Slovakia. 'We want our own rights. Unfortunately the gentle approach does not seem to have worked, so now we are pushing harder.'

Among the rights for which the ethnic Hungarians are pushing are the freedom to use Hungarian names, the re-introduction of bilingual road signs in areas with ethnic Hungarian majorities (replaced with signs only in Slovak shortly before independence in 1993) and full educational autonomy. The government says that such rights are already contained in the constitution. However, the Council of Europe, to which Slovakia was admitted as a member last year, urged the speedy passage of new laws protecting ethnic minorities.

The call for the new province has also been prompted by ethnic Hungarian fears over government plans to re-jig the country's regional boundaries, the main purpose of which, they say, would be to splinter the ethnic Hungarians as a voting bloc, effectively eradicating them as a political force.

Few observers in Bratislava believe the government, which came to power in 1992 on a wave of Slovak nationalism, is about to kowtow to ethnic Hungarian demands. Many, moreover, think the call for a separate province could simply play into the hands of the Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, the man who steered the country through the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

Despite being blamed for many of the country's current economic woes, Mr Meciar could emerge strengthened as a result of a showdown with the ethnic Hungarians. According to Jan Carnogursky, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Movement, after many difficult months Mr Meciar may now once again be able to present himself in his favourite role - as the 'saviour of Slovakia'.

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