Minority fears nationalist upsurge in Slovakia: Adrian Bridge in Bac, southern Slovakia, finds most people blame the politicians for stirring up bad feeling

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JOZSEF MOLNAR cast a careful look round the village pub to check there were no Slovaks present. Then he let rip.

'When I go to Bratislava I can see the loathing in their eyes, I can hear them whispering behind my back: 'We hate you',' he said. 'There has always been a bit of resentment between our two communities, but recently it has got a lot worse. Suddenly I am afraid.'

Like most of Slovakia's 600,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority, Mr Molnar feels threatened by the tide of Slovak nationalism which reached a climax on 1 January with the proclamation of Europe's newest independent state. Far from rejoicing at the birth of the country, he and his friends gave a collective shudder. Slovakia, for them, spells fewer rights for ethnic Hungarians, less tolerance for the views of others and rising tensions all round.

'There is something like a Cold War here at the moment and it is hard to tell where it will lead,' said Mr Molnar, a pensioner whose family has lived in the agricultural southern belt of Slovakia - formerly part of Hungary - for generations. 'Nobody thinks that this is going to turn into another Yugoslavia, but it will certainly get nastier.'

In Bac, a village where 95 per cent of the population is ethnic Hungarian, much of the blame for the situation is attached to Vladimir Meciar, the populist Slovak Prime Minister who, it is said, has whipped up anti-Hungarian sentiment to divert attention from more pressing problems, such as the economy. Since coming to power in June, Mr Meciar has, according to ethnic Hungarian leaders, sought to undermine their rights, restrict their freedom to use their own language and introduced a range of discriminatory measures aimed at ensuring that non-Slovaks are second-class citizens in the new state.

References in the constitution to the 'Slovak nation' rather than to the citizens of Slovakia are a good illustration of the trend, they say. So, too, is the fact that formerly bilingual road signs have been replaced with signs bearing only the Slovak names of towns. 'Our fear is that, step by step, the aim is to weaken our cultural identity and to assimilate us forcibly,' said Arpad Duka- Zolyomi, a leader of Co-existence, the main ethnic Hungarian party. 'Under the old Czechoslovak federation, the Slovaks were themselves a minority. Now they are masters in their own land and we naturally fear the consequences.'

To counter what they perceive to be the systematic swamping of their culture, ethnic Hungarians are pressing for guarantees of minority rights to be written into the constitution. In addition, they want autonomy for the three regions in southern Slovakia where ethnic Hungarians constitute a clear majority.

It is an explosive demand. The mere mention of the word 'autonomy' sends Mr Meciar and his colleagues into a rage. Apart from insisting that minority rights in Slovakia conform fully with international norms, self-rule would simply be a prelude to secession and the disintegration of the newly formed state, they argue.

To Mr Meciar, who has accused those seeking autonomy of being 'subversives who want to provoke a massacre', the real villains of the piece, however, are to be found in Budapest. Since becoming Prime Minister, he has repeatedly accused Hungary of massing troops along the border with Slovakia and of seeking to revise the 1920 Treaty of Trianon under which Hungary ceded much of its territory.

Slovakia is not alone in being under threat, Mr Meciar has argued. Romania, Serbia and the Ukraine, all of which have considerable Hungarian minorities, are also at risk from Budapest's 'expansionist' designs. Such talk has done much to stir tensions within Slovakia. So, too, has the bitter row over the Gabcikovo dam, originally a joint Czechoslovak-Hungarian project from which Budapest withdrew but with which Bratislava decided to press ahead late last year, to howls of protest from the Hungarian side.

The situation, admits Roman Kovac, Slovakia's Deputy Prime Minister, is 'delicate' but not without hope. Stressing the need for dialogue - between Bratislava and Budapest and between Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians - he believes compromises can be reached on all issues.

Ethnic Hungarians can be granted more rights, but not, of course, autonomy, he says. The European Community and the International Court of Justice can adjudicate over the Gabcikovo dam. As for potential military hostilities, he has no evidence to suggest Hungarian troops are massing at the border, although it is well known that Budapest has been buying guns from Russia and the former East Germany.

In Bac, a village close to the town of Dunajska Streda, the general consensus is that, as has been the case for hundreds of years, Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians would get along just fine were it not for the politicians.

'The whole thing has been blown out of all proportion. We have always got along with each other in the past and no doubt we will do so again in the future,' said Jozsef Nagy, an ethnic Hungarian speaking fluent Slovak. 'There is no need to change the borders. We just want the right to stay here and get on with our lives. And if it did come to a fight, I, for one, would not take part.'