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Minority rule: A tragedy waiting to happen: The plight of three million ethnic Hungarians could suck Budapest into war. Can disaster be averted this time?

AS PUBLIC relations exercises go, it left something to be desired. One night recently, a group of Westerners were brought to the town of Komarno, in southern Slovakia, to meet members of Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian minority and leaders of Matica Slovenska, a Slovak patriotic society.

The intention, no doubt, was to prove that, whatever their differences, Slovaks and Hungarians could discuss them sensibly at the same table. However, as the evening progressed, it became clear that the Hungarians were not going to show up. To break bread with alleged oppressors was, it seemed, more than they could take.

In the end, the ethnic Hungarian deputy mayor of Komarno, Arpad Szenassy, sent word that he would meet the Westerners - but only the next morning, after the Slovaks had gone. It seems relations between Slovaks and Hungarians are as troubled as ever.

About 650,000 of Slovakia's 5.3 million people are Hungarians. They are convinced they are suffering linguistic, cultural and political discrimination in Slovakia, which achieved independence last January after separating from Czech lands to the west. They cite 'provocations' such as the removal of some Hungarian street signs and legal pressure on Hungarian married women to add the Slovak suffix 'ova' to their names.

Matica Slovenska, whose name evokes the Slovak national awakening of the mid-19th century, is equally convinced that the Hungarians have nothing to complain about. It accuses the minority of plotting to secede from Slovakia and unite with Hungary.

Mr Szenassy believes that the ethnic tensions are sometimes exaggerated. 'There are no big problems in everyday life in Komarno. As deputy mayor, I look first of all at the interests of all people, not at their nationality. There is no will among us (the Hungarians) to join Hungary. I think the Slovaks and Hungarians are intelligent enough not to let it come to clashes like those in the former Yugoslavia,' he said.

Many Slovaks would agree. Although Hungarians outnumber Slovaks in Komarno by two to one, most of the town's 40,000 people get on fairly well together - better, certainly, than Serbs and Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, and probably better than Estonians and Russians in Estonia.

However, Matica Slovenska argues that Komarno's Hungarians discriminate against local Slovaks. 'Slovaks here can't get jobs because they don't speak Hungarian. It often happens that Hungarians in shops refuse to speak Slovak to me,' said one Slovak activist. 'There are four Catholic churches here, and on Sundays only one has services in Slovak.'

Still, if it were left to ordinary people, a reasonable form of co-existence might prevail. Slovaks and Hungarians alike have an interest in creating jobs, boosting the economy and seeking integration with Western Europe. Unlike people in the ethnically troubled Balkans, few are tempted to resolve their differences with guns. The problem is that politicians and nationalist activists on both sides have manipulated the ethnic question for their own purposes.

Slovakia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, purports to believe that Hungary wants to recover lands in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia that were stripped from Hungary in the Trianon Treaty of 1920 and are populated by large Hungarian minorities. 'The threat here is the temptation to return to a 'Great Hungary', supported by Budapest as well as by Hungarian parties in Slovakia,' he said in September.

In fact, all the main political parties in Hungary rule out border changes, and say their only aim is to ensure the rights of ethnic Hungarians abroad. None the less that aim has turned into a dominant theme of post-communist Hungary's foreign policy, and Hungary's repeated references to it in international forums stir suspicions and often bitter memories in neighbouring states.

Until the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Hungarians had ruled Slovakia for about 1,000 years. To this day, many use the Hungarian terms Felvidek (Uplands) for southern Slovakia and Pozsony for the Slovak capital, Bratislava. In 1875, Hungary's government shut down Matica Slovenska and confiscated its assets on the grounds that the Slovak nation did not exist.

After 1918, the recovery of the Felvidek and other lost lands was Hungary's primary goal, finally achieved with Nazi German support when Czechoslovakia was carved up in 1938- 39. But in 1945, Hungary once again found itself on the losing side in a world war, and was punished with the confirmation of the Trianon borders.

Tensions between the post- communist leaderships of Slovakia and Hungary have been exacerbated by a dispute over a joint hydroelectric dam project on the Danube. Hungary pulled out of the project, citing environmental concerns, but the Slovaks went ahead, arguing that the ecological case was exaggerated and the dam offered benefits in the form of flood control, efficient river transport and energy production.

It may be a positive sign that Slovakia and Hungary agreed last year to send the dam dispute for judgment at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Similarly, Hungary acquiesced last June in Slovakia's entry into the Council of Europe, despite initially arguing that Slovakia's ethnic minority policies should disqualify it from membership.

Such examples of restraint and compromise carry an important message for the West. They indicate that Slovakia and Hungary appreciate the need to keep their rivalry in check if they are to join the European Union and establish a close security relationship with the West.

However, if the two countries begin to fear that the West is dragging its heels on the integration of central Europe into Western institutions, then it could be a different story. As in the Balkans, the warning signs are there. And as in the Balkans, it is unclear if the West is reading them correctly.

(Photograph omitted)