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)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Sport
sportComment: Win or lose Hamilton represents the best of Britain
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Arsene Wenger reacts during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Swansea
footballMan United and Arsenal meet on Saturday with both clubs this time languishing outside the top four
News
i100BBC political editor Nick Robinson had a lot of explaining to do
Life and Style
Nappies could have advice on them to encourage mothers and fathers to talk to their babies more often
newsTalking to babies can improve their language and vocabulary skills
Sport
Tony Bellew holds two inflatable plastic sheep at the weigh-in for his rematch with Nathan Cleverly
boxingGrudge match takes place on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson at PS1
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines