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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf