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
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
News
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
music
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
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

Service Charge Accountant

£20,000 - £22,000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Property Management Grou...

Head of Sales, London

£70 - 95K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Milton Keynes

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Bristol

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game