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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace