Relations at an all-time low

Slovak-Hungarian relations and the atmosphere between the two nations have been through one of their worst weeks in recent history.The Slovak Minister of Education (Slovak National Party) insists that Hungarian children in Slovakia must learn all geographic names in Slovak. The Romanian Euro-MP László Tőkés used the opportunity of a one-minute speech to inform the European Parliament that the Hungarian minority in Slovakia suffers humiliation and lives in constant fear. Slovak media reported his speech as the main event of the day. The Chairman of the Slovak National Party, part of the ruling coalition, has now shed the last vestiges of self-control and, sounding more and more slurred, has continued to insult the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs (however, as all drunkards he has not been very inventive, resorting to ever more menacing repetitions of  the word unkempt). The Prime Ministers of both countries blame each other for starting the row and the opposition is trying to exploit the situation by trying to appear even more patriotic than the nationalists. Political scientist Miroslav Kusý, a one-time Charter 77 spokesman, is profoundly shocked.  It is with the Hungarians that we share more history than with anyone else – he writes in Fórum, the Saturday supplement of the Slovak daily SME.

Some Slovak politicians cannot even bear to utter their name and when they manage to do so, it comes out embellished with a disparaging epithet.  We are talking about the people inhabiting a neighbouring country with which we share our longest border. This border is not only our longest but also the most transparent because much of it is free of impassable natural obstacles such as mountains or big rivers, and it is also the youngest since, for a thousand years, it was not there at all. For much of that time we formed part of the Hungarian political nation that, towards the end of our co-existence, split into two separate ethnic nations – Magyars and Slovaks.

It is with the Hungarians that we share more history than with anyone else, including the Czechs with the Great Moravian Empire and all the Czechoslovak republics put together. Moreover, a significant number of Hungarians who have lived on the territory of the present-day Slovak Republic now form the Hungarian minority, the greatest national minority in our country. They are, just like the Slovaks, native inhabitants of this land, a land they shared with us without any significant problems for most of those thousand years and wish to continue sharing with us in the future.

Two key factors

Any problems that may have marred our mutual co-existence have been the doing of politicians.  This was the case with the early 20th century efforts to magyarize the Slovaks as well as the post-war attempts at re-slovakization of Hungarians and the Hungarians’ entering Slovakia’s political scene as equal partners in the party political spectrum at the end of the last century.  We ought to feel closer to the Hungarians than to any of our other neighbours because our two nations have so much more in common. And unlike in the past, two further key factors are at work today that ought to draw us even closer together. The first is our common membership of the European Union and NATO, which a priori rules out any security risks in the relationship between the two countries and provides a basis for incomparably richer and wide-ranging mutual relations than ever before.

The other factor is the current government set-up in the two countries.  Hungary and Slovakia are both ruled by social democrats, internationalists who should be following similar programmes. They ought to be akin in terms of subscribing to the same ideological principles, and in following the same overall political goals and similar political strategies. If not now, when; if not with the Hungarians, then with whom? – this is the question our Prime Minister Robert Fico ought to be asking himself when he surveys the scene today.

Nevertheless, none of these favourable factors seem to be having any effect.

The occasional spark

Our relations with the Hungarians living in Slovakia and the Hungarian Republic have reached their lowest point in twenty years, in spite of the fact that no major problem has come between our two nations. On the contrary, due to the EU accession the preconditions for developing good mutual relations could not be more favourable.  No ethnic conflict worth mentioning has flared between us.  There have been no mass protests on the part of Slovaks against any injustice inflicted by the Hungarians, or vice versa.  All we have registered is the occasional spark the likes of which are part and parcel of European democracies.

The only way to move ahead is by first putting our own house in order. The only thing that has deteriorated substantially is the attitude of Slovak politicians to our Hungarian neighbours in general and to the Hungarians of Slovakia on our domestic political scene in particular. This radical deterioration undoubtedly stems from Fico’’s new ruling coalition where the tenor of these relations is increasingly dictated by Ján Slota and his Slovak National Party. The Prime Minister has tolerated it at best, and at worst he has defended it, exploited it and developed it further.

This tenor is characterized by the apportionment of blame, hatred, arrogance and aggression. Insults have replaced arguments and base instincts are appealed to instead of reason.  This is best exemplified by Slota’’s diplomatically inept and vulgar attacks on the demeanour and appearance of the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs. And this is how Robert Fico responds to her questions: we won’’t allow it, we won’’t accept it, we won’t discuss it with you!  The last time a Slovak Prime Minister visited Hungary was in 2002 when Ivan Gašparovič went to Budapest; he has not been back in his new capacity as President.  We treat the Hungarian Republic as an enemy state rather than as our closest neighbour and ally in the European Union and NATO.  We seek out any excuse to accuse the Hungarians of threatening us or not treating us decently, yet we are not willing to make the slightest move towards treating them more decently ourselves.

Adolescent blame games

This is not the time for adolescent blame games about who started it all, who just responded and who hurled the first insult.

We are in the arena of international diplomacy where rational goals should be set and adequate means to their achievements deployed.  If it is discord that we are aiming for, we are certainly doing everything to ensure it is prolonged and deepened. Our response to each and every move has been one of irritation, scepticism and intransigence. If, however, our goal is rapprochement, we should be making friendly overtures, trying to overcome potential distrust, offering fair play and guarantees. We ought to be pursuing a policy of conciliation.  It is interests, not some abstract historical justice or rights as such, that are at stake here.  The latter should be left to philosophers and political scientists to dabble in.

These days everyone is riding the anti-Hungarian wave. The ruling coalition plays first fiddle and the Slovak opposition beats the drum.  Driven by nationalist folly, both sides seem to have forgotten, or are refusing,  to set clear goals and come clean as to what and whose interests they are pursuing. Don’’t give us national interest, it is not ethnic conflict our nation needs. Don’t give us state interest, there’’s nothing for you in this conflict and the EU will not support you on grounds of principle. The Hungarian card is always played for party political reasons.  Voter support can be whipped up by appealing to voters’’ base instincts, herd instincts of the most primitive kind.

A missed opportunity

The Slovak opposition has missed a perfect opportunity to distance itself from the ruling coalition with regard to the key Hungarian issue, and to bet on the renewal of a democratic approach to national policy in our country which could kick-start good neighbourly relations with the Hungarian Republic and its officials, regardless of their political hue.  As we have demonstrated in more difficult times, before EU accession, we are capable of constructive co-existence. Since then the Hungarians have changed their attitude to us and there is no reason why we should not reciprocate. Stoking Slota’s and Fico’’s nationalist fire won’’t gain you, as opposition, any political capital. It will just damage your democratic credentials.

The opposition should change direction before it is too late.

Don’’t the Hungarians need to be sorted out first, I hear you ask? Let them do it themselves. They are just as sane and capable of self-reflection as we are.  If we keep interfering, we will make life difficult not only for them but also for ourselves.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Slovak in the Fórum, the Saturday supplement of the daily SME on 12 October 2008.

We are grateful to Miroslav Kusý for the permission to publish this text in English.