With a community approximately 600,000 strong that is clustered in the the south of the country, ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia are the largest minority group in the nation. But just how well the minority gets along with its Slavic compatriots has always been difficult to say, given the various emotions the 'Hungarian question' arouses among politicians and ordinary citizens.
Judging by statements made over the years by some of the nation's MPs, co-existence between the Hungarian minority and local Slovaks is a fragile thing indeed. Far-right Slovak politicians now claim, for example, that unofficial rules have been established in the Slovak south banning non-Hungarian speakers from holding employment. Hungarian politicians counter that even their Slovak government partners often ignore Hungarian interests, and that the "Hungarian card" is regularly exploited on both sides of parliament to appeal to Slovak nationalist sentiments.
But as politicians hurl accusations on the national level, the people actually living in the Slovak south say they are little troubled by the fact that they dwell alongside different nationalities.
"We get along normally," said Vierka Jánošová, a 21-year old Slovak secretary from Betliar near Rožňava, where 35% of the citizenry are of Hungarian ethnicity. "I like some people and I hate some people, but it's never because their nationality is different from mine."
Try telling that to Anna Malíková, the leader of the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS). Malíková insists that Hungarians are a major threat to Slovaks in the south, and the Slovak nation as a whole.
"Slovaks who live in the south are discriminated against," the fiery SNS leader told The Slovak Spectator in the parliament building September 19. "Many Slovaks complain that they can't get a job because they don't speak Hungarian. The rule is not official, but if you're looking for a job in the south you are required to speak the language."
Jánošová said Malíková was wrong. "I don't speak Hungarian and I got a job," she said. "I've lived here all my life and my family is bilingual, but I never learned to speak Hungarian. I understand the language, and many ethnic Hungarians speak or understand Slovak. So there is always a way to communicate, if you really want to."
For many Hungarians, indeed, the racial problems harped on by the SNS are much ado about nothing. Miklós Duray, an MP with the government member Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), said that the problem with life in the south had nothing to do with race and everything to do with unemployment.
"It's the biggest problem in the south, unemployment in some areas is as high as 30%, even 40%. I don't know of any ethnic problems there, although I can imagine that if somebody really wanted to provoke a conflict, he could easily do so," he said, admitting that a Slovak with strong nationalist feelings probably would not feel comfortable in Slovakia's southern regions.
Southerners agree that their problems are far more mundane than Slovak nationalist politicians would like to believe. Péter Pazmany, the mayor of Dunajská Streda (which is 87% ethnic Hungarian) said that local citizens were more occupied with finding qualified teachers for their children than with quelling racial strife.
"The people [ethnic Hungarians] were born here and think of this country as their home," he said. "We have other problems to deal with [besides the political bickering on national levels]. We are concerned about the lack of Hungarian-speaking teachers to educate our children, and there's also a lack of qualified clergy who speak Hungarian."
The SNS's Malíková said that the Hungarians should not complain and that pity should be saved for Slovaks living in the South. "Today we already have information that our people can't live down there and are leaving the south of Slovakia," she said. "Hungarians have better conditions for life there than our Slovak nationals."
While for many Slovaks such allegations may be comical, Hungarian Slovaks say they do greater damage than people realise.
Pazmany argued that populist statements spread by the likes of Malíková and her party mates were socially dangerous and contributed to a growing gulf between Slovaks in the rest of the country and the Hungarian minority in the south. "Before 1989, nobody even knew that we would become the 'Hungarian problem'," he said. "Today it's being misused for political purposes."
"Everywhere you will find individuals who are creating a false image of the co-existance between us and them in Slovakia," added Rudolf Mezes of Galanta, regional secretary of Csemadok, an organisation founded in 1949 to promote and protect the interests of the Hungarian community in Slovakia. Csemadok now has branches in about 500 towns and villages in the south. "But there are no problems, the people are all getting along. These people are citizens of the Slovak Republic. They pay their taxes and require equal rights for themselves, that's all."
But it's in defending these rights on the political level, again, that has aroused emotions and accusations of discrimination - this time from the SMK, which after the 1998 elections become a member of the ruling coalition for the first time since the fall of communism. The party, with its stable voter support of about 10%, has been dubbed by political analysts and Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda himself as the most stable and reliable member of the coalition.
SMK representatives, however, say they have not been pleased with their coalition partners' lack of support for Hungarian priorities. Most recently, the SMK threatened to walk out on the coalition if their demand for the creation of a 'Komárno County', which would be 70% ethnic Hungarian, was not met.
Some Hungarians politicians believe that the unwillingness of the coalition to cooperate with the SMK stems from the belief of Slovak politicians that their voter support would suffer if closer ties were forged with the minority party.
"Unfortunately, it's a reality that our coalition partners fear losing voters if they engage in Hungarian issues more than they do now," said Gyula Bárdos, head of the SMK parliamentary caucus. "In Slovakia the 'Hungarian card' is still very effective. Not much has changed since the times of the previous government [led by Vladimír Mečiar, with the SNS as one of the coalition parties]."
But even if 'Komárno County' were created - a demand which Malíková called "provocative and arrogant", and which has become a source of intense conflict within the coalition - Slovaks who live in the south still say they don't see how it will affect their lives.
"I don't know of anyone who would feel oppressed by the Hungarians who live in this region," Jánošová said. "People just take it as normal. There are two nationalities living together here, and they get along like any other citizens of this state."