RELATIONS between Bratislava and Budapest have reached a new low following the cancellation of a meeting of regional leaders scheduled for March.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said he would not be attending the meeting of the Visegrad Four nations after Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán called for the cancellation of the Beneš Decrees - a set of laws passed at the end of the second world war that saw millions of ethnic Germans and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia stripped of property.
Dzurinda's Czech counterpart, Miloš Zeman, also said he would not attend, while Polish PM Leszek Miller pulled out of the meeting after claiming his presence without the Czech and Slovak leaders would be "pointless".
The Slovak PM said Orbán must now make a decision on how to progress with dialogue between the two governments.
"Mr Orbán must decide if he is going to return to the cultivated dialogue which we have seen until now, or continue to be nationalistic.
"He has made more and more inappropriate statements. Comments about the Beneš Decrees, which we cannot agree with because of the political situation in Slovakia, are subjective and inappropriate," said Dzurinda.
Orbán made the call to have the decrees cancelled while in Brussels February 20. He claimed the laws were not compatible with EU legislation and that the two states could not enter the Union with the decrees still in place.
He repeated the calls in Budapest the following day, despite insistence from Slovak ministers and diplomats that the question of revoking the decrees would not be opened and was in no way connected with the entry of the Slovak and Czech Republics into the European Union.
Dzurinda accused Orbán of irresponsible electioneering in the run-up to the Hungarian parliamentary elections in April.
"It's very unfortunate that Mr Orbán has taken this route. I have a feeling that he has been badly advised in his election campaign," he said.
The Beneš Decrees stripped Germans and Hungarians of property in what is now the Czech and Slovak Republics after the second world war. In Slovakia more than 30,000 ethnic Hungarians were expelled between 1945 and 1946, while 2.5 million Sudeten Germans were driven out in the Czech Republic.
The decrees were never cancelled and have provoked passionate debate in some regions, especially southern Germany and Austria, where many Sudeten Germans settled after the war.
They have also fuelled political populism. Austrian far-right politician Jörg Haider has recently attacked the post-war expulsions.
But Orbán has refused to back down over the issue, and after the cancellation of the Visegrad Four meeting said that the Decrees were a "European problem connected with human dignity and human rights".
However, his recent comments have been dismissed by European Commissioners.
EC Commissioner for Enlargement Gunther Verheugen said after Orbán's comments that the Beneš Decrees were not connected with EU entry for either state.
Other Slovak ministers have been quick to accuse Orbán of playing an irresponsible political game prior to the Hungarians going to the polls.
"I was very surprised at what Mr Orbán said when he was in Brussels. We have enough problems with the Hungarian Status Law and don't need to open another on something that is already dead. This is a very sensitive issue which should not be opened," said Mária Kadlečíková, Deputy Prime Minister for Integration.
"It is not a condition of joining the EU, and Mr Orbán knows that very well. I understand that Mr Orbán is doing this for a successful election campaign but this is a bomb in central Europe. One has to be responsible."
While Budapest has said that the Visegrad Four meeting will be moved to another date, Orbán's Foreign Minister, János Mártonyi, claimed that his PM's statements had been misunderstood.
He said that within bilateral talks with Slovakia, Hungary did not intend to bring up the Beneš Decrees, or link their abolition to European Union entry.
However, Orbán's statements have further damaged relations between Budapest and Bratislava that have been strained since the start of the year when the Hungarian Status Law, granting certain rights and privileges to ethnic Hungarians living in six countries bordering Hungary, came into effect.
The law has been essentially rejected by Slovakia, drawing angry protests from Orbán and his government. Only two weeks ago Orbán linked the rejection of the law with Slovak Nato entry, suggesting that Budapest may not ratify Slovakia's expected invitation to join the Alliance in Prague later this year.
That same anger also spilled over into the public on February 23 when 50 people from the Hungarian nationalist group 64 Counties demonstrated outside the Slovak embassy in the Hungarian capital over the refusal to implement the law.
Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel said the protest was "a further display of unsettling expressions of nationalism" and called on the Hungarian government to disavow the protesters.
"We expect official Hungarian bodies to clearly distance themselves from such rallies," he said.
4. Mar 2002 at 0:00 | Ed Holt