A solemn moment. Slovak and Hungarian opposition deputies watch Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement Chairman Béla Bugár sign a joint statement renouncing Hungarian claims to territorial autonomy in Slovakia.
Perhaps no issue reveals this division quite like relations between Slovaks and the country's Hungarian minority. The December 2 signing of a common statement between the leaders of two opposition blocs, the Hungarian coalition (MK) and the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), was hailed by the signatories as a signal to Slovak voters that the time had come to bury the hatchet with Hungarians. But the deal brought an enraged response from some ruling coalition representatives, who attacked the agreement as a betrayal of the Slovak nation.
"What [Christian Demo-cratic Movement Chairman Ján] Čarnogurský has done with the SDK and this agreement with the Hungarians, it is treason against Slovak interests," declared Dušan Slobodník, Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and a deputy for premier Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). "And we in Slovakia don't like traitors."
What infuriated Slobodník was a paragraph in the joint statement to the effect that "the Hungarian coalition pledges that no coalition party will now or in future, as part of its political platform, promote concrete political territorial autonomy on the principle of ethnicity."
"Mr. Čarnogurský de facto accepted the right of Hungarians to demand autonomy when he accepted their renunciation of it," alleged Slobodník. "By accepting this 'offer' from the Hungarians, he confirmed that he either doesn't know European legal norms in international politics, or that he willingly accepts a Hungarian right [to autonomy] which is guaranteed nowhere [in European legislation]."
Čarnogurský, for his part, claimed in an interview for Sme daily that the ruling coalition had already committed itself to Hungarian autonomy, and that the signing of the recent joint statement proved it was really the SDK which had the interests of the Slovak nation at heart. "Vladimír Mečiar [in 1995] signed a fundamental agreement between Slovakia and Hungary, whose appendix was the Council of Europe's Recommendation No.1201 (CE 1201), which allows for territorial autonomy [within Slovakia]," Čarnogursky claimed. "The common statement signed by the parties united in SDK excludes territorial autonomy."
Based on the available evidence, however, Slobodník's case would seem to be the stronger. The Venice Commission, convened by the Council of Europe to interpret CE 1201, issued a decision on 22 March 1996 that denied the existence of "any right for national minorities to self-determination" under the European Convention on Human Rights. CE 1201, the judgement read, "is not an operative rule of international law but a mere proposal...States are not in principle required to introduce any forms of decentralization for minorities."
Many of the deputies involved in drafting the declaration, however, said that the political aim of the joint statement had been simply to show voters that the MK had fully and finally renounced any thoughts of autonomy. Eduard Kukan, Chairman of the Democratic Union (DU) and a signatory to the document, said "there is a lot of suspicion concerning Hungarians in the minds of Slovaks. To change this mentality will take time, but we had to take the risk. That is why it was very important to put the statement regarding regional autonomy so bluntly."
Pál Csáky, Vice-Chairman of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement (MKDH), agreed that the document had contained a very important political message. "We wanted to send a signal to the voters and citizens of Slovakia that we need to cooperate with our democratic friends in all walks of life," said Csáky. "Our aim is integration into our common society. We have no plans for the destabilization of this country, and you can see the signing of this declaration as proof of that."
The "Common Statement" signed on December 2, and the various appendices signed on December 3, contains concrete steps for cooperation in the spheres of foreign policy, domestic policy, economy and minority issues.
"[The deal] would form the basis also for post-electoral cooperation [between the SDK and MK]," Csáky said. Kukan, while noting that this is not specifically stated in the agreement, agreed that "yes, we would be ready" to form a government with the Hungarian coalition.
In the wider context, however, the agreement was intended as much for an international audience as a Slovak one. "We wanted to send a message to the European Union and the American government that the real alternative to the present government is not just the SDK," said Csáky. "It is also cooperation between the SDK and the MK."
Slovakia's current government has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union for its handling of minority issues. The SDK, Kukan explained, had wanted to show with this declaration what the EU could expect if the opposition won next year's elections. "We wanted to show that we know how to handle the situation between the Hungarian minority and the rest of Slovakia," he said. "This agreement means a firm basis for the return of quiet, calm and normal life to Slovakia after the elections."
Slobodník, however, condemned the agreement as part of a propaganda campaign designed to further incite the European Union against Slovakia. "They [Hungarians] have a very dangerous lobby in the EU," he said, "and [foreign institutions] will say, 'Oh, how Hungarians are oppressed in Slovakia, it is so unjust to them'."
But beyond disagreement over what the joint statement was meant to achieve, a far greater gulf between future and past separates Slovakia's opposition and governing coalition on Hungarian issues.
Kukan stressed that the statement had been intended principally as a signal "that it was really time to put an end to historical prejudices." There was immense political risk involved in being seen as pro-Hungarian in a pre-election year, he said, "but we wanted to show to the public that we are not afraid or ashamed to cooperate with the Hungarians, because that is the future, that our society should be democratic."
For Slobodník, however, Slovakia's past as a province in the Austro-Hungarian empire cannot be forgotten so easily. "In Slovakia, we have had a very hard destiny," he said. "We have fought for every centimeter of space that we have...we have lived in a foreign country for more than 1,000 years, and we are accustomed to fight, we have it in our genes." In Slobodník's view, Slovakia's Hungarian minority contains irredentist elements that cannot be trusted; "they say we are loyal Slovak citizens," he reasoned, "but what they wish is to renew Greater Hungary."
18. Dec 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson