Nothing whips up the passions of Slovak nationalists quite like the question of Hungarian territorial autonomy in Slovakia. They believe that the country's ethnic Hungarians entertain secret hopes of joining their motherland, offering as proof claims that Hungarians can't or don't want to speak Slovak. This is the first step toward autonomy, they say, arguing that Hungarians will then want to take part of Slovak territory and join it with Hungary.
Though Hungarian politicians do publicly admit to hopes of self-administration in a decentralized state, they flatly deny that they want to separate from Slovakia. Furthermore, there is little statistical data to support the allegation that Hungarians don't want to or can't speak Slovak.
But because of this persistent assertion by members of the ruling coalition, Slovak and Hungarian relations have made no progress since the signing of the Slovak-Hungarian Fundamental Treaty in 1995. Instead, they have deteriorated to the point where the Slovak government is viewed as intolerant toward minorities, an accusation which in modern Europe is almost a recipe for any country's isolation.
But the Slovak ruling coalition believes that Slovakia has to be guarded against Hungary. "The Hungarian nationality is very dangerous," said Vladimír Hagara, spokesman for the Movement for a Democratic Society (HZDS). "They want not only their Magyar language, but then their own land, then their own government, then their land will join Hungary."
Hagara is passionate in his defense of the HZDS-dominated government, which he claims protects Slovakia's interests by seeking to preserve the Slovak state. "Who else can protect Slovakia from Magyars, only [Prime Minister Vladimír] Mečiar," he said. "[The Hungarians] are very aggressive when they have an advantage over you. Just look at history."
Slovaks have bitter memories of the past. In the late 19th century Hungary attempted to assimilate the Slovak minority through a program called "Hungarization." Another sore point, Hungary attacked southern Slovakia in 1938, annexing part of Slovak territory where the Hungarian minority lived.
But Pál Csáky, a deputy for the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement, said that dwelling on the past is a way to isolation. "We must build for the future, not look back on the past," he said. "About 16 percent of the Slovak population is made up of minorities, showing that Slovakia is a multicultural state. What is now reality is that the government must find solutions with minorities for the future."
But Hagara seems incredulous that Hungarians have any problems that need to be solved. "They have everything they need," he said. "Basic schools, middle schools, high schools in Hungarian. They have their own free press, libraries, culture organizations, and museums. What do they want?" Hagara shouted, sweat dripping from his brow. "And 30 percent of Hungarians can't speak Slovak! That's incredible."
Csáky countered by saying that he didn't know one Hungarian Slovak who couldn't understand Slovak. "In all Hungarian schools starting from kindergarten, Hungarian children learn Slovak," he said. "According to official statistics about 93 percent of Hungarians speak good Slovak."
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The Slovak Statistical Office reported in 1991 that 79 percent of Hungarians have the same level of knowledge in both languages, 18 percent have problems with Slovak, and 3 percent speak only Hungarian.
The language war has been openly raging for two centuries since both Slovaks and Hungarians view their language as vital to their culture and traditions. But ethnic Hungarians believe that their language is currently under attack by the Slovak government. One aspect of the 1995 Act on State Language potentially threatens public officials whose mother tongue is not Slovak.
The law states in Article 1, Paragraph 3: "Proof of proficiency in speaking and writing the state language is a condition of employment or engagement in other work-like situations, and is a prerequisite to completing contractual work for public bodies."
Since all school officials as well as regional administrators are employees of the state, Hungarians are fearful that the "proof" will be used to remove Hungarians from official positions. Csáky cited examples from Rožňava and Dunajská Streda where he claimed this has already happened.
But representatives of Matica Slovenská, a Slovak cultural institution established in 1863 to protect the Slovak language and culture, and which then lobbied heavily for making Slovak the official state language 132 years later, believe that every ethnic Hungarian should be able to speak Slovak.
"Our Hungarian compatriots are against learning the language of the country where they are living," said Jolana Ambrúžová, head of Matica's Supervisory Committee. "Why? Because of the hope of joining Hungary." This was one of the reasons she said that the State Language Law was needed in 1995, to prevent separation.
Another powerful weapon used by the Mečiar administration to inhibit ethnic Hungarians' alleged separationist ambitions was the country's regional reshuffling in 1996. The new scheme abolished old districts, some of which contained a more than 50-percent share of Hungarian Slovaks, and established eight regions, mostly stretched in a vertical North-South direction and assuring that none of them has any considerable share of Hungarian Slovaks.
"The regional re-organization created districts that put Hungarians in those areas at a disadvantage," said Csáky. "The decision by the government to do this was designed specifically against Hungarians."
Csáky believes that the purest safeguard for their rights is self-administration, a euphemism for greater autonomy. "The Slovak state is very centralized," Csáky said. "We want decentralization for all regions, the same for Orava, Prievidza, as for Komárno or Dunajská Streda. Only then can local people solve local problems in education and culture."
4. Dec 1997 at 0:00 | Daniel J. Stoll