FIĽAKOVO- Smiling pleasantly, an old lady bent down to answer a hail from the window of a car parked in downtown Fiľakovo, a predominantly Hungarian town of 11,000 in southern Slovakia. Asked for directions to city hall, a look of consternation clouded her face. "No, no," she responded. The mayor's office? "No." Who might know? "No, no, Slovak not speak, no, sorry, no."
Unable to speak Slovak, this lady lent unwitting credibility to one of the most persistent myths about Slovakia's Hungarian community, namely that its members either can't or don't want to speak the official national language.
"Why are our Hungarian compatriots against learning the language of the country in which they live?" demanded Jolana Ambrúžová, Head of the Supervisory Committee of Matica Slovenská, a Slovak cultural organization founded in 1863. "Why?" she repeated. "That's the basic question, and the answer is [that they still have] the hope of joining Hungary. No other reason exists, and that's bad blood in this territory."
Rooted in Slovakia's long history of subjugation to the rule of its southern neighbor, this belief in Hungarian territorial ambitions is never far from the surface of anti-Hungarian rhetoric.
"A thousand years of Hungarian domination has left its footsteps on the people, and each generation is marked," Ambrúžová said. "Slovakia has always been a dovelike nation, and today we are paying for it," she continued, alleging that nascent Hungarian nationalism once again has its sights fixed on Slovakia's southern lands. "Hungarian representativesÉ want to prove that they are able to connect this part of the Slovak Republic to HungaryÉ[but] when someone takes what is ours from us, we don't fight, we just leave it alone."
"The ambitions of some political representatives of the Hungarian minority are far reaching," claimed Dušan Slobodník, Chairman of the Slovak Parliament's Foreign Committee in a 1995 essay on Slovak-Hungarian relations. "[They include] ambitions to revive the idea of Greater Hungary as it had been before 1918."
These ambitions, Slobodník explained, were being pursued through demands for greater "autonomy" and entrenched minority language rights in Slovakia. "[They] would like to reach the state of threatening the existence of Slovak statehood."
The unexciting everyday reality
"I really don't like politicians," confessed Ľudovít Feješ, the mayor of Fiľakovo. "They are disorienting the common people, and many of them are using the nationalist card to hide their own economic failures."
"Among normal people things are not as the politicians say," Feješ continued. "We have been living together for over 100 years, and no problems exist between the ordinary people. They are just working folk, and many, many families are of mixed Hungarian and Slovak roots. My own, for example."
Mundane issues like unemployment (currently standing at 30 percent in Fiľakovo), housing and city infrastructure are much more important in the lives of city residents, Feješ claimed. "People are obviously much more satisfied when they are working and have a good place to live," he said. "We are doing our best to solve these problems, even though the state is giving us less money for infrastructure development because we are Hungarian. Still, we are not looking back at what was, but ahead to what will be."
The effects of disinformation
Feješ said that inflammatory rhetoric was not only issuing from the mouths of nationalist politicians, but was also being carried by the Slovak media. "The media in places like the High Tatras, Žilina and Orava write that Hungarians beat Slovaks [in the south] and oppress them. And that's a lie."
Such irresponsible reporting, Feješ continued, is turning Slovak public opinion against Hungarians just as effectively as is political propaganda. "My [Slovak] mother-in-law came here from Bytča [in northern Slovakia], where there are no Hungarians, and she was afraid to go to the store, because of what the Hungarians would do to her," he said.
Štefan Laucz, Principal of a state-funded Hungarian basic school in Fiľakovo, agreed. "Twenty years ago, these political problems did not exist," he said. "Now, when our kids go to a sport meet or something, where noone knows them, Slovaks often insult them for being Hungarian. But I've said many, many times, that this is a result of the current [anti Hungarian] political and media campaign."
Laucz said that anti-Hungarian rhetoric was now starting to affect the Hungarian community as well. Teachers were now having to explain to schoolchildren why racism exists in Slovak society. "It is not an easy task, but we are trying to prepare them for the situation as it really is, and giving them ways to protect themselves emotionally," Laucz said. "But it's absolutely not the case that we are educating them to be anti-Slovak - precisely the opposite. Because, as a community, we want to live here and feel at home here with Slovaks."
Whether or not Laucz s educational approach is making inroads on the fears of his Hungarian students is uncertain. Among a class of 12 year-olds at the school were two young girls who said that they were unsure about leaving the town to study or work elsewhere in Slovakia. "You know, the problems you run into when you speak Hungarian, I've heard it's difficult to find a job and stuff," one of them said.
The long road ahead
Ambrúžová played down Hungarian fears of discrimination, saying that it was Hungarian nationalist politicians who were going too far in pressing their language-rights campaign. "Do not tell me that the whole of Žilina will speak their language just because 10 Hungarians from Fiľakovo work there!," she said. "I tell you, in Slovakia we have Germans, Poles, Russians and what not, but we don't have as many problems with them as with these Hungarians."
But Magdaléna Bystrianska, a teacher at one of Fiľakovo's Slovak basic schools, insisted that Hungarian schools were essential to "give Hungarian children a basis for keeping their culture and traditions in a Slovak society." Through their knowledge of both Slovak and Hungarian culture and language, she added, "they are perhaps even more fully rounded, more human, because they understand the other world."
Laucz agreed vigorously. "We are just trying to protect ourselves, our culture and our language. We are absolutely not aggressive, but some of Slovak politicians want to show exactly the opposite."
Daniel J. Stoll contributed to this article
20. Nov 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson