WHENEVER a Hungarian politician utters the expression "autonomy", the very sound ruptures the seal keeping Pandora's box of political speculation closed. The result is fiery discussions on both sides of the Slovak-Hungarian border.
Earlier this month in Budapest, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány opened the lid, allowing speculations about the motives of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia to pour like oil and fan the flames of nationalism in Slovakia.
Gyurcsány verbally supported the autonomy of ethnic Hungarians living abroad instead of dual citizenship, which had been previously rejected by Hungarians in a referendum last year.
It must be said that Slovak politicians showed more maturity in their reactions than several years ago.
However, the Slovak National Party (SNS), being true to its history of xenophobia and against what its representatives call "the Hungarian threat", demanded that the Slovak parliament unite and oppose Hungarian efforts of irredentism and autonomy.
For a while it appeared that the SNS was running out of fuel and its enemies seemed to rest. Perhaps this is why SNS Chairman Ján Slota was so eager to take the opportunity to leverage Gyurcsány's words and aggravate the fears of potential SNS sympathizers.
Slota immediately accused the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), the political body representing the minority Hungarian population in Slovakia, of scheming for autonomy since 1995.
There was much confusion around Gyurcsány's actual statement in Budapest, which was more a product of the political melee in Hungary during an election year than any serious message for its northern neighbour - Slovakia.
In fact, political scientists feel that Gyurcsány's statement referred to countries outside of the European Union, such as Romania and Ukraine, where such an idea could potentially take hold.
Knee-jerk reactions did not come close to the hysteria that Gáll László Soóky, leader of the Slovak branch of the World Congress of Hungarians, caused in 2001 with his call for autonomy.
At that time, even the SMK, which has never officially supported territorial autonomy, distanced itself from Soóky, who had emerged from nowhere.
Soóky charged that the SMK was betraying its own mission by failing to support a memorandum of the World Congress of Hungarians that called for Hungarian autonomy in Slovakia.
The SMK not only doubted the legitimacy of Soóky's organization but also did not know about the preparation of the memorandum.
The nationalist SNS raised one of its biggest cries of panic over the memorandum, interpreting it as a deal among all the Hungarian forces in Slovakia. The SNS even filed a complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor General.
Meanwhile, Soóky disappeared with his infamous memorandum without doing any damage to the integrity of Slovakia's territory.
Even Miklós Duray, the least "acceptable" SMK politician to ruling coalition partners, has been refraining from using the buzz words "autonomy" and "separation" in his speeches.
Nevertheless, the SNS used Gyurcsány's comment to call for the toughest possible response, suggesting that the Hungarians were only testing the Slovak population's reaction to the call for autonomy before committing to other actions.
In 1999, the SNS used the alleged demand of former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to autonomize the northern Serbian Vojvodina as a way to jolt nationalism - and nationalist voters - awake. The SNS followed up with panic-stricken statements about Hungary planning to consume all of its neighbours.
The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) also used Gyurcsány's comment for its own purposes, appealing to a group of voters sensitive to the Hungarian issue, those that view Hungary as a potential threat.
The HZDS announced that Gyurcsány's statement was an unacceptable interference into the internal affairs of Slovakia. HZDS' Ľuboš Lackovič lashed out at Slovak constitutional representatives for not reacting decisively to the Hungarian prime minister's words.
Some political scientists suggested that the ruling coalition did react and dealt with the issue under considerable pressure from opposition parties.
The HZDS is currently holding coalition-forming talks in all eight regions of Slovakia. The party said it is open to all political bodies except the Slovak Communist Party and the SMK.
The SMK has complained of an effort by ruling parties to exclude the SMK from political life, an isolation reflected in the talks and preparations by parties uniting to weaken the influence of the SMK Hungarian strongholds.
Yet, the SMK says it is drafting a law on supporting national minorities and that this claim in no way goes against the cabinet's programme.
SMK politicians are more confident using the word "autonomy" as long as it is preceded with "cultural". According several political scientists, cultural autonomy is already alive and well in certain forms in Slovakia already.
The SMK knows that as long as there are ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, the party will have its voters.
But it also struggles with widening its minority focus and addressing issues that are of interest to the majority population as well.
Sadly, any statements made without careful consideration of the Pandora's box waiting to be opened will prevent the SMK from becoming a force that could potentially appeal to those who do not want to chose their leaders based on ethnic principle.
Autonomy remains a word that is likely to continue neuralgic reactions in any context.
By Beata Balogová
24. Jan 2005 at 0:00