WHAT do national minorities want? They want to be able to read fairytales to their children in their mother tongue and be sure that even their grandchildren will still speak their language. They want to be able to speak their language on the streets without fear of being confronted for doing so. And they want some respect, or at least acceptance. They also hope that the majority will not ridicule the symbols of their ancestors.
What does the majority population most want from national minorities, at least in an ideal world? It hopes that the minority will learn the language of the majority so that they can actually talk to each other. It also hopes that the minority will be loyal to the country they share. After all, the majority too wants respect for its symbols, culture and borders - or at least acceptance of them.
Some would argue that this is a rather oversimplified model for coexistence in a multi-ethnic society, but if this dynamic is respected the worst conflicts can be avoided.
There is something else, though, that both minority and majority share: neither population wants to become the hostage of politicians.
Minorities are very easy prey for the hostage-takers who need tensions between nations to keep their agenda alive. If there were no minorities living on Slovakia’s territory, some politicians would now be working as salesmen, mechanics, bar tenders or village teachers.
The chairman of the Slovak National Party, Ján Slota, would never have made it to the national ruling coalition if there were no Hungarian minority in Slovakia. He has built his political career by continuously aggravating the historical frustrations that lie deeply rooted in Slovak-Hungarian relations on both sides.
These frustrations are either tamed or heightened depending on who sits in the seats of power of both nations.
During November 2008, Slovak-Hungarian relations have reached a historic low. Slovaks and Hungarians are now witnessing the leader of a Slovak government party openly insulting the historical symbols of Hungary - not to mention Hungary’s serving foreign affairs minister – and Hungarian extremist groups seeking to block border crossings between the two countries.
On the positive side, a group of mayors of Slovak towns with mixed populations have called for a dose of reason and reconciliation to be injected into relations. Neither Slovaks nor Hungarians want to be the hostages of political rhetoric, or the hostages of thuggish extremist groups whose only agenda is to channel their own frustrations: that is, to be the hostages of nationalist agendas.
Most reasonable Slovaks feel frustrated by the fact that their fellow citizens elected a politician like Slota to government, while most reasonable Hungarians are deeply disturbed by the existence of extremist groups like the Hungarian Guard, a right-wing organisation whose members dress in military uniforms reminiscent of the oppressive regimes which have blighted both nations’ pasts.
The culmination of tensions had been fairly predictable from the moment Robert Fico picked Slota and gave him a role in running the country as his coalition partner. There is an important difference between having a nationalist grouping which abuses historical frustrations from outside parliament and having it at the very heart of government, left to do its worst without any firm rejection by the country’s prime minister.
Fico has demonstrated several times that he can be resolute and tough, but the occasions when Slota, for example, insulted Hungary’s foreign affairs minister, Kinga Göncz, or ridiculed one of Hungary’s national symbols were not among them.
Referring to the Hungarian turul, a mythical falcon and national symbol, and the Hungarians in general, Slota described them as “these robbers, murderers, and those who erect these ugly, disgusting turuls, these Hungarian parrots.”
Who threw the first stone and who threw the second? It is no longer important. Responsibility now lies in the hands of politicians on both sides.
Fico must have known that Slota was injecting poison into the fragile relations with each statement.
There are voices of reason and reconciliation on both sides.
But, sad to say, these days the shouting of extremist groups and irresponsible politicians is getting louder.
It is a shame for a region which claims to be at the heart of Europe.
Politicians without doubt set standards in the way they talk and by the lines they cross.
Whenever a political leader, not to mention one who leads a party which is part of the government, lets out steam by calling other nationalities robbers and villains, there will always be a handful who will take it as an inspiration and might one day choose to go out into the street and attack people for using a different language or having a different skin colour.
There is no winner from such tensions but the nationalists, who really have no other agenda. They have nothing else to offer to the nation but frustration and conflict.
They might help to identify the nation’s ‘enemies’, but history is littered with empires whose endless pursuit of their enemies ended in defeat.
17. Nov 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová