BILATERAL Slovak-Hungarian relations suffered a serious blow on Friday August 21 when the president of Hungary was prevented from paying an unofficial visit to the Slovak town of Komárno where he was invited by the local authorities to help unveil a statue of Hungarian King Stephen I.
The trip of Hungarian President László Sólyom was originally organised as an unofficial, private visit to the border town of Komárno where the statue is located. None of Slovakia’s highest state representatives were invited to the ceremony.
On August 20 the three highest representatives of the Slovak government, Prime Minister Robert Fico, President Ivan Gašparovic and Speaker of the Parliament Pavol Paska issued a joint written statement saying that Sólyom was not a welcome guest to Slovakia on August 21 for several reasons – including present tensions between the countries because of Slovakia’s new controversial State Language Act and the sensitivity of date of August 21, which is the anniversary day of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by most Warsaw Pact countries in 1968, including troops from Hungary.
Then on August 21 Slovak authorities decided to deny entry by Sólyom into Slovakia. The Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry officially conveyed a message to Sólyom, asking him to disregard the invitation to Komárno.
According to the SITA newswire, Slovakia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák made a telephone call on August 20 to his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Balázs. Lajčák also asked the Hungarian Ambassador to Slovakia, Antal Heizer, to inform the president that his presence in Slovakia on August 21 was not recommended because of the current developments and atmosphere.
“We have reasons to assume that this visit will harm Slovak-Hungarian relations,” SITA quoted Lajčák as saying. “If President Sólyom does not want this to happen, he will not come.”
Slovakia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was previously informed about the visit and had cooperated with its Hungarian counterpart to arrange the technicalities of the visit.
After Slovakia officially denied entry to Sólyom, Prime Minister Robert Fico held an extraordinary press conference in which he announced that the decision was based on relevant legal regulations of the European Union and Slovakia, the TASR newswire reported.
Sólyom did not cross the border and instead convened a press conference on the Hungarian side of the bridge between the Slovak town of Komárno and the Hungarian town of Komárom. He said that the diplomatic note issued by Slovakia to deny him entry was an unprecedented measure in relations between two allies, Slovakia and Hungary. The note denying entry reached Sólyom while he was at the Hungarian-Slovak border, TASR reported.
“I'm glad you’re coming from the other side of the bridge, where they’re unveiling the statue of (most revered Hungarian monarch King) Stephen I and you could see for yourself that there is no security risk,” Sólyom told journalists, as quoted by TASR. “No extremists are gathering there, nobody is planning to beat up anybody there.”
Sólyom turned around on the Hungarian part of the bridge and returned to Komárom, accompanied by his entourage.
Hungary will turn to diplomatic levels of the European Union to discuss the step taken by Slovakia. The chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament has also initiated an extraordinary session in which the Hungarian foreign affairs minister is expected to take part.
“Today’s decision of the Slovak government to deny entry to Slovakia by Sólyom was in contradiction with European norms, particularly with the principle of good neighbourly relations within the European union,” Zsolt Németh, the Hungarian parliament’s deputy for the right-wing Fidesz party said, as quoted by the Sme daily.
No problems with extremists from either country occurred during the unveiling of the statue in Komárno. Several protesters with a Slovak flag and a flag of the Slovak National Party (SNS) and a man wearing the uniform of the Hungarian Guard waving a Hungarian flag were among viewers at the unveiling. Several politicians from the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and Most-Hid party, who represent Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians, attended the ceremony, SITA wrote.
However, a day after the statue was unveiled several dozen members of the Hungarian radical political party Jobbik began partially blocking the border bridge between Komárno and Komárom, joining Slovakia and Hungary. According to SITA, the blockade was Jobbik’s reaction to Slovakia’s denial to of entry to Hungarian President László Sólyom. Members of Jobbik had also partially blocked traffic on several roads leading to the Slovak-Hungarian border in November 2008.
Some 40 members of Jobbik also laid a wreath to the freshly-unveiled statue on Sunday August 23, including the party’s vice-chairman and a Member of the European Parliament, Csanád Szegedi, TASR reported.
“I believe that among the people of Slovak nationality in Slovakia the majority doesn’t regard Hungarians to be their primary enemies,” Szegedi said as quoted by TASR. “These Slovaks should join the Hungarians.”
Political analysts say the denial of entry to the Hungarian president on August 21 was a failure in both Slovak and Hungarian diplomacy as well as an attempt by some Slovak politicians to play ‘the Hungarian card’.
According to Grigorij Mesežnikov, the director of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank, relations between the two allied countries should not have been harmed by a private visit of a high state representative. He said it is quite common for politicians from one country to visit another country without meeting their counterparts.
“For example, Prime Minister Robert Fico recently spent his holidays in Croatia without meeting his Croatian counterpart,” TASR quoted Mesežnikov as saying.
László Öllős, a political analyst from the Forum Institute, believes that there were two reasons behind Slovakia’s decision to deny entry to Sólyom.
“First, to divert attention away from St. Stephan’s message and, secondly, there are a million corruption affairs, so this helps attention to not be focused on them,” Öllős said as quoted by TASR.
St. Stephen’s message, according to Öllős, was that a monolingual state with only one set of traditions is fragile and weak.
“Thanks to this tradition Hungary remained tolerant to different languages and cultures up to the 19th century when Hungarians then got caught up in nationalism,” Öllős said.