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Tension over language

LANGUAGE was one of the most cited words in the Slovak and Hungarian media even before the Slovak president signed the amended State Language Act into law on June 17. Throughout the summer, ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and Slovakia’s neighbours to the south were criticising the law as Slovaks kept defending it and the tension escalated to the point where Slovakia refused to allow the Hungarian president to cross the border on August 21. Both countries are now hoping that the cooler temperatures of September and a long-expected and long-delayed meeting between the countries’ prime ministers might bring the first steps toward an easing of tensions and reconciliation.

LANGUAGE was one of the most cited words in the Slovak and Hungarian media even before the Slovak president signed the amended State Language Act into law on June 17. Throughout the summer, ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and Slovakia’s neighbours to the south were criticising the law as Slovaks kept defending it and the tension escalated to the point where Slovakia refused to allow the Hungarian president to cross the border on August 21. Both countries are now hoping that the cooler temperatures of September and a long-expected and long-delayed meeting between the countries’ prime ministers might bring the first steps toward an easing of tensions and reconciliation.

The new language law hit media headlines again on September 1, the date the law came into effect, with protests against it being held on both sides of the Danube. The biggest protest was organised by Slovakia’s Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), along with some other Hungarian civil society organisations, at the main football stadium in Dunajská Streda on September 1. The organisers reported that over 6,000 people gathered at the protest. Most of them were ethnic Hungarians living in southern Slovakia, although the SITA newswire reported that cars with Hungarian and Romanian licence plates were also spotted in the town.

A similar protest was organised in front of the Slovak Embassy in Budapest where some 500 people gathered and delivered a petition to Slovak Ambassador Peter Weiss requesting changes to Slovakia’s State Language Act, SITA reported.

‘Peaceful but radical’

In his speech to the rally in Dunajská Streda SMK leader Pál Csáky said that the amendments to the State Language Act ‘criminalise’ the use of the Hungarian language in Slovakia.

“This law is another sad level in the moral crisis in Slovak society which, by cynically turning a blind eye, accepts the recurrent excesses of the second most influential politician in the ruling coalition [a reference to Slovak National Party chairman Ján Slota] and the re-emergence of flourishing corruption and problems in the judiciary,” Csáky said, as reported by SITA.

The protesters strongly criticised Slovakia’s ruling coalition, saying it has been shamefully ignoring the Hungarian minority for three years. Participants in the rally adopted a statement saying they will no longer tolerate being the target for some of the politicians of the ruling coalition. In the statement they rejected the validity of the State Language Act, saying that it violates basic human rights, namely freedom of speech.

“Our intentions are peaceful but radical, since they are in the interests of our survival,” the statement read, SITA reported.

Politicians from the Most-Híd party, established by renegades from the SMK, also attended the protest but did not speak to the audience. Most-Híd launched a billboard campaign against the language law with billboards stating in Hungarian, Romani, and also in Slovak dialects spoken in some regions of Slovakia: “Who cares what language I speak, I want work”, adding that the real
problem is the number of unemployed in Slovakia which has now reached 350,000.

Many Slovak politicians, including those from parties in the parliamentary opposition that have traditionally cooperated with the ethnic Hungarian parties, remained sceptical and negative in their reactions to the rally.

Christian-Democratic Movement (KDH) spokesperson Martin Krajčovič stated that Slovak-Hungarian relations need dialogue and “not protest rallies that serve only to get some political capital from them and to escalate the tension”, the TASR newswire reported. Tomáš Galbavý, a deputy for the largest opposition party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), said he sees the protest as a serious shift in SMK’s politics and believes that “SMK decided to lift up the Hungarian card and make its playing a permanent part of its politics in relation with the ruling coalition parties as well as with its competitor Most-Híd”, TASR wrote. Both KDH and SDKÚ, however, stressed that the new State Language Act is dangerous and is helping to escalate the tension, according to TASR.

A somewhat sharper reaction came from Ján Slota, the leader of the Slovak National Party (SNS), who said that Budapest is using its “loyal servants” from SMK to escalate the tension between Slovakia and Hungary by staging this protest.

“There is a real threat that Hungary will keep escalating the tension in central Europe until it ignites a war conflict,” the Sme daily quoted Slota as saying.

“The one who threatens with war escalates the tension,” László Öllős, a political analyst and ethnic Hungarian intellectual who attended the protest in Dunajská Streda, told The Slovak Spectator. He also said no provocative statements were made at the rally and it was a very civil and calm protest, with the exception of a couple of hundred extremists displaying banners about autonomy and similar demands.

A few dozen kilometres to the east, members of the Hungarian extreme right-wing party Jobbik protested against the Slovak language law by blocking Slovak-Hungarian borders in the Hungarian towns of Komárom and Esztergom. Some 200 protesters called for the immediate repeal of the State Language Act, SITA reported.

The chairman of Jobbik, Gábor Vona, visited Komárom and gave a press conference there. Another ten cars with Hungarian and Jobbik flags blocked the road leading from the Hungarian village of Rajka to the adjacent Slovak border crossing at Rusovce.

“The Hungarians did nothing wrong and therefore Slovaks should apologise to the Hungarians and not vice versa,” Vona said, as quoted by TASR.

Vona stressed that Jobbik has members in the European Parliament, saying that he hopes the party will also have some influence in the Hungarian parliament in a few months, after national elections, TASR reported.

An attempt at reconciliation?



In this tense atmosphere that has mobilised extremists and radicalised public opinion on both sides of the border, the prime ministers of Slovakia and Hungary will soon meet. A meeting was, in fact, planned for earlier in 2009 but after the Slovak language law was passed, both prime ministers declared that the circumstances were not favourable for a meeting. Now, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Gordon Bajnai, has re-initiated a meeting with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico.

“Hostility leads nowhere and it’s a clear interest of Hungary to ease the growing tension between our countries,” Bajnai told the Hungarian daily Észak Magyarország, as reported by SITA. But Bajnai said Hungary was not responsible for the start of the problems as it did not pass a controversial language law nor did it banish Slovak politicians from entering Hungary.

The meeting is scheduled for September 10 in the north-Hungarian town of Szécsény, close to the Slovak border, the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Peter Stano, confirmed to The Slovak Spectator.

“The meeting should serve as the first step in the stabilisation and harmonisation of relations between Slovakia and Hungary,” Stano said, adding that the aim of the meeting is to move relations to the level of normal communication and to reactivate the bilateral tools of cooperation.

Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who on August 30 met his Hungarian counterpart Péter Balázs in the Slovenian town of Bled, spoke to the deputies of the Slovak parliament’s foreign affairs committee on September 2, asking politicians not to endanger the planned meeting with any inappropriate statements.

“What we need is to talk, to communicate and to name the things we like and we don’t like,” Lajčák said, as quoted by SITA. “But it’s absolutely clear that sending messages via the media to each other is not a way forward.”

Öllős said he would like to see the upcoming meeting as a positive sign but has doubts based on experience from previous unsuccessful meetings.

“First, because there was always the attempt to not really solve anything and secondly because the representatives of the Slovak government were mainly trying to use the meeting to cover problems they have caused,” he told The Slovak Spectator. “So the meetings weren’t meant to solve the accumulated problems but only to show that they were leading a dialogue.”

To be successful, Öllős hopes the meeting will begin the process of Slovak-Hungarian reconciliation through society-wide dialogue, deep self-criticism, and facing up to the historical torts inflicted by ancestors on both sides.

“Self-criticism – and not criticism of the other – is the way,” Öllős said.


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