Slovakia and Hungary just won't get along

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Hungary and Slovakia are both members of NATO and of the European Union, but ties between the two central European neighbors are arguably the worst of any EU states, as each country’s nationalists use historical grievances to gain voter support.

Robert Fico, Slovakia’s populist prime minister, turned up the heat in the relationship earlier this summer when he pushed through a law that affirms the central role of the Slovak language.

The law, which goes into force in September, levies fines of as much as 5,000 euros ($7,147) for incorrect use of Slovak and sets rules for the use of minority languages. The rules say Slovak must be used first even at minority gatherings, and that historical plaques must include Slovak, with Slovak used first and the letters being at least of equal size to the minority language.

The law was passed despite there being no discernable threat to the primacy of the Slovak language in Slovakia. Hungarians, who make up about 10 percent of Slovakia’s 5.5 million people, reacted with alarm, fearing that the law was aimed at limiting their rights. Their cause has been taken up by Hungary. The foreign minister, Peter Balazs, plans to complain to the United Nations and to the Council of Europe about the law.

“Turning a multi-national country into a homogeneous nation state, a forced assimilation, are incompatible with the European Union's values and goes against international laws protecting minorities,” said the Hungarian president in a statement.

The Slovaks, in turn, reacted to the Hungarian reaction with rage. Jan Slota, leader of the extreme nationalist Slovak National Party, which forms part of the governing coalition, called it interference in the internal affairs of his country.

Fico, who is trying to grab some of Slota’s nationalist supporters before next year’s parliamentary elections, made a speech saying: “Protection of the Slovak state language must be the first pillar of every Slovak government’s program. It is namely the way to defend oneself from the dangerous irredentism that has been breathed over from the Danube.”

That sort of language speaks to a lot of Slovaks, who bear a longstanding historical grudge against Hungarians. The territory that is now Slovakia had been part of the Hungarian kingdom for centuries, and the region’s ruling class and landowners were overwhelmingly Hungarian, while the peasantry was Slovak.

Slota rose to power by feeding on that resentment — he has compared Slovakia’s Hungarian minority to a “tumor on the body of the Slovak nation” and called for Slovaks to flatten Budapest, the Hungarian capital, with tanks.

The Hungarians have their own beefs with the Slovaks, dating all the way back to the 1920 treaty of Trianon, which set the boundaries of modern Hungary by the victorious allies after World War I. The new borders left large Hungarian minorities in many surrounding states, including in the newly created Czechoslovakia.

After the Second World War, thousands of Hungarians were deported from Czechoslovakia for cooperating with the Germans. Today, after the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and the creation of Slovakia, many of the towns and villages of southern Slovakia are still overwhelmingly Hungarian. For historically-minded Hungarians, even sites including the cathedral and castle that dominate Bratislava, the Slovak capital, are symbols of their own nation and were once used by Hungarian kings. Although the current left-of-center Hungarian government is much less nationalistic than its Slovak counterpart, Hungary does have its own extreme nationalists. The most visible is the Jobbik movement, some of whose members like to parade about in black uniforms and which even won three seats in this year’s elections to the European Parliament. Jobbik vents most of its rage against gypsies, but is also dedicated to supporting the rights of Hungarian minorities in other countries.

Even mainstream parties get in on the game. When Viktor Orban, leader of the right-wing opposition Fidesz party, was prime minister, he riled up Hungary’s neighbors by bringing in a Hungarian ID card that gave special privileges within Hungary to members of Hungarian minorities in other countries.

Orban, who looks set to again become prime minister after the 2010 elections, called the Slovak law, “an absurdity,” which means that any meeting between him and Fico would likely be a long time coming.

That would fit in with the recent deep freeze in official contacts between the two countries. The dispute has become so bitter that there is no immediate prospect of any bilateral meetings between the respective leaderships — at the moment prime ministers and foreign ministers only run into each other at larger European gatherings.

“Relations are terrible,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, of the Institute for Public affairs, a Slovak think tank.