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Slovakia and Hungary just won't get along

Historic and modern grievances keep relations between the two nations frosty.

The Bratislava Castle (left) and the Cathedral of St. Martin are seen behind a new bridge as it moves into postion over the Danube river in Slovakia's capital Bratislava, Sept. 19, 2004. People in neighboring Hungary still see the architectural monuments as symbols of their own nation. (Petr Josek/Reuters)

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.