Second-Rate Citizens

By Anna Porter
Maclean’s, October 26, 2009

Discrimination of Slovakia’s Hungarian minority is on the rise

On Aug. 25, 2006, an ethnic Hungarian student named Hedvig Malina was severely beaten and robbed in the city of Nitra, Slovakia, after she spoke Hungarian on her cellphone. “Slovakia without parasites” was written on her clothes when she first reported her injuries to authorities. A two-week-long police investigation ended without charges, while at the same time the minister of the interior stepped in front of TV cameras to announce that Malina’s claims were baseless and accused her of making up the whole incident. In May 2007, Malina was indicted for perjury. Amid cries of outrage and charges of political interference, Malina appealed her case at the Constitutional Court. And in 2008, she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights.

On Sept. 12, 2009, ignoring the laws about presumptions of innocence, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, a former stalwart of the pre-’89 Communist party who now heads the Smer (Direction) party, accused Hedvig Malina of inflicting her own injuries in order to create an anti-Slovak atmosphere. (Oddly enough, from 1994 till 2000, Fico represented Slovakia at the European Court of Human Rights, a fact that says as much about that judicial body as it does about the task of monitoring human rights offences by member states.) But Fico’s comment should come as no surprise—the bad blood goes back centuries. The Hungarian monarchy ruled the Slovaks for a millenium until the end of the First World War, while the Hungarian minority that was left in what became Czechoslovakia suffered discrimination throughout the last century. “We are victims of an accident of history,” says one Hungarian member of the Slovak parliament. “For about 1,000 years, until 1919, this was all part of the kingdom of Hungary, and since then Slovaks have been seeking new ways to deal with that fact.”

What is troubling, though, is the way current Slovak politicians are playing the anti-Hungarian card and stoking nationalist sentiment, at a time when the global recession has crippled parts of eastern Europe and unleashed a wave of discontent. The 2006 election campaign that brought Fico to power, and Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic’s 2009 re-election campaign, thrived on open attacks against the country’s minority Hungarians (around 10 per cent of the population, though the number may be higher as some Hungarians are now billing themselves as Slovaks).

Fico’s coalition partners, among them Ján Slota’s extreme nationalists and the party of former prime minister Vladimír Meciar, express similar sentiments. Slota has called Hungarians bandy-legged marauders, and in one memorable speech incited Slovaks to “get in tanks and level Budapest.” Meciar has talked of a Hungarian threat to Slovak territories that had once been part of Hungary, and, in a not-so-veiled reference to the deportation of some 70,000 Hungarians in 1945, offered a population transfer of Slovak-Hungarians across the border to Hungary. And the xenophobia has found a welcoming echo among Slovaks who have not received their expected rewards from the capitalist transformation and Slovakia’s recent membership in the EU.

The government has even legislated against the Hungarian minority. On Sept. 1, its new language law came into force, imposing hefty fines (as high as $8,000) on workplaces where employees use their own minority language for “official” business. For example, a Hungarian doctor treating a Hungarian patient must speak Slovak unless they live in an overwhelmingly Hungarian area of the country. All dealings with public officials must be in Slovak, irrespective of the fact that in towns along the country’s southern border, most people speak Hungarian. All signs, monuments and even tombstones, no matter how ancient, must show a priority Slovak version. Street signs are to be changed. All cultural events must have simultaneous Slovak translation (imagine poetry evenings with Slovak translation services for an all-Hungarian audience). There are odd exceptions for places where at least 80 per cent of the population is Hungarian, but it is unclear how that is calculated.

And meanwhile, tensions have continued to rise. A November 2008 match in the majority Hungarian city of Dunaszerdahely, between its soccer team and Slovan Bratislava from the country’s capital, was disrupted by Slovak riot police, who managed to injure more than 50 people, all of them reportedly Hungarians. Peter Pázmány, the former mayor of Dunaszerdahely (Dunajská Streda on Slovak maps), was there with his son. The police, he says, were not locals. They were brought in to create an incident. “My family has lived here for 600 years and no matter what happens we are not leaving,” he told me. They were among those to be deported to Hungary after the Second World War as part of a series of “population exchanges,” but his mother bribed the soldiers. His father lost his lands and worked as a bricklayer, but he would not give up and would not leave. “We have a strong attachment to this land,” Pázmány says. “Our ancestors’ graves are here. It is where we belong.”

Some Slovaks want to change that. On Aug. 21, Hungarian President Lászlo Sólyom was to speak at the unveiling of a statue of St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king, in Komárno (the Slovak part of the ancient Hungarian town of Komárom). A crowd of a few hundred people waited on the square—“an atmosphere of celebration for both Hungarians and Slovaks,” Tunde Lelkes, a young lawyer from Komárno told me. “St. Stephen had, after all, been honoured by both Slovaks and Hungarians as a just king.” Then a busload of hooligans arrived. They started heckling, waving placards and shouting insults. Meanwhile, the police stopped Sólyom’s car at the border and told him he would not be allowed to enter Slovakia, despite the EU’s core principle of freedom of movement and a civic invitation.

Fico was characteristically unrepentant. He said the day chosen for the unveiling was unsuitable, as it was also the anniversary of Warsaw Pact forces (including Hungarians) invading Czechoslovakia to end Alexander Dubcek’s “Prague Spring.” Fico did meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai in the Hungarian border town of Szécsény on Sept. 10, and the two leaders pledged to begin efforts to tackle extremism in the region. But, says Hungarian book publisher László Szigeti, it is odd that Fico would choose to deal with the PM of another country about his own country’s minority laws, rather than engaging with his minority Hungarians.

Calmer Slovak heads are trying to prevail. According to a recent opinion piece in the Slovak Spectator, Slovak politics “can tolerate quite a lot without suffering fatal effects. But people like Slota are a dangerous infection whose behaviour can cause serious deformation of the system.” Leading Slovak intellectuals have warned in an open letter published in the liberal daily Sme that the racist, xenophobic rhetoric used by the country’s politicians is making the country sink to “a dangerous level.”

Martin Simecka, a Slovak and former editor of both Sme and the weekly magazine Respekt, says the new laws are intended to show Hungarians living in Slovakia that they are second-rate citizens. They are meant to feel afraid. And they do. Three ethnic Hungarian high school students I met in Bratislava said they are now scared to speak Hungarian on buses, that they are wary of giving their Hungarian-sounding names, that they would not make cellphone calls home in Hungarian, and that they are worried when they see Slovak-flag-waving young men. But not one of them has given a thought to moving to another country.

Book publisher Szigeti’s small office is not far from historic Michael’s Gate in the Old Town of Bratislava. He publishes in both languages, and his friends are members of both communities. His family is from Dunaszerdahely; he defines himself as Hungarian, though he was born after the Second World War in Czechoslovakia. “My life’s purpose, if I may say so without becoming pompous,” he tells me as he leans back against the wide bookcase displaying both Slovak and Hungarian titles, “is to hold a mirror to each, so they can see how they seem to the other.” Though it has become a Sisyphean struggle, he is sure it will, eventually, succeed.

Ethnic Hungarian parliamentarian Miklós Duray is not so sure. In recent years, he says, many Slovak politicians have chosen to fuel anti-Hungarian sentiments—a useful political ploy, especially during recessionary times, to unite the electorate for their own gains. But the battle for Hungarian minority rights—their own schools, newspapers, books, street signs—has been ongoing since 1920. Indeed, Duray was arrested in 1982 for his human rights activities, including organizing to keep what rights the Hungarian minority had during the Communist regime. In his book Kutyaszorító (Choke Collar), he writes about the indignities of house searches, beatings, and the terrible boredom of 470 days in jail.

More recently, Duray has been in trouble for labelling Slota’s party as fascist three years ago. He was convicted of sullying its reputation. His apology was written in Hungarian; now the party wants it reissued in Slovak, and he is being threatened with a $50,000 fine. But Duray is not about to give up now that Slovakia is a self-declared democracy. “The right to free expression has been used here to express hatred,” he says. “To unite a people, what is simpler than to identify a common enemy?” The good news, Duray says with a smile, is that in his view, “Slovaks do not have a natural antipathy toward Hungarians. In time, they may decide to change governments.”

Hedvig Malina, in the meantime, completed her degree, married her ethnic Slovak boyfriend, and gave birth to their healthy Slovak-Hungarian baby.