EUROPE: Divided We Stand United

  • Analysis by Pavol Stracansky (bratislava)
  • Thursday, August 27, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

In the latest incident amid rising tensions between Slovakia and Hungary, Slovak government officials last weekend banned Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom from visiting a town in southern Slovakia for the unveiling of a statue of a mediaeval Hungarian king.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said the private visit by the Hungarian President would be 'provocation' coming amid the anniversary of the 1968 invasion of former Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led forces, which Hungarian troops took part in. He also accused Solyom of 'stressing Hungarian statehood on sovereign Slovak soil' by accepting the invitation from a local ethnic Hungarian mayor.

Solyom said the Slovak government's reaction to his visit had been one of 'hysteria' and said the ban was 'inexcusable'.

Hungarian politicians have said they will take the matter to the European Union (EU). Experts say the two states, both of which were part of the wave of EU accession in 2004 that saw a number of former Eastern Bloc states join the Union, now have the worst bilateral relations in the EU.

They say the escalation of a complex historical conflict is an example of the power that populist politics holds in the EU's new Eastern European states. 'In the new EU member states populism is still seen as the most powerful political tool,' Tomas Strazay of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) NGO told IPS.

The ban on the Hungarian President is the latest in a number of increasingly bitter confrontations between Hungarian and Slovak politicians, and comes just months after a controversial language law governing the use of minority languages in public was passed by Slovak lawmakers.

Critics said the law was aimed at the Hungarian ethnic minority in Slovakia. Hungarian politicians threatened international legal action.

Almost a tenth of Slovakia's population of 5.4 million is ethnic Hungarian. Many members of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia complain of prejudice at a political level, and among the majority Slovak society.

Tensions have existed between the two states over territory and national identity dating as far back as the end of World War I and, some historians argue, for centuries before that.

When World War I ended the Austro-Hungarian empire was carved up and Hungary lost much of its territory, including parts of what is modern-day Slovakia. At the end of World War II many ethnic Hungarians were forcibly expelled from then Czechoslovakia after Hungary had allied itself to Hitler's Nazi Germany in the war.

Tensions over that and over the status of the ethnic Hungarian minority left in Slovakia were suppressed during the Cold War when both nations had communist regimes in place.

But with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 some politicians on both sides decided to exploit unresolved issues for their own gain, experts argue.

'The problem dates back to pre-war times, even as far back as the 19th century,' Strazay told IPS. 'Because of the Cold War and the countries' communist regimes it was never dealt with, and there has never been time to resolve it.'

Political analysts say Slovak and Hungarian politicians are still using the issue to win votes.

Peter Kerko of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest told IPS: 'In Hungary the opposition Fidesz party, which may get into power at the next election, has made provocative statements on the issue in previous election campaigning.

'In Slovakia PM Robert Fico had two pillars to his voter support - economic growth and growing Slovak national identity. Now the economy is in recession he only has the latter, and is concentrating on that. Since the economic crisis started Hungarian-Slovak relations have got worse.'

They have also pointed to the rise in popularity of extremist political movements in both countries, which has increased tensions.

In Hungary the extremist right-wing Jobbik party recently saw members elected to the European Parliament and some political analysts believe it may win seats in the national parliament at the next elections.

Meanwhile the far right Slovak National Party, Slovakia's most vocally anti- Hungarian party, has 10 percent support among voters, and is part of the ruling government coalition.

The confrontation between both sides has already been noticed in Brussels although officials there have said it is a 'bilateral issue'.

But the conflict will raise questions about new EU member states. 'Hungary and Slovakia may be seen in the West now as problematic new EU member states,' Strazay told IPS.

'This particular problem between Slovakia and Hungary has been politically fuelled,' says Political Capital's Kerko. 'The EU cannot resolve it. It does not have the function or the ability to do so. There are domestic political reasons for it to be continued by politicians.

'In Central and Eastern Europe there has been a rise in nationalistic populism and politicians who play with populist sentiment to manipulate their support. Looking around the region it can be seen that ethnic problems are widespread. If politicians see a need to raise a populist or nationalist issue they will do so.'

Political analysts in the Czech Republic have pointed to politicians there raising the theme of the post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans from what is today the west of the Czech Republic during election campaigns. Some have also pointed to the problems Hungarian President Solyom had during a visit to Romania in March where there are 1.5 million ethnic Hungarians.

He had planned to take part in the celebrations of the Mar. 15 Hungarian national day in the country but Romanian authorities withdrew the landing permit for his plane.

Others have warned that the specific problem between Slovakia and Hungary, and especially the Slovak government's reaction to the Hungarian President's visit, is a dangerous diplomatic game that not only exposes the political immaturity of many regimes in Eastern Europe but which could also easily slip out of control and into ethnic violence.

Czech analyst Jiri Pehe told the Slovak daily Pravda: 'Although the Schengen zone borders are open, Slovakia has closed them once again, and Hungary is likely to do the same. It won't be pleasant. Playing on nationalist strings can very quickly get out of hand and next time there could be violence and then what?'

He added: '[The ban on the President] only increases tensions and escalates animosity between Slovakia and Hungary. It is proof to the rest of Europe that the central and eastern part of the EU is not as politically mature as they thought, and has a lot to learn.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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