According to many people László Sólyom's activities cause at least as much trouble abroad as at home, if not more. The president immediately after his election decided that on Hungarian national holidays he will visit Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. With this decision he killed two birds with one stone: not only does he present himself as the representative of the "whole" nation, but he also doesn't have to celebrate together with the prime minister whom he obviously loathes. These holiday trips are not official visits. He goes to Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and less frequently to Ukraine as a "private person." Of course, there is no such thing in his case as a private person, especially not this year when his original plans included the use of a military airplane!
The Hungarian president has very little political power. The post is more or less ceremonial. When it comes to foreign policy the president, at least on paper, is supposed to go where the government tells him to and his statements once there are severely circumscribed. However, Sólyom is a loose cannon and it seems to me that the Hungarian foreign ministry has absolutely no power over where he goes and what he says. In the end the ministry is left holding the bag.
Hungary's relations with its neighbors have worsened visibly thanks to Sólyom's "diplomatic" activities. It doesn't matter how often the foreign ministry's spokesman repeats, for example, that Romanian-Hungarian relations are just wonderful, it is clear that there are strains in that relationship. The sticking point is territorial autonomy for the Szeklers who reside in a fairly solid bloc in three counties: Harghita (Hargita), Covasna (Kovászna), and parts of Mures (Maros). The Szeklers are Hungarian-speaking people whose ethnic origin is the subject of debate, but they settled in these parts very early as warriors responsible for defending the country from eastern invaders.The call for territorial autonomy for the Szeklers is supported by the Hungarian president and to some extent, although less forcefully, by the Hungarian government. Romania is dead set against any kind of autonomy. The Romanians consider their country a "nation state." Hungarians constitute only 6.6% of the population, but that still translates into a sizable number–1,434,000, according to a recent census. Trajan Basescu who not long ago visited Budapest and paid a visit to the palace of his Hungarian counterpart told the Hungarian president in no uncertain terms that Romania will never agree to Hungarian autonomy in the Szekler inhabited counties.
The Slovaks are also worried about Sólyom's frequent visits because the Slovak government feels a great deal more threatened than the Romanian. While in Romania the three Szekler inhabited counties are in the middle of Transylvania, in Slovakia the Hungarians live in a fairly solid bloc all along the Slovak-Hungarian border. They constitute about 10% of the country's population. The Slovaks simply can't stop worrying about Hungary's intentions or at least about further Hungarian inroads into the southern regions of Slovakia due to the lack of a real traditional border between the two countries. The Slovaks pretty well told Sólyom that he wasn't welcome in Slovakia. Of course, this is not exactly acceptable behavior from a country belonging to the same European Union as her neighbor but, let's face it, the Hungarian president's private visits with an official agenda is not comme il faut either.
This year, as in the last three, Sólyom was planning to spend the national holiday among Hungarians living outside the borders. This time in Serbia. It was going to be an extended visit. Three days visiting Hungarian centers and historical monuments in the area called Voivodina, part of Hungary until 1918. In 1970 Voivodina received wide ranging autonomy within Yugoslavia, not so much because of the Hungarian presence there since Hungarians make up only 14% of the province's population. But in 1990 Voivodina lost its autonomy under the presidency of Slobodan Milosevic. In the last few months the Serbian parliament has been debating the restoration of some kind of special status for the area. It was in the middle of a political fight over the region that Sólyom decided to tour the province. But suddenly, only a few days before his planned departure, the office of the president announced that plans had changed. Instead of spending three days there Sólyom will stay for only a few hours. The suspicion is that Belgrade put pressure on the Hungarian government to shorten the trip given the delicacy of the political situation over the issue of Voivodina. If that is the case, Sólyom seems to have obliged. By itself a miracle. The Hungarian president practically never changes his mind. It was now time for the Hungarian minority leaders in Voivodina to be sore. They announced that if the Hungarian president intends to spend so little time in Voivodina, it is better that he remains in Budapest. They don't accept "alms" from anybody.
So what now? It looked as if for the first time in his presidency Sólyom would have to remain put and celebrate together with the Hungarian government. But the folks in the presidential palace hatched a new plan: he will go to Romania on the 15th right after his official duties in front of the parliament building. He will fly in a military plane to Targu Mures (Marosvásárhely) and from there will go by car to a place known in Hungarian as Nyergestető (in Romanian Piatra Nierges) where he will remember a battle between the Hungarians and the joint forces of Austria and Russia that took place on August 1, 1849. Although the two hundred soldiers were overpowered by the enemy, they refused to surrender and all died there. The office of the president quickly penned an English-language request for permission to land the military plane. The author of the letter didn't know English too well, it seems. He translated the Hungarian word for local government "önkormányzat" as self-government (a mirror translation)–that is, in English means autonomy or self-rule. The Romanian government, citing this mistranslation, refused to grant a landing permit. I may venture to say that this was just an excuse. The Romanians are tired of Sólyom's visits and his constant harping on an autonomy that Romania refuses to grant. In the end Sólyom and his entourage had to travel by car. A sixteen-hour trip, and therefore the date had to be changed as well. He left early in the morning on March 14 and returned the same day. Thus, for the first time since his inauguration he spent the national holiday in Budapest and had to attend the gala performance that included Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech.
It may have been difficult to get there, but once he was in that military cemetery he again said a few inappropriate words. Let me quote: "People used say that Hungarians celebrate their defeats. This is not so: what we are celebrating here is that there are situations when we can no longer retreat. There are times when we have to put our backs against a rock or a pine tree and turn against our enemies." What can I say after that? Not much.