Hungary and Slovakia: Perhaps there is hope

Mátyás Eörsi, SZDSZ member of parliament and chairman of the parliamentary Committee on European Affairs, described the situation in fairly dire terms: "we are sitting on a tinderbox." I don't think that he is too far from the truth. A few days ago someone threw two Molotov cocktails at the main entrance of the Slovak Embassy. Luckily they didn't explode and the damage was minimal. Two men have been arrested and are now being questioned. A day later the Slovak ambassador's car was forced off the road by two men on Bem Square and he was insulted on account of his nationality. The two men were arrested a few minutes later. At the moment the police want to find out whether these two men had anything to do with the attack on the Slovak embassy and whether they were aware that the man riding in the car was the ambassador. I think this latter line of questioning is superfluous. Surely the ambassador's car had a diplomatic license plate, and therefore they must have known that they were accosting an embassy vehicle.

Meanwhile there now seems to be a unified front on the right concerning the Slovak-Hungarian conflict. MDF, normally a critic of Sólyom and a deadly enemy of Viktor Orbán and of course of Jobbik, now seems to be standing together with them on this issue. And not only the right is up in arms but the socialist politicians as well who otherwise can't stand László Sólyom. MSZP issues rather antagonistic notes on the party's web site expressing their outrage at the treatment Sólyom received. Even Eörsi failed to acknowledge that the Slovak response, admittedly outrageous, had been provoked by László Sólyom's so-called "private visits" to the neighboring countries with large Hungarian minorities.

Let's start with a discussion of "private" visits. Sólyom may call them that, but they are anything but. A politician or a member of the government can certainly make private visits to foreign countries as Péter Medgyessy did to Cuba or as Ferenc Gyurcsány and his family did to the Netherlands, Germany, and Ireland. But Medgyessy and Gyurcsány were not unveiling statues. Medgyessy was sunbathing at Christmas time while the Gyurcsány family traveled with a rented boat, criss-crossing the countries they visited. If Sólyom as a great lover of nature decided to go mountain climbing in Slovakia and eat hearty lunches in country inns no one would object, I'm sure. What they object to are these unreciprocated official visits. State visits are mutually agreed upon. The foreign ministries of the two countries months ahead work out the details. The visiting prime minister or president usually lands at the airport of the country's capital where a delegation awaits him, headed by his foreign counterpart. Surely, this was not the case with Sólyom's trips either to Slovakia or to Romania.

Now comes the interesting twist to the story. Until very recently I was convinced that Hungary's president is subordinate to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry when it comes to official visits abroad. Constitutionally the Hungarian presidency is weak. Most of the president's very limited powers are restricted to domestic affairs and, although according to the constitution he is head of the armed forces, that role is mostly ceremonial. So great was my surprise when on Monday I heard an interview with Foreign Minister Péter Balázs who made clear something almost no one knew, including the very well informed reporter–that Sólyom singlehandedly decides where he goes and when. Honestly, I had to listen to the interview twice because I wasn't sure I heard it right the first time. Unfortunately I did. Try to imagine a Foreign Ministry that is totally in the dark about a trip the president is going to make. What he is going to do once there and what he is going to say! I'm simply outraged. In my opinion no coherent foreign policy can be conducted under such circumstances.

It seems that Sólyom and his staff decide on the details of a "private" state visit while the Foreign Ministry is contacted only in order to officially announce his impending visit. Hungary's foreign minister is no more than a messenger and his colleagues in Bratislava or in Bucharest simply receive the news of his coming. That is an impossible situation and no diplomat worth his salt could put up with it for long. And here I'm not only talking about the receiving end. It is simply demeaning for the Hungarian foreign minister as well as for the country who has to suffer this kind of treatment. That this has been going on for so long indicates that the Hungarian governments have been unable to tell Sólyom off. Because someone should tell him that the Hungarian Constitution says not a word about the president conducting foreign policy. And with his visits this is exactly what he is doing. Just this year there have been two diplomatic upheavals: on March 15 with Romania and on August 21 with Slovakia. He's a bull in the china closet and the broken pieces must be somehow picked up by the Hungarian Foreign Minister and through him the Hungarian government.

I'm not trying to defend how Robert Fico handled the situation because it was boorish, something that is not acceptable in the world of diplomacy. But it seems that Sólyom simply didn't want to listen to earlier warnings. He and his staff are so convinced of the justice of their cause that not for a moment did they consider that perhaps it is not entirely the fault of the Slovak side. That perhaps they behaved in an arrogant, undiplomatic manner. Ferenc Kumin, chief somebody or other of the Office of the President, Thursday night announced that the president demands "redress" from the Slovak president and/or prime minister. Redress? Sólyom demands an apology? The next day Ivan Gašparovič made it clear that he is not apologizing for what happened. The European Union announced that it will not get involved. The warring sides must settle their differences.

Gordon Bajnai made the first move by inviting Robert Fico to a meeting. Fico immediately agreed, adding that he was ready to meet the Hungarian prime minister at any time anywhere. Newspapers seemed to know that he might be coming to Budapest, but no final decision had been reached yet. Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak foreign minister, and Péter Balázs, his Hungarian counterpart, both attending the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia this weekend, are supposed to work out the details and perhaps by tomorrow we will know more. For the time being it seems that Fico is not in the mood to compromise either on the question of the Slovak language law or on the Solyóm affair. Let's hope that this attitude will change because if neither prime minister is willing to move an inch it's not worth getting together. I'm hoping that the two men will be able to come up with some solution. I know that Gordon Bajnai is a persuasive negotiator and a man of compromise. Let's hope that Robert Fico will reciprocate. Otherwise, both countries could make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the world. As András Gerő, a very witty Hungarian historian, said, if Slovakia and Hungary don't change attitudes they will be compared to the Grand Duchy Pontevedro in The Merry Widow. He added: "After all, Franz Lehár was born in Komárom!"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
promontor
Guest
About the Sólyom vs. Foreign Ministry issue: It may be arguable, whether it is wise having two centres of foreign policy in a country. Probably not. But if there are two (and apparently this is the case in Hungary now), then it still depends on the people running the show from both sides to talk to each other and work together so that the foreign policy gets harmonized. Looking back at the Sólyom visit, I do not think that only Sólyom can be blamed for the mistakes of our foreign policy: I am pretty sure that the foreign ministry was informed about the president’s program well ahead of time. They had the opportunity to warn the president about some of the potential problems related to the visit (the dates, the sensitive position of the local government of Komárom has in Slovakian politics and so on). Apparently they did not do that. Therefore I think they have their share of responsibility for what happened. Also, complaining about the president afterwards is neither elegant nor wise. Concerning the Fico-Bajnai meeting, I am rather pessimistic. For Fico, the fact of the meeting is all he wants, as that is enough for him to… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest
József Bíró: “Looking back at the Sólyom visit, I do not think that only Sólyom can be blamed for the mistakes of our foreign policy: I am pretty sure that the foreign ministry was informed about the president’s program well ahead of time.” As you may gather, I’m less charitable. Let’s look at the chronology. It was at the beginning of June that Sólyom told Peter Weiss, the new ambassador, that he is going to Komárno. It was a casual mention of it at the time Weiss handed him his credentials. It was only on August 13th that Sólyom’s staff informed(!) the Foreign Ministry. It wasn’t “well ahead of time.” One thing is sure the Foreign Ministry is also to be blamed. They didn’t have the guts to tell Sólyom off. They didn’t tell him that he simply cannot go because the Slovak-Hungarian relations are such that it is not advisable. More than that, they should have told him a long time ago that the government is responsible for foreign policy and he is constitutionally not permitted to make “state visits” on his own. They didn’t have the guts to do it and now they are paying the price. The… Read more »
promontor
Guest

Dear Eva,
“… Let’s look at the chronology. It was at the beginning of June that Sólyom told Peter Weiss, the new ambassador, that he is going to Komárno. It was a casual mention of it at the time Weiss handed him his credentials. It was only on August 13th that Sólyom’s staff informed(!) the Foreign Ministry. It wasn’t “well ahead of time.””
Hm, is this chronology confirmed somewhere? The meeting with the Slovak ambassador is quoted widely by the Hungarian press, but the second (Sólyom telling about the Hungarian foreign ministry only on 13 August) I could not find. Perhaps in the interview with our minister, you mention in the post? Can you provide a reference to it?
BTW, there was a mention of the Sólyom visit on a Slovakian website on 12 August (http://www.bumm.sk/32289/solyom-laszlo-szonoklataval-leplezik-le-a-komaromi-szent-istvan-szobrot.html). It seems quite unlikely to me that while informing both the Slovak ambassador (the press even mentions a second meeting with him, on which the ambassador confirmed the unavailability of Gasparovic on 21 August) and all kinds of officials in Komarno, he does not inform the foreign ministry about his plans…
BR promontor

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Promontor: “Hm, is this chronology confirmed somewhere? The meeting with the Slovak ambassador is quoted widely by the Hungarian press, but the second (Sólyom telling about the Hungarian foreign ministry only on 13 August) I could not find. Perhaps in the interview with our minister, you mention in the post? Can you provide a reference to it?”
Certainly:
http://napkelte.wildom.hu/naptv/naptv.visszanezo.page?nap=20090824
However, it is very possible that I heard the date in some other interview with Ferenc Kumin, for example. I have excellent memory in general and for dates especially.
As far as the bumm.sk’s article of August 12 is concerned, I read it and it is clear as anything that the information is not coming from Sólyom’s office but from the city council of Komárno. Look at all the references. Of course, the city council knew every bit of detail because as the mayor of Komárno told in KlubRadio the other day: they were in constant touch with Sólyom for some time. Ever since the idea of erecting a statue of St. Stephen came up. Sólyom actually contributed money for the statue. A former colleague of mine once wrote a book called: The Historian as Detective. I have a bit of the detective in me.

Phillip
Guest

Dear Eva,
I work for a company that syndicates blog content for professional audiences. I tried to find an email address for you but I could not see one. I hope it’s OK to leave this comment instead, please delete if it is not. My email address is in the comment form, please contact me if you would like to know more about syndication.
Kind regards,
Phil

promontor
Guest
Dear Eva, Thanks for the link. However, I just finished watching the interview and it does not confirm your statement. Balázs – although he expresses some criticism along the same general line as you do – does not mention any exact dates when he or his ministry was informed about Sólyom’s plans. I think the normal way of “doing business” is that Sólyom must inform the Foreign Ministry about his plans well ahead of time and must even consult them, whether they agree or not. (Whether he has a legal obligation to obey, I do not know, I leave that question to law experts. Politically I think he should come to an agreement with the ministry about his plans.) Informing the ministry only a week before, when almost everything is organised and even the Slovaks know about the visit for months is a huge mistake/misbehaviour. Therefore, using the principle of “presumption of innocence” I think that he should be “accused” with such a misbehaviour only if there is some proof for that. To my knoledge, there is none, and I cannot recall any statement (not even by Ferenc Kumin) saying so, although I was also trying to follow the news… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Promontor: “(BTW, as far as I remember, the 13 August date was mentioned by Fico as the date when HIS foreign ministry was informed about the visit:”
As I said I wasn’t quite sure. I surely didn’t get it from bumm.sk. Perhaps I heard it in an interview with Peter Weiss also in Nap-kelte. Worth listening to that one too, although a bit difficult to follow. Weiss has a heavy accent in English and Betlen who used to work as a simultaneous interpreter was translating so fast that the English was often covered by the Hungarian text. Real Babel it was.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Phillip: “My email address is in the comment form, please contact me if you would like to know more about syndication.”
I tried to write to you but the e-mail address you gave is wrong. I can’t send my address.

Andras
Guest

This is a very important gesture on behalf of the Prime Minister:
http://index.hu/kulfold/2009/09/07/bajnai_hidakat_epitene_a_magyar-szlovak_hataron/
It is the common responsibility of politicians in both countries to try to defuse the ticking bomb of nationalism.

Phillip
Guest

Hi Eva,
I wanted to follow-up. I thought I’d left a second comment with my corrected email address but I don’t see it here. Anyway, I have included the correct address in the comment form below. If you think you might be interested in syndication, please let me know.
Kind regards,
Phillip

wpDiscuz