Slovak-Hungarian summit: An auspicious beginning

Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister, didn't heed the advice of the mayor of Balassagyarmat. His convoy went through the town without stopping to have an ice cream cone. Instead he spent an hour, instead of 15 minutes as planned, with Gordon Bajnai, the Hungarian prime minister. In addition another hour was spent in discussions between the two delegations that included the two countries' foreign ministers. All in all, I consider the outcome a success especially if one considers that Fico had allegedly claimed earlier that he was unwilling to talk about either the language law or Sólyom's visit to Komárno. On the other side, the Hungarian government insisted on talking about all outstanding issues, but both the foreign minister and the prime minister were very optimistic about the meeting itself. Gordon Bajnai took the first step toward establishing a suitable atmosphere by publishing an article in both Hungarian and Slovak in the Slovak press that was designed to show a willingness to compromise. Of course, the Slovak far right wasn't satisfied and demanded an apology from Bajnai because he labelled Ján Slota an extremist whose anti-Hungarian utterances are inflammatory. One ought to note that although Slota himself has no position in Fico's government, his party is in coalition with Fico's party, Smer (Direction).

I don't know what the expectations were in Slovakia concerning the meeting, but in Hungary they were low. My impression was that the Hungarian media commentators were almost certain that Fico would not move an inch and therefore the summit would be a failure. I thought otherwise and it seems that I was right. The summit achieved as much as was possible under the circumstances. Fico went as far as he could and showed a willingness to cooperate with his Hungarian counterpart in the future in order to establish better relations between their countries. Fico didn't apologize for Slovakia's treatment of László Sólyom, but he "expressed regret concerning the circumstances" of the visit. This in the language of diplomacy is very close to an apology. At the same time experts on both sides will work out arrangements for such visits in the future. This to me means that the Hungarian foreign ministry will not just announce Sólyom's possible visits but will work together with the Slovak foreign ministry on the details.

The two men agreed to meet again, perhaps in Komárno where the two of them would unveil the statue of Cyrill and Methodius that is currently perched on one of the balconies of the headquarters of Matica Slovenská in the city. A very nice gesture. As far as the language law is concerned a wise decision was reached. Both parties will wait for the decision of the commissioner in charge of minority affairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. They agreed to take every measure to curb nationalistic or chauvinistic propaganda; they promised to fight xenophobia, intolerance, offensive language, and discrimination. Both governments will do everything in their power to stop the spread of extremism, especially as far as paramilitary organizations are concerned. In fact, they are contemplating the organization of a joint police force for that purpose. The parties agreed to set up a Hungarian-Slovak Council of Cooperation, an independent body responsible for working out closer cooperation between the two countries. This Council will have a fund that can be tapped for scholarships and exchange programs and will give assistance to joint cultural, artistic, and sports programs. The two foreign ministers will put together a joint plan for the implementation of this new closer cooperation within two months. The "package" will include a common energy policy, development of roads and railways connecting the two countries, and new bridges across the Danube and the Ipoly (Ipe'l') rivers. It will also develop plans to lessen unemployment on both sides of the border, to continue common historical research, to publish common history textbooks, and finally to cooperate on Roma integration in both countries. All in all, I'm amazed how much was accomplished. If the two sides actually stick with these plans, a very close relationship could develop between Slovakia and Hungary, two countries that after all lived within one state for almost a thousand years. In fact, in attitude and thinking they are very much alike.

I might be satisfied but the Hungarian opposition parties certainly are not. Orbán first and foremost is disssatisfied that the two countries turned to OSCE instead of sitting down and trying to work out the language question by themselves. According to him, it will be a lengthy legal procedure which cannot replace "a forceful Hungarian answer based on national interests." Orbán, who happened to be in Brussels at a meeting of the leadership of the European People's Party, told journalists that "the European Union is not a kindergarten teacher to whom we can run if one of our playmates pulled a fast one on us." He added that "Hungary appears to be such a weak country to those from the outside that anyone can do anything to her at any time." As for the outcome of the summit, he expects absolutely nothing. "On the one side there is the leader of a country that doesn't give a damn about European norms and laws while on the other there is a prime minister who holds the office temporarily and without any authority, who most likely will be nowhere within a few months…. This government which everybody knows will soon disappear cannot really represent the country at international negotiations."

Fidesz's foreign policy expert, Zsolt Németh, had no better opinion of the summit after he heard the results. "Fico mopped up the floor with Bajnai," claimed Németh. He is especially indignant that Fico didn't apologize for "barring" Sólyom from Slovakia. Another sore point is that Hungary didn't demand the revision of the Slovak language law in exchange for Slovak-Hungarian cooperation. SZDSZ's "foreign policy cabinet" was also dissatisfied. Of course, Attila Retkes's new SZDSZ is a party only in name and therefore its foreign policy cabinet is also a joke. István Szent-Iványi, the chief of this so-called cabinet, came up with the brilliant idea of a "round-table discussion." Slovak and Hungarian scientists, artists, and people who influence public opinion on both sides of the border should get together and work out suggestions. And? What would happen after these intellectuals discussed all these burning questions? What an idea!

The Christian Democrats who actually comprise the right wing of Fidesz claimed that the meeting was degrading to Hungary. The final communiqué sounds as if Hungary barred the Slovak president from Hungary and Hungary passed a language law and not the other way around. The spokesman of the Christian Democrats went farther than Németh: they want to repeal the language law in its entirety. According to MDF the summit was unsuccessful because the joint communiqué doesn't say anything about the source of the present strained relations–the Slovak side. MDF also wants to repeal the language law.

And László Sólyom? He is still thinking! The foreign minister will inform him of the situation and it will be only after their meeting that he will form an opinion. What do you think that will be? I have an idea, though perhaps the foreign minister will be more forceful than in the past and succeed in muzzling  him a bit.

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M.J.
Guest

Well, if you are amazed by what has been reached, I’ll be amazed if anything of what has been reached (once again) is going to be implemented.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the Hungarian side – no matter who is in charge – over the years, specialized in delaying tactiques so as not to have to implement this kind of agreements.
Alas Orban is right: anything Bajnai signs is worth just the paper on which he signs.
Cheers

Psz
Guest

To someone who knows the Highlands as well as I do this whole ballyhoo just rings incredibly false. My father’s family comes from what is now Slovakia and we still have relatives there that we are in touch with and visit every so often and I can honestly tell you that I have never ever experienced any conflict between Hungarians and Slovaks there whatsoever. In fact I usually can’t even tell who is Hungarian and who is Slovak because everyone speaks both languages with native fluency. Highlanders are more bilingual than the English and French in Quebec and they are *very bilingual. They intermarry. Most people don’t even know if they are Hungarian or Slovak any more, probably because they are both. Fortunately, there are still media such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that cares for the truth http://tr.im/ypvu more than for joining the bandwagon that created this bogus issue out of whole cloth in the first place for some reason.

M.J.
Guest

Psz, what I especially like about the Neue Zürcher Zeitung article is that they are writing about Slovaks who speak Slovak, and Slovaks who speak Hungarian. That’s a really foreign perspective from both a Slovak and Hungarian point of view. That’s something that apparently even you don’t understand, considering your comment: “In fact I usually can’t even tell who is Hungarian and who is Slovak because everyone speaks both languages with native fluency. Highlanders are more bilingual than the English and French in Quebec and they are *very bilingual. They intermarry. Most people don’t even know if they are Hungarian or Slovak any more, probably because they are both.” Think about it, and think about the use you’re making of the words “Highlands” and “Highlanders”.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

PSz: “To someone who knows the Highlands as well as I do this whole ballyhoo just rings incredibly false.”
The problem with some Hungarians including you that you talk about Slovakia as still part of Hungary. “Highlands” it was when it belonged to Hungary but for the last 90 years it hasn’t. Therefore I suggest that you change your usage because it is unacceptable to the Slovaks and the Slovak government and not without reason.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “It’s an unfortunate fact that the Hungarian side – no matter who is in charge – over the years, specialized in delaying tactiques so as not to have to implement this kind of agreements.”
And do you know what the Hungarians say? Exactly the same. The Slovaks promise all sorts of things and nothing happens. Is there a way out of this impasse?

M.J.
Guest
Well, one thing is what people might say, and another are facts. I think we have reached a point when even the usually moderate Slovaks say: enough is enough, you guys ought to put some order in your heads! Enough lies. So if it’s an impass, it’s one for Hungarians. Take the language law for example. Fico says: Stop lying all around the place. OSCE confirmed that the law pursues a legitimate aim, respects all international commitments of the SK republic, and points out that implementation needs to be done with “doigté”. Well let us implement it, and let’s meet in a year from now to see how it goes. Bajnai says: OK guys, that we lie is only your subjective opinion. But if you want us to be happy, change the law on use of minority languages, and prepare a complex law for the statute of minorities, as suggested by the OSCE. Let me tell you, as long as the vast majority of the Hungarian public does not understand, that those times, when Hungarian polititians used to set these kind of conditions, and consider this to be a political dialogue from equal to equal, are long gone, Hungary will… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “Well, one thing is what people might say, and another are facts. I think we have reached a point when even the usually moderate Slovaks say: enough is enough, you guys ought to put some order in your heads!”
I have been away for so long from Hungary that I’m able to keep a distance from the Hungarian point of view and look at the situation somewhat from the outside. What I see is that neither side trusts the other. The Hungarians are certain that the Slovak government is dishonest and the Slovaks think the same about the Hungarians. This way there is indeed no hope. It would be time to trust each other a bit more. I just heard a young “Slovak expert” on Nap-kelte, an early morning political program on MTV, who seems to be quite normal. If you’re interested I can give you the link.

M.J.
Guest
“It would be time to trust each other a bit more.” Never go into politics 😉 They would eat you alive. By the way, do ever Hungarians ask themselves how come that they don’t have “normal” relationships with almost any of their neighbour? Do we get any other answer except for the standard one: because these bastards did us wrong in 1918, and it’s never be OK until “mindent vissza”? Or x, or y, or z? A day before the Fico-Bajnai meeting, SK FM Lajcak was very outspoken in an interview by CZ state radio. It’s a pity it isn’t translated in Hungarian. But one should try to take distance, and really listen. That’s not a Slota guy. That’s the new generation. Sure, send on the “Slovak expert”. I can assure you the vast majority of young “Slovak experts” are perfectly normal. What’s new is that they get to be heard on Hungarian TV. A good thing. Next step might be a few movies and books, so that one can at least guess, that even Slovaks could have something like culture, and history, and dignity… But back to the “trust” question. Here again, there are emotions: Slota as coalition partner… Read more »
Psz
Guest

MJ: “think about the use you’re making of the words Highlands and Highlanders” Éva: “I suggest that you change your usage” Wow! Are you guys from the language police or the thought police or do you suddenly think that nationalism is a good thing? MJ: “Slovaks who speak Slovak, and Slovaks who speak Hungarian” Which is a little shortsighted since both ethnic groups speak both languages equally well, as I wrote earlier, with native fluency. Wouldn’t it be much more accurate and 21st century to speak of *Slovak-Europeans* and *Hungarian-Europeans* who are both entitled to their own culture? Which was the promise of the EU in the first place and if it isn’t kept then what’s the point of our membership in the EU?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

PSz: “MJ: “think about the use you’re making of the words Highlands and Highlanders” Éva: “I suggest that you change your usage” Wow! Are you guys from the language police or the thought police or do you suddenly think that nationalism is a good thing?”
Well, if you want to show yourself to the world as a nationalist bigot who is bent on inflaming relations between Hungary and the neighboring countries, go ahead. But, put it that way, most intelligent people will have a low opinion of you and your so-called values. As far as your opinion of gays is concerned it goes with the territory where you stand politically in general.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

For anyone who would like to see the Fico-Bajnai press conference (about one hour) can see it here:
http://index.hu/video/2009/09/10/bajnai_es_fico_sajtotajekoztatoja/

isti
Guest

“…(Orban) launching referendum on double nationality…”
I would like to correct you here. Orban did not launch into anything of the sort. The referendum was instigated by the Magyarok Vilagszovetsege after a collection of signatures. Hungarian political parties were faced with a decision to support it or not. It was merely a symbolic gesture which I believe could have had a positive upside; its failure was much more detrimental than many people realize.

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