Yesterday I expressed my desire to write about Knut Vollabaek's peace mission to Budapest and Bratislava and mentioned that I would like to wait a day or two until I see a bit more clearly. Although I read the reports very quickly, I noticed certain contradictions between the information given at the two press conferences. I thought that I should sit down and think about them a bit and perhaps I would be able to reconcile the texts.
It's a good thing that I wasn't in a hurry because what happened today would have been beyond my power of imagination yesterday. Péter Balázs, the Hungarian foreign minister, gave a fairly lengthy interview to the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung, published in Munich, about the Slovak-Hungarian controversy over the Slovak language law and László Sólyom's aborted visit to the Slovak town of Komárno on the left bank of the Danube, right across from the Hungarian Komárom. It was a most unfortunate interview, and the Slovak reaction was immediate and violent. The Hungarian ambassador was hauled into the Slovak ministry of foreign affairs where the Slovak foreign minister gave him a piece of his mind.
Why did Balázs feel compelled in the middle of delicate negotiations to give this interview? A funny story came to mind. A few months ago the head of the Hungarian National Bank gave one interview after the other in the middle of one of the greatest financial crises in the last seventy years. And he said some rather unfortunate things that affected the stock market as well as the exchange rate. I heard an interview with the chief analyst of one of the large Hungarian banks in which the reporter asked the banker why the head of the central bank was granting these interviews. The answer was a laconic "because they ask him." It seems to me that these guys have an irrepressible urge to talk. To be in the limelight. Their vanity is fanned. How wonderful, an important German paper wants to publish an interview. So he speaks at a very delicate moment and says stupid things.
So, let's see what Balázs had to say. He first tried to make a distinction between "national" and "nationalist." "National" politics must defend the rights and interests of the nation, while "nationalist" policy violates them. I think that this is a step forward in language usage because for years I had protracted discussions about the meaning of "nationalism." My opponents, mostly living in Hungary, wouldn't acknowledge that the word "nationalism" has a negative connotation. In vain did I quote Webster's definition: "sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations"; they argued that nationalism is OK. It is only chauvinism that is bad. Well, it seems that as language is evolving some words are acquiring a more refined meaning. "For us, Hungary is the mother and that means that it is also the mother for the Hungarian minorities living abroad." He recalled that the Hungarian Constitution specifically obliges the Hungarian government "to defend, to improve their lot." Indeed, this is what I found in the Hungarian Constitution: "The Republic of Hungary bears a sense of responsibility for what happens to Hungarians living outside of its borders and promotes the fostering of their relations with Hungary."
Balázs got onto really slippery ground when he talked about Hungary as "Slovakia's older brother and as an older brother we must teach the younger one European manners." He went even further when he emphasized that "today's minority was yesterday's majority" by way of explanation that once upon a time Slovakia was part of Hungary. He proposed his theory that the Slovak language law might be the product of "revenge for the sins of our ancestors who in the nineteenth century tried to Magyarize the local Slovak population." He added that "we are paying for that now." As for the Slovak language law it reminded Balázs of Romania under Ceauşescu. He further elaborated on the theme by saying that the law that is supposed to defend the language of the majority means limiting the rights of the minorities. A situation that occurred in the Baltic states with Russian minority rights. And finally he said: "I can understand the Slovaks. At last they have an independent state and with this independence they have a defined territory which is their own. Then comes the Schengen Agreement that takes away these nice new borders. The poor Slovaks dressed in uniform are unable to hoist their flag at the borders."
I don't know what got into Balázs but it seems to me that he managed to ruin all the accomplishments of the Fico-Bajnai agreement. I'm not at all surprised that the Slovaks are outraged. Miroslav Lajčák, the Slovak foreign minister, was "personally disappointed because of the statements of the Hungarian foreign minister." He especially objected to the comparison between Ceauşescu's Romania and today's Slovakia. The "little brother" who has to be taught European manners didn't go over too well either. Lajčák simply couldn't understand the meaning of all this, especially after the agreement in Szécsény. To tell the truth, I don't understand either. I just received an e-mail from an old internet friend from Hungary. His opinion: Péter Balázs should be sacked. I was just thinking the same.