Tension Renewed: Slovakia and Hungary

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.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
ovidiu
Guest

“Slovakia’s older brother and as an older brother we must teach the younger one European manners.”
he he…bravos Balazs ! “Civitas Fortissima” as the citizens of Balassagyarmat would have it.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ovidiu: “”Slovakia’s older brother and as an older brother we must teach the younger one European manners.” he he…bravos Balazs ! “Civitas Fortissima” as the citizens of Balassagyarmat would have it.”
I must say, I’m horrified. This man is not fit to be foreign minister.

Mark
Guest

“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.”
His reaction is not very surprising.
There are really two problems here. One is the one that has been remaked on, that Balázs appears to be a graduate of the Ferenc Gyurcsány school of political communication (how to ruin things by saying the most stupid thing possible in close proximity to microphones or journalists).
The more serious one is that this reveals in an apparently left-of-centre, non-nationalist politician (and diplomat) to boot, a condescending, if not contemptuous attitude to Hungary’s northern neighbour. There is a wider problem here as this attitude seems to pervade media and broader public discussions of Hungarian-Slovak relations (and it has pervaded discussion of relations with other neighbouring countries in the past too) in Hungary. Relations between states have to be based on mutual respect, and developing this will entail a sea change in attitudes within Hungary to some of the countries around it.

whoever
Guest

This illustrates that the Hungarian politicians clustered around the MSZP are not generally left-of-centre. They are typically opportunists and will say anything to please different audiences. Expect more of this kind of thing in the future, but what’s most amusing in this case is a fantastic lack of self-awareness. Older brother? Must be a somewhat dysfunctional family.

promontor
Guest

Two quick remarks:
1) Well, in light of these statements, it seems a badly timed criticism that he condemns Sólyom about his earlier plan to visit Komárom, as an act “not helping” the relationship between the two countries. I wonder which of the two acts did more to “not help”…
2) In fact, these statements are so arrogant and undiplomatic, so uncharacteristic of his usual statements, that I was originally wondering whether he really said them. However, Süddeutsche Zeitung is quite a respectable paper and the fact that Balázs keeps now silent indicates to me that the text is authentic.
Quite bad…

M.J.
Guest
Full version of SK FM reaction: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic summoned the ambassador of Hungary in Slovakia on Thursday afternoon in order to express resentment of the Slovak Republic and personal disappointment of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák over the remarks of the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Balázs in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers the statements of Minister Balázs in today’s edition of the newspapers (describing Slovakia as a younger brother who needs to be taught about European manners and linking Slovakia with the regime of the former Romanian dictator Ceausescu) unacceptable. The motives for such remarks of Minister Balázs are inconceivable especially as they follow after the meeting of the Slovak and Hungarian prime ministers last week in Szécsény, where a joint plan was adopted to calm down and rationalise mutual relations, as well as after the visit of the OSCE High Commissioner on national minorities Knut Vollebaek in Budapest and Bratislava, where both sides accepted the recommendations of the Commissioner. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic considers it inappropriate that representatives of Hungary lecture partners and allies in the European… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
I suppose – although it is not an absolution – that Balázs is a professional diplomat, whose knowledge of history and nationalism is rather superficial. Even though it is not inconceivable and not a rare phenomenon, it has its consequences as we can see. The highlighted statements are unfortunately quite typical, beginning with the idea that Slovak’s has a young state and it makes their fervor understandable but they have to get more mature in order to domesticate their nationalism into something marked by the Foreign Minister as national, to badly chosen comparisons and analogies, like Ceausescu’s Romania. Even the parts seemingly acknowledging some historical mistakes (like “magyarization” politics in the dualist period) became this way signs of superiority. (We have faced our faults, we are fully aware of them, Slovaks not yet.) The real problem is not the widespread use of this kind of rethoric and ideas, but that it is simply false. Nation as a category of politics and social mobilization (either as a point of reference for self-perception or as an ideology legitimizing calls for unity and acting according to a prescribed way) inherently conflictual and denies other nations’ “rights”. Balázs’s distinction – that is only a… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

I looked at the Süddeutsche Zeitung yesterday but it was not available on line. Or at least I couldn’t find it when I was looking for Balázs or Ungarn.

Gábor
Guest

The same as my experience…

M.J.
Guest

Suddeutsche Zeitung only publishes a part of its materials online. You need to get the paper.

Gábor
Guest

Well, it was not the hardest logical challange of my life to figure out this…;)

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gabor: “I suppose – although it is not an absolution – that Balázs is a professional diplomat, whose knowledge of history and nationalism is rather superficial.”
Gabor, don’t you think that especially for a diplomat it is important to know something about history?

Gábor
Guest

I don’t think my opinion matters. Look at diplomats, researchers, experts and their texts (suprisingly often black-and-white and groupist in Brubakers’ sense) and you will see that they actually think they know about history. They are only not aware of the fact that their IR-based perspective is rather superficial and tells nothing about societies composed by individuals. (I do not want to divert the discussion from the topic, but for example todays compilation in Népszabadság on the Eastern Europeans not being too positive towrads Obama because they feel the US is neglecting these countries is an excellent example of this perspective. With a Brzezinski interview.) And therefore not enough to understand such situations as the Slovak-Hungarian in its complexity.

Gábor
Guest

But I forgot to answer: yes, I would have a more relaxed sleep with diplomats knowing more about history.

szabad ember
Guest

This subject fascinates me, since it almost seems like Hungarian politicians have never heard the dictum, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. I think maybe more than being condescending, Balázs was being honest, which can sometimes be refreshing, but often just gets people angry. It seems to me that the real problem here is the Slovak nationalists (I use that word in the pejorative) more than any opportunist MSzP politicians who will soon be missed for their relative moderation. Of course, that real problem can’t be talked about so openly, so any foreign minister who does so is just making things worse and should be sacked. The references to Magyarization and Ceausescu were inflammatory but not invalid, if my understanding of history is accurate.
If he really wanted to be honest, he should have made references to Kosovo and Belgium, two examples of places where language is pushing people apart, and the government has done little to keep those people together.

GB
Guest

To be absolutely cynical, can it be that the intention of the Balázs interview was to rob the right-wing parties of their claim to defending nationalism. This would be an ethically disappointing move for MSzP, but a politically smart one, in that, if all parties are tied in the nationalism race to the bottom, then all that is left to distinguish them is policy, and only MSzP has, in its program, even the most slender suggestion of actual policy.

ovidiu
Guest
@can it be that the intention of the Balázs interview was to rob the right-wing parties of their claim to defending nationalism. Right, that’s exactly how politics is done everywhere. The closest example was the launching of “operation cast-lead” in Gaza in december 2008 of the then Israeli PM Ehud Olmert. He was hated and his center-left Kadima party was catastrophically low in the polls with the elections 2 months away. The right Likud (Netanyahu) and the ultra-nationalist-religious hardliner YB were poised to win big time. But after the “Cast-Lead” (and the nationalistic-patriotic credentials proved) teh Kadima-party bounced back tremendously and it actually won(!) the Feb. 2009 elections (thus it was close to forming the Govt, it failed to a coaltion of the right and the religious-fanatics). The same may happen in Hungary. MSzP may engineer a nationalistic-crisis (say pick a war of words with Serbia, or EU or whatever) so as to restore through deeds his nationalist credentials and even end up first on the election list…only to to fail outplayed by a Fidesz-Jobbik gov. coalition. That’s how politics is actually done, so you are right on target. They must do something to reverse their fortune, passivity means certain… Read more »
Gábor
Guest

1. It is quite probable that a similarly or even more important factor behind Kadima’s win was their replacement of Olmert with Tzipi Livni.
2. MSZP never had nationalist credentials and therefore there is nothing to restore. Moreover, to build up something similar they would need a concerted effort, an offensive and not an interview in a German newspaper read only by some hundred people in Hungarian. It is nothing else than stupidity of an otherwise not so stupid diplomat.

Mark
Guest

Szabad Ember: “It seems to me that the real problem here is the Slovak nationalists”
Surely the problem at its heart is a bit more fundamental – that there are large numbers of people who identify themselves as Hungarians living in Slovakia, who do not wish to live in a unitary and monoligual Slovak state. And surely the solution is a political settlement between Hungary and Slovakia, and between Slovaks and Hungarians within Slovakia similar to that between Austria and Italy over the Trentino-South Tyrol. The problem is that kind of settlement is made more difficult by (1) the prevalence of irredentist sentiment in Hungary on the political right (and among some others), and (2) the fact that such a political settlement which would involve territorial and linguistic autonomy for those areas populated by substantial numbers of Hungarians would challenge the notion of a unitary Slovak state. If one takes this analysis a stage further then the problem becomes the nationalists on both sides.

Grace
Guest
As someone of Hungarian ancestry and having been over there, finding that I have relatives on two sides of the border, some in Hungary, others in Slovakia, and as I speak Hungarian I try to keep abreast of what’s going on and I receive regular e-mails from relatives. The issue here is definitely resentment. There was no Slovak nation back when the Hungarian tribes arrived, the Slovaks became part of greater Hungary for 900 years but Hungary couldn’t have been that bad to them, as they maintained their language and culture. Not bad after 900 years. Then Europe, to punish Hungary dismembered it and screwed up central Europe. Now the EU and Slovak nationalists broke off from Czechoslovakia only to now become part of Europe, no more borders. However, until the EU becomes like Canada or the USA, in the fact that you are European first, or until the EU decides on one national language for the EU countries, these problems are going to exist. Do Hungarians in the countries neighboring present day Hungary have the right to their language and culture? YES they do. If Slovakia is not happy and wants to try to assimilate the Hungarian minority, the… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Grace: “Do the Hungarians have the right to live together? The DDR and W. Germany reuninted, but is what’s ok for them is not ok for Hungary?” The account you present is so full of nationalist mythology, partial opinion dressed up as fact, and outright error, that it is difficult to know where to begin in responding to it. But, the comparison you make with Germany I think shows what is basically wrong with your approach. The re-unified Germany of today is much smaller than the Germany created at Versailles (a treaty, which like Trianon, nationalists refused to accept), let alone that created in 1871. When Germany unified in 1990 it signed a peace treaty with the Allies (it had up to then been technically occupied) in which it agreed to renounce any designs of territorial expansion. While it is true that Germans were expelled en masse from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia (among others), recognized German minorities live in Belgium and Denmark. Berlin (just as Bonn before it)does not tie questions of minority rights to territory (and I’m sure given the history one could imagine the international outrage if they did). You mention the various changes to Hungary’s borders… Read more »
Gábor
Guest

Grace:”There was no Slovak nation back when the Hungarian tribes arrived, the Slovaks became part of greater Hungary for 900 years but Hungary couldn’t have been that bad to them, as they maintained their language and culture. Not bad after 900 years.”
Strange phrasing and strange thoughts. Actually there was no Hungarian nation that time. Not to speak of the inherent contradiction of a not existing nation maintaining itself for 900 years. Anyway, I have to agree with Mark on the nationalist bias in your account.
As for the “disappeared” problems between 1938/1940/1941 and 1944 the so called reciprocal nationality politics is something not to be proud of. The practice to react to every retribution with a similar or even larger one is nothing to call human or advisable. It worked in the Hungarian-Slovak relations (although the result was not flourishing minority rights, just a latent conflict) but in the Romanian-Hungarian the tensions never were really eased. And it is worth to study the practice of Hungarian nationality politics in itself. Anyway about a quarter of the country’s population belonged to minorities and their rights were again far from those the Hungarians envisaged as justified for Hungarian minorities during the interwar era.

ovidiu
Guest

@ Then again it’s an easy solution. In 1938 most of southern Slovakia and a big chunk of Romania were given back to Hungary, and there were no longer any problems.
Historian Keith Hitchins (Hitchins 1994) summarizes the situation created by the Second Vienna Award:
“Far from settling matters, the Vienna Award had exacerbated relations between Rumania and Hungary. It did not solve the nationality problem by separating all Magyars from all Rumanians. Some 1,150,000 to 1,300,000 Rumanians, or 48 per cent to over 50 per cent of the population of the ceded territory, depending upon whose statistics are used, remained north of the new frontier, while about 500,000 Magyars (other Hungarian estimates go as high as 800,000, Rumanian as low as 363,000) continued to reside in the south.”

Andras
Guest

Grace, when DDR and BDR amalgamated into one state, both countries were independent ones, having overwhelmingly German population. Those parts of the former Hungarian kingdom, which are outside of Hungary are parts of other states, in which Hungarians are minority. Thus the “Hungarian’ case is a completely different situation than the German case was, and consequently impossible to compare the two cases. As far as I see, the only solution for Hungary is try to develop as amicable relation with the neighbouring countries as possible, make them sure that they are in security as far as Hungary concerned, and use the European framework to advance the rights of minorities across Europe.

Szabad Ember
Guest
Mark, I agree that fault lies on both sides of the issue, but what the Slovak government has done goes against the internationally accepted norm of minority rights and may be illegal as well. The ostensible reason behind the language laws is that Slovakian is threatened with domination by Hungarian, which is like saying Magyars in Hungary are threatened with domination by Hungarian Roma. You mentioned that there is a threat of secession, or absorption by Hungary, of some Slovak territory, but I don’t see that as a realistic possibility, near-term. What could make that threat real is a situation like Kosovo, where the majority-run government decides to take away autonomy or freedoms from the minority, to the point that local and international sentiment is inflamed and a war starts. Obviously, these laws make it even more likely that some parts of Slovakia that are majority-Hungarian-speaking will feel threatened and seek an alternative. As it stands now, the only ones benefiting from these new laws are the extremists in both countries; before these laws were proposed, was there much support for secession? Therefore, the problem is the nationalist laws, and the solution is to rescind them, which only the nationalists… Read more »
M.J.
Guest

Szabad Ember, I am flabagasted by the amount of nonsense you are able to display in only a few lines.
But I am hearing the kind of reasoning you’re developping (as people like Duray, Csaky, Bauer, Tokes, Nemeth etc. do): “first we will get autonomy and then, once we will be able to say somebody is attempting to take it away from us (just the same way we are campaigning against the current official language law in Slovakia), we will create a Kosovo like situation.”
For your information: nothing is going to be “overturned in court” as there is nothing to be overturned by any court. So I guess you and alike will go for the “worst options”.
Scary.

Mark
Guest
Szabad Ember: “You mentioned that there is a threat of secession, or absorption by Hungary, of some Slovak territory” I think you might have misunderstood me. Given the collective security infrastructure in Europe (the OSCE primarily, but backed by NATO and the EU) there is no prospect under any circumstances of a change in international borders. The precedents are clear – any attempts to do so will be met ultimately by force. In international law, Slovakia is entitled to declare Slovak a primary language of state, and to give precedence to that language, while recognising other languages. If one accepts the nation-state ought to be the basic organizing principle of political relations, and therefore national sovreignty is paramount Hungary clearly has no case, as independent observers agree that the language law meets basic international standards. However, I don’t happen to accept that the nation-state is the best way of organizing things, especially where there are cross-border disputes. I’m also of the view that this issue is not primarily one of culture, or of minority rights, but is political dispute both between two states, and between two groups of citizens of one state. The minority rights model here is no adequate… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

Mark,
“Given the collective security infrastructure in Europe (the OSCE primarily, but backed by NATO and the EU) there is no prospect under any circumstances of a change in international borders. The precedents are clear – any attempts to do so will be met ultimately by force.”
Kosovo?

Mark
Guest

Sophist: “Kosovo?”
The precedent was set by the European Commissions when it made respect for the inviolability of borders “which can only be modified by peaceful means and common agreement” a condition of the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991. With this step they closed the door on Belgrade’s attempts to use the presence of Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia to redraw those boundaries (they also in so doing applied principles that European states – including Hungary – signed up to in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, renewed by the 1990 Charter of Paris). In Croatia (indirectly through NATO advisors) and then in Bosnia (directly through air strikes) the precedent was backed up – albeit messily. The current situation in Kosovo is a further instance of the international community’s insistence on the inviolability of borders (though I suspect the eventual solution in Kosovo, will involve a political settlement of the kind constructed in Northern Ireland).

Sophist
Guest

Mark,
“The current situation in Kosovo is a further instance of the international community’s insistence on the inviolability of borders (though I suspect the eventual solution in Kosovo, will involve a political settlement of the kind constructed in Northern Ireland.”
Well you going to explain how, because the international community seems pretty much divided on the issue:-
“As of 11 July 2009, 62 out of 192 sovereign United Nations member states have formally recognised the Republic of Kosovo as an independent state. Notably, a majority of member states of the European Union (22 out of 27) and NATO (24 out of 28) have recognised Kosovo. Of the four countries that border Kosovo, only Serbia refuses to recognise it.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_recognition_of_Kosovo
I don’t remember anyone recognising the independence of Northern Ireland and then backtracking after the good friday agreement.