Hungarian civic courage: There is something one ought to learn from Slovak-Hungarians

Among the topics I lined up yesterday was an encounter between Slovak-Hungarian college students and László Kövér, speaker of the house.

There is an organization that was established in 1989 called the Rákóczi Association. Its mission is to foster cultural and intellectual life for Hungarian youth living in the neighboring countries. Looking through the list of the association's local chapters, one is struck by the high number of parochial schools, Catholic, Lutheran, and Hungarian Reformed. The association organizes a week-long summer camp for Hungarian college students from Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. This year it was held on Pap Island near Szentendre. One of the speakers was László Kövér, not only speaker of the house but a powerful man within Fidesz. He holds the #1 membership card of his party!

Because Kövér's political opponents don't attend his speeches or, even if they do, they are not the sort who would ask embarrassing questions from the great man, it must have been a real surprise when several Hungarian students from Slovakia rose and called Kövér to account: why did the Hungarian parliament pass the law for dual citizenship two weeks before the Slovak elections? "Why couldn't they wait for two weeks," asked a student from Slovakia; "your being aggressive makes our situation worse."

I'm pretty sure that Kövér wasn't prepared for such "impertinent" questions and, given his temperament, he answered in kind. He began by quoting a Hungarian proverb: "cowardly people don't deserve a fatherland." (Actually the original simply said that "cowardly people don't have a fatherland.") He considered the question itself a shirking away from conflict and defensive in nature. Neither Fico nor Slota have any business meddling in Hungarian affairs. It is the Hungarian government's decision alone when and under what circumstances it gives citizenship to Hungarian-speaking people all over the world. Only the Slovak-Hungarian political elite can be blamed for the less than sterling performance of MKP (Magyar Koalicíó Pártja). As far as "being aggressive," perhaps the Hungarian political leaders in Slovakia should have been a little more aggressive. Maybe they lost because they are trying to avoid conflict which in fact only aids the assimilation of the Hungarian minority.

It seems that this answer didn't deter other Slovak-Hungarians from pressing issues they felt were important to them. Another student rose and complained that with the law on dual citizenship Viktor Orbán "further aggravated the already strained Slovak-Hungarian relations" and as a result the Hungarian minority's position might be made more difficult. Kövér had an answer. The former government tried to be accommodating in the last decades and the only thing they managed to achieve was that "on some village square Hungarians were beaten only once instead of three times" just because they used their mother tongue. And Kövér asked the student: "What do you think we should do?' The student answered: "I'm not the politician."

So, all in all, the encounter couldn't have been very pleasant. What struck me (and other Hungarian reporters as well) was that such an encounter would be totally unimaginable with a domestic audience. The Hungarian students are so indoctrinated or cowed that they would never dare talk to Kövér in this way.

But let's see what the reaction of the Slovak-Hungarian media was to this encounter. Here is an example. László Barak wrote an opinion piece in Új Szó (Bratislava) that was also published in parameter.sk, an internet newspaper. The title sets the tone: "The Cowardice of László Kövér." Barak starts by noting the inadvisability of confronting a politician who will answer with "arrogant and empty slogans." This is the first lesson. The second, which is much more important, is the fallacy that is still being entertained in the Hungarian community in Slovakia that Hungarian politicians passed the law on citizenship "in the interest of Hungarians who live across the borders."

Barak can't imagine that the Hungarian politicians in Budapest didn't suspect that the law on citizenship would immediately become a hot topic in the Slovak campaign and that its passage would only help Robert Fico and Ján Slota whip up anti-Hungarian sentiments. It was just a stroke of luck that it was not Fico and Slota who formed a government in Slovakia.

But if the Fidesz politicians in fact knew that the new law would strengthen Fico and Slota, then why did they insist on passing it before the Slovak elections? Barak suspects, and I'm sure he is not the only one in Slovakia or in Hungary, that in fact it would have been desirable for Fidesz to have an openly anti-Hungarian government in Bratislava. Fidesz politicians love conflict and aggressiveness. Slovak nationalism could have been answered by Hungarian nationalism. Barak calls attention to Kövér's reference to "avoidance of conflict" and "defensiveness." As for beating up Hungarian-speaking youngsters, it was a great exaggeration because even during the Fico period it happened only once with Hedvig Malina. And today Slovakia's new government  cannot be accused of "Hungarian devouring" behavior.

So, it seems to me that the aggressiveness exhibited by Fidesz and formulated by Kövér at this summer camp simply doesn't work. It actually turns even the Hungarian minorities against Budapest. It is very possible that in a Slovak-Hungarian conflict the Hungarians of Slovakia would line up with their own government against Budapest.