Slovakia and Hungary: relations excellent, unresolved minority issues aside

Those observers who had grown used to the never-ending Slovak-Hungarian quarrels, accusations and recriminations over the topic of ethnic minorities (“playing the Hungarian card”), which have been seemingly continuous since the foundation of the Slovak Republic in 1993, might be surprised by the “ceasefire” between the two governments that began in April 2012 with the inauguration of the second Cabinet of Slovak Prime Minister Fico.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ Nica and Rosemary Cady

This new state of affairs was confirmed when Tibor Navracsics, the newly appointed Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, chose Bratislava as the destination of his first official bilateral visit abroad. At a joint press conference held on 30 June in the capital of Slovakia, both foreign ministers – Miroslav Lajčák and Tibor Navracsics – offered a series of warm compliments to each other. According to their assessment, relations between Slovakia and Hungary were excellent, and the intensity and quality of co-operation had reached high standards. They admitted, however, that there were still unresolved issues and discordant views on some topics. Nevertheless, they preferred not to deal with those issues in public in order not to hinder overall co-operation. They would keep those sensitive subjects behind the scenes, to be addressed solely by the Sub-commission on National Minorities, one of the forums for bilateral dialogue established in the framework of the Slovak-Hungarian Basic Treaty of 1995.

Such a development is in sharp contrast to the trends of previous governing cycles on both sides. The contrast is especially conspicuous in view of the first overlap period between Mr. Fico’s and Mr. Orbán’s terms from May to June 2012. It was then that tensions reached their peak as a result of the Hungarian Citizenship Act and the Slovak reaction to it. Still, although the current state of affairs might seem puzzling at first glance, it should not necessarily seem so at the second.

Orbán and Fico – a similar understanding of power

Both Prime Ministers share a very similar understanding of the concept of power. They are both advocates of centralisation and concentration of power, gradually shifting to the executive branch; they overemphasize the importance of “national” interests, which they often interpret exclusively on behalf of their own ethnic nation or of those who share their political views; they are both ready to make popular (or populist) gestures. Although Mr. Fico is nominally “leftist” and Mr. Orbán “rightist”, there is a consensus between them even on such issues as the constitutional protection of “traditional marriage”. Common interests and positions now seem to be more important than disagreements on the status and rights of national minorities.

This, however, does not mean that minority issues are settled in Slovakia (or in Hungary) to the satisfaction of minorities themselves or in compliance with international norms and standards. The case of national minorities has always had two dimensions: a political one and a human rights one. Certainly, national minorities have most often been created by political acts or political decisions, such as the shifting of borders or the dismemberment of larger political units into smaller ones. This is how the Hungarians became a minority in Slovakia (at that time Czechoslovakia) in 1918-1920 as a consequence of the breakup of the Hungarian Kingdom and the Treaty of Trianon. (One-third of the total ethnic Hungarian population of the former empire found themselves behind the new borders then.) This political factor (including the permanent presence of the “mother” nation in the neighbourhood) cannot be omitted or neglected because it is a source of many prejudices, stereotypes, traumatic memories and mistrust.

On the other hand, the identity of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia is an “otherness” that should be recognized and respected by the state as any other “natural” otherness, i.e. in the framework of general protection and promotion of human rights as the fundament of democracy and the rule of law. In this regard, the state should keep to the principle of “all different, all equal” vis-à-vis every minority or vulnerable group, be it a national or ethnic minority, handicapped people, children, women, seniors or socially excluded or marginalised persons.

Selectiveness in approach to minority rights

Hungarian governments, as well as Hungarian minority parties in Slovakia, have however traditionally addressed the minority issue first of all as a political case and not as a genuine human rights case. This statement is also true for most minority civic organisations and interest groups, not to mention Slovak governments. Hungarian fighters for minority rights (tacitly) maintain that Hungarianness is a special otherness that should be treated differently from the otherness of other minority groups. Most traditional Hungarian minority rights activists and politicians themselves would be reluctant to attribute more rights to the Roma or LGBTI persons, hold out-of-date views about gender equality, believe that the Hungarians bear little or no guilt for the extermination of the Jews, and refuse to remember the Holocaust as a reference point for dealing with inter-ethnic and inter-cultural relations in general. (This latter statement is valid for most traditional “fighters” for Slovak national interests, too.)

When the Híd-Most party won the post of Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities in the Cabinet of Mrs. Radičová, the first thing it did was get rid of the Roma portfolio and shift it to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. (The Fico Cabinet shifted it further to the Ministry of the Interior, to signal that Roma integration for them is first of all a security problem). However, by resigning the human rights dimension of the national minority issue, the Hungarians paradoxically contribute to the creation of a catch-22. Whether they like it or not, in a debate based solely on the political aspect, Trianon becomes the ultimate argument, which is a dead end. Such a situation is, of course, very convenient for any Slovak government.

At the same time, the minority policies of Slovak governments are quite hypocritical. After his electoral victories in 2012, Mr. Fico declared several times that the status quo of national minority rights would be preserved. However, the first thing he did was abolish the post of Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities and dissolve the Human Rights Department of the Government Office.

Later, he named a Government Plenipotentiary for National Minorities, ostensibly signalling how important this agenda was for his government. However, this was a mere trick: the Plenipotentiary’s mandate does not presume any executive powers; the holder of the post is only an advisor to the government. In addition, the Plenipotentiary is not subordinated to any member of the Government (in contrast to even the Roma Plenipotentiary, who is subordinated to the Minster of the Interior), and thus he acts more or less in a political and legal vacuum. So far, the line ministries responsible for the practical realisation of national minority policies (like the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education) have very rarely or never respected the advice of the Plenipotentiary. As a consequence, the first Plenipotentiary resigned from the post in June 2013.

The Plenipotentiary also chairs the Committee on National Minorities, which is a subsidiary body of the Governmental Council on Human Rights, another advisory body of the Government. However, all the other seven committees of the Council on Human Rights (such as the ones on gender equality, handicapped persons’ rights and human rights education) are chaired by a Minister, and thus have a higher status than the Committee on National Minorities. To add insult to injury, the position of Plenipotentiary has been vacant since June 2013 and its responsibilities are now fulfilled by a higher-ranked civil servant of the Office of the Government.

The Constitution of the Slovak Republic and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities stipulate that national minorities have the right to effectively participate in decision-making in matters affecting their status and identity. However, it would be difficult to name an institution or mechanism in Slovakia that functions as an instrument of such effective participation. The Slovak authorities usually mention under this heading the presence of ethnic Hungarian deputies in the national parliament and in local and regional governments. However, those deputies have won their posts in a regular political competition by exercising their “general” political and civil rights, not under the heading of “minority participation”. The presence of ethnic Hungarians in elected bodies is simply the result of the relatively high ratio of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia (some 10% of the population), their internal organisation and settlement structure. No other national minority is represented in elected bodies with significant numbers. In addition, the presence of ethnic Hungarians in elected bodies does not necessarily result in “effective participation”. At the national level, Hungarians are regularly outvoted by the majority on sensitive issues related to national minority rights. The same is usually the case at the regional level, too. (All regional self-governing units are designed in such a way that Hungarians are a minority in the decisive bodies). This has serious consequences for the way in which funds for development of regional social services, regional transport infrastructure and secondary schools are distributed.

It is true that many local governments are dominated by ethnic Hungarian deputies or mayors. This is thanks to the fact that there are as many as 460 municipalities (out of 2880) where Hungarians represent the majority of the local population. (The electoral system in municipal elections – as in almost all democratic countries – is based on majority rule.) Although elementary schools are under the competence of local authorities, this does not result in some kind of Hungarian cultural or educational autonomy in South Slovakia, as is sometimes maintained by certain Slovak politicians and analysts. The local governments are in fact only distributors of funds from the regional level to the schools, with the amount of those funds being set by central authorities. The curriculum is approved centrally, too, with a very low margin of appreciation for the specificities of national minority pupils. (The official, curriculum-based textbooks for history, geography, civic education, and homeland studies are simple – sometimes bad – translations of the official Slovak textbooks.) Specificities are not adequately taken into account in organising continual education and training for teachers in minority schools, either.

As far as language usage, the first battles on language rights started back in the spring of 1990 with the first Hungarian-language road signs erected in some Hungarian-dominated villages in South Slovakia. Although Slovakia has come a long way since then, and the parliament has adopted specific minority language legislation, issues have still not been fully settled. For example, Slovak authorities refuse to place bilingual signs and information at railway stations in Slovakia, which – among other such gestures – was common practice even in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia. Bilingualism is one of the most sensitive issues for any Slovak political representation. One gets the feeling that they believe if they allowed full bilingualism in ethnically mixed regions (as is the case in South Tyrol, Finland and elsewhere), they would be admitting that Slovakia was not entirely in “Slovak hands” and its integrity was endangered. However, for Hungarians the possibility of freely using their language both in private and in public would mean that the state recognized and respected them as full-fledged citizens, including their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity.

The Slovak state is very irritated by any mention of the Treaty of Trianon by Hungarian politicians or activists, and repeatedly calls on ethnic Hungarians to be loyal citizens of Slovakia. However, the state is prepared to recognize them as fully equal citizens only if they are not “too” Hungarian, if their Hungarianness is not excessively provocative, ostentatious, visible or audible. However, I believe – in contrast to many Hungarians – that this is not an expression of some inborn anti-Hungarian sentiment on the part of Slovaks. This is the product of an underdeveloped culture of democracy, which is also demonstrated vis-à-vis most other minority groups and is present in all newly emerging democracies in Central Europe. One thing is, of course, evident: international organisations can help Slovaks and Hungarians to improve their relations; however, the solutions rest in their own hands.

Kálmán Petőcz

Kálmán Petőcz

is a former Ambassador of Slovakia to the United Nations at Geneva, former Director General of Human Rights at the Office of the Government, and a former Programme Director of the Forum Minority Research Institute. Currently he chairs the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Slovakia and is an independent expert member of the Governmental Council on Human Rights.