Hungary, Slovakia: Tense Relationship

Global Voices Online
Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

On Nov. 15, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico and his Hungarian counterpart, Ferenc Gyurcsány, met in the border town of Komárno, Slovakia, in an attempt to ease nationalist tensions that have escalated due to Nov. 1 football game violence in Dunajská Streda, Slovakia.

Eva S. Balogh of Hungarian Spectrum has been blogging a lot recently about the Slovak-Hungarian relations, and here are some of the highlights.

On Nov. 1, Eva provided details and background on the football game incident:

While families made their yearly pilgrimage to cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of relatives about five hundred Hungarian soccer fans went to the southern Slovak town of Dunajská Streda (Dunaszerdahely) to create trouble. The town, situated fairly close to the Slovak-Hungarian border, is predominantly Hungarian. Of the 23,000 inhabitants the Slovak population is no more than about 3,000.

The soccer match between Slovan Bratislava and the locals was unlikely to be a nailbiter. But the stadium, seating 10,000, was filled. One thousand people came from Bratislava and there was a contingent of 500 from Hungary. The Slovak police must have known that trouble was brewing because about 1,000 policemen were ordered to the scene. [...] The Bratislava group was attacked en route: rocks were thrown at them. Some people were arrested at that junction.

The Hungarians called attention to themselves by displaying signs saying: Perseverence (Kitartás). Unfortunately that was the customary greeting of Hungarian Nazis in the late 30's and 40's. The stadium was full about an hour before kickoff, and the two sides spent the time screaming obscenities at each other. Just before the match began the locals and the Hungarian visitors sang the Hungarian national anthem. At last play started, but after eighteen minutes the referee had to stop the match because the people from Bratislava threw a smoke bomb onto the field. [...]

On Nov. 9, Eva noted that it was "difficult to know exactly what happened" when the Slovak police chose to interfere:

[...] Each side has its own story. The Hungarian "fans" claim that there was no disturbance in their sector of the arena and that the Slovak police brutally attacked them without reason. The videos that circulated on the Internet indeed show Slovak policemen using their nightsticks rather indiscriminately on the retreating Hungarians. But I'm a cautious sort, and there is a very good possibility that the video segment we see doesn't tell the whole story. Moreover, the breakdown of arrestees indicates that the Slovak police were not kinder to their own extremists. About the same number of Slovaks and Hungarians were arrested and later released. [...]

In Hungary, people were "outraged" by the presumed actions of the Slovak police:

[...] Yes, they do admit that it was not appropriate to go to Slovakia with pictures of Greater Hungary, a Hungary that included as part of its territory present-day Slovakia, then known as the Upland (Felvidék). And, yes, it was provocative to display irredentist slogans. But, they add, neither justified the use of brutal force. [...]

On Nov. 3, an ultra-nationalist rally was held in Budapest:

[...] They gathered close to 1,000 people in front of the Slovak embassy, burned at least one Slovak flag, and displayed signs demanding "Death to Ján Slota." Ján Slota, head of SNS (Slovak National Party), is not a nice man. Hungarians are high up on his hate list, but Gypsies and homosexuals are not exactly his favorites either. He considers the Hungarian minority in Slovakia "a cancer in the body of the Slovak nation," and a couple of times he alluded to the joy he would feel someday moving into Budapest inside of a tank. Every time Slota says something outrageous all of Hungary listens. Before the current coalition which includes Slota's party came to power in 2006, Hungarian-Slovak relations were cordial. But, of course, then the coalition partner was MKP (Magyar Koalició Pártja/Strana Mad'arsklek Koalícije), a party of the Hungarian minority. [...]

On Nov. 12, Eva wrote pessimistically about the upcoming meeting between the prime ministers of the two sabre-rattling neighbor nations:

At last. After months and months of strained relations between Slovakia and Hungary the two prime ministers agreed to meet. [...]


What can the meeting between Fico and Gyurcsány achieve? As far as I can see, nothing. [...]

She also commented on the Hungarian politicians' stance:

[...] To wit, the Hungarian government and all the parties condemn the recent actions of the Hungarian extreme right. They are against Hungarian nationalism, they are against extremists entering Slovakia in Nazi uniforms. They are also against these little Nazis marching up and down in Hungary, but what can the Hungarian government do? [...]

There were cases of dissent, however, as Eva pointed out in her Nov. 14 post:

[...] Predictably, Hungarian politicians are not of one mind on the recent incidents in Slovakia. To give only one example. A Fidesz member of parliament, Béla Túri-Kovács, is demanding the resignation of a colleague, Mátyás Eörsi of [SZDSZ], who is the chairman of the parliamentary committee on European affairs. Eörsi went to Slovakia for a meeting with his Slovak counterparts. He said that both sides should accept some blame for the incidents and did a mea culpa on behalf of Hungary. Well, Túri-Kovács sure didn't like this admission of guilt. [...]

The right-wing Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Union, mentioned in the passage above, is Hungary's largest opposition party; an earlier GV roundup of Hungarian Spectrum's posts on Fidesz politics is here. Also, in this post, Eva discussed an article on the "managers of populism" - Austria's late Jörg Haider, Hungary's Viktor Orbán, and Slovakia's Robert Fico - written by sociologist Pál Tamás.

In her Nov. 15 post, Eva put part of the blame for the Hungarian government's failure to rein in "small but vocal and active far-right groups" on Fidesz:

[...] One problem is that there is no united political resolve to deal with the extremists. Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz, are masters of double-talk which encourages the extremists. If Fidesz doesn't unequivocally support the extremists, the party doesn't condemn them either. Or if they say something negative, they add: "but one can understand their frustration." After all, Orbán needs their votes. The extreme right is much larger than the few hundred people who are ready to go out on the street to demonstrate. According to one recent sociological study, those with extreme right-wing sentiments may be as high as 20% of the population though only 5% are ready to take part in demonstrations that may end in violence. The rest just watch and cheer their friends on. [...]


The only hope is the force of public opinion. But it surely would be easier if Fidesz openly and without reservation stood alongside the government in condemning these extremists. Alas, that is not in the party's interest at the moment.

As for the meeting between Fico and Gyurcsány, it resulted in a joint statement, in which the two leaders pledged to take steps towards eliminating "any kind of extremism, xenophobia, intolerance, chauvinism, nationalism and every manifestation of violence." Eva commented on the meeting's outcome in her Nov. 16 post:

[...] Let's face it, this is not much, although surely it is better than nothing. As far as I know, the Hungarians wanted to have a satisfactory explanation of "police brutality" at the soccer match as well as assurances of a more balanced treatment of Hungarian history in Hungarian-language schools. They were also unhappy about the ban on Hungarian flags at games [...]. None of these demands was met. Fico didn't arrive with any proof that the Hungarian soccer fans used physical violence prior to the police attack on their ranks. Fico didn't budge on the flag issue. [...] While Gyurcsány complained about the nationalistic, anti-Hungarian rhetoric of the Slovak government, Fico voiced his indignation over the appearance of uniformed Hungarian extremists on Slovak soil. [...]

In her Nov. 18 post, Eva wrote about the media coverage of the meeting:

[...] However, it seems that Robert Fico was dissatisfied with the Slovak reporters who were present at the rather stormy press conference after the Komarno meeting. The same evening he, together with the president of the republic and the speaker of the Slovak parliament, appeared on Slovak public television (STV) and accused the Slovak journalists of having tossed softballs to Gyurcsány; they did not represent the interests of Slovakia. The Hungarian journalists, perhaps not surprisingly, believed that Gyurcsány came out better from the verbal duel. [...]

Commentators whose sympathies lie with the right keep repeating an old Hungarian adage that can be summarized as "nobody understands us." This is usually uttered when it becomes obvious that western reporters can easily grasp that police at violent soccer matches often act violently and that uniformed paramilitary groups have no place anywhere, especially not in a neighboring country. These commentators usually continue that the West simply can't understand the complexities of Slovak-Hungarian relations. [...]

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