Hungary and slovakia: bridge over troubled water

Iron Curtain over the Danube: the Rebirth of History?

Straddling the Danube between Komarno (Slovakia) to the north and Komarom (Hungary) to the south is a steel bridge known as the Elisabeth Bridge. It was built in 1892 and then connected the historical city of Komarom on the left bank of the Danube (now in Slovakia) with the town Újszony (in Hungary). Komarom and Újszony were united a few years later in 1898 and the new city simply called Komarom. After the First World War the historical city of Komarom became part of Czechoslovakia and renamed Komarno while the other side retained the name Komarom (in Hungarian the Slovak city of Komarno is referred to as Revkomarom, the Port of Komarom). The bridge, which had served as a link between two parts of a united city, now serves as a border crossing between two countries.

Elisabeth Bridge between Slovakia and Hungary. Photo. J. Horvath

Although the accession of Slovakia and Hungary to the European Union (EU) in 2004 may have symbolically reunited Komarom within the framework of a united Europe, it still remains a divided city nonetheless. Indeed, events of the past week have reinforced this, as the Elisabeth Bridge became the focal point of a new cold war between Slovakia and Hungary.

Actually this new cold war is not all that new and has been evident ever since both countries joined the EU. In fact, many observers had warned that Europe’s failure to confront the problems of the past will only server to poison its future. As a result, many were wary of letting the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into the union precisely because of this. Likewise, there is much concern now over letting the countries of the former Yugoslavia into the EU for the exact same reason.

All this came to a head last week when Slovakia refused entry to the President of Hungary, Laszlo Solyom, who attempted to cross the Elisabeth Bridge into the historical city of Komarom so as to attend the inauguration of a statue to Hungary’s first king, St. Peter. Stephen I. For both countries, the timing of the inauguration and visit by Solyom was significant: for Hungarians it was on a date that the country marks as its national holiday, St. Stephen’s Day; for Slovaks, it marked the anniversary of when the Prague Spring was crushed by Warsaw Pact forces.

Although there have been problems between Budapest and Bratislava in the past, the nature of this particular incident is what has suddenly raised it to a level where the EU has been forced to sit up and take notice. In the history of international diplomacy it’s unprecedented that a head of state of a "friendly" country is refused entry. Politicians and diplomats are only refused entry if they are on a blacklist because of sanctions or if because the individual in question has committed some hideous crime. In the case of the latter, the person is not merely refused entry but is often arrested.

In this particular case, however, Hungary was neither on a blacklist nor was Solyom a persona non grata. To make matters worse, the incident occurred between two member states of the EU. Not only this, but both Hungary and Slovakia are parties to the Schengen Agreement which is supposed to guarantee the free movement of individuals between member states.

The official explanation from Bratislava for the incident is that Slovakia was unable to guarantee the safety of the Hungarian President. This excuse is not taken seriously by most observers: according to international accords and protocol, it’s not only Slovakia’s responsibility but its duty to ensure the security of a visiting head of state. Its inability to do so suggests that either a civil war is going on or that the country is in such chaos and anarchy that it’s hard to imagine that the government itself is able to function

Another reason suggested for the reason why the Hungarian President was refused entry was that the timing of the visit was not appropriate, this despite the fact that the preparations for the visit was made well in advance and even agreed upon by all parties. In fact, shortly before the planned visit Prime Minister Fico of Slovakia had confirmed with Prime Minister Gordon of Hungary that the visit would be able to go ahead. Still, many Slovaks felt that that the visit was inappropriate given that the date of the visit also coincided with the suppression of the Prague Spring. Demonstrators were present where the Hungarian President was to attend, but the number of people clearly was not enough to warrant a security risk.

Incontrovertibly, many countries reprimanded Slovakia for its actions. Germany and Austria were quite vocal in their criticism and even in the Czech Republic many felt that the Slovak action was unwarranted. It goes without saying that local media in both of the affected countries blamed the other side for the conflict. Slovak media feel that the Hungarian Presidency demonstrated arrogance in his determination to attend the inauguration while Hungarian media generally regarded the incident as a severe provocation and slap in the face to all Hungarians.

Hungarian minority in Slovakia is forced by a new law to the use of the Slovak language in public places and institutions

Relations between Slovakia and Hungary have been tense for a long time and they have been further worsening as of late. This is mainly because of a new language law which has come into effect in Slovakia on September 1st. Hungary has criticised the Slovak government because of the language law saying that it’s an attack against minority rights.

A large minority of some half a million ethnic Hungarians live in Slovakia, mainly in the south of the country, making up over 10% of the population. The new language law will enforce the use of the Slovak language in public places and institutions, even in areas dominated by the ethnic Hungarian minority. The new law penalises those who don’t communicate in Slovak, even though all parties concerned may find it more convenient to use their mother language.

Hungary’s opposition to the language law is that it discriminates against the use of a minority’s right to use their mother language. They point out that in western countries such a practice is not tolerated. Despite this, the EU didn’t find anything wrong with the law and ruled that it conformed to EU standards. Also, contrary to what most Hungarians think, some western countries do have similar laws. In the province of Quebec, Canada, for instance, a similar law aimed at preserving and promoting the French language exists, albeit much to the chagrin of the province’s English-speaking minority as well as the country’s English-speaking majority. Conversely, in the US many feel that such a law is required as in some places Latin Americans have become so concentrated that it’s difficult to find a person who actually speaks English.

Given the charged atmosphere between the two countries as of late, there is no question that Solyom could have been a little more tactful in his approach. If he could not change the date of his visit, he could then have asked the organizers of the event to invite Slovak officials to attend the inauguration ceremony so as not to make it appear provocative. It’s another question altogether whether they would have come or not.

Radicals may exploit the conflicts between Hungary and Slovakia or Romania

Throughout Europe, there are many who now feel that the situation has gone too far and that the EU must step in, otherwise radicals on both sides may exploit the situation. For instance, soon after Solyom was refused entry the Slovak Embassy in Budapest was attacked when a person threw a Molotov cocktail at the building. A few days later two men rammed the Slovak ambassador’s car and shouted insults at him as he was driving in Budapest. Slovakia, for its part, regarded these incidents as isolated events.

There has been some scepticism in Hungary as to the Molotov cocktail attack. The fact that it failed to explode, and thus caused no damage, has led some to believe that it was nothing more than a Slovak provocation. The police investigation into the matter only helped to underscore this when they pointed out the possibility that a foreigner was behind the attack.

All this has naturally spilled into the domestic political arena in Hungary, with the right-wing opposition blaming the governing Socialists for the current state of affairs. They claim that the government’s failure to be more firm with Slovakia in the past had emboldened the Fico government to the point where it now feels that it could do whatever it wants.

While much criticism has been directed at Slovakia, this cold war in Central and Eastern Europe is actually much larger in scope. In fact, what happened last week is not unlike what happened earlier this year in March between Romania and Hungary. Then President Solyom planned to travel to Romania during a Hungarian holiday to visit the large Hungarian minority in Transylvania. At the last minute the Romanian authorities revoked the landing permission of the Hungarian President’s plane. The only difference between then and now is that Solyom wasn’t barred from entering the country; only his plane wasn’t allowed to land, thus he went anyway but by car instead.

For most Hungarians, it’s no coincidence that both Romania and Slovakia took such actions against the Hungarian President, and both during a national holiday important to Hungarians. Unlike past Hungarian presidents, Solyom has been very active in promoting the rights of Hungary’s minorities in neighboring countries, traveling frequently to visit these communities and raise his voice in order to echo their concerns.

As a result, most Hungarians view the actions of their neighbours as nothing more than an expression of insecurity and jealously on their part. For Hungary, EU accession represented a symbolic reunification of territories lost at the end of the First World War. Hence, it’s commonly felt that the anti-Hungarian attitude of Bucharest and Bratislava is simply an attempt by these governments to overcome their insecurity and reassert some form of control.

In addition to this burden of history, what is undeniable is that the conflict over the past few years between these countries also coincides with a rise in the radical right throughout the region. Unfortunately, there have been many have warnings about this, but Brussels has paid little attention to what has been happening for two main reasons.

Europe as a whole is unable to come to terms with its past and develop a roadmap for the future

Firstly, the EU appears to be concerned foremost with its neo-liberalist economic policy for Europe. Social, environmental, and political ies are for the most part shoved to the background so as not to interfere with this policy. Not only this, but with the economic boom in Europe prior to the financial crisis in 2008, it was easy to simply ignore such problems. The financial crisis has since made these problems worse to the point where they can no longer be ignored.

Secondly, as its experience with Austria has shown when the radical right under Jorg Haider gained a certain measure of power and influence, Europe doesn’t know how to effectively deal with such a problem. Its attempts at sanctions were a complete failure; consequently, Brussels has since decided to simply look the other way. Thus, when a truly national socialist government took hold in Slovakia (Jan Slota representing the nationalists and Robert Fico representing the Socialists) the EU could do little but watch on the sidelines.

It’s ironic that prior to EU accession Slovakia was reprimanded for having an extremist politician like Meciar in power. Indeed, Slovakia’s entry to the EU was even in jeopardy at one point because of this. Yet after joining the EU all this seemed not to matter anymore. Now a person like Slota, considered by many to be more extreme than Meciar, is able to wield a measure of power and influence in an EU member state.

The biggest problem with the EU at this point is that Europe as a whole is unable to come to terms with its past and develop a roadmap for the future. The tragedy of the breakup of the Yugoslavia, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, was in large part due to this paralysis.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 may have marked the end of the Cold War, symbolising an end to the differences between east and west. For some it even marked "the End of History". Yet while Berlin was the primary focal point for the political division of Europe, there were many other similar political divisions. Vienna, for example, was another European capital split between east and west. The difference between Vienna and Berlin was that the former was reunited in a relatively short period of time.

While the physical walls separating east and west eventually crumbled and Berlin once again became Berlin, many other places remained divided. Komarom is one example of a division that not only remained, but remained permanent. Not only this, the wounds which led to its division has still not yet healed.

It is such divisions which lie at the heart of the problems which Central and Eastern Europe continues to struggle with. Contrary to what Fukuyama and others may have thought 20 years ago, we may not be at the end of history but approaching its rebirth. If so, this rebirth of history will indubitably coincide with the dissolution of the EU.