Ethnic Hungarians feel their culture under siege in independent Slovakia

October 22, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

DUNAJSKA STREDA, Slovakia -- Karoly Hodossy's family name dates back a half-millennium, but it's new to him, and he wants to keep it.

Two years ago, Mr. Hodossy -- an ethnic Hungarian living in Slovakia -- changed his name from Hodosi, the Slovak spelling. Now he's afraid he may be forced to change it back again.

"The name Hodossy is 500 years old, but in 1919 the Slovaks made my great-grandfather change the spelling," said Mr. Hodossy, who works in the local City Hall. "In Slovakia, the Slovaks are the boss, and we Hungarians have to do what they say."

Eight months after the founding of the new Slovakia, the 10 percent of the country's citizens who are of Hungarian descent worry that their rights may not be respected by the majority. In language rights, schooling and cultural affairs, Hungarians feel threatened by their new situation as citizens of the independent Slovakia.

Like most of Slovakia's Hungarians, who are concentrated along the north bank of the Danube between Bratislava and Budapest, the 30-year-old Mr. Hodossy speaks Slovak fluently. But as an ethnic Hungarian, he regrets Slovakia's independence and would rather have remained a citizen of Czechoslovakia.

"Our situation is worse than one year ago. In Czechoslovakia, the Hungarian minority was protected by the Czechs," Mr. Hodossy said. "When the Slovaks wanted to make some sort of problems with the Hungarians, the Czechs would say no."

Easy targets

In the current climate of heightened nationalist tensions throughout Eastern Europe, many Hungarians here realize they make a convenient target for politicians looking to score easy points with voters. Already, local Hungarians are being blamed for a host of problems, such as Budapest's opposition to Slovakia's entrance into the Council of Europe last summer.

While Slovakia was eventually admitted to the Council, the country had to accept conditions on minority rights, including clauses specifically addressing questions of the names of towns and people. The country continues, however, to violate the Council's conditions.

Slovakia's parliament did pass a measure that would have guaranteed Hungarians and other non-Slovaks the right to spell their names in their own language -- without requiring women to attach the suffix "-ova" to their last names, as virtually all Slovak women do. But Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar refused to sign the law under heavy lobbying from nationalists, who said the measure showed "disrespect" to the Slovak language.

Mr. Meciar's government also forbids road signs indicating non-Slovak names for towns and villages, even when a majority of residents are not Slovak. For example, Dunajska Streda -- which in English would translate roughly to "Mid-Danube" -- is called Dunaszerdahely in Hungarian, but nowhere on roads leading to the town is it identified as such, despite the fact that 90 percent of its 24,000 residents are Hungarian.

Many Slovaks view Hungarians living here as a sort of fifth column supporting Hungary, especially in the dispute over construction of the Gabcikovo hydroelectric dam on the Danube, which was begun as a joint project between Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the 1970s. In 1989, Hungary bailed out of the plan, citing environmental reasons, and asked the Slovaks to halt work as well. Bratislava continued to work on the dam, which has now been completed and is partially operating.

At one point last year, Premier Meciar said Hungary had begun increased troop movements near Gabcikovo, although Western diplomats say there has been no change in Hungary's military presence on the Slovak border.

Taking Czechs' place

Now, many Hungarians here fear they could begin to take the blame for the social and economic ills that plague Slovakia. Since the partition of Czechoslovakia, Mr. Meciar no longer has the Czechs to blame, so he may start looking for other villains.

"Under Communism, these people always had an enemy," Peter Huncik, a former human rights adviser to then-Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, said of Mr. Meciar and his party.

"Now there is a possibility they will find their enemy in the Hungarian minority."

At the same time, however, Mr. Huncik acknowledges that many Hungarians suffer from a similar inclination toward conflict rather than compromise.

Mr. Huncik and others in south Slovakia find little comfort in the anti-Slovak rhetoric of many Hungarian leaders, such as the nationalist Istvan Csurka. These leaders, they say, create more problems than they solve.

"This conflict between the ethnic Hungarians and Slovaks is very important not just to Meciar, but it is also important to Csurka. In Hungary, he needs this issue for the elections next year," Mr. Huncik said. "Budapest is asking us to declare loyalty to the mother nation, the Slovaks want us to declare loyalty to them -- and we're stuck in the middle."

Not the only problem

And many here say that issues such as Hungarian names and signs are only superficial indications of problems that go far deeper. The fact that they are causing such conflict may be an indication of difficulties to come.

"Our schools, our culture, the names of our villages, our relations with the mother country, these are our real problems," said Arpad Ollos, an ethnic Hungarian and Dunajska Streda's mayor. "But if we have such big problems with such a small issue, what about the big issues?"

Despite rising tensions, few here are predicting any violence between the region's ethnic groups. Indeed, relations between Hungarians and Slovaks in Dunajska Streda and along the Danube seem to be better than they are in north Slovakia, where few Hungarians live.

"These problems not only can be solved peacefully, they must be," Mayor Ollos said. "We, the Hungarian minority, can be the bridge between the two countries."

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