While Hungary is preparing for the return to power of populist Viktor Orbán, in Slovakia Ján Slota has fallen on hard times. In the past, voters tolerated his brutality and his ostentatious taste for luxury, but it now seems that the favourite from the extreme right has overstepped the mark. The European Commission recently invalidated a call for tender organized by Slovakia, in which several billion euros were at stake, on the basis that the money would be distributed among Slota’s friends. In recent weeks, he has also been on the receiving end of hostile attention in the media: reports on his luxury car collection have raised questions about his tax returns, and he has also been admonished for an incident in which he insulted a woman police officer.

The taboo word: Autonomy

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Slota, or indeed Slovak nationalism, will vanish from the political stage. Slota’s ability to win votes is sustained by the notion that Slovakia needs to take a hard line with nationalists in neighbouring Hungary, and the rise of Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz opposition party, who is tipped to become the next Hungarian Prime Minister in 2010, may well save him from the obscurity he so richly deserves.

Orbán recently provoked an outcry in Slovakia when he affirmed that the main point of interest in the European elections will be the number of MEPs elected to represent ethnic Hungarians living in the “Carpathian basin” [a region, which is currently part of Romania that was settled by the Magyars in the 9th century]. Pouring petrol onto the flames, he further added that he would support any bid for autonomy expressed by Hungarians on the other side of the border.

In Slovakia, ‘autonomy’ has even more loaded connotations than Slota’s rabble-rousing might imply. The politicians of the Hungarian minority, united under the banner of the SMK party, are well aware of this, and tend to use the term very sparingly. However, in recent weeks, the SMK has been torn by internal divisions prompted by the exit of its highly popular ex-leader, Béla Bugár, from the party’s parliamentary group. Although Bugár is still a member of the SMK, several other MPs who followed in his footsteps, have officially left the movement and are now waiting for him to found a new political party. The main subject of discord, even if it has not been overtly stated, is the burning issue of Hungarian autonomy.

For more than a decade, representatives of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia have mulled over the existential question of how to live in Slovakia and still remain Hungarian. The impending division of the SMK has been caused by the fact that the moderate Béla Bugár and his liberal intellectual colleagues are now seeking allies in Bratislava, whereas the current president of the SMK, Pál Csáky, is much closer to Budapest. In recent times, this disagreement has remained latent, because the liberal left, which has held in power in Hungary since 2002, never showed any great interest in the issue of Hungarian minorities. But this is set to change with the return to power of Orbán, who has pledged to end a period in which “an enfeebled Hungary … turned its back on Hungarians living on the other side of the border.” Csáky can count not only on political but also financial support from Orbán. So in all probability, it is only a question of time before he raises the question, and utters the dreaded word ‘autonomy.’

No celebration on V.E. Day

The fact that there is no telling what effect this will have on Slovak-Hungarian relations, is certainly a subject for concern. Given the extensive support for Orbán’s Fidezs movement, the overwhelming likelihood is that Hungary will soon become the first country in post-communist Europe to elect a ‘one-party government.’ At the same time, Hungary is also the only country in Europe that has yet to come to terms with its defeat in the First and Second World Wars, which resulted in the loss of large tracts of territory. As a recent editorial in the liberal weekly Magyar Narancs pointed out, this year V.E. Day went by “almost unnoticed,” because Hungarians do not really know why they should celebrate it, a fact which alarmed the weekly’s editor who asked “Are we the last guardians of the flame?” He went on to add: “The backdrop to this embarrassed silence is that, in recent months, every day has brought to light fresh incidents of racist violence and people wearing black uniforms in Hungarian villages.”

A Hungary that is dominated by Orbán’s nationalist policies will contribute much to the resurgence of support for Slota in Slovakia. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who is well aware of this, has attempted to limit the damage and sideline his coalition partner with successive cabinet reshuffles, and public announcements to say that Slota and his party will be unwelcome in the next government.

In this new political power game, the only player who has yet to pick up his cards is Béla Bugár. If he founds a new party, he will split the Hungarian minority into two camps (but in the run-up to elections in a year’s time, he will still have the option of making a deal to present a shared list with Csáky). If he does nothing, the question of Slovak-Hungarian relations will be decided by the “guardians of the flame.” Many Slovaks are waiting for a response from Bugár, whose humour and common sense have made him more popular than many Slovak politicians.