Slovakia / Hungary: Only say it in Slovak

Photo by Teo Dias.
Photo by Teo Dias.
31 July 2009 – HVG (Budapest)

Recently adopted in Bratislava, a law obliging Slovak citizens to express themselves in Slovak in public areas has prompted an outcry in Budapest, which views it as an infringement of the rights of Slovakia's Hungarian minority. With political rhetoric reaching fever pitch on both sides of the Danube, Hungarian weekly Heti Világgazdaság calls on the European Union to halt what it views as a dangerous upsurge in Slovakian nationalism.

In accordance with a measure that recalls the treatment of minorities under Ceauşescu — from now on, Hungarian doctors will be forced to address their Hungarian patients in Slovak, even if both parties would prefer to converse in Hungarian. In compliance with a further surreal stipulation, speakers at cultural events will be obliged to repeat jokes in Slovak, even if the audience is 100% Hungarian. Slovakia's openly anti-Hungarian law has prompted a unanimous response from Hungarian political parties, who insist that authorities in Bratislava are following in the footsteps of the Taliban and Khomeini's religious police and paving the way for the introduction of "language policing."

There is no denying the historical irony: "ethnic fundamentalists" among Slovakia's leaders are resurrecting pre-war conflicts, and copying the worst excesses of Magyar nationalism of times past. Let's not forget the impact of the shortsighted policy espoused by Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894) who said, "I will never recognize any nation other than Hungary under the jurisdiction of the Holy crown of Hungary," and its role in the failure of the Hungarian war of independence. In 1848, the Hapsburgs successfully instrumentalised this chauvinistic position to turn minorities against Hungary. Instead of promoting federal autonomy, Hungarian politicians attempted to keep a grip on centralized power — and in so doing contributed to the loss of two thirds of Hungary's territory under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

Playing into the hands of Hungary's extreme-right

Our neighbours are now blindly developing a similar nationalist agenda, based on ethnic criteria and forced assimilation. In the era of modern democracy, the implementation of such a nationalist policy — which is designed to avenge wrongs inflicted 150 years ago — is quite simply untenable. And yet, we cannot deny it is happening. In response to this situation, the EU has decided to content itself with mumbled complaints and a half-hearted offer to arbitrate. Brussels seems to be unaware that extremists across Europe are observing what is happening in Bratislava — and Slovakia's initiative may soon be replicated in other countries, where it will be used to target immigrants or religious minorities, or any group that extremists do not particularly like. This has already happened in Hungary, where the establishment of Slovakian linguistic censorship has reinforced the position of the extreme-right party Jobbik. In short, the law is blank cheque for ethnic demagogues, who will now make use of legal mumbo-jumbo to introduce discriminatory measures.

But we cannot help wondering what has prompted the Slovak state to sponsor such action. From an economic point of view, their country is first in its class, so why bother with such nonsense? And the truth is, we need look no further than the economy. The latest wave of nationalist demagoguery is clearly a bid to relieve tensions prompted by cost-cutting reforms — what we are seeing is simply a rejuvenated version of an age-old political recipe, which supplements a shortage of bread in the welfare state with a side dish of nationalist spectacle!

If the European Union does not call Slovakia to order, this young nation may soon develop into a delinquent state — and that will result in dire and bloody consequences for Slovakians as well as Hungarians. Let's not forget that wherever pogroms bloom, the fruits of economic prosperity will always wither on the branch.

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