Report Hungary-Slovakia
Czech soldiers in front of the wall blocking the bridge linking Komárno and its twin town in Hungary, Komarom, when they were divided in 1920.

Two towns divided by a consonant

Komarno and Komarom are twin towns divided by the Danube and centuries of rancour between Slovaks and Hungarians. But this flashpoint of nationalist tension that spilled over into an international incident last year is not all what it seems...

Published on 23 August 2010 at 14:51
Wikimedia Commons  | Czech soldiers in front of the wall blocking the bridge linking Komárno and its twin town in Hungary, Komarom, when they were divided in 1920.

In this town on the Danube where Slovaks and Hungarians live side by side, four monuments symbolise the enduring divide between the two communities. Two of them pay tribute to Hungarian historical figures, the other two to Slovakia’s past. All of them have caused controversy, even clashes. The last of the four was erected in June, and rather furtively at that, by a Slovak nationalist party. It’s an obelisk of sorts commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which amputated two-thirds of Hungary’s territory in 1920 and gave birth to Czechoslovakia. The monument was placed slap bang in the middle of the bridge across the Danube. The message was plain as day: this is where Slovakia starts. Now and forever after. In this small country of 5.4 million inhabitants,the integrity of the national borders is no trifling matter.

Populists punished

While Komarno often makes the headlines in the press, this town of 40,000 is more preoccupied with the havoc wrought by the floods of May and June than with the ongoing nationalist rows. “The town is quiet. The rowdies go round and round for a while and then go home,” says Zoltan Bara, head of a European cross-border cooperation agency. On the Slovak side, things have indeed quietened down. The SNS Slovak Nationalist Party that put up the obelisk got kicked out in the June elections, in which voters punished the populists who had been in power for four years. On the Hungarian side, voters have yet to gauge the fallout from one of the first steps Viktor Orban’s right-wing government took after he was elected in April, granting citizenship to all ethnic Hungarians abroad, including the 600,000 living in Slovakia.

But that offer leaves Komarno’s large number of ethnic Hungarian cold. “A passport? What for? It’s not a pay cheque or a job offer,” says Gabriela, a 23-year-old looking for her first job. Many Komarno residents already cross the bridge to work on the other side in the Hungarian town of Komarom anyway. Most of them work for Nokia, the leading investor in the region. That’s also where they catch the train to Vienna. The Schengen treaties, to which the two countries acceded in December 2007, have already brought down the borders. “Back in the Communist era, there were strict controls. People would cross the border to buy some sausage, or nails, basically the items usually trafficked in economies of scarcity,” remembers Gabor, a walker on the riverbank. The sentry boxes may be deserted but an ingrained reflex persists: drivers still slow down at either end of the bridge. The only vestige of a border is a bureau de change — Slovakia has embraced the euro, whereas Hungary is hanging on to her forint.

So everyone gets through. Well, almost everyone.…Last year, Hungarian president Laszlo Solyom got turned back at the border. The equestrian statue of Saint Stephen, the patron saint of Hungary and founder in 1100 of the Hungarian dynasty that was to rule Slovakia for several centuries, had to be inaugurated without him. This commemoration in Komarno, whose mayor happens to be an ethnic Hungarian, along with 60% of the townsfolk, had incensed Bratislava. The presidential visit was slated for August 21, which marks the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, including Hungarian soldiers. That was pretext enough for an outpouring of Slovak grievances. “It’s as though Hungarian soldiers had invaded Czechoslovakia on their own initiative,” quips border agency director Zoltan Bara.

Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday


But these resurgent resentments are not only about symbolic matters. There’s the past, of course — centuries of Magyar domination for the Slovaks, mass expulsions of ethnic minorities after World War II for the Hungarians. And a precarious present. Iveta Radicova’s right-wing Slovak government still hasn’t repealed the restrictions on the use of the Hungarian language promulgated by her populist predecessor Robert Fico.

“These conflicts are fuelled by the politicians,” remarks political scientist Dagmar Kusa. However, opinion polls show that young people's attitudes hardening. Then again, it might not be too late to reverse the trend. In the June elections,Most-Hid (most and hid being the Slovak and Hungarian words, respectively, for “bridge”), the first multiethnic party, raked in the votes in both communities in Komarno – at the nationalists’ expense.


Wreath in our time

On August 22, the former Hungarian president László Sólyom placed at wreath at the statue of Saint Stephen in Komárno, having been prevented from doing so only a year before, notedLidové noviny, The ceremony was the climax of a long rapproachment between the leaders of both countries. "Thanks to the goodwill on both sides, but particularly from the new Slovak government, Budapest and Bratislava have found a middle ground," adds the Prague daily, concluding that "times have indeed changed".

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic