Resolving the Hungarian Minority Issue in Slovakia Essay

Introduction

The distinguishing feature of democratization in the post-communist countries is the on-going search for identity at the center of political life. These countries tend to define their national identity through past experiences, which is rather a dangerous way of interpretation and can lead to illusions. People tend to be rather selective when choosing events from the past and that is what exactly happened in the case of Slovakia and lead to overarching ethnic conflicts between the Slovaks and the Hungarian minority. Consequently, ethnic conflicts and the protection of national minorities have received a prominent place in the political program of Europe because of its danger and importance, respectively. Central and Eastern Europe is in the process of redefining the role of the state and at the same in the process of disintegration of the state. Therefore the process of modernization becomes harder and more challenging as they have to find ways to deal with these two opposing tendencies at the same time. Post-communist countries have to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic structures, which means that national groups have to integrate within and between states.

This can have a direct impact on the democratic process of management of national minorities in the region. The complex relation between the international and national dimension of democratization will be discussed and the latest development in the relationship between Slovakia and its Hungarian minority will be dealt with. This paper seeks to show first the historical background of the minority problem in Slovakia, going back as far as to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to understand the roots of the conflict. Then the Hungarian minority will be discussed from the Slovak point of view and also the other way around the aspirations of the Hungarian minority will be discussed. The Hungarian and Slovak relationship will be discussed with the help of a rather controversial document: the Hungarian Status Law. Thirdly, the international mechanisms and the position of the EU in this minority issue will be discussed. Consequently, the need for an institutional solution emerges, which is the EU, the ‘Europeanization’ and integration of the European countries. Moreover the regionalization policies, which are done by the Committee of the Regions, will be presented as another solution to this minority problem.

Historical background and introduction to the problem

1. ‘Magyarization’ of the Slovaks

The tensions between the Hungarian minority and Slovaks today could be best explained by the history. The Hungarians living today in Slovakia and their forefathers first became a minority in 1918 with the establishment of Czechoslovakia. Until then, their political, cultural, and national existence was similar to that of the united Hungarian nation. This Hungarian minority did not leave its land, but had to face a significant border change at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and the Treaty of Paris in 1947. According to the 2001 census, the Hungarians represent 9.6 percent of the population of Slovakia; they constitute a significant minority group, and are part of the Hungarian ‘diaspora’ resulting from the redrawing of national boundaries in East Central Europe.

Slovakia was a part of the Greater Hungarian Kingdom, where the Slovak nation was largely suppressed by the Hungarian majority. Under the Habsburg Empire and later under Austria-Hungary the ethnic Hungarians dominated the numerous nationalities around them to the end of the First World War in 1918. Slovakia was situated on a poorer agricultural land and had been subject to Budapest’s ‘Magyarization’ policy seeking to suppress and erase Slovaks’ separate ethnic identity.2 Inequalities of every kind before the law were used to wipe out the Slovak heritage, language and culture and turning the whole Slovak nation into Hungarian, so called Magyarization. All these oppressive actions can be considered as ethnic cleansing, whole villages became Magyarized, unable to communicate in their original language and forbidden to learn about their history. This collective memory has inspired the Slovaks to seek for inspirations for the future.

2. Czechoslavakia and re-Slovakization

The Czechoslovak nation came into being in 1918 and is made up of territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nation’s right to self-determination was effectuated and the ‘time for revenge’ for the treatment by Hungarians had come. There were many thousands of Hungarians that had to leave the country or their village where their ancestors have lived since the Middle Ages. The settlement of the Czech and Slovak population began in order to break down the ethnic composition of the compact Hungarian territories. Moreover, Hungarian land properties were confiscated and divided between Czech and Slovak settlers. The creation of large counties and the administrative territorial apportioning in a north-south direction aimed at ensuring that the Hungarian population would remain a majority in as few areas as possible, and thus at eliminating the need to grant to them the right to use their native language. They were deprived of their rights as citizens, their properties were confiscated, several tens of thousands of them were deported to forced labor, the right to employment in state institutions was taken away from them by law and Hungarian-language schools, Hungarian institutions and the Hungarian-language press were forbidden. In June 1946 they were forced by means of the so-called re-Slovakization government decree to renounce their nationality.

3. From the birth of Slovakia until today

The history of both nations explains the tensions between the Slovaks and the Hungarian minority, but there is more to it. Eastern European nations are characterized as nations with strong nationalistic feelings, where the need for self-determination has always been crucial, because of long years of suppression. The perception of a composition of a state in these countries is extensively different than in Western countries. In Slovakia and the other East Central European countries the aim is to create a completely homogenic state consisting only of the respective nation. This past-inspired historically motivated image of Hungarians as danger to the Slovak nation has nearly destroyed Slovakia’s integration into Europe. The break-up of Czechoslovakia during the ‘velvet divorce’ of 1992/93 was a process of Slovak and Czech national revival and self-determination, particularly in Slovakia.

The two ruling parties the Meciar’s HZDS and The Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) carried on a strong nationalistic and anti-Hungarian political program, where they defined the Slovak state as a state consisting of just the Slovak nation, meaning not excepting any other ethnic minorities, mostly concerning the Hungarians. The Constitution of the Slovak Republic adopted on 1 September 1992 defines Slovakia as a nation-state as the Preamble of the basic law designates only the Slovak nation as the country’s framer with the formulation: “We, the Slovak nation…”. According to Friedrich, ‘the constitution can be described as analogous to the rules of a game ensuring fair play’. (Friedrich 1968: 123) Moreover, he discusses that it symbolizes the ideas and thoughts of the people and it is meant to encapsulate the morals of the people, which it rules over. Therefore, the Preamble of the Slovak Constitution clearly shows that the main idea of the Slovak state is to have a one nation state, without including any existing minorities, thus not playing ‘fair play’ with the other ethnic groups within the country.

The European Union objected, saying in 1997 that the Meciar language law could prevent the inclusion of Slovakia into a group of front-runners for EU acceptance, as it doesn’t fulfill in a satisfactory manner the political conditions that the European Council set out. However, today Slovakia has changed dramatically as it is now one of the accession countries joining the EU in May and also it is a member of NATO. The crucial event in Slovakia’s history was the 1998 general elections. This was a turning point in Slovakia’s integration process, since when such crucial issues as the rule of law, the observance of constitutional order, and relations with the minorities and with the Western countries have been considerably improved.

The Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) formed a coalition party with the Hungarian Coalition party (SMK), and with other two parties, and the incoming government was committed to the change of a language law for emphasizing minority language rights. However, the new government has not reopened the question of sub-national regional autonomy and is claimed to maintain the 1996 territorial reforms, as they were still afraid of the Hungarians gaining too much authority. The focus of the new government’s efforts became the formulation of a Minority Language Law, which was passed in July 1999. The Slovak Hungarian opposition was not satisfied with the new language law, because the usage of the minority language in official contacts applies only in areas where the minority group makes up 20% of the population. Moreover, it is limited to official contacts and does not apply to culture, courts and media.

It has been shown above that the Slovak majority fears to give the Hungarian minority any autonomy or ‘too much’ rights as they consider the Hungarians as ‘dangerous’ and accuse all the Hungarian people of a ‘collective guilt’. Definitely, it can be stated that these changes that has been accomplished were only to impress the international organizations and the EU. Therefore, it can be argued whether the Slovak parties would be still pursuing the same political program, against the Hungarian minority, if their EU accession would be in danger by doing that.

The Hungarian minority in the eyes of the majority Slovaks

1. United Nations and minorities

There is no universally agreed definition of a minority, however the definition stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to a National or Ethnic and Religious or Linguistic Minority is rather influential and very important.

Article 1

1 States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.

2. States shall adopt appropriate legislative and other measures to achieve those ends.

Article 5

1. National policies and programmes shall be planned and implemented with due regard for the legitimate interests of persons belonging to minorities.

2. Programmes of cooperation and assistance among States should be planned and implemented with due regard for the legitimate interests of persons belonging to minorities.

2. Slovakia’s perception of the Hungarian minority

There is a controversy over the definition of minorities, because different communities perceive their minorities differently. The major obstacle to agree on a universal definition of minorities is that in some countries the minorities are not recognized as a distinct and separate group. This is the case in Slovakia, as well. As it has been already mentioned, the Slovak nation perceives the Hungarians as ‘dangerous’, because they formulate their judgment according to the past. Slovaks do not want to accept Hungarian claims for autonomy, more cultural rights and institutional autonomy with adequate legal framework. The reason is that they do not acknowledge that fact that Southern Slovakia, where the majority of Hungarians are situated, once belonged to Great Hungary, because they claim that the Southern region has always been part of Slovakia. They see the Hungarians as a group of people, ‘Magyarized’ Slovaks, who endanger the Slovak national identity. Moreover some perceive the Hungarian Coalition Party (MKP) as a ‘Hungarian fascist party, whose leaders should all rather go to Hungary’.

The claim for autonomy by the Hungarian politicians, in practice, cannot really be accomplished. In the Southern region 60-70 % of the population is of Hungarian ethnicity, however the rest is Slovak. Therefore by creating an autonomous Hungarian region in the South would create another minority group in the region, the Slovaks, who would again claim their own rights. Though the above-mentioned claims that Hungarians have could be accomplished without harming the Slovak majority population. However, the reason that these claims are not accomplished is that the Slovaks are not willing to negotiate with the minority, the dialogue between the Slovaks and Hungarians is still limited, simply they just cannot accept the Hungarian perspective for the future of their community.

The unwillingness of the Slovak politicians to make a compromise with Hungary on the acceptance of the Law of the Legal Status of Hungarians Living in Neighboring Countries (Kedvezmnytrvny), known in Slovakia as the ‘Krajansk zkon’, is another example of Slovakia’s hostility towards its Hungarian minority. This law is aiming to give special rights to Hungarians living abroad (Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine), on grounds such as working permits, education and discounts on public transportation. In Slovakia and Romania, where the majority of the Hungarian minority can be found, the law created a political upheaval. Moreover, the EU also found this law rather ambiguous. Firstly, the above-mentioned countries did not agree with this law, because they thought it would infringe on their national sovereignty.

Secondly, the EU did not consider it as a very good law because of historical examples of trans-border nationalism with the Croats and Serbs or at the revision of the Hungarian borders into Czechoslovakia. The EU finds trans-border involvements in ethnic issues dangerous, especially in the East-Central European countries. Therefore the disputes over the acceptation of the Statue Law between Slovakia and Hungary shows, again the impossibility of coming to an agreement between the two nations. Hungary does not want to accept the fact that its minorities living abroad belong to another state and wants to grant ‘partial’ citizenship to all Hungarians in Slovakia to create a political nation in Slovakia. On the other hand Slovakia has always been, and still is, careful with the Hungarian minority and treats all their attempts with great suspicion. This paragraph has shown the sensitivity of the ethnic minority issue between Hungary and Slovakia and shows how hard it is to change the ideology of the ethnic concept of nationhood to a democratic and European identity.

The position of the Hungarian minority and their aspirations

The Hungarian community in Slovakia is more democratic and western minded group, than the Slovak majority: almost 90% of them support Slovakia’s membership in NATO and the EU, while the Slovak support is significantly lower, around 50-60%.6 The Hungarian minority is aware that they live in the Hungarian ancient homeland and they do not consider themselves as a national minority. They do not consider Slovakia as much their homeland; the minority rather sees the territory they live in as a piece of land torn from their own Hungarian homeland. They are very well organized politically and socially. Moreover they accept that their ‘home’, native land is now in a country, which dislikes their existence and shows strong enmity towards them. They do not accept any kind of intention of assimilation. The Hungarian minority is represented in the Slovak government by the Hungarian Coalition Party (MKP), which has been since the 1998 parliamentary election in the leading coalition.

The opposition parties such as the HZDS (Movement for Democratic Slovakia), the SNS (Slovak Nationalist Party) are fiercely fueled with anti-minority rhetoric and they aim to exploit the ethnic issue for political gain. Therefore after the 1998 election, when the MKP became the member of the leading coalition the Hungarians thought there would be more laws passed favoring the minorities. However this happened only to a certain extant. The Hungarians want to pursue their own culture, want to be able to use their native language and to have institutional autonomy with an adequate legal framework. The idea of having an autonomous region for the Hungarians is more favored by the Hungarian politicians in Slovakia than by the people. There were no adequate laws passed concerning the minorities, except the adoption of the Minority Language Law in 1999. There are still some burning issues that the Hungarians addressed to the government but they were not successfully accomplished.

These are such as, changing the preamble of the Slovak Constitution (see above); a constitutional guarantee by which issues concerning the Hungarians would be solved under their own jurisdiction (higher education); creation of at least one administrative county in which the Hungarians would create a significant majority. This last issue is a very sensitive issue among Slovak politicians, because of the fact that such a Hungarian majority county exists; they are afraid that the minority would become too strong and create a completely autonomous region. Slovakia as a multi-ethnic state needs to find an adequate solution to the management of ethnic diversity, however it requires the elimination of nationalism from the political life and Slovak people have to accept the shared citizenship of the Slovak state with the other minorities living in Slovakia. The Hungarian population in Slovakia seeks a solution to this conflict in the European Integration process knowing that without international forces they are not capable of reaching a consensus with the Slovak population, because of lacking interest on the latter side.

International Mechanisms and the European Union

There are a number of international instruments that deal with the protection of minority rights and that are applicable to Slovakia. However these instruments are not effective, because they work on a basis of a reporting procedure, so the only enforcement mechanism is the international humiliation. The most important international mechanism of which Slovakia is part of are the following: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCP), the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. These will be described in the following paragraphs.

1. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Slovakia is part of the OSCE and has signed a number of instruments that deal with the protection of the minorities. However the OSCE is not binding for its member states, therefore it is not so effective and victims of discrimination cannot go to any kind of a court, it works through the politics of shame. The only way violations can be avoided is through international pressure.

The second instrument that the Slovak Republic has signed up for, as the member of the United Nations, is the ICCP. In contrary to the OSCE, it is a binding instrument working through state complaints.

2. European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

The ECHR enforces individual rights, but only after the exhaustion of local remedies. The Slovak Republic is a party to the European Convention, however it does not contain specific provisions on minority rights, only some non-discriminatory human rights could be interpreted in a way that it would apply for the minorities. These rights are for example the rights of freedom of thought and religion (Article 9), expression (Article 10) of association and assembly (Article 2) or the prohibition of torture (Article 3).

3. Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

The Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities contains specific provisions on the protection of national minorities. It guarantees to persons belonging to national minorities the right of equality before the law and of equal protection by the law. In this way it prohibits any discrimination based on belonging to a national minority (Article 4). More importantly it mentions the promotion and preservation of culture, language, religion and traditions and it prohibits forced assimilation (Article 5). It allows for using the minority language when dealing with administrative authorities (Article 19).8 Therefore, when considering the Hungarians, their rights were strongly violated under the Meciar government, when the usage of a minority language was prohibited in offices and in any official places. Even though the situation has improved since then, there is much conditionality when using the minority language in such cases. The provisions of this convention are not directly effective, but they need to be implemented; they are programmatic in nature. There is also a monitoring procedure on the reports handed in by the member States and it is done by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities gives comments and recommendations to Member States on the basis of the comments of the Government of the particular Member State. Moreover it evaluates the country’s standing regarding to the implementation of the minority rights provisions and also comments on their application. The last opinion on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities by Slovakia was adopted in 21 November 2001.9 According to the Committee, Slovakia achieved valuable progress on the implementation of these rights and progress on the support of minorities, their culture and on the relationship between the majority and minority population. However, there is still much to be done in the legal status of minority languages in official contacts, because it still contains shortcomings stemming from the content of the State Language Law and from the lack of detailed legislative provisions on education in minority languages.

The above shown international instruments are one form of solution to the minority problem in Slovakia, though, because of the mentioned reasons in most of the cases they are not effective. Again it can be seen that there is no signal of good intention of Slovaks towards the Hungarian minority as they are not willing to negotiate and compromise. Therefore another solution has to be looked at, that has a higher potential for the resolution of this conflict.

EU and the Committee of the Regions – ‘Regionalization’ and ‘Europeanization’

The main problem in Slovakia, as a post-communist country, is that it doesn’t have a long enough tradition of democratic political institutions. These institutions create a structure for interpreting history and for anticipating the future and they simplify the complexity of heterogeneity by shaping the preferences of participants. According to March and Olsen ‘ political institutions have frequently been seen as preconditions for a civilized society, frequently as symptoms of decay.'(March and Olsen 1989: 159) Therefore institutions have to be created in the country or, as an additional solution, the country has to join an institution that has a supreme power over it and applies different conditions in order to harmonize its level with the better developed Western world. This institution is the European Union, which could be a solution to Slovakia’s ethnic conflict with the Hungarians.

1. Europeanization and the Committee of the Regions

The term ‘Europeanization’ can be considered as a synonym of European integration. It means a shift from the system of nation-state politics to an institutionalized transnational polity. It would involve the implementation of European laws and rules in the different European states and their direct effect on national politics. According to this perspective, as national governments lose competencies to the European level, sub-national entities will attempt to bypass their national government by targeting their demands directly to European actors. Thus, regions become more and more important in policy formulation and policy making.

This process of ‘regionalization’ would significantly weaken the influence of the national level, which would be the most beneficial for the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. The term ‘regionalization’ -power to the regions, to the people – is the main goal of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) that is the newest institution of EU. It was created by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, as a representative assembly with the job of giving local and regional authorities a voice at the heart of the European Union.11 As the majority of the EU legislation is implemented at regional or local level the EU felt the need to give a bigger say for the representatives of the regions. Whenever the Commission or the Parliament is about to take a decision about a new law or legislation, in some areas that are defined by law, they are obliged to consult the Committee of the Regions. Moreover, this method of regionalization ensures the principle of subsidiarity, which brings political decisions closer to the people, thus enhances democracy.

2. Central Eastern Europe and the importance of nationalism

When looking at the Central Eastern European (ECE) countries, the process of decentralization of the state started with the fall of Communism. The characteristic of the ECE countries is the salience of nationalism that is also the major challenge of the process of democratization. In the new era of globalization (Europeanization) domestic politics cannot be divided from international politics. This process, however, requires states to give up their sovereignty, so it does not have the power it used to have before, but, still, its importance should not be underestimated. This is especially true in ECE countries as throughout centuries they were fighting for their independence, sovereignty and were trying to create a one-nation state.

Therefore, the concept of sovereignty is even a more crucial issue for them than to Western European countries. Subsequently, the debate about a ‘federalist Europe’ deals with the same problem, where the main issue is whether states would ever give up their sovereignty and policy-making role to a supranational body. Sbragia states that ‘the territorial dimension within the Community is very powerful and therefore it is unlikely to submerge national governments into some kind of federation, as conventionally defined’. (Sbragia 1992: 258) This statement also demonstrates that sovereignty of a legitimate state is very important because people the forces of nationalism and feelings of social solidarity are contained within that state. Moreover the hostility towards minorities from neighboring countries is another way of sovereignty protection and a sign of the aim of a creation of a one-nation state. Weakening of national sovereignty and of national identity leads to de-territorialized democracy, where transnational forms and institutions gain importance and a new collective identity is constructed by dissolution of ethnically dominated territories. The greatest challenge of this process is to dissolve the historically deep-rooted legitimate nation states into a one whole – Europeanization.

3. Slovakia: Europeanization and Regionalization as a solution to the minority problem

In Slovakia this process was two-dimensional: decentralization and regionalization from the political and administrative point of view, and regionalization from the regional development and regional policy point of view. Firstly, post-socialist transformation to state building was done and then regional governments had to be institutionalized and the building of an institutional legal framework needed to be done in prospect of the EU accession. These regional policies have been adopted and created in order to harmonize the Slovak regional policies with the EU’s regional policies and to apply EU regional policy principles. However, when considering the Hungarian minorities and the regional construction of Slovakia, the system has been done to not to benefit the Hungarians. As it has been mentioned before, the regions of Slovakia are distributed in a vertical way, as the majority live on the Southern border that ensures that the Hungarian minority is not a majority in neither of the regions, counties.

Therefore, in order to benefit from the European regionalization, the regional division of Slovakia has to be revised. However the CoR does not only work on regional level, but also on local or municipal level. The municipal governments in majority Hungarian towns are fairly underrepresented. The national government has the sole right for the distribution of the national budget and therefore these towns were always given less financial support than the Slovak towns. Slovakia, as a member of the EU, has to comply with the subsidiarity principle of the CoR. Therefore, even if the regional division of Slovakia will be not revised, the Hungarian minority can still benefit from the regionalization policies and the subsidiarity principle. The EU and national governments should not take decisions on issues that can be dealt with on local or regional level. Accordingly, representatives of local governments can turn to the CoR members and give their opinions, complaints or claims without the consent of the national government.

The CoR commissions draw opinions that have to be accepted by all the members. Then these ‘drafted opinions’ are sent to the European Parliament and the European Commission for further consideration. There are many advantages of the regionalization from the Hungarian minority’s point of view (more and direct representation). However, from the Slovak national point of view it can have a number of disadvantages. It can create incoherency within the national policies, moreover it can refrain the national sovereignty of the country. Even though, Europeanization sounds very reasonable it cannot deny the importance of national feelings and belonging. Therefore, from the point of view of the Slovak population it has more disadvantages and the granting of more power to regions and local units could bring more discontent of the Slovaks. In addition, the country could become very segregated, which is again not a good solution for resolving minority problems.

Although there are some disadvantages of regionalization and the Europeanization it is still very important for the Hungarians in Slovakia. These policies can only help to resolve the issue of minorities, but the tolerance of the two nations is a crucial element of this solution. European integration is also very important for the whole Europe and hopefully after the EU enlargement the nation states will be of less importance and the European identity will prevail. Ethnic boundaries should be abandoned and many cultures should unite that would be solely divided by their unique historical development.

Conclusion

The results of the Slovak presidential elections, which have taken place on the 17the of April, have made many people doubt the improvement of the situation of the Hungarian minority, and the situation of Slovakia in general, after the EU enlargement. The Slovak population has voted for the ex-prime minister’s, Vladimir Meciar’s, right hand Ivan Ga�parovic, whose authoritarian and nationalist political view does not seem to benefit the Hungarians living in Slovakia. Instead of learning from the past experience and appreciating the present government’s work for the past six years, people seem to vote for the past ‘destroyers’ again. Even though the president has only symbolical powers, he can still veto legislation proposed by the parliament, which could significantly hinder the efforts of the minorities if the president takes advantage of his power.

The Hungarian minority can benefit from the EU enlargement, but the external pressure is not sufficient alone. If there is no internal will of the Slovak politicians and the Slovak people to resolve the conflict significant improvements won’t be seen. Therefore the proposed institutional solutions, regionalization and Europeanization, have strong potential for resolving the conflict between the two nations, but only if the Slovak nation goes a step forward, does not judge the Hungarians according to the history and makes an effort to develop a good relationship with the Hungarians. The Slovak nation and politicians have to realize that by creating a good relationship with its minorities, in this case the Hungarians, would also prospect Slovakia. On the one hand it would create internal peace and good relationship between Slovakia’s populations and on the other hand by resolving the internal conflict Slovakia’s relationship would also improve with its neighboring country, Hungary.

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