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Hungarian-Slovak relations are tense these days
August 31, 2009 2:22 AM   Subscribe

First there was the State Language Act that many Hungarians and EU observers claim discriminates against the significant Hungarian minority in Slovakia. The Slovaks were predictably indigent. The issue isn't new though. Relations soured further when the Slovaks recently refused entry to the Hungarian President. Clearly, there is much history to overcome.
posted by vac2003 (34 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think you may have meant indignant.
posted by milquetoast at 2:41 AM on August 31, 2009


The Slovaks may well end up indigent if they keep pissing off the rest of EU like this, though.
posted by Skeptic at 2:47 AM on August 31, 2009


I think you may have meant indignant.

Goddammit - modern-day spell checkers. You are right of course, I mean indignant. Now I have learnt a new word too - perhaps I am less linguistically indigent?
posted by vac2003 at 3:02 AM on August 31, 2009


I HTINK YOU MEANT INDIGNIT
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 3:23 AM on August 31, 2009


Oh for an edit capacity
posted by A189Nut at 3:47 AM on August 31, 2009


Nice try, Skeptic, but you're not going to get people to start talking about the actual topic that easily.
posted by No-sword at 4:25 AM on August 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think the Hungarians were indigent, that's how they ended up in Slovakia, no?
posted by Pollomacho at 4:38 AM on August 31, 2009


Huh. I'm one quarter Hungarian and one quarter Slovak. So I guess the two quarters hate one another and that's why I'm so screwed up?
posted by Clay201 at 4:52 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was in Budapest recently and witnessed a large march of an organisation called 'Jobbik'. Quite scary looking guys n girls. I asked my Hungarian friend what the organisation wanted to which he replied, dead pan, "Slovakia and Transylvania". Strange that the EU can harbour so many groups that are still bickering over national boundaries.
posted by Gratishades at 5:13 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


So what is the situation on the ground? Are some Hungarian speaking Slovaks posting info in Hungarian that causes issues for Slovaks who don't speak it? Is this law actually about making sure info is available in multiple languages, or is it really just a petty racist joust?
It doesn't really grok for me where all government info of any consequence is available in multiple languages, and there are government funded interpreter services as well (in a country where English is the only official language, and is spoken by 90%+).
posted by bystander at 5:19 AM on August 31, 2009


Not letting people use the language they speak best for conducting business in certain instances is just fucked up.
posted by kldickson at 5:35 AM on August 31, 2009


I think the Hungarians were indigent, that's how they ended up in Slovakia, no?
Not so much Hungarians ended up in Slovakia, more the case that Slovakia ended up around the Hungarians.
posted by XQUZMYFUR at 5:48 AM on August 31, 2009


No wonder the Slovak government is passing this law! They're ruled by nationalists.
posted by kldickson at 5:57 AM on August 31, 2009


I'm one quarter Hungarian and one quarter Slovak. So I guess the two quarters hate one another and that's why I'm so screwed up?

If only you were also one quarter German and one quarter Russian, then you'd have no trouble keeping your other half repressed.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:59 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


How will they police this? It sounds like a nightmare to administrate. From the links you provided it seems it will only apply to things like political communication and public services like banks, postage etc. This wouldn't apply to general services like shops and local service industries, yes?
I live in a very culturally mixed neighbourhood but most of the shop signage is in Arabic. The last neighbourhood I lived in most of signage was in Chinese. They, and their Slovakian equivalents wouldn't be subject to fines under similar government legislative acts?
posted by tellurian at 6:19 AM on August 31, 2009


I'm really sad to see how closed to other cultures Slovakia tends to be. I have family there that I have visited in the past and have had about three depressing as hell trips to Bratislava. My father's entire half of the family is Slovak and he grew up in the 40's in NYC apartments filled wth separatist and nationalist literature spewing things like, "The Czechs drink beer! they're uncivilized! We drink wine! We'd be better off with out them!" At that point, many of the immigrant adults still remembered the sting of Hungarian rule, were forced to learn Hungarian in school, etc. Many of those same people felt being lumped in with the Czechs was an insult and not helpful to their national identity. Some even went so far as to proclaim that Štefánik's death was an assassination.

Flash forward to the early 90's, when it's clear the velvet divorce is becoming inevitable. My father has a couple of cousin's come to visit, and they are talking about how great an independent Slovak state would be. When my father asks how hey will do well with such little industrialization, he is brushed off. When he asks why the are being so nationalistic, they get offended. A couple day's later, the cousin's sister calls my grandmother to relay the following message: "We're not nationalists, we just want our own country." Looking at survey's from this time, she wasn't alone, either. There was a huge amount of confusing, conflicting opinion out there, like Slovaks wanting to be independent from the Czechs, but wanting to share a military still. Slovaks wanting to keep Czechoslovakia in tact, but wanting more regional autonomy. I honestly think there was a lot of misinformation spread and there was no clear vision of what an independent Slovakia would look like. I also think there is a pretty compelling case that the separation was orchestrated far more by conservative politicians in Prague that were convinces the Slovaks were a parasite than as a grassroot uprising of the Slovak people.

My point is, there is a ton of bad blood in the region. Generations of Slovaks were ruled by one outside source or another, forced to learn other languages and generally denied large parts of their cultural heritage. While I'm not happy that they want to now impose the same kinds of oppressive measures on their minority population I understand where it stems from. I just wish they'd learn from their own past.
posted by piratebowling at 6:34 AM on August 31, 2009 [8 favorites]


You would think this is France or something.
posted by caddis at 6:38 AM on August 31, 2009


I'm French Canadian. By birth only because of the asinine separatist bullshit during the seventies that drove corporate canada from montreal. To protect their language the nationalists triggered a mass exodus of the most successful of their own people to English Canada where their children grew up without any French culture at all.

Nationalists are fools cleaning loaded guns.
posted by srboisvert at 8:03 AM on August 31, 2009


It's sort of the same story in Latvia, insofar as the Russian minority (actually something like 25-30%!) is concerned. At (re-)independence in 1991, Latvian passports/citizenship - and hence, now, the right to live/work elsewhere in the EU - were not automatically granted to people whose forebears weren't around in June 1940, which mostly affected ethnic Russians (as well as Ukrainians and Belorussians). Many "non-citizens" suffer from job limitations (some jobs are reserved for Latvian citizens), limits on what they can vote on, pension issues, travel problems, and a variety of other hassles which Latvian citizens do not deal with.

There's a huge economic divide as well: in the Riga-Jelgava-Jurmala area and Daugavpils, the largest urban areas with over half the population, fully half the people speak Russian as their mother tongue; in the countryside, you may find one or two native Russian speakers in a village of hundreds of people.

This is a huge problem, as generations have grown up going to Russian-language schools, speaking Russian at home, watching Russian TV, listening to Russian music, and are (as far as I understand it - things may have changed recently) expected to pass 60% of their high school exams in Latvian - a language which is only verrrry distantly related to Russian or other Slavic languages like Polish, Ukrainian, or, indeed, Slovak, though there are a number of loanwords.

Pretty much every non-public institution has recognized the need for bilingualism (and, really, multi-lingualism - English is easily the most popular non-local language people choose to study there, and German's popular too), so it's relatively easy to get service in a supermarket or a bank or a kiosk or something in both Latvian and Russian and very often in English; government, political parties and social groups are bilingual too. But in a few years, the high school students of today who have grown up speaking exclusively Latvian at home and learning English in school will be, perhaps, unable to communicate with the older Russian people living next door who never studied a foreign language, and had never needed Latvian at all, really, until 1991.

Being on either side of that relationship is uncomfortable: either you're not respecting your neighbors by making sure you can communicate with them, or you're compromising your idea of what your country should be. Even within the same generation, and especially with younger teenagers who are only just becoming aware of this stuff on a personal level, it's not very nice to be the only Latvian-speaker in a class of mostly Russian-speakers, and vice versa, as happened at the language school in Riga where I was teaching a few times.

Of course, Latvians of all nationalities want the best for their country, and "Russians" born 50 years after their families left Russia wouldn't have much of a home back "home" over the border, just as a second- or third-generation descendant of immigrants from anywhere would have a hard time adjusting to life in the "motherland." But even if Latvia granted citizenship to all residents of the country tomorrow, that wouldn't stop society from being bilingual, and perhaps would lead people to avoid learning one language or the other now that they didn't "need" it for a passport or a job or something.

The issue really is this: what does it mean to be a citizen of a country? I'm not sure we've figured that out yet as a species.
posted by mdonley at 8:03 AM on August 31, 2009


It's weird how backwards the Eastern European form of nationalism seems from here; so Gavrilo Princip, so 20th Century.

I suppose it helps to just kill off the indigenous population.
posted by klangklangston at 8:40 AM on August 31, 2009


Slovakia's state language act says that a minority language has to be spoken by at least 20% of the local population before it is allowed to be used for government services. Otherwise, transacting government business outside of Slovak is illegal. One really has to wonder what the point of this all is. Slovakia is overwhelmingly Slovak. It's not as though they're going to start buckling under the agitation of the Hungarian or Rusyn-speaking menace. The situation seems quite different from places like Latvia and Estonia where the native language of those countries sometimes seems genuinely endangered by large numbers of Russian-speakers. Is there anyone who can give us a run-down about what's causing these tensions in Slovakia with the level of detail that mdonley has for Latvia?

I thought we were getting to a point in society were countries could afford to become more accommodating of minority languages, not less.
posted by deanc at 9:04 AM on August 31, 2009


klangklangston Not only Eastern European, the language laws here in Belgium are as absurd and narrow-minded as anything the Slovaks can muster.
posted by Skeptic at 9:25 AM on August 31, 2009


I suppose it helps to just kill off the indigenous population.

If not the indigent.

Either way, I'm pretty indignant about it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:29 AM on August 31, 2009


…but I digress.
posted by klangklangston at 10:15 AM on August 31, 2009


I do note with some amusement that one of our family friends with the last name of Moravec, who has, as far as I know, lived his entire life in North Riverside, Illinois (with perhaps a sojourn to Berwyn) refers to people cheaper or less cultured than himself as "fucking Slovaks." Since he's, I guess, Czech. It always seemed amusing because to our predominantly-German family, it was like, Jesus, who the fuck can tell you from the Slovaks anyway?
posted by klangklangston at 10:20 AM on August 31, 2009


Is there anyone who can give us a run-down about what's causing these tensions in Slovakia with the level of detail that mdonley has for Latvia?

I can't claim to be an expert, but I'm in Hungary now, speak Hungarian (as well as several Slavic languages, English, and pretty fair Romanian, French, German and a few others.) I am by birth a Bosnian Muslim and by citizenship an American. Because of a lot of factors, I tend to pay close attention to these sorts of things, especially in eastern Europe. So while I may miss a few things, here are some facts that seem relevant to me re: Slovakia.

1) Hungarians may make up 9-10% of the Slovakian population, but they are concentrated in certain parts of the country (mainly along the border) and thus have greater influence in certain regions than that statistic would imply. There are counties in Slovakia with Hungarian majorities.

2) The Roma (Gypsy) "problem" is especially palpable in Slovakia, which does not deal terribly well with its Roma population, who have a birth rate several times higher than that of Slovakians and this demographic reality is perceived as a threat. (Same in Romania.) Similarly, the Hungarian birth rate is a bit higher than that of Slovakians in Slovakia and reasonably higher than Romanians in Transylvania. So the backlash against Hungarians has roots in a backlash against "outsiders" of any kind, but for many, that's the Roma population first and foremost - the Hungarians kind of get bundled in. I should note that a realistic estimate for the percentage of Roma in Slovakia is just under that of the Hungarian minority - about 8-9%. And many live in the south, which means this part of the country isn't at all "overwhelmingly Slovakian." Much of it is like the NE part of Hungary in make up - very Hungarian, with a very large Roma minority.

3) Hungary lost territory after WWI, regained much of it as a German ally in WW2, and lost tons of it again after WWII - to the tune of roughly two-thirds of its land, including a lot of land that was / is seen as the spiritual heart of the nation. Many of these parts had a Hungarian majority, too. And if you think it's fair that a "losing" nation should lose territory after a war, bear in mind that Hungary lost territory even to *Austria!*. The lost land included all of Transylvania, the sole outlet to the sea (now part of Croatia) and more. Hungarians feel - with some real justification - that they gave up more than any other country in Europe and were unfairly "punished." And many a Hungarian has mentioned how the US and other nations inspired them to rise up against Communism, only to again be betrayed when they were the first nation to do so in a big way (which is true on many levels.) So, when I buy one of those "tilting" postcards that shows a map of modern Hungary when you look at it from one angle, and a map of "Nagy" (Great) Hungary when viewed from a different angle, this isn't a curiosity as much as a way of keeping the bitterness and historical unfairness going in novel ways. In the past two days, I have seen a motorcyclist with a silhouette of Great Hungary on his leather jacket and a village guy with a Great Hungary belt buckle. To many it's ancient history, but the pride some Hungarians have in their "sadly lost" past is seen as a threat by others - especially in Slovakia and (Transylvanian) Romania. It's worth noting that even Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was originally a very important Hungarian town.

3) In parts of Slovakia and Transylvania, the Hungarians are often more wealthy and more likely to own big estates and businesses than their non-Hungarian peers. Most of my Romanian friends would agree with the statement, "The Hungarians are better at business than the Romanians." This may or may not be true; the important fact is that many people feel this way, and are threatened / made to feel insecure about it.

4) When the current borders were made between Slovakia and Hungary, most Slovakians in Hungary voluntarily moved to their "new" homeland. Most Hungarians had to be forced, and many still didn't move. Many Hungarians still make claims to lost property - so there's a kind of Slovakia-centric reason to keep the Hungarians down a bit; there's always been a fear that Hungarians will return to what they were forced from, and a bit of shame for having forced them.

5) Slovakia has (in my opinion) a little inferiority complex stemming from its days as the less-important and considerably poorer half of Czechoslovakia. I'm sure that plays a role.

6) The Roma (Gypsy) "problem" is especially palpable in Slovakia, which does not deal terribly well with its Roma population, who have a birth rate several times higher than that of Slovakians and this fact is perceived as a "threat." Similarly, the Hungarian birth rate is a bit higher than that of Slovakians in Slovakia and reasonably higher than Romanians in Transylvania. So the backlash against Hungarians has roots in a backlash against "outsiders" of any kind, but for many, that's the Roma population first and foremost. I should note that a realistic estimate for the percentage of Roma in Slovakia is just under that of the Hungarian minority - about 8-9%.

7) The Hungarians tend to be stubborn as mules, and they're not really into assimilation, much like the Russians in Latvia. Part of the problem may be the extent to which Hungarian isn't similar to any other language in the area (being a non-Indo-European one) and part of it may be the well-developed sense of Hungarian superiority - many cultures have something like that, but as much as I like Hungarians, it is weirdly pervasive in their culture. The Romanians, for what it's worth, have the same feeling about Romanian Hungarians. And I have several Romanian Hungarian friends - smart enough to have earned PhDs in US universities - who grew up in Romanian and know only a few dozen Romanian words.

These points certainly aren't close to being complete, and they may not answer the question to anyone's satisfaction - but it's all I have.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:53 PM on August 31, 2009 [9 favorites]


I live in Budapest. The best explanation I can give is that the whole Slovak/Magyar crisis over the last year has been stage managed by incompetent and mediocre politicians on both sides eager for nationalist support in their home press. Hungary is led by a inept “socialist” government whose ex-prime minister Gyurcsany Ferenc resigned in May, but as a last ditch effort to gain popular support he started slagging on the Slovaks after their cops beat up some Hungarian nationalist football hooligans (he was actually angry because Hungarian businesses have been relocating to the Hungarian speaking areas of Slovakia because of lower taxes since Hungary and Slovakia got into the EU.) In response, the very mediocre Slovak PM promoted this dumb language law. Our exceedingly mediocre President, Laszlo Solyom, then decided to visit a Slovak border town with a large Hungarian minority without following established diplomatic protocol, and he was refused entry. Last week Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Slovak Embassy in Budapest (but they didn’t explode. Ah, Hungarians….) Today the Slovak PM Fico said he would meet with the Hungarian PM Bajnai. This hasn’t happened in over a decade. It is all incredibly petulant.

As it stands, you can’t buy a fishing license in Hungary using the Slovak language, but at least they don’t fine the local official for trying to speak Slovak to you. In Slovakia they could fine you. In theory, the Slovak law itself will get tossed out by the European courts as soon as a German tourist tries to pay a parking fine in Novy Zamky.

The best source for this issue is the Hungarian Spectrum, written by a US based retired Yale Professor of East European studies. Politics.hu also has been covering it, but is most amusing for the comments sections, which are colonized by British born neo-nazi expats working for the ultra right wing Jobbik party.
posted by zaelic at 1:04 PM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


5) Slovakia has (in my opinion) a little inferiority complex stemming from its days as the less-important and considerably poorer half of Czechoslovakia. I'm sure that plays a role.

Bingo. I know it's not the whole story, but it's a huge part.
posted by piratebowling at 1:15 PM on August 31, 2009


Slovaks used to have that "inferiority complex" but they cured it - they separated from Czechoslovakia. And for ten years they couldn't blame the Czechs for all their troubles. And they had Vladimir Meciar as PM from 1990 to 2000 - a corrupt, ex-communist nationalist who let the country go to hell while he and his politicos got rich. When he lost power a generation of young Slovaks who had ten years of experience with the West took over, established an investment-friendly flat tax regime which works rather well, and foreign industries poured into Slovakia, bringing jobs galore. In fact, the prospects for Slovakia are that in a few years they will have to import labor from abroad. Less unemployment meant that Gypsies - the chronically unemployed - suddenly were back in the workforce. Korean and Japanese manufacturers didn't really care what kind of "Slovak" they were training for a job at the electronics plant, and now you have Gypsy families where the kids are accustomed to watching Dad go to work every morning and bring home a decent pay check - unheard of ten years ago.

The corolary is that nearly every multinational industry (Danone, Panasonic) in Hungary has relocated to Slovakia - why pay a 40% tax when you can pay 17%?
posted by zaelic at 1:28 PM on August 31, 2009


Thanks for that detailed rundown, Dee. That's pretty much what I was looking for.

So, when I buy one of those "tilting" postcards that shows a map of modern Hungary when you look at it from one angle, and a map of "Nagy" (Great) Hungary when viewed from a different angle, this isn't a curiosity as much as a way of keeping the bitterness and historical unfairness going in novel ways.

You probably know as well as everyone else, though, that lots of (all?) countries in the Balkans typically have one of those "greater/historical [insert country here]" maps which you can buy in poster or t-shirt form, usually for the same reasons as you describe.
posted by deanc at 2:18 PM on August 31, 2009


I keep reading stuff like this and it's making me more worried all the time. Europe really, really needs a serious popular movement against ethnic paranoia. Effort to build trust have to be demanded from all sides. Fatalistic xenophobia and wishful multiculturalism will both result in bitterness and violence.
posted by Anything at 3:11 PM on August 31, 2009


7) The Hungarians tend to be stubborn as mules, and they're not really into assimilation, much like the Russians in Latvia. Part of the problem may be the extent to which Hungarian isn't similar to any other language in the area (being a non-Indo-European one) and part of it may be the well-developed sense of Hungarian superiority - many cultures have something like that, but as much as I like Hungarians, it is weirdly pervasive in their culture. The Romanians, for what it's worth, have the same feeling about Romanian Hungarians. And I have several Romanian Hungarian friends - smart enough to have earned PhDs in US universities - who grew up in Romanian and know only a few dozen Romanian words.

As Dee said, I see a lot of this in Transylvania (or Erdély, to use the Hungarian), and I'd imagine the attitudes that the ethnic Hungarian population here has are pretty similar to those in Slovakia, if the manifestations are somewhat different. The city I live in is about equal parts Hungarian/Romanian, with street signs in both languages and a lot of people speaking at least a few words of "the other" language (though often only enough to buy some food at a market or order in a restaurant). The woman I rent my apartment from speaks only a little Romanian, and her elderly parents none at all. Schools here have Romanian and Hungarian classes--within the same school, but taught in the native tongue by different teachers. It's pretty easy even in a balanced city like this for people to keep to their cultural enclaves, shopping and socialising and going to church with people of their own ethnic group, even if there really aren't proper neighbourhoods or quarters.
Then there are communities in this region that can be 95% Hungarian, and visiting them feels just like visiting a village in Hungary. People are pretty forgiving of me accidentally mixing Hungarian and Romanian sometimes when I speak, but I have a feeling that's only because I'm an obvious foreigner (and I've occasionally done it in Hungary, to a much chillier reception). I hear a lot of Romanians complain about "the Hungarians", that they don't learn Romanian or that they have their own universities or that they want political representatives that will forward an agenda of autonomy, but not much about it from the Hungarians. In my personal experience, the Romanians complain, and the Hungarians silently dig in their heels and go on living their lives. (Though there is a nearby majority Hungarian city which sports a statue of an eagle, ripping Transylvania away from Romania.) I've never heard any of my Hungarian friends here say they're superior, but I can see how their sticking to their own language and culture might be seen that way, especially by those who think that they should assimilate.

I have heard the "Hungarian superiority" theory bandied about by a lot of foreigners, though. Pretty much the only parts of Romania that attract tourists are the areas in Transylvania, and people will often comment that people here are nicer and more accepting of foreigners, the cities are cleaner, and generally that the "good" parts of Romania are the Hungarian parts. Casual observation seems to indicate that a lot of the NGO's in this region are run by Hungarians, which also gives an impression to outsiders that they are more interested in working to improve the place they live. Aside from Bucureşti and Iaşi (which have the big-city draw) not a lot of people are visiting Moldova and Wallachia. I know people in the States with Hungarian ancestry that never set foot in their home country talking about how all Romanians are dirty thieves, and much like klangklangston's friend referring to "fucking Slovaks", I've heard these people say "dirty Romanians", and a lot of this goes back to when Transylvania was annexed. (Probably also a good dose of that national pride that one can only seem to get when they've never been to the country of their ancestry.)

d'oh, something of a derail. hopefully it's helpful in giving an idea of the mindset, though.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 7:47 AM on September 1, 2009


Thanks for some great contributions to this post - I enjoyed reading them a great deal. I did fear a Reddit-like derail over my initial malapropism but we got past that OK. Actually I see a post about this issue did make the Reddit front page today. It was also on the 6:30am Radio New Zealand news bulletin today too. Great to see the coverage of this issue.

My own experience of what this all means was three years ago stopping at a small village in Slovakia next to the Ipoly river and border with Hungary. We were exploring the local church which for some reason I can't recall was clearly Hungarian. We meet an older woman parishioner, (a néni, in Hungarian). She had tears in eyes as she described how the Hungarian-speaking priest had been replaced by the Bishop with a Slovak priest who did not speak Hungarian. She could no longer attend Mass in her language and that over her parents, grand-parents, great-grand-parents, in the village we she and her family had lived for generations.

We live in our language, it is how we express our very being. It is not a "thing apart" from us. And any laws that makes it more difficult to express ourselves in our language is direct affront to our basic humanity.
posted by vac2003 at 10:55 PM on September 1, 2009


I know this thread is unlikely to have any further discussions but the poet and translator, George Szirtes, neatly summed up the motivation behind the introduction of this law, in a recent post on his blog.

"Stop them speaking to each other, is the solution. Watch them carefully. Make their lives as hard as you can. They should not be aiming to be a version of themselves, but an inferior version of us."
posted by vac2003 at 12:59 PM on September 2, 2009


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