The World from Berlin Slovakia and Hungary 'Dangerously Close to Playing with Fire'

There is growing concern about a war of words between Bratislava and Budapest after Slovakia told the Hungarian president not to enter the country for a statue-unveiling ceremony. German media commentators are unanimous in their opinion that Europe must intervene to stop an escalation.

On the face of it, it would appear to be a minor affair: the erecting of a statue. But now it has set off a war of words that threatens to ratchet up the brewing conflict between Slovakia and Hungary to a whole new -- and more dangerous -- level.

Last Friday, Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom was scheduled to make a supposedly private visit to the mostly ethnically Hungarian town of Komarno in Slovakia, which was unveiling a statue of King Stephen I of Hungary, who ruled over the Hungarians in the late 10th and early 11th century.

But when it heard about the event, the Slovakian government sent a note to Solyom on Friday saying that he was not welcome in Slovakia on this particular day and that his planned visit was a "provocation."

The reasons why Slovakia was upset about the possible visit are varied and sometimes contradictory. First, there was the issue of the King Stephen, the subject of the statue to be erected. According to the German news agency DPA, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told the state-run Slovak news agency TASR that the king ruled during the worst period of assimilation policies against minorities in Hungarian-ruled regions. "No one should pretend Stephen was also a Slovak king," he added.

'An Egregiously Rude Provocation'

Fico seems to have changed his tune a bit later by having Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak release a statement saying that the real cause of offense was the fact that a representative of the Slovakian state had not been invited to the ceremony as well. The statement noted how Slovaks revered King Stephen as well and that Slovaks and Hungarians should be celebrating their "shared histories." Lajcak added that not inviting a Slovak statesman when the event was taking place on Slovakian soil was also "an egregiously rude provocation when it comes to good neighborly relations."

The next reason for slight was the particular day picked for the statue's unveiling, which Lajcak called "insensitive and rude." The ceremony was scheduled for Friday, Aug. 21, which is also the day that Slovaks commemorate Alexander Dubcek, the Slovak politician who led the liberalization movement in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring. On this day in 1968, Warsaw Pact military forces -- including Hungarian soldiers -- invaded Czechoslovakia and put down the movement.

The episode has angered many Hungarians. On Tuesday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Balazs told the Austrian newspaper Der Standard: "The Slovakian government is trying to get a lot of mileage out of animosity toward ethnic Hungarians."

Ethnic Tensions

Some background to this conflict can be found in the Treaty of Trianon, signed in Versailles in 1920. The peace treaty between the victors of World War I and the government of Hungary drew borders that left millions of ethnic Hungarians living outside the state's borders. Today, ethnic Hungarians make up 10 percent of Slovakia's population of 5.4 million. Tensions between the two groups have been exacerbated recently by language regulations, a dispute regarding geographical names in a school textbook and the harsh anti-Hungarian rhetoric of Jan Slota, the chair of the right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS), which is part of Fico's coalition government. ("The Hungarians are a cancer in the body of the Slovak nation," Slota is quoted as saying.) The tense situation has led many ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia to lobby for a degree of self-administration or autonomy, while those opposed to such plans view them as steps toward a reunified "Greater Hungary."

These problems are not limited to their Slovak-Hungarian aspect. There is also tension between Hungary and Romania, where 1.5 million ethnic Hungarians live. In March, when Solyom had planned to take part in Hungarian national day celebrations in Romania with ethnic Hungarians, Romania withdrew his plane's landing permit and forced him to enter the country by car.

In Tuesday's newspapers, German commentators expressed both worry and outrage over the current situation. They worry that, if left alone, this problem festering in the southeastern corner of the EU might explode into a repeat of the Yugoslavia of the early '90s. And they are livid that the EU has done little to mediate and diffuse this potentially explosive situation.

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Events in the southeastern corner of the EU have disturbing echoes of times gone by. The governments are unwilling to compromise and are on very limited speaking terms. Instead of speaking openly and directly with each other as neighbors, they prefer to cater to their nationalistic clients in their own countries. What happened over the weekend on the Danube east of Vienna sounds very odd to people in Western Europe. It sounds exotic, far-out, grotesque and almost laughable."

"But even if the conflict seems rather insignificant at the moment, these Eastern European arguments are very bitter. The Slovaks view the Hungarian president's attempted visit as a provocation, while the Hungarians are talking about the affair as if it involved a breach of international law. This is becoming dangerously close to playing with fire. Today, it's hard for anyone to imagine that things between Slovakia and Hungary could escalate. But, in the 1990s, the Yugoslavians showed us all that very different -- and unimaginable -- things are still possible even in today's Europe."

"For the time being, we still just have what seems like a good-old-fashioned war of words between Hungary and Slovakia. But given the fact that neither of the countries by themselves is in a position to initiate a rapprochement, a mediator must be found. In this case, the only plausible third party is the EU. Brussels needs to hurry up and get some people on the ground in the capital cities of Budapest and Bratislava. We need this conflict like we need a hole in the head. And if the EU can keep a lid on this conflict, it would have an immensely positive effect on the entire region."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"At first glance, guilt and innocence in this case seem to be easily divided on the northern and southern sides, respectively, of the Danube. It has never happened that one EU member state has told the president of another one -- and particularly a neighboring one -- that he was persona non grata and that he wouldn't be able to enter the country."

"Bratislava's reaction is an exaggeration, as is a lot of what Fico's nationalistic coalition has devised against the Hungarians and, in particular, the Hungarian minority in Slovakia."

"This minority ... is both the cause and the object of the fight between Bratislava and Budapest, which first emerged after Slovakia and Hungary were again allowed to speak for themselves. Worries about whether 'their Hungarians' would want to secede did not really put any constraints on what turned out to be Slovakia's successful effort to become its own country. Slovakian fears were fed not only by calls from the politically well-organized minority for various forms of autonomy, but also from the protective claims of Budapest that it would like to see all the Hungarians who were cut off from their own country by the Treaty of Trianon be able to live on land controlled by Hungary."

"This conflict might help the Fico government domestically in that it might divert attention for a short time away from the economic crisis. In foreign-policy terms, though, he has nothing to win here. Hungarians are currently being celebrated in Germany as the heroes of Sopron who helped bring about the end of the Cold War , while the Slovakian leadership is viewed as being almost hopeless when it comes to public relations. Budapest immediately reported what happened to Brussels, which is something that the victims always do. Some EU member states have been intimately familiar with the details for a long time. To them, it always comes back to the Treaty of Trianon signed in Versailles 89 years ago."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Where is the presidency of the European Council and the European Commission when they are really needed? They seem to be very cautious and trying to keep a low profile. At least that is what they are doing in the dangerously escalating conflict between Slovakia and Hungary, both of which are EU member states. Brussels says that this is a 'bilateral issue.' It's right to criticize the central institutions of the EU for passing bureaucratically abstract regulations about things that can be solved much better -- and much more easily -- at the local level by the people who are directly affected by them. On the other hand, though, it's absurd for the EU to keep out of conflicts when there is absolutely no doubt that those affected by it have no desire to resolve it."

"It's also right to praise the EU for having the decisive engine in effecting reconciliation between various European populations. But, given this track record, the EU can't stay out of it when two of its member states are going at each other so strongly and are interacting in such an intransigent way as the Slovaks and Hungarians are now doing."

Josh Ward -- with wire reports
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