Central Europe's delicate balance of ethnic groups is wobbly

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Kathy's father is Hungarian and her mother German, but she speaks Slovak at work. ``I'm typical here,'' she said, pointing to a map that shows Bratislava on the River Danube near where Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia meet. ``These different cultures always mixed at Bratislava,'' Kathy said.

Her history -- and that of Bratislava -- illustrate the traditional problem of nationalities and minorities in Central Europe. Through the centuries, the region's bewildering national mix caused countless confrontations, uprisings, and wars.

One of the great successes of Soviet domination of the area after World War II was to impose a strict order that calmed traditional tensions. But recently, Hungarians have been complaining about the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in Romania and Czechoslovakia, the Turks have been condemning the treatment of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, and outside the Soviet bloc, restive Albanians in Yugoslavia's Kovoso province continue to threaten that nation's delicate national balance.

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``If the Soviets weren't there to stabilize the situation, all these countries would be fighting each other,'' notes Charles Gati, an Eastern Europe specialist at the Columbia School of International Affairs. While he thinks the Soviets will prevent any explosion, he adds that ``things are beginning to surface again.''

Bratislava itself poses Czechoslovak authorities with two different nationality problems. Despite the forced departure of most Germans after World War II, the city and its surrounding farmland remain home to a large Hungarian minority. Bratislava also is the capital of Slovakia, at the heart of the Czech-Slovak confrontation within federated Czechoslovakia.

The communist regime has made great efforts to satisfy Slovak aspirations. During the reform period of the 1960s, the Slovaks won their demand for the creation of a federation. A separate Slovak Communist Party was the only significant change to survive the 1968 Soviet invasion. And the national President, Gustav Husak, is a Slovak.

The reform also helped spur economic progress. Officials here say, and Western diplomats agree, that the command economy has increased industrial investment to the extent that the region has caught up economically to the historically more advanced economy of Czech-dominated Bohemia.

``Slovakia used to be an economic burden,'' said Emil Flaska, economics editor of Praca, a Bratislava daily. ``Now we are economic equals.''

The process may have gone too far. Though it is hard to gauge in this closely controlled country, diplomats and dissidents report that Czechs now grumble about ``advantages'' given to the Slovaks.

Slovak primacy also dampens Hungarian aspirations. Hungarians lag behind the Slovaks in education, and Hungarians complain of informal job discrimination. They resent attempts to bring in skilled Slovak workers and to industrialize their agricultural areas. They also resent restrictions on travel to visit relatives in Hungary. (Four trips a year are allowed, officially to conserve currency, but some suspect also to limit political contamination from the reformist regime in Budapest.)

These tensions threaten Kathy's Hungarian identity. ``I would like my children to speak Hungarian, so I sent them to a Hungarian kindergarten school,'' she said. ``When they go to university, they must speak Slovak, so I sent them to Slovak grammar schools.''

``Hungarians aren't oppressed,'' she continues. ``But I work in Slovak. My kids are taught in Slovak. Bratislava has become Slovak.''

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