Hungarian Minority Wary In Independent Slovakia

Although the new Constitution speaks of minority rights, ethnic Hungarians see warning signs of trouble ahead

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HERE in Dunajska Streda, a mostly agrarian town in southern Slovakia, Hungarian culture seems anything but repressed. As in many other towns along the Slovak border with Hungary, the majority of residents here are Hungarian - 84 percent out of a total population of 25,000. Dunajska Streda has been inhabited by Hungarians for about 1,000 years.

The town is bilingual, with store-front and street signs in Hungarian and Slovak. City hall conducts official business in both languages, as well. Three grammar schools and a high school teach exclusively in Hungarian. The city library collection is half Hungarian, half Slovak, and Hungarian-language television and newspapers are easily available.

"We haven't got any problems with the Slovaks who live here," says Dunajska Streda's Hungarian mayor Arpad Ollos. "The Slovaks are our friends." Yet Mr. Ollos is still worried about the Hungarian minority's future after Slovak independence Jan. 1.

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Interviews with ethnic Hungarians in Slovakian towns show they have few serious complaints about present, everyday relations with the Slovaks, but that they have great fears about the future course of this relationship. Strong supporters of the Czechoslovak federation, the 600,000 Hungarians in Slovakia (about 11 percent of the population) are deeply concerned about Slovak nationalism and the newly emerging Slovak state.

"I have lots of fears for the coming independent Slovakia," says Arpad Duka Zolyomi, a member of the Slovak Parliament and of Coexistence, an ethnic Hungarian political party. Coexistence and the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement have 14 seats in the Slovak Parliament.

Mr. Duka Zolyomi maintains that essential guarantees for minority rights are either vaguely worded or non-existent in Slovakia's new Constitution (the Hungarians were locked out of the Constitution's drafting).

An expected economic downturn in Slovakia could turn Hungarians and other minorities (Gypsies, Ukranians, and Germans) into scapegoats for Slovak social and economic misery, he says, and adds that Hungarian schools could also be dismantled with the excuse that budget cuts make this unavoidable. He even worries whether his party will survive, given that there is no specific provision for minority political parties in the constitution.

Ethnic Hungarians began to see warning signs "as soon as the self-determination process of Slovakia started," just after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, says Coexistence spokesman Laslo Molnar. Nationalist Slovaks held anti-Hungarian demonstrations. The Slovak Parliament dropped the tradition of a Hungarian as one of its deputy chairmen.

The most recent outrage, in Hungarian eyes, was the October decree from the Slovak Ministry of Transport to replace all bilingual signs for Hungarian towns and villages with Slovak ones, in accordance with the 1990 Slovak language law. Mayor Ollos refuses to carry out this order, although signs have been forcibly removed from some towns. Slovak names of places are also to be used in Hungarian-language television programming.

Because the Hungarian school system and Hungarian-language television are administered by Slovaks, ethnic Hungarian politicians are demanding cultural and educational autonomy: the right to self-administration of these areas. They also demand, in the long-term, territorial autonomy - not succession from Slovakia, but the redistricting of counties to correspond to Hungarian population and the right to hold elections at the county level rather than have officials appointed.

The Hungarian concerns are a riddle to Slovak politicians. The Slovaks argue they have gone above and beyond the European norm in minority rights. For instance, the new Slovak Constitution has a section specifically devoted to minority rights, such as protection of minority languages and the guarantee of minority cultural and educational institutions. The Slovak state budget completely finances Hungarian schools here.

"No one is considering any reduction in rights of minorities," says Milan Secansky, Slovak chairman of the parliamentary committee on the Constitution. "On the other hand," he says, "we won't allow a disguised attack against Slovaks that lies behind this demand for rights."

Mr. Secansky and other leading Slovak politicians (including Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar) often point to rival Budapest as the real instigator of tensions. "Some people still dream of a big Hungary," Secansky warns.

In the new year the Hungarian group in the Slovak Parliament will introduce new legislation to clear up ambiguities and guarantee wider-ranging rights for minorities. They are expected to have the backing of the Slovak Democratic Left Party (the successor to the Communists), which is the second-strongest party in the Slovak Parliament.

In the meantime, the Hungarian-Slovak tension is limited mostly to Hungarian and Slovak politicians here. As Coexistence spokesman Molnar sadly admits, "the general public doesn't understand this and doesn't know the consequences of legislation [passed so far]."

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