Ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia Hasten to Protect Rights

SAMORIN is a small village on the Slovakian side of the Danube, but the signs of neighboring Hungary are everywhere.

An 11th-century church, a vestige of Hungary's historical dominance of Slovakia, sits solidly near the town square. Here Hungarian is the predominant language, the Hungarian capital Budapest is the cherished city, and some say jokingly the most beautiful part of Hungary is the verdant land of southern Slovakia. In 1918, when Czechoslovakia's borders were drawn, many Hungarians in villages such as Samorin found themselves on the wrong side of the river.

Now, as Slovakia rolls toward independence with the approval of a new constitution yesterday, ethnic Hungarians are trying to protect a host of minority rights and privileges they have enjoyed under the Czechoslovak federation.

But Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia worry that the assertion of Hungarian ethnic identity will go too far, and may lead to a move toward sovereignty for the republic's 600,000 ethnic Hungarians. Mr. Meciar, who has just led the Slovak drive for cultural and economic independence from Prague, has even accused the Hungarians of wanting to split off and join Hungary.

A dispute over the republic's official language law is the most contentious, but it overshadows deeper concerns about the impact of Slovak independence on Hungarian cultural institutions and the region's economy.

The three major Slovak-Hungarian political parties, Hungarian Christian Democrats (MKDM), Coexistence, and the Hungarian Civic Party are pressing for "territorial self-determination." The Hungar- ians are claiming a right to communicate in their language, but Meciar supports the stiffening of an already restrictive language law. As it stands, Slovak must be a town's only official language unless a fifth of the population speaks another one. Dispute over national language

The new constitution also defines Slovak as the national language, but in villages where few speak Slovak, and newspapers, radio, and TV are in Hungarian, the "national language" may feel more foreign than official. The Hungarian parties (the second largest opposition faction in parliament) use points like this as evidence of being excluded from representation in the constitution.

Bela Bugar, chairman of the MKDM and a member of the Slovak parliament, wants a bilingual administrative system in towns populated by ethnic Hungarians.

He also objects to a part of the preamble in the proposed constitution that says, "We, the citizens of the Slovak Republic." He urges a switch to "We, the Slovak Nation," a wording that he says allows Hungarians more room to assert their ethnic identity, and accuses the new Slovak government of creating a "national society" instead of a "civic society."

During recent deliberations on the constitution, ethnic Hungarian leaders proposed 33 changes, most related to minority rights, but all were rejected.

Former Slovak Foreign Minister Pavel Demis says the minorities question cannot be solved by changing nuances in the charter. "The problem [with ethnic Hungarian rights] is not just this semantic battle," he says.

"The most important thing is not to look at these minority issues as something different from normal human behavior.... [We must] accept some civic principle that we, as human beings, will behave as human beings."

Looming behind ethnic Hungarians' fight for language rights is their fear of losing Hungarian cultural institutions and the considerable state funds backing them - especially since the overthrow of the Communist regime.

There are 25 Hungarian language newspapers in Slovakia, many of which operate with federal subsidies. There are now 12 Hungarian publishing houses, compared to only one in 1989. State-funded Hungarian-language radio and television programs are offered by Slovak stations.

Mr. Demis adds that Slovakia's awkward leap into a free-market economy will affect Slovaks and ethnic minorities alike. "If we don't have the financial resources, then everything will be cut, including Slovak publications. You must look at the difficulty of the Slovaks, too," he says. Slovakia suffers from about 13 percent unemployment (in some Slovak industrial regions the rate approaches 50 percent), and has attracted little of the foreign investment in Czechoslovakia.

Ethnic Hungarians know the economy is likely to worsen and hope to sustain their relative stability through "economic self-determination." Mr. Bugar proposes that ethnic Hungarian towns should form regional, self-governing associations.

Samorin Mayor Gyulai Ludovit says Slovak-Hungarians should process fruits, vegetables, and grain themselves, for example: "We're the main producer of farm products, but we need a processing industry." Swiss-style cantons

He favors, as do most Hungarian-Slovaks, a Swiss-style canton system for all local populations. "We'd like to organize this system on a civic basis, not on a national basis. It would protect our population here, both Slovaks and Hungarians," he says.

Hungarians want to be represented on the state level by a "minority parliament," existing as a committee within the Slovak National Council, Bugar adds.

Speaking the mother tongue is one thing, argue Slovaks, but self-government is another matter entirely. Slovak-Hungarian Tibor Szerzodc, a civil engineer from Samorin, isn't surprised by Slovaks' rising suspicions of Hungarian minorities. "It's not hard to roil the Slovaks, because there have always been problems" between Hungarians and Slovaks.

Whether or not Slovaks are trying to return oppressions of old to their ethnic Hungarians, they have no real fear of border disputes. The 1920 Trianon Treaty defined the present Hungarian-Slovak border, and Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall has said that if Czechoslovakia splits, the treaty will still be honored.

A cantonized Slovakia, however, would make many Slovaks minorities in their own country, Demis explains. But Hungarian leaders persist. "This first step is to get cultural and educational autonomy," Bugar says.

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