E. Europe Wages a War of Words


THIS is one of Europe's last remaining divided cities, split not by a wall but by the Danube River; Half lies in Hungary and the other half in Slovakia.

Komarno, on the Slovak side, seems at first a model of multiculturalism. Signs are in two languages, and Hungarian is spoken in all the shops and cafes, reflecting the 70 percent-Hungarian population left behind after borders were redrawn after World War I.

But Slovakia's government has embarked on a campaign to give Slovak priority as the majority language. The issue puts the town at the center of an identity crisis in Eastern Europe as formerly communist states try redefine their culture, often along ethnic lines.

Language is at the heart of debates over national culture all over the world - including in the United States, where Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas revived the debate over making English an official language in a recent speech, saying that the US needs ''the glue of language to hold us together.''

Senator Dole's speech was an early volley in the presidential campaign. But in Slovakia, similar ideas have become government policy and are meeting fierce resistance from the country's minority Hungarian community.

Say it in Slovak

A proposed law could make Slovak the official language for all public institutions and is likely to be passed by the ruling coalition government this fall.

Milan Ferko, the government official responsible for the draft law, says it is simply a natural part of Slovakia's independence. ''It's just the same as when the Slovak Republic had to establish its own sovereign government, its own army, its own money, and laws,'' he says. ''It is perfectly natural.''

Hungarians here, however, say the proposed law is impractical. ''Imagine the situation where an elderly Hungarian woman, who speaks little Slovak, goes to see her Hungarian doctor. According to the law, the doctor has to speak to her in Slovakian, even if she can't understand,'' says Attila Fodor, chairman of the Democratic Hungarian Teachers' Association in Komarno, which has been leading protests against the law. ''Unfortunately, I believe this government wants us to assimilate.''

Mr. Ferko says Hungarian protests are unjustified. ''We have no problem with our other minorities, but Hungarian extremists are trying to exploit this for political capital,'' he says. ''We just want our official language to have priority over all languages used in Slovakia.''

Hungarian concerns have been reinforced by a government decree known as the Alternative Education Program. The decree allows parents to choose Slovak instruction for their children in what are now exclusively Hungarian-language schools. The Slovak government says this will give communities freedom of choice and improve minority language skills.

''The real aim is political, to close exclusively Hungarian schools,'' says Eva Toth, a teacher in a Hungarian school in Komarno. ''The language is the basis of our culture, and the Slovak government doesn't support our culture.''

When schools reopened after the summer break, strikes and demonstrations took place across southern Slovakia, where the majority of the 400,000-strong Hungarian community lives.

Tough neighbors

Slovakia is not the only country whose laws have brought opposition from its Hungarian minority. In Romania, which has a large Hungarian population based in Transylvania, a new education law specifies that certain subjects, such as geography and history, must be taught in Romanian even if no ethnic Romanian students are present. The law also demands that university entrance exams be taken in Romanian.

The language disputes have led to a worsening in relations between Hungary and its neighbors. Hungary is involved in negotiations on bilateral treaties with both Romania and Slovakia. The European Union and NATO have stressed to all three countries that they must improve relations with each other to gain admission to those organizations.

On a recent visit to Slovakia, US Secretary of Defense William Perry warned Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar that his government must improve its relations with neighboring countries before it can be considered for membership in NATO.

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