BRATISLAVA – Following up on the post above, whenever the topic comes up among Slovaks in Bratislava, I do indeed acknowledge that I speak a pretty decent Hungarian. The non-reaction I get provides a clue to how much of the inter-ethnic tensions are manufactured at the political level.
Slovaks I meet recognize immediately there must be a unique relationship between me and their historic nemesis, the Hungarians. Not that they themselves feel it. But even today, as fellow members of the European Union, the far right in both countries win votes by inciting hatred among ordinary folk.
Hostilities have smoldered since the Communist system collapsed twenty years ago: between the Slovaks and their large ethnic-Hungarian minority, and across the Danube, between Slovakia and Hungary themselves. As I’ve now lived in both countries, I grasp both narratives.
With the lifting of censorship, new nationalists reignited a historic grievance by the Slovaks: we toiled as peasants, while the Magyar overlords cracked the whip. One of the current government’s coalition partners, the Slovak National Party, scores points by stoking such resentment.
In Hungary, though, pain festers from a 90-year-old wound: the Treaty of Trianon. It punished Hungary by severing chunks of present-day Slovakia, northwest Romania, northern Serbia and even bits of Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. On Hungarian roads today, you will often come across bumper stickers that proclaim the much-larger map of “Greater Hungary” … that is, pre-Trianon.
Such imagery may seem innocent, but it sparked fears of inter-ethnic clashes back in the 1990s, during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic and his bloody drive toward “Greater Serbia.”
That said, you might think a Slovak who senses someone’s strong Hungarian connection would be tempted to make a comment now and then. But in nearly four years of living in Bratislava, I’ve never heard a provocative word.
Once, three years ago in IKEA (yes, Bratislava has one, too), I caught a guy glaring at my wife, as she spoke Hungarian to the boys. That was a time of heightened tensions between the countries, when I distinctly recall a television image of Hungarian football fans waving a banner: “Slovaks, you will always be our slaves!” Pretty mean-spirited stuff.
Which is one reason my ears will be open this spring during Slovakia’s political campaign, which some predict will feature a touch of Hungarian-baiting. Which will be answered with Slovak-bashing. Which will be answered with more Hungarian-baiting. Which will be answered with … well, you get the picture.