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Attacks on ethnic Hungarians challenge Slovak premier

Attacks on ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia have sparked renewed tension with the country's southern neighbor and put pressure on the two-month-old government to stifle a rise in nationalist extremism. A 23-year-old student was attacked Aug. 25 in the western Slovak town of Nitra (Nyitra) as she spoke Hungarian on a mobile phone, according to police. Three days later, a 19-year-old man was beaten by six men in Sladkovicovo (Diószeg), east of the capital Bratislava. He told police it was because he was speaking Hungarian. “The extremists have woken up and especially older people are worried,” said Norbert Kovács, 32, a salesman from Velky Meder (Nagymegyer), where the majority of residents are of Hungarian origin. “The government should do more to calm the situation down.” The 550,000-strong population of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia is a legacy of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Now their governments are trying to join the euro, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is under pressure to keep the coalition together and win backing for economic reforms such as trimming the budget deficit. Fico's Smer party on July 4 formed a cabinet with the Slovak National Party, or SNS, and HZDS, the party of former premier Vladimir Meciar and a member of the coalition between 1994 and 1998. During those years, Slovakia was criticized by the EU for suppressing the rights of its 10% Hungarian minority. “Every citizen of Slovakia, regardless of his nationality or color of his skin, has right to be safe,” Fico said after a government meeting Aug. 30. He added the cabinet will step up efforts to fight what he called extremism.  

Béla Bugár, chairman the ethnic Hungarian party SMK, blamed the presence of the nationalists in the government for the escalation of ethnic tension. SNS Chairman Jan Slota denied his party was responsible when contacted by telephone on Aug. 31. More than 200 people protested in front of the Slovak embassy in Budapest on Sept. 2 to condemn the incidents against ethnic Hungarians, MTI reported. They burned photos of Slota, the Hungarian newswire said. Slovak daily SME reported yesterday that the protest was organized by a group called 64 Counties, referring to the size of Hungary before World War I. The Council of Europe is concerned over violence against ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, TA3 TV reported citing Rene van der Linden, chairman of the council's parliamentary assembly. “The SNS in the government was a signal for many people that they can openly express their anti-Hungarian views,” said Grigori Meseznikov, the head of Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. “This won't help Slovakia's image.”  

Fico needs to keep the coalition intact so it can push to adopt the euro in 2009. The government, which came to power on pledges to help living standards for the poor, is working on the 2007 budget with a lower deficit that might allow the switchover earlier than Slovakia's former communist peers. One of the main campaign issues of the nationalists was that Slovakia should have a government of Slovak parties only. “This was a compromise Fico had to make, and now he has to prove that it wasn't a bad decision,” said Pál Tamás, director at the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. “He has to prove that he can handle the situation.” The ethnic Hungarian party SMK participated in the former cabinet of Mikulas Dzurinda for eight years, during which time Slovakia and Hungary joined the EU.  

The SNS's Slota has said Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians are oppressing Slovaks in the country's south. He has also said that the Hungarian party wants to change the borders, which were shifted in 1920 as part of the Treaty of Trianon when Hungary lost about two-thirds of its territory and a third of its population. In addition to Slovakia, there are about 1.5 million ethnic Hungarians living in Romania and 300,000 in Serbia. Hungary itself has a population of about 10 million. Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Kubis said there was “a campaign aimed at discrediting” the Slovak government. He blamed Bugár's SMK party. Bugár dismissed the claim. “Extremists now feel that they have nothing to worry about since nationalism has appeared at the government level,” Bugár said in a telephone interview Aug. 31. The Hungarian government has criticized Slovakia for not doing enough to halt the attacks. Foreign Minister Kinga Göncz on Aug. 30 said Fico was too late in condemning the perpetrators and also alleged they were related to the SNS being in the coalition. In Budapest, a three-hour drive from Bratislava, Tamás at the Academy of Sciences disagrees and blames the same far-right groups who have attacked Jewish cemeteries and Roma. “I don't think these recent cases can necessarily be linked to Fico's coalition,” he said. “Slota's party are nationalist radicals, but they are not fascists taking action.” (Bloomberg)