Slovak-Hungarian relations: A new stab at reconciliation?

It was on September 28 that the prime minister’s office announced that Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, would meet in Pilisszentkereszt, about 35 km northwest of Budapest. This village of about 2,300 inhabitants holds a unique position in Hungary. It is the only place in the country where the majority of the population declared themselves to be of Slovak ethnicity. This is especially unusual since the neighboring Pilisszántó, which was overwhelmingly Slovak at the turn of the twentieth century, today is a Hungarian village without much trace of its Slovak origins. But somehow Pilisszentkereszt remained largely Slovak, although the younger generation’s knowledge of the language is fast fading.

According to the sources I read, both the language and the cuisine of this Slovak island in the sea of Hungarians have retained their uniqueness. The originally Hungarian village became largely Slovak after the Turks were pushed back by the imperial forces at the end of the seventeenth century and Slovak settlers came down from the north, to be joined by Germans from the west. The Slovak settlers renamed Pilisszentkereszt (The Holy Cross of Pilis) Mlynky, which means “little mill.” Everything is bilingual in Pilisszentkereszt-Mlynky, from street names to store signs.

Slovaks and Hungarians lived together peacefully enough until 2008 when the six-member town council decided to move the offices of the Slovak self-government from the town hall to another building. Prior to 2006 the mayor was also the head of the local Slovak self-government, and thus the two offices were not strictly separated from each other.

This move was not received well by the local Slovaks, and the local controversy became the source of an international incident. At that point Slovak-Hungarian relations were touchy at best because of mutual grievances–the Slovak language law and László Sólyom’s far too frequent semi-official visits to Slovakia. Moreover, Ferenc Gyurcsány and Robert Fico didn’t get along, and the couple of times they met the meetings usually ended in barbed exchanges. When Gordon Bajnai became prime minister he mended fences with Fico while Viktor Orbán in opposition criticized Bajnai’s efforts at normalization of relations between the two countries. In those days Fidesz took an intransigent attitude toward the Fico administration.

After the 2010 elections it looked as if the Orbán government had no intention of cultivating a warmer relationship with Slovakia, especially since the Slovak government was not exactly enamored with the idea of Hungarian dual citizenship offered to Slovak citizens of Hungarian extraction. The Slovak government immediately enacted a law that forbade dual citizenship for the inhabitants of Slovakia. Or rather, taking out foreign citizenship meant losing Slovak citizenship.

In any case, the Orbán administration didn’t seem to be terribly bothered by the bad blood between Slovakia and Hungary; the new Hungarian foreign policy was built on a close friendship with Poland and Romania. In the last year and a half I wrote twice about Romanian-Hungarian relations. First in May 2011 and again a year later. My second piece had the title: The honeymoon is over: Romanian-Hungarian relations. If possible, relations have further deteriorated since. Only yesterday the Romanian foreign minister visited Budapest and after the meeting János Martonyi couldn’t even hide his dissatisfaction with his encounter with Titus Corlatean.

So, it seems that Viktor Orbán is now ready to make a deal with Fico. After all,  the political views of the two men are not very far apart, although many critics of Orbán would find Fico preferable to Orbán with a two-thirds majority behind him.

After the 2008 upheaval in Pilisszentkereszt/Mlynky the decision was made by the Slovak and Hungarian governments to build a new center for the Slovak majority in the village. The recently finished building presented an opportunity for Fico and Orbán to meet officially. The emphasis is on “officially” because the two men had met twice before. First, on April 26 in Warsaw when there was a half-hour conversation between Fico and Orbán. I don’t know who accompanied Fico, but in Orbán’s entourage were Péter Szijjártó, György Matolcsy, Péter Gottfried (foreign policy adviser to Orbán), and Róbert Kis (Hungarian ambassador to Warsaw).

They also met once really informally in Bratislava at a Slovan Bratislava-Videoton football game (1:1). Orbán and Fico sat beside each other and, according to Orbán, they mostly talked about football. However, Fico was a bit more expansive and, when asked, he indicated that he was ready to be more constructive. He announced that “the quality of Slovak-Hungarians relations could be entirely different from what they have been in the past.” He emphasized that “we should concentrate on the future.”

The signing ceremony in Pilisszentkereszt/Mlynky
Photo by Zsófia Pályi, Origo

As usual of late, it is not the Hungarian foreign minister who announces decisions on foreign relations but Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign relations in the prime minister’s office. He announced on September 28 that Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico will meet on October 2 and will talk about new bridges and roads to be built between the two countries. He added that “we decided on a new program of border openings.” Szijjártó indicated that European Union money can be allocated for such projects.

Orbán before his departure to Pilisszentkereszt/Mlynky had talks with József Berényi, the chairman of Magyar Közösség Pártja, the party close to Fidesz and the only one that Hungary officially recognizes as a bona fide Hungarian party in Slovakia. According to the press release, they talked about concerns of the Hungarian minority and also touched on the so-called Beneš doctrines. I have the sneaking suspicion that in his talks with Fico Orbán avoided mentioning–in my opinion very wisely–the  Beneš doctrines, which would have ended all avenues to successful negotiations.

For the time being the two men agreed on building a new bridge at Komárom-Komárno across the Danube. There is already a bridge between the two cities, but the one that was restored and opened in 2006 is apparently not fully functional. For example, it cannot accommodate trucks heavier than 21 tons. It is also very narrow.

Currently there are border crossings between Slovakia and Hungary every 24 km. They would like to change that to 7.5 km. We will see what will happen. But for the time being at least, Slovak-Hungarian relations are on the mend.

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56 comments

  1. @cabbage: Of course peklo = pokol!

    Like my other “favourite words” – pálinka, kurva, kutya and so on …

    Of course over hundreds of years every European language “loaned” (that’s our German expression) words from other languages. Sometimes it’s fascinating and also astonishing which words came from where. For example coach and Kutsche (German) are derived from the Hungarian kocsi … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carriage
    ” In the 15th century, carriages were made lighter and needed only one horse to haul the carriage. This carriage was designed and innovated in Hungary.”

  2. I’ve read quite a bit about Hungarian over the years, and it would appear that practically all ‘Hungarian’ words were borrowed from other languages – many before the Magyar even got to Hungary.

    I would have expected certain basic words, like ‘horse’, ‘blood’, ‘water’, ‘sky’ to be definitely Hungarian, but it turns out that even some of these were absorbed from neighbouring languages.

    So, when we speak of ‘Hungarian’, we are really talking of the grammar, and perhaps the pronunciation, of the language, not the vocabulary. It is the way that Hungarian is spoken that makes it different/non-European/etc, not the words.

  3. An :

    @Paul: Well, actually water, blood and sky are all Finno-Ugric words, that is they are not borrowed from anywhere.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_language#Comparison_of_some_Finno-Ugric_words

    Although there are many borrowed words but–and now let me quote real experts, Loránd Benkő and Imre Samu (The Hungarian Language). On p. 176: Measured in absolute numbers, the genuine elements inherited from the periods of Uralic, Finno-Ugric, and Ugric symbiosis represents an overwhelming proportion of the Hungarian lexical stock and constitute the basis of intra-lingual developments, i.e., the bulk of the entire Hungarian vocabulary.

    So appearances can be misleading.

  4. Paul: “I’ve read quite a bit about Hungarian over the years, and it would appear that practically all ‘Hungarian’ words were borrowed from other languages – many before the Magyar even got to Hungary”

    As a matter of fact, the Hungarians were using sign language until they got to Hungary….. and every word was borrowed from others.

  5. Dr.Balogh:Re experts on Hungarian language….The exchange (it is incorrect to write about “borrowing”) between Proto- Uralic and Proto- Indo-German precedes the formation of sublanguages of these two groups.

    The known parallels suggest that Proto-Uralic and Proto-Indo-European shared two kinds of linkages. One kind revealed in pronouns, noun endings, ans shared basic vovabulary, coul be ancestral; the two protolanguages shared some quite ancient ancestor, perhaps a broadly related set of integraing dialects spoken by hunters roaming between the Carpathians and the Urals at the end of the last Ice age.
    See:David W Anthony “The horse, the wheel and languages.” 2007 and numerous other serious studies which do not start in recenbt times and are loaded with various nationalistic propaganda.

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