Thursday, October 29, 2009



Linguistic discontents
Oct 29th 2009

Slovaks, Hungarians and missing data

THE row is over but the problems remain. Amid an outcry from neighbouring Hungary, and discreet pressure from other outsiders, Slovakia’s government has backed away, for the moment, from implementing its badly drafted and intrusive-sounding new language law.

Despite the backdown, hopes that membership of the European Union and NATO would bring a permanent end to central Europe’s tribal conflicts and historical grudges now look over-optimistic. It would be good if all concerned—the Slovak government, Hungarians in Slovakia and Hungary’s political parties—paused for reflection about the troubling issues that divide them. But the economic crisis, and the likely victory of the tough-talking Viktor Orban and his right-of-centre Fidesz party in Hungary’s parliamentary elections next year, are among the reasons for expecting another flare-up sooner rather than later.

A short list of Hungarian grievances would go like this. Since 1992 the new Slovak state has made its largest linguistic minority feel like outsiders. Native Slovak-speakers increasingly dominate the upper reaches of government; the handful of Magyarphones in the diplomatic service has been purged (from ten ambassadors to one, for example). The parts of southern Slovakia where Hungarians tend to live have missed out on foreign investment and have the worst public services. Bilingualism is declining: few mother-tongue Slovaks learn Hungarian; Hungarian-language schools teach Slovak remarkably badly. The rise of the Slovak National Party has made anti-Hungarian racism alarmingly acceptable in public life.

Slovak grievances read rather differently. Hungary has a conceptual problem in accepting that Slovakia is a real country. Public figures there stir up Slovakia’s Hungarians with reheated historical wrongs. The number of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia is exaggerated: many of them are in fact Gypsies (Roma). All citizens of Slovakia are equal before the law and talk of discrimination is absurd. All efforts to pamper the Hungarians just make them complain all the more, in an annoying and disloyal way. If Hungarian-speakers really do not feel at home in Slovakia then they can leave.

To an outsider, the striking thing is the prevalence of assertion and the absence of facts. How many people in Slovakia are really “ethnic Hungarians” as opposed to, say, Hungarian-speaking Roma, or native Slovak-speakers with Hungarian surnames, or the products of mixed marriages who do not regard themselves as being fully in one camp or the other? Are those who self-identify as ethnic Hungarians better or worse paid, housed or educated than other population groups? Is this changing over time? Is bilingualism declining? How many go to Hungary for higher education? How do their fortunes compare to Slovak universities’ alumni? What are the statistics on mixed marriages, migration, and life expectancy? And how do all these compare to the comparable population groups in Hungary proper, and to Hungarians living in other places such as Transylvania in Romania or the Vojvodina province of Serbia?

Nobody seems to be collecting this data, either in official statistics or in academic surveys. Lessons could be learned from Britain’s diplomatic service, which makes a big effort to attract applicants from a wide range of class, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and monitors how successful this has been. But Slovak officials react with shock at the idea that monitoring the composition of the civil service could help settle arguments about prejudice. “It would not be politically correct” says a senior government spokesman.

That seems a rather lazy and complacent approach. Consequently, without even the elementary information to know what is right and what to do, the two sides remain entrenched in their silos of ignorance, making myths, and sooner or later, mischief.

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