Slovakia has many minorities living within its borders, from the historic Hungarian community in the south, to Ruthenians in the northeast and Roma scattered all across the country. The question whether these minorities are properly integrated into society, their own or just live in community bubbles, forming a sort of country within a country, regularly pops up in public debate. So, what’s it really like?
National states across Europe have widely different approaches when it comes to dealing with their minorities. Some countries, like France, have a largely centralized, ‘integrationist’ approach, with the aim of unifying the state’s varied populations and ethnicities into one larger entity – which reflects into France’s strict policy regarding minority languages. Other countries, often based on more decentralized and federal methods of government, on the contrary actively promote the representation of their minorities and label themselves as a melting pot of cultures: regarding languages, this can result in countries with no official language (like the U.S.) or a myriad of them (like Switzerland). The minority issue and margin of freedom granted to a country’s minorities are closely linked to the individual state’s perception of its own sovereignty, with both terms often seen as contradictory and self-excluding (we need only look at the issue of Catalonian independence in Spain).
This all boils down to one main question: To what degree is the integration of a minority healthy for the state or the minority group itself? Forced integration is rarely the answer and has, throughout history, often led to revolt and mounting calls for autonomy or independence (like in Catalonia), when minorities felt their uniqueness, traditions and culture was under threat and had to fight for survival if they didn’t want to be erased from history books (case in point, the Sorbs in Germany, or the disappearance of the Welsh language)
The healthiest idea would be to grant minorities the same rights as the majority population, while promoting their uniqueness and cultures within the context of the country they were born in. Although Slovakia has always had issue in dealing with this issue, the minorities in the country are overall treated as equals and usually have similar rights and freedoms than the rest of the population – with a few exceptions, like when the country banned minority languages from being spoken in public settings.
Speaking as a member of the Hungarian community in Slovakia, I have no qualms with the treatment we receive. I think that for the most part, Hungarians live the same lives as Slovaks, with slight disagreements resurfacing from time to time, which is understandable when both communities live side by side in the same region. Ethnic Hungarians have always had proper representation in the Parliament, whether through the SMK or Most-Hid parties, the former headed by Bela Bugar in the past, and the latter still under his leadership.
Even though some nationalist parties, like SNS, often propose legislation to limit and restrict the rights of ethnic Hungarians, they enjoy the same rights as the rest of the population, and are also granted a safe-space to preserve their own culture: Hungarians have their own schools, newspapers and TV stations, while the Slovak national television sometimes broadcasts news in Hungarian. Despite the controversial law banning the use of minority languages in public contexts (public administration, post office, etc.), people are still able to speak Hungarian in those institutions. In my opinion, this is the kind of healthy promotion and integration process that should be exercised and promoted worldwide.
The persistent language barrier
However, there are also some downsides. Even though ethnic Hungarians have these rights, an underlying challenge persists: many people in mostly Hungarian-inhabited regions do not learn Slovak language properly, even though Hungarian schools teach it. And this starts at the youngest age, with children unable to learn Slovak because most of their peers and teachers continue using Hungarian instead (let’s remind that Slovak, a Slavic idiom, and Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language, have almost nothing in common).
I know this from experience, remembering how, during my kindergarten and elementary school years, many of my classmates did not learn Slovak (even those enrolled at a Slovak establishment). In my case, I only started to properly learn Slovak after being transferred to Bratislava, because my parents insisted that I learn the language. For this, I am deeply thankful.
Then there’s the case of students who studied in Hungarians schools. When they transfer to a Slovak high school, many of them lag behind the rest of the class, get bad grades due to their rudimentary knowledge of the language, and continue having significant problems with mastering Slovak grammar. The same goes with students who pursue their curriculum in Slovak universities, while others, well aware of their limitations, continue studying at Hungarian high schools or simply go to Hungary for higher education (due to their lack of Slovak language skills, many of them will be forced to find a job in Hungary).
Are ethnic Hungarians only ‘temporary Slovaks’?
Towns like Komarno or Dunajska Streda, my home-town, mostly inhabited by ethnic Hungarians, can be perceived as countries within a country: the billboards, signs, newspapers, local TV stations are in Hungarian, while the knowledge of Slovak language among the local population is rudimentary at best. Slovak people often joke that residents of Dunajska Streda are just temporary Slovaks due to their car number plates (which starts with DS, ‘Docasny Slovak’ meaning ‘temporary Slovak’). Although they speak well enough Slovak to get by in life, populations further south, where I have family relatives, sometimes do not practice Slovak at all and maybe never will.
Are all the above-mentioned examples signs of a successful or failed integration? The answer largely depends on the mindset of individuals, and it’s up to the reader to make its own opinion.
Roma segregation and Ruthenians absence
Slovakia is a country of many contrasts. The Roma population is not properly integrated at all, usually living in poverty in their own enclaves, separately from the rest of the country and looked down upon by many Slovaks due to strong negative stereotypes. Most of the measures taken to integrate them haven’t been successful, and often prompt backlash from both sides, while others tap into the population’s anti-Roma bias with openly xenophobic and racist rhetoric – Marian Kotleba and his LS-NS party, for instance, purely and simply call for the expulsion of Roma from Slovakia. The Ruthenians are often forgotten when mentioning Slovakia’s minorities, as they don’t account for a strong share of the population (around 1%): living in the country’s north-eastern edge, Ruthenians are often simply disregarded by the rest of the population, mostly concentrated in the western, southern and central regions.
Whether we like it or not, there is no unique right way to integrate and unify a country into a single culture. Many states have several minorities living side by side with or separated from the rest of the population; they have their own languages, cultures, traditions and much more. Forcing them to blend in is not appropriate and only sparks more problems (hate, riots, racism…). Although challenges remain, Slovakia might be, in that regard, an important role model, at least within the context of Slovak-Hungarian relations. Nation-states are, after all, living organisms, constantly adapting, making mistakes and correcting them to improve the cohabitation between its different cells.
Written by Mark Szabo
An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019.
In order to protect our website’s independence and survival, a little funding here and there can go a long way to help us manage the site, pay our writers and pursue our mission promoting free and qualitative journalism in Central Europe! If you’d like to support us, it’s right here!