The refusal of the visit of the Hungarian President László Sólyom to Slovakia after the passing of the Slovak Language Act brought Slovakian-Hungarian relations to a deep-point. Despite the meeting of the prime ministers and the visit of the OSCE High Commissioner Knut Vollebaek the underlying problems have remained unsolved.
Political risks of the conflict
- The conflict is not expected to be solved in the short term. The European Union is reluctant to take sides, and the recommendations of the High Commissioner leave many questions open. Their interpretation differs and Slovak implementation is questionable. Handling of the disagreements largely depends on bilateral meetings, but domestic politics both in Slovakia and Hungary point toward sharpening conflicts.
- The 2010 election campaign in these countries can deepen the controversy, as a competition has begun on both sides in nationalist rhetoric (Slovakia: Fico, Meciar and Slota; Hungary: Fidesz and Jobbik). This poses political risks even in the mid-term, beyond the elections.
- In Hungary the conflict could increase the activity of Jobbik, which in turn can be used again by the Slovak side to justify political steps that are unfavourable to Hungary. The escalation of the conflict due to extremist forces can lead to violent actions (e.g. against the Slovakian Hungarians).
- Deepening conflict and deteriorating diplomatic relations could negatively affect tourism and commerce, and might hinder joint infrastructural and economic projects.
- The economic crisis has redrawn the economic and political landscape in the region, bringing about a new competition on emerging from the recession. In this situation a prolonged conflict can seriously affect both countries’ images among investors, as they can see that ethnic conflicts determine the political course.
Foreign policy scene – assimetry in diplomatic efficiency
- The conflict has demonstrated that besides the economic and political crisis in Hungary, its ability to promote diplomatic interests has seriously diminished. The international press was full of articles on the rise of the far right, the street clashes, the forming of uniformed paramilitary groups and the anti-roma incidents for years. In contrast, Slovakia has become a model in the region with implementing many necessary structural reforms. Dynamic growth of investments, rising exports and strong domestic consumption made her one of the fastest developing countries by 2008, and the process had led to the adoption of the euro, as the second newly joint country to do so. The Slovak government has actively built on this different image not only in domestic politics, but also on the diplomatic scene.
- The Slovak diplomacy has been more successful in articulating her interests and interpretation partly due to the more efficient handling of the international media.
- The Hungarian opposition usually goes out of its way to discredit the latest diplomatic efforts of the government out of political short-sightedness, shrinking its diplomatic scope for action.
- Fico has, on a number of occasions, successfully provoked the Hungarian side. In his interpretation he has not taken the offensive on the international stage, he has always justified his actions with “Hungarian aggression” as seen with the incident at Dunajská Streda (where Slovakian policemen attacked Hungarian football fans) and with the refusal of Hungarian President László Sólyom’s visit to Slovakia. The language act was also presented as a defense measure against “Hungarian chauvinism”.
- The Hungarian diplomacy is characterized by lodging a complaint with an international actor immediately after an affront to national interests, before bilateral consultations could start. This complain-driven discourse is not necessarily seen positively by the international community which appreciated Slovakia’s stance on insisting on bilateral talks.
Results of the negotiations so far
- It is evident from the reactions that both sides want to pass the OSCE High Commissioner’s recommendations as their own success, and that they interpret them differently. For Slovakia it’s easier to present them as a victory, as the Commissioner’s recommendations do not entail modifications to the wording of the act, and it does not deem it contradictory to international standards. The OSCE advocates for a comprehensive act on the defense of the minorities, but in view of the upcoming 2010 elections this goal is not realistic in the short term.
Slovak internal politics – where are the coalition partners for the next term?
- The deepening of the conflict is primarily due to the peculiarities of Slovak domestic politics. Robert Fico’s aim is to end the increasingly embarrassing coalition with the anti-Hungarian Slovak National Party (SNS). This can only be achieved through discrediting the SNS (with strategic disclosure of corruption cases) and strong nationalistic rhetoric to win over its voters.
- Fico’s undiminished popularity from 2006 on can be attributed to two factors: robust economic growth and rhetoric aimed at bolstering national identity and pride. However, the export-driven Slovak economy – contrary to optimistic statements in the first months of the crisis – has been seriously affected by the economic slowdown, which the public opinion has not been prepared for. The major recession – in particular the shrinking industrial output – has had a detrimental effect on the unemployment rate, bringing it up to a 10-year high, and expected to increase further. The crisis has also brought the strategic weaknesses of the Slovak economy to surface, namely its over-reliance on unskilled workers, electronics and the auto industry. Fico tries to compensate the economic troubles with symbolic victories, and he tries to bring about stronger identification with the Slovak state by cultural initiatives (e.g. the language act) and by pitting the population against ethnic Hungarians.
- Fico’s SMER is facing diminishing poll numbers and it tries to get rid of the extremely nationalist, Jan Slota-lead SNS as a coalition partner, but it might need to re-examine its coalition-building goals. SMER’s result in the European elections (5 MEPs out of 13) was much lower than the expectations based on polls. This has crushed dreams of a single-party government, and the crisis, along with conflicts within the coalition, has further diminished the party’s popularity. It cannot be taken for granted that the other coalition partner (Meciar-led HZDS) will pass the parliamentary threshold, or that SMER can form a majority with it. The elections can result in a situation where Fico could only ensure a majority through a big coalition with the Christian democrats or through a coalition with one of the ethnic Hungarian parties (presumably with newly formed Híd-Most party that is polling above the parliamentary threshold). However, in the 2010 campaign Fico has to compete with the SNS and HZDS in the nationalism dimension, and that could further diminish his appeal to the opposition parties. All in all, by pursuing short term popularity Fico might be damaging his own chances at keeping his position as PM.
Hungarian domestic politics – a competition of nationalism
- Fidesz is seizing every opportunity to accuse the government of not standing up for Hungarian national interests with the necessary force, and of being servile and weak. These attacks are more about competing with Jobbik than about criticizing the government. As Jobbik’s hand is not tied up either with government responsibility or political norms, it can strike a much tougher tone than Fidesz. Therefore it is important for Fidesz to appear as a staunch defender of national interests by issuing harsh statements. This presents risks for the party, as when in government, it will need to take measures to decrease tensions, thereby exposing an additional issue for Jobbik to attack. The other alternative is to follow a confrontational policy, which could impede on the country’s image in the eyes of investors and other states. To this end it comes as no surprise that Viktor Orbán is explicitly trying to get on the good side of Traian Basescu, the probable winner of the upcoming Romanian presidential election, so as not to be isolated in the region on government.