Europe's Smoking Fuse: The Rights of Minorities the Post-Communist Era Has Redrawn National Borders, Reigniting Ethnic Disputes in Eastern Europe That Many Thought Had Faded. Komarno, Slovakia, Is One Such Flash Point: Hungarian and Slovak Leaders Have Tussled over the Treatment of Hungarians There. Residents, However, Say the Tension Is Artificial

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THIS border town on the Danube River is portrayed as a hotbed of separatist sentiment by Slovak nationalists. Some Western European diplomats say it is a potential flash point for ethnic conflict.

But ask the inhabitants, and most scoff at such suggestions. "If anything happens here, it will be something that's artificially created by the politicians at the top," says Robert Mayer, a truck driver and one of the many ethnic Hungarians who call Komarno home.

Whether or not it is an artificial creation, people in the city, and across much of Central Europe, once again have trouble avoiding the nationality question. After a more than 40-year respite, the issue of minority rights has again become a volatile topic from the Baltics to the Balkans.

In the worst-case scenario, the former Yugoslavia, the issue of minority rights played a major role in starting a full-blown war that has no end in sight. Meanwhile, under the best-case scenario, the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia in 1993, two nations demonstrated they can part ways amicably and without bloodshed.

Komarno is proving to be somewhere in the middle. Few here expect a repeat of Yugoslav-like hostilities. But no one expects that a settlement between Slovak authorities and the ethnic Hungarian community will be achieved as easily as Czechoslovakia's breakup.

In Czechoslovakia, the political elites of both the Czech and Slovak nations supported the federation's dissolution. But when it comes to Hungarians in Slovakia, Budapest and Bratislava have staked out significantly different positions.

How Central European nations handle the nationality question in the near future will provide a good measure of the maturity of their democratizing political systems. It will also greatly influence the timetable for their admission into such Western structures as the European Union and NATO.

Komarno sits on the Slovak side of the Danube, but about 70 percent of its approximately 40,000 residents are ethnic Hungarian. It is the unofficial capital of the 600,000-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia. The Hungarian language so predominates on the street that it is difficult to find a native speaker of Slovak there. Nevertheless, signs on shops, roads, and in government offices are still in Slovak only.

Virtually everyone here says nationality is of little importance to them. Pensioners gossiping in a park, a young couple pushing a baby carriage on the main square, and one of the town's most prosperous shop owners - all will tell you that everyone gets along fine, and that no one makes the distinction of who's Hungarian and who's Slovak.

"For us, the nationality question has never been an issue. Any fear that we have is of an economic nature," says Jozef Stefankovic, owner of a snazzy, recently renovated perfume shop in the center of town. Government agendas

The sentiment expressed by Mr. Stefankovic and others seems to matter little to the Slovak and Hungarian governments, which have bickered, sometimes bitterly, over the conditions of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. Hungarians account for about 11 percent of Slovakia's 5.3 million population.

From 1989 until recently, official Hungarian policy advocated a greater degree of autonomy for their ethnic kin in Slovakia. That angered Slovak leaders, prompting intensified government efforts to put the stamp of Slovak statehood on the region.

Slovak-Hungarian hostility can trace its roots back to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following its defeat in World War I. The conflict redrew Europe's map, and Hungary lost large chunks of territory.

In part because of a desire to regain that lost land, Hungary fought on the side of Nazi Germany during World War II. Consequently, it lost even more territory, this time to the Soviet Union.

Thus, after 1945 significant ethnic Hungarian communities found themselves living in what is now Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, and the rump Yugoslavia.

During the cold war, the communist totalitarian system suppressed the nationality question in the Soviet bloc. The problem made a comeback, however, following communism's demise in 1989.

Several factors have combined to heighten tension in Slovak-Hungarian relations since 1989, political scientists say.

Economic instability underpins it all. The transition from the planned communist economic system to a market economy is proving more difficult than anyone expected. Slovakia has been hit especially hard by the regional economic depression, because it found itself stuck with vast defense-oriented factories built up during the communist era. So far, Slovak leaders have failed to devise a viable plan to reorient the unwieldy plants for a civilian economy. At the same time, Hungary has managed to attract $7 billion in foreign investment since 1989, but it too has been buffeted by economic problems, including high inflation and unemployment.

On top of economic problems, Slovak leaders are trying to overcome a lack of tradition of statehood, as the country only became independent less than two years ago. That makes Slovak leaders especially sensitive on nationality matters, some European political observers say.

Exacerbating things was the seeming desire of the outgoing Hungarian government, dominated by the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), to right perceived wrongs of history. The late prime minister, Jozsef Antall, provoked outrage among Hungary's neighbors when he stated he was the leader of the region's 15 million Hungarians. Hungary proper has a population of only 10 million. The HDF government also was adverse to signing a bilateral treaty recognizing the existing border with Slovakia.

The low point in bilateral relations came this January, when about 5,000 Hungarians demonstrated in Komarno for greater cultural rights. The Slovak government of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, which relied heavily on nationalist parties for support, responded with a vitriolic condemnation of the gathering. Slovak leaders still disagree

Since then mutual hostility has ebbed, and politicians now speak about improving prospects for normalizing relations between the two states.

In Bratislava, the Slovak capital, the interim government headed by Jozef Moravcik has indicated a willingness to reverse anti-Hungarian measures promoted by Mr. Meciar, who was ousted in March by a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Perhaps the most contentious provision is a ban on Hungarian-language road signs in areas where ethnic Hungarians are a majority.

The Slovak parliament is less open to change, however. In early June, the legislature rejected a bill to allow dual-language signs.

In Budapest, the Hungarian capital, a new, Socialist-dominated government is set to take power following May parliamentary elections. Socialist leaders during the campaign pledged to work for improved relations with Slovakia.

"We can improve the situation of ethnic Hungarians only if we have good relations with the majority," Gyula Horn, Hungary's prime minister-designate, told reporters.

"To me, it's more important to try to satisfy the demands and expectations of people at home," Mr. Horn continued. "By doing so we can improve the situation of ethnic Hungarians living beyond our borders."

As some Komarno residents see it, Slovak leaders are to blame for creating much of the nationality-related tension. But they add that the Hungarian government bears most of the responsibility for improving relations.

"The Slovak leadership have tried to make Hungarians a scapegoat for the nation's economic problems," says Gyorgy Olah, a university student. "But the Slovaks also feel threatened. The situation would be eased if Hungary recognized the border."

Slovak Prime Minister Jozef Moravcik also stresses the importance of border recognition. "Signing a border treaty would be very important for the stability of Central Europe ... and would increase the credibility of both countries, which is important for EU membership," Mr. Moravcik recently told Reuters.

A crucial hurdle to the improvement of relations is approaching Sept. 30, when Slovakia holds parliamentary elections. Opinion polls indicate that Meciar retains a significant amount of support, despite his government's failure to carry out economic reforms. His Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) stands a chance of regaining power in the elections.

A return of Meciar, coupled with continued economic deterioration in Slovakia, could hearken a return of divisive political tactics, worried Komarno residents contend.

"If an aggressive person like Meciar comes to power, it will only mean trouble," says Mr. Mayer, the truck driver. West Europe peers eastward

Western European leaders felt concerned enough about Central Europe's nationality question that France hosted a conference in late May aimed at defusing minority rights disputes. Discussions focused on the situation of Russians in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as that of Hungarians in both Slovakia and Romania.

The 57 participating nations agreed to establish "regional round tables" to explore solutions. But Hungarian and Romanian officials almost immediately started arguing over representation at the round tables. Hungary argued that leaders of the 2.5 million ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania should participate. Romania rejected such a suggestion.

Perhaps the brightest development in the region came in April, when Polish President Lech Walesa visited neighboring Lithuania, signaling the end of decades of hostility generated by border disputes and allegations of discrimination against the Polish minority in Lithuania.

"A state that wants to open the doors to the future, must close the doors to the past," Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas said at the time.

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