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