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. …


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