It was not supposed to be like this. Back in the honeymoon years after the collapse of communism, the thinking in Europe’s corridors of power was that once the fractious former Soviet bloc nations were safely ensconced in the welcoming, subsidy-filled bosom of the European Union, ancient regional rivalries would safely evaporate in a hazy glow of cooperation.
But sadly, that has not happened – at least as far as Hungary and Slovakia are concerned. The two central European nations are embroiled in a furious argument over Hungary’s new citizenship law, trading claim and counter-claim across the Danube.
The law, recently passed by Hungary’s new centre-right government, allows ethnic Hungarians living abroad to apply for citizenship if they can show they are of Hungarian origin and can speak the language. There are about 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries including Slovakia, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine, stranded outside the borders after Hungary lost about two thirds of its territory under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Those who take Hungarian citizenship under the new law, but do not become resident, will not receive voting rights.
The law’s defenders point out that several European nations, such as Ireland and Germany, extend easy citizenship to non-resident ethnic kin.
“Hungarians in neighbouring countries never decided to leave Hungary – it was a decision taken by other nations in 1920,” says Orsolya Milovan, of the Perspective Institute, a Budapest think-tank.
But several of Hungary’s neighbours have expressed concerns about the law and the relationship between Hungary and Slovakia is now especially sour.
Slovakia, which only became independent in 1993, did not flourish under a thousand years of Hungarian rule. Slovaks are prickly about their former Magyar overlords and authoritarian political impulses still linger there. Last year Slovakia passed a controversial language law restricting the use of minority languages in official contacts and state affairs, which many saw as targeting the half a million or so ethnic Hungarians who live in the country. Slovakia’s language law caused outrage in Hungary, and doubtless sped the passing of Hungary’s dual citizenship law.
Slovakia’s populist prime minister Robert Fico quickly condemned the new Hungarian passport law as a security threat and immediately passed a law demanding that all Slovak citizens who acquire another citizenship must immediately inform the authorities or pay a fine. In addition, civil servants and state employees such as police and secret service officers will be sacked if they take on dual citizenship.
“Slovakia is a new nation state with a clear short term interest to brand itself and build its identity toward its own citizens – using a mythic enemy, among other tools,” says Ms Milovan.
In the long term, the answer is for both countries to build a partnership through cooperation on issues such as regional economic development, environmental protection and developing transport links and a shared infrastructure. When countries are joined by common interests, flags and passports fade in importance.