„A nation’s life lies in its language.” The truth of this maxim was obvious to the prominent figures of the Hungarian Reform Era, particularly Ferenc Kazinczy and István Széchenyi, who did not content themselves with recognising and uttering it but manifested it in their deeds. As a result, Hungarians did stay alive in the end, in spite of Herder’s famous sounding of the death knell over the nation. For the parts of the Hungarian nation that found themselves outside the country’s borders, in the territories unjustly annexed a hundred years ago, the use of the mother tongue from cradle to the grave, and in all fields of life, remains a crucial condition of survival in the 21st century.

Let us see where we stand. First, we take a look at the political situation from the perspective of kin-state policy (nemzetpolitika). A Hungarian cause does exist in Europe a century after the Trianon Treaty, despite not being recognised by many. Hungarians constitute the second largest native national minority in the continent, whose various portions, severed from the mother country through the horrors of the 20th century, found themselves outnumbered in the lands where they had been born. Over the decades since the régime changes, a number of nations in Central and Eastern Europe have succeeded in rectifying the historical injustices meted out to them by the peace diktats of the 20th century, but in respect of Hungary there is not an iota of an effort at such remedy. The only countries in a position comparable to ours are Serbia and Russia. For them, it is a new situation to be in, while Hungarians have endured it for a hundred years. The European Union, serving the presumed interests of a handful of core member states, has been guilty of choosing to remain aloof to the issue of indigenous national minorities, or at best of applying a double standard. The only time the EU feels compelled to make a move is when “there is gunfire and bloodshed”. Meanwhile, the indigenous Hungarian communities living in regions annexed from Hungary a hundred years ago have not ceased, for the past thirty years, in their endeavour to vindicate their collective minority rights, long since enforced in the more fortunate half of Europe, and they do it in peaceful, law-abiding ways, never overstepping the means afforded by parliamentary democracy.

To what extent have they succeeded? Let us tour the Carpathian Basin to find out, for now confining our inquiry to the sole issue of native language use.

Detail of the celebrant’s chair, 16th century, Szászbogács (Băgaciu, Bogeschdorf, Romania) Saxon Lutheran church. Photo courtesy: Géza Entz

In the Felvidék (the “Uplands”), the Csallóköz, Mátyusföld, and the northern section of the Bodrogköz regions, all of which belong to Slovakia today, the issue of native language use is fraught with contradiction. The Slovakian constitution, which happens to define native Hungarian residents as second-rate citizens, is quite lenient in matters of language use in principle, but ultimately it assigns discretionary powers of specific implementation to a separate act of parliament. This law, by contrast, is callously exclusionary. To add insult to injury, in practice it proves impossible for Hungarians to take advantage of the few concessions this law would theoretically seem to allow. Leading politicians and prominent figures of social discourse in Slovakia, often backed by ordinary civilians, never tire in their efforts to thwart the lawful use of the minority mother tongue, often going so far as to impose audacious fines on its users.

Among the various rights guaranteed for minorities, Article 34, Sections (1) and (2) of the Slovakian constitution mention the rights to “promote their cultural heritage with other citizens of the same national minority or ethnic group”, “receive and disseminate information in their mother tongues”, “to use a minority language in official communications”, etcetera. All the while, Section (3) stipulates conditions for the exercise of these rights by declaring that it “… may not threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Slovak Republic or discriminate against other citizens”. It is with recourse to this latter proviso that the actual use of the minority mother tongue is routinely persecuted, unlawfully banned, and sanctioned in Slovakia.

Act 270/1995 on the State Language of the Slovak Republic places severe restrictions on the ability of national minorities to use their mother tongues, with the patent aim of making the Slovak language all-pervasive in communications among citizens. Fuelled by this official ambition, civilian extremists parading in the role of self-appointed “language guards” have been known, any number of times, to assault Hungarians who dare to talk with one another in their mother tongue in public. Whatever is seemingly permitted by Act 184/1999 on the Use of National Minorities’ Languages is, for all intents and purposes, rendered impossible by the very same law. Pursuant to Section 2 (1) of this law, “national minority residents of a settlement in the territory of the Slovak Republic have the right to use their minority language in conducting their official affairs, provided that they account for at least 15 per cent of the total number of residents in that settlement according to the data of two consecutive censuses”. Further down, however, this same law sets forth the general requirement for government officials to be exempted from understanding Hungarian! Not to mention the fact that the stipulation of two consecutive censuses is intended, quite blatantly, to speed up the process of “Slovakisation”.

The tabernacle of the triptych with St. Catherine and St. Madeleine, 1518, Szászbogács (Băgaciu, Bogeschdorf, Romania) Saxon Lutheran church. Photo courtesy: Géza Entz

Most sadly and revoltingly, Hungarians wishing to avail themselves of their already limited options in Slovakia are often simply turned down, sometimes even fined or otherwise sanctioned, by officials. The Institute for the Protection of Minority Rights (KJI or IPMR), an advocacy group based in Budapest, has spent the better part of the last decade carrying such cases in consultation with jurists, lawyers and civilian activists in the Uplands. Among them, the members of the Movement for a Bilingual South Slovakia – self-reliant, enthusiastic youths proud of their Hungarian identity – have engaged in an adventurous, epic battle for vindicating a “railway bilingualism” that is theoretically permitted by law but nowhere in Slovakia implemented in practice. For instance, the volunteers of the movement posted the Hungarian name of the village at the railway station in Ekel side by side its official name of Okoličná na Ostrove, only to have the Slovaks remove the Hungarian sign in a few days. But Hungarians are not to be outwitted so easily. As the railway station in question happens to be in a remote rural area unserved by the power grid, the youths used a generator to weld the sign onto the steel frame, leaving the Slovakian nationalists no choice other than to paint the sign over. Here and there, Hungarians may emerge partially victorious from the never-ending struggle illustrated by this episode, but the citizens belonging to the minority find themselves utterly exhausted by the constant skirmishes. Some people have been known to lose their jobs because they spoke Hungarian at the workplace; others have been denied service in the stores when they asked for the goods they were shopping for in Hungarian. In a particularly egregious case, a physician of the hospital in Érsekújvár (Nové Zámky), blinded by his Slovakian pride, refused to attend to a young female patient in a serious condition, when bringing in an interpreter could have solved the problem. The three incidents were mentioned by the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia in its shadow reports attached to the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2014, and to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2015.

Nagyszeben (Sibiu, Hermannstadt) Roman Catholic church. The retable wall was painted by Anton Steinwald, 1774. Photo courtesy: Géza Entz

Another instance of trampling direct democracy underfoot is supplied by the case of the referendum in Pered (Tešedíkovo) concerning the Hungarian name of the village, proved by archive data to have been in use for at least nine centuries by the time the Czechoslovak authorities chose to change it in 1948. The Tešedíkovo place name was derived from that of Sámuel Tessedik as an artificial construct reflecting the campaign for Slovakisation, ignoring the fact that the noted 19th-century Lutheran pastor and educator had never had any involvement with the village in his career. (A similar sleight of hand was performed in renaming Párkány as Stúrovo, also in 1948.) In the spring of 2012, a local referendum was held in the village of Pered about its name. Availing themselves of this classic tool of direct democracy, the residents voted to revert the name from the Slovakian Tešedíkovo to the original Hungarian Pered. The government, however, chose to flout the decision, and issued a decree, in October 2013, refusing to implement the result of the referendum. Despite protests by the competent ombudsman, the official use of the Pered name remained prohibited. The legal partner of the IPMR in the Uplands contested the administrative decision at the District Court of Galánta, which threw out the case in 2016. Subsequently, an appeal was submitted to, and eventually denied by, the District Court of Nagyszombat (Trnava). The final step was to bring the case before Slovakia’s Supreme Court, but this instance once again ruled against the appeal, in 2019. Concurrently with the appeals, a complaint was lodged with the Constitutional Court citing a violation of the subjects’ right to participate in public affairs and their right to non-discrimination or equality before the law. The review of this latter complaint is still pending, while the IPMR is considering its options of seeking legal remedy from international courts of justice.

Yet the chronicle also features chapters of partial achievement. The Alliance for Common Goals (SZAKC), a major partner of the IPMR in the Uplands enjoying the support of the news portal Felvidé, succeeded in its fight to have the Hungarian national anthem legalised in the Uplands. The struggle goes back to an older legal amendment that had imposed a fine of up to 7,000 euros on playing and singing the national anthem of another country in Slovakia if the event was not attended by an official delegation from that other country. The news portal tracked and reported on such events on an ongoing basis. Finally, the authorities bowed under the massive pressure of public opinion and annulled the objectionable provision in May 2019. The Forum Minority Research Institute, another think tank partner of the IPMR in the Uplands, brought a lawsuit over bilingual registry records in 2019. The litigation, still in progress as we speak 100 years after the Trianon Treaty, was occasioned by the routine practice of ignoring rights enshrined in law by refusing to issue such records in any language other than Slovakian.

The above are just a few examples culled from the case load of the IPMR. There are many more cases like these throughout Slovakia, which either go unreported by citizens fearful of retribution, or simply remain cries in the wilderness if they are voiced after all. From all these circumstances we must conclude that Hungary’s northern neighbour is guilty of relentlessly persecuting the Hungarian language in its territory.

Offering plate from 1705, Magyarvalkó (Văleni, Romania). Owned by the Museum of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Transylvania, Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Romania). Photo courtesy: Géza Entz

The situation in Subcarpathiais deteriorating, keeping Hungarians there in constant limbo. In reality, Ukrainians are much less fearful of Hungarians than of the significantly larger Russian national minority, numbered at roughly ten million residents. In comparison, Hungarians represent a marginal factor at most. Nevertheless, the whipping up of sentiment against minorities affects Hungarians much more painfully than the Russians, precisely because of the much smaller size of their community. The members of our nation living in Subcarpathia are under ceaseless threat, not simply to their national identity and pride but to their sheer physical survival as a national minority, imperilled by war-zone conditions and the attendant poverty and scarcity that come with them. Indeed, their future hinges to a great extent on the outcome of the war-like conditions. If the great powers and the Ukrainians themselves came round to common sense and bowed to considerations of equity, then Hungary’s eastern neighbour could reform itself as a confederation of the Swiss type, in which Russians, Rusyns, Hungarians, and possibly other minorities would enjoy full-blown and genuine autonomy. At least, this is what would work best for the Hungarians. Should Ukraine fall apart, by peaceful means or as a consequence of a war, and Kiev continue to be ruled by a nationalist-chauvinistic government, Hungarians’ lives will become more miserable than ever before. This is the number one issue today around Munkács (Mukachevo) and Beregszász (Berehove). Meanwhile, Subcarpathia remains a battleground for education in and the general use of native tongues, albeit with diminishing hopes of ultimate success as time goes by. Indeed, the latest legislative measures in Ukraine have aimed at precisely the drastic scaling back, and even practical prevention, of native language use by the minorities.

The options of teaching in minority languages were curtailed severely by the education laws of 2017 and 2020, and by the Language Act of 2019. On several counts, these legal instruments contravene the Ukrainian constitution as well as a number of international treaties signed by Ukraine. Not that chauvinistic politicians in Kiev seem to care. Education in minority languages is confined to the kindergarten and elementary school, and even there they must be complemented by the state language in a mixed minority–state language education model. Furthermore, such institutions and all their affairs must invariably be run in Ukrainian. As for vocational secondary schools, colleges and universities, the option of teaching in minority languages has been abolished across the board. The sole exception (for the time being) remains the category of fully private general secondary schools. These are still entitled to choose their language of teaching, provided that they enable students to master the state language in accordance with conditions stipulated by the government. Compliance with this rule is monitored and enforced in the strictest possible manner.z

Imago pietatis (Man of Sorrows). A detail of Johannes de Rosenau’s fresco in the choir of the Nagyszeben (Sibiu, Hermannstadt, Romania) Lutheran church, 1445. Photo courtesy: Géza Entz

For all intents and purposes, the Ukrainian State Language Act of 2019 relegates minority languages to the private sphere and religion. Among other cardinal provisions, the law makes violations punishable by administrative disciplinary action or criminal proceeding; it imposes on all citizens a strict liability for being conversant in the state language; it mandates the Ukrainian (in Cyrillic script) version of last and first names to be the basis from which the version in the Latin alphabet must be derived for purposes of being indicated in the passport, thereby denying (for example) Hungarian minorities the right to have their names appear in their official documents in conformity with the rules of Hungarian spelling; and finally it makes knowledge of the state language mandatory for all local representatives, senior municipal officials, and executives of companies and organisations in municipal or state management or ownership. Under Articles 12, 13 and 14 the law provides that work processes at state and municipal government agencies must be conducted in the state language exclusively, effectively preventing the use of any other language in conducting official affairs. Article 18 declares the state language to be the sole language allowed in elections. Article 21 consists of a verbatim reiteration of Article 7 of the Education Act, supplementing it with two stipulations restricting the use of minority languages: 1) admission exams in higher education must be conducted in Ukrainian exclusively, and 2) the teaching of foreign languages is permitted only through Ukrainian as the primary language. Article 25 requires all printed matter of public information in any language other than Ukrainian to be published in two or more languages, one of which must be the state language. This legal stipulation not only flies in the face of the principles of non-discrimination and equal opportunity, but also infringes upon the right to free competition and the right of individuals to freely disseminate and access information. In addition to the above, the law mandates the exclusive use of Ukrainian in a number of other areas, including web sites and various online interfaces (Art. 27), public events (Art 29), consumer services (Art. 30), advertising (Art. 32), health care (Art. 33) etc. All of this is intended to bar the use of minority languages in public, in essence confining them to private communications and religious liturgy.

The inevitable conclusion is that, contrary to accepted European norms and practice, Ukraine is concentrating its efforts toward the single goal of making the state language exclusive in the entire territory of the country. This is very hard to believe for any European with a sound frame of mind in this day and age. The Hungarian government is doing what it can and should be doing to change this, but a predilection for double standards makes much of “European public opinion” frown on these efforts.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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