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Hungary Unnerves Its Neighbors--but Legally

Europe: Countries see a threat in Budapest's offer of social services to ethnic brethren.


KISKUNHALAS, Hungary -- A monument in this town's central square displays two maps, today's Hungary and the much larger Hungary of the past. Its implicit message, said a taxi driver standing nearby: "We are so small now, and we will be so big again."

Hungary lost nearly two-thirds of its territory in the post-World War I breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the desire to regain land helped draw it to the side of Nazi Germany in World War II. Now, for the first time in more than five decades, this country is again trying to do something about its dismemberment.

A law that took effect Jan. 1 aims to keep alive a sense of greater nationhood among nearly 3 million ethnic Hungarians in six neighboring countries. Those who apply for special identification cards can receive educational, medical and employment benefits while visiting Hungary--including three-month work permits once a year--and subsidies for Hungarian-language education at home.

The measure seems innocuous to its supporters. But by seeking to preserve a Hungarian identity for people living in other nations, the so-called Status Law has triggered protests in Slovakia and Romania, which fear Hungarian expansionism.

"This law is very sensitive for Slovaks because it opens again the idea of so-called Greater Hungary," Robert Fico, head of the populist SMER party in Slovakia, said in an interview in Bratislava, his nation's capital.

The fears have deep roots. Most of Slovakia was ruled as part of the multiethnic Kingdom of Hungary for more than 900 years. Transylvania, also part of the kingdom for centuries and now in Romania, contributed much to Hungarian culture and history.

The new law aims to help people such as Monika Moravecz, 26, and her husband, Ladislav, 30. The ethnic Hungarians live in the southern Slovakian town of Dunajska Streda. They plan to send their daughter to Hungarian-language elementary school close to home, then to high school and university across the border in Hungary. The law will make this easier, they said.

"It's not the money we care about," Monika Moravecz explained. "It's just that we can show we feel Hungarian."

That confirmation of Hungarian identity--in a passport-like document with the crown of St.Stephen, Hungary's first king, on its cover--is for many elderly people the most important aspect of the law.

"People will put it in a glass case to show off with other nice things," said Peter Kovacs, 65, a resident of Dunajska Streda.

A Fight Over Assimilation

Although some ethnic Hungarians dream that the borders might someday be changed, few seriously believe that can happen any time soon. So the controversy over the law is most of all a fight over assimilation and counter-assimilation.

Many citizens of Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia are descended from Hungarians who did not move from their own country but rather saw borders redrawn around them. Should these people give up their ethnic identity in favor of their country of citizenship? Or should they remain, generation after generation, Hungarians in a foreign land?

For Kinga Valent, 28, an ethnic Hungarian living in the southern Slovakian town of Samorin, the answer is obvious.

"We didn't come here," she said. "If you go to America, you know you are immigrating. If you immigrate somewhere, it's your decision. But my grandfather was born here, and my father was born here, and all my family was born here. It's not my decision. It is a decision pushed on me. It hurts if you are in Bratislava and people say, 'Shut up, you stupid Hungarian! Speak Slovak!'"

Valent said that she expects her baby boy to grow up as a Hungarian but that it all depends on language.

"If he has the opportunity to study in his mother tongue, he'll feel Hungarian," she said. "If he doesn't, he won't."

Still, she has no desire to see the border revised.

"I think no one who is mentally OK would think of changing the border, because it would mean war, something like [what] happened in Yugoslavia," she said. "It is unthinkable. I haven't heard of anybody who thinks this is a solution."

The government in Budapest, Hungary's capital, insists that it also has no interest in changing borders. But building a stronger Hungarian cultural area in Central Europe is seen as a different matter.

During discussion of the law on a radio program, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said "a Hungarian-speaking region ... is now forming, which will gather economic strength."

Such comments galvanize fearful critics, with the backlash most intense in Slovakia.

"This law has no place in a civilized Europe and belongs to the Middle Ages," Anna Malikova, leader of the right-wing Slovak National Party, declared in her nation's parliament.

Peter Medgyessy, poised to become Hungary's next prime minister after leading a center-left coalition to victory in recent parliamentary elections, said the incoming Socialist-led government will back the new law.

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