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Intolerance in Slovakia: The Opressive "Language Law"

Ambassador Bela Szombati11/27/09 -- American Hungarian Federation and others express their concern about sweeping statements made by Ambassador in interview concerning Hungary. The Washington Times publishes Federation's letter and former Foreign Service Officer pens letter to the Ambassador. "[The Ambassador is] ignoring an exceedingly complex social problem that not even the government has been able to address effectively. While discussing prejudice, he also could have referred to the intolerance toward the Hungarian minorities throughout the region.

1 - Washington Times Article "Hungary for More"

2 - Letter from Dr. Segesvary

3 - Washington Times Interview: "Embassy Row"

The Washington Times
Friday, November 27, 2009

Hungary for more

Hungarian Ambassador Bela Szombati's interview with The Washington Times is unique in its characterization of Hungary ("Ready for rebound," Embassy Row, World, Nov. 18). Mr. Szombati's optimistic prediction that Hungary is poised for an economic recovery must be welcome news for Hungarians. They deserve a more robust growth cycle following the mismanagement of the past several years, which exacerbated the effects of the global financial crisis in Hungary.

The ambassador's reference to interethnic relations in Hungary, including the situation of the Roma, mentions only "hatred" and "a lot of prejudice," thereby ignoring an exceedingly complex social problem that not even the government has been able to address effectively. While discussing prejudice, he also could have referred to the intolerance toward the Hungarian minorities throughout the region. The discriminatory language law in Slovakia that criminalizes the use of the Hungarian language is a prime example of such intolerance, and it is an issue that is not receiving the attention it deserves.

While Hungarians are learning how to live in their newly restored democracy, as stated by the ambassador, he neglected to mention that these problems can be traced directly to the 45 years of totalitarianism imposed on Hungary during the Cold War. He could have pointed out that the strong democratic vein running through Hungary's modern history will ensure that his country's political future will be bright, especially after the old impulses and lingering negative effects of the previous dictatorship disappear.

In support of this assertion, the ambassador could have mentioned the great Hungarian democrats: Louis Kossuth, who led the reform movement and war of independence against Austria in 1848 and whose bust is on display in the U.S. Capitol; the Smallholders of 1945 who won democratic elections despite Soviet occupation and interference; the freedom fighters of the 1956 revolution; or the democratic opposition in the late 1980s that helped topple communism.

Absent this historical context, the published interview left an erroneous impression about Hungary, an impression the ambassador clearly did not want to leave.

American Hungarian Federation

November 24, 2009

Louis S. Segesvary, Ph.D.
721 Kentland Drive
Great Falls, Virginia 22066

Ambassador Béla Szombati
Embassy of Hungary
3910 Shoemaker St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20008

Dear Ambassador Szombati:

            As a Hungarian-American, it is with some dismay that I read your recent interview in The Washington Times on the current state of affairs in Hungary. When you stated that there is “hatred, prejudice, a lot of prejudice, especially toward the Roma” in the country, I wonder why you couldn’t have provided some backdrop and context as to the difficult assimilation issues associated with the Roma population.

 I say this with all due respect and admiration for the Roma, having been raised in a home where their sensitive and imaginative music was both a cause for enjoyment and pride.  Most of the Hungarians I know fully support the civic rights of the Roma and would be the first to decry any animosity or prejudice directed to them. Unfortunately, there are without doubt a number of Hungarians who do not share these sentiments.  But you seem to be painting Hungary as a whole, without any qualification, with the broad brush of hatred and prejudice. No indication is given to the fact that many homes were like mine, where the Roma were appreciated for their cultural contributions.

As a former career American diplomat, I was schooled in the importance of providing a fair and balanced portrait of my country abroad. And while the United States has had its own troubled racial history, far more extensive than anything Hungary has experienced with the Roma, I don’t know that I would ever have used the kind of sweeping, condemning language in representing my country that you have used with regard to Hungary. I am sure that was not your intention, but regrettably your words conveyed a lack of both proportion and nuance.

I was also disappointed to see your characterization of Hungary as some kind of political backwater, in which people are only “learning how to debate” and “learning how to handle our political opponents.” To say this of a country that produced one of the greatest 19th century European proponents of democracy, Kossuth Lajos, widely celebrated in the United States with streets and towns named after him, seems to me a little far fetched to say the least. As you well know, in its thirst for freedom and democracy, Hungary twice revolted on the world stage against its oppressors, first in the rebellion against the Hapsburg dynasty in 1848 and then in 1956 in another rebellion against overwhelming Soviet military power. It was about that last brutally crushed revolution that Albert Camus could write, “Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years.”
Let us also not forget the crucial role Hungary played in advancing the cause of freedom by opening its border with Austria in 1989 to let thousands of East Germans flee from tyrannical communist rule. It was that brave and generous gesture which marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire and the introduction of democratic governance throughout the former East Bloc. 

 The political tensions that exist in Hungary today have less to do with learning the ways of democracy and more to do with the lack of public trust in manipulative politicians. Considering the robustness of the press in Hungary, the vigorous civic discourse, and the broad public support for its democratic institutions and procedures --  multi-party politics, a transparent electoral process, and the rule of law --  I would think that Hungary should be commended for its progress in re-establishing democracy after 45 years of Soviet-backed totalitarian oppression instead of being treated to the kind of condescension reserved for school children, which again, I am sure was not your intention.

Let me just add that if you have been misquoted in any respect in your interview, I hope you will consider sending a letter to the editor to set the record straight. 

Respectfully and with my compliments,
Dr. Louis S. Segesvary

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Embassy Row

James Morrison


The Hungarian ambassador is confidently predicting that his country, after hitting bottom during the global financial crisis, is poised for an economic recovery and just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

"Next year Hungary will be best off in the European Union," Ambassador Bela Szombati told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "The government has done a tremendous job. We're in a good position. We're waiting for the next growth cycle."

The only obstacle toward recovery would be slow growth in Germany, a major market for Hungarian exports.

"If there is no growth in Germany, it would be extremely difficult to get growth in Hungary," he said.

Mr. Szombati credited the government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai for facing the severe economic morass and setting Hungary on a path toward recovery. Mr. Bajnai took office after the March resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and secured support from parliament for deep cuts in social programs and other measures.

Among those cuts, Hungarian government employees and retirees lost an extra month's salary, called the "13th month" paycheck, and the government increased the retirement age to 65 from 62. However, most Hungarians took early retirement after turning 58.

"There were also deep cuts in government expenditures," the ambassador added.

He noted that the government imposed a "strict-disciplined economic and budgetary policy" that has resulted in a favorable review from the International Monetary Fund, which was keeping Hungary afloat with a $25.1 billion rescue plan.

Mr. Szombati said the government's economic measures are expected to meet its goal of reducing the budget deficit to 3.9 percent of the gross domestic product next year, down from a high of 9 percent in 2006.

The economic crisis was accompanied by political turmoil and a rise in ethnic violence, especially against Hungary's Roma, or Gypsy, population.

"There is hatred, prejudice, a lot of prejudice, especially toward the Roma," Mr. Szombati said. "It truly is the biggest hurdle we face."

However, Mr. Szombati said Hungarians, only 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, are still learning how to live in a democracy.

"What is going on in Hungary reminds me of what was going on in this country in the 1780s and early 1800s," Mr. Szombati said, referring to the political and economic instability that followed the American Revolution.

"We are learning how to debate. We are learning how to handle our political opponents."

The ambassador said he was trying to be candid about the social and political conditions in Hungary.

"I'm not putting a spin on it. I'm offering you my analysis," he said. "A lot of people are disappointed by what they see, but they have not given up on democracy."

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Hungarians in Slovakia

Ethnic Map of Slovakia - 1910 vs 1991 showing population decline


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