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Lampl, Zsuzsanna: The political identity of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, 1989-1990.

Šamorín/Somorja, Forum Minority Research Institute, 2020, 240 p.

Zsuzsanna Lampl’s latest book makes a somewhat nostalgic reading: the well-known sociologist that she is, examines the political identity of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia during the period of what is known as “regime change”1.2The way she discusses her topic is as informal and familiar as how one discusses public issues with friends. Professional though it is, it is not primarily aimed at addressing researchers and professionals — they are, after all, familiar with the issues raised in the book as well as the literature cited. Instead, her primary intended audience is those non-professionals who wish to receive a concise and systematic presentation of specific past events. Also, and equally importantly, they all share some experience of the regime change, including those who were born later, for they, too, can now live in a freer and more open world thanks to the events of 1989-1990. This book, too, is a product of this free and open world, exhibiting cover photographs of Kálmán Janics, Miklós Duray, and Károly Tóth, making it visible at the outset that as many as three ethnic Hungarian parties took an active part in the historic regime change of the time in Czechoslovakia, notably, Independent Hungarian Initiative (FMK), Coexistence, and Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement (MKDM). None of these exist today by the same name or in the same form, but their mentality, or, let us say, ideological basis, still lingers on. And, of course, there still exists a community of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia who represent national, Christian, and liberal values, obviously in this order as far as their number is concerned, which is not merely due to internal evolution or dissection — in the year 2021, more than 30 years after the regime change, they are bound more extensively and organically to the existing governmental trend in Hungary than before: borders are free to cross, Hungary’s media can be freely accessed, so the current, centralized, national-conservative collective identity in Hungary is closest to ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia as an ideological option. Yet, what we also learn from Zsuzsanna Lampl’s book is that it was the national-conservative bias that predominated amongst Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarians as early as the first quarter of the year 1990. She quotes, with indignation, the liberal view saying “we are not going to ruin ourselves by being Hungarians” — admittedly, the intelligentsia (for that is what the author calls them, too) might have put it more cautiously. As for today’s concept of the nation, often extremely radical, may I quote Márai’s note in his diary dating from 1968: “homeland is too important a thing to be left to the care of patriots”.23 The book, of almost two hundred pages, contains seven comprehensive chapters, the first of which — concerned with the Hungarian political elite in Slovakia — amounts to almost half of the volume. This nostalgia is, of course, appropriate, since it can be seen, in a well-documented way, that we wish our then problems and divisions were those of today. Alas, that is not the case at present: there is a huge ideological gap between two to three ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia; the media and public discussions suggest that the differences between present-day political identities are unbridgeable. Indeed, compared to the year 1989, it is not only the tone of public discussions and the media that have become more extreme or even rude, but interpersonal relationships, too.
Zsuzsanna Lampl, having clarified the distinction between a party and a movement, provides a precise characterization of the three leading Hungarian political lines. FMK undoubtedly acted as a determining factor in the regime change, also in the sense that its programme focussed on the creation of a pluralistic democracy; everything else was co-ordinated or subordinated. FMK’s major idea that every party representing ethnic Hungarian interests should ally with its Slovak ideological counterpart (for one could only succeed together with a Slovak partner) remained unheard. Indeed, FMK itself was forced to face the fact that its regime-changing Slovak counterpart, Public Against Violence (VPN) abandoned its original liberal goals. (VPN itself, during the first days and weeks of the regime change, benefited greatly from the fact that FMK members, educated in the more democratic and more open Hungary by Hungarian opposition members, had a much clearer idea of democracy and the rule of law than any Slovak member of the opposition.)
Coexistence regarded the representation of ethnic Hungarian interests as primary, and insisted on it; indeed, it formed an alliance with MKDM (considering itself to represent Christian values), opposing FMK. It was chiefly the election coalition formed by MKDM and Coexistence that FMK found hard to tolerate — alongside with the support given to that line by Hungary. There existed, of course, a political left as well, but right in the years 1989 to 1990, the word “left” had undesirable connotations, and all of the three ethnic Hungarian parties did distance themselves from it. Károly Tóth himself, looking back on the then events from 1996, formed a more shaded view on the role played by the regime-changing liberals. Concerning the idea that minority rights should be ensured institutionally and in a legal form, he said, “no democracy by itself guarantees minority rights”.
The author points out the fact, giving a detailed analysis, that the majority of Czechoslovakia’s population at the time had no regime change in mind, but merely a reform of “party leadership”, another form of “Socialism with a human face”. Needless to say, all of the three parties had some ex-Communist members; yet, when the paragraph establishing the leading role of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party had been removed from the country’s constitution, the space available for the Communist reformers, removed in 1968, narrowed down spectacularly. Then, there also existed an idea of a “third way”, one between socialism and capitalism, but that choice remained theoretical. Zsuzsanna Lampl calls the reader’s attention at this point to the cryptic nature of the concepts of the time. She writes, “We cannot tell what was meant by socialism, capitalism, or the third way, but it can be assumed that the interpretation of these concepts was as manifold as that of democracy”.
Moreover, the difficulty in outlining the concepts back then has, by now, turned into a relativity and permeability of concepts.
Concerning the former Eastern Bloc, for example, the economic and ideological self-characterization of the political left or right does not inevitably involve an unconditional adherence to rightist or leftist values. At any rate, the author argues convincingly that the first stage of regime change, discussed in her book, is characterized by a predominant vision whereby people emphasized the need for change, but not necessarily expressing the desire for a radical change of regime. As far as the constitutional system was concerned towards the end of the year 1989, ethnic Hungarians had by and large the same ideas as Slovaks, although, as the author notes, “there was a significant difference. FMK laid its cards on the table right from the outset, making it clear that its goal was to destroy socialism and introduce a liberal model of capitalism”.
Nonetheless, it is a fact (as illustrated by the author’s figures) that the political and economic feeling of security amongst Slovakia’s populace did not start to deteriorate at the time of regime change. The tendency was observable as early as 1980; from 1975 on, “people’s sense of security kept decreasing — simultaneously, up to the year 1989, their sense of insecurity was growing.” To be sure, the years after the regime change saw a raising insecurity of additional social groups, primarily in the sphere of social security due to increasing unemployment and the liberalization of costs and prices. At the same time, this transitional period was essentially socialist in nature, especially in the sphere of available services. The author quotes a newspaper report dating from May, 1990, informing readers that the number of telephone stations in Czechoslovakia was over four million, with an increasing number of subscribers; yet, there was further demand for more than three hundred thousand (we mean landline stations, of course). It is also worth drawing your attention to a sociological study carried out 25 years after the regime change, a period of time sufficient to enable the population to distance themselves from the socialist era and to have a taste of capitalism, too: twice as many people thought that socialism guaranteed human dignity more than capitalism.
The revolutionary unity — quite soon, in fact — was disrupted by the advance of nationalism, the degree of which can be seen in the deterioration of Czecho-Slovak relations leading to the breakup of the country, as well as Slovak-Hungarian relations. Surprising though it may sound, we must trust the author’s data, referring to contemporary surveys, according to which issues about national minorities became the leading ones among social problems to be solved by late 1990, ahead of every other issue (including economics, society and unemployment). Needless to say, no solution was found as three quarters of Slovaks resented Prague’s overwhelming dominance; the opinion that unity with Czechs was a disadvantage for Slovaks had become predominant, just like another, no less absurd claim that ethnic Hungarians aimed at Magyarizing Slovaks living in southern Slovakia. In October 1990, “47 percent thought that the co-existence of Slovaks and Hungarians would never become any better”.
I must definitely note another one of the numerous details of interest: there were some deviating points in the joint declarations of VPN and its Hungarian ally, FMK. Often, the latter put forward statements and numbered lists of decrees, the Slovak versions of which were slightly different from the Hungarian ones; not every part of the Hungarian version found its way into the Slovak one, and — just to give an example — the Slovak version used the term “ethnicity” rather than “national minority”3.4In other words, the regime-changing libe ral VPN itself was in trouble handling the minority issue: not wishing to lose votes in the increasingly nationalistic climate, it “refined” the Hungarian version of the text. It turned out quite soon, of course, that VPN did not only have members like Fedor Gál or Peter Zajac; indeed, they were the ones to be excluded by the majority later on. (Fedor Gál was even forced to leave Slovakia.)
The book, as mentioned, has a great advantage, notably, the informal style the author achieves by using quite simple me thods including an openness to all opinions, pointing out correlations (but never pedantically), as well as by providing the appropriate quotes in the appropriate places. Actually, rarely does she give a direct assessment; instead, she transmits her conclusions indirectly, allowing her readers to discover them for themselves. What I also find really likeable is that she quotes, besides opinion polls, a great deal of contemporary statements, opinions, and news and comments from the press. Another respectable aspect of her book is that (while watching events closely) she keeps a historical distance — by comparing the surveys of the period under investigation to later ones. Another contribution to her informality is the reference to her own personal experience, e.g. “I have experienced this attitude several times in my own personal environment”, “I remember a conversation towards the end of 1990 myself”, or “I heard about it from others, too”, etc.
The Czechoslovak regime change (and Zsuzsanna Lampl’s book) concludes with the first free parliamentary elections, taking place on the 8th and 9th of June, 1990, with an astonishingly high voter turnout of 95.39%. The winner in Slovakia was VPN, allied with FMK, with 29.34% of votes. From the joint list of VPN and FMK, six Hungarian candidates became representatives in the Slovak National Council4,5 while the coalition of Coexistence and MKDM, with 8.66% of votes, provided more than twice as many representatives, notably, thirteen.
Three Hungarian candidates also became representatives from the party list of the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS), while Coexistence had one Ukrainian representative. As far as the 300 seats of the Federal Assembly56is concerned, 15 of them were won by Hungarians (with Coexistence-MKDM’s 11 seats, and VPN-FMK’s 4 seats); in addition, one Polish representative of Coexistence had also been elected. Municipal elections were held on the 23rd and 24th of November of the same year, with a significantly lower voter turnout of 63.75%. Amongst ethnic Hunga rians, it was the nationalist line that proved victorious: Coexistence, with 6.3% of votes, won the mayor’s seat in 102 municipalities; MKDM’s 3.1% amounted to 35 seats, while FMK’s 1.3% equalled 27. Needless to say, the results of the elections reflect the identity of ethnic Hungarians at the time of regime change.
The résumés in Slovak and in English are followed by a bibliography and, finally, a useful index. The politicians referred to, and quoted, with the highest frequency are Miklós Duray and Károly Tóth, while Péter Miklósi leads amongst journalists; amongst historians, it is Árpád Popély, a well-known expert on the period. The book makes an intelligent and thought-provoking reading that I warmly recommend to everyone.

Gábor Csanda