Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 15:28 UK

'In Slovakia, speak slovak'

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Slovakia

Recently thousands of ethnic Hungarians demonstrated in Slovakia, to protest against a new law that limits the use of minority languages including Hungarian.

In the Catholic Church of the Holy Cross in Nove Zamky, you can confess in Slovak in the little wooden booths on the left hand side of the aisle, or in Hungarian in identical booths on the right. It is that kind of town.

A man protests against the new language law in Budapest in Slovakia on 1 September 2009
The law against minority languages in Slovakia caused protests

Just inside the porch, hand-written notes transcribe a message from the Virgin Mary on two appearances in Slovakia soon after independence in 1993, warning the population against greed and the pursuit of material goods.

What does Our Lady think now, one wonders, about the giant Tesco department store like a modern-day cathedral, just across the Danube in Hungary - tempting Slovak workers in to even shop, after a day on their knees in the mobile phone factory nearby.

This is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual corner of the world.

The broad Danube dominates the earth and the sky.

There are no mountains for miles about, no natural defences, and the river generously brings both friends and enemies.

The plaque outside the church gives a brief history in four languages - Slovak, Hungarian, German and English. Hungarians and Slovaks live more or less happily side by side.

Only the pigeons get easily disturbed here, you would think, from their perches high in the church tower, as the bells ring out every quarter of an hour.

But there is trouble in the Indian summer air, a buzz above the plague monument, the pizzeria, the grandmothers pushing prams and the brash boys jostling each other outside the bars.

International row

The language law was the brain child of Jan Slota's Slovak National Party, and the fulfilment of a 16-year-old dream to show who is really boss in Slovakia.

Map of Slovakia
Map of Slovakia

A great international row has broken out over the content of the law - especially those clauses which appear to restrict the right of individuals and businessmen, as well as state officials, to use minority languages.

The prime minister, the foreign minister, and the president swear blind that the law is simply meant to reinforce the use of the state language, not restrict the use of those used by minorities.

The Hungarians, who make up one tenth of the population of Slovakia, fear both the letter and the spirit of the law.

The Hungarian government has issued fierce denunciations.

Even the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has expressed its traditionally mild concern, and has promised to get involved in drawing up the guidelines on how the law will be implemented.

As one travels through southern Slovakia, it becomes clear that the damage has already been done.

A little cluster of people stand round the death notices, beside a flower shop in Nove Zamky. True to the spirit of the town, many of the notices are printed in two languages, the names surprisingly different in Hungarian and in Slovak.

Ferenc becomes Frantisek. The surname comes first in Hungarian, last in Slovak.

"The law is there to make trouble," says Eva Szucs, one of the small crowd. She greets one passer-by in Slovak - Ahoj moj zlaty! - Hello my darling! - and another in Hungarian.

No Angels

The difference in the attitude of the customers in the department store where she has worked for nearly forty years, is tangible since the law entered into force, she says.

Slovak customers now regularly reprove the sales staff for talking in Hungarian to Hungarian customers. "Na Slovensku, po Slovensky" is their mantra. "In Slovakia speak Slovak".

And that is the real effect of the law as a whip in the hand of those who want to insult others.

The Hungarians are not exactly angels either.

"When my daughter set out for school," Erzsebet Uhrin, the head of a research institute for the much smaller Slovak minority in Hungary told a recent interviewer, "I gave her a bag with a Slovak emblem on it. She gave it back. There are always lads in black clothes on the bus, she said, and she didn't want them to turn on her."

Saint Stephen
Saint Stephen the 11th Century king that wanted to welcome foreigners

In Komarno, near the bridge across the Danube into Hungary, Denes Bolcskei runs the bilingual Diderot bookshop.

The Hungarian community in Slovakia "is like a lightning rod for the political storm" he says.

Through the glass front of his shop, he can see the new statue of Saint Stephen, the 11th century king who expanded Hungary's borders to include modern-day Slovakia.

"Show favour not only to relations and kin," wrote St Stephen to his son Emeric, "…but also to foreigners and all who come to you."

In August, the Slovak government banned the mild-mannered Hungarian president, Laszlo Solyom from unveiling it, in revenge for the fuss Hungary was kicking up about the language law.

"When we entered the European Union in 2004," says Bolcskei, "this is not what we expected. The point was that everything would be open from now on."

As an ethnic Hungarian, he greets everyone who comes into his shop, first of all in Slovak, then in Hungarian.

Business is bad because of the recession, and the fact that Slovakia introduced the euro currency in January.

The Hungarian forint is relatively weak, so the Hungarian minority buy their books in Hungary, if they buy books at all.

"Thank God they don't sell Slovak books across the border!" he says. "It means we do sell something, after all."

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Protests over Slovak language law
02 Sep 09 |  Europe
Hungary in war of words with Slovaks
11 Sep 09 |  Europe
Slovakia blocks Hungarian visit
21 Aug 09 |  Europe
Slovakia timeline
12 Mar 12 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific