Not so Fast. History casts long shadows.

A Slovak-Hungarian Alliance?

November 08, 2023
After his victorious Smer-SSD party forged a governing coalition with Hlas-SD and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), Robert Fico became Slovakia’s prime minister on October 25.

The news spurred Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, alluding to Fico’s previous tenure in that position, to exclaim with joy: “Guess who’s back!” 

Fico is frequently compared to Orbán, and with good reason. Both men have ridden a wave of discontent, benefit from euroskepticism, and spew pro-Russian rhetoric. Both have an adversarial relationship with the media, have presided over the erosion of civic society, and oppose social liberalism and LGBTQ+ rights. They will likely find common ground in stymieing EU authority and aid to Ukraine. But these surface-level agreements mask deep historical mistrust and open conflict between Slovakia and Hungary that will make extended cooperation difficult. 

Familiarity breeds contempt. The Slovak nationalism that Smer and its SNS ally now stoke actually arose from opposition to Hungarian rule, which Slovakia was under for 800 years. Slovaks, centuries ago a group of Slavs in the mountains of northern Hungary, resisted the Hungarian nationalist project of assimilation known as Magyarization. Political restlessness characterized the region for centuries thereafter. The post-World War I effort, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to subsume Slovakia into Czechoslovakia led in 1919 to a Hungarian invasion of land that is today eastern Slovakia. The move was an attempt to secure sovereignty over the territory and protect ethnic Hungarians there, but a coalition of Hungary’s neighbors put an end to that. A year later, the Treaty of Trianon formalized Hungary’s loss. World War I’s victorious allies imposed on Central Europe a pact that stripped Hungary of almost three-quarters of its prewar territory, including Slovakia, and separated one-third of Hungarians from their homeland.

The “tragedy of Trianon” was a catastrophe for Hungary and, in Orbán’s words, a “death sentence” for the nation. The trauma would define the next century of Hungary’s policy toward its neighbors, including its decision in 1938 to collaborate with Nazi Germany and to occupy southern Slovakia. The next year, the threat posed by that move pressured Slovak nationalists to secede from Czechoslovakia in exchange for German protection. That, however, still did not stop a short war that led to further Hungarian occupation. After World War II, the Trianon borders were reimposed, and Czechoslovakia expelled many ethnic Hungarians, though they still comprise 10% of Slovakia’s population today.

These events still hang heavy over many Hungarians. In 2020, two-thirds of them agreed that parts of neighboring countries belong to Hungary. No other European population is as irredentist. Orbán’s statements appeal to this revanchism and frequently alienate his country’s neighbors. In July, he questioned Slovakia’s right to exist, calling it a “breakaway territory”. That drew criticism from Fico and SNS. Orbán has also used Slovakia’s Hungarian name and has worn a scarf depicting historical “greater” Hungary, prompting outrage from Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. While this rhetoric and showmanship placates Hungarian nationalists, it riles their Slovak counterparts to the north. 

The impact of Slovakia’s struggles for independence have created in the country a political culture of defensiveness and xenophobia. Since Smer and SNS first came to power in 2006, they have worked to limit Hungarian influence and often partake in interethnic culture wars. Ján Slota, then SNS leader, made graphic anti-Hungarian rhetoric a cornerstone of his political appeal. He threatened to “level Budapest” and called Hungarians “bowlegged mongoloids” who were “a tumor on the Slovak nation”. Fico, for his part, has called Orbán’s Fidesz party a grave threat to Slovakia and panned Orbán as an “extremist nationalist”. In 2009, the Smer-SNS government passed a controversial law that punished state officials for using minority languages, causing a diplomatic row with Hungary. That same year tensions also flared over Hungarian President László Sólyom’s attendance at the unveiling of a statue of a Hungarian king in Slovakia, which then banned Sólyom from the country. Attacks on the Slovak embassy and ambassador in Budapest followed. When Orbán pushed through in 2012, without consulting the Slovak government, a measure offering Hungarian citizenship to Hungarians in Slovakia, Fico’s government retaliated by prohibiting dual citizenship. Notably, both men were pandering to domestic nationalism at the time, Fico ahead of an election and Orbán to fulfill a campaign promise. One result of all this fraught history is that the Slovak government, to this day, maintains powerful legal tools of discrimination and continues to honor the post-World War II Beneš decrees that hold Hungarians collectively guilty for the conflict and allow confiscation of their property.

Despite the many past quarrels, however, Fico and Orbán have warmed to each other in recent years. With Poland’s illiberal government’s recent electoral loss, they may need each other lest they be isolated in a Europe they have alienated. But nationalist elements in their administrations, which remain mutually distrustful of one another, will obstruct any deep partnership. The question now, as it frequently is in Slovakia, is whether political pragmatism will overrule ethnic resentment. But old habits die hard.

Jay Rumas was a participant of GMF’s EU-US Young Leaders Seminar in 2022. He was also a Fulbright scholar in Slovakia. He now works as a refugee resettlement coordinator in Worcester, Massachusetts.