Politics Member States

European of the Week: Béla Bugár, bridge builder

29 June 2010
Respekt Prague

Founder of Hungarian-Slovak reconciliation party Most-HÍD, the Magyar politician leads the drive to improve the troubled relations between the Slovak majority and the country's ethic-Hungarian minority. His success in recent elections is a positive sign for stability in Central Europe.

For the first time in the history of Slovakia, a statesman has emerged to contest the wisdom of instrumentalising ethnic tensions to garner votes, whether they be Hungarian or Slovak. To say that he has only an outside chance of success would not be an understatement. April and June elections in both Hungary and Slovakia have been marked by the reinforcement of two nationalist blocs. On the one hand, we have the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has also been hailed as the prime minister of Hungarians living on Slovak territory, and on the other, Slovak political parties which are competing to espouse the hardest possible line against Orbán, and in some cases, against Slovakia's Hungarian minority.

Towards an enduring Magyar-Slovak reconciliation

The air is thick with inflammatory speeches on the defence of national security. In recent months, the Slovak parliament convened an emergency session in response to the Orbán law on dual nationality, which offers Hungarian passports to all Magyars living outside the country, while Slovak nationalist Ján Slota poured petrol on the flames, when he described Slovakia's Hungarian minority as "a tumour in the body of the nation state."

In this context, Béla Bugár has come to the fore as the only political representative to demonstrate any faith in voters' common sense. In June 2009, he founded Most-Híd, a party with a bi-lingual name that combines the words for "bridge" in both Slovak and Hungarian, which aims to bring about an enduring Magyar-Slovak reconciliation. When it was launched, this unique European project gave the impression of being an intellectual construction invented by a handful of visionaries who had no concept of the realpolitik that prevails in Central Europe.

Breaking new ground

And no doubt this impression would have been proved right were it not for Most-Híd's leader Béla Bugár. A self-proclaimed pragmatist, who avoids taking the moral high ground, Bugár's simple appeal for common sense won 8.2% of the vote and 14 seats in parliament in 12-June general elections. Even more remarkable, it is estimated that a quarter of the new party's supporters are not members of the Hungarian minority, but Slovaks.

In the political history of a country that has long been marked by ethnic hatred, Bugár has consistently succeeded in breaking new ground, and the success of Most-Híd marks another milestone in the course of a long career. In 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, Bugár, a conservative Catholic born in 1958, first came to the fore as the leader of a Hungarian minority Christian party. And it was in this capacity that succeeded in convincing the Slovak government of the time to authorise the creation of a Hungarian university in Komárno in the south of the country.

Would prefer to plough his potato fields

In the years that followed, Bugár who had risen to become the leader of the Hungarian coalition (SMK) pioneered a policy of consistent support for human rights and freedoms as the best defence of the interests of the Hungarian minority – a position, which also attracted support from the Slovak intellectual elite.

Now that Most-Híd has been included in Slovakia's ruling coalition, Bugár has achieved a position of influence, which goes beyond southern Slovakia. In Bratislava, the man who presents himself as a small farmer who would prefer to be ploughing his potato fields, has been hailed as a visionary that will bring about a new era of Magyar-Slovak reconciliation. In Serbia, negotiations are underway for the formation of a new multi-ethnic political party along the lines of Most-Híd. But Bugár knows that true victory will not be achieved until the members of Slovakia's Hungarian minority no longer feel that they are second-class citizens in their own country. As he puts it in his own words, "Today we are only on the starting line."

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