A total of 54 train stations in towns across southern Slovakia will have Hungarian signage in a matter of months, after years of pressure and protest from civil society. Slovak law allows for Hungarian signage, including street and place names, wherever the proportion of Hungarians exceeds 20% of the local population. Yet the country’s state railway company (Železnice Slovenskej republiky, ŽSR) cited “administrative” reasons for why they were unable to add bilingual signage for over a decade after legislation made this possible.
This is when civil activists within the Hungarian minority took matters into their own hands. The Movement for a Bilingual Southern Slovakia (Kétnyelvű Dél-Szlovákiáért mozgalom), with admirable persistence, placed their own unlawful bilingual signs on roads and at train stations across multilingual and multiethnic towns. These signs were almost always swiftly removed, but activists did not wait long before putting them back up again. If municipal authorities, railways and state companies did not follow the letter of the law when it came to bilingual signage, activists would intervene and sort things out themselves.
One of the most prominent examples of this activism was in the town of Dunaszerdahely (Dunajská Streda), where the population is 75% ethnic Hungarian, yet railway officials steadfastly refused to use the municipality’s Hungarian name at the railway station. The Movement intervened and came up with their own solution. And the activists know that their struggle for bilingual signs is about much more than simply seeing Hungarian on the streets and public buildings of their hometowns. “Denying our demand for bilingualism is not only about the use of the Hungarian language, but about the denigration of the most fundamental democratic principles. And this harms every citizen of this republic…Bilingual signs won’t result in cheaper bread and more jobs. But let’s not expect real progress in the welfare of our citizens if even in such a seemingly marginal issue we are unable to break through the impasse,” explain the activists on their website.
The activists have hit the nail on the head: bread and butter issues are important, but it is equally critical to stand up for one’s democratic rights, for freedom and liberal democracy, because ultimately this is the underpinning of higher living standards and welfare initiatives.
In addition to the role played by civil society, political will was important too, when it came to finally enforcing legislation surrounding bilingualism. When Hungarian politician Árpád Érsek (of the Most-Híd party) became Slovakia’s Minister of Transport and Construction, bilingual signage moved up the list of priorities, and will now become a reality in 54 towns before the end of 2017.
Hungary’s Magyar Nemzet daily, in its coverage of the issue, pointed out that while Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took this development as a sign of the ever improving status of Slovakia’s nearly 500,000-strong Hungarian minority (or 9% of the population), the ministry failed to give any credit or to even mention Mr. Érsek and the Most-Híd party. Those who follow Hungarian minority politics in the neighbouring counties closely know that Fidesz sees the more liberal Most-Híd as a rival, and actively supported another, ultimately unsuccessful Hungarian minority party in Slovakia during the last two Slovak elections.
The real credit, however, is due first and foremost to groups like the Movement for a Bilingual Southern Slovakia, their persistence and commitment to a democratic cause.