As we celebrate the anniversary of the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, public debates are raging over what to do with frozen Russian assets. There seems to be increasing pressure to seize the property and funds of sanctioned Russians and transfer them to Ukraine to help with reconstruction.
While no doubt driven by moral outrage at the unforgivable suffering of the Ukrainian people, such a policy – if implemented without careful consideration – could have serious long-term consequences.
In this context, Slovakia can serve as a cautionary tale.
Since 2017, Slovak courts have been supporting administrative authorities in applying World War II decrees to seize property belonging to ethnic Hungarians and Germans without compensation. These laws allow for the expropriation of these two communities because of their “collective responsibility” for crimes committed during the war. For example, people who were not even born during World War II are being deprived of their property based on their origin, which is a clear case of collective punishment.
A striking example is the construction of a section of a motorway, financed by the European Union, through a suburb of Bratislava. According to János Fiala-Butora, a human rights lawyer, as many as 250 people have been affected by the mass expropriation of land in the area under the decrees.
No one really knows the total number of cases of expropriation as there are cases where the heirs of the property were not even aware of their ownership status in the first place.
With a twisted argument, the Slovak authorities claim that the confiscations actually took place when the decrees were passed and that their current actions are a remedy for bureaucratic mistakes of the past.
While Slovak civil society and human rights lawyers have pointed out that this is a flagrant violation of international human rights treaties and citizens’ fundamental rights, Slovak state officials remain stubbornly unwilling to face the objective reality.
But how is this possible?
The explanation lies in the confluence of international hypocrisy and a country’s unwillingness to enter into a more mature relationship with its history.
In Central Europe, the years following the end of World War II were marked by chaotic and often brutally violent mass displacement of ‘unwanted’ ethnic groups, such as the Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians. As a result, the countries in the region became much more demographically homogeneous.
This policy of ethnic cleansing, conducted with the blessings of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, was seen as a legitimate means of preventing the re-emergence of the ethnic antagonisms that the Nazis had so skillfully exploited as a pretext for the whole continent on fire.
With homogeneity as the ultimate goal, the recently re-established Czechoslovak Republic also sought to forcibly expel its minorities in order to “slavize” the towns and villages that spoke German or Hungarian for centuries.
In an effort to legalize the purges, Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš issued a series of infamous decrees depriving Germans and Hungarians of their citizenship and allowing the confiscation of all their property.
As many as three million Germans were deported from the Czech part of Czechoslovakia and resettled in Germany. However, the Allied powers were hesitant when it came to Slovakia’s Hungarians and finally only agreed to a “voluntary” population exchange with Hungary.
However, most of the Hungarian community resisted the strong pressure to leave and today about 8.5 percent of the Slovak population is Hungarian.
Despite the generally cordial relations, there are occasional disputes between Hungarians and Slovaks about how to remember these events. The former usually point out that no official apology, much less compensation, was ever given to the victims of the decrees, while Slovaks tend to bring up Hungary’s participation in the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Neither side is innocent of some sort of competitive martyrdom, as both nations have attempted to claim superior moral status by portraying themselves as the victims of the other’s hostility.
But in the end, the truth remains that the continued confiscations, as well as other discriminatory policies, are effectively relegating Slovakia’s remaining ethnic Hungarians to second-class citizen status.
This is not to say that progress has not been made. Particularly since Slovakia’s accession to the EU in 2004, the country has abandoned its strong assimilationist approach towards minorities and certain minority communities have seen improvements in infrastructure and social services. But the desire to preserve the cultural and linguistic identity of one’s own minority is condescendingly ridiculed as contrary to modernity, or seen as something that should be confined to private life.
Any suggestion to recognize the inherent value of minority identities, perhaps by granting official status to their language, is roundly dismissed as a dangerous idea that would disrupt peaceful coexistence between the majority and minorities.
The Beneš Decrees, despite every claim to the contrary, are not mere historical footnotes. They remain in force to this day, enshrining the superior status of the “state-bearing nation” and denying equal recognition to those who do not subscribe to the identity of the national majority. The recent confiscations are thus not an incident but a logical crescendo of a deep-rooted anti-minority premise.
Given these bitter feelings, it is no surprise that many Hungarians in Slovakia, especially those who are more conservative, look to Hungary as the external defender of their interests. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government has certainly earned votes at home for demonstrating its concern for the plight of Hungarian communities abroad, a position that has led to accusations of irredentism on more than one occasion in neighboring countries.
However, as far as Slovakia is concerned, there are strict limits on how far Budapest is willing to go against the preferences of the Slovak government. The European Commission’s decision to withhold EU funds from Hungary over democratic decline has left Orbán desperate to find allies.
It comes as no surprise, then, that when the issue of property confiscation was raised at a joint press conference last December, Hungary’s Foreign Minister chose to remain silent, while his Slovak counterpart again denied any state-sanctioned land grabs.
The only other actor that could credibly speak out against these violations remains the EU. Given Brussels’ eagerness to lecture others about human rights, one might expect to see some expressions of outrage over these violations. But so far there has been only silence.
And that didn’t change after the either European Court of Human Rights ruled that a Hungarian citizen’s right to a fair trial was undermined when Slovak authorities ordered the confiscation of a forest estate because its owner had ancestors of Hungarian descent.
Ethnolinguistic diversity is a cornerstone of the EU’s values, but is tragically ignored in Slovakia. And the issue of property infringement is not a theoretical issue of diversity, but a serious violation of human rights that goes to the heart of the EU’s raison d’être. These expropriations do not take place because the families involved are colluding with an illegal war. They happen because of the perceived sins of their ancestors.
The questions raised by the possible policy of confiscation of Russian assets become even more acute when we recognize the ongoing violations in Slovakia. It is hypocritical to claim to be defending the international rules-based order while turning a blind eye to transgressions in your own union. Opposing the imperialist aggression in our neighborhood is correct. But to do so while tolerating ethnic discrimination within our own borders is deplorable.
It is therefore a matter of principle to take a stand against the injustice of ethnic-based confiscations. It is high time that the European Union, like the international community, supported all victims of discrimination.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.