LANGUAGE remains at the centre of the ongoing dispute involving Slovak and Hungarian politicians. It is now more than a month since an amendment to the State Language Act was passed by the Slovak parliament requiring public employees to speak Slovak unless more than twenty percent of the local population speaks a minority language. The most significant minority language spoken in Slovakia is Hungarian.

Since being passed the amendment has been okayed by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, though in his official opinion he recommended changes in terminology and amendments to other minorities-related legislation. Representatives of Hungary and the Hungarian-speaking minority living in Slovakia, however, have continued to criticise the law, along with some foreign media.

Hungary confirmed on August 3 that it was ready to turn to every possible international forum because it is convinced that the amendment to the State Language Act is aimed against the Hungarian-speaking minority in Slovakia. Budapest wants to see a change in the language act – if not under the present government, than once other political parties are in power in Slovakia, the SITA newswire reported.

Slovakia and Hungary have also given up efforts to hold bilateral meetings between the two countries’ presidents and prime ministers.

“These meetings cannot be turned into an affirmation of … irresponsible politics, because Slovak politics has become in many respects unreliable,” Zsolt Nemeth, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament and MP for the right-wing opposition Fidesz party, said in an interview with public broadcaster Slovak Radio (SRo).

Hungary has also recommended that Slovak citizens turn to relevant forums at the United Nations in the event that they are fined on the basis of the amended act, SITA reported.

A delegation from the Hungarian parliament will visit European centres such as Brussels and The Hague to discuss the Slovak language law, Nemeth said on SRo.

Slovakia is ready to defend its State Language Act before any international organisation, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Peter Stano told the SITA newswire. However, the ministry considers the internationalisation of the problem by Hungary fruitless and counterproductive, he added.

The head of one of the junior parties in the Slovak ruling coalition, Slovak National Party (SNS) boss Jan Slota, said he considered the internationalisation of the language law controversy by Hungary “as rubbish and an absurd step and permanent interference in the internal affairs of another country”, SITA reported. Slota also recommended that Hungary instead settle its domestic affairs, such as the “increased number of racially motivated attacks” which he said was leading to “the extermination of the Roma minority”.

The nationalist SNS is well-known for its hard-line attitude to minority issues, both Hungarian and Roma.

The State Language Act is already being discussed internationally. After the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek issued an opinion on the law, saying that overall it conforms to international and European requirements but in some contexts the text of the law can be interpreted so that it might lead to violation of internationally recognised minority rights, some of leading international media outlets have also published articles on the topic.

The Financial Times, in a special supplement on Slovakia, wrote that Prime Minister Robert Fico has “tried to steal some of Mr Slota’s nationalist rhetoric, pushing through a law enshrining the status of the Slovak language and attacking Hungarian “irredentism” … That has not helped improve relations with Hungary – arguably the most poisoned of any two EU neighbours.”

The Economist also ran a story with the subtitle ‘Slovakia criminalises the use of Hungarian’.

Miroslav Číž, the head of the Smer parliamentary caucus told the Sme daily that Hungarian lobby groups are most likely behind the article in The Economist.

“The Economist and Financial Times are magazines that work with the world of money and business,” Číž said, as quoted by Sme. “Logically, they are newspapers that do not at all prefer the social-democratic worldview. As soon as the rightwing is in power, we can expect glorifying articles.”

Meanwhile, the World Association of Slovaks Living Abroad (SZSZ) issued a statement on August 4 in support of the amended State Language Act, saying that it is concerned about “the attempts of Hungarian irredentism in Slovakia and its allies, the ultranationalists in Hungary, by purposefully deforming reality and spreading lies to harm the good image of the Slovak Republic in the world and harshly interfere in its sovereign rights.”

The SZSZ said it understands the position of minorities, based on Slovakia’s own experience, but rejects what it called Hungarian attempts to discredit the Slovak Republic.

“No one else but the Slovak nation through its legislative bodies should decide about whether we will be able to talk Slovak everywhere in Slovakia,” read the SZSZ statement.

The Federation of Slovaks in the UK supported the SZSZ’s stance.

“Anyone [in the UK] interested in management positions of any type, or those representing a certain institution and coming into contact with the public must unconditionally be able to communicate well in English regardless of their origin and nationality,” the federation stated, as reported by the TASR newswire. “Without sufficient knowledge of the state language [sic] no person will find a good job, and they are regarded as inferior. This should be a certain memento for the members of national minorities in Slovakia,” wrote the federation.