Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán says that the Foreign Hungarians law is not an attempt to woo back expatriates.
The new edict, known as the Law on Hungarians Living Abroad, promises to extend some of the same cultural, educational, health care, labour and travel rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad as are enjoyed by nationals residing in Hungary (see sidebar, this page). The benefits would be handed out to holders of a special identity card (to be distributed by cultural organisations) who live in countries bordering Hungary.
The law was supported by all but one party in the Hungarian legislature, as well as by about 70% of citizens.
But in at least two bordering countries - Slovakia and Romania, where the largest Hungarian minorities in the region live - defiance has been the response. The Slovak Foreign Ministry told Budapest the day the law was passed that without "further intensive consultations" it would be impossible to see the new rules enforced on Slovak soil.
Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Natase also said the law would not have any power in his country, and criticised it as discriminatory and against international principles.
Meanwhile, the European Union, which in the past had voiced reservations about the Foreign Hungarians bill, said that it would issue a standpoint later. "We're studying the course of events which led to the passage of this law... we haven't yet had a chance to study it in depth," said EU spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori.
Wooing back compatriots?
In Hungary, where cementing the magyar (Hungarian) ethnic nation is government policy, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has faced tough questions recently over comments he made linking the new law to the country's growing shortage of labour. He has since denied the Foreign Hungarians law is a step towards wooing ethnic compatriots back to Hungary.
Over 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians live abroad.
But in Slovakia, where relations between the majority Slovaks and the 600,000-strong Hungarian minority have only recently begun to improve, Orbán has not helped his cause with comments like that he made June 20 for the pro-government paper Magyar Nemzet:
"It's not that the Hungarian government has taken a stance which is hostile to Slovakia or Romania, but that the normal way of thinking in these countries is different from the normal way of thinking, and even the value systems, of other countries in the region."
Slovakia's Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader Béla Bugár said that the Slovak government need not fear the law as "its content largely affects events that would take place on Hungarian soil".
Bugár added that many foreign foundations already operate in Slovakia handing out grants to Slovaks, and dismissed the Slovak response to the law as "pseudo-fears that just inflame passions unnecessarily".
For now, the Slovak side is still willing to discuss, in Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan's words, "a bilateral agreement allowing the law to be applied in other countries... I imagine we will be talking further with the Hungarian side".
But some see trouble ahead. "It's a step backward," said Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Figeľ, Slovakia's main negotiator on EU entry. "European legal norms endorse a non-discriminatory approach and equal conditions in dealing with citizens. [The Hungarian law] creates commitments and initiatives which have an effect on the social and fiscal policy of sovereign states. Slovakia will apply only Slovak laws and those international commitments to which we have bound ourselves freely."
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said during a speech to Commerce Faculty students in central Slovakia's Banská Bystrica on June 22 that he didn't think Hungary could see the law applied in Slovakia before the country's possible entry into the European Union in 2004.
According to EU legislation, which forbids discrimination on the basis of ethnicity on the labour market, the Hungarian law would cease to apply in any country that became an EU member.
Dzurinda added he had warned Orbán that the law could harm the improvements achieved in mutual relations over the past two years, and said he saw the law as a product of the political atmosphere before upcoming elections in Hungary.
- with press reports
3. Jul 2001 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson