Hungarian Coalition Party leader Béla Bugár is looking peevish these days. His party has been trying to convince its three partners in the coalition government to alter the wording of a minority language law on its way to parliament, but no one wants to listen; indeed, cabinet actually approved the law on June 23 without the support of the Hungarians.
Some in the diplomatic community say that the government's inability to agree on the law "looks bad," particularly to EU member countries anxious to see Slovaks and Hungarians getting along. In fact, it is the crowded timetable for approval of the law which has created the squabble, not divisions within the coalition itself.
The law represents the last hurdle Slovakia faces on its way back to the frontrunner group for EU acceptance. The next parliamentary session ends on July 9, after which MP's are on holiday until September. However, the EC's country report on Slovakia, which will essentially decide whether the country is elevated at the December EU summit in Helsinki, will be written while parliamentarians are lounging around their summer cottages. In other words, unless the law is passed by July 9, it will not make it through parliament in time to be included in the country report. Understandably, then, no last-minute whinging from the Hungarians is going to make the government miss the deadline for passage of this bill.
The debate over the new language law knows neither villains nor heroes, simply different reasons for wanting it passed. The Hungarian Party wants to ensure that the bill is clear, consistent and wide-ranging - that it guarantees Slovak Hungarians their language and culture will be safe from encroachment well into the next century. This is why Bugár and his colleagues are demanding that Hungarians be allowed to write university and secondary school entrance exams in Hungarian, or that local town halls provide marriage ceremonies in Hungarian as well as Slovak. They want the law to guarantee minority language rights not only in official state contacts, but in broader cultural, social and media areas. They want to get into the EU, but not at the cost of backing a crummy language law.
The other three parties of the coalition government - the SDK, the SOP and the SDĽ - really don't care about the niceties of the new language law. As long as it guarantees service in a minority language at state offices in districts where the minority represents over 20% of the population - in other words, as long as the law wins the approval of the EU - the Slovak government parties will continue to blow rasberries at the folderol proposed by the Hungarians. They want a language law satisfactory to the Hungarians, but not at the risk of missing the EU train.
Some aspects of the new law may come back to haunt the government, particularly the confusion over whether the provisions of the new Minority Language Law will take precedence over the old State Language Law in the event of a conflict. The new law is to be passed virtually without debate in shortened legislative proceedings, which ensures that some issues will have to be ironed out later. But given that the government has managed to elect a President, produce a language law and enact an austerity package during less than eight months in office, anyone who says the latest quibbles "look bad" isn't looking very hard.
12. Jul 1999 at 0:00