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EDITORIAL

Road to the EU paved with good intentions, untried laws

A group of Hungarian parliamentary deputies are working furiously on a draft version of the last legislative change the European Union has demanded of Slovakia - a language law that guarantees the rights of minorities living on Slovak soil.
The problem is that the law, which is to be passed in shortened legislative proceedings sometime in March or April, is being prepared with little apparent forethought for how it is to function in practice. Indeed, the cabinet is so anxious to satisfy EU and NATO demands on minority rights and other issues that one fears it may burden the country with some seriously flawed legislation.


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A group of Hungarian parliamentary deputies are working furiously on a draft version of the last legislative change the European Union has demanded of Slovakia - a language law that guarantees the rights of minorities living on Slovak soil.

The problem is that the law, which is to be passed in shortened legislative proceedings sometime in March or April, is being prepared with little apparent forethought for how it is to function in practice. Indeed, the cabinet is so anxious to satisfy EU and NATO demands on minority rights and other issues that one fears it may burden the country with some seriously flawed legislation.

The main provison of the new language law is that the state will be required to provide service in a recognised minority language in any district where at least 10% of the population do not use Slovak as their mother tongue. This draft law is to replace the objectionable Law on the State Language (270/1995) which took effect on January 1, 1996 and which required the use of Slovak in virtually all walks of public life.

Designed by the 1994 to 1998 cabinet of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, the law was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in the fall of 1997. The court's verdict, which upheld the right of the Hungarian plaintiffs to use their own language in official state contacts, encouraged the European Union and the United States to sharpen their criticisms of the treatment of minorities in Slovakia. A fair minority language law, foreign diplomats warned, was one of the most important tests of the new cabinet's commitment to democratic reform.

The EU will soon get its wish, it seems, but not every Slovak minority will find its language rights better protected.

If the draft law is passed in its present form, Hungarians, Czechs, Germans, Ruthenians, Croatians, Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, Jews and Poles (all of which are recognised minorities living on Slovak territory) may have the right to demand service in their mother tongues at Slovak courts, labour offices, theatres - anywhere that the state operates.

Romanies, however, may not be so lucky. Slovakia's second largest minority (estimates put them at around 300,000 out of a total 5.34 million people), Romanies speak an identifiable language, but one that has never been codified or standardised. It will thus be exceedingly difficult for a Romany living in, say, Košice to walk into a court and demand a translator if the rules of the Romany tongue - vocabulary, grammar, spelling and syntax - are a matter of oral tradition. How, for example, would you translate amicus curiae into Romany? What about 'bailiff', 'perjury' and 'kangaroo court'?

In late December, several reports surfaced in the media of attempts by the Slovak Romany intelligentsia - if such a fractious and divided group can be referred to in a collective form - to begin codifying their language. These efforts, if they bear fruit, may be an unlooked-for blessing of any new language law: a codified language would be an enormous aid to schools attended by Romany children and would give the Romany minority a feeling of being on an equal footing with the Slovak majority.

But the Romany language isn't likely to be codified anytime soon, and nor are we likely to see Romanies marching into state offices and receiving service from official translators. This may be precisely what the cabinet is hoping, of course - if, working hammer and tongs, they could slap together a democratic-looking language law in time for the April 14-15 meeting of the EU-Slovakia Joint Parliamentary Committee in Strasbourg, they might really turn some heads with the pace of reform in this country. The fact that language reform did not defend the rights of one of the country's largest minorities could be neatly swept under the rug.

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