TENSIONS between Budapest and Bratislava have grown following hints from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that Slovak Nato entry could be blocked by his administration.
In the latest instalment of an increasingly tense stand-off between the two governments over a controversial status law on ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states, Orbán emphasised that Slovakia's potential entry to Nato "had to be approved and ratified" by Hungary.
"Bratislava has an interest in integration into Nato, and the entry of Slovakia into the organisation must be approved by the Hungarian parliament as well as the legislatures of other member states.
"Negotiations on the law are necessary despite the fact that at present we do not see any solution that would take into account the, in my opinion, legitimate and justified requests of the Hungarian side to the same extent as the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Slovak politicians, which Budapest considers difficult to justify," he told Hungarian state radio February 12.
Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said Orbán's remarks had been "inappropriate" and "irresponsible".
"To link the question of the Hungarian Status Law with the right of veto [on Nato expansion] is irresponsible. It looks to me like nervousness, and nervousness is never good," he said.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said: "It would be irresponsible if anyone from either side of the Danube tried to erase all the positive things we have developed over the past three years."
However, Kukan pointed out that Orbán had made it clear that he wanted to continue negotiations on the law and said he expected Hungary to support Slovak Nato ambitions.
"In the past Hungary has supported us and I would predict that even this problem would not influence such a fundamental question," he said.
The Hungarian Status Law has caused furious political debate between the two states since the start of this year. Approved by the Hungarian parliament last summer the law grants certain benefits and privileges to ethnic Hungarians living abroad, including subsidies for education at Hungarian schools in Slovakia.
The Slovak cabinet is expected to present to parliament a draft proposal to limit the application of the Hungarian Status Law in Slovakia by the end of the current parliamentary session.
Many MPs have rejected the law as discriminatory and have argued it is unconstitutional to have legislation from a foreign government imposed on Slovakia.
Orbán's comments on Nato integration stung some Slovak MPs to further anger. Independent MP Peter Weiss said: "The problem was not created by Slovakia, but was a one-sided decision taken by the Hungarian parliament without consultation with Slovakia.
"It would be bad for Nato if Mr Orbán's idea of creating institutional ties between Hungary and citizens of other states was approved."
Opposition HZDS MP and member of the parliamentary committee for integration, Irena Belohorská, slammed the Hungarian PM, saying: "Some states use terrorism, others blackmail. This is blackmail."
Slovakia is considered a front-runner for Nato entry, alongside Slovenia, and is hoping that it will be invited to join the alliance at a summit in Prague in November this year, joining probably two years later.
As a Nato member, Hungary, along with the governments of other alliance states, will have to approve and ratify Slovakia's membership.
However, foreign policy experts believe that while Budapest could theoretically stop Slovakia entering the alliance it is unlikely such a step would be taken.
"Hungary has the same voice as any other Nato member in principle, and if the Hungarian parliament does not ratify Slovak membership enlargement will not go ahead.
"But it is extremely unlikely that this will happen. Mr Orbán's reported statements probably have a lot to do with the pre-election campaign in Hungary, and once Slovakia gets the invitation Hungary won't block it," said Vladimír Bilčík of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
The row has been perceived as being fuelled by pre-election populism in both states. Slovakia has elections scheduled for September, and Hungary in April.
Orbán said that before the Slovak elections he saw "nothing encouraging" in Slovak politics. Weiss responded that the Hungarian PM was playing on latent nationalism before voters went to the polls.
Ethnic Hungarian MPs in Slovakia have also waded in to the dispute, attacking the policies adopted by some Slovak MPs as damaging the country's integration ambitions.
The coalition Christian Democrats (KDH) have proposed a "sovereignty protection draft" stipulating that a 90 per cent tax be imposed on entities that receive funding through the Hungarian Status Law, and that schools receiving benefits from Budapest would have to pay back money received from the Slovak state budget.
Béla Bugár, leader of the ruling coalition ethnic Hungarian SMK party, said of the proposal: "This is not the path to Europe, but instead the way for Slovakia not to get into Nato."
25. Feb 2002 at 0:00 | Ed Holt