On January 1, 1996, a controversial new Law on the State Language (270/1995) took effect, requiring the use of Slovak in virtually all aspects of public life. Hungarian leaders had opposed the law from its origins as a Ministry of Culture proposal back in the spring of 1995, and in May 1996, deputies from the Hungarian parties and the Christian Democratic Movement requested a ruling on its constitutionality from the Constitutional Court. The Court's ruling, which did not come until autumn 1997, rejected most of the deputies' claims, but upheld their most important assertion: that Hungarians do have the right to use their own language in official state contacts.
Local governments in many communities with ethnic Hungarian majorities adopted ordinances permitting citizens to use Hungarian as well as Slovak for official contacts with municipal offices. Milan Ferko, director of the state language department within the Ministry of Culture, described these ordinances as unconstitutional. At the request of the prosecutor-general, a parliamentary committee for public administration, territorial governments and national minorities reviewed the ordinances, but in the end did nothing to invalidate them.
The Mečiar government and the ruling coalition in parliament promised to pass a law clarifying the use of minority languages at the time of the adoption of the Law on State Lanuage, but they have never done so. According to an analysis prepared by the Ministry of Culture and accepted by the government in January 1997, minority language rights are already sufficiently protected, and additional legislation in this area is unnecessary.
The Hungarian minority in Slovakia has a well-developed network of elementary and secondary schools in which instruction is conducted in the Hungarian language. (The percentage of Hungarians with university degrees, however, is lower than the percentage of ethnic Slovaks with such degrees.) In 1995, the Mečiar government attempted to introduce a system of so-called alternative education in these schools, in which some academic subjects would be taught in Slovak. The government claimed that the plan would improve students' Slovak language skills and career prospects, but Hungarian leaders opposed the measures as a gradual attempt to assimiliate ethnic Hungarians. In the end, alternative education was implemented only at one elementary school and three secondary schools.
In April 1996, a group of deputies from the Slovak National Party (SNS) proposed an amendment to the law on primary and secondary schools requiring that all instruction on Slovak language, literature and history be conducted in the Slovak language - even in schools where Hungarian is the official teaching language. The Mečiar government expressed dissatisfaction with the amendment, and it was never considered by Parliament. Three months later, however, representatives of the Hungarian Civic Party claímed that the Ministry of Education was preparing yet another bill requiring that "the teaching of the Slovak language, history, geography and physical education proceed in the state language." Draft legislation to that effect was submitted in March 1997 to the government's legislative review council, which returned it to the Ministry of Education for alterations at the end of April. This proposal corresponds to a March 1997 letter from the state secretary of the Ministry of Education requesting that the directors of regional and district offices report to him on the implementation of two government decrees issued in 1995. The first decree mandated that only teachers who are ethnic Slovaks may teach Slovak language, history and geography; the second offered additional compensation to ethnic Slovak teachers who worked in areas where the percentage of ethnic Hungarians is greater than 40%.
In January 1997, the Ministry of Education also decided to end a practice dating to 1921 of issuing bilingual student certificates (ie. report cards) in schools with instruction in national minority languages, replacing them with Slovak-only documents. The Ministry's decision, based on its reading of the Law on the State Language, generated considerable confusion and ill-will in the Hungarian community. Some school directors and teachers defied the order and issued dual-language certificates, for which they were warned and even sanctioned. Some pupils and parents initially refused to accept single-language certificates, which created additional problems at the start of the 1997-1998 school year, when students were required to present their certificates from the preceding year. In the end, however, teachers, students and parents were forced to comply with the new policy.
This article was exerpted from Slovakia 1996-1997: A Global Report on the State of Society. Ondrej Dostal is a founding member of the Documentation Center for Research on Slovak Society.
18. Jun 1998 at 0:00 | Ondrej Dostal