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NO MINORITY LANGUAGE LAW DESPITE WESTERN PRESSURE

Eighteen months after deputies passed state language law, government leaders say minority language rights are protected

Ever since the Slovak Parliament passed a law making Slovak the country's official language, the international community has pressed the government to push through a law that would clarify the use of languages for the country's minorities, especially for the approximately 600,000- strong Hungarian community residing mostly in southern Slovakia.
But to date no law has been forthcoming, despite the fact that in many Western countries, it is one important piece in a mosaic of resistance to granting Slovakia its twin wish to enter NATO and the European Union (EU).
"At the time of the [state language] law's passage 18 months ago," said a Western diplomat who preferred not to be identified, "the government said it would be part of a bigger legal package, and there would be a minority language law later.


Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dušan Slobodník (left) does not think ethnic groups in Slovakia need a separate law outlining the use of minority languages, but said the government "still wants" to pass one.
Vladimír Hák

Ever since the Slovak Parliament passed a law making Slovak the country's official language, the international community has pressed the government to push through a law that would clarify the use of languages for the country's minorities, especially for the approximately 600,000- strong Hungarian community residing mostly in southern Slovakia.

But to date no law has been forthcoming, despite the fact that in many Western countries, it is one important piece in a mosaic of resistance to granting Slovakia its twin wish to enter NATO and the European Union (EU).

"At the time of the [state language] law's passage 18 months ago," said a Western diplomat who preferred not to be identified, "the government said it would be part of a bigger legal package, and there would be a minority language law later. The government's response to the EU and OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] since then has been to have a national language law, but not to actually legislate on minority languages."

Western observers in Slovakia concede the minority language issue is covered in as many as 40 paragraphs in other laws but are hasty to add it would be better if it were all wrapped up in one legislative package.

"If these were consolidated," the Western diplomat said, "perhaps this would not only reassure the EU and the OSCE, but would serve as a political gesture to the minorities themselves."

At least one Hungarian poltician agreed. "The main language in Slovakia is Slovak. But if there is such a detailed and complex law on [the Slovak] language, there should also be a separate law on minority languages," said Kálmán Petőcz, a foreign affairs official with the Hungarian Civic Party.

Leaders in parliament from the governing coalition try to straddle both sides of the debate, but in so doing, leave the entire question unresolved.

"We have 20-25 legal documents defining the position of the Hungarian language in our society," Dušan Slobodník, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee, told The Slovak Spectator. "There is no acute necessity to adopt a minority language law. [But] we still want to do it."

Slobodník's answer is one of several government members give why a single law dealing with the minority language queston has not materialized.

Another example comes from Michal Káľavský, an advisor to Slovak Vice-Premier and Chairman of the Cabinet's Council on Ethnic Minorities, Jozef Kalman, who said Western critics failed to see that opposition parties also blocked the issue.

"The West says the government should do this, but the opposition has never been able to put forth their own proposal," Káľavský said. "A bill was prepared by the Hungarian parties, but it was unacceptable even to the Slovak opposition, so the Hungarian opposition could not find a partner to co-sponsor."

No need

Meanwhile, Káľavský said the government actively sought a solution to the unresolved minority language issue. The Ministry of Culture established a committee last year made up of representatives of Hungarian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian minorities.

"The committee's analysis was completed on August 30," Káľavský said. "But the government returned its findings for further review to the Council on Minorities. The Council expressed its opinion on November 28, and the Cabinet accepted its analysis, which said that minorities' language rights are sufficiently covered."

But that hasn't closed the debate. Slobodník said there still could be enough will to enact a minority language law, but placed certain conditions on it.

"We have to prepare a document for international communities to clarify the real situation of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia," Slobodník, a deputy from the leading governing coalition party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), said. "On the whole, we don't reject the possibility of a minority language law, but we must demand from our [Hungarian] partners that they do not distort the situation of minorities in Slovakia."

Petőcz thinks Western pressure should be enough to get the government to act. "The EU, NATO, and everybody is asking the Slovak government to adopt a minority language law," Petőcz said.

"But there is no good will in this government to interpret even an existing law in a way acceptable to Hungarians. The EU and Western governments should know that [the lack of a minority language law] is only a part of the problem" of the state's policy on minority issues, he added.

POSS ADDS

Slobodnik could not resist sniping at his Hungarian opponents in Parliament, who have condemned the state language law and the law on territorial administration also passed last year as tools of forced assimilation. "I asked Mr. Duraj, Mr. Bugar, and Mr. Nagy [three Hungarian MPs], 'Bring me one Hungarian from southern Slovakia who has been assimilated in the last ten years,'"Slobodnik recalled. "They couldn't, because the number of Hungarians living in Slovakia is always increasing, [while] the number of Slovaks [in the region] is diminishing-not dramatically, but there is nevertheless a slight diminution."

Slobodnik continued that the Hungarians' demands are motivated by a desire to destroy the country's reputation. "If I were to show you documents showing the calumnies spread by the leaders of this minority, you would understand that they are doing everything they can to destroy Slovakia's image," Slobodnik said. "They said that there were 17 districts with a Hungarian majority before the new regional adminstration came into effect. Not a single village has been transferred to another district, nor any citizen sent to other districts."

While these countries continues to exert pressure on the Slovak government to widen its dialgoue with the country's ethnic minorities, especially the Hungarians, one issue they come back to time and time again is why parliament has yet to pass a minoritty language law.

include ethnic minorities in a wider share of political and civic dialogue. But the Slovak government appears hamstrung by the state language law which it passed last year establishing Slovak as the country's official language. Domestic and foreign critics charge that the law is subjectively worded and open to potential misuse because of vague wording and a structural dependency on pre-existing legislation.

Dusan Slobodnik, a HZDS deputy and the chairman of Parliament's foreign affairs committee, seemed to be trying to straddle both sides of the issue by saying the state law in conjunction with diverse other legislation covers the use of minority languages, but adding that the legal status of minority languages needs to be clarified.

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