AN UNRESOLVED dispute over a Hungarian law promising state subsidies for ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries has caused splits in Slovakia's ruling coalition and remains an open issue between the two countries.
The Hungarian Status Law, passed by Hungary's parliament 18 months ago and which took effect January 1, 2002, guarantees ethnic Hungarians and their families in the countries surrounding Hungary a set of mainly educational and cultural benefits.
For example, it promises direct payments to parents who send their children to Hungarian-speaking schools where they live, a measure that tops Slovakia's list of 15 objections to the legislation. Slovak lawmakers say the law is discriminatory, and they object to its intent to influence what goes on in other countries.
The status law, which also affects Hungarian minorities living in Croatia, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Romania, has been opposed by Slovakia and Romania since 2000. Those previous objections resulted in a recommendation by European Union (EU) bodies that Hungary prepare an amended version to eliminate all problems, which the country has attempted to do.
Romanian PM Adrian Nastasse and Hungarian PM Peter Medgyessy agreed November 29 that final details between the two states should be solved within a week, leaving Slovakia as the only country with unresolved issues.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who would like to see the effectiveness of the law repealed altogether in Slovakia, has rejected the amended version. On November 26 his stance was unequivocal, raising doubts that any agreement was imminent.
"We cannot accept this law even if certain amendments are made. If this law is applied it would mean that our country's sovereignty is infringed and there would be discrimination on an ethnic basis," the prime minister said at a press conference following a meeting with Medgyessy.
Dzurinda presented a list of Slovak objections to his Hungarian counterpart after the amended version of the law had been received, and the Hungarians delivered their response to Bratislava on December 2.
Slovakia's Foreign Ministry refused to make any statement on the Hungarian response, saying officials needed to study it thoroughly first.
During a December 2 visit to Hungary, speaker of the Slovak Parliament Pavol Hrušovský tentatively agreed with his counterpart, Szili Katalin, that the nations' foreign ministers should meet by the end of December this year to try to resolve the sticking points.
Dzurinda's clearcut rejection of the amended version of the status law surprised the PM's ruling coalition partner, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), which represents the country's 520,000-strong community of ethnic Hungarians.
SMK leader Béla Bugár immediately announced that his party would no longer act as an informal mediator in the bilateral dispute, and said that Dzurinda had failed to inform the SMK of all the objections he presented in Budapest.
Dzurinda maintained, however, that the only reason he did not discuss a final stance on the amended version of the law with Bugár was that the two coalition leaders met to talk about the matter before Hungary delivered its final draft to Bratislava.
"This is a problem that was created by the Hungarian Republic unilaterally when it approved a law without first negotiating with us, even though the effects of the law would clearly reach our territory," Dzurinda said.
Other politicians from the coalition and opposition political parties praised Dzurinda, and supported the PM in his calls for repealing the status law from effectiveness in Slovakia.
Some said that Hungary was welcome to support Slovakia's Hungarian minority in select spheres, but suggested that rules for financial contributions should be set in bilateral agreements rather than in laws approved by the parliament of one state.
"We are not against certain advantages being provided to our minorities but we'd prefer these matters to be resolved in international treaties and agreements," said Hrušovský.
Slovak opposition MPs pointed out that the law's effectiveness was set to cease with both countries' planned entry into the EU in May 2004.
"If the law's effectiveness is set to end with EU entry, why does the Hungarian party care so much about it?" said opposition MP and head of the parliamentary integration committee Monika Beňová.
The Hungarian opposition Fidesz party led by former PM Viktor Orbán and Medgyessy's ruling Socialist party made the status law one of the major issues of their campaigns prior to Hungarian national elections in spring 2002.
Apparently perplexed by Dzurinda's rejection of Hungary's amendment proposals, the SMK noted that the ruling coalition was heading for trouble in the future if partners failed to consult and agree on such important issues.
"More trouble could arise later if cooperation [doesn't improve within the coalition]," said SMK MP Arpád Duka-Zólyomi.
The SMK also argued that the party's voter base was comprised mainly of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and its involvement in the mediation of an agreement between Slovakia and Hungary had been driven by the interests of SMK voters.
"It is not our intention to destabilise the cabinet, but we too have our limits and those are [defined by] the interests of our voters," Bugár said.
Dzurinda on the other hand argued that he was protecting the constitutional interest of his country, and in a November 30 official statement he appealed to the SMK to do the same.
While keeping their distance from the bilateral dispute, representatives of the European Commission encouraged Slovakia and Hungary to resolve the matter through amicable negotiation.
They advised the states to bear in mind the recommendations of the so-called Venice Commission (VC), a Council of Europe body composed of legal experts that in 2000 expressed its opinion about the status law.
The VC agreed that Hungary should be able to support its minorities abroad, but said the law contradicted the principle of nondiscrimination embedded in the EU founding treaty. The language of the VC, however, was somewhat vague, and Slovak and Hungarian politicians interpreted it differently.
In the interests of both countries' plan to join the EU in 2004, Slovak President Rudolf Schuster also encouraged a friendly approach to negotiations.
"In view of our common future in the EU, this dispute is counterproductive," said the president's spokesman, Ján Fulle.