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EDITORIAL

Bratislava and Budapest: The Farce, act two

THE LATEST Slovak-Hungarian skirmish over Budapest's silly status law is even more baffling than the first, on both sides. It's like a fresh squabble between children who have already been put to bed, but who can't resist one more "told ya so".
You might think, given the international diplomatic hand wringing, that there's actually something to this fresh outbreak, but there's even less at stake than the first time. Hungary is insisting on implementing a law that ignites suspicion and nationalism, and that will have to be scrapped in a year when it joins the European Union; Slovakia is spurning even genuine attempts to reach a deal.
Budapest first passed the law in the summer of 2001, drawing ire from the five of its neighbours whom the law's terms affected. The essence of the law was to give moral and financial support to ethnic Hungarians living in surrounding countries by encouraging them to work and study in Hungary, or at least to study Hungarian in their own countries.


DZURINDA and Medgyessy: not always the best of friends.
photo: TASR

THE LATEST Slovak-Hungarian skirmish over Budapest's silly status law is even more baffling than the first, on both sides. It's like a fresh squabble between children who have already been put to bed, but who can't resist one more "told ya so".

You might think, given the international diplomatic hand wringing, that there's actually something to this fresh outbreak, but there's even less at stake than the first time. Hungary is insisting on implementing a law that ignites suspicion and nationalism, and that will have to be scrapped in a year when it joins the European Union; Slovakia is spurning even genuine attempts to reach a deal.

Budapest first passed the law in the summer of 2001, drawing ire from the five of its neighbours whom the law's terms affected. The essence of the law was to give moral and financial support to ethnic Hungarians living in surrounding countries by encouraging them to work and study in Hungary, or at least to study Hungarian in their own countries.

Perhaps coincidentally, most of those ethnic Hungarians lived on the territory of what had once been Greater Hungary before the settlement after World War I lopped off parts of Hungary as compensation to its neighbours. These countries some 84 years later understandably suspected that the status law was a relic of Hungarian nationalism, rather than just a helping hand to ethnic brethren.

The law was also seen as a ploy by then-Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán to wrap himself in the flag before 2002 elections, its terms exaggerated and calculated to draw fire against Budapest. This fire in the end also came from the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, all of whom said the law was not in keeping with European norms. The key objections were that it was to have an effect on the territory of other countries, and that it preferred one ethnic group over all others.

Since then, however, the Hungarian government under PM Peter Medgyessy has rewritten some parts of the law to remove its worst elements, and with talks between Hungary and Romania in the last lap, seems to have reached a deal with every country affected except Slovakia. In the 25-page judgement of the Council of Europe's Commission, which compared the 'status laws' of nine other countries, the Hungarian law as it now stands need pose no problem of sovereignty as long as it is accompanied by a mutual agreement between the parties concerned.

But such mutual agreement is exactly what Slovak PM Dzurinda is doing his best to prevent. Despite Slovakia's having presented only two main objections to the law since it was passed, Dzurinda visited Budapest in late November with a list of 15 substantial objections which he whipped out of his pocket and thrust under Medgyessy's nose. Surprise! Understandably, no deal was reached, the Hungarians responding with a nine-page document days later explaining their position.

Not only did the Slovak leader break the rules of diplomacy by presenting his counterpart with a new list of demands just as talks began, he also violated an agreement with his coalition partner Béla Bugár, head of the Slovak ethnic Hungarian SMK party, who had offered to broker a deal between Bratislava and Budapest. Bugár now feels like a fool, having reached a compromise that was then ignored, and having not been told of the 15 demands before reading about them in the papers following Dzurinda's abortive talks with Medgyessy.

The key question in all of this, for both sides, is what's the point? What's the point of being the only country to reject a diplomatic solution all others have accepted, when the real impact of the law is so small? What's the point of Dzurinda's breaking his word to Bugár, claiming the two had never even discussed the status law, and thus straining cabinet relations only a month into four years of coalition rule? For Medgyessy, what's the point of insisting on a law that is clearly provocative, and which will have to be scrapped by May 2004 anyway?

A source close to Brussels says that the European Commission is still not happy with the status law, and that Commissioner Gunter Verheugen will be writing to Medgyessy soon to tell him so. If the letter is written, it might also include a few words of advice for the Hungarian and Slovak leaders: There are too many real problems in the region for either of you to be wasting your breath on such a trivial dispute.

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