FOREIGN Minister Eduard Kukan met representatives from foreign Slovak communities on March 19 to discuss planned legislative changes to the way such people are supported abroad.
The minister's proactive approach was welcomed by foreign ethnic Slovaks, who have long sought closer links with their ancestors' homeland.
"The current law [on ethnic Slovaks abroad] offers negligible rights. It doesn't oblige Slovak state bodies to do anything for them. It is necessary to replace it as soon as possible with new legislation that reflects the long-term interests of relations between Slovakia and ethnic Slovaks abroad," said Dušan Klimo, head of the World Association of Slovaks Living Abroad (SZSZ).
The SZSZ currently has 43 member organisations, representing Slovak communities across the globe. According to Klimo, its main priorities are increasing interest in descendants of Slovaks abroad and helping create an effective system of financial and cultural support for these people.
Claude Baláž, the government's appointee for Slovaks abroad and head of the governmental General Secretariat for Slovaks Abroad (GSZS) agreed with Klimo.
"The law was approved under specific circumstances at the end of the 20th century. In this new century - a century of a new integrated Europe - such a law is obsolete," he said, stressing that it indeed provides few rights.
Among those that it does guarantee are the rights to apply to study at all schools in Slovakia, to get a job without obtaining the permits required from other foreigners, and various advantages when applying for Slovak citizenship. The current law only covers people of Slovak origin who are not Slovak citizens.
"The new legislation has to be comparable to that of those EU countries that have long-term experience with attending to the needs of their [communities] living abroad," said Baláž, adding that changes to legislation should be approved at the end of 2003.
"The new regulations should focus on institutional changes, including the creation of an Office for Slovaks Abroad," he said.
"[It will be set up] on January 1, 2004, at the earliest, and will ensure the coordination, creation, and execution of state policy towards Slovak foreigners," Baláž continued.
Klimo welcomed the proposal: "It would eliminate the current division of responsibilities between various institutions, which damages both Slovakia and us - people of Slovak origin," he said.
According to Klimo after the 1991 US census there were more than 2.7 million people outside Slovakia who claimed Slovak ancestry. The largest Slovak communities were in the US - 1.9 million people - and in the Czech Republic - 320,000.
"In the 2001 US census less than 900,000 people said they were of Slovak origin and the number also went down by over 100,000 in the Czech Republic due to assimilation," said Klimo.
However, under current law, just a fraction of such people are officially recognised by state authorities as having Slovak origins.
"Since this law was approved [in 1997], 9,000 applicants were granted the status of a Slovak abroad, out of which 90 per cent are from post-communist countries in central and eastern Europe. This unbelievably low number of applicants is evidence of the low quality of the law," said Klimo.
The law sets tough rules for those applying to receive a so-called "expatriate card", which would make them eligible to enjoy the few rights ensured by current legislation. Applicants must have at least passive knowledge of the Slovak language or otherwise show adherence to an ethnic Slovak community and must be of Slovak ethnic origin, defined as having a Slovak ancestor no more than three generations back.
Klimo would like to see those rules relaxed, and an increase in privileges for the growing number of Slovak citizens living in other countries.
"According to estimates in September 2002, before the parliamentary elections, over 350,000 Slovak citizens were outside the country, with no opportunity to vote at embassies or by mail, as is common in other countries," said Klimo.
SZSZ representatives say that Slovakia is being put to shame by its neighbours.
"The way Hungary has been treating its people abroad should serve as an example. Just look at the amount the Hungarian government spends supporting [ethnic] Hungarians abroad. The Office for Expatriate Hungarians has received around Sk150 million (3.6 million euro) from the state budget for 2003. In comparison, the GSZS has a budget of less than Sk3 million (71,000 euro) for this year," said Klimo.
"In addition, in 2003 Hungary will provide ethnic Hungarians abroad - either directly through state bodies or through foundations - with Sk1.2 billion (29 million euro), which represents an increase of 30 per cent in comparison with the previous year. I think these figures speak for themselves," he said.
31. Mar 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila