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Feud over status law

SLOVAK and Hungarian bilateral relations may be at stake in a continuing dispute over Hungary's law supporting ethnic Hungarians living outside the country.
One and half years after the first version of the Hungarian status law was passed, and evoked the disfavour of neighbouring countries on which the law was going to have an impact, Hungarian parliament revised the bill on June 23.
Hungarian officials said they had eliminated all the clauses of the law that had been protested by its neighbours, but Slovaks continue to reject the Hungarian legislation in its very essence, dubbing it discriminatory and having extraterritorial effects.
The law grants special work, health, and travel benefits to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary and stipulates the country's determination to support them culturally and financially. The law pertains to all the Hungary's neighbour states except for Austria.


SMK leader Béla Bugár (centre) is under fire for defending an amended law supporting Hungarian minorities abroad.
photo: TASR

SLOVAK and Hungarian bilateral relations may be at stake in a continuing dispute over Hungary's law supporting ethnic Hungarians living outside the country.

One and half years after the first version of the Hungarian status law was passed, and evoked the disfavour of neighbouring countries on which the law was going to have an impact, Hungarian parliament revised the bill on June 23.

Hungarian officials said they had eliminated all the clauses of the law that had been protested by its neighbours, but Slovaks continue to reject the Hungarian legislation in its very essence, dubbing it discriminatory and having extraterritorial effects.

The law grants special work, health, and travel benefits to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary and stipulates the country's determination to support them culturally and financially. The law pertains to all Hungary's neighbour states except for Austria.

On June 26, the Slovak cabinet, with the exception of members of the ruling Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), rejected the law. The SMK representing Slovakia's estimated 500,000 strong Hungarian minority, challenged the cabinet's statement saying it included incorrect allegations.

SMK chairman Béla Bugár said: "The statement claims that the law has an element of extraterritoriality and that it causes discrimination on an ethnic basis. We absolutely cannot agree with this."

In a resolution adopted on June 25, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly encouraged Hungary to amend its legislation "on the basis of a bilateral, not unilateral, approach."

The European parliamentarians said Hungary should have based the 2001 law on bilateral agreements with its neighbours respecting territorial sovereignty, human rights principles and good neighbourly relations.

"Kin-states must be careful that the form and substance of the assistance given is also accepted by the states of which the members of the kin-minorities are citizens," the parliamentarians warned.

Bilateral negotiations were expected in the coming weeks between Slovak and Hungarian foreign affairs officials to discuss the problematic parts of the law.

But Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said he was disappointed that SMK officials had sided with the officials of a different state over this matter.

"I am sorry that the SMK has taken such attitude. I think it is a duty of all, but particularly constitutional officials to protect the autonomy and the constitutional sovereignty of our state."

The Slovak cabinet even threatened countermeasures if Hungary does not back down from what it said was the law's "unacceptable effects on the Slovak territory".

Meanwhile opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party leader Vladimír Mečiar said on June 28 that he had already prepared a complaint to the Slovak Constitutional Court against the Hungarian law. He said, however, that he was not going to submit it immediately. "First we'll wait and see how the cabinet acts in defending the interests of our country," Mečiar said.

Hungarian officials insisted that all the problematic areas were eliminated in the latest version and that the country brought the new law in line with all international laws and EU norms.

However, in its statement the Slovak cabinet reiterated that the "Hungarian status law is unusual because it has an impact on Slovak citizens living on Slovak territory". The ministers made it clear that Slovakia would, under no circumstances, agree with Hungary implementing this law, and is "prepared, if needed, to react to one-sided steps with countermeasures".

But Slovak officials said that Slovakia appreciated Hungary's interest in helping ethnic Hungarians by supporting their language and cultural identity, and that the country's diplomats were "prepared to negotiate over the support of the Hungarian minority [in Slovakia] based on bilateral treaties".

Some local analysts also noted, however, that while Hungary had made a mistake by presenting its neighbours with the law as a fait accompli, Slovak officials are to blame for rejecting negotiation with the Hungarians after the law was presented.

"The Dzurinda cabinet made a mistake in refusing to negotiate with the Hungarians," said Miroslav Kusý, a professor with the political science department at Bratislava's Comenius University.

Kusý also said he considered the Slovak protests "unsubstantial" and accusations of the law threatening Slovakia's sovereignty a "demagoguery".

"The dispute seems like a storm in a teacup. While both parties made mistakes, an elegant agreement between the partners is essential now.

"We are compelled to be neighbours and so peaceful relations must be a priority," Kusý said.

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