IN THE RELATIVELY calm political atmosphere ushered in by the onset of summer in Slovakia, the State Language Act, passed by parliament at the end of June 2009, remains one area of turbulence. Criticism of the law has, from the very beginning, gone beyond the borders of Slovakia and Hungary. Not only has a visit by the highest Slovak representatives to Hungary been postponed due to the controversy over the law, but the international community has also been kept busy evaluating language and minority rights in Slovakia.
The amended State Language Act, which the Slovak president signed into law in mid-July, introduces fines of up to €5,000 for the use of incorrect Slovak from September 2009, and will also enable stricter official supervision of the use of ‘correct’ Slovak.
According to the law, doctors, nurses and caretakers in health-care and social facilities in municipalities where a significant proportion of the population come from ethnic minorities may speak with patients and clients in the language of those minorities. If texts on memorials and plaques are written in both the state language and a foreign language, the foreign inscription may not be bigger than the inscription in the state language.
Some of these provisions have upset the Hungarian minority in Slovakia as well as representatives of Hungary itself. After the president remained deaf to their pleas to return the law to parliament, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Katalin Szili, sent her Slovak counterpart a joint declaration by Hungarian parliamentary parties on July 21 which calls on Slovakia to withdraw the amendment. The Alliance of Free Democrats – Hungarian Liberal Party's chairman, János Kóka, one of the signatories of the declaration, said it is necessary to use all available diplomatic means and those of international law to persuade Slovakia to annul the amendment before it comes into force in September.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico rejected the declaration, saying Hungarian politicians had failed to understand that Slovakia is an independent state, no longer under Hungarian rule. He was apparently referring to Slovakia’s period under Hungarian administration before 1918. He again repeated the government’s argument that in some areas the amended act in fact strengthens the position of minority languages.
OSCE okays the act – with reservations
A Slovak delegation met Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek on July 21 to discuss the amendment. It was followed a day later by a Hungarian delegation. Vollebaek said he would continue to remain engaged in the matter with a view to providing a possible venue for the two sides to address matters of mutual concern in a way that promotes the interests of minority communities and enhances friendly relations between the two countries, according to the OSCE press department.
Vollebaek’s office analysed whether the act is in accordance with international standards on human and minority rights. Its opinion was published on the website of the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry on July 22.
In the document, the high commissioner concludes that the amendment pursues a legitimate aim and is in line with international standards – however, there are some elements that might raise issues of compatibility with international standards and with the constitutional principles of the Slovak Republic.
Vollebaek also pointed out the absence of a comprehensive law on the rights of persons belonging to national minorities in Slovakia, which should be addressed by lawmakers. According to the opinion, an appropriate balance must be guaranteed between protecting and promoting the state language on the one hand and protecting the linguistic rights of persons belonging to national minorities on the other.
“This Law to a large extent pursues the former goal, but at the same time it includes relevant provisions on issues that are (supposed to be) covered by a different piece of legislation, the Law on National Minority Languages [which has been effective since 1999 in Slovakia],” the opinion reads. “This overlap of minority-related provisions in different pieces of legislation might create legal uncertainty and might lead to different interpretations, which might have a negative impact on the overall legal position of national minorities in Slovakia.”
Vollebaek also recommended that Slovak lawmakers consider the terminology of the text as “it doesn’t always seem consistent”. He also wrote that the imposition of fines should on principle be avoided and, if not avoided, should be exceptional and regularly monitored, as it might easily create tensions.
Reactions to analysis differ
While Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, who initiated the amendment process, and Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák welcomed the opinion of the High Commissioner and said it gives the amendment a thumbs up, opinions among the Hungarian minority differed.
The new Most-Híd party led by Béla Bugár, who is also a former chairman of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), welcomed the interest of the high commissioner, as well as his active and professional approach.
“We are convinced that the application of this law in practice could have a negative impact on the usage of minority languages,” Most-Híd spokesperson Peter Horváth told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the government should have consulted over the solution of the language issue with those whom it concerns – “and not about us without us”. The party also decided to publish a translation of the OSCE opinion in both Slovak and Hungarian on its website.
According to the Forum Institute think tank’s Kálmán Petőcz, who also chairs the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia, the high commissioner’s hint that the Law on National Minority Languages needs amendment is important, “because it indirectly shows that the way that the Slovak government is approaching the ‘solution’ of Slovak-Hungarian problems is not the most fortunate one”, he wrote in his commentary published in the Sme daily.
While the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia said it appreciates the high commissioner’s diplomatic efforts and welcomed the analysis as correct and objective, adding that it is ready to take part in adjusting the act to follow Vollebaek’s remarks, the SMK reacted differently.
It said that the amendment is at odds with the constitution and that it therefore intends to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court.
The SMK also claimed that the Foreign Affairs Ministry deliberately prepared an inexact English translation of the amended text of the State Language Act for Vollebaek’s office, the SITA newswire wrote.
The ministry’s spokesperson Peter Stano said it was childish and unfair to cast doubts on the translation, which he said was prepared by a renowned agency, SITA reported.
“I admit we have been surprised by the present blatantly misleading campaign against the amended State Language Act, a campaign where a good measure of truth and commonsense are drowned out by historicising and "hystericising" malicious, and sometimes even ridiculous, propaganda,” Lajčák wrote in a commentary on the EUobserver website. “In creating myths it lays a needless burden on Slovak-Hungarian relations and, gratuitously, spills some malice onto the international community.”
According to Kálmán Petőcz the government speaks about the focused, hysterical campaign of Hungarian politicians “but it doesn’t make any distinction between what is – quite politely and democratically – pointed out by its partner, the Hungarian government, and the activities of political parties who are trying to warm up their political soup,” he wrote for Sme.
Meanwhile, the Language Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has launched a petition which by July 28 had been signed by over 500 people, mainly linguists and academics from around the world, stating that the amendment is “linguistic nonsense”.
They say the law discriminates not only against minorities but also Slovaks who speak dialects, negatively affects freedom of expression, and goes back to the Medieval principle that the one who owns the land decides on the language which is spoken on it.
High Commissioner Vollebaek will visit Budapest on September 15 to discuss the act. According to the TASR newswire, Slovak diplomats have confirmed that they are working on a possible visit by Vollebaek to Slovakia as well.
3. Aug 2009 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani