SLOVAKIA’S Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) keeps pushing the country’s new State Language Act into the centre of national as well as international attention. Only one day after a massive protest was organised in Dunajská Streda in opposition to the law, party representatives travelled to The Hague and, after their return, claimed that they want to help prepare the guidelines to the legislation.
A delegation from the SMK met with Knut Vollebaek, the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on September 2 in The Hague. Vollebaek’s office is supposed to assist in the preparation of the procedural guidelines for the State Language Act.
After analysing the amendments to the act earlier this summer, Vollebaek’s office concluded that they pursue a legitimate aim and are in line with international standards. Vollebaek also recommended that Slovak lawmakers further consider the terminology of the law as “it doesn’t always seem consistent”. He also wrote that the imposition of fines for violation of the law should, on principle, be avoided and if they are not totally avoided they should be levied only in exceptional circumstances and be regularly monitored, as issuing fines might easily create tensions.
OSCE asks for cooperation with minorities
Upon his return from The Hague, SMK deputy József Berényi called on the Slovak government and the involved ministries to publish all of their correspondence with Vollebaek’s office because he said he believed that the public was not informed in a proper and balanced way about the exchange of correspondence, the SITA newswire reported.
Berényi also said that Vollebaek had expressed disappointment over the fact that the State Language Act was passed before parliament had received his opinion, SITA wrote.
In his statement for the press on September 3 Vollebaek emphasized that it is important for an appropriate balance to be ensured between strengthening the state language on one hand and protecting the linguistic rights of persons belonging to national minorities on the other.
“It is essential that implementation of the Act does not negatively affect the rights of persons belonging to national minorities in Slovakia,” Vollebaek stated, adding that he encouraged both governments to engage in constructive dialogue.
“It is also imperative that the next steps are taken in close cooperation with national minority representatives in Slovakia,” he wrote.
Vollebaek stated that he will participate in a meeting of the Slovak-Hungarian Joint Commission on Issues of National Minorities and that he will take part in drafting implementation guidelines.
“I intend to remain engaged with this matter until it is resolved in a way that all sides accept. I will visit Budapest and Bratislava in mid-September to continue assisting Hungary and Slovakia in resolving their differences,” he concluded.
Misstatement about the law?
After its meeting with the High Commissioner, the SMK also asked the Culture Ministry to involve representatives of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia in the working group assigned to draft the procedural guidelines to the law. The SMK believes the guidelines might help clarify some unclear paragraphs in the law, such as whether people can use a minority language in public offices in municipalities with a minority population over 20 percent and the section concerning fines for incorrectly using the Slovak language.
The Culture Ministry reacted negatively, saying that SMK will be invited to cooperate in preparation of the guidelines only if SMK stops “spreading the biggest lies about the law – that ordinary people will be sanctioned for using a minority language, that they will be punished for speaking Hungarian to the doctor and that inscriptions on graves will have to change,” the ministry’s spokesperson, Jozef Bednár, told SITA.
Meanwhile, the Sme daily reported on September 4 that Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai had misspoken about the language act.
“Why is it necessary in 21st century Europe to bother and fine people, the citizens of the Slovak Republic, when they want to talk to their physician in their mother tongue or they want to hear the mass in Hungarian?” Bajnai reportedly said. However, the State Language Act does not deal with the language of masses, Sme wrote.
Bajnai is expected to meet with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico on September 10 in the northern Hungarian town of Szécsény.
“The prime minister believes that it wasn’t [Bajnai’s] intention to spread mendacious information about Slovakia,” Fico’s spokesperson Silvia Glendová said, but adding that Fico was very unpleasantly surprised by the apparent gaps in the Hungarian side’s knowledge of the act.
No fines without the guidelines
The Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry is organising the meeting between the prime ministers with the hope to start a constructive dialogue between the two countries. In this light, they see SMK’s meeting with Vollebaek positively.
“From SMK’s statements after the meeting it is clear that they did not manage to cast doubts on the essence of his [Vollebaek’s] report,” the ministry’s spokesperson, Peter Stano, told SITA. “The ministry now expects that SMK will consider this fact when they next address the law.”
A Slovak delegation met Vollebaek on July 21 to discuss the amendment. This 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.
The Slovak Culture Ministry has said that the guidelines for the law should be ready by January 2010 and until then the ministry will not issue any fines for violating the State Language Act, SITA wrote.
Related story: Tension over language
7. Sep 2009 at 15:00 | Michaela Terenzani