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Hungarians seek a sympathetic ear in the US

HUNGARIANS’ dissatisfaction with Slovakia’s new State Language Act seems strong enough to travel all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Though the European Union says it is following the controversy, the Swedish EU presidency views it as a purely bilateral matter between Slovakia and Hungary. The High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Knut Vollebaek, has not voiced strong support for the objections raised by officials from Hungary or Slovakia’s Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK). So now those who object to the law are hoping to find a more sympathetic ear in the United States.

HUNGARIANS’ dissatisfaction with Slovakia’s new State Language Act seems strong enough to travel all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Though the European Union says it is following the controversy, the Swedish EU presidency views it as a purely bilateral matter between Slovakia and Hungary. The High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Knut Vollebaek, has not voiced strong support for the objections raised by officials from Hungary or Slovakia’s Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK). So now those who object to the law are hoping to find a more sympathetic ear in the United States.

A delegation – which will include primarily members of the Hungarian-American Coalition (a lobbying group in the US) and representatives of the SMK – will seek to discuss Slovakia’s new State Language Act with government officials on the other side of the Atlantic, SMK leader Pál Csáky told the TA3 news channel.

The Hungarian representatives want to meet officials from the White House and the US Congress to complain about the law and they say they want American lawmakers to publicly condemn the amendments. Max Teleki from the Hungarian-American Coalition said that some members of Congress have already been informed about the issue. Teleki also said that some government officials in the US have privately expressed concerns about the law.

“I hope that the next step will be a hearing before the foreign relations committee of Congress,” Teleki told TA3. “If the Slovak government doesn’t change its attitude to the amendment, experts will argue that Slovakia has violated international agreements.”

SMK parliamentary deputy József Berényi said that his party would not refuse an invitation to make their arguments in the US, just as any other Slovak politician wouldn’t.

“If there’s a hearing by the US Foreign Affairs Committee, all those involved in the conflict would usually be invited,” Berényi said, as quoted by the Sme daily, explaining that in such a case he expected representatives of the Slovak government would also be invited.

The Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry sees SMK’s attempts to raise the issue in the United States as just another step in their campaign against the new law.

“After the SMK did not get satisfaction from European institutions and the OSCE, it decided together with the American Hungarian lobby to bother government officials in the US,” Slovakia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Peter Stano, told The Slovak Spectator. “We regard such activities abroad as a continuation of their misinterpretations and deceitful campaign about the language act.” Stano referred to several statements made about the law which he said are false, such as fines being levied for masses conducted in Hungarian or a patient speaking in Hungarian with a physician.

“The ministry prefers diplomatic methods and we have already informed all our relevant partners abroad about the real content of the law and the way in which it will be implemented,” Stano added.

The foreign affairs ministers of Slovakia, Hungary and Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, have met in Stockholm to discuss Slovak-Hungarian relations. Sweden regards the controversy over Slovakia’s State Language Act as being the biggest current conflict between two EU member states, but has said it will not interfere as it regards the issue to be bilateral in nature, the SITA newswire reported.

From the beginning of the controversy surrounding the language law, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has stressed that the problem should be solved bilaterally.

Stano said that the MFA is continuing to consult with Vollebaek on these issues.

A delegation from the SMK met the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, on September 2 in The Hague.

After analysing the amendments to State Language 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.

Already in the first days after the amendments to the State Language Act became effective on September 1, several Slovak institutions have seemingly given different interpretations to the application of the law.

While the culture minister promised that the language law would not affect minorities living in Slovakia, some post offices have already stopped using any languages other than Slovak in speaking with customers.

Slovak Post, whose top managers are nominated by the Slovak National Party, mailed a letter to all employees ordering them to use only Slovak in official contacts with customers. A few days later it mailed a second letter which included some exemptions permitting employees to use a different language in those localities where minority citizens exceed 20 percent of the population, the Sme daily reported.

The SMK has already warned that post office employees in some localities are afraid of being fined for speaking Hungarian with customers.

The Slovak Culture Ministry has said there is a need to prepare procedural guidelines for implementation of the law. These guidelines should be ready by January 2010 and until then the ministry will not issue any fines for violating the State Language Act, SITA wrote. High Commissioner Vollebaek has confirmed that he will assist in drafting the 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 wrote.

After their meeting with Vollebaek, SMK representatives stated that they also want to take part in drafting the guidelines. The Culture Ministry reacted by saying the SMK will be invited only if they stop “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.

Vollebaek’s written statement in early September implies that a somewhat different approach should be taken.

“It is also imperative that the next steps are taken in close cooperation with national minority representatives in Slovakia,” he wrote.


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