WHEN someone asks you whether you have “zásady”, they usually mean your principles. But there is also a second meaning – guidelines. Unfortunately, you would have trouble finding the word in a legal dictionary, so it’s a little difficult to explain the nature of the “zásady” for interpreting the language law that the cabinet approved last Wednesday.
The government was forced to draw up the document by a) international pressure resulting from the Hungarian minority’s fears that the new law would curb its rights, and b) the fact that by itself the law is to a great degree incomprehensible. Following cries from international institutions such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and requests from domestic institutions such as the Post Office, which didn’t know what language their employees could use at what time without fear of being fined, the Culture Ministry produced a 30-page-long manual to explain the 10-page-long law. The guidelines are full of formal mistakes – the first of them being that in the Slovak legal system, which recognizes laws (zákony), government directives (nariadenia), or ministry regulations (vyhlášky), “zásady” have no place. The government has come up with an extraordinary document, which isn’t at all binding for citizens, and can therefore serve at best as a manual for zealous bureaucrats or bedtime reading for Robert Fico fans. It’s therefore more or less irrelevant what its contents are. But if you nonetheless choose to analyse it, you find its greatest flaw is that in many places this mysterious piece of quasi-legislation stretches, or even contradicts, the law.
The law says that you are not allowed to use a minority language when talking to the postman if you are in a place where fewer than 20 percent of the population belongs to that minority. The guidelines say you can, providing you both agree to do so – and everyone else who is present also gives their consent. The interpretation-manual includes a set of 21 criteria, which have to be considered before a fine is issued based on the language law and specifies that the amount to be paid has to be based on and justified by at least 6 of these criteria. The law itself sets no such rules. We could go on and on.
What happened in Slovakia is very simple – the government came up with an absurd law, whose main purpose was to gain points with nationalist voters and scare the Hungarian minority by creating a situation of uncertainty. Instead of getting rid of it, the government approved a new piece of legislation, which has no force and only adds to the confusion. Can Slovak voters and the international community really be fooled by this? That is as yet unclear. What is certain is that the government’s “zásady” prove its lack of principles.