THE HUNGARIAN government is still highly concerned about Slovakia’s amended State Language Act and its consequences for the Hungarian minority living in Slovakia. At least this is what one could assume from its recent decision to devote a chunk of its state resources to a fund to protect the linguistic rights of ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia and, ultimately, to pay any fines levied for violation of the State Language Act.
The Hungarian and Slovak newswires reported on January 28 that the Hungarian government has assigned HUF50 million (€184,000) to a fund that will mainly be used to cover penalties against ethnic Hungarians for being in breach of the State Language Act.
“We would like to raise awareness that there is help available to those who may be harassed for using their mother tongue,” Hungarian PM Gordon Bajnai said as quoted by the Új Szó daily.
The fund will be administered by the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia, an informal apolitical institution which presents itself as a consultation forum for Hungarian organisations and personalities in Slovakia.
Kálmán Petőcz, a representative of the Roundtable and an expert from the Forum Institute think-tank told the Sme daily that reimbursing the fines for violation of the State Language Act is not the only purpose of the fund. The money from the fund will also be devoted to legal advisory services and help in linguistic rights issues, the Sme daily reported.
A website and free hotline were launched on February 1 for the same purpose, and should serve not only the Hungarian minority but any citizen of Slovakia seeking advice related to the State Language Act and linguistic rights.
The website at www.jogsegely.sk and www.auxilium.sk is in three languages, Hungarian, Slovak and English, and contains information related to the State Language Act, and provides legal advisory services for people who feel they have been discriminated against due to the law.
The website is supported among others by the Forum Institute, the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary and the Pázmány Péter Alapítvány Foundation.
The Hungarian government claimed they would not get involved in the fund’s administration in any way. Despite this, it did not take long for critical voices to be raised against the initiative.
The Culture Ministry views it as unwelcome interference in Slovakia’s internal affairs.
“We believe it is unacceptable for Hungary to support violation of the law in a sovereign state in this manner,” the spokesperson of the ministry Jozef Bednár wrote in a statement for The Slovak Spectator.
The Hungarian PM’s spokesperson Domokos Szollár said in defence of the fund that according to the basic treaty, both countries can support their minority in the other country, the Sme daily wrote.
The Slovak National Party (SNS) went even further with its criticism.
In a debate on public-service STV on January 31, the party’s vice-chairwoman, Anna Belousovová, was reported as saying that Hungary is encouraging citizens to disobey their state laws. She believes that parliament should empower the government to file a complaint with the International Court of Justice.
According to political analyst and director of the Institute for Public Affairs Grigorij Mesežnikov, there are arguments for and against the fund.
“The arguments for are that like Hungary, Slovakia is part of an international, in this case European, human rights protected space,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator. “We therefore have a common political and legal space – the European Union – where single standards are applied.”
For that reason, he said, it does not matter where the financial resources used for solving a problem, or for granting financial compensation, come from, adding that it is part of the internationalisation of Slovakia and that when an international body gets involved to resolve a problem, it is perfectly normal.
“It’s not an attempt to destroy anything, or encourage disrespect to the law,” he said.
However, the political aspect of the problem is a lot more delicate than the factual one.
“It was clear that it was going to be interpreted in Slovakia as an attempt to interfere in the state’s internal affairs, and the Hungarian government should have considered that carefully,” Mesežnikov said.
He said the whole initiative also has an internal Hungarian political dimension.
“In any case, I wouldn’t get hysterical about it, despite the fact that it’s a problematic step from a political viewpoint,” Mesežnikov concluded.
The language law, passed in June 2009, became effective on September 1 and has been met with heavy criticism, mainly from representatives of the ethnic Hungarian minority living in Slovakia as well as from government representatives and politicians in Hungary who have complained that the law harms the position of minorities living in Slovakia and infringes on their basic right to use their mother tongue.
Some observers as well as centre-right opposition parties have opined that amending the law on the state language was unnecessary.
The Slovak government has defended the law since its passage, as has Knut Vollebaek, the OSCE High Commissioner for Minorities who – despite some reservations – stated that it is in accordance with international legislation.
He initiated a process of creating guidelines to govern the application of the law in practice, which have been completed by the Culture Ministry in cooperation with Hungarian representatives and Vollebaek’s office.
The guidelines became effective on January 1, 2010. Representatives of ethnic Hungarian organisations have opposed the guidelines and the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia stated that they had not been invited to consult on the guidelines throughout the process of their creation, despite the Slovak government’s promises to do so.
8. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani