Cross-border row over dual citizenship

THE NEW Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has helped stir nationalist emotions in Slovakia even before it has formally taken office, by rushing to pass an amended dual citizenship law which would make it easier for ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia to become citizens of Hungary. The response in Slovakia pre-empted any decision by Hungary’s parliament, and signalled that the so-called Hungarian card will remain on the table during the ongoing Slovak election campaign.

THE NEW Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has helped stir nationalist emotions in Slovakia even before it has formally taken office, by rushing to pass an amended dual citizenship law which would make it easier for ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia to become citizens of Hungary. The response in Slovakia pre-empted any decision by Hungary’s parliament, and signalled that the so-called Hungarian card will remain on the table during the ongoing Slovak election campaign.

Orbán, whose government will be appointed on May 29, was originally expected to propose the draft amendment on dual citizenship to the Hungarian parliament at its very first session on May 14. The new legislation would make it easier for Hungarians living outside Hungary to obtain Hungarian citizenship by removing the obligation to have permanent residence in Hungary. They would need to prove their ancestors were Hungarian citizens or demonstrate some obvious Hungarian origins, and be able to speak Hungarian. If these conditions were met, the citizenship process would take about three months.

In the end, the Hungarian parliament postponed the debate on dual citizenship to a later meeting.

Prime Minister Robert Fico said even before the May 14 parliament session that Slovakia would regard the revision to Hungary’s dual citizenship law as a security risk and that he would immediately request a review of any such change by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) high commissioner for minorities, Knut Vollebaek.

Vollebaek has also been involved in the dispute over Slovakia’s amendment to its State Language Act, which has outraged Hungarians.

In response to the development, Slovakia recalled its ambassador to Hungary, Peter Weiss, for consultations on the issue. It also criticised the Hungarian government for its unilateral approach to what it said was a sensitive issue which would affect Slovak citizens.

Orbán reportedly called the Slovak reaction a provocation and said Hungary would adopt the legislation regardless of the response from Slovakia.

Slovakia’s State Security Council was convened on May 18 and agreed that Slovakia would change its constitution and if necessary several other laws in order to automatically strip anyone who acquires Hungarian citizenship of their Slovak citizenship.

“We’re ready for a very hard counter-strike,” Fico said, as quoted by the Sme daily. He said the government would inform not only the OSCE, but also the president of the European Council and the president of the European Commission. Vollebaek, from the OSCE, will hear Slovakia's complaints on May 25, when he is due to meet Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák in The Hague.

While the Slovak government prefers talks and consultations with Hungarian officials about the issue, it will keep parliament ready to pass counter-measures in the event that the dual citizenship law is passed in Hungary, Sme wrote. As a result, a ceremonial session of parliament planned for May 19, which was to have been the last before the June 12 election, was cancelled.

On May 19 the Slovak government requested Ambassador Weiss to initiate a meeting of Fico and Hungarian prime minister-designate Orbán over the amendment. The Slovak side decided to seek a prime ministerial meeting after a joint Slovak-Hungarian commission had failed to meet the day before, with Hungary saying that the commission could be convened only after May 29, when the new Hungarian cabinet is due to be appointed. Fico expressed concern that the amendment could be passed before then. Orbán, however, refused to meet Fico, saying he would not be drawn into the Slovak election campaign, the ČTK newswire reported.

Political analyst Miroslav Kusý called the reaction of the Slovak government hysterical and inadequate.

Kusý told The Slovak Spectator he strongly believed that subject of dual citizenship will resonate during the Slovak election campaign because Fico will be able to use it to divert attention from some unpleasant topics that have recently affected him, such as the recently published reports about his Smer party’s financing.

“The main topic [of Smer’s campaign] will be the Hungarian threat,” Kusý said. On the other hand, Juraj Marušiak, a political scientist from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, believes that while the Slovak reaction might have been somewhat harsh, he agrees that the idea of dual citizenship for members of autochthonous minorities is “destructive”.

“It’s a step that is at odds with good neighbourly relations and is out of place in relations between two EU members,” Marušiak told The Slovak Spectator.

Why the rush?

The question of why Orbán rushed to have the law adopted remains half-explained in light of the fact that, as observers have pointed out, such a step might have been expected to prompt Slovak nationalists to play the Hungarian card in their election race.

Kusý suggests that it is mainly because Slovakia has never quite played such a significant role for Hungary as Hungary has played for Slovakia.

“In Slovakia every creak from Budapest evokes inflamed responses; but it does not work that way on the part of Hungary,” Kusý said. “Orbán was obviously guided by his pre-election promises, and this was the simplest one that he could have fulfilled since it does not cost him anything. His logic was that he has to give something to the Hungarians as a product of his victory in the [recent Hungarian] election.”

Also, according to Kusý, Slovakia is not nearly as significant for Orbán as Orbán is for Slovakia.

“Here, Orbán is being demonised as a man who night and day is thinking about how to harm Slovakia,” said Kusý, adding that he does not believe this is true.

“It’s a symbolic gesture that documents [Orbán’s] intention to turn Hungary into a state based on ethnic values,” Marušiak said, explaining why he believed Orbán had rushed to pass the dual citizenship amendment even before the government was formally appointed. “It is intended to demonstrate the long-term direction of the state.” He added that it is clearly a confrontational signal which will probably have an impact on the Slovak elections.

Who will benefit?

Observers were quick to point out that nationalist forces are the most likely to benefit from inflamed tensions between Slovakia and Hungary ahead of the parliamentary elections in Slovakia scheduled for June 12. Kusý suggested that Fico will try to benefit fully from it.

“In Slovakia the Hungarian card has always been played, in every election, and now definitely it is the Hungarian card’s turn – and Fico has been suggesting this consistently since the victory of Orbán became more likely,” Kusý said, adding that Fico was interpreting the victory of Orbán as a threat to Slovakia.

Now, however, Orbán has passed the ball to Fico by opening up the issue of dual citizenship – and Fico is making a big fuss over it, Kusý suggested.

In fact, the Hungarian minority in Slovakia does not seem to believe the amendment will be of any benefit for them. The Hospodárske Noviny daily reported on May 17 that the most frequent answer of ethnic Hungarians in the Slovak villages of Báč and Horný Bar, when asked about it, was that they were not interested in Hungarian citizenship. Similar results emerged from interviews with the Hungarian elite in Slovakia, including former Slovak ambassador to Hungary Kálmán Petőcz and politician Béla Bugár, who say they would not seek a Hungarian passport.

Kusý does not believe the law would give ethnic Hungarians anything that they do not already have.

“It gives them a paper, some kind of certificate, which moreover might cause them some trouble here in Slovakia if they have it,” Kusý said. “It does not give them any added value since all the benefits that Slovak Hungarians could have gained in Hungary; they have already gained from previous governments.”

Who will suffer?

Kusý noted that the Hungarian card has always damaged the Hungarian parties since almost the whole Slovak political scene is gripped by the issue.

“Not only one party plays the Hungarian card: when one starts, others join in,” said Kusý. “Even now, [Iveta] Radičová and [Mikuláš] Dzurinda went to Brussels to discuss the dual citizenship issue. They simply worry that they would not be Slovak enough if they fail to get engaged in this issue.”

The Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ), the largest opposition party, has advocated diplomatic solutions as opposed to “shouting hysterically over to the Hungarian side of the Danube River in response to the legislative proposal on dual citizenship”.

SDKÚ chairman Dzurinda and election leader Radičová went to discuss the issue of the dual citizenship law with European People's Party (EPP) leader Wilfried Martens in Brussels on May 18, which resulted in an EPP promise to organise a roundtable about the issue.

As for future relations between Slovakia and Hungary, Marušiak believes that the issue will not contribute to mutual trust.

“It will mainly harm the Hungarian minority, because this step will strengthen nationalist and populist forces using the Hungarian card in their arguments,” Marušiak said.

On the other hand, Kusý does not expect dual citizenship to have any major impact on the two countries.

“It is an insignificant issue,” he said. “Orbán has dragged out an insignificant issue which belongs to the 19th century.”

According to him, in a period when both Slovaks and Hungarians are citizens of the EU, national citizenship issues are outdated.

“It is a return to the past,” Kusý said.

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