IT TOOK half a year for the new centre-right government to amend the State Language Act, an issue which has disrupted the state’s relationship with Slovakia’s ethnic-Hungarian population and with the government of Hungary as well. Despite removing several provisions that were objectionable to minorities, the amendment retained that part of the law which caused the loudest outcry among ethnic Hungarians: penalties for using a language other than the official state language – i.e. Slovak – in public communications. Some coalition politicians admit that the law remains problematic.
The previous government, led by Smer’s Robert Fico in coalition with the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), passed an amendment to the State Language Act in June 2009 which caused an outburst of loud criticism from Hungary as well as more muted critical remarks from various international organisations. That law, which tightened the monitoring of the correct use of Slovak in official communications as well as specifying when Slovak had to be used, took effect on September 1, 2009 and was harshly criticised for introducing fines of up to €5,000 for violations.
The centre-right parties of the governing coalition, then in opposition, joined in the criticism. But after the parliamentary election, representatives of minorities were disappointed by the slow movement of the coalition and it did not seem that modification of the State Language Act and elimination of the penalties would be pursued or passed by parliament.
Limited sanctions remain
The Culture Ministry, led by Daniel Krajcer of the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), in the end proposed an amendment to the law that was passed by parliament on December 9. Despite receiving the support of all coalition MPs, the coalition’s Most-Híd party voiced its concern that some provisions it finds objectionable remain in the law.
Ondrej Dostál of the Civic Conservative Party (OKS), who is a member of the Most-Híd parliamentary caucus and who led civic initiatives directed against the law when it came into effect in September 2009, said that after the amendment was passed, the law would be “less bad” than before, but admitted that it remains problematic.
“Many provisions that limit the free flow of information and interfere in the private sphere more than is necessary were left in [the State Language Act],” he told The Slovak Spectator. On a positive note, he said that several restrictive provisions, mainly those directed against minority languages and the public usage thereof, have been removed from the law. The scope for awarding sanctions for language misuse has been narrowed significantly too.
The new version of the law takes effect on January 1, 2011 and no longer requires transport, telecommunications and postal workers to master and use Slovak because their activities have been reclassified as private business and the provisions of the law will only apply to public bodies. The new legislation also eliminates the requirement that minority-language schools keep student records in two languages and allows cultural activities organised by or for members of minorities, such as theatre performances, to be voiced solely in the minority language. In addition, parliament eliminated the requirement that text on memorials, sculptures and plaques needed the approval of the Culture Ministry.
“Some nonsense restrictions will be removed,” Krajcer said, as quoted by the Sme daily.
The law, however, retains the possibility to assess fines even though the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission had recommended that they be completely stricken.
The amendment permits the use of fines but restricts their application only to public administration and situations where the life, health, safety or property of citizens is at issue. The amendment lowered the range of fines from €1,000-€5,000 to €50-€2,500.
Most-Híd not totally happy
The ruling coalition’s Most-Híd party, which primarily represents ethnic Hungarians, made it clear that even though its MPs voted with the coalition to pass the amendment they did not entirely agree with its limited changes.
“Although our aim was to eliminate the Language Act or the sanctions [it introduced], we need to realise that at the moment there is no chance for that,” the party’s chairperson Béla Bugár said, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “The current government is composed of four parties, so it’s clear that in most cases compromise solutions are put in place.”
Bugár said he found it significant that citizens cannot be punished for using their mother tongue and in that sense the recent amendment removed the fear which the previous law introduced, TASR reported.
Dostál, who made an additional proposal during the legislative procedure in parliament, seeking the complete removal of sanctions and fines for language use from the text of the law, said he was disappointed by the fact that even the current ruling coalition is not able to let go of the nationalism which ruled the country during the previous, Fico-led government. He noted that the sanctions have above all a symbolic significance.
“It’s sad that the current ruling parties criticised the re-introduction of sanctions last year while they were still in opposition, but now do not dare to cancel them,” Dostál said. “I believe that will change in the future.”
Dostál believes the law needs further changes beyond the removal of sanctions. He and his parliamentary caucus have several times mentioned in the future that cancelling the law as such would be the best systemic solution, and would allow it to be replaced by a much briefer and more liberal one.
A much stronger level of dissatisfaction was apparent in the statements of opposition politicians. The author of the 2009 changes to the language law, former culture minister Marek Maďarič who is currently an MP for the Smer party, said that the amendment passed by the governing coalition is wrong from political and factual points of view.
“From the political viewpoint it’s an unjustified retreat from Budapest,” Maďarič said, as quoted by Sme. “The rightist government left the Slovaks in southern Slovakia completely in the lurch.”
The opposition also stated that continuation of the penalties was necessary for the law to be enforceable.
Czech fairytales in Slovak
One of the most-discussed proposals that MPs wanted to incorporate into the recently passed amendment was the removal of the obligation to dub Czech fairytales, cinema and TV movies for children under the age of 12 into Slovak.
The proposal was authored by Ondrej Dostál and received the support of the constitutional affairs committee, but in the end did not make it through the final plenary vote in the parliament.
Traditionally, Slovaks and Czechs have been able to understand each other’s language thanks to the relative closeness of the languages as well as their former cohabitation in one state.
“In Slovakia, even small children understand Czech,” Dostál claims. “I find it absurd that Czech fairytales for children under 12 have to be dubbed into Slovak. It not only contradicts the right to freely disseminate information, but it also contradicts common sense.”
20. Dec 2010 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani