Making language legal

ONCE you fasten one button on your vest incorrectly, then your whole vest is obviously buttoned-up wrong, said Rudolf Chmel, the Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities, in describing the tensions that have surrounded Slovakia’s State Language Act. His office began officially working with stronger powers on November 1 and among its first legislative initiatives is an amendment to the law on minority languages which was presented for public discussion shortly before the end of 2010. The right to use one’s mother tongue as well as the regularly erupting conflicts between Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians and the problems of socially-excluded Roma communities were among the topics Chmel spoke about with The Slovak Spectator just before the Christmas holidays.

Rudolf Chmel Rudolf Chmel (Source: TASR)

ONCE you fasten one button on your vest incorrectly, then your whole vest is obviously buttoned-up wrong, said Rudolf Chmel, the Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities, in describing the tensions that have surrounded Slovakia’s State Language Act. His office began officially working with stronger powers on November 1 and among its first legislative initiatives is an amendment to the law on minority languages which was presented for public discussion shortly before the end of 2010. The right to use one’s mother tongue as well as the regularly erupting conflicts between Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians and the problems of socially-excluded Roma communities were among the topics Chmel spoke about with The Slovak Spectator just before the Christmas holidays.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The State Language Act, which has caused much tension between Hungarians and Slovaks, has been recently amended. How did you perceive the emergence of the problem?

Rudolf Chmel (RCh): The State Language Act emerged as a problem when it was first passed by the Vladimír Mečiar government in 1995 because it had an evident anti-minority, and mainly anti-Hungarian, tone to it, including the sanctions. But the pre-history of the situation goes back to the beginning of 1990s when a certain part of nationalists came up with idea of protection of the state language, as if somebody was still trying to take it away from us. Generally, Slovaks still seem to be living in the 19th century, in the Romantic era, when the language needed to be fought for, or later when Magyarisation was a part of the state policies. But today the Slovak language is a natural part of the identity of Slovaks and as such it needs no repressive legal mechanisms for its protection. It’s basically a dispute between those who want to protect and fight for the language and those who want to care for it and cultivate it. If there is a threat for Slovak [language], then it is because of low-brow Slovaks and not Hungarians and other minorities.

The Mikuláš Dzurinda government liberalised the law in 1999 and passed a law on minority languages, so formally these two problems were modified, but the truth is that both laws were imperfect – and therefore they needed and will need to be improved. In 2009 the Robert Fico government again toughened the law and practically sent it back to the Mečiar times. The current ruling coalition is trying to harmonise both laws and liberalise them – that is, moderate the protection and increase the care for both the state language and the minority languages.

TSS: How did you view the tension between Hungarians and Slovaks that surfaced because of the State Language Act?

RCh: The Hungarian minority handles the language issue differently than other minorities, as the Hungarians, similar to Slovaks, still live with the belief that the language is the most important attribute of their national identity. That is true, we only realise it less when talking about minorities. When it comes to language, a minority is naturally more vulnerable and endangered because it lives in the environment of the majority language and in most cases it is the minority language rather than the majority language that is assimilated.

In 2009, the State Language Act amendment was reintroduced into the Slovak-Hungarian national and inter-state agenda, since the repressive features of the amendment were mainly directed against the Hungarian minority. The Hungarian government interfered and the balloon went up. At that time I believed it was unnecessary, as was part of the Hungarian card which the Fico-led government played in bilateral relations with Hungary. That was why we believed that the restrictive measures should be done away with. After all, there were relevant international recommendations to support our stance.

TSS: But the sanctions which you criticised in the past remain in the law, even though in a limited way. Are you satisfied with the solution that parliament recently passed?

RCh: We came up with the request to remove the restrictive measures in both the State Language Act and the law on minority languages since the two laws actually are two sides of one issue and therefore they need to be compatible.

The amendment to the State Language Act was proposed by the culture minister as it falls under his department. There is even a state language department at the Culture Ministry overlooking the correct usage of Slovak. That was what I cancelled when I served as culture minister [in 2002-2005, ed. note] because it seemed too much for the ministerial officials to say what is right and what is wrong in the language. For all that, we’ve got a paramount academic authority, the Ľudovít Štúr Institute of Linguistics at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, as well as several university departments. It’s not the officials’ and politicians’ place to codify the language. Apart from that, I believe that [the State Language Act] should be a law with symbolic value only and it shouldn’t be used for any repressions or threats.

So it was necessary to amend the law, but that’s easier said than done, as old nationalist prejudices and traumas which have been at work in Slovak-Hungarian relations for decades remain present in the Slovak political consciousness, both nationalist and democratic – the one that currently rules the country. Now, nationalists from Smer and the Slovak National Party (SNS) say that the law is servile to Budapest and on the other hand the Hungarian nationalists criticise the Slovak government, saying that the law continues persecuting the minorities. So the nationalists usually depart from the same platforms, only standing against each other. But I believe that if the sanctions were dropped completely, the law would be rather optimal.

Using the term ‘sanction’ or ‘fine’ in relation to language is a drastic intervention into society, as language is a very intimate issue, the very personal part of the human identity as well as of the identity of a bigger community. Any repressions in that area interfere with human dignity. After our latest amendment, the repressions will only be used in official matters, very formal, but I think they are completely redundant there. There has been a significant relief in several areas in public and official communication, for instance in self-government offices or in police offices. The relief is even bigger in the area of culture. But the law still doesn’t contain all the relief that might be necessary.

TSS: Now you will also attempt to amend the law on minority languages, which should in many respects widen the right of minorities to use their mother tongues – a measure that often encounters resistance from politicians in Slovakia. Why is there a lack of willingness among Slovak politicians for this?

RCh: It is necessary to amend the law on minority languages since we amended the law on the state language and these two laws must be compatible. We also set as one of our aims a more comprehensive concept of minority policy in legal terms. We want to do away with the discord between the two languages, as the State Language Act often interfered into the usage of minority languages, especially after the Fico-led government amended it. That needed to be removed because using minority languages is governed by the law on minority languages and not by the State Language Act. International recommendations spoke in the same voice that this discord needs to be removed.

To make the two laws compatible, there are now sanctions introduced in the draft amendment to the law on minority languages, because there are sanctions as well in the State Language Act. If a minority member isn’t able to enforce his or her right to speak a minority language, they can complain about the institution in question. But I personally believe that there should not be sanctions in any of the laws.

Obviously, for some of my colleagues this sounded like an offence against the Slovak majority, that Slovak institutions could be sanctioned if a Hungarian, a Ruthenian, a Ukrainian or a Roma cannot get information in their respective languages. The Slovak mentality doesn’t mind it happening vice-versa, but when it is the majority that is to be punished, all of a sudden we don’t like it.

TSS: One of the main changes you are introducing in the draft amendment of the law on minority languages is lowering the quorum for speaking minority language from the current 20 percent to 10 percent. Why is this change necessary and how will it influence the life of minorities in a practical way?

RCh: All international recommendations say the quorum should be lowered. In 1999, when the law was first drafted, even 20 percent looked too high. But experience showed that it’s not a good quorum, as it still allows minorities to assimilate. International recommendations that we have received talk about 10 percent, arguing that minority languages require increased protection since their position in the state is not equal to that of the state language.

I suspected that it wouldn’t be easily accepted by many citizens and politicians but the proposed quorum is not that low. Nota bene, it doesn’t concern the Hungarian minority as much as it concerns the others. Currently, under the 20-percent quorum, it’s about 520 municipalities with Hungarian language and with the quorum lowered to 10 percent it would be another 30, less than a percent more. But it gets interesting considering the German minority, which is much smaller. Currently, there is only one German-speaking municipality, Krahule in Central Slovakia, but with the 10-percent quorum it would go up to 10 or 11 municipalities. With the Croatian minority, it could affect two of Bratislava’s municipal parts, Jarovce and Čuňovo. Considering the Ruthenian minority, we propose counting them together with the Ukrainians for the purposes of minority language usage, which would mean that even the town of Humenné would become officially bilingual.

The problem with the Roma minority in this respect is that a whole new infrastructure for their language would need to be established. In that case we would consider some way to postpone the practical implication of the law, to create space for the education of Roma intelligence that would be able to saturate this infrastructure. It’s not an easy package, which also requires higher budget for the municipalities in question.

TSS: Your office also deals with some problems linked to the Roma minority. Which of them do you consider the most serious?

RCh: The Roma agenda is presently distributed among several offices and I think that it requires a more comprehensive approach. In the past 21 years the state has failed in social policy. There is some kind of economic egoism among the non-Roma and the problems of Roma shrink to the problem of poverty. And since we cover up the economic difficulties and failures of the state, the solutions that are proposed are often racist, ideological, and directed against the poorest citizens of this country.

‘Socially-excluded communities’ is only a nice name for shantytowns, where people who have no possibility to make their way out of the vicious circle live. And since there is no comprehensive approach to solving their problems but each office is solving it in its narrow department – in healthcare, in schooling, in social affairs, in justice – the solutions are always just partial. In my opinion we not only did not move the problem of real socialisation of Roma communities forward in the past 20 years, but it even reached ‘red numbers’.

For the moment it’s mainly civic associations that take interest in these issues, based on the willingness of some enthusiasts who work within the Roma communities, but there is no systemic state approach. The problem of the Roma minority cannot be solved by the market, which some believe is able to solve everything.

Apart from that, all the programmes for Roma which have been run until now were about short-term solutions. And this problem needs to be solved in the long-run, and comprehensively.

On the other hand, the extreme poverty which we are trying not to see in this environment will continue generating ever higher costs. But money is not the biggest problem. The problem is that there is a lack of a long-term concept and there is a lack of policy experts who would propose solutions.

TSS: Roma minority problems are not unique to Slovakia and increasingly they affect all of Europe. Do you think European cooperation could bring a long-term, comprehensive solution?

RCh: If there was any sense in the French ‘solution’ of the problem, then it was in that it attracted attention to the Europe-wide character of the Roma problems, showing that it is not a problem of a couple of Balkan and a couple of central European countries, but a problem which the EU must reflect on and solve. If we ignore the problems of the Roma in Romania or in Bulgaria, they will pop up as an unresolved issue in France or in Italy and keep growing. We cannot keep our eyes shut from that. The EU is currently suffering much more severe economic and financial problems so it cannot fully focus on Roma issues, but perhaps we should be one of those who would push the agenda through, especially once we have a concept. One of the main problems that the government is facing now is to come up with key solutions to the Roma agenda and to not pretend that this problem doesn’t exist or that we cannot see it. The problem is here, and it is acute.

TSS: Your predecessors had been criticised for mismanaging the Roma agenda. Will the stronger powers of your office help to change the public’s critical perception of your office?

RCh: This office always carries a certain challenge in it – it is in a way a virtual office, because its powers are not really tangible, such as human rights which are still being violated even in democracies, also in Slovakia. This office wants to serve as a coordinator of the human rights agenda, which in fact falls under the responsibilities of all the government departments. We are like a guardian, but without the possibility to punish. We can only advise and try to improve the legislation.

The second pillar of this office is national minorities, which includes the Roma minority too, and there are some very serious problems there. I’m going to have meetings with the education minister to jointly try to solve the issues of minority education. There are still many controversial things happening which need to be investigated and looked at – such as children from Roma families who are often sent to special schools even though they don’t belong there. I see a lot of work ahead for us together with the education and social affairs departments in education of Roma children. Some decisive steps need to be finally taken.

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