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Speaking in minority tongues

“WEAK knowledge and strong emotions” accompany the law on the use of minority languages now en route to parliament, according to its author, Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities and Human Rights Rudolf Chmel. But while the law will affect the life of minorities other than Hungarians, Chmel, a nominee of the Most-Híd party, admits that it is the unresolved relationship between Slovakia and Hungary that might make the law’s way through the parliament tougher.

“WEAK knowledge and strong emotions” accompany the law on the use of minority languages now en route to parliament, according to its author, Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities and Human Rights Rudolf Chmel. But while the law will affect the life of minorities other than Hungarians, Chmel, a nominee of the Most-Híd party, admits that it is the unresolved relationship between Slovakia and Hungary that might make the law’s way through the parliament tougher.

Slovakia, with its 13 national minorities and nine officially approved minority languages, is a multi-ethnic country, and Chmel says that his law aims to create optimal conditions for all minorities to “feel at home”.

The amendment to the law on the use of minority languages has been referred for interdepartmental review until February 28 as a coalition proposal. It has been slightly altered from the version originally proposed by Chmel’s office, which would have lowered the ‘quorum’ of native-speakers – at which point use of a minority language can be required – from the current 20 percent to 10 percent of the local population. The coalition partners did not approve that version, despite the fact that Chmel says it is in line with international recommendations, and the current version of the amendment states that a minority language can be required – in addition to Slovak – in official communication if 15 percent of citizens in any given municipality belong to the national minority in question.

According to the law, however, any of Slovakia’s nine officially approved minority languages can be used in official oral communication anywhere in Slovakia as long as the respective official and all persons concerned in the official procedure agree.

The minority languages used in Slovakia are: Hungarian, Czech, Romani, Ruthenian, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Croatian, Yiddish and Bulgarian.

Another highlight of the law is that it introduces fines for those official bodies that fail to observe it, so that it mirrors the conditions which are valid for using Slovak in official communication according to the State Language Act.



Christian Democrats disagree



Despite Chmel’s proposal, the coalition’s Most-Híd and Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) both hinted that the 15-percent quorum might not be the final outcome.

“We understand the concern that after the forthcoming census the numbers of minority citizens might fall and the present status quo might change,” KDH spokesperson Matej Kováč told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the KDH suggests that instead of lowering the quorum the party proposes another solution: to consider figures from the two most recent censuses.

“For the moment, however, there hasn’t been agreement within the coalition,” Kováč said.


Chmel stressed that proponents of the language law are negotiating with the parliamentary caucuses, including the KDH caucus.

“We want to persuade them that it is only about improving the comfort of national minorities, and in no way is it about the Hungarian minority,” Chmel said.



More Roma and Ruthenian villages



Chmel admitted that 15 percent is a compromise and for many Most-Híd politicians, who are mostly of Hungarian ethnicity, the 15-percent quorum solves nothing. The Hungarian minority is according to Chmel the least affected, as only two villages will be added to the over 500 that are already officially bilingual. If the quorum were lowered to 10 percent, it is estimated that 30 more villages would become officially Hungarian-speaking.

“But since we don’t want to be utilitarian and pragmatic, we will pursue [the present] solution as it is advantageous for smaller minorities,” Chmel said.

The 15-percent quorum is expected to introduce bilingualism into more than 70 additional municipalities, with Roma and Ruthenian minorities being the most affected. The costs that will accompany the changes are, according to Chmel, negligible from the budgetary point of view.



The number of Roma-speaking villages will grow from 57 to 86, while there are expected to be 113 Ruthenian-speaking municipalities instead of the current 68. While currently one village in central Slovakia, Krahule, is German-speaking, under the new rules there should be one more, Kunešov. Two municipalities within Bratislava, Jarovce and Čunovo, would be designated Croatian-speaking.

Macov, a village in southern Slovakia, which already is bilingual Slovak-Hungarian, is a rather curious example, as the new quorum should make it trilingual, with Czech becoming an official language too.



Nationalist card



Despite that, the present state of Slovak-Hungarian relations, which Chmel characterised as “we don’t attack each other, but mutual mistrust is rather big”, according to him affects the passing of minority laws in Slovakia, something particularly highlighted by the discord over the dual citizenship legislation pursued by Hungary.

“It is expected that Hungarians beyond Hungary’s borders will get the right to vote [in Hungary], which obstructs the way to agreement in advance,” Chmel told a press conference on February 23.

Chmel commented that it sometimes seems as if Hungary does not welcome Hungarians elsewhere having independent political representation. He pointed to his own party, Most-Híd, which he said Hungary’s governing politicians simply do not accept. He put this down to the fact that Most-Híd has Slovak-Hungarian reconciliation as part of its programme, and is thus not regarded as ‘ethnically pure’ south of the Danube.

Chmel added that nationalist populism is present on both sides of the Danube, which makes it harder for minority-friendly laws to be passed.



The human rights aspect



Among the questions that have been raised concerning the use of minority languages include the practical application of languages such as Roma, which is not codified, in places like post offices or health-care facilities where staff might not speak the minority language. Chmel admitted that a whole new infrastructure for using the Roma language needs to be established, which could require the practical implementation of the law to be postponed.

According to Kálmán Petőcz, the director of the human rights section of Chmel’s office, there is however a human-rights aspect to the use of minority languages, which is also guaranteed by the Slovak Constitution, regardless of any quorum.

“Spreading and receiving information in one’s mother tongue, and the use of the mother tongue of a member of a national minority in official communication is a constitutional right and an international obligation of the Slovak Republic,” Petőcz said, adding that the question is whether there are legal guarantees for such usage. According to Petőcz, there have not been conditions for use of minority languages, and the aim of the proposed law is to create those conditions.

For instance, the task of health-care facilities is to do their utmost for patients, regardless of the language they speak. As such, health-care workers are obliged to make sure a patient knows what they are going to do to him or her, Petőcz said.


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