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ECHR rejects challenges to Slovakia's citizenship law

OVER THE past three years Slovakia and Hungary have not been able to resolve a dispute over citizenship rights that, along with other issues, has been causing political as well as practical problems in the two countries’ relationship. Answers to some of the questions that the citizenship issue has provoked have now come from Europe, but while the Slovak government considers them to be clear, its opponents say the controversy is far from over.

OVER THE past three years Slovakia and Hungary have not been able to resolve a dispute over citizenship rights that, along with other issues, has been causing political as well as practical problems in the two countries’ relationship. Answers to some of the questions that the citizenship issue has provoked have now come from Europe, but while the Slovak government considers them to be clear, its opponents say the controversy is far from over.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a single ruling on May 21 in response to applications by two former Slovak citizens who complained about removal of their Slovak citizenship after they had acquired the citizenship of Hungary based on Hungary’s amended citizenship law from 2010. The court dismissed their applications.

The applicants, István Fehér and Erzsébet Dolník, both members of the Hungarian minority living in Slovakia and currently Hungarian nationals, filed their applications with the ECHR in March 2012 and May 2012 respectively, suing Slovakia over the fact that they were stripped of their Slovak citizenship contrary to their wish to retain it, as a result of their acquisition of Hungarian citizenship.

The ECHR found some aspects of the complaints unsubstantiated, and remarked that “they decided to acquire Hungarian citizenship while being aware of the consequences which such a decision would entail under Slovak law”.

“Thus they were not denied Slovak citizenship arbitrarily in view of the applicable legal provisions,” the ruling, published on June 4, 2013, reads. The court thus found no violation of human rights as stipulated in international documents.

Citizenship as a stumbling block

The entire citizenship controversy between the two countries started shortly before the June 2010 general election in Slovakia, which saw the then (and current) prime minister, Robert Fico, seeking re-election.

In the spring of 2010, Viktor Orbán became Hungary’s prime minister after his Fidesz party won a constitutional majority in the Hungarian parliament. One of the first actions that Orbán’s government took following the election was to pass a law that made it easier for ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary to acquire Hungarian citizenship. The Slovak government under Fico, which then included the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) as well as Fico’s Smer party and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), reacted to the Hungarian law by passing an amendment to Slovakia’s citizenship law that allows the state to strip anyone who acquires the citizenship of another country of their Slovak citizenship. Slovak citizens who can show what is termed a “real link” to another country, such as permanent residence or a close family relationship, were later exempted from loss of their Slovak citizenship if they acquired the citizenship of another country.

Back in 2010 observers did not expect huge interest among ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia in acquiring a Hungarian passport and thus losing their Slovak one. As of the end of 2011, more than 100 Slovaks had lost their citizenship since the law became effective on July 17, 2010. But of these, only 11 lost their Slovak citizenship after receiving Hungarian citizenship. The Interior Ministry confirmed for The Slovak Spectator that, as of June 12 this year, 545 people had been stripped of their Slovak citizenship based on the law since it came into effect in 2010.

Recently, members of the European Parliament (EP) have been discussing the citizenship issue as well, following a petition by Hungarian citizens concerning what they deem to be a violation of their civil rights by the Slovak Republic. They are demanding an investigation into the matter by the relevant EU institutions, the SITA newswire wrote on February 4, 2013.

Hungarian citizens Zoltán Lomnici, president of the Human Dignity Council (and legal representative of Fehér and Dolník before the ECHR), and László Gubi have launched a complaint regarding Slovakia’s Citizenship Act. Slovakia’s extra-parliamentary Party of the Hungarian Community (SMK) also expressed its support for the petition.

Slovak MEP Jaroslav Paška of the nationalist SNS responded to the Hungarian petition by filing an official objection to its admissibility before institutions of the EP, saying that the EU regards issues of citizenship as falling under the exclusive authority of member states, meaning that states are free to decide who and under what conditions people can become citizens, and that they have no reason to coordinate their policies with EU authorities.

Government pleased

Slovakia’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the ECHR ruling as one that “confirmed Slovakia’s long-term position” that loss of citizenship based on the Slovak citizenship law does not violate human rights.

The ECHR ruling “gave a clear answer to the accusations and the very unfair campaign that has been led against Slovakia for three years”, Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák told a press briefing on June 6.

“Our law is in accordance with the related European laws, those people knew the consequences, thus the loss of citizenship is not a violation of human rights,” Lajčák said.

Bilateral issues should be solved bilaterally, in a peaceful and reasonable manner, he said, adding that the atmosphere between the two countries had recently changed for the better.

“The problem is not Slovak law, the problem is two laws, and the Slovak one was passed in reaction to the Hungarian law,” Lajčák said. “Whoever claims that the Slovak law is bad, after yesterday’s ECHR ruling they’ve got the clear answer that they are wrong.”

Unconstitutional, opposition says

But the Most-Híd party, the main parliamentary party representing ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, maintains that Slovakia’s Citizenship Act is unconstitutional.

“It is contrary to the constitution that dual citizenship should divide Slovak citizens into those who can retain two citizenships and those who after the law was changed cannot afford to do so,” party spokesperson Zuzana Bačiak Masaryková told The Slovak Spectator.

The fact that the Strasbourg court did not support the complaint of two ex-citizens of Slovakia does not automatically mean the law is “a good and just law that we should preserve”, she said, adding that it was passed at the wrong moment and “without using all the diplomatic means to consult with the affected countries”.

The Foreign Ministry is misinterpreting reality, since the ECHR did not actually rule on the matter as such, according to Klaudia Sekerešová, a lawyer from the Round Table of Hungarians in Slovakia, a non-governmental organisation.

“The ECHR actually dismissed the application, saying it would no longer consider the matter,” Sekerešová told public broadcaster Slovak Radio.

Waiting for Slovakia’s Constitutional Court to decide

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry says it is dealing with the matter at a bilateral level. The foreign ministers of Slovakia and Hungary have assigned experts to design a solution, and experts from the two countries are meeting regularly and cooperating on it, according to Lajčák.

The Interior Ministry is expected to draft an amendment to the Citizenship Act based on the outcome of the talks.

“Currently it is not possible to estimate the time the talks will take, or what the final solution will look like,” the Interior Ministry told the Pravda daily. “The amendment of the Citizenship Act thus remains deferred.”

Any possible amendment is likely to be proposed only after the Constitutional Court rules on a motion from September 2011, proposed by Most-Híd, which challenges the law and is based on a petition signed by 44 MPs. It argues that the law is unconstitutional because it strips people of their citizenship against their will. The Constitutional Court declared the motion admissible on July 4, 2012, but has yet to issue a verdict.

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