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Jobbik MP opens office in Slovakia, prompting outcry

THERE IS no law that dictates only Slovak MPs can open offices around the country, but this may soon change as a Hungarian MP broke with convention and opened an office in southern Slovakia.

István Szávay, the Hungarian MP and deputy chief of Hungarian party Jobbik(Source: TASR)

István Szávay opened his office in the town of Dunajská Streda on October 14. Szávay is the deputy chairman of the right wing extremist Jobbik party and his step is unprecedented in Slovakia. So far, Szávay has turned a deaf ear to calls from the Slovak parliament speaker to close the office down.

Parliament Speaker Peter Pellegrini admits this might prompt a change in the law, to make it illegal for MPs from other countries to run offices in Slovakia.

“It is a provocation and I don’t approve of it,” Prime Minister Robert Fico said.

Others agree. 

“It is obviously nothing but a provocation that distorts good neighbourly relations,” political analyst Juraj Marušiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences told The Slovak Spectator.

Political analyst Ábel Ravasz sees Szávay’s activity as a provocation and a legitimate activity. As for provocation: Szávay understood the probable outcomes of his actions and seemed to welcome them, according to Ravasz.

“Jobbik has never backed away from confrontation with the Slovak (or other) political elites, since it seems to boost its standing with its own voters in Hungary,” Ravasz told The Slovak Spectator.

However, Ravasz also believes it to be a legitimate activity in the sense that this publicly endorses the people and organizations Jobbik works with in Slovakia.

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Szávay's office

“As a deputy of the Hungarian parliament I’ve sworn that I would represent the interests of all Hungarians,” Szávay said, reacting to his critics in Slovakia, as quoted by the TASR newswire. He argues that through his office in Dunajská Streda he wants to serve the Hungarian citizens living outside Hungary, to “improve the relations with Hungarians abroad”. While stressing that the office is his MP office rather than a party office of Jobbik, Szávay claims that Jobbik supports the move.

 Ravasz however does not consider this to be a serious argument and calls it “an excuse rather than a real reason”. Because of the current legislation in Slovakia, very few local Hungarians have a dual citizenship and can vote in Hungary, Ravasz told The Slovak Spectator.

“Most of these have strong political preferences, and prefer [Hungarian ruling party] Fidesz over Jobbik,” Ravasz told The Slovak Spectator. “But we are talking about a miniscule group here.”

Juraj Marušiak believes Jobbik might be trying to win over mainly the radicalised Hungarian voters who accepted the offer of dual citizenship.

“Accepting the citizenship is not merely an expression of an emotional relation to a country, but it also means accepting the respective rights and duties,” Marušiak told The Slovak Spectator. It cannot be ruled out that Jobbik would not mind to repeat scenarios from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or now Crimea and Donbass, in Slovakia.

Citizenship issues

Slovakia’s Citizenship Act, which the first Fico government passed shortly before elections in 2010, came in reaction to the amended citizenship legislation in Hungary.

In 2010 Viktor Orbán became prime minister in Hungary and one of his first moves was to pass a change to the citizenship legislation which made it easier for ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary to acquire Hungarian citizenship.

Read also: Read also:Dual citizenship law lives on

The Slovak government, 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 any Slovak who acquires another country’s citizenship to be stripped of their Slovak citizenship. This measure was later revised, for instance to allow those with family ties in another state to become dual citizens, and this year, the Interior Ministry issued a decree specifying conditions under which Slovak citizenship could be regained. Since the law has been in force, 1,208 people have been stripped of their Slovak citizenship. Just 64 of them acquired the Hungarian citizenship.

The numbers however might not reflect the reality, since the law relies on those who acquired the citizenship of another country to report this fact to the authorities who would in consequence strip them of the Slovak citizenship.

Legal or illegal?

Jobbik’s Szávay now faces Slovakia with another legal issue. At the moment there is a lack of legal clarity as for whether a member of a foreign parliament can run an office in Slovakia.

The Slovak legislation does not literally mention this, because “subconsciously we consider it obvious that the activities state bodies and their representatives pursue are confined to the territory of their respective state”, Marián Giba, deputy dean of the Comenius University’s Law School and an expert on constitutional law.

It is not common to stipulate provisions in the law that would ban this kind of activities, because it is assumed that only particular representatives interact with foreign countries, according to Giba. That is the basic principle of international and constitutional law, he added.

EU rules on free movement of persons do not apply to the activities of constitutional officials of a state, according to Giba.

Pellegrini to change law

Pellegrini claims that only members of the Slovak parliament can open offices on the territory of the country.

“I have serious doubts whether a foreign political party pursuing this kind of political activity on Slovakia’s territory is in line with our laws,” Pellegrini said.

It is “common and normal” for an MP of one country to be interested in the life of national minorities, “but institutionalising this to open an MP office is absolutely unacceptable”, Pellegrini said.

Pellegrini later admitted in a political debate on TA3 on October 18 that he was ready to propose an amendment to the law on political parties that would allow only representatives of parties registered in Slovakia to pursue political activities in the country.

“Today it is Jobbik, tomorrow it could be an extremist party from France,” Pellegrini said.

Extremism threat

Pellegrini expressed “great concern” about Szávay’s activity in Slovakia, labelling Jobbik “a party with marginal, extremist agenda of hatred, radicalism, revisionism” and “there is no place for such things in Slovakia”.

Jobbik was the only Hungarian party that extended its campaign before the 2014 elections to Slovakia, when its candidate visited Dunajska Streda. Jobbik was founded in 2003 and in 2014 received more than 20 percent of the vote. It is openly anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, and anti-EU. It draws from historical revisionism. It has repeatedly called for abolishing the Trianon Treaty and the Beneš decrees, and return to the Great Hungary from 1918.

When Jobbik made it to the European Parliament in 2009, one of its MEPs chose to wear the uniform of the Hungarian Guards, banned in Hungary, for the first session.

Szávay therefore has not received much endorsement among Slovak politicians, including the parties representing the Hungarian minority, Most-Hid and the Party of Hungarian Community (SMK), which has always nourished good relations with Hungary, particularly the ruling party Fidesz. Both parties have condemned Szávay’s step.

“By doing this Jobbik dabbles into the election campaign of SMK, who are forced to react to this event and have to make a hard decision of either distancing themselves from Jobbik and alienating their more radical supporters or fail to do that and lose votes in the center of the electorate,” Ravasz said and added that at the moment SMK seems to be doing the latter.

SMK is currently out of the parliament and hopes to make a return in the upcoming spring 2016 elections.

Hungarian politics spill over

Observers agree that the activity of Jobbik in Slovakia should be perceived in the context of internal political situation in Hungary, particularly the competition between the radical Jobbik and the ruling Fidesz.

“Jobbik is facing a significant challenge from Fidesz, who are capitalizing on the refugee wave and carving away at Jobbik’s support,” Ravasz told The Slovak Spectator.

An opposition party can hardly address the problems with refugees, which makes it hard for Jobbik to match up to the ruling Fidesz on this topic, Ravasz noted. That’s why they are looking for other issues to strengthen their standing with their core supporters. Hungarian minorities in Central Europe is one such issue.

“That being said Szávay has had a long running interest in the Hungarian community in Slovakia so his appearance here is not totally out of the blue,” Ravasz said. In that context, opening a Jobbik office in Slovakia is legitimate “as a means of trying to influence Slovak politics, gathering voters in Hungary and boosting Jobbik’s networks in Slovakia”.

“It’s primarily a political project benefitting Jobbik, and not the Hungarians in Slovakia,” Ravasz said.

On the other hand, Jobbik will soon be the only party that can threaten the position of Fidesz, according to Marušiak. That is the reason why it is softening some of its extremist positions.

“At the same time, it might try to gain the nationalist-oriented part of Orbán’s electorate, that might blame Orbán for changing his nationalist rhetoric in order to preserve good relations with Central European neighbours,” Marušiak said.

Neighbourly relations

“This activity is a clear provocation in the time when our mutual relations with Hungary are on the best level in many years,” Pellegrini said. He also emphasised that the government is ready to carry on constructive dialogue with its Hungarian counterpart “and won’t let such individual expressions of extremism distort it”.

Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák spoke on the phone with his Hungarian counterpart Péter Szijjártó and they assured each other that the cooperation of the two countries won’t be affected. Szijjártó said that Szávay was definitely motivated by partisan rather than national interests, the Sme daily reported.

It is true that the relations between Slovakia and Hungary are currently much better than in the times of the first government of Robert Fico in 2006-2010. For instance, in 2009, the amendment to the State Language Act was passed that introduced fines of up to €5,000 for the use of incorrect Slovak. Mutual relations suffered another serious blow on August 21, 2009 when the then-president of Hungary, László Sólyom, was prevented from paying an unofficial visit to the Slovak town of Komárno where he was invited by the local authorities to help unveil a statue of Hungarian King Stephen I.

Read also: Read also:Hungarian president denied entry to Slovakia

Marušiak attributes the currently good relations to Slovakia’s interest for a good position in the EU. Orbán, on the other hand, needs cooperation with Central European neighbours to compensate for the worsening relations with the West.

The relations are good despite the fact that neither of the two partners have made decisive steps for instance in the discussion about the history of mutual relations between Slovakia and Hungary, Marušiak noted.

“In this case obviously confrontation remains a potential tool to mobilise voters,” Marušiak said.

Slovak-Hungarian relations are not on the agenda of the election campaign, but this might change in the coming months. The so-called Hungarian card has appeared on the table in some previous elections, notably in the 2009 presidential election, and then in the 2010 parliamentary election, where one of the leading topics was the Hungarian law on dual citizenship that was passed shortly before by the freshly elected Orbán government.

“At the moment, the feeling of threat is ventilated primarily on the issue of migrants,” Marušiak said.

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