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Europe: East And West Far Apart On Minority Rights

Innsbruck, 28 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Orthodox priest finished his impassioned plea for help in getting Ukrainian authorities to officially recognise his Ruthenian minority in western Ukraine.

Polite but perfunctory applause from the predominantly western audience followed him back to his seat. Those from the West seemed not to grasp the emotion behind his words.

The episode at a conference on minority languages in Innsbruck earlier this month says much. It underscores the different challenges facing ethnic minorities in the West and East. Outside of its own hotspots, such as the Basque region of Spain, and the sectarian-driven violence in Northern Ireland, Western Europe is for the most part tranquil. In no small part, that is due to the rights secured by minorities there. But travel further East, and ethnic tensions long suppressed by decades of communism remain unresolved, highlighted by the recent Bosnian war. In the East, the notion of minorities and their rights is far from clear.

Those attending the Innsbruck conference had gathered to discuss the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority languages. The charter provides for the use of what it calls regional or minority languages in education and the media, as well as in judicial and administrative settings. The charter, whose drafting dates back to the 1980s, took effect March 1, after the eighth state ratified it.

Of the eight, two -- Hungary and Croatia -- are from the former Communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe. Ukraine, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Slovenia are among other nations who have signed, but have not yet ratified, the charter.

Rudolf Joo, Deputy Secretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained to RFE/RL that his country signed the language charter partially believing such a move would aid his country's accession to NATO and the European Union. But he said the question of the treatment of the Hungarian diaspora also counted heavily.

"I think there is a question which relates to our history," said Joo. "Some one third of the total ethnic Hungarian population lives beyond the border of Hungary in neighboring countries such as Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia. So we need a normal European-style regulation for our minorities, domestic minorities living on Hungarian territory, but we would like to expect something similar for our ethnic Hungarian fellows living beyond the border."

Gabor Kolumban, a local official from Romania's Transylvania region, said ratifying the charter among former communist states in the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe will involve deep debate over minorities.

"There have already been ... unrealistic approaches, like stating that Hungarian is a non-territorial language [of Romania], because there is a fear of giving territorial language authority to local officials where Hungarians are concentrated," he said.

Kolumban, also a member of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, says most former Communist countries in the East are still based on the 19th century concept of the single dominant ethnic group. He says granting additional rights to minority groups is viewed as questioning the principles upon which these states are governed.

But Donall O'Riagain, Secretary General of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, explains the former communist countries may be downplaying minority rights issues simply because they face more pressing problems.

"I think we have to recognize that many of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe have very real social and economic problems, and it is not surprising that the question of minority and regional languages [is] not at the top of their agendas. And they may fear that if they ratify the charter they're letting themselves in for enormous expense, an expense they feel they can't bear at the present time," said O'Riagain.

O'Riagain proposes the 40-state Council of Europe draw on its pool of experts to assist those countries in finding workable solutions. He cautions that what he calls "sterile" criticism of the former communist states will do little good.

Austria may provide a good example of how multi-ethnic states in the East could accomodate their sizeable minority populations. Austrian officials at the Innsbruck conference noted that Austria has created advisory bodies to deal with minority issues affecting its Czech, Croat, Slovene and Sinti (Romany) minorities. Furthermore, Vienna has recently launched a Slovene-language radio station that will broadcast to Austria's Burgenland region, where the country's Carinthian Slovenes are concentrated. Officials say a Croat-language radio station will soon be launched.

Many ethnic minorities in the East hold out hope that the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages could finally prod governments in the East to address minority issues.

Returning to the Ruthenian priest, Father Sydor Dmytro, he says the 90,000 Ruthenians in Ukraine have waited over 40 years for that process to begin.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.