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Hungary: Status Law Causing Dispute With Neighbors

Recent relations between Hungary and Romania have been marked by a dispute over a Hungarian law granting special rights to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries. Romania, which has the largest Hungarian minority in the region, says the measure is discriminatory and violates European standards. But Romanian President Ion Iliescu said yesterday that differences regarding the law could eventually be resolved through negotiations.

Prague, 4 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian and Hungarian officials have vowed to continue negotiations over a new law granting special economic and cultural benefits to ethnic Hungarians living outside of Hungary.

Hungarian parliament speaker Janos Ader met 2-3 October in Bucharest with Romanian President Ion Iliescu, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, and other top Romanian officials.

The two sides admitted they have differences regarding the recently passed Hungarian law but said they are ready to discuss areas of contention before the law takes effect on 1 January.

In June, Hungary's parliament passed by an overwhelming majority the so-called status law. The law entitles ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia to a number of benefits, most of them available within Hungary. The law, which originally included the 70,000 Hungarians living in Austria -- the only European Union member bordering Hungary -- has since been amended to exclude that group. The change comes in compliance with rules against ethnic discrimination among EU citizens.

The legislation will allow Hungarian minorities in the remaining five neighboring countries to receive an annual three-month work permit in Hungary, as well as medical care and pension benefits. Ethnic Hungarians also will have access to substantial railway travel discounts and scholarships to Hungarian higher-education institutions.

Hungarian teachers living in neighboring countries will be able to receive free training in Hungary. Budapest will also support the development of Hungarian higher-education facilities and cultural and media organizations abroad.

The law likewise entitles ethnic Hungarian families living outside Hungary to an $80 annual allowance if they have at least two children who attend a Hungarian-language school.

Hungary says the law is meant to help ethnic Hungarians maintain their cultural identities and receive economic support to allow them to continue living in their native regions.

Hungary has enjoyed steady political and economic progress since the fall of communism. The country joined NATO in 1999 and is a front-runner in the race to join the European Union.

According to recent polls, up to 25 percent of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries say they would consider immigrating to Hungary once the country joins the EU.

The new status law is expected to cut this number in half. Critics of the law accuse Budapest of using the legislation to pre-empt massive waves of immigration while at the same time tapping into the labor resources of the neighboring countries.

But Gabor Horvath, a spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL the law is only meant to protect the cultural identity of ethnic Hungarians living abroad.

"Hungary has achieved a sustainable growth. We have a decreasing population. We have an increasing need for employment. So from a merely economic point of view, we need labor. But still, the Hungarian government does not want Hungarian communities which are living in other countries to resettle into Hungary -- and [the law] does not have anything to do with forthcoming EU membership for Hungary."

However impressive Hungary's economic growth, implementing the new law will prove a financial challenge. There are some 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians living in the five neighboring countries included in the law. Hungary, which itself has just 10 million people, will have to spend an estimated $30 million a year to put the new law into practice.

After World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory to newly formed Central and Eastern European states. As a result, a large number of the region's ethnic Hungarians -- some 1.7 million -- live in Romania, to which Hungary lost the province of Transylvania. An additional 600,000 live in Slovakia, with 340,000 in Yugoslavia and 155,000 in Ukraine.

Romanian and Slovak officials have expressed dissatisfaction with the status law, calling it an extraterritorial measure that violates their bilateral treaties with Hungary.

Romania and Slovakia have yet to adopt an official position on the issue, but both insist the measure is against European regulations. However, the European Union, despite expressing concern, has conceded that the law now conforms with Hungary's EU obligations.

But while Slovakia's reaction was more mild, Bucharest has warned it will not allow the law to take effect on Romanian territory. Romanian officials are mainly objecting to the provision allowing work rights in Hungary for ethnic Hungarians.

Romania, a country of 23 million, lags behind other EU and NATO candidate countries, despite some timid signs of economic growth this year. Half-hearted reforms and a largely centralized economy have turned it into one of the poorest states in Europe, with an average monthly income of just $100.

Romanian government spokesman Claudiu Lucaci tells RFE/RL that Romania wants the work rights scrapped from the law and has complained to the Venice Commission -- the Council of Europe's chief legal consultative body.

"Romania, on 14 August, sent [the Venice Commission] its official position, accompanied by legal argumentation. Romania wants the European body to express its viewpoint on whether one state granting preferential treatment to the citizens of another state is compatible [with European laws]."

Romania also disapproves of Hungarian identification cards, which are to be issued to eligible ethnic Hungarians. Critics say the Hungarian ID card discriminates against non-Hungarian citizens in neighboring countries and could also revive nationalist feelings among those Hungarians who cherish memories of the country's imperial past.

But Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Horvath says the ID card is only valid within Hungary. Horvath says such cards are actually quite common and points to the example of ethnic Slovaks living outside Slovakia.

"As far as this so-called Hungarian identity card is concerned, it is really up to the various sides to decide on that. For example, Slovaks issue these Slovak ID cards, and there are ethnic Slovaks in Hungary, as well as in Romania, who carry those cards. And I do not recall any criticism from Romania about the Slovak cards, and definitely we do not have any problem with Slovak Hungarians carrying those cards."

In Slovakia, a country with a smaller Hungarian minority and a better economic situation than Romania, objections have been more muted. The Slovak government expressed regret that Budapest did not initiate consultations with Slovakia on how to implement the measure.

Deputy Foreign Minister Jaroslav Chlebo tells RFE/RL that Slovakia does not intend to block the implementation of the law. But Chlebo says Hungary's support for its ethnic kin must be based on European regulations.

"I don't have in mind -- and I think nobody here has got in mind -- any countermeasures to be introduced to somehow oppose the intention of the Hungarian legislators. But anyway, we have to find out a way in which the support -- the cooperation between Hungary and the ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia -- can be conducted in a way that is compatible with Europeanism as such."

Ethnic Hungarian leaders admit that implementing the law abroad would be very difficult without cooperation from neighboring countries.

Bela Marko, leader of Romania's ethnic Hungarian party (UDMR), says that some 800,000 ethnic Hungarians from Romania alone are expected to apply for the benefits. But Marko says that even though the law will be implemented in Hungary, its efficiency will depend in large part on Romanian authorities:

"We would favor a very simple, clear, and objective preparation procedure on Romania's territory. But it is clear that implementing the law at this stage depends to a great extent on the Romanian authorities' attitude."

Relations between Hungary and Romania remain relatively good, despite the current strain over the status law. Hungarian parliament speaker Ader yesterday reiterated his country's support for Romania's bid to join NATO and the EU.

Ader and Iliescu said on 3 October that differences between Romania and Hungary could be resolved through negotiations. Iliescu said Ader offered reassurances that in implementing the law, Budapest will take into consideration "the issues that could cause tensions."