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Hungary/Slovakia: Negotiations Reach Impasse Over Minority Law

Hungary yesterday rejected Slovakia's demand that its ethnic Hungarian minority be excluded from the effect of the new status law, a measure that came into force this year that enables ethnic Hungarians living abroad to enjoy some rights, including temporary work permits in Hungary and education benefits in their countries of residence. A dispute between Hungary and Romania, which hosts the largest ethnic Hungarian minority in Europe, was settled in December after Budapest agreed to let all Romanian citizens apply for labor permits in Hungary. But a solution to the Slovak-Hungarian differences has yet to be reached.

Prague, 10 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A fresh dispute appears to be brewing between Slovakia and neighboring Hungary after Budapest yesterday rejected Bratislava's criticism of a new law granting special economic, cultural, and educational benefits to ethnic Hungarians living abroad.

Slovakia says the law, which came into force on 1 January, is discriminatory and is not in harmony with international legislation regarding minorities. It also says the measure has an extraterritorial character because it grants rights on the territory of another state and violates some bilateral agreements between the two countries.

Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel today told RFE/RL that Slovakia cannot accept a law that is discriminatory and that has "ambitions" to be valid on Slovak territory.

"The other point with which we couldn't agree is the extraterritoriality of this law, which also has discriminatory effects. Due to the principles of international law, no law could be valid on the territory of another state if this state does not agree with that," Gandel said. "And the law about Hungarians living in the neighboring countries has ambitions to be valid on the territory of the Slovak Republic."

The law -- known as the Status Law -- was passed by Hungary's parliament in June. It entitles ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia to a number of benefits, most of them available within Hungary.

The legislation originally included the 70,000 Hungarians living in Austria -- the only European Union country bordering Hungary -- but subsequently excluded that group to comply with EU rules against ethnic discrimination among EU citizens.

The law allows Hungarian minorities in the other five countries to receive an annual three-month work permit in Hungary, as well as medical care and pension benefits. Budapest also pledges to support the development of Hungarian higher-education facilities and cultural and media organizations abroad.

Furthermore, the law 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 in their country of residence.

As a consequence of Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory after World War I, a large number of the region's ethnic Hungarians now live outside their motherland -- some 1.7 million in Romania, 600,000 in Slovakia, 340,000 in Yugoslavia, and 155,000 in Ukraine.

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.

But the measure stirred protest, at first from Romania and subsequently from Slovakia. Both countries complain about the extraterritorial character of the law and the apparent lack of consultation regarding its implementation.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 8 January that the law will have a negative effect on Slovakia. Dzurinda said Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian minority should be excluded from the legislation, pointing to the case of Austria.

But Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi yesterday rejected Slovakia's demand, saying that since the law has already come into effect, ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia "naturally" enjoy its benefits.

Martonyi also said Austria's Hungarian minority wasn't included in the law because Hungarians living there are mostly immigrants who enjoy a considerably higher living standard than ethnic Hungarians born in countries such as Romania or Slovakia.

Romania, whose main objections mainly regarded the provision allowing work rights in Hungary for ethnic Hungarians, in 2001 complained to the Venice Commission -- the Council of Europe's chief legal consultative body.

The Venice Commission subsequently agreed in its report that, while Hungary has a right to support its minorities abroad, the Status Law is not completely in accord with the EU's nondiscriminatory principles.

Furthermore, the European Commission in its annual reports in November said that some regulations adopted by Hungary are in "evident contradiction" to European standards on the protection of minorities.

Eventually, after months of bickering, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in December signed a memorandum in which Budapest agreed to let all Romanian citizens -- not only ethnic Hungarians -- apply for work permits within Hungary's borders.

But while Romania's objections to the law were chiefly of an economic nature, Slovakia is dissatisfied with the provisions that are to take effect on its territory -- such as providing financial support for families with children attending Hungarian-language schools.

Despite persisting differences, Slovak-Hungarian negotiations are continuing.

During talks yesterday in Bratislava with Slovak officials, Hungarian diplomat Csaba Loerincz proposed establishing a foundation that would deal with paying the allowances and which would be supervised by a joint Slovak-Hungarian commission.

The Slovak side has so far declined to comment on the proposal.

Slovak Deputy Foreign Minister Jaroslav Chlebo pointed out that what he called the "fundamental problem" is not granting benefits to ethnic Hungarians but what Bratislava considers "a transfer of Hungarian jurisdiction" on its territory.

Loerincz, meanwhile, stressed that despite differences in interpretation, he believes a negotiated compromise is still possible: "I can conclude that on a theoretical, philosophical level, there are differences between the Hungarian and the Slovak sides in approaching the law. And I consider that our duty for the future is to find practical solutions despite these differences. I do believe that finding solutions to put these ideas into practice is not impossible."

In turn, Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Gandel pointed out that bilateral relations continue to be very good. He said a new round of talks between deputy foreign ministers Jaroslav Chlebo and Zsolt Nemeth will take place later in January.

"I don't think this is a difficult moment, and I would like to stress that we have a will -- and we are ready -- to continue the dialogue with Budapest and that our discussion did not influence negatively in any way our bilateral relations, which are still at a very good level," Gandel said. "There is a will on both sides to continue the dialogue, and [in] the near future -- I think it might be at the end of this month -- there will be another meeting between state secretaries of the ministries of foreign affairs of both sides, Mr. Jaroslav Chlebo and Mr. Zsolt Nemeth."

European Union officials also have urged the two sides to work toward a negotiated compromise.

Jean Christophe Filori, the European Commission's spokesman for enlargement, yesterday in Brussels said that EU officials expect Slovakia and Hungary to reach an agreement. Filori said the Status Law should be implemented in close cooperation with Hungary's neighbors.

Filori said that while the EC welcomes Budapest's memorandum with Romania, it also hopes an agreement will be reached between Hungary and Slovakia.