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Romania: Bucharest To Closely Monitor Law Granting Benefits To Ethnic Hungarians

A Hungarian law granting economic, cultural, and education benefits to ethnic Hungarians living abroad continues to cause friction between Budapest and some of its neighbors.

Prague, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is expressing doubts over Hungary's determination to observe a bilateral memorandum containing the conditions under which Romania's Hungarian minority can benefit from a Hungarian law granting certain rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad.

The Law on Hungarians Living in Neighboring Countries -- also known as the Status Law -- was passed by Hungary's parliament in June. It allows ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Slovenia to enjoy advantages -- including an annual three-month work permit in Hungary, as well as medical care and pension benefits -- on the basis of an identity card issued by Hungarian authorities.

Romania, which is home to the region's largest ethnic Hungarian minority of 1.7 million people, protested mainly over the provision granting work rights for ethnic Hungarians, saying it discriminates against Romanians seeking employment in Hungary.

But under a memorandum signed on 22 December in Budapest by Nastase and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary agreed to allow all Romanian citizens -- regardless of their ethnic origin -- to apply for work permits within its territory.

However, Nastase on 11 January criticized a statement allegedly made by Hungarian Democratic Forum Deputy Zsolt Nemeth. Nemeth, whose party is a junior partner in Orban's coalition government, was quoted by Nastase as saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Romanian to work in Hungary.

Romanian government spokesman Claudiu Lucaci told RFE/RL that such statements could lead Romanian officials to suspect that the Hungarian side agreed to the memorandum "in bad faith."

"This is an agreement between the two governments -- that is, to allow Romanian citizens to access the Hungarian workforce market -- and that is why the prime minister [Nastase] expressed a certain level of fear that if things are indeed as presented by some Hungarian political leaders, and discrimination on ethnic criteria will continue, then one could consider that the agreement was concluded in bad faith," Lucaci said.

But Hungary's government, in response, said it will fulfill all obligations assumed in the memorandum.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi on 11 January told the Hungarian Parliament that Budapest is interested in fully implementing the memorandum. Martonyi said the document is good for ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, as well as for relations between the two countries.

However, Budapest on 15 January said it will limit the number of foreign workers in 2002. A government spokesman said only 81,000 foreign workers will be admitted -- a number equal to the job vacancies in 2001.

The decision -- months ahead of general elections scheduled for April -- follows harsh criticism from Hungary's Socialist-led opposition that the deal with Bucharest will cause an exodus of cheap seasonal labor to Hungary.

Controversy over the Status Law dominated otherwise good relations between Romania and Hungary over the past year.

After World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory to newly formed Central and Eastern European states. As a consequence, some 3.5 million Hungarians live outside their motherland.

Hungary has enjoyed steady economic growth since the fall of communism and is a front-runner to join the European Union. It says the Status Law is aimed at helping ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries preserve their cultural and national identities and at offering them economic support to continue living in their native regions.

But Romania and Slovakia -- which hosts the second-largest Hungarian minority in the region, some 600,000 -- both complained about the extraterritorial character of the law and unofficially expressed fears that the measure might finally lead to territorial claims from Hungary.

To allay Romanian suspicions, Hungary in the December memorandum pledged not to offer any kind of support to Romania's ethnic Hungarian political organizations without prior approval from Romanian authorities.

Romanian Prime Minister Nastase and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban also agreed in the document that ethnic Hungarian organizations from Romania are not allowed to recommend individuals who could benefit from the law.

Under the memorandum, such organizations will only be permitted to offer general information about the documentation necessary to obtain a Hungarian ID card.

At Romania's insistence, the document also stipulates that the procedure to obtain a Hungarian identity card -- receiving of applications, issuing, and forwarding -- take place "primarily" on Hungarian territory, thus limiting what Romania calls the law's "extraterritoriality."

Bela Marko, the leader of Romania's ethnic Hungarian party, the UDMR, says his party's role will only be limited to gathering application forms -- starting on 21 January 21 -- at its local headquarters and passing them to the Hungarian authorities.

Marko told RFE/RL that the UDMR will comply with the memorandum's provisions and will not issue recommendations.

"As I said, we won't establish any separate territorial offices. We will receive people at some of UDMR's regional headquarters, where they will leave their applications," Marko said. "According to the agreement between the two governments, we will only inform people and will not give any recommendations."

In a move likely to cause dissatisfaction among mixed families, the memorandum provides for Romanians married to ethnic Hungarians -- who were initially supposed to enjoy the same benefits as their spouses -- to be excluded from the law's provisions. Bucharest said the exclusion is necessary to eliminate discrimination between Romanians married to ethnic Hungarians and other Romanians.

But despite obtaining some apparently important concessions from Budapest, Romanian officials still have suspicions regarding the actual implementation of the memorandum.

Nastase on 14 January ordered the creation of a government commission to monitor the implementation process and report possible irregularities. Government spokesman Lucaci says Bucharest will keep a watchful eye on the way the law is implemented.

"This means that Romania wants to carefully monitor the implementation of the law, especially on its national territory. And that is why the prime minister ordered the prefects [government's regional representatives] not to allow any initiative to establish offices meant to register applications for Hungarian ID cards or to issue these IDs," Lucaci said.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu on 15 January also said he hopes the Hungarian side will observe and implement the memorandum "in good faith."

In the memorandum, Romania and Hungary agreed that Budapest will review the Status Law and initiate the necessary amendments in six months. But to what extent Budapest will be ready to amend the law will most likely depend on the outcome of Hungary's general elections, scheduled for April.