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Central Europe: Slovakia And Hungary Spar Over Orban's Remarks

Slovak authorities are upset with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for remarks he is alleged to have made earlier this week suggesting that Slovak membership in NATO would require Hungarian parliamentary approval. However, as RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, it may all be a 'tempest in a teapot.'

Prague, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Slovakia's Foreign Ministry last night issued a declaration expressing surprise at remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

In a radio chat on 13 February on Hungarian public radio, Orban linked Slovakia's prospective membership in NATO with acceptance of Hungary's controversial Status Law. That law grants special privileges to Hungarians living in neighboring countries. Orban said that the Hungarian parliament would debate and vote on allowing Slovakia to join NATO.

The parliaments of all NATO members are required to ratify the entry of any new member of the alliance. However, Slovak commentators say it is the tone of Orban's remarks that many found irksome.

Slovakia was an integral part of Hungary for 1,000 years and remains sensitive to any comments reflecting on its sovereignty or international standing with respect to Hungary.

The Slovak Foreign Ministry yesterday issued a statement terming Orban's remarks "at the very least inappropriate" and calling on politicians not to gamble the two countries' common future in NATO.

Slovakia is a candidate for NATO and EU membership, while Hungary has been a member of NATO since March 1999 and is a candidate for EU membership. But the chairman of the Slovak parliament's Committee for Integration, Frantisek Sebej, says the Slovak parliament may have complicated relations with Hungary by having passed a declaration earlier this year rejecting the Status Law's reach beyond Hungary's borders.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gabor Horvath told RFE/RL's Slovak Service that news reports about Orban's comments on Radio Kossuth are inaccurate. "This concerns baseless information. It was inaccurate and, I can say, tendentious."

Horvath says he is surprised the Slovak Foreign Ministry issued an official declaration on the basis of unconfirmed information without thoroughly studying a transcript of what Orban said.

The Hungarian government's website contains a summary of Orban's remarks on radio as issued by the Hungarian state news agency MTI. Among other things it says, "Prime Minister Viktor Orban said it was worth continuing negotiations with Slovakia over the Benefit (Status) Law because bilateral relations would surely deteriorate without regular consultations between the two countries."

"Orban said talks needed to be continued even if no practical solution which would encompass both Hungary's lawful, legal, and justified claims and Slovakia's considerations, which Orban said were hard to justify, appeared to be forthcoming."

MTI also quotes Orban as saying Hungarian diplomacy is convinced that the European principles of reciprocity and rational reasoning were on the Hungarian side in this dispute. And the agency says Orban "noted that Slovakia wanted to join NATO, and that Hungary's parliament had to consider and approve the application for its northern neighbor to be admitted."

But Hungarian government spokesman Horvath dismisses this. "It was never said. I repeat again, I confirm that what's in the text and was reported by news agencies and to which the Slovak Foreign Ministry reacted was never said."

Horvath says that what Orban actually said was that Slovakia and Hungary have differing views concerning the Status Law and that "we need to negotiate further in order to reach agreement since we have so many common interests." Horvath says Orban emphasized the need for joint steps by Slovakia and Hungary, for example in their common desire to join the EU. And Horvath says Hungary is at Slovakia's disposal to help them and share experience not only in integrating into NATO but the EU as well.

Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel today responded to his Hungarian counterpart's denials.

"The Foreign Ministry of the Slovak Republic was reacting to an authentic statement by the prime minister of Hungary, which was made in Mr. Orban's regular morning chat on public radio, in which the prime minister said a variety of things and where that incriminating sentence is. And I'll quote it: 'That (if) Slovakia wants to get into NATO, the Hungarian parliament will have to discuss this and if it considers it appropriate it will approve the entry of the neighboring country into the alliance.'"

Gandel says the Slovak Foreign Ministry did not base yesterday's statement on news agency reports, adding, "we verified the whole matter first." Gandel says Slovakia had to respond but chose not to issue a formal protest note, insisting that yesterday's statement was "sober" and remains valid.