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Hungary: Prime Minister Calls On Czechs, Slovaks To Repeal Benes Decrees

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban yesterday called on the Czech Republic and Slovakia to abolish a set of decrees issued by Czechoslovak postwar president Eduard Benes because they allegedly contravene EU law. He said the Czech Republic and Slovakia should repeal the decrees before they join the EU. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, Orban's demand follows similar calls from Austrian and German politicians and comes just days after Orban suggested that Hungary could cause problems for Slovakia joining NATO.

Prague, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, is the latest Central European politician to call on the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- the successor states to Czechoslovakia -- to repeal a set of decrees dating back to 1945-46.

The decrees, passed by the provisional Czechoslovak parliament and signed into law by then-President Eduard Benes, among other things legalized the confiscation of property that had belonged to the German and Hungarian minorities and amnestied wrongdoings against these minorities committed by Czech and Slovak vigilantes. It also abrogated Czechoslovak citizenship and civil rights of the German and Hungarian minorities.

Orban made the call in an address to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels yesterday in the presence of European Commission for Expansion Guenter Verheugen.

"The Benes decrees are not in accord with European Union laws. Therefore it is very difficult for me to imagine that a country that retains such peculiar laws -- at such variance with EU legislation -- could be admitted to the EU," Orban said.

Orban suggested that the decrees be repealed when the Czech Republic and Slovakia become EU members, possibly as early as 2004: "We expect the Benes decrees will be automatically repealed from Czech and Slovak legislation when the two states join the EU."

When Czechoslovakia split at the end of 1992, the Benes Decrees remained on the books in both successor states but are not generally applied as law.

Hungary in the past has raised the issue of the decrees with Slovakia and occasionally with the Czech Republic, but without resolution. Following the most recent parliamentary elections in Slovakia in 1998, the four winning parties pledged in their coalition agreement not to open the issue of the Benes Decrees.

Slovak leaders, wary of what they see as Hungarian interference in their affairs, are still reacting to recent comments by Orban that if Slovakia wants to join NATO, the Hungarian parliament will have to discuss this and if it considers it appropriate it will approve its entry into the alliance. Slovakia is considered a leading candidate state for membership in the military alliance. Hungary is already a member.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda suggested that Orban is sending the wrong message by demanding the repeal of the Benes Decrees: "Opening up the past is counterproductive and leads nowhere."

Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan has a similar view: "I don't think it is good when the Hungarian side opens such issues. Then it would be necessary to pick out individual countries on a selective basis and change the whole postwar system that was agreed at Potsdam [at the end of the second world war]."

The Czechs, for their part, have been no less willing to accommodate German demands to abrogate the decrees.

After World War II, Czechoslovakia, with the approval of the Allied Powers, expelled some 2.5 million Germans, mostly from the Czech borderland called the Sudetenland. The expulsions were undertaken allegedly to prevent the Germans from being able to destabilize Czechoslovakia or engineer its disintegration.

Five weeks ago, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman outraged many Sudeten German exiles by justifying the expulsions on the grounds that Sudeten Germans were, as he put it, "Hitler's fifth column."

Right-wing politicians in Austria and the German state of Bavaria have renewed calls for Czech authorities to repeal the Benes Decrees. However, Czech officials are standing firm in their opposition to repeal or abolish the decrees. They note that only a small fraction of the more than 100 decrees deal with confiscation and civil rights issues.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan said that when it comes to the question of repealing the Benes Decrees, it makes no difference where the demands come from: "The Czech government does not have a different stand on this demand regardless of whether it comes from Vienna, Munich or from a visit by the Hungarian Prime Minister. It is still the same demand and our reaction is still the same. The decrees of President Benes are and remain a component of the Czech legal order just as the decrees and laws of other countries -- which are now members of the EU -- that dealt with the confiscation of enemy property after the war and remain a part of their legal order. But for us the decrees are 'extinct' ('vyhasle' in Czech)."

Kavan's choice of words here appears evasive. Rather than use the standard Czech word for invalid, "neplatne," he chose the word "vyhasle." This is not a legal term, but does convey the sense that the decrees are no longer actively applied as law.

The decrees, in Kavan's words, are not usable and so cannot be applicable. As he puts it, "there's no danger of any confiscation of German property in the Czech Republic." But some Sudeten German expellees continue to demand compensation or restitution.

Kavan made the remarks in Prague yesterday following talks with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer suggested the decrees remain the biggest obstacle in bilateral relations, despite a joint Czech-German declaration five years ago that interpreted the decrees and expulsions differently in Czech and German versions.

"My concern is to move matters forward so that step-by-step these differences can be overcome so that in the end -- I hope this will be soon, though 'when' I don't know -- this bitterness that in part is still evident on both sides will finally be overcome," Fischer said.

Fischer said work is needed to bridge past difficulties and further develop German-Czech relations: "Of course, we also want to try further resolve the bitterness of the mutually tragic past as clearly formulated in the German-Czech declaration of 1997 so that one day there will be no bitterness on either side. Thank God these relations are now so stable and reliable but also so important for both sides that we will not let ourselves be misled by any possible turbulence in working to further perfect [these ties]."

Kavan and Fischer noted their own personal suffering as a result of the second world war. Kavan said much of his father's family was killed in the Holocaust. Fischer's family came from the ethnic German community in Hungary that was expelled after the second world war.

Kavan said he and Fischer understand why Czechs and Germans feel so much pain and resentment toward each other: "In the spirit of the German-Czech declaration of 1997, we don't want the past to burden the future. That does not mean that we are ignoring the past, but we don't want to be preoccupied with the past on a day-to-day basis. But we are aware of the sufferings, of the pain which afflicted so many people decades ago."