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Hungary: Six-Month-Old Status Law Attracts Few Applicants, Much Trouble

The Hungarian law granting economic, cultural, and education benefits to ethnic Hungarians living abroad has been in force for almost six months. But the number of ethnic Hungarians applying for benefits granted by the Status Law has been relatively low. The law caused friction between Hungary and some of its neighbors, chiefly Romania and Slovakia. Hungary last year signed a memorandum with Romania on how to implement the law but still has to reach agreement with Slovakia. Now, Hungary's new Socialist government says it is considering amending the law and says it is ready to hold new talks with its neighbors.

Prague, 19 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Six months after coming into force, a Hungarian law that enables ethnic Hungarians living abroad to enjoy some economic, cultural, and education benefits has attracted a relatively low number of applicants.

Furthermore, the Law on Hungarians Living in Neighboring Countries -- the Status Law -- continues to cause various levels of disagreement between Budapest and its neighbors Slovakia and Romania, which are host to Europe's largest ethnic Hungarian minorities.

The law was conceived by former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right government and was passed by parliament last June.

Analysts say the law was meant as an incentive for ethnic Hungarians to remain in their countries of origin once Hungary, which is a front-runner among candidates for European Union admission, becomes an EU member in 2004.

It allows Hungarian minorities in five neighboring countries (Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia) to receive an annual three-month work permit in Hungary, as well as medical care and pension benefits while on Hungarian territory.

Budapest also pledges to support the development of Hungarian higher-education facilities abroad and to grant ethnic Hungarian families living outside Hungary an annual allowance to educate their children in Hungarian.

Some 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians live in the five countries, most of them in Romania, which has some 1.7 million, and Slovakia, with 600,000.

Hungarian officials say that after six months, just over 10 percent of ethnic Hungarians living abroad have applied for the identification card that gives them the right to enjoy the benefits.

Tamas Toth is a spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. "More than 400,000 Hungarians living abroad have requested the so-called Hungarian ID. So I think this number shows the interest that really exists in ethnic Hungarians living abroad toward the law," Toth said.

Romania and Slovakia last year criticized some of the law's provisions, which they said were extraterritorial, and argued that a measure passed by Hungary cannot be enforced on the territory of other states.

However, Romania subsequently signed a memorandum in December with Hungary, agreeing to allow some organizations, including Romania's ethnic Hungarian party, UDMR, to gather applications from ethnic Hungarians and to send them to Hungary for processing. But it requested that such organizations have the limited role of a go-between and that the procedure for obtaining the ID -- receiving of applications, issuing, and forwarding -- take place primarily on Hungarian territory.

Hungary in the memorandum also agreed to allow all Romanian citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, to apply for work permits within its territory.

UDMR says that, according to its centralized data, only some 225,000 applications were received during the past six months, i.e., less than 14 percent of Romania's ethnic Hungarians.

It says that in the first two months, an unexpectedly high number of applications -- 13,000 to 15,000 weekly -- overwhelmed the Hungarian processing system, causing long delays and disappointment among applicants.

But ethnic Hungarians' interest in the law has consequently dropped abruptly, a trend the UDMR says can be partially explained by the beginning of farming season in Romania's rural areas with ethnic Hungarian populations.

Slovakia has said it is not against its ethnic Hungarian citizens benefiting from the law on Hungarian territory. But unlike Romania, Slovakia has not allowed any ethnic Hungarian organizations in Slovakia to gather and send applications to Hungary.

Slovak Deputy Foreign Minister Jaroslav Chlebo told RFE/RL that Bratislava wants only Hungarian diplomatic missions, and not ethnic Hungarian associations in Slovakia, to deal with the applications. "The dissemination and collection and then sending of the application [forms] of those who want to apply for the identity cards to the Hungarian authorities -- this must be conducted either by the Hungarian embassy here in Bratislava or the [Hungarian] consulate-general in Kosice. Nobody else has got the legitimacy to do so on the territory of the Slovak Republic and definitely not the nongovernmental organizations or associations of ethnic Hungarians here in Slovakia, as they have started to do so," Chlebo said.

Chlebo said that, according to what he calls "indirect sources," some 35,000 ethnic Hungarians from Slovakia -- some 6 percent -- have applied for the Hungarian ID so far. Chlebo said Bratislava is awaiting Hungary's official response to the Slovak proposals, but points to the fact that the law is against European and international norms on the protection of ethnic minorities.

The Status Law originally included 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.

Furthermore, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's chief legal consultative body, last year issued a report saying that the law is not completely in accord with the EU's nondiscriminatory principles.

The European Commission in its annual reports last year also said that some regulations adopted by Hungary are in "evident contradiction" to European standards on the protection of minorities.

Both Hungary and Slovakia are among a group of 10 candidate countries -- together with Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Malta -- likely to become EU members in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria are expected to join no sooner than 2007.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Toth said that since the law does not observe regulations against ethnic discriminations among EU citizens, it will become obsolete once Hungary, along with Slovakia or Slovenia, joins the EU. But Toth told RFE/RL that Budapest must find a mutually acceptable solution with Romania.

"There is a major objective of Hungarian foreign policy, that is, the accession to the European Union, which is to be completed by 1 January 2004. So logically, the law's implementation cannot go beyond that date if we suppose that, for example, Slovakia and Hungary will become EU members together. In Slovakian-Hungarian area, I think that is the date as far as the implementation can go. If Romania will not be in the first group of countries acceding to the EU, then of course, we must find a mutually acceptable solution for the law," Toth said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's new Socialist government, which came to power after April's general elections, has said it wants to make changes to the law and restrict the number of work permits available in Hungary for Romanian citizens who are not ethnic Hungarians.

But Romania, which is one of Europe's poorest countries, has reacted coolly to the suggestion. Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase yesterday said he expects Hungary's new government to implement the memorandum signed in December. In the memorandum, Romania and Hungary agreed that Budapest will review the Status Law and initiate the necessary amendments after six months.

Spokesman Toth said yesterday that the Romanian-Hungarian Interethnic Affairs Committee has begun negotiations to determine what amendments could be added to the law. Toth said Hungary is willing to negotiate the work-permits issue with Romania. "What I can tell you [is] that in a unilateral way, Hungary is not going to take any measures in this case. We are going to negotiate. We would like to negotiate. We would like to put it clearly for every party concerned in this issue that Hungary is ready to negotiate and the [final] position will be formed during those negotiations," Toth said.

But Toth said that while the Hungarian government wants a solution acceptable to Romania, it must not jeopardize the stability of Hungary's job market.