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Romania/Hungary: Leaders Announce Strategic Partnership, Improved Treatment Of Minorities

Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs discussed bilateral, regional, and international issues with Romanian officials during his two-day visit to Romania, which ended today. Kovacs and his Romanian counterpart Mircea Geoana announced today that a strategic partnership agreement between the two states will be signed soon. Kovacs also said the new Hungarian government will amend the Status Law -- a measure to grant certain privileges to ethnic Hungarians living abroad -- to bring it in line with European norms. He said amendments will be adopted only after bilateral consultations with neighbors, such as Romania and Slovakia, which are home to the largest ethnic Hungarian minorities in Europe.

Prague, 5 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs today concluded a two-day visit to Romania, which highlighted the rapidly improving relations between the two neighbors.

Kovacs, on his first trip to Romania since he took office after general elections in April, met with President Ion Iliescu, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, and Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana. He also met Bela Marko, the leader of Romania's ethnic Hungarian party.

Kovacs today hailed relations between his country and Romania, which hosts a 1.6 million-strong ethnic Hungarian minority, Europe's largest.

Kovacs, speaking at a joint news conference with Geoana, said good bilateral relations and considerate treatment of ethnic minorities are complementary: "Our goal is to preserve the current excellent state in our bilateral ties and ensure their further quality development in the context of Hungarian-Romanian relations. We'd like to pursue the three basic objectives of Hungarian foreign policy [Euro-Atlantic integration, greater Central European stability, and better ties with ethnic Hungarians abroad] coherently. We are convinced that a friendly bilateral relationship is a prerequisite for settling [the issue] of Hungarian and Romanian minorities living in each other's countries. Again, this is true vice-versa, since a positive feeling among the ethnic minorities may also have a positive impact on our interstate relations."

Relations between Hungary and its neighbors, Romania and Slovakia -- home to Europe's second-largest ethnic Hungarian minority, some 600,000 -- became strained after Hungary's previous center-right government last year adopted a measure known as the Status Law, which granted certain economic and cultural privileges to ethnic Hungarians living abroad. The law came into force in January.

The atmosphere between Bucharest and Budapest improved after Romania's ex-communist social-democratic government found a willing dialogue partner in Hungary's new socialist-liberal coalition government led by Peter Medgyessy, a former communist who replaced nationalist Viktor Orban.

A first meeting between Nastase and Medgyessy in Romania in July was hailed as a big step toward better relations. The fact that Medgyessy himself was born in Romania and spent his first years in Bucharest, together with his knowledge of Romanian, further added to establishing a more relaxed, even warm, relationship between the two governments.

Geoana and Kovacs today said the two countries have overcome what they called "the difficult moment" of the adoption of the status law. Kovacs also stated Hungary's support for Romania's NATO bid.

Furthermore, the two foreign ministers announced that Romania and Hungary intend to sign a strategic partnership agreement during Nastase's visit to Budapest, which, according to unnamed officials, could occur next month.

Geoana said, "I understand that [the strategic-partnership agreement] is in its final stage of evaluation by Budapest experts. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase has received with very much interest -- and actually accepted -- his Hungarian counterpart's invitation to go on an official visit to Budapest and sign the document, which represents the accession of both countries together in Europe and NATO -- together in the 21st-century Europe."

Geoana also hailed improvement in the treatment of the small ethnic Romanian minority in Hungary and spoke about the need to improve economic cooperation, which in his opinion should become the focus of Romanian-Hungarian relations. Kovacs also announced that Hungarian President Ferenc Madl is due to visit Bucharest next month.

Referring to the Status Law, Kovacs said Hungary is ready to modify it to suit not only the needs of ethnic Hungarians but also other states' concerns, as well as European norms. "The implementation of the law on Hungarians living in neighboring countries is proceeding without problems. With regard to the amendment of this law, we consider that the four points of principal and potential timetables expressed at the 6 July meeting between Prime Ministers Medgyessy and Nastase -- that is, the prosperity of minorities in their homeland and implementation that is in line with the positions of the neighboring countries, European institutional norms and claims of those concerned -- provide us with the appropriate guidelines."

The law allows ethnic Hungarians 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. But the measure so far has attracted limited interest, with only some 10 percent of the 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians abroad having started the application process.

Romania and Slovakia have insisted that the law must be amended to eliminate what they call its "extra-territorial character."

Romania and Hungary in December signed a memorandum that made certain concessions to the Romanian side, including granting work permits in Hungary to a limited number of Romanian citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin.

But Slovakia, which enjoys a better economic situation than Romania, has insisted that the law should not have effect on its territory and has yet to come to an agreement with Budapest. Slovak Deputy Foreign Minister Jaroslav Chlebo told our correspondent, "The law should be modified to be acceptable as a law of a friendly country, to somehow deal with the [ethnic Hungarian] citizens of the Slovak Republic and not with the territory [of Slovakia], because one of the principles on which we are building our position is that if any law of Hungary should be valid, it should and could be valid [only] on the territory of Hungary."

However, Chlebo said Bratislava is in permanent contact with Bucharest, since the Status Law involves several countries, and even the European Union, of which both Hungary and Slovakia hope to become members in 2004. But Chlebo urged the European Union to state its position more firmly: "We are exchanging our positions with our Romanian counterparts and, as I started by saying, as this is a pan-European issue, I suppose the solution cannot be found on a bilateral track only -- a solution of a pan-European sort should be found. European institutions should have [announced their positions] on the issue and those words should be very clearly stated."

Chlebo also said that whatever the results of the upcoming general election in Slovakia, his country's position on the Status Law is unlikely to change.

(Radu Stanescu of the Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)