Slovakia this week rejected Hungarian proposals designed to make more palatable a law granting benefits to Hungarian ethnic minorities abroad. Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said after talks with Hungarian counterpart Peter Medgyessy that he was opposed to the law, the Status Law, in principle. Medgyessy said Hungary would not use the long-running dispute to block Slovakia's admission into NATO, but that it would not scrap the law either.
Prague, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy failed this week to reach agreement on amendments to a Hungarian law granting benefits to ethnic Hungarians living abroad.
Dzurinda said after talks with Medgyessy in Budapest that Slovakia cannot accept the law despite the amendments. He said the law had an extraterritorial effect that would infringe Slovak sovereignty and promote ethnic discrimination. But Medgyessy said his government will not scrap the measure, known as the Status Law, despite disputes with neighboring countries.
Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tamas Toth told RFE/RL that Budapest hopes the two sides will find a negotiated solution. "Unfortunately, no discussions happened on the changes, on the amendments, since according to Mr. Dzurinda, the law is still unacceptable for the Slovak Republic. At the same time, we are confident that since bilateral relations between the two countries are really good and there is no other disturbing point in the relationship between Hungary and Slovakia but the preference [Status] Law, we very much hope that [negotiations] will and can go on."
The law, conceived by Hungary's previous center-right government and passed by parliament last year, came into force in January. It grants ethnic Hungarians in five neighboring countries -- Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia -- an annual three-month work permit in Hungary as well as other benefits while on Hungarian territory.
The law was seen as an incentive for ethnic Hungarians to remain in their countries of origin once Hungary, a front-runner for European Union admission, becomes an EU member in 2004.
But the measure caused disagreements with Romania and Slovakia, which are home to Europe's largest ethnic Hungarian minorities, 1.7 million and 600,000 respectively. Budapest also pledged to grant ethnic-Hungarian families an annual allowance to educate their children in Hungarian, a measure Bratislava particularly objected to.
The Hungarian government yesterday proposed that the grants be sent to Hungarian organizations rather than to individuals. It also pledged not to store or use any data on ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia. But Dzurinda said that Slovakia remains opposed to the law in principle, with or without amendments.
Medgyessy said that in spite of the disagreement, Hungary would not use the matter to block ratification of Slovakia's entry into NATO. Slovakia and Romania are among seven countries that were invited to join the 19-member alliance at a summit in Prague last week. The invitations must be ratified by the parliaments of all member countries. Hungary itself became a NATO member in 1999, together with Poland and the Czech Republic.
Tamas Toth told RFE/RL that Hungary strongly supported NATO's enlargement and its legislators will ratify Slovakia's membership. "Of course, this [ratification] is the task of the Hungarian parliament and not the [task of the] prime minister's office or Hungarian diplomacy to ratify the accession treaty of Slovakia into NATO, but I'm still absolutely sure that there will be no problem in Hungary with the ratification."
Analysts say the Status Law presents challenges to Medgyessy's Socialist-led coalition. The coalition has just a 10-seat majority in parliament and faces a strong conservative opposition. The Socialists have been uneasy about the Status Law ever since its inception by the former conservative government. But analysts say that if Socialists tried to scrap the law, they would face fierce opposition from conservatives.
British journalist Robert Wright, a Budapest-based correspondent for the "Financial Times" newspaper, told RFE/RL the Status Law has put Medgyessy's government in a difficult position domestically. "The Hungarian government would be under huge pressure from the opposition if they scrapped the law, so they can't really do that. But there are fundamental problems with the law which in many ways have always looked unsolvable, and the Slovaks are the people who are digging in their heels and refusing to put up with it."
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. However, the Council of Europe last year said the law was still not completely in accord with the EU's nondiscriminatory principles.
Wright said Slovakia's refusal to accept Hungarian amendments to the law has put Medgyessy's government in a "no-win" situation, since it can neither scrap it nor risk being internationally rebuffed for advocating it too strongly. "The present Hungarian government isn't going to want to make a big fuss about it and appear to be trying too hard to stand by it. I think they know there are fundamental problems with this piece of legislation, but they just can't get out of it. The Socialist Party voted for it in parliament when it first came up last year and they're stuck with trying to defend it. But they are trying to make it into something more sustainable and it's difficult to see where one goes from here, because the Slovak [leader] -- Dzurinda -- clearly has domestic problems of his own. He's facing a strong and aggressive nationalist opposition who are going to be very tough on him if he seems to cave in to the Hungarians on this one, so he has absolutely no interest in really sorting out the issue. So it's the problem of the Hungarian government and I think they don't really have a solution to this."
There is a ray of hope that the dispute can eventually be solved in 2004 when both Slovakia and Hungary join the EU. "Obviously, there are considerable parts of the legislation which would still be a problem. There are considerable parts which would not be applicable if it's dealing with the citizens of EU countries, so that, certainly, as far as Slovakia is concerned, that's probably going to resolve quite a lot of problems come 2004, when Hungary and Slovakia are both going to join the European Union."
Things may be more complicated in the case of Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, which would only join the EU in 2007 at the earliest. Under a memorandum signed in December last year, Romania and Hungary agreed to initiate amendments to the law after six months. The tough week may not be over yet for Medgyessy, who is due to meet Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 29 November.