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Romania/Slovakia: Authorities Highly Critical Of Hungarian 'Status Law'

Romania and Slovakia have criticized Hungary for failing to live up to its promise to amend a law that gives benefits to ethnic Hungarians living abroad. Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and his Slovak counterpart Mikulas Dzurinda said the law is unacceptable and urged Budapest to change it or scrap it. Nastase, who today concluded a two-day visit to Slovakia, came out strongly against the law.

Prague, 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and his Slovak counterpart Mikulas Dzurinda are calling on Hungary to respect a pledge to change a law granting privileges to ethnic Hungarians living abroad.

Romania and Slovakia, home to the largest ethnic Hungarian minorities in Europe, have repeatedly criticized the measure, known as the "Status Law," which offers employment, education, health, and travel benefits to ethnic Hungarians living abroad. Both countries have insisted that the law, which came into force last year, must be amended to eliminate what they call its "extraterritorial character." Slovakia also maintains that it infringes upon its sovereignty and promotes inequality among its citizens on ethnic grounds.

Hungary has long promised to amend the law. The Council of Europe in 2001 criticized the law as not being in accordance with European principles of nondiscrimination.

Dzurinda and Nastase, appearing at a joint news conference yesterday in Bratislava, criticized Budapest for delaying amendments to the law. Dzurinda said: "Of course we expect the law to be amended, and we expect that in the interest of international rules -- discussion and agreement with neighboring states being among them -- changes in this law will take place in Hungary, and agreement with our countries will follow."

Nastase was harsher in his criticism, saying the law was unacceptable in its current form and is in conflict with European democratic practices. "There is a very clear [European] convention regarding this issue [rights of ethnic minorities]. Besides, to the extent to which all the countries in Europe have progressed toward democracy, we cannot assume that democratic countries that are members of the Council of Europe are not capable of ensuring conditions for ethnic minorities' existence on their territories and that [such minorities] must be placed under some kind of outside protection," Nastase said.

The law, adopted by Hungary's previous center-right government led by nationalist Viktor Orban, refers to ethnic Hungarians in five neighboring countries: Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, the former Yugoslavia, and Slovenia.

The measure initially covered Hungarians living in EU member Austria but subsequently excluded that group to comply with EU rules against ethnic discrimination among EU citizens.

However, the Council of Europe's chief legal consultative body, the Venice Commission, has warned that the Status Law still does not comply with the EU's rules on nondiscrimination.

Nastase went a step further yesterday, calling for the abolition of the law, which he labeled a relic of the past. "In Romania, and in Slovakia as well, the Hungarian minorities' organizations are part of the government structures or support the government through cooperation protocols [and] are represented in parliament. Therefore, I don't think there is a fundamental problem regarding their rights in terms of freedom of expression or identity. I have the impression that we are dealing here more with problems coming from the 19th century, and I believe that we all have the duty, by cooperating with the Hungarian government and with European organizations, to find a solution to close down as fast as possible this chapter, which came out of an electoral initiative of the Orban government," Nastase said.

Under a memorandum signed in December 2001, Romania and Hungary agreed to initiate amendments to the law after six months. But Nastase yesterday said he did not understand why Budapest has not made more progress on changing the law.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tamas Toth explained that amendments are being drafted but that the process is complicated. Toth told RFE/RL: "This is quite a difficult task, because this is a Hungarian piece of legislation, or I can put it that this is an internal affair of Hungary, or it would be an internal affair of Hungary [if it did not have] external implications. So that's the core of the problem. That's why it's difficult, because this is a Hungarian law, but we want to make it in a way that it would be acceptable for the neighbors. So this is what we are working on, and I hope that this is quite clear for both [Romanian and Slovak] governments, and I very much hope in the near future -- and I'm not speaking about months but maybe weeks -- the new draft can be finalized and presented to the Hungarian parliament."

Both Slovakia and Hungary are set to join the European Union in 2004, and Toth said the law will be amended to comply with EU rules. "After joining the [European] Union, not only Hungarians living in Slovakia will be eligible for support, but support will [be available to all]. So if the Hungarian government, let's say, decides to support the learning of Hungarian or the studying of Hungarian culture or history, and for this objective support will be granted, that support will not be limited to ethnic Hungarians but also to Slovaks, and I would say also to Swedes or Portuguese, to anybody, to all the citizens of the EU wishing to participate in this action," Toth said.

But Bucharest will only join the EU in 2007 at the earliest, and it remains unclear how Budapest will amend the law to fulfill both EU requirements and its desire to support the 1.7 million-strong ethnic Hungarian minority there.