Vol 1, No 2, 5 July 1999
The New Minority|
Language Law in Slovakia
Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD
The Slovak Parliament's impending approval of a minority language bill has acquired special importance: it represents the last hurdle which Slovakia must overcome in order to be on the European Union's agenda for first-wave entry. Slovakia has already satisfied some EU concerns about the development of democracy by restoring the independence of the media and allowing for the popular election of a new President.
A minority language law which followed commonly accepted European standards would satisfy the EU and go a long way to help easing tensions with the Slovakia's minorities, particularly the Hungarians. Hungarians in Slovakia have feared losing their collective rights under the previously more nationalist governments of Vladimir Meciar which ruled Slovakia for much of the 1990s.
(Click here for a brief historical background on Hungarians in Slovakia)
The path to the Minority Language Law
The coalition led by Mikulas Dzurinda has changed the political landscape in Slovakia since its triumph over Meciar and his allies in the fall of 1998. Eager to jump back in the European saddle, the current government was determined to satisfy Slovakia's critics.
On 8 June 1999, the Slovak cabinet approved a draft of the Minority Language Law. Two weeks later, on 23 June, Slovakia's government gave its seal of approval to a revised version. The government proposal reflected recommendations from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and expanded guarantees to safeguard minority rights.
Even though the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) remains part of the current government led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, it has voiced reservations about the draft. The party represents most ethnic Hungarians, who tend to vote for their own ethnic parties. (After Slovakia attained independence in 1993, the common fear of Slovak nationalists brought three Hungarian parties together in their own coalition. In a nationally charged East Central Europe, ethnic minority issues often seem to be the glue which cements together politicians and voters of diverse ideological perspectives.)
The approved draft granted all minority languages an equal status with Slovak in all towns and villages where the minority populations total over twenty percent. According to the draft, minorities could use their native tongue in all official transactions and documents with state government and local governments. The SMK has argued that the draft clings too closely to official exchanges and does not go far enough in protecting the use of minority languages in education, culture and the media.
In recent months, the Hungarian party and its three coalition partners had each submitted their own proposals, but they failed to reach any settlement on a final document. Pal Csaky, the SMK Vice Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities and Human Rights in Slovakia's cabinet, admitted that the draft made some concessions to his party. At the same time, he argued that the draft fell short of obtaining the SMK's endorsement. Nonetheless, the Hungarian party expressed its willingness to compromise - a healthy sign in a budding democracy such as Slovakia. Thus, debate about the law continued over the next week as all sides tried to find a compromise solution which would please all parties in the coalition. Slovak Prime Minister Dzurinda had met with SMK Chairman Bila Bugar but failed to reach a mutually acceptable agreement (Slovak Spectator, June 28 - July 4, 1999).
The bill had to be rushed through Parliament in a shortened parliamentary session because of an impending meeting of European Commission officials, at which they will decide on the countries to be included in first-round EU entry talks at the Helsinki summit scheduled for this coming December. In early July, those officials will review a Slovak petition requesting inclusion in the summit and issue an assessment based on Slovakia's current situation. Slovakia will then have until September to respond to the Commission's findings. Dzurinda told the press that the final draft endorsed by the government incorporated all the minimum recommendations made by OSCE High Commissioner Max van der Stoel.
For Brussels, not Komarom
The Hungarian party is displeased for this very reason. It has argued that the framers of the draft aimed to please European Union officials rather than the Hungarian minority. But the Dzurinda government is determined to jump on the fast-track in EU accession talks, and if Slovakia can please the European Commission without giving the Hungarians all they want, the government might evade domestic accusations of selling out to Hungarian demands.
The Hungarian party demanded that the legislation expand on the protection of minority languages. It also requested a restoration of those laws which Meciar's government had abrogated between 1992 and 1994. The Hungarians want the law to not only cover dealings with government officials but also legalize the use of minority languages in broadcasting and rented videotapes, as well as at weddings and burials. They also demanded permission to use their native language in areas with a ten percent minority population rather than the twenty percent which the government approved.
While the Hungarians were arguing that the language law did not go far enough in protecting minorities' rights, the current Meciar-led opposition has blasted the plan as going too far in granting concessions to minorities. HZDS Deputy Jozef Kalman told reporters that his party would not support a bill which was not given time for appropriate public debate. He also criticized the fact that the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities had even presented the government with the OSCE's own version of recommended wording for the bill (CTK, 25 June 1999).
The opposition parties have started a petition drive to place the issue on a referendum to be voted on directly by the citizens of Slovakia. For a referendum to take place, the opposition parties would need to obtain at least 350,000 signatures. They claim to have already collected over 100,000 names. On 23 June, a crowd of about 1000 protestors in Bratislava demonstrated against the minority language draft, though the opposition's efforts may not reap immediate benefits.
Dzurinda and his allies were not about to wait for the opposition to collect enough names, and they seemed determined to have it passed even if the Hungarian Coalition Party refuses to give its consent. As of this writing, the government is trying to ram the legislation through before Parliament adjourns for the holidays. In all probability, the bill will have been passed by the time this article reaches the Web. It would only remain for President Schuster to sign the final document for it become law.
The passage of the Minority Language Law signals yet another break with the previous Slovak government's style of confrontation in dealing with the West and its own minorities. Dzurinda and his coalition are making serious efforts to meet EU standards of political behavior. In all likelihood the reward will be an invitation to join in the festivities at Helsinki in December.
Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD, 1 July 1999
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