Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999
S L O V A K I A:
Lessons in Democracy:
Slovakia, its minorities and the European Union
If the countries of Central Europe can be likened to students preparing to graduate into the European Union, Hungary would be the model student, and the Czech Republic would be the one with great potential but a poor attitude. Slovakia is the one that puzzles the teacher. In its first few years after lessons in democracy began in 1989, its marks were miserable. Nationalism took root and the Slovaks voted to separate from their Czech partner, and a near dictatorship followed under Meciar. Recently, however, Slovakia's performance has come a long way, but still the west has to treat the situation with caution: is the nation is really learning the lessons, or merely putting up a front to impress the teacher? As far as Slovakia's minorities are concerned there is evidence to support both possibilities. Or, to be more specific, for Slovakia's biggest ethnic minority, the ethnic Hungarians, democracy is making genuine progress, and for Slovakia's second biggest minority, the Roma, a truly free state is far, far away
Part of the reason for this discrepancy is the fact that the Hungarian population, at about 600,000 (or just over ten percent of Slovakia's total) has the governmental representation to match its size. There are several Hungarian-interest parties, notably the Hungarian Civic Party and Hungarian Christian Democratic Party
Though leaders of both parties signed a statement in September of 1996 affirming their loyalty to Slovakia, the presence of their neighbor to the south, lends a certain degree of authority to their plight. Hungary has a strong tradition in concerning itself with ethnic Hungarians who don't have Hungarian citizenship. In Slovakia, the biggest leap the Hungarians have made came this summer with the passage of a minority language law. The whole process, complete with rhetoric and compromise, was reminiscent of any western democracy
The minority language law was actually an attempt to climb out of hole that Slovakia dug for itself and jumped into when Vladimir Meciar's government passed a law which essentially made Slovak the only language permissible for public use. The law, which went into effect on the first day of 1996, immediately sparked controversy not only because of its human rights implications, but also because of its legality. In one place the Slovak constitution says that "the use of other languages than the state language in official contracts is guaranteed by law", and in another that "members of national minorities have the right to use their language in official state contacts." Upholding an official complaint lodged by a group of opposition politicians in reaction to the law, the Constitutional Court confirmed that ethnic Hungarians had the right to use their native tongue in official state contacts. The Meciar government, however, ignored the ruling and refused to amend the law accordingly
The European Union also objected, saying in 1997 that the Meciar language law could prevent the inclusion of Slovakia into a group of front-runners for EU acceptance. The involvement of foreign governmental bodies, and the European Union in particular, has at times drawn criticism from those on all sides of the issue, yet international pressure was to remain a constant influence.
Support for change came, however, as the reigns of power were handed over to new Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and President Rudolf Schuster. Acceptance into the EU became a renewed priority, and if that meant a new language law, then a new language law there would be.
And so a bill was drafted, but although it was intended to help ethnic minorities, it ended up only satisfying European officials. Ethnic Hungarian leaders were left unsatisfied and threatening not to support it. "If we don't approve the government proposal," said SMK leader Bela Burgar, "it will be a signal that some parties in the government coalition have not understood the importance of designing a law on minorities that has the support of minorities." Some government officials brushed these sentiments aside: "I would be happier, and the EU would welcome it more, if this law were approved with the support of the SMK," claimed Pavol Hamzik, Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, but added that "if the SMK's demands are not approved due to a lack of political will, this law will still be respected by the European Commission (EC) and the EU. We consulted on this proposal with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the EC and its High Commissioner Max van der Stoel. So if it is passed without SMK support, it will still be exactly the law which the EU expected of us."
The SMK proposed 20 amendments to the bill, but all were rejected. These proposals demanded a guarantee for minority languages in schools, culture, and media. The Hungarians pushed for the legalization of minority languages in weddings, burials, in broadcasting and for rented videotapes. The Hungarian party also assumed the role of spokesman for other minorities, by saying that the proposal would fall short of satisfying the needs of the Roma, Ruthenians, Ukranian and German groups, none of whom would make up a sufficiently high proportion of the population in any region to qualify for benefits. Critics of the SMK, such as Deputy Prime Minister for Legislation Lubomir Fogas claimed that they were attempting to set up Hungarian as a second official language. In the end, the SMK grudgingly lent their support to the bill, which was passed in July. Nevertheless, their complaints remained: the law only covered minority groups in regions where they comprised 20% of the population. This left 158 municipalities with a combined minority population of over 100,000 outside the sphere of protection
Compromise being a necessary component of democracy, the fact that a compromise was eventually reached on this issue is a good sign for Slovakia. But there was also a degree of backlash, as Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) organized a petition calling for a national referendum on the law. Although they collected more that 380,000 signatures, President Schuster rejected the petition saying that it would be unconstitutional. Perhaps most telling is the recent announcement of plans to rebuild the bridge that once joined Sturovo and the Hungarian town of Esztergom. Destroyed in World War II, the bridge's reconstruction is indicative of Slovakia's new attitude in dealing with its neighbor to the south and the ethnic Hungarians within its own borders. But if the government is making greater efforts to ensure the rights of the Hungarian minority, the same cannot be said of its Roma minority
Just as the language law, considered to be the last major obstacle for Slovakia's good standing with the Western European institutions to which it aspires, was going through the final stages of acceptance, another threat to Slovak integration was developing. A mass exodus of Roma to Finland this past summer came as a result of the abysmal conditions for the country's second largest minority group
Over a thousand Roma seeking asylum from both political and economic discrimination turned up in Finland in July. This led Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, on the eve of his country's accession to EU presidency, to say that such an occurrence might have negative repercussions for Slovakia. "It is out of the question," he said, "that countries where conditions are not in order should join the EU. We want to find out what is happening in Slovakia and how this could affect their progress towards EU membership." Living conditions for Roma in parts of Slovakia are shocking: the settlement of Rudnany, for example, is built on an abandoned arsenic mine, and other Romani settlements in Slovakia are little more than shanty towns. What's more, there is not much promise of improvement: in a community where joblessness is rampant, unemployment benefits have recently been cut and now can only be collected for 9 months, down from the previous allowance of 12 months
The Roma also face the threat of physical violence. Some of the Roma who sought asylum in Finland brought with them videotaped documentation of assaults against them by men wearing masks and carrying baseball bats. Unfortunately it is not only thugs that threaten the Roma, but also the public institutions which, in theory, exist to protect them. In August a young Romani man was shot in the police station in the town of Poprad. He underwent several operations but died five days later. Despite the family's protests, and although government sources gave conflicting versions of what had happened, there was a strong official denial that the shooting had a racial element.
It's clear that such conditions for the Roma could have consequences for Slovakia's European Union aspirations. Perhaps Slovakia can learn from the example of the minority language law how dialogue and compromise will, in the end, improve the situation for minorities at home as well as improve Slovakia's image abroad.
Greg Nieuwsma, 7 November 1999
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