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Prime Ministers of Hungary, Slovakia Discuss Ethnic Tension

  • Stefan Bos

The prime ministers of Hungary and neighboring Slovakia scheduled talks Wednesday at the Hungarian-Slovak border to discuss their countries' biggest diplomatic crisis in years. The talks follow Slovakia's introduction of a controversial language law that Hungary says discriminates against one-half-million ethnic Hungarians in that country. The European Parliament has offered to mediate in the conflict.

Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and his Slovak counterpart Robert Fico are trying to overcome a war of words between the two European Union nations.

Budapest is furious that Bratislava introduced a language law on September 1 that it says discriminates against more than one-half-million ethnic Hungarians living in that country.

Under the new law, anyone speaking a language other than Slovak in the public service sector in several municipalities can be fined more than $7,000. The law is to be enforced in areas of Slovakia where less than 20 percent of the population belongs to an ethnic minority.

Budapest claims Bratislava is focusing especially on the country's Hungarian minority, which comprises just 10 percent of Slovakia's total population. Slovakia's government has strongly denied these charges.

Recently elected European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek says he is prepared to mediate in the dispute, but admits his legal options are limited.

"I would like to underline that we are always in favor of safeguarding minority rights, because human rights are important to the European Parliament. I would like to say [here are] non-legal means for the EU to intervene in this kind of questions except for protecting the legal framework of the EU I am very open to discuss that and to visit Hungary and visit Slovakia," he said.

That mediation cannot come soon enough for Hungarian House speaker Katalin Szili, who met Buzek last week. Speaking through an interpreter, she says Slovakia's language law violates European Union norms.

"This act contradicts not only the Copenhagen criteria, the Lisbon treaty, but also numerous other European legal instruments," she said. "We think that if a National act is passed that contradicts EU law it harms the dignity of the European Union and its integration process. We believe that the EU should not only ensure and safeguard such criteria and conditions until a country joins the EU, but also following the accession of a country to the European Union."

The language legislation has also led to protests.

Thousands of ethnic Hungarians last week shouted "Hungary is still alive" during demonstrations against the law in a stadium of the Slovak town Dunajska Streda.

There have been similar protests in Brussels, and in Budapest in front of the Slovak Embassy.

Slovakia's ambassador to Hungary, Peter Weiss, says he does not understand Hungary's outcry over the language law.

He praises preparations for a meeting between the Hungarian and Slovak prime ministers to discuss the law. Ambassador Weiss claims the language law meets international standards and is mainly aimed at state and public institutions. He has told the media that Slovakia does not plan to send out what he called "language commando's."

Hungarian Prime Minister Bajnai wrote in Slovak newspapers that he extends his "hand to the nation of Slovakia for a friendly handshake" and that he respects reforms in that country, which, unlike Hungary, introduced Europe's single currency, the euro, this year.

But there are Hungarian and Slovak concerns there will not be a breakthrough, as diplomatic relations between the two neighbors have reached an all-time low. Bratislava has even barred Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom from entering Slovakia on August 21, calling the trip "a provocation."

Mr. Solyom wanted to unveil a monument honoring Hungary's medieval king, Stephen, in the Slovak border town of Komarno. Instead, he said, he was only able to walk to the middle of the nearby bridge separating the two countries.

He told reporters at the bridge that Slovakia's Foreign Ministry had denied him entry into the country. Mr. Solyom adds that he hopes that what he calls "the hysteria that erupted at the highest levels of the Slovak state" does not reflect the sentiments of the Slovak people.

In response, the mayor of a Hungarian village near Thursday's scheduled conference site has threatened to block the Slovak prime minister's arrival. Hungary's government has urged him to reconsider, as it would mean moving the meeting to another border town.

Commentators say the issue of Hungarian nationality remains a sensitive topic in Slovakia today: It was ruled for centuries by Hungary and only became an independent nation after the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

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