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Hungary, Romania Sign 'Status Law' Accord - 2001-12-23

Hungary and Romania have signed an accord to help resolve a festering diplomatic dispute. It involves what Romania considers unfair privileges being granted to up to two million ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. Improvements in Hungary's so-called Status Law come into effect on January 1.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban agreed to extend some of the benefits of the Status Law to Romanian workers. Romania had complained that Romanians were being made into second-class citizens in their own country, by the benefits bestowed on Romania's ethnic Hungarian minority.

The controversial Status Law was adopted by Hungary in June. It is meant to extend employment, education and health care to some 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians living in nearby countries, as a result of the World War I Trianon Treaty. The 1920 Treaty carved up the old Hungary, distributing two-thirds of its land and population to neighboring states.

The plight of these displaced Hungarians was seen over the years in Hungary as a national disaster. Most of the uprooted Hungarians wound up in Romania, but there are hundreds of thousands in Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Under the new law, ethnic Hungarians (Magyars) in neighboring states can work for three months legally in Hungary where they will also receive social and health care rights, free university education, training courses and travel allowances.

The "memorandum of understanding" signed Saturday promises similar work benefits to all Romanians, regardless of ethnicity.

Romanian Prime Minister Nastase told reporters the agreement should ease tensions between the two countries. "There are important developments in terms of democracy in our countries," he said. "And you cannot have two types, two speeds of democracy in one country - one for the majority and another one for the minorities. That is why we had reservations on the usefulness and the timing of this law."

Some commentators have suggested that Hungary will have to dramatically change or even abolish its Status Law when it joins the European Union in 2004. They say it could lead to an unwanted influx of millions of people to Western Europe. But politicians supporting the law say it should encourage Hungarian minorities to stay in their countries and wait patiently until those countries, too, eventually become part of the European Union.