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Hungary, Romania Reach Agreement on Controversial Status Law - 2003-09-24

The Hungarian foreign ministry says Hungary and Romania have resolved their differences over a controversial Hungarian law that sought to give special benefits to millions of ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries.

The so-called "Status Law" has been a source of tension between Hungary and Romania in recent years. Adopted by the Hungarian parliament in 2001, the law granted educational and financial support to Hungarian minorities living in neighboring countries.

Officials in Romania and other countries in Central Europe were angered by the legislation, describing it as discriminatory and an attempt by Budapest to revise borders.

The original draft of the Status Law granted extensive work, education, health and travel benefits to ethnic Hungarians. But under the agreement reached with Romania, those benefits have been substantially altered. Under the revised law, for example, ethnic Romanians as well as ethnic Hungarians are eligible for certain kinds of educational benefits, but they can be used only in Hungary.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tamas Toth tells VOA News that anyone in Romania or in other neighbouring countries who is interested in education and studies related to the Hungarian culture and language can receive scholarships.

Mr. Toth also says social and work rights for ethnic Hungarians that were part of the original law have been abolished.

"We have cancelled all the so called economic rights. So [there will be] no settling down in Hungary. No working in Hungary. No health care benefits in Hungary and so on," he said. "The objective of the Hungarian government is trying to maintain the ethnic Hungarians on the territory where they were born." Hungary lost about two-thirds of its territory to neighboring countries, including Romania, after World War I. About 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians currently live in these lands, mostly in Romania and Slovakia, but many also live in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Ukraine.

With its European Union membership approaching next year, Hungary's Socialist-led Government was pressured to make compromises, as EU leaders have made clear they don't want new members to bring nationalistic tensions into an organization meant to unite Europeans.

Mr. Toth says he hopes the accord will set a precedent for a possible agreement with Slovakia, which also raised objections to the Status Law. But the agreement on the Status Law has been somewhat overshadowed by a dispute between Romania and Hungary over a statue.

Hungary wants Romania to re-erect a monument built in the western city of Arad, now part of Romania. But when the monument was built in 1890, Arad was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The statue honors 13 Hungarian generals who were executed by the Habsburgs during a failed uprising in the 1840s.

In 1925, after Hungary was forced to cede two-thirds of its territory to its neighbours in the wake of World War I, the Romanian government removed the statue, saying the generals ordered massacres.

But Foreign Ministry official Toth suggests that Hungary could accept a Romanian proposal to make the monument part of a reconciliation park aimed at healing the wounds of history.

"Probably the statue will not stand alone. It will stand in the company of other statues which will remind future visitors of the reconciliation reached between the two countries," he said. "This is in principle an acceptable solution for Hungary. I must say this solution was offered by the Romanian side. And what we would like to achieve is a concrete, development, dates and concrete plans about the would be reconciliation statue park."

Mr. Toth says an agreement may be reached by December, but Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy has warned "a politics of pragmatism is still needed" to improve relations between the two future EU member states. Romania hopes to join the Union in 2007, three years after Hungary.