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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 17:21 GMT
Hungary and Slovakia split in rights row
An apartment block in the Slovak capital Bratislava
Slovakia does not want some citizens to get preferential treatment
By the BBC's Nick Thorpe in Budapest

As the European Union prepares to accept as many as 10 new members in 2004, two of the candidates - Hungary and Slovakia - are locked in a bitter dispute over minority rights.


The law has started the re-unification of the Hungarian nation without the changing of the borders

Bishop Laszlo Tokes
Ethnic Hungarian
At the centre of the row is the Hungarian "Preference Law", passed by the parliament in Budapest last June, which came into force last month.

The law allows some 3.5m Hungarians living as a minority in six countries - Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Ukraine - to apply for a Hungarian identity card, which allows them to temporarily work, study, travel cheaply and claim health care in the mother country.

They will also receive various educational benefits in the country where they live, provided their children go to a Hungarian-language school.

'Second-class'

The sum is not large - 40,000 Hungarian forints a year (165 euros) for a family with two children.

But the Slovak Government has been quick to say that this part of the legislation violates the principle of Slovakia's sovereignty over its own citizens.

The Hungarians reply that the law is a long overdue measure to encourage their minorities to stay in the country of their birth, but at the same time, to help prevent assimilation.

A Romanian woodcutter
Hungary hopes its offer will avert an influx of Romanian immigrants
It is also intended to end the current practice of tens of thousands of Romanian citizens, mostly of Hungarian origin, working illegally in Hungary.

Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban argues that in a Europe without borders, cultural, economic and political co-operation between members of the same nation will blossom, without threatening the sovereignty of the states of which they are citizens.

The spiritual leader of the large Hungarian community in Romania puts the matter more bluntly.

The law "has started the re-unification of the Hungarian nation without the changing of the borders", said Bishop Laszlo Tokes.

Protecting diasporas

The response from European institutions has been cautious, placing gentle pressure on the countries concerned to sort the matter out between themselves.

At Hungary and Romania's request, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe last October issued its "Report on the Preferential Treatment of National minorities by their kin states".

The report compares similar laws in eight countries, including Slovakia's own law which grants privileges to its own diaspora.

In conclusion the Venice Commission - a standing committee made up of international legal experts - stated that "responsibility for minority protection lies primarily with the home states."

But it added that "kin states also play a role in the protection and preservation of their kin minorities".

This was interpreted by the Hungarian side as a vindication of their new law.

Slovakia has stressed other parts of the same ruling, which underline the importance of existing bilateral treaties, in the resolution of disputes. One of these, the 1995 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, allows for the resolution of disagreements by a standing committee.

Behind the scenes, diplomatic efforts are continuing to reach a compromise, similar to the "Memorandum of Understanding" agreed between the Hungarian and Romanian prime ministers on 22 December.

But the emotional pressures in both countries, heightened by the elections of the coming months, tie the hands of the negotiators.

See also:

05 Jan 02 | Europe
Jobs threat row in Hungary
19 Jun 01 | Media reports
Hungary 'Status Law' irks neighbours
06 Apr 01 | Europe
Ethnic tension a pan-European ill
01 Jan 00 | Europe
Hungary hails national symbol
10 Sep 99 | Europe
Hungary's role remembered
04 Jun 01 | Media reports
Hungary revives painful past, former glory
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Hungary
19 Jun 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Hungary
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