The Slovak-Hungarian dispute over Slovakia’s language law

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“Due to Slovakia and Hungary’s diverging interests and positions, as well as the internal social and political conditions in the two countries, it appears unlikely that the [language] conflict will be ended and relations normalised in the medium term,” write Jakub Groszkowski and Mariusz Bocian, researchers at the Centre for Eastern Studies (CES), in an October paper.

“The amendment to the act on the state language of the Slovak Republic, adopted on 30 June 2009, has led to strong reactions from the Hungarian minority in Slovakia and from politicians in Hungary itself,” the authors explain.

The law originally stated that Slovak was the mandatory language of official contacts throughout the country. However, “in 1999, the Mikulas Dzurinda cabinet, which included members of the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), decided to take the interests of the Hungarians living in Slovakia into account,” Groszkowski and Bocian add.

An act was adopted on national minority languages, granting minorities the right to use their native language in official contacts in municipalities where the minorities account for at least 20% of the population.

The 2009 amendment extended the scope of the act. “Consequently, it introduces the primacy of the Slovak language in public life, and leaves the minorities with the right to use the native language in parallel in those municipalities where the minority accounts for at least 20% of the population,” the authors write.

However, the conflict surrounding the new law, which is being exploited by Slovak and Hungarian leaders alike to mobilise their electorates, “has become the main bone of contention in […] relations between the two states in recent months,” the paper recalls.

“According to the Slovak government, the principal objective of the amendment is to ensure every citizen’s right to information,” Groszkowski and Bocian explain.

On the other hand, the adoption of the amendment “led to strongly critical reactions from both the Hungarian minority parties in Slovakia and politicians in Hungary itself,” they add.

According to the authors, “as elections are to be held in both countries next year, the tension in mutual relations is expected to continue”.

Hungary will hold parliamentary elections in April 2010, with Slovakia following suit in June. The researchers believe the most probable scenario will see the conservative Fidesz come to power in Hungary. Fidesz is the political force most actively involved in the dispute with Slovakia, they add.

Despite all the tensions, “the dispute between Slovakia and Hungary over the language regulations is having a rather limited impact on the people in the two countries” themselves, Groszkowski and Bocian conclude. 

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