Slovak first law sparks war of words with Hungary
A new Slovakian law will fine municipalities and public offices for not using Slovakian first in the public arena, such as on street signs or at official events.
Every morning, the Slovak village of Kolinany wakes up to the sound of a pop song in Hungarian, followed by a broadcast in Slovak.
Most people in Kolinany are ethnic Hungarians, so this linguistic phenomenon is natural to them. But soon the municipal loudspeakers in the streets will have to use Slovak first under a new law that has sparked a war of words between Slovakia and its neighbour.
Under the Slovak State Language Act, fines of up to 5,000 euros (7,000 dollars) will have to be paid by municipalities and public offices for not using the state language properly.
"The law harms the Hungarian minority more than other minorities," said Pal Csaky, chairman of the ethnic-Hungarian SMK party.
Hungarians, mostly in communities near the Slovak-Hungarian border, make up 10 percent of Slovakia's population of 5.4 million people.
"They have their own institutions and, as the only minority, they use their language in public life," Csaky noted.
The law allows an ethnic minority making up at least 20 percent of citizens in a municipality to use their native language in public life. It allows bilingual street names and geographical names -- but always puts Slovak first.
A means of protection?
The Slovak Culture Ministry insists says law does not discriminate but aims to "protect Slovak citizens from discrimination in their own country."
"Slovak citizens living in ethnically mixed regions are often denied their right to information in the state language, especially in municipalities where they represent a minority," the ministry said on its website.
But critics warn that absurd situations now loom. Ethnic Hungarians may have to open cultural events with a speech in Slovak, before switching to Hungarian.
About 60 percent of the 1,510 people of Kolinany, about 70 kilometres (40 miles) from Bratislava, are ethnic Hungarians.
"But some 70 to 80 percent of the locals speak both languages," said mayor Robert Balko.
On a recent Monday, shoppers at a local grocery hurried to get food and other items before the store closed, not at all worried whether the shop assistant greets them in Slovak or Hungarian.
"Koszonom szepen" or "Dakujem pekne" -- which mean "thank you very much" in Hungarian and Slovak respectively -- are natural for the 24-year-old cashier Erika, who has spent all her life here.
Going to the UN
Hungary has said that it will take its case against the law to the United Nations, a step which the Slovak Foreign Ministry slammed as "internationalisation of a bilateral problem."
Csaky said his party would go to the Slovak Constitutional Court and ask the European Council to decide whether the law complies with the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages.
"What we see as most discriminatory about the law is the establishment of language police at the culture ministry that will be able to fine people according to unclear rules," said Csaky.
Ties between the two former Soviet bloc neighbours have been tense since 2006, when the far-right Slovak National Party, known for its animosity towards minorities, joined Slovakia's coalition government.
Slovaks were dominated by Hungary under the Austro-Hungarian empire before World War I, and the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 stirred resentment among some Hungarians.
Czechoslovakia split amicably into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, after the communist regime in the country was toppled in 1989.
Hungary and Slovakia are members of the European Union and NATO. But the mayor of Kolinany said he can feel gradually rising tension on a political level and among ordinary people.
"We had an open-air goulash-soup cooking contest last Saturday and as I walked among the kettles I heard some inappropriate teasing remarks," said Balko. "And when our football team plays in a purely Slovak town or village, people shout 'Hungarians' at our players, whatever their nationality is. Sadly, to call somebody a Hungarian has become an insult."
The neighbours were hoping to smooth the tensions when Hungary's Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai met his Slovak counterpart Robert Fico on the Hungarian side earlier this month. But going into the meeting, both sides were sceptical.
"We don't expect much of the meeting because we don't see any effort to correct the government policy on minorities," Pal Csaky said.
"The impact of the meeting will depend on the politicians," said Karen Henderson, senior lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. "If they are looking for nationalist disputes to cover up their problems with the economic recession, then they’ll find them.”