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Slovakia’s Language Law: The Clash of Insecurities

February 17, 2010 6 comments

Nationalism loves nothing like uncertainty. People who feel insecure about their place in the global pecking order compensate with patriotic zealotry. Politicians love to manipulate this anxiety with vague, hard-to-pin-down policies on national greatness. Ambiguity is key: It makes it easier to deflect criticism from uppity liberals at home and gives them broad wiggle-room in the face of international condemnation.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has demonstrated a genius for nebulous nationalism in his handling of Slovakia’s amendments to its language law. The new rules, which took effect in January, are designed to force Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian population to speak more Slovak. Yet they are shrouded in such obscurity that people have broad freedom to read them as they please. This is a gift for nationalists not just in Slovakia, but in Hungary, with even Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai – not known for chauvinistic posturing – getting in on the game. The opposition Fidesz party, which is all but certain to replace Bajnai’s Socialists in Hungary’s April elections, is likely to escalate the tension. The ultra right-wing Jobbik party, which could conceivably beat the Socialists into second place next April, will certainly hold Slovakia’s feet to the fire.

Hungarian Communities in Slovakia: Red = >50%, Yellow = 10-50%, Blue = <10%

The gist of the law is that Slovakia’s 520,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority can get fined up to €5,000 if they use any language other than Slovak in government settings, unless the local population is more than 20% Hungarian. This raises Fico’s standing among nationalist voters and scares the stuffing out of ethnic Hungarians, which increases the likelihood that Fico will keep his job in Slovakia’s elections in June. The fact that not a single individual has been prosecuted under the law – and Fico has pledged that none will – is immaterial.

Bajnai, who knows a vote-magnet when he sees it, established a HUF 50 million (€183,848) fund on February 1 to pay the fines of ethnic Hungarians who breach the language law. Anyone can contribute to the fund, raising the possibility that wealthy Hungarian emigrés will rally to the cause. The fund is fodder for nationalists. Slovakia’s Culture Ministry complained that Bajnai is interfering in Slovakia’s domestic affairs. The Slovak National Party, a member of the governing coalition, accused Hungary of encouraging Slovak citizens to break the law.

In Hungary, Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán pledged his wholehearted support for the fund. Fidesz takes a much more strident tone on Slovakia’s Language Act than Bajnai’s Socialists: “They need to get over the fact that we exist,” said Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s point man on foreign affairs, in a July 2009 interview with FigyelőNet. “When [Hungarian diplomats] are on the offensive, their words must not be subject to interpretation.”

What is subject to interpretation is the Slovak Language Act itself. Under pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Fico’s government adopted a set of 21 non-binding criteria under which the law is to be enforced. The guidelines say that any fine must be justified by at least six of these criteria; however, the law contains no such provision, according to Lukáš Fila, who writes on the language law at Slovak newspaper Sme. It is thus unclear what constitutes a punishable violation.

Fico’s criteria contain other absurdities. “You are not allowed to use a minority language when talking to the postman if you are in a place where fewer than 20 percent of the population belongs to that minority,” Fila said. “The guidelines say you can, providing you both agree to do so – and everyone else who is present also gives their consent.”

This is what happens when national insecurities clash: Fico, whose country has only existed in its current form for 17 years, sallies forth like Don Quixote to slay the dragon of Hungarian hegemony – a threat that does not exist. The Hungarians, still miffed about losing most of their land after World War I, rush to help their kinfolk fight a ridiculous law that has little chance of being enforced. All the more absurd, given that Hungary is Slovakia’s fifth-biggest foreign investor, having sunk nearly €2.1 billion into the country.

It is no accident that all this is happening against the backdrop of elections in both countries. The likely winners – Orbán and Fico – share the same admiration for big-government policies tinged with nationalist rhetoric. It is precisely this similarity that will make it impossible for them to cooperate.

Alex Kuli

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