20th Mar 2018


The Slovak language law is discriminatory and restrictive

The Slovak Language Law is one of the most extraordinary pieces of legislation imaginable in a democratic country. Even the briefest of glances will show how restrictive it is and what kind of discrimination it introduces - reintroduces - into Europe

In brief, around ten percent of the population of Slovakia is Hungarian-speaking, beyond which there are Ukrainian, Roma and other minorities. For all practical purposes, the new law eliminates all the minority languages from the public sphere. Yet even here there is a further discrimination - the small Czech minority is exempt from its restrictions.

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The Law, recently passed by parliament, is highly detailed and penetrates deep into the everyday lives of the linguistic minorities. It seeks to regulate any and all meetings, gatherings, associations and other forms of communication by insisting on the parallel use of the "state language", Slovak, whenever and wherever members if the minority get together in public, and "public" is very broadly defined. Thus, if a group of Hungarian-speakers establish a literary circle, say, their proceedings would have to have a parallel Slovak translation, whether anyone actually needed this or not.

Minority-language schools are obliged to run their administration and documentation in Slovak and the same applies to the health service. The armed forces, the police and the fire service are to be monolingually Slovak. This last, by way of example, creates interesting scenarios - thus in a Hungarian-speaking area, the firemen are very likely to be all Hungarian-speakers, but when putting out a fire, they must speak Slovak to each other and also, of course, to the owner of the house where the fire is.

The weirdest of all is that all public inscriptions must be in the state language; this may be accompanied by other languages and, although the Law is vague on this, it looks as if it is to be applied retroactively. The implication is that gravestones must all be recarved, unless they are already in Slovak.

The law applies to the territory of Slovakia and affects foreigners, as well as citizens of Slovakia. It is unclear whether material sent to Slovakia from abroad is affected, so an advertisement or brochure in, say, Hungarian or English or German may not be delivered by the postal service. Will the Slovak authorities now start to censor e-mails and internet use and ensure that Slovaks don't listen to pop groups singing in English?

The system is backed up by fines up to 5000 euros and is supervised by what is, in effect, to be a language police.

Overall, the aim of the Law, which strictly speaking is a set of amendments to the 1995 Language Law as amended in 1999, appears to be to consign languages other than Slovak - especially Hungarian - to the private sphere. Still, even this is less than clear and it may be that, hypothetically, even two Slovaks who decide to talk to each other in a bar in English will be in violation of the Law. Zealous language policemen and policewomen will no doubt be on the lookout for deviants of this kind.

Obviously the amendments to the Law are a serious restriction on the equality and life opportunities of linguistic minorities. What kind of a citizenship concept is it that Slovakia is determined to place up to 15 percent of its citizens into an overtly secondary position? And at the same time, propel the Slovak-speaking majority into a very privileged position?

The word for this privileged position is ethnic superiority or, with considerable goodwill, ethnicised democracy, meaning privileges for one group over all others on the basis of their ethnic identity. The resulting inequality is clear for all to see.

The Law has not been passed without criticism from various quarters, including Slovak commentators who understand the injustice being committed the name of Slovakia. The Slovak foreign ministry is obviously unhappy about the situation and has suggested that bilateral meetings with Hungary should be postponed until the atmosphere is calmer.

Then, the passing of the Law has also had the wholly unexpected result of uniting the entire Hungarian political spectrum in condemning the Law. This is odd, seeing that until now, the Hungarian left has steered clear of the issue of the Hungarian minorities outside Hungary. It may be, that the accusation by the leader of the Slovak National Party, Jan Slota, that Hungary is in the process of creating a warlike situation over the issue, has concentrated minds in Budapest.

What is striking in this entire affair is that the Slovak elite, not just the centre-left/far-right coalition, has bought into this anti-minority current, which also means that it has seemingly forgotten that Slovakia is a member of the European Union and has European civic obligations.

The writer is MEP for Hungary (Fidesz) and the author of Nations, Identity, Power (1999)

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