Minorities Research 1.

Kálmán Balla

New Language Act in Slovakia

On November 15, 1995, the Slovak parliament, the National Council passed Act No.270/1995 on the state language of the Slovak Republic, entering into force on January 1,1996, after the endorsement of the president. In its phase of preparation, the bill already stirred international attention, though the draft was not known for a long time. The final voting took place in strained atmosphere, since both the Hungarian government and several EU members, as well as the resolution of the European Parliament, expressed concern about its articles restricting human and minority rights.

The new language act came exactly five years after the previous one passed on October 15, 1990 (Act 428/1990 about the official language of Slovakia). Its relative advantage was that it allowed the oral use of minority language in settlements where the minority reached 20%. (In defining the limit, the act adopted the stance of the regulation by the first Czechoslovak Republic.) Other advantages of the former act were its ignorance of the language of education, culture and the media, leaving them unchanged. At that time, these moments caused a split among Hungarian MPs. Most voted for it, rejecting the other draft - an antecedent of today's. Thus, the former language act came out with the support of the Hungarian MPs, mostly belonging to the government coalition. It aptly illustrates the changes of times, that both in 1990 and in 1995, the main advocate of the act was prime minister Meciar, whereas the draft discarded in 1990 was far more favourable in view of the human and minority rights than the new act.

Looking back one can contend that the 1990 act (tabled by the Liberal-Christian democratic government of that period to pacify aroused nationalistic sentiments) did not worsen - although it did not improve, either, - the conditions of the use of the minority's mother tongue compared to before 1989. The continuity from the previous regime was also obvious in the fact that language use in practice went on without legal regulation or guarantees. That act only expressly provided for the language to be used in offices and in official documents.

This lack of regulation did not change much with the enactment of the 1995 law, either. One negative feature of the new act is that it ruled out the former act completely, including the 20% limit. As for the restricting provisions of the law, it must be admitted that partly due to the protests and partly to the 162 modifying propositions put forth by the opposition parties, the original draft was favourably modified at some points. Some of the opposition parties eventually voted for it with reference to these modifications. The exceptions were the Christian Democratic faction abstaining from voting and the Hungarian party coalition that voted against the act. Some opposition modifications were originally proposed by Hungarian parties, rejected without fail by the parliamentary majority when tabled by them. However, the relaxations did not alter the objectionable articles that limit the rights of minorities.

In interpersonal communication, the act proclaims Slovakian as having priority over other languages used in the area of the republic. It spells out (as a sign of ease) that it does not regulate the languages used in church liturgies or by national minorities and ethnic groups, referring to separate provisions by churches and laws about minority languages. This is the main source of argument against the act, because such laws are not yet born in draft. The clause about liturgical language allows for the use of minority languages in church services and other occasions of the congregations.

In defining the official language of the state, the act refers to a language norm to be announced by the cultural ministry upon recommendation by linguistic institutes - but such norm does not legally exist as yet. This paragraph will probably bother native Slovakian speakers as well, for legal provisions can hardly capture and fix the living language, so it will not be applicable in practice, but remain declarative, calling for legal supervision over every linguistic manifestation. The prospective conflict is envisaged chiefly with constitutional and legal guarantees of the freedom of speech and the press.

In official communication, the act stipulates Slovakian to be the only language without exception. Such restriction of language use was never exercised in the Czechoslovak Republic except for the period of complete ban in 1945-48. Further restriction - affecting minority speakers only - is the requirement to prove the knowledge of the official language orally and in writing before employment at a public agency (all civil services). If only used for minority members, this demand for a certificate may cause constitutional and human rights complaints. All official documents, petitions and inscriptions can only be executed in the official language, which means no change from earlier. A new restriction is the provision that at meetings of local government bodies, the use of the official language is compulsory, irrespective of the nationality of those present or of consensus. The act provides separately for village records, claiming that variants in other languages can only be translations from the official language.

Article 34 of the valid Slovakian constitution fixes the rights of minorities to communicate in official situations in their mother tongue, under the enacted law. The same article also calls for the passing of a law regulating the language use of minorities. The cited provisions of the new act are in conflict with both these requirements.

Just as earlier, the instruction of the official language is compulsory in every elementary and secondary schools. As languages of instruction and examination, however, other languages are also recognised by the act (as a sign of relaxation, too), with reference to a separate legal provision (exactly the valid education act, fixing the school system of nationalities). The act also allows for textbooks to be used in other languages, such as Hungarian. Another restriction is that all documentation must be kept in Slovakian, which may massively reduce minority language use in education. The restrictions (except for the language of administration) do not apply to tertiary education.

Provisions concerning the written and electronic press do not apply to those in languages of national minorities, referring to separate regulation. Actually, the media act, for example, makes no mention of the publication of press organs in minority languages, so deregulation prevails which, in turn, may cause concern in view of the sanctions implied by the language act.

Cultural publications can only contain texts in other languages as translations. "Pieces of music to original texts" are allowed to be performed at cultural programs of national minorities, but the announcement must be first in Slovakian. In criminal and civil court procedures the provisions ensuring the use of minority languages remain in effect under certain conditions. In health care, very narrow scope is allowed for non-official languages to be used: the employees may also use other languages if the patient does not know Slovakian.

It must be noted that these limited allowances in cultural events, litigation, administrative authorities and health institutions only apply to oral communication, whereas written  documents can only be made in the official language, similarly to other spheres listed by the law (armed forces, places or work, economic life, services).

It is the licence of the cultural ministry to control the abidance by the law. It can fix fines as penalty far in excess of other pecuniary fines e.g. for traffic offences. Public institutions trespassing a provision of the act can be fined up to 250 or 500 thousand crowns (HUF 1.25 and 2.5  million), while individuals up to 50,000 crowns (HUF 250,000). Although the date of entering the sanctions into force was put off to January 1, 1997, the fears are not eased that they are aimed to financially ruin the institutions of the national minorities, since the wording of the provisions being rather vague, there is wide scope for arbitrary interpretation.

Contrary to the justification given in the introductory clause, the actual political (and not cultural) stimulation behind the act is obvious from the fact that the sanctions (administered by a sort of "language police") are particularly suitable for financially destroy the opposition media organs (in view of the haziness of the required language norm).

With the new language act, the use of minority languages became even more confused. Together with the former language act, other legal provisions (which were more favourable) also lost validity with the enactment of the new law. One was the cardinal (four-fifths majority) constitutional law no.144/1968 connected to the federal constitution of Czechoslovakia in effect until end of 1992, regulating the position of national minorities with constitutional guarantees, although with ideological garnishing and never concretised in acts. With the declaration of the independent Slovakian state, a similar fate befell the Statute of human and civil rights also enacted as a federal constitutional law in 1991. Though it referred to later legal concretization, it guaranteed the equality before law of citizens belonging to minorities.

At the same time, some more recent provisions of the Slovak constitution and the older clauses of the Criminal and Civil code remain in effect, though they may contradict the word and spirit of the language act. These include two acts that are favourable for minorities and were passed upon the influence of the Council of Europe (when a more sober government coalition and better domestic political situation prevailed). One is the registration act no.154/1994 which allowed, for the first time since 1920, for writing the Hungarian christian names and the surnames of women in the original form, and use them in this form in official and personal documents, except for the context of the Slovakian standard language which adds the -ova, -a suffix to every female surname. The other is act 191/1994 about the indication of a settlement name in the language of the respective nationality. A decades-long desire of minorities was satisfied with the act as they could put the name of their settlement on the board in their mother tongue. It is a sign of confused legislation that on account of this act the 20% population limit is still in effect, though it has been rescinded by the recent language act.

The new language act is not yet completed. A revision by the constitutional court (initiated by the president of the republic or at least 30 MPs) may result in the amendment or annulment of some provisions of the act. On the other hand, as it is clear that the actual domestic political situation allowed for the preparation and enactment of this law, hence their change (i.e. the shift or alteration of the government coalition) may also lead to the acknowledgement of so-far ignored domestic and foreign criticism.

The modification of the legal environment may also cause changes in the interpretation and application of the act. Three steps may be of effect here, all three belonging to the jurisdiction of the Slovakian legislation: 1. acceptance and ratification of the European charter of regional and minority languages; 2. ratification of the Hungarian-Slovakian basic convention already signed (acknowledging recommendation 1201 of the European Council); and 3. enactment of a Slovakian act regulating the use of minority languages (mentioned in the current act). In terms of constitutionality, it is an important moment that paragraph 11 of the Slovakian constitution recognises the basic principle of international practice giving priority to ratified legal statutes in international law over domestically effective acts in questions of human and civil rights. It is however political reality that the language act was urged by the Slovak National Party also controlling the cultural ministry, so if the current coalition remains unchanged, it will be hard to ratify international agreements and contracts which contradict the legally restrictive measures enabled by the recent language act.

To quote a moderate opposition Christian Democratic MP, the new act causing serious tensions in Slovakian domestic politics, divided the Slovaks and united the Hungarians. The  most heated disputes were not between Slovakians and Hungarians but between pro-government Slovakian and opposition MPs, and this split was reflected by the Slovak intellectuals as well. The political representatives of the Hungarian minority has the responsibility and duty to recognise and seize the contact- and confidence-strengthening possibilities implied by the arising situation and to create co-operation with the Slovak decision-makers now in opposition, which already had its bases back in 1989-92. The paralysing feeling of persecution, the reiteration of grievances and helplessness must be shed. As the first step, a thorough, objective analysis at the European standard of professionalism is required, which is the precondition for raising the theme on an international forum.