Hungary fears for compatriots

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FEW ISSUES trouble Hungarians more than the alleged discrimination suffered by their compatriot minorities in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia. Hungary therefore reacted with dismay and anxiety to the news that Slovakia had been admitted on Tuesday to the Council of Europe.

'Romania's application comes up this autumn, and now that Slovakia is a member it looks as if Romania will be allowed in, too. But if anything, Hungarians are worse off in Romania than in Slovakia,' one Hungarian source said yesterday.

Every former Communist country in Central and Eastern Europe has eagerly sought to join the council. Established in 1949, its self-appointed task is to promote 'human rights and fundamental freedoms'. Membership has come to symbolise acceptance into the family of European democracies.

Hungarian diplomats lobbied vigorously for a delay in Slovakia's admission, on the grounds that the government in Bratislava was mistreating its Hungarian minority. However, Western European countries rejected the protest, arguing that if there was a problem it was better handled with Slovakia in the council rather than outside. Fearing isolation, Hungary eventually chose to abstain rather than vote against Slovakia's application.

About 600,000 Hungarians live in Slovakia, making up more than 10 per cent of the population. They are concentrated in southern regions that formed part of historic Hungary until the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, when Hungary, as a defeated power, was stripped of two-thirds of its territory.

After Communism collapsed in 1989, the Hungarian minority hoped that Czechoslovakia would remain united, since they anticipated better treatment than in a nationalist independent Slovakia. But Czechoslovakia broke up six months ago, and now the Hungarians live in a country whose rulers see them as having opposed Slovak self-determination.

Slovakia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, tried to turn the tables on Hungary last Sunday by alleging that Slovaks in Hungary were worse off than Hungarians in Slovakia. In the past, he has accused Hungarian politicians of seeking to annex southern Slovakia.

Slovakia has promised to incorporate the relevant Council of Europe standards on minority rights into new legislation, but Hungary suspects that these laws may never be adopted.

The Council of Europe plans permanent monitoring of the status of minorities in its member states, but there are doubts over whether it has adequate powers to prevent discrimination.