Slovaks say no to Hungarian signs

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ATTEMPTS to ease the strained relations between Slovaks and Slovakia's large ethnic Hungarian minority suffered a surprise setback yesterday, when a draft law allowing the use of bilingual road signs was narrowly defeated in parliament.

Slovak nationalists were joined by ethnic Hungarian deputies in rejecting the law, which would have enabled each district with a non-Slovak minority of more than 20 per cent to put up dual language signs. Slovak nationalists saw it as an affront to their newly established nationhood. The Hungarians objected to the fact that villages bearing the names of Slovak heroes were to be excluded from the law's provisions.

The failure of the vote came as a blow to the Prime Minister, Jozef Moravcik, who, since assuming office in March, has sought to ease tensions between Slovaks and the country's 650,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority. With elections planned for autumn, the issue is now likely to be put on hold.

The right to erect bilingual signs in areas where they are heavily concentrated has been a principal demand of the Hungarians since Mr Moravcik's predecessor, Vladimir Meciar, ruled that only signs in Slovak could be used. The Hungarians, based mainly in the south of the country, argued that Mr Meciar was trying to erode their cultural identity.

In addition to no longer being allowed to use Hungarian place names, married Hungarian women were forced to add the Slovak suffix 'ova' to their names. For his part, Mr Meciar, a former boxer and the man who led Slovakia to independence at the beginning of last year, charged that the ethnic Hungarians were seeking to secede - and were plotting to do so with the support of Budapest.

The virulence of Mr Meciar's anti-Hungarian crusade was one of the factors that led to his downfall as prime minister in March. Many felt that beating the nationalist drum so loudly damaged Slovakia's international reputation and harmed its chances of joining the European Union and Nato.

Mr Moravcik, who presides over a fragile five-party coalition containing former Communists, Christian Democrats and defectors from Mr Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, sought to reverse the damage. After getting parliament to drop the insistence on the 'ova' suffix, he sought agreement over the bilingual signs.

His failure to do so, by one vote, is likely to hold up tentative moves between Bratislava and Budapest to sign a treaty confirming the inviolability of their shared border and the rights of ethnic minorities in both countries.