NOVE ZAMKY, Slovakia — In a borderless European Union that boasts 23 official languages, one member, Slovakia, has enacted a law that limits the use of the languages of some fellow EU members.
The extraordinary step has roots in animosities that go back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and has Slovakia's large Hungarian minority afraid of being pursued by the language police.
Slovakia was once part of Hungary and is home to a population of 520,000 ethnic Hungarians who complain of discrimination by the Slovak government.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has said the law does not apply to private individuals — only to officials and state institutions — but there are clear signs the legislation has started to affect everyday life.
"Some people are beginning to abuse this law," said Eva Szucs, a saleswoman at a shopping mall in Nove Zamky, a Slovak town with a large Hungarian population some 20 miles north of the border with Hungary.
Since the law came into force on Sept. 1, Szucs said she'd been involved in several incidents at her workplace. On one occasion, she was at the cash register and speaking in Hungarian to one of the buyers when someone in line warned her about her choice of language.
"She said 'In Slovakia, Slovakian,'" recalled Szucs, adding that she had never before faced such problems since she started working at the mall in 1971. "There are plenty of people who want to provoke and cause conflicts now."
Fines for language infractions
The law, which took effect on Sept. 1, limits the use of Hungarian and Slovakia's other minority languages, in public and calls for fines of up to $7,300 for anyone "misusing" language. The terms of the law are ambiguous, and officials have yet to spell out what constitutes an infraction.
Tensions between Slovakia and Hungary over the law have had serious diplomatic consequences, such as an unprecedented ban last month on a private visit to Slovakia by Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom.
Friction dates back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Slovakia was absorbed into the sprawling state ruled by Hapsburgs from Vienna and Budapest.
Hungary lost around half of its population and two-thirds of its territory when the empire crumbled at the end of World War I, a painful issue for many Hungarian even nearly 90 years later.
Recently, relations between the countries took a hit when Jan Slota's ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party became part of Slovakia's government coalition in 2006.
Fico and Gordon Bajnai, his Hungarian counterpart, met last week in a town on the Hungarian side of the border and while they agreed to a series a measures meant to improve relations, political tensions were palpable.
While many Hungarians in Slovakia criticized the language law, most also blamed politicians for the squabbles.
"We have become a lightning rod for a political storm and it is difficult," said Denes Bolcskei, a 34-year-old bookstore owner in Komarno, a city with a majority Hungarian population on the shores of the Danube River, which separates the two countries.
Bolcskei said that because of the new language law, he will change some of the signs in his shop — where 60 percent of his inventory consists of Slovak and Czech books and the rest Hungarian — to always have Slovak listed first.
Striking a balance
Kurt Vollebaek, the OSCE High Commissioner for Minorities, visited Hungary this week and also met with Slovak officials on Wednesday in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
He told reporters after the Wednesday's meeting that it is "essential" that different provisions of the law are not misinterpreted and arbitrarily implemented.
"Striking the right balance between the rights of the minorities and the interest of the state is a difficult task and requires patience and understanding from all parties involved," Vollebaek said.
Vollebaek has said that while the basic aspects of the Slovak language law conform with international standards, some parts of the legislation, especially the intent to levy fines, could be problematic.
"The imposition of fines might easily create or exacerbate tensions and should in principle be avoided," Vollebaek said in his opinion on the language law issued in July.
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