Plenipotentiary for minorities Bukovszky: the proposed law on minorities is a result of expert work rather than political pursuit

Interview conducted by Svetluša Surová on16th September 2020

The Plenipotentiary for minorities, Lászlo Bukovszky, sees the adoption of the law on minorities as a historical chance to pay our legislative debt. He thinks the issue of proposed minority self-governments can be a problem. At the same time, Bukovszky doesn’t want to turn autonomy mechanisms into a bogeyman in the society. He is in favour of setting up a separate ministry with a single member of government in charge of minority agenda. He promoted acquisition of citizenship of another country without permanent or temporary residence in that country, a proposal dismissed by the Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic.

At the end of February, general elections took place and a new government led by Igor Matovič came out of it. For the first time in the history of general elections, parties representing national minorities did not make it to the parliament. On the other hand, in its Policy Statement, the new government has undertaken to adopt a law on national minorities. What do you think of this?

The election results are a reaction of voters, including minority voters, to the current state of our society. I am sorry that no political party able to represent minority issues legitimately has made it to the parliament. The elections were a lot about emotions. I think our society is developing gradually, but despite our democratic values, there is still the spectre of Kotleba’s party. Moreover, I believe that the split in SMER-SD has caused a significant shift in the political arena. What the victory of current government parties actually achieves will be limited by the pandemic. Still, I’m glad the commitment to adopt the law on national minorities has been included in the Government Policy Statement and that I’ve contributed to this. It is a historical chance to pay our debt in this area.

Would you say it’s paradoxical that when the political party Most-Híd was in the parliament, the law on national minorities wasn’t adopted and now, when we have a parliament and a government without representation of minorities, such a law will be passed?

It is a bit unusual that with no Hungarian political party in the Slovak parliament and with a strictly „Slovak“ political representation, the government has undertaken to meet this demand of national minorities. On the other hand, we’ve done a lot for this to happen. When the Government Policy Statement was being drafted, I presented this and also other demands of minorities to the government.

Why didn’t Fico’s government with Most-Híd as a part of the coalition adopt the law on minorities?

The issue wasn’t voiced so openly when Fico’s government was preparing its policy statement. Therefore, we couldn’t have expected them to take any positive steps. After the 2016 elections, we came up with an initiative to enable the widest possible implementation of the rights of minorities and we also pointed out the legislative drawbacks. This was the aim of the Action Plan for the Protection of the Rights of Minorities, which I presented to the government beyond the scope of the coalition agreement in autumn 2016. This material included one particular goal – to create conditions for the preparation of a complex law on the rights of minorities if the need for such legislation arose from the analysis we wanted to develop. We then drafted a proposal for such a law, and we bound the future government to address the issue. So, I believe it was the outcome of expert work rather than political pursuit. It resulted in the proposed law on national minorities approved on the first try at the end of 2019.

Does the new government support the proposed law on national minorities?

We were asking different political parties if they would support such a proposal for a new law. We asked political parties Progresívne Slovensko (PS) and Za ľudí and we received a positive feedback saying they were willing to consider it. We anticipated the same response from Sloboda a solidarity (SaS), which then included it in their programme. The fact that our proposal became a part of the Government Policy Statement is the result of social demand, at least at the level of national minorities, but also at the level of a part of political representation in Slovakia.

Does the political party OĽANO also support the proposed law?

I don’t know what they think of its content but, as the biggest coalition party, they have approved it in the Government Policy Statement, as well as in the government’s legislative plan.

The new Igor Matovič’s government has removed Ábel Ravasz of Most-Híd from the office of the Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities and have replaced him with Andrea Bučková. However, they’ve let you stay in the office of the Plenipotentiary for National Minorities. What do you make of this decision of the government?

I think the issue of Roma communities resonates much more with OĽANO than the rights of national minorities. As plenipotentiaries, we have completely different portfolios and tasks. So, it was quite predictable there’d be a change in the office of the Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities. Also, I think they don’t have anyone in OĽANO dealing with the rights of national minorities in such a complex way. Based on the information in the media, my understanding is that Ábel Ravasz got into an open conflict with the government about the pandemic or some of the measures taken, and that is why the plenipotentiary was changed.

Can the fact that you have remained in the office be interpreted as the new government’s political support? Have you talked about your activities in the office with the Prime Minister?

Do I have political support? That’s not the question. I want to know if the Prime Minister trusts me. And, I believe he does trust me, so far.  I draw on the fact that the government accepted almost all of my suggestions when it was drafting its policy statement, even though some of them are hidden in-between the lines. In addition, my suggestions were accepted also when the legislative plan of the government was being developed. However, it is important to note that my initiatives so far have been at the level of outputs of legislative or other nature. The breaking point will come when I propose something more specific. It’ll be clear then whether there’s trust and political support or not. In other words, it’ll be clear if we’re be able to cooperate or not.

You’ve recently presented the proposed law to the Human Rights, National Minorities and Gender Equality Council. What does that mean?

The Council held its regular session on October 2nd, 2020 and it took cognizance of the National Minority and Ethnic Groups Committee position on the proposed law. It meant we succeeded in formalizing our efforts from the time before the last elections. Since the task had already been incorporated into the government’s legislative plan, it was only a formal matter. The situation would’ve been very different if this initiative hadn’t been made a part of the Government Policy Statement.

Is the full text of the proposed law ready?

The content was ready at the end of last year. I see a bit of a problem in two parts of the proposed law: the institutional safeguard of rights and participation of national minorities. These are two important parts that we need to define together with experts and then it’ll be important to gain political support. So, we don’t know what outcome to expect. There’re certain examples from other countries, which minorities respond to positively. We don’t have to come up with something brand new; we can use things that already exist, such as the models we see in the neighbouring countries or other EU member states, or even in some non-EU countries.

You say you take into consideration interests of minorities and are trying to get political support for them. What is it that minorities want?

So many minorities, so many interests but we have to find solutions everyone can identify with.

Do minorities have an agreement at least about some basic things?

Yes, they do. After all, they participated in drafting the proposed law and they all voted for it in the National Minorities Committee. However, the situation has changed a little since last year. It’s necessary to negotiate also with political party SaS that has really elaborated on these issues in its programme and to find out whether they’re actually willing to promote this agenda.  For example, we anticipate a problem with the proposed minority self-governments. It’s crucial to respect the constitutional rights and our international obligations, whether it’s the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities or the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.

What exactly do you have in mind?

Firstly, the term itself and the forms and levels of participation need to be defined. For instance, when we talk about minority self-governments, we can ask what the desired effect should be let’s say for the Hungarian or the Ruthenian minority. First, the expectations need to be identified and we need to clarify what we expect from a minority self-government. At the local level, the two minorities can secure and apply their minority rights in most municipalities within their political rights. The question is to what extent they can do so and whether it is enough to slow down the process of assimilation. The process of creation, competency and structure of such a body needs to be defined in the field of education, use of language or promotion of culture. I think there’s a chance for us to reform the whole mechanism of minority rights or the whole system of the state minority policy, from A to Z.

You talk about self-governance, not about autonomy, even though the term is used in theory and practice of other countries. Do you want to organize the self-governments territorially? Because, in some countries, such as Serbia, Hungary or Croatia, self-governing bodies function as cultural, non-territorial autonomies. These self-governments represent minorities as such, collectively. Are you considering territorial self-governments or cultural, non-territorial ones?

For the majority of Slovak people, the term autonomy is a red flag. So, I think we need to use terminology carefully and factually, so that we don’t do more harm than good. The proposed law doesn’t mention any particular forms. Recently, we’ve opened a discussion on this with members of a working group dealing with the issue. At the moment, we’re brainstorming ideas and suggestions. I suppose we’ll have our vision ready by the end of October. I personally like the Serbian model you’ve mentioned best.

Since we’re discussing self-governments and autonomy mechanisms, I’d like to avoid creating a bogeyman. After all, the current public administration system is based on the same principles. Municipalities, self-governing regions make decisions about their matters and in favour of their inhabitants. We want to guarantee the same in the field of minority policy. When we say that minorities enrich this country and our effort is to protect the riches and develop them, let’s find mechanisms that will stop the trend of assimilation we’ve been witnessing here for the past few decades.

I’d like to go back to the planned institutional safeguard of the rights of minorities. What do you think of the government’s intention to set up a separate Office for National Minorities? The Government Policy Statement says that setting up such an office should be considered with a view to ensuring the constitutional right of people to participate in public affairs. It also says that setting up this office would mean closing down the Office of the Plenipotentiary for National Minorities, as well as the Government Council for Human Rights, National Minorities and Gender Equality. What’s your opinion on these intentions of the government?

There’s a commitment to adopt a law and it has to include a part on the institutional safeguard of minority rights at the government or central level. My opinion is that this part of the Government Policy Statement needs to be linked to the legislative task to draft the law on minorities. There’s logic and substance to this. Whether it’s an office or a ministry, there needs to be a direct contact with or direct link to the government. Otherwise, this project won’t succeed.

The current institutional safeguard, that is the existence of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for National Minorities as an advisory body, is the result of a bad decision made in 2013. I believe that abolishing the position of the Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities was a bad move. A government authority should, of course, safeguard this agenda at the government level rather than an advisory body. An advisory body isn’t directly linked to the government or to the state budget. At the moment, I’m leaning more towards setting up a ministry and assigning the minority agenda to a single member of government.

The new government has also undertaken to amend the Act on Citizenship. Currently, the amendment adopted by Robert Fico, who used fast-track procedure to adopt it in 2010, is still effective. It was Slovakia’s response to the changes in the Hungarian act on citizenship. You’ve criticised the proposed new amendment. Why and what are your objections?

I’m glad the current government has undertaken to deal with this problem, but I can’t identify with the proposed amendment. I submitted several crucial comments to the amendment in the legislative process, so that we could go back to the original idea of this act effective before Fico’s amendment. It means I wanted the citizens of Slovakia to be able to acquire citizenship of another country without necessarily needing to have permanent or temporary residence in that country. I can say now that my comments have been dismissed by the Ministry of Interior. I believe we’ve created two groups of Slovak citizens. Needless to say, the act doesn’t deal with the status of our citizens who have been granted citizenship in another country but haven’t notified Slovak authorities about it and still have permanent residence in Slovakia.

In March, the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Scientists and other experts say this crisis affects racial, ethnic and national minorities disproportionately. In Slovakia, Roma minority, elderly people and homeless people are considered vulnerable groups. How has the pandemic affected national minorities? What information do you have from people?

We were proactive but didn’t collect specific data on this. The steps we took were focusing on ensuring people had information in the crisis, including in minority languages. Under our law, the public administration bodies, legal entities and other relevant actors are obliged to make all information concerning the protection of lives of our citizens in the so-called minority municipalities available also in the languages of minorities. We gradually provided translations of several documents for mayors in Hungarian, Roma, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and German languages. I called on all relevant authorities and entities to meet their obligations in this field. We also prepared translation of the government web site into five different languages and we’re regularly updating the information based on the latest developments. The pandemic has brought about certain progress or positive results in the use of languages of national minorities. We’ve also achieved that the Slovak Railway and Slovak Postal Service have started to provide information in two languages. It’s only the beginning and I hope the use of minority languages will improve.