Slovak president vetoes law on Hungarian place names

Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic on Friday vetoed a bill approved recently by parliament that would allow the use of Hungarian place names in text books, in a move that could fan the flames of a long-running dispute between Slovakia and Hungary, dpa reported.

Current Slovak law allows only the use of the Slovak place names, even in textbooks designed for the country's large Hungarian-speaking minority. The issue has caused considerable tension in recent months between Slovakia, the ten per cent of its population that is ethnic Hungarian and, by extension, Hungary itself.

The bill will now be sent back for review and put to a second vote. If it is passed again by a simple majority vote in the 150-seat Slovak parliament, then the presidential veto is automatically overruled and the legislation will be enacted.

The Hungarian education ministry expressed deep regret on hearing that the law had not come into effect. Secretary of state Gergely Arato said the legislation had been a step towards finding a compromise in the ongoing situation between Hungary and Slovakia.

"We can only hope that the parliament in Bratislava will find a solution that is acceptable to the Hungarian community in Slovakia," said Arato.

The Slovak foreign ministry refused to comment on the matter when approached by the Hungarian state news agency MTI. "The decision once again lies with parliament. We see no reason to interfere or comment on this unfinished process," said spokesman Jan Skoda.

Relations between Hungary and Slovakia have deteriorated considerably since the left-wing populist Smer party headed by Robert Fico formed a coalition government that includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) after the general election in the summer of 2006.

The ethnic Hungarian MKP party, despite garnering almost 12 per cent of the vote in 2006, roughly the same as the SNS, found itself in opposition after four years as part of a coalition government led by Mikulas Dzurinda and his Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU).

One of the populist measures Fico's new government introduced was to ban the use of Hungarian place names in school text books, even those that are in the Hungarian language and intended for use in ethnic minority schools.

Diplomatic tension intensified between the two neighbouring EU member states at the beginning of November when the Slovak police used force against Hungarian supporters at a football match. The incident prompted Hungarian nationalists to burn the Slovak flag in front of the country's embassy in Budapest.

Subsequent meetings between the leaders of Hungary and Slovakia did little to thaw frosty relations. However, the recent passage by the Slovak parliament of a bill allowing the use in Hungarian- language text books of Hungarian place names, albeit followed by the Slovak equivalent in brackets, had appeared to be a small step towards a rapprochement.

Both the MKP and Hungarian president Laszlo Solyom had urged Gasparovic, who plans to stand for re-election next year, to sign the bill into law.

Not everyone was happy with the Slovak Parliament's decision, however. SNS leader Jan Slota, known on both sides of the border for his anti-Hungarian outbursts, was among those who called on the Slovak president to veto the legislation.

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