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25 March 2021

On March 25, 2021, the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) and the Cultural Foundation of German Expellees continued their online conference format "Minority Protection and Ethnic Group Rights in Central and Central Eastern Europe," which was launched in October 2020 and expanded in February 2021. The focus this time was on Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia. In ten-minute presentations, experts described the legal framework in the respective countries as well as practical experiences with its implementation. Questions from the audience also provided the opportunity to go into more detail on individual points.

To begin with, the constitutional and international law expert Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Gilbert Gornig summarized the course of the conference so far and at the same time noted that, despite the minority situations already covered in the course of the conference series, there are many more European countries with a total of about 300 minorities that deserve a closer look. At least some of them will be dealt with in future conferences.

Dr. Markus Pieper, MEP, also referred to the diversity of Europe in his welcome address and at the same time spoke of the great importance of the culture of remembrance, which also connected him with his family roots in East Prussia. He said that it was important today to provide a European platform for those who are minorities in national states and who demand their rights, and above all to offer European possibilities for assistance, also in legislative terms. In this sense, he also suggested a "Minority SafePack 2.0" to make this initiative even broader. "I think it's great that the FUEN and also the Cultural Foundation are always credibly drawing attention to minority rights, politically also demanding initiatives and measures. If they do not stop with it, if they continue with it, it will get all the stronger, because their concerns are absolutely important and we will also listen to it," said Pieper.

Afterwards, Bogna Koreng, a journalist from MDR who is very experienced in minority issues, took over the moderation. By way of introduction, she pointed out that national jurisdiction over minorities can be a problem. For example, not all countries have signed the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. The protection of minorities develops differently in the individual states for historical, political and social reasons. The conference series of the FUEN and the Cultural Foundation now contributes to an overview of these developments in Central and Eastern Europe.

The first speaker was Prof. Dr. Balázs Vizi, who spoke about the legal situation in Hungary. The Carpathian Basin is currently home to 13 recognized national and ethnic minorities, he said. Recognition requires the fulfillment of certain criteria, such as the presence of the minority in the country for at least 100 years and the approval of parliament. From this recognition come some rights such as preferential seats in parliament and organization in national self-governments in the country. This has been achieved through the open discussion on inclusion since 1989. However, integration remains a problem, especially for the Roma minority.

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Sándor-Szalay, Ombudswoman for Minority Rights in Hungary, described the practical implementation. Her office is not only a contact point for problems, but also has the task of conveying knowledge and disseminating information. Without regional offices, she said, this has only been widely addressed by the central office in Budapest in recent years. Among the most important problems brought to Elisabeth Sándor-Szalay's attention as ombudswoman are questions of financing and education, especially during the Corona crisis. In percentage terms, most of the submissions came from the Roma minority, followed by the German minority in Hungary.

Political scientist Dr. Boško Picula was also able to report on reserved seats in parliament for minorities in Croatia. However, not all ethnic groups have their own representative here; some of them are represented by a common representative. Representation to the government takes place through a minority council. Among the 22 recognized minorities in the country, the Serbs are the largest group, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the total minority population.

Aleksandar Tolnauer has been the president of the Minorities Council of Croatia for almost 20 years. At the conference, he reported on the problems emerging in the country with extreme nationalist groups. They opposed the funding of minority publications, for example. Nevertheless, he said, the Minorities Council had been able to advance minority protection in the country in the areas of culture, religion and in the world of work after the Yugoslav war. He was confident that further positive developments were possible, Tolnauer concluded.

Lawyer János Fiala-Butora then spoke about the legal conditions for minorities in Slovakia. The laws are entirely focused on the Slovak majority population, he said. Although Hungarians made up ten percent of the total population, their language is not an official national language, he said. In public spaces, Hungarian inscriptions or monolingual Hungarian advertisements have already been fined, he said. This increases the pressure to assimilate and leads to language loss in the long term. Also, in contrast to Hungary and Croatia, no minorities are currently directly represented in parliament.

As the authorized representative of the Slovak government for minority issues, Dr. László Bukovszky also addressed the problems in the country. There are nine recognized minority languages in the country, but the rights associated with them are not enforced in the same way everywhere. For example, forms in the minority languages are not available everywhere. However, the government is at least working on making multilingual public information available in the regions with a high proportion of minorities. In addition, the limit of 20 percent for classification as a region with a significant minority population, which is high by European standards, will soon be reduced to 15 percent. This would depend on the next censuses, he said.

At the end of the event, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Gilbert Gornig noted that many of today's minority problems in Central and Eastern Europe resulted from failures in the reorganization of Europe after the First and Second World Wars. It is now necessary to look for common, European solutions. In this sense, the online conference series "Minority Protection and Ethnic Rights in Central and Central Eastern Europe" will be continued on April 29 with a focus on Ukraine, Estonia and Bulgaria.