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Speaking One's Tongue in Transylvania

When I travelled in the Transylvania region of Romania in 1993, relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians were still tense. There had been outright confrontation and violence in 1990, particularly in Targu Mures. By 1993, the conflict had largely migrated to the political realm. In Cluj -- the old Hungarian town of Kolosvar -- the nationalist politician Gheorghe Funar had taken over as mayor. He banned signs in Hungarian. He put a plaque on the statue of King Matyas in the town center that qualified his military successes -- a deliberate provocation to ethnic Hungarians who revere Matyas.

At that time I met with some of the young ethnic Hungarian activists in Cluj. One of them, Kinga Kerekes, told me about the Hungarian youth organization and its major demand -- the restoration of the Bolyai University in Cluj as a Hungarian-language institution. The students had gone on strike with this demand in 1990 but it had been halted in part because of the violence in Targu Mures.

Twenty years later, I met up again with Kinga Kerekes in Cluj. Today she is a teacher in the economics department of the same university where she'd been a student. The university -- Babes Bolyai -- had not been divided into Romanian language and Hungarian language institutions as they'd been before 1959 and as the student group had demanded. But Kerekes teaches her students only in Hungarian. For more than a decade, the economics department has maintained a separate Hungarian-language degree program.

It's a sign of the remarkable transformation of Transylvania. There are still some tensions between the different ethnic communities. But there's also a vibrant mixing that would have been difficult to imagine 20 years ago.

"There will be a graduation celebration for the Hungarian study line, and everything will be in Hungarian: all the speeches, everything," Kerekes told me in an interview in her office last May. "It will take place in a big concert hall, so it's not a hidden thing. When I graduated high school, we had the official event in Romanian, but then we had to hide to have a small event in Hungarian language. Compared to that time, it's a big difference."

But the changes extend beyond the classroom. Since 2010, Cluj has sponsored a Hungarian cultural festival in August. "There have been three editions of it without any major problems," she said. "Nobody demonstrated against it. Each time the organizers got all the allowance from the local authorities."

At one of the festivals, the organizers even showed a film of the rock opera Istvan, a Kiraly (King Istvan). "It's a cult thing, something like the Hungarian Hair," Kerekes explained. "In 1985 or 1986 it was composed and presented in Hungary with famous Hungarian rock musicians. It became very popular. But it was forbidden in Romania even to listen to it! You could be charged if you had a tape of that music. Istvan was the first Hungarian king, and it's about his story. It's history, but it has a lot of connotations of freedom, of becoming a nation. It had a lot of meaning in the 1980s, perhaps even more meaning for Hungarians here than in Hungary. But it was forbidden. In 2010 or 2011, at one of the editions of this cultural festival, this film was projected on the main square in Cluj."

Interethnic tensions have not disappeared entirely. Football games can get nasty. But the changes are palpable. And in a recent note, Kerekes reported that Istvan a Kiraly appeared again at this August's festival -- not as a poorly projected film but this time as a live show in front of a huge audience.

The Interview

In Hungary, I met quite a few ethnic Hungarians from Romania who had left Romania. Was that a big question for you and your friends in the early 1990s: to stay or to leave?

Many left. First to leave were those who were less satisfied with their situation. I told you about this friend who left to see his girlfriend in Austria. Many left because they were not in university. It was pretty difficult at that time to get a place. They were not employed or studying, and they quickly left. Many left after their studies. Some even left during studies. At least in Hungary, it was quite easy to continue from a certain level. They would do three years here and then continue there, even though the curriculum was not exactly the same.

Those who had in mind to leave left. Some people changed their minds because of the revolution. But the optimistic period didn't last very long. Already in February or March there were lots of events that made people leave, even though they'd thought good times were coming to Romania.

Events here in Cluj or in Bucharest?

The miners who went to Bucharest was a big shock. And the events in Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures in March made many Hungarians want to leave, especially from Targu Mures but even from Cluj. They said that there is no one in Romania who will recognize our rights. By then it had become clear that it was not turning out as we wished. People understood minority rights very differently. It became clear that democratic Romanians didn't share my perspective. Before, only the Communists wouldn't allow that. After, it became clear that people in general didn't want to respect minority rights, not just the Communists.

Did you think of leaving?

No. I was busy. I always had something to do. I was born in Cluj. I always lived here. I cannot say it was a sense of duty. It was just normal to be here. Nothing forced me to move. Nothing attracted me to move either.

Eventually there were quite a few interethnic conflicts here in Cluj -- over the statue of Matyas in the main square, over the mayor Gheorghe Funar.

That was a long conflict. Funar was the mayor of Cluj for 12 years. It took for me some time to understand that there are different types of reality, that my reality was different from others. My reality was based on my education, my values, talks in my family, my parents' memories shared in the family. You can't expect people to think the same way if they have a different background.

I see that now with my students. For them Cluj is a very different place than for me. I can't explain to them even how to get from one place to another because they only know the new names of the streets while I use the street names that I learned from my parents. I have memories of former places -- shops, institutions -- that don't exist any more. So, you don't have to be Romanian not to understand me. But this is exciting in a way. It keeps your mind fresh when everyone is not the same.

Were you involved in the debates on interethnic relations in the 1990s?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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