The Failure of Nationalist Politics in Romania

03/08/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated May 08, 2015

The European financial crisis certainly prepared the ground for the growth of nationalist parties throughout the continent, particularly along the eastern frontier. Jobbik in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria and Golden Dawn in Greece all benefited from the economic downturn. But amid all the attention the media has focused on this nationalist surge, it's important to remember that many parts of the region already saw an earlier rise and fall of extreme nationalism in the immediate post-Communist era.

Cluj, a large city in the Transylvanian region of Romania that has an ethnic Romanian majority, is a good illustration of the limits of nationalist politics.

In 1992, Gheorghe Funar became mayor of Cluj, and he immediately set about instituting his own brand of ethnic cleansing. Signs in Hungarian disappeared from the streets. Funar tried to ban the ethnic Hungarian political party. He even denied that there was such a thing as Hungarians in Romania. "Here there are only Romanian citizens," he declared.

Funar served a dozen years as mayor, and if anything, his politics moved further to the right. He eventually joined the extremist Greater Romania Party (Romania Mare), served in the national parliament, and ran for president in the 2014 elections where he garnered less than 0.5 percent of the vote.

Funar was a prime example of a "second-order leader," sociologist Istvan Horvath told me in an interview in May 2013. Horvath and I were meeting in a restaurant in Cluj that catered particularly to the Hungarian minority in the city.

"These second-order leaders realized that the Hungarian claims for a new status were a good way of legitimizing themselves as 'founders of the nation,'" Horvath observed. "This stratum could administer the cities; they were efficient. But they were vulnerable because they had worked for the Communist Party before. They had to acquire legitimacy. There were few ideologies that people could recognize."

And thus, many of these second-order leaders, like Funar, turned to nationalism. Funar invoked the fear among some Romanians that Hungary intended to reclaim its former realms in Transylvania. He painted ethnic Hungarians as a kind of fifth column helping Budapest in this aim. This nationalist ideology helped Funar whip up the necessary enthusiasm -- and fear -- to win elections. But it didn't last forever.

"Eventually the elites around Funar proved to be lazy city administrators," Horvath continued.

Their nationalist rhetoric prevented them from taking advantage of some forms of economic capitalist development, including foreign investment. People here started to realize that this kind of rhetoric was just not functional. The 'Hungarian danger' was too often invoked in irrelevant situations.

Cluj began to fall behind.

"Ultimately, people started to realize that this type of nationalism only produced isolation and a lack of confidence," Horvath told me.

It was a gradual process by which people realized that a city could develop an image that attracted people or repelled them. Market processes played a part in this as well. After 1992, a dangerous stratification started here in Cluj. Industry fell apart. Nothing was happening economically compared to some other cities like Timisoara and Brasov. And people realized that the 'Hungarian danger' had little substance and nothing to do with economic investment.

It took a generation before new leaders would emerge in Cluj who didn't "want to renegotiate the city in terms of inheritance, but in terms of the livability of the urban space," Horvath concluded.

Some changes have occurred in these 20 years. If we I compare surveys done in the early 1990s, when people were asked whether Hungarians should be allowed to use their mother tongue in public administration, the change is not spectacular. The majority rejected this idea -- and this is the dominant trend even now. But in other ways, things have changed. The idea of using competition in Hungarian-Romanian relations as a way of reasserting ethnic hierarchies has simply disappeared. Such ideas are considered naive by most Romanians.

We talked about his role in the events of 1989, the trajectory of ethnic Hungarian politics, and his own political transformation over the years.

The Interview

Did you get involved in the student movement at the time?

Yes. I started to be involved in the general movement of reform. Starting in March 1990, I was involved in the freshly organized Hungarian student movement. There was a demonstration in Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely in March. We started to demonstrate within the university.

What do you think were the major accomplishments of those days?

The major achievement, personally, was that finally we got the whole space to self-organize, to create civic organizations and spontaneous movements. I learned how to organize this civil society. This competence helped me in other fields. My roommates organized a counter-demonstration to the Hungarians, and we realized that we didn't want to reproduce what happened in Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely. We started to have a discussion. Then, for the first time in my life, I didn't feel like a minority.

I had a sense that a hegemonic control was not preventing us from expressing what we wanted. We weren't necessarily expressing ourselves coherently. But still, there was a freedom to say what we wanted. This was an important experience when we realized that we couldn't achieve collective purpose without some forms of cooperation and communication. This was the major achievement here for all the students, Hungarians and Romanians. There's even a film about this by Marius Tabacu, who was filming this episode of the students organizing two separate camps, and how we negotiated our interests. The new student circles realized that we couldn't build a separate society so we had to build good relations.

There were also some tensions at the time. How did you experience the tensions between Hungarians and Romanians?

Until 1989, my social circle consisted of my roommates, who were all Romanians. We had very good relations, and do so even now. But after the changes in 1989, when there was a possibility to articulate ethnic interests, they were at first shocked. "Why are you doing this?" they asked me. "Why aren't you satisfied? We're dealing with the same shit, so what's your problem? You never talked about this before." They felt that we were not sincere.

And I was shocked that Romanians didn't understand that I had to learn in Romanian, which they thought of as normal. They never asked themselves why this was normal since five years before there had been a separate Hungarian language section at the university. It was at that moment, when we realized that we were both being manipulated by certain circles, that we could talk sincerely.

For instance, one of the major nationalist leaders from Cluj had been a shitty journalist during the Communist period. Students in Communist Romania were forced to assist in agricultural labor for at least two weeks a semester. At one point, he tried to make an interview for a Communist paper with the students who were doing this agricultural work. He asked them if they were happy to do that work. They said, "We're not happy. The conditions are terrible!" He was very aggressive and intimidating. He said, "So, I will quote you with your names." When we realized that this guy was behind all this nationalism, that he was trying to recover his position based on this type of nationalistic argument, we realized that we were in the same position as when he was trying to intimidate us.

We were able then to talk about it and to come up with different approaches. The context of my social circle helped me a lot. I could understand what the Romanians were thinking. I was among the few who could do so. Usually people formed groups on an ethnic basis. In the philosophy department, there were only two Hungarians, and the other guy didn't live at the college. So, I realized that I could mediate. I had some intercultural experiences, and I knew Romanian very well. I wasn't just reacting emotionally to everything. Because of this type of experience, I started to focus my research on interethnic relations.

We were trying to rebuild our personal relations in the new political circumstances when I assumed a role in an ethnic political organization. My roommates didn't, but that's another story. They eventually came to terms with my decision. They were eventually able to have some understanding of what was happening to me, though they didn't accept all aspects. It was an unpleasant experience for a week or two when we were quarreling as roommates, but after that it was a good experience.

Tell me more about the situation in Cluj. We saw the rise of Gheorghe Funar, and a lot of tension around the statue of King Matyas when I was here. Could that have been avoided?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.