With December 22 being the anniversary of the overthrow of Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, most Americans will likely focus on the violence that accompanied it and the thousands of ill-treated abandoned children whom the media discovered in the months after. If anyone pays attention to Romania's path since then, persistent corruption, roughhouse politics, and the current recession will dominate the snapshot.
But the big picture will be lost. The truth is that, since 1989, Romania has become a dynamic, if flawed, democracy, an economy which is increasingly prosperous and competitive in the 21st century, a member of the EU, and an ally of the US in NATO.
Even that leaves out its remarkable story of ethnic peace in the Balkans. Romania, with more than twenty million people, is the largest Balkan country and the fourth largest former Communist country. And its Hungarian minority in Transylvania is the arguably the largest ethnic minority in Europe.
But most Americans have no idea that almost a million and a half Hungarians live in Romania. They know about ethnic minorities in Iraq, Spain, Ireland, Bosnia, and Sudan, but not in Romania. There's a simple reason: In Romania, the large Hungarian minority lives in peace.
That doesn't mean there are no conflicts -in fact, there are serious ones, including use of the Hungarian language in public services, participation of Hungarians in the police force, and the re-creation of Hungarian universities. It doesn't mean they don't have a long, sometimes violent history. It's simply that today, ethnic Hungarians in Romania press their concerns in ways familiar to Americans-running for office, writing newspaper editorials, and debating in the Parliament. Because Romanians and Hungarians work hard at living together in peace, and because history has dealt them a little good luck, they manage their conflicts democratically.
As always in competing ethnic histories, especially those involving land, there is debate about who got to Transylvania first, the Hungarians or the Romanians. No one disputes that Hungary governed Transylvania until 1918. But to say "governed" understates what life was like for Hungarians and Romanians. In a world in which a person was officially labeled Hungarian, Romanian, German, or Jewish on his or her identity papers, which ethnic group controlled the government was more than a matter of politics. Across Transylvania, Hungarians were the top dogs. They, and German and Jewish minorities, lived in the cities.
Romanians lived overwhelmingly in the villages. For those visiting a Transylvanian city, even today, echoes of that history are alive in the statues of Hungarian nobility erected in city squares, in the public high school buildings converted from nineteenth-century Hungarian preparatory schools, and in the location of Romanian churches outside of city walls.
In 1918, the world of Transylvanian Hungarians and Romanians was turned upside down. Hungary had backed the losers in World War I, Romania had backed the winners, and the border of Hungary moved miles northeast. Transylvania was now part of Romania, where it remains today.
During the Communist period, the Romanian government periodically made efforts to strengthen Romanian domination of Transylvania, through education and by encouraging Romanians from Moldavia to move west across the mountains for jobs in the new industries Ceauşescu was building.
The result was that, by 1989, Romanians were a large majority in Transylvania. Today, most Hungarians live in cities with Romanian majorities. Their homes are in the same apartment blocks as their Romanian neighbors, not in Hungarian neighborhoods. They probably watch Hungarian television and read Hungarian newspapers, but they speak Romanian fluently. A smaller number of Hungarians live in their own villages.
And then there are the several hundred thousand who live in two counties, Harghita and Covasna, in the center of Romania, hundreds of miles from the Hungarian border, where Hungarians make up the majority.
Shortly after the fall of Communism, forces in Romania, not unlike some of those around Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia, tried to maintain power by creating violent divisions between Hungarians and Romanians. Indeed, in early 1990, there were a number of such conflicts in which people died.
What's striking is that, in contrast with the former Yugoslavia, Romania did not go down the road of violence and ethnic cleansing. Instead, it developed a democratic culture of ethnic relations in which the Hungarian minority is well-organized and active in local and national politics. The political party most supported by ethnic Hungarians has been a member of every Romanian government coalition since 1996.
In 1999, at the height of NATO's action in Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Yugoslavia , President Bill Clinton asked, "Who is going to define the future of this part of the world? Will it be Mr. Milošević .who tell(s) people to leave their country, their history, and their land behind, or die? Or will it be a nation like Romania, which is building democracy and respecting the right of its minorities?"
Clinton bet on Romania. Ten years after the war and twenty years after Ceauşescu, it's clear he picked the winner.
Jim Rosapepe, former US Ambassador to Romania, and Sheilah Kast, former ABC News Correspondent who reported on the post-communist transition from Moscow, Tbilisi, and eastern Europe, are co-authors of Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy (Bancroft Press, 2009).