THE BLOG
11/02/2014 10:16 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2015

Avoiding the Yugoslav Scenario

The first war of nationalist extremism in East-Central Europe in the post-1989 era could easily have been in Romania, not Yugoslavia. Before conflicts between Serbs and Croats escalated into violence, ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians squared off against each other in Targu Mures, a Transylvanian city that had a rough ethnic balance in the early 1990s. The clashes that took place in the city in March 1990 left six people dead and hundreds injured.

One of the reasons for the lack of escalation was the Hungarian minority's embrace of what Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik advocated in a different context as a "self-limiting revolution." Solidarity, in Poland, did not push for a maximalist agenda of regime change in the early 1980s because it knew that the Polish government -- with the Soviet Union breathing down its neck -- would use such demands as an excuse to eradicate the movement, by plunging the country into civil war if necessary. Eventually this self-limiting strategy would translate into a staged transformation of Polish politics and society in 1989.

Faced with rising nationalism in Romanian society, which was manipulated by new elites possessing fragile legitimacy of their own, the Hungarian minority had a choice. It could pursue the more militant tactics of street demonstrations and confrontation. Or it could adopt a self-limiting strategy by channeling its anger and frustration into the political realm. Laszlo Borbely, one of the founders of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSz or UDMR), favored the latter strategy.

"We had to make a choice at the time," he told me in an interview in his office at the Romanian parliament in May 2013. "We could go out on the streets and not accept interethnic dialogue and the parliament and the local authorities and the democratic way of fighting for our rights. Or we could compete in the elections for parliament and win our rights that way. Fortunately, we chose the way of democracy and the way of dialogue. That's why the first six years were the most difficult because the Romanian society was not prepared to discuss this kind of question."

In 1992, in Targu Mures where Borbely got his start in politics, RMDSz elected a mayor and a majority on the city council. But the Hungarian party didn't control the Mures county council, so any number of conflicts arose over bilingual signs, a proposed statue of the former Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, and even what language the mayors of Mures county should speak to the visiting Hungarian foreign minister. The debates got quite heated. But the conflicts remained at a political level.

Then, in 1996, RMDSz entered the national government and managed, step by step, to convince the majority that the world would not end if Romanian society recognized the rights of its principle minorities. Gradually, though not without having to overcome resistance, the Hungarian minority secured its rights.

"After 23 years, we have to recognize that, of course, we have some additional rights - the right to use our mother tongue, to have our bilingual signs, to have more and more schools and universities in our mother tongue -- and we are asking for more rights concerning cultural and territorial autonomy," Borbely explained. "There are now more than 12,000 young people studying in university in Hungarian. And that's just at the level of the university."

The Hungarian party has acquired influence and, as Borbely frankly acknowledges, a sizable amount of political power. He himself has occupied several important ministerial positions over the years in charge of public works, regional development, and the environment.

"We had a congress two days ago in Miercurea Ciuc," he told me. "The presidents of all the important parties in Romania were there. They all made very good speeches, not politicized speeches. For us, it's very important that the Romanian parties look at us not simply as a party that has six or seven percent in the Parliament but as the representatives of a minority. And they should address certain questions whether or not we happen to be in the government."

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

At that time we had the 14th Congress of the Communist Party. It was a very closed dictatorship in Romania, and it was very difficult to obtain all the information from Radio Free Europe. And the other channels were very controlled. But one of my friends told me what happened. The best communication in those days was people to people. After that, we were thinking that maybe, maybe something will happen in Romania. We heard about the changes in Hungary, Poland, and other states. And we just didn't know when the dictatorship in Romania would be finished.

In December 1989, I was in Miercurea Ciuc (Csikszereda). At that time I worked in an office, and I had to travel. I spoke with my wife by phone, and she told me that "something had happened" in the town where we finished our university studies - Timisoara. She spoke this way because we knew that we could not say everything on the phone. It's the same now actually, for this question has not changed. So she told me that maybe it was a good idea for me to come back in my hometown in Targu Mures. So, I realized that something happened. I came back on December 15 or 16. I heard about what happened with the bishop in Timisoara, Laszlo Tokes, and this movement around his home and his church. From this place the revolution started. And, of course, it was clear to us that something would happen in the country. By December 21, everybody had heard about what took place in Timisoara from Radio Free Europe, BBC, and other radio stations.

Like many other towns, especially in Transylvania, we went out on the streets on December 21 in the afternoon. We joined I don't know how many hundreds of people around Targu Mures. We arrived in the center at around 8:00 or 8:30 pm. I was with my wife, and we were no more than 20 or 25 meters from the place where six people were shot and killed. They shot at us from the hotel, which was about 15 or 20 meters from where people were protesting.

Which hotel was it?

The Grand Hotel. From the top of the hotel they shot us. And we ran from this place and hid ourselves with our friends. We found out one or two days later that some busses had shown up to collect people who had been in the area and put them in the basement of the Securitate. At the time we saw this bus, but we didn't realize that it was collecting people. We managed to get home. And the next day, December 22, along with everybody from the factories, we went out again to protest against Ceausescu. And, of course, on December 22 the Ceausescus fled Bucharest. And everybody in the army and the security services realized that they had to change their attitude.

Did anybody ever find out who shot from the Grand Hotel?

Of course not. Now after 23 years it is not so big a debate like it was in 1990. But Targu Mures is only one piece of the puzzle. The most tragic situation was that after the Ceausescus escaped from the Central Committee building in the helicopter on December 22, more than 1,000 people in Romania died. After that, as you know, Iliescu and others arrived, and the new power entered in force. Some people, probably from the Securitate, shot at each other because they didn't know who was whom. Everybody talked about terrorists, but even after 23 years, nobody knows what really happened and who from the secret services and other institutions was doing the shooting. Just in a few places there were some trials. But there were no clear verdicts on who was guilty. And then, after the suicide of Minister of Defense Vasile Milea, they said, "Okay, because he committed suicide, the head of the army was behind all this, and he can no longer answer." So, after 23 years we don't know really what happened.

Do you think that it will be possible ever to know? In other words, for instance, will some files be made available from the archives?

I don't know. There are some files that have been classified secret for 50 years. But I also don't know how many files were destroyed by the army, the police, the secret services. Even those who came to power afterwards had no interest in finding out. There were former generals and high-level officials in the National Salvation Front.

The situation in Targu Mures, of course, became even more serious with inter-ethnic conflict later with the clashes in March 1990.

Targu Mures, in my opinion, was maybe the first place for those former members of Communist Party to promote interethnic conflict between the Hungarians and the Romanians as a diversion. What happened in Targu Mures took place before Yugoslavia. It was the first inter-ethnic conflict in the region. Six people died, and more than 300 were injured. The area was full of army tanks, and some people proposed military control over this zone. I was in the middle of the events. It was a failure of democracy and we got instead army control. For my hometown of Targu Mares it was a very painful moment. I don't know how many years will have to pass before all the memories of this conflict between the two communities will disappear.

I noticed when I was in Cluj and Targu Mures that the situation seemed quite good. There were signs in both Hungarian and Romanian, language programs in Hungarian...

To read the rest of the interview, click here.