THE BLOG
11/26/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Game of (Nationalist) Cards in Romania

davidionut

Homogeneous countries can be nationalist. Think of Korea, either North or South. Their nationalism is generally expressed toward other countries that threaten their presumed purity in some way. Heterogeneous countries engage in that strategy as well. But nationalism in these ethnically mixed countries also functions domestically -- as a card to be played in the game of one-upmanship between different ethnic groups.

In Romania, the relationship between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians has had its ups and downs over the centuries. During Communism, an initial ethos of internationalism ensured a measure of equality among the different ethnic groups in the country. But Ceausescu presided over a growing nationalist trend in politics. At the international level, he swung the country away from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, even going so far as to oppose the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. At the domestic level, his policies privileged ethnic Romanians and discouraged programs that hitherto provided ethnic Hungarians with a measure of cultural autonomy.

When Ceausescu fell, ethnic Hungarians not surprisingly wanted to get back their earlier status. Some ethnic Romanians, however, interpreted moves to reinstitute Hungarian-language programs in schools or the creation of bilingual signs in areas with large Hungarian minorities as not merely an assertion of identity but an attack on the majority. To complicate matters further, these proposed changes were also tied up with efforts to remove entrenched bureaucrats from the previous order.

"During the second part of the dictatorship, which started in 1965 with Ceausescu, a very nationalistic sort of Communism became increasingly prevalent," explains philosopher Imre Ungvari-Zrinyi in a conversation we had in his home in Targu Mures in May 2013. "To change the ethnic composition of the Transylvanian region, the Party brought more and more Romanian people to Hungarian cities from Transylvania. The result of this process was that many high-ranking people were Romanians. Accordingly, any attempt to change the former discredited leadership, if this included eventually also the promotion of persons from the Hungarian minority, was condemned as actually anti-Romanian. And then people who wanted to preserve their privileged position as a rule played the 'nationalist card,' and said very often that 'they are doing this to me only because I am an ethnic Romanian.' Such opinions, present to a large degree in the media, started to distort the political meaning of the 'revolutionary changes.'"

The efforts of the Hungarian minority to restore Hungarian-language programs in selected schools and universities in Transylvania not only proved a thorny issue to resolve at a regional level. It even, in the case of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Targu Mures, brought down the government in Bucharest.

"Today, it is possible to study in Hungarian, but the claim of the Hungarian professors and students to have an autonomous Hungarian-speaking department was and still is systematically rejected by the Senate of the University," Ungvari Zrinyi explains. "The political declaration for and against this cause generated the intensification of ethnic tensions in Targu Mures in 1990 and for some years after. Even now, this issue is not solved and continues to be a major source of political controversies at the local and national level. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, as a member of the coalition government with the Democrat Party, recently (in 2012) raised the issue again and had obtained the support of its partners of coalition, but the parliamentary opposition forces (the Liberals and Socialists) have taken this issue as a base for a no-confidence vote against the Democrat government, which caused the fall of the government."

Despite the ongoing struggle for civil rights on the part of ethnic Hungarians and the continued playing of nationalist cards by extremists on both sides, Ungvari Zrinyi believes that the situation has improved overall. "There have been many changes for the better," he concluded. "This was made step by step in politics. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania played an important role in this. It not only worked to solve the problems of Hungarians here, but it also played an important role in building Romanian democracy. This last fact has not been appreciated enough by either Hungarians or Romanians."

The Interview

The situation seemed to deteriorate in Targu Mures between January and March 1990. How did you feel about that?

It was very problematic. In the first week of the revolution, everyone was very happy: Hungarians, Romanians, everybody. And everyone worked together without any animosity. There was a very important proclamation that originated with Hungarian and Romanian intellectuals who were the editors of two journals -- Lato and Vatra. Lato is the well-known and much appreciated Hungarian literary review in Targu Mures. "Láto" means "the seer." It is the title of a poem by the 18th-century poet, Batsányi János. In this poem, he wrote that he who can see should look at Paris to find out what will happen in the future. This literary review still exists. Its first editor was Markó Béla, the second president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

The other journal was Vatra, a Romanian literary review with a high intellectual status and well-known editorial board (but the term became in a short time monopolized by the Cultural Union Vatra Romaneasca, for their own nationalistic policy).

The two journals were in the same building and maintained very good relations (which continue today, too). In the first days, the editors of the two reviews made a declaration that the Communist regime had attained its aims in Romania because the regime had turned people of different social status against one another and mobilized the nationalistic suspicions of Romanians and Hungarians at the expense of the individual's capacities and performances The Romanians and Hungarians from Romania have a common enemy, they said, and that is the lack of democratic culture and the lack of proper knowledge of one another. It was a very good and important declaration indeed, and it was published in the newspaper.

It was published in January 1990?

I think it was published in the first days of January. It was very well received by many people, even by people who didn't exactly understand it -- but at least they experienced the feeling and they understood the attitude.

Changes were taking place in the boards of local factories and the institutions. Most of the persons in charge in the former era were collaborators of the Securitate or functionaries of the Communist Party with close ties to the dictatorial regime. But they were also privileged because they where ethnic Romanians. During the second part of the dictatorship, which started in 1965 with Ceausescu, a very nationalistic sort of Communism became increasingly prevalent. To change the ethnic composition of the Transylvanian region, the Party brought more and more Romanian people to Hungarian cities from Transylvania. The result of this process was that many high-ranking people were Romanians. Accordingly, any attempt to change the former discredited leadership, if this included eventually also the promotion of persons from the Hungarian minority, was condemned as actually anti-Romanian. And then people who wanted to preserve their privileged position as a rule played the "nationalist card," and said very often that "they are doing this to me only because I am an ethnic Romanian." Such opinions, present to a large degree in the media, started to distort the political meaning of the "revolutionary changes." Another cause for the rise of nationalistic attitudes was related to the claims for the reestablishment of Hungarian education in the high schools.

In that first month, in January, there were no important conflicts. At the end of January, however, the conflicts became more and more apparent. One of the immediate sources of conflict was people's dissatisfaction with the scale and speed of the changes. Most people didn't know if the change was irreversible and whether the Communists or another sort of dictatorship would return. They wanted to make some substantial changes in a very short time period - changes in the restitution of property, in the reestablishment of some formerly culturally autonomous Hungarian schools in Transylvania - all of this because they thought the window of opportunity for changes might soon close.

One especially sensitive problem was the Hungarian minority's claim for their formerly culturally autonomous high schools in Targu Mures, primarily the case of the Bolyai Farkas high school. During the last period of the Communist dictatorship here in Transylvania in the 1980s, the majority of formerly culturally autonomous - i.e, Hungarian-speaking -- schools were transformed into culturally mixed schools, with both Hungarian and Romanian speaking classes or eventually solely Romanian ones. So, some of the Hungarians from Targu Mures wanted to have at least one Hungarian high school in their town converted back to what it had been before: a Hungarian-speaking high school.

The first reaction of Romanian pupils when they heard about that idea, was: "What will happen to us?" There was no consensus answer among Hungarians to this question. Rather, there was a variety of answers. One was: "They will not start new Romanian classes from September. So in a couple of years the school will remain solely with Hungarian classes" (which happened in fact after a longer period), trough "the Romanian classes should leave the school in September." Another was: "the Romanian classes will leave the school immediately." There was also a lot of confusion regarding where the Romanian classes could or should go. But the vast majority of the answers indicated the formerly Romanian Alexandru Papiu Ilarian high school, which at that moment was also mixed, with Romanian and Hungarian classes. This presumed an exchange of Romanian and Hungarian classes between Alexandru Papiu Ilarian and Bolyai Farkas high school, resulting in one "pure" Romanian and one "pure" Hungarian-speaking high school. This would have been a return to the situation as it was between the two world wars. But when somebody tried to explain this to Romanian pupils who had started to study at the Bolyai high school as "you Romanians should go back to where you came from," it understandably sounded to them as outrageous nonsense, which predisposed them to the nationalist arguments that were abundant in the media at that period.

The second problem, which caused a lot of tensions and which is still not resolved until now, is the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Targu Mures, where there is no Hungarian-speaking department. In many high schools, even during the Ceausescu period, though not near the end, there were Hungarian-speaking sections and groups. When I was a student in 1981, I started to study philosophy at the Faculty of History and Philosophy of Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj in a Hungarian-speaking section together with my two Hungarian colleagues. But during my studies the section was liquidated, and at the end of my studies our Hungarian-speaking section didn't exist anymore, I graduated as a student of the Romanian-speaking section. The situation was the same at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Targu Mures. Even if there were many Hungarian teachers, the language of instruction for the most of the disciplines was gradually changed into Romanian, although after World War II this was the only Hungarian medical university in Romania, famous all over the world.

Today, it is possible to study in Hungarian, but the claim of the Hungarian professors and students to have an autonomous Hungarian-speaking department was and still is systematically rejected by the Senate of the University. The political declaration for and against this cause generated the intensification of ethnic tensions in Targu Mures in 1990 and for some years after. Even now, this issue is not solved and continues to be a major source of political controversies at the local and national level. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, as a member of the coalition government with the Democrat Party, recently (in 2012) raised the issue again and had obtained the support of its partners of coalition, but the parliamentary opposition forces (the Liberals and Socialists) have taken this issue as a base for a no-confidence vote against the Democrat government, which caused the fall of the government.

What is your impression today of Hungarian life here and the status of Hungarian parties? When I look at the situation after 20 years, it seems like there's been incredible improvement. Everything seems bilingual: menus, streets signs.


To read the rest of the interview, click here.