THE BLOG
11/16/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

Resolving Conflicts in Romania

An ethnic map of Romania explains a great deal about the relations between the majority and the minorities in Romania. Ethnic Hungarians have an absolute majority in two counties -- Harghita and Covasna -- in the very heart of the country. Together with parts of Mures county, this region is known as Szekely Land. This area maintained a high degree of autonomy -- and distinct cultural traditions from other Hungarians -- for 600 years from medieval times through the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Outside of this area, the ethnic Hungarian concentration drops considerably. They represent significant minorities in other parts of Transylvania -- Mures, Satu Mare, Bihor, Salaj, Cluj. But then the numbers drop even more. A tiny fraction of the population in Bucharest, less than 1 percent, is ethnic Hungarian.

Overall, Hungarians account for only 6.5 percent of Romania's population. Obviously the reality for Hungarians in Harghita and Covasna counties, where they are 85 percent and 73 percent respectively, is very different than for Hungarians living pretty much anywhere else in the country. And the number of Hungarians living in this dispersed environment is now larger than those living in the concentrated areas.

The Roma population, meanwhile, is even much more dispersed. The largest concentration is in Mures county -- between 6 and 7 percent. Mures is also where Hungarians and Romanians have maintained a rough ethnic balance. In 1990, when ethnic violence flared up in Romania, it was in Mures, and it involved all three populations.

Maria Koreck is an excellent guide to the complex relations between majority and minority in Romania. First of all, she grew up in Timisoara, where Hungarians represent a rather small minority. Since the early 1990s, however, she has lived in Targu Mures, a cultural center of Szekler Land. That's where I met her in 1993, when she participated in her role as a businesswoman in a delegation from the region focused on women and workplace issues that I helped to bring to the United States. Since that time, she acquired a degree in conflict resolution and worked for many years with the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) to improve inter-ethnic relations.

Koreck agrees that the situation for ethnic Hungarians is better today than it was when I was in the country in the early 1990s. "It's better now probably because it's not so important anymore," she told me in an interview in Targu Mures in May 2013.

Economic issues are more important in the lives of people, which is not necessarily a good thing either. Ethnic issues are no longer a priority. And being a minority is not longer felt to be a handicap. Generally minorities no longer feel like second-class citizens even though sometimes they are still put in situations where they feel that way.

But there is considerable disagreement among Hungarians about how to achieve further progress on civil rights. "I'm from Timisoara, where we are not the majority, so we have one way of thinking," Koreck continued.

But in Harghita and Covasna counties Hungarians are the majority, and they have another way of thinking. There are now fewer and fewer Hungarians in Romania. Those who are living as the majority have the view that there has to be a strong core where they live, and that will help the others, too. But others don't agree with this because they see that what is good for the majority is not applicable when you are in the minority. They don't believe the majority will be so big-hearted to support everyone who is a minority. So there is a big clash between these two factions. And the thing is that more Hungarians are now living in areas where they are the minority.

This disagreement can be seen clearly in the debate over bilingualism. "Of course, in Harghita county everyone speaks Hungarians publicly," Koreck points out. "Now by law recently in recent years, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians fought for and won the right that wherever the minority constitutes at least 20 percent of the population, then the language of that minority can be used publicly in court, at the mayor's office, or wherever. Everything has to be written bilingually, not like in Targu Mures where we are fighting to make the street signs fully bilingual. We don't think the law has been implemented fully but it's going in the right direction. Those from the majority think that this has to be done everywhere immediately, that it's a right and it's not negotiable."

We talked about her experiences in the student movement, what it's like to run a business in Romania these days, her work on Roma education, and why she has decided to get re-involved in politics.

The Interview

You started working for the Project on Ethnic Relations in 1993. What motivated your becoming involved in that project?

At that time I had to decide what to do. I did the badges, but that didn't provide a constant income. I needed something more. I had to decide if I wanted to enter politics because I was very close at that time with the youth organizations. There was the Hungarian Democratic Union, and near to that was the Youth Organizations Alliance. From this we had 15 seats in the "mini-parliament" of the Hungarian Union -- and I had one of those seats. So, I was involved in the political life at the national level of the Hungarian Alliance. But I felt that I needed to learn and develop, and I was not comfortable with the political party. At that time, the organization was still in the process of development.

It was not really a party because the Hungarian Alliance of Hungarians from Romania was officially an NGO. By the constitution it could participate in the political life of Romania because it represented Hungarians. According to the constitution each ethnicity can have one representative in the Chamber of Deputies. As long as you can get 1,500 or so votes on the national level, then you have a deputy in the deputy chamber. But the Hungarian party also competes like other parties and gets more than 5 percent of the vote. So that's why we are represented in both chambers.

So you have one representative allotted to you in the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of ethnic Hungarians and then a parliamentary delegation whose size is determined by whatever percentage of the vote you get above 5 percent.

It has changed because before we were voting on lists and now we are voting by sector. Now it's even harder for a minority to get into parliament, but Hungarians still succeed. We have in both chambers a group of parliamentarians. We play by the national rules, not as an exception. It was a decision in 1990 to act like a party. Up to March 1990, it wasn't thinking politically. But in March 1990 a decision had to be made: to choose street violence or the democratic way, which meant involvement in the national game. And the Hungarian leaders at that time decided to get involved politically, to be a party and go to parliament.

Did anybody disagree with that?

At that time, yes. Many. And there was a second fight in 1993 about the decision. And now, after 20 years of being very politically neutral, I'm back in this game. And there is an issue around my political involvement, too. There is constantly a fight, and it's getting interesting, but nasty, too. I'm from Timisoara, where we are not the majority, so we have one way of thinking. But in Harghita and Covasna counties Hungarians are the majority, and they have another way of thinking. There are now fewer and fewer Hungarians in Romania. Those who are living as the majority have the view that there has to be a strong core where they live, and that will help the others, too. But others don't agree with this because they see that what is good for the majority is not applicable when you are in the minority. They don't believe the majority will be so big-hearted to support everyone who is a minority. So there is a big clash between these two factions. And the thing is that more Hungarians are now living in areas where they are the minority. So, it's a big fight now.

Next week we will have the Congress, and it will be a real fight about these issues because until now the leadership is mostly in the hands of those who are not living in absolute majority areas. Actually, the big leadership is from here, from Mures county and Cluj. But the others will be there in force, so it will be a big fight. Of course, this is an inside fight since we are not talking about it very much outside of the community. But there are more parties now. Hungarians now have three parties. Of course, in the recent elections, the Democratic Alliance (DAHR) got over 85% of the votes, but the other parties still exist. It shows that there is something going on that has to be taken in consideration.

Can you explain this disagreement with an example of the difference of opinion or different policy about how the group living in a Hungarian majority area and the people living in a minority Hungarian area look at things differently?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.