The weight of words and gestures: Hungarian–Romanian relations in the year of centenary

The weight of words and gestures: Hungarian–Romanian relations in the year of centenary

2018 is going to be an important year for both Romania and Hungary. Romania is starting the centenary year – the anniversary of the birth of the modern Romanian nation-state after WWI. Meanwhile in Hungary, the first half of the year is dominated by the parliamentary elections. For Hungary, the key issue is whether Viktor Orbán’s ruling national-populist coalition gains its third successive mandate. These two events have a significant influence on the political life of the ethnic Hungarian communities in Romania. This influence was clearly demonstrated in early January by the three main ethnic Hungarian parties from Romania which signed a common declaration on autonomy. This context and the subsequent reactions are analyzed by Ágnes Patakfalvi-Czirják and Dr. Csaba Zahorán.*

On January 8, 2018 the three parties, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), the Hungarian Civic Party (HCP) and the Hungarian People’s Party of Transylvania (HPPT) signed a joint declaration in Cluj-Napoca, demanding territorial autonomy of the Szeklerland, a special bilingual administrative status for ethnic Hungarians in north-western Romania (the Partium region), and cultural autonomy for the whole Hungarian community in Romania. In fact, these claims aren’t new: for a century these ideas have more or less permanently formed a part of the Hungarian political discourse in Romania. The core of this discourse considers autonomy as the solution for the main structural and cultural problems of the Hungarian minority communities.

This political act has many layers. First of all, the date has a symbolic meaning. On January 8, 1918, the US President Woodrow Wilson outlined in his speech the principle of national self-determination. Wilson’s 14 points became the source of legitimization for settling the national question in Transylvania too. However, their practical application led to further contradictions in the region. On December 1, 1918, the Romanian majority of Transylvania decided to secede from Austria-Hungary and join Romania. The consequences of this motion left approximately 1.66 million of ethnic-Hungarians (including Szeklers) a minority in a Greater Romania. Since then the status of the Hungarian minority in Romania (currently approximately 1.2 million people) remains a problematic issue. Thus, the message of the date selection is clear, and has a dual function: the Hungarian demands articulate the unsettled minority problems in the region since 1918, while the political leaders have linked their proposal to Wilson’s points on self-determination. The Hungarian politicians considered the centenary as a proper occasion to start a proactive communication campaign in within the scope of Romanian politics and to reaffirm the borders of the Hungarian community.

The second layer of the meaning of this act has its roots in the Hungarian politics in Romania. It is determined by the competition for the authentic representation of Hungarians in Romania. During the collapse of the communist regime, the Hungarian intellectuals formed the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR) which virtually united the dispersed Hungarian communities of the country. The DAHR had been the only representative of the interests of ethnic Hungarians in the Romanian politics. It retained this monopoly for more than a decade. However, the internal conflicts and different strategies led to the dissolution of this unity, and during the 2000s new political formations were created. The autonomy issue played the main role in this divergent process. Being an opposition party, the DAHR declared autonomy for the Hungarians as its fundamental political goal, whereas as a part of the government coalition the Alliance, suspended its claims . Since the DAHR failed to comprehensively address the structural problems of the Hungarian community in Romania, the question of autonomy became the main political keyword of the split within the Hungarian political representation. Together with the Szekler National Council (SZNC), the new political groups (i.e. the HCP and the HPPT) tried to mobilize the Hungarian population and gain legitimacy by addressing the autonomy issue and by organizing symbolic actions. Many public events and activities in support of the autonomist efforts were organized, including unofficial autonomy referenda in 2006–2008, and designation of the Szekler flag in 2004. Despite occasional cooperation, the relations between all these political formations can be described mostly as a competition for the genuine representation of the Hungarian communities in Romania. The right-wing parties and interest groups from Budapest also play a significant role in this complex relationship.

The third important element behind the joint declaration is the role of Hungary. While Budapest considers the support of its ethnic kin abroad as a legitimate agenda, most of the Romanian public discourses interpret this political and financial support as an open intervention into Romania’s domestic affairs. However, since 2010 the interest of the Hungarian governments has slightly changed. For many years the ruling FIDESZ supported the rivals of DAHR, trying to gain control on the Hungarian electorate in Romania. Sinse its allies were unsuccessful, several years ago FIDESZ had to make a compromise with the DAHR. Since then, the “national unity” is the keynote of the Hungarian politicians in Romania. Through the institutionalization of dual citizenship and the right to vote, the ethnic Hungarians in Romania holding Hungarian citizenship (i.e. the majority of roughly one million ethnic Hungarians abroad, who applied and obtained it since 2010) became an important target group for FIDESZ. From now on, the issue of foreign Hungarians plays more than a symbolic role in the Hungarian politics: they can directly influence the elections in Hungary, albeit not significantly. The mobilization around ethnic Hungarian interests and their protection in the adjacent countries are also traditionally important instruments of the election campaigns, including the current one. As the elections in 2014 demonstrated, the “national solidarity” utilized by FIDESZ was quite a convincing enough argument for the Hungarian voters abroad, who overwhelmingly voted for the coalition led by Viktor Orbán.

The Romanian reactions to the declaration were predictable. As usual, the autonomy demands produced a storm of indignation and rigid rejection. The Romanian argumentation is generally based on the following arguments.

Firstly, the influence and role of Budapest is usually overestimated. Within this discursive shift, the minority problems in general become an issue generated from abroad, and not the responsibility of the Romanian state. From this point of view, Hungary is traditionally an important external (and rather not too friendly) factor, embedded in a specific geopolitical frame through its relations with Russia. The repercussions of the interwar period are obvious here.

Secondly, the minority issue in general is treated as a problem of national security. Romanian authorities and the country’s the nationalist discourse link the Hungarian autonomist movement with Hungarian radicalism and irredentism and see it as a threat to the unity and sovereignty of the Romanian nation-state. This is what makes the criminalization of autonomy issues possible. This approach is embodied in banning the protesters from autonomy marches, the case of “Szekler terrorists”, restricting the Szekler flag, etc.  At best, critics acknowledge the economic backwardness of the regions inhabited by ethnic Hungarians (mostly Szeklerland). However, the ethnic Hungarian elites are blamed for this too.

Thirdly, the Romanian reactions often refer to the autonomy demands as a sign of loyalty and belonging deficit. One of the most common reactions to the joint declaration was the underlining of “ungrateful” and “killjoy” nature of these claims made when the Romanian nation is celebrating the centenary of the “topmost moment” in the modern Romanian history. Moreover, the Romanian discourse usually stresses that the Romanian model of interethnic relations is an exemplary one which is also recognized by the international partners. Thus, the Hungarian demands are considered as exaggerated or even unfounded.

This attitude was also reflected in a TV-show aired on January 11 which led to an international scandal. At first, in a popular talk-show a declaration of the Romanian Academy legitimated the intransigent refusal of the Hungarian demands and stressed the importance of the centenary. Then Mihai Tudose, the Romanian prime minister, trivialized the common action, and said that “whoever hangs the Szekler flag on an institution, they are going to be up there next to it.” This statement triggered circulation of several possible interpretations; most of it pointed out that Tudose would like to “hang up” “the Szeklers”, or the “ethnic-Hungarians”. In fact, the statement’s tone is somehow similar to the usual language used by politicians who refer to the taken-for-granted facts in a paternalistic way. The quote is a reflection of practices rooted in the asymmetrical relationship between the politicians and “ordinary people” (i.e “father” vs “scoundrels”). With this gesture the prime minister tried to assign the duty to the local authorities and institutions, and to get rid of the cumbrous questions pertinent to the minority issues.

Tudose’s remarks on autonomy were not specially anti-Hungarian. They fit into the general attitude towards the Hungarian collective demands in Romania. However, due to the talk-show he became surprisingly “famous”. The case highlighted the Hungarian question in Romania again, i.e. something, what Romania is trying to avoid desperately. It particularly applies to the issue of the Szeklers and their symbols, which already caused a long symbolic conflict several years ago. Not only the Hungarian parties in Romania, but also the Hungarian government has firmly protested against this new verbal aggression and thus strengthened the Romanian stereotypes on “interventions” from abroad.

Although the prime minister eventually resigned from his office (certainly not due to the media scandal, but because of his conflicts with Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the ruling Social Democrats), the main problem related to the Hungarian minority remained an open question. On the one hand, it is the economic backwardness and the structural problems of the Szekler region and the relative depression of the Hungarian communities in Romania. On the other hand, it is the demand of cultural recognition and emancipation, together with wish of belonging and attachment to the home region. From the Hungarian point of view, implementation of all the claims listed in the declaration, could help to create a mutually acceptable and balanced relationship between the majority and minority communities in Romania.

* Ágnes Patakfalvi-Czirják is a junior researcher at Hungarian Academy of Science, Center for Social Sciences, Institute of Minority Studies. Her research interests are ethnicity, popular culture and minority issues;
* Dr. Csaba Zahorán is a historian representing the Terra Recognita Foundation. The main field of interest: history of Central Europe, Hungarian-Romanian relations in the 19th – 21st century.

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