Roundtable – June 2014

Interethnic Dialogue in the New Romania

Roundtable Report

Larry L. Watts




The roundtable entitled Interethnic Dialogue in the New Romania: “Romanians and the Hungarian Minority Twenty-Five Years After the 1989 Revolution was convened on 19-20 June 2014 in Poiana Brasov under the auspices of the non-governmental organization Friends of the Project on Ethnic Relations (FPER). At issue was the continued effectiveness of the Romanian model of interethnic relations amidst what many perceived as increasing strains in the dialogue over the past decade, the evident rise of extremism in Europe, and the ever-present potential for radicalization in the absence of effective discussion and cooperation.

Although the main discussion focused on the current status of the dialogue and the specific issues causing the most friction, a series of related issues raised during the discussion are also presented here as suggestions for a constructive approach to the interethnic conversation.  These issues concern the nature of the “Romanian model,” the PER process that helped generate it, the differences between approaches to interethnic dialogue in the early 1990s and today, and the underlying dynamics that sometimes complicate the process.

The following summary and analysis was drawn up by the rapporteur, Larry Watts, and does not necessarily represent the official position of either the Romanian or the ethnic Hungarian parties or of other persons who participated in the roundtable. Participants have not had the opportunity to review this text, for which the Friends of the Project on Ethnic Relations is solely responsible


The PER Process

The Project on Ethnic Relations, which closed its doors in 2012, was an independent American-based international non-governmental organization founded primarily to prevent violent ethnic conflict and to promote ethnic harmony in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. PER pursued these aims by providing opportunities for direct talks, in neutral and non-politicized environments, between ethnic minority and ethnic majority leaderships.

Where possible, PER also assisted the parties to identify common interests and to frame their arguments, requests and demands in terms that were meaningful and responsive to the concerns of their discussion partners. PER provided opportunities for face-to-face discussions, it did not decide what was to be discussed. Nor did it play any role in resolving specific issues beyond providing the circumstances for dispassionate discussion. The issues chosen for discussion and the adoption of means for resolving them were solely the responsibility and merit of the local parties to the discussion.


Beginning in 1991, PER initiated discussions between Romanian political leaders

PER’s earliest work, and its most notable achievements, were in Romania. and leaders of Romania’s Hungarian community. The PER talks were part of a continuing, informal process that extended over many years, including occasional meetings of the participants as well as frequent and intensive face-to-face, written, telephonic, fax, and later, electronic contacts between PER and the individual participants and their political parties and colleagues. PER’s efforts were persistent and long-term, spanning five Romanian presidencies, numerous governments, and two Hungarian coalition (Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania: UDMR) leaderships.

What became known as the “PER dialogue” helped to build the framework of majority-minority accommodation and cooperation in contemporary Romania. More precisely, many of the understandings reached by the  discussion partners that are at the foundation of Romania’s present policies and practices were first worked out in the unofficial discussions and meetings organized by PER, especially during 1992-1995.

The PER process legitimized and helped set in place a pattern of bringing the ethnic Hungarian political coalition into various governing coalitions, making it a partner in successive Romanian political constellations even when in opposition, and creating an atmosphere of interethnic accord at the political level that has no match in any other post-communist country.

Romania’s historic accord with its Hungarian minority remains the most successful example of peaceful interethnic cooperation in a region of Europe which, following the collapse of communism, was too often afflicted by violent ethnic competition and war.  While open acknowledgement of the value of the process was somewhat rare during the 1990s, when the first and most difficult meetings were taking place, there is now almost universal recognition of the value of the PER process and the dialogue that resulted from it both within Romania and in the region. As one Hungarian participant observed, “The PER discussions were an instrumental method through which we achieved the best results – not only regarding ethnic relations within Romania but also between the Romanian and Hungarian states.”


Then & Now

The initial years of PER’s efforts were the most incendiary. During 1990-1993 Romania was bounded in the northeast and southwest by states that had descended into civil war (the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Moldova). During the same period the international community believed that Romanian borders were “in play” and liable to change and that there was a high probability the country would experience violent ethnic conflict and even civil war, very much like Yugoslavia.[1]

The dissolution of institutions during the revolution, particularly those of legal administration and enforcement, left the new authorities vulnerable to and reeling from one political crisis after another, with virtually no means to predict, prevent or manage them. In their desperation to reestablish central control in that insecure and highly unstable environment, Romanian leaders were highly suspicious, even hostile, towards any measures that might  diminish state authority and sovereignty.

Similar desperation was evident among ethnic Hungarian elites laboring under perceptions of egregious, even “genocidal” minority abuse. Owing primarily to a flawed process of calculation they, and the international community in general, were convinced that the “real” ethnic Hungarian population was two or three times larger than that claimed in Romanian censuses , on the order of 2.5-3.5 million rather than 1.7 million.[2] This created a widespread misapprehension that Bucharest denied the ethnicity of half of the country’s Hungarian community and grossly discriminated against it in terms of cultural opportunities and education in the mother tongue.

The Romanian insistence on official census figures was viewed as an intentional refusal to redress discriminatory practices and as proof that Bucharest pursued a policy of forcibly assimilating its minorities. Ethnic Hungarian leaders (and most western observers) were thus predisposed to view Romanian authorities and ethnic policies with suspicion and hostility.

The situation was further complicated by Budapest’s vocal support for “territorial autonomy” and “independence” which Romanians feared would diminish their territorial sovereignty.[3] Given the mutual perceptions of such high stakes in what was projected as a zero-sum competition–pitting state disintegration against the destruction of ethnic identity–it is hardly surprising that fears and passions ran so high and mutual trust so low during the first half of the 1990s. The apparently “life or death” quality of the issues rendered them easy targets for manipulation with a significant potential for violence.

As a result of these circumstances PER personnel were engaged in almost constant crisis management to ensure that communications between the two sides remained open from 1991 until February 1993, when the Gerzensee meeting produced the first in a series of landmark accords establishing the foundation of the Romanian model of interethnic relations.

Not surprisingly, given the absence of dialogue prior to the PER meetings, both sides were prone to viewing the initial discussion as a one-time, transient opportunity of the “now or never” variety. Lacking any recent experience of iterative consultation with the other ethnic group, neither side nurtured very much trust that a longer-term process was being created and that the effort would not immediately collapse. Both sides therefore came to the first meetings with their maximalist demands; ethnic Hungarian leaders proposed a “global” solution to outstanding issues by importing a model of autonomy from another European country, for example, the Swiss, Finnish or Austrian models.[4]

The June 2014 Poiana Brasov roundtable on Interethnic Dialogue in the New Romania, sponsored by the Friends of PER convened 23 years after PER’s first symposium on ethnic relations in Romani–under very different domestic and international conditions. Romania was now a member of both NATO and the European Union, it had been a stable democracy for two decades, and iterative interethnic contacts and discussions had greatly improved mutual knowledge and understanding.

The issue was no longer viewed as one of either survival or imminent destruction, and there was far less insecurity and suspicion. However, there was growing dissatisfaction among ethnic Hungarian leaders over promises not kept, over anticipated advances not made, and over the present lack of attention to issues of central concern to their community.

On the positive side, there was now a clear track record of successful dialogue, the advantage of knowing that Romanian and ethnic Hungarian leaders could reach agreement because they had already done it before under infinitely more difficult circumstances. Moreover, they had proven for themselves that radicalization can be tempered by knowledge and information, the case in point being that yesterday’s “radicals” were now firm supporters of the process.

One Hungarian participant recounted how quickly and fully ethnic Hungarian elites became involved in the political process, he himself having worked in the Government’s Council for National Minorities (another product of the PER process):

The major difference between the beginning of the 1990s and the start of the process in comparison with the current situation is that there were no communications between the political elites of the two ethnicities then but there are now. Both formal and informal discussions and exchanges with colleagues occur on a daily basis, in offices, on the street, over a beer. This has changed the atmosphere radically and undeniably represents a huge step forward.

This sea change was similarly described by another Hungarian participant with extensive experience in the PER process of the early 1990s. “Now,” he observed, “the situation is evidently much calmer, and discussions are held without yelling or the beating of fists on the table.” Nor does the process constitute the major political gamble that it definitely had been for those engaging in it during the early 1990s. Two of the Hungarian participants in the 2014 Poiana Brasov roundtable had been heavily censured by more radical UDMR members, coming within one vote  of being  expelled from the Hungarian political coalition  because of their participation in the 1993-1994 PER meetings.  Similar pressures had been exerted on the other side as well. One of the Romanian participants was targeted by vituperative attacks from the mainstream press while the government he represented was threatened with collapse because of its engagement in the process.

The difference between 1994 and 2014 could hardly be greater. As a known quantity, repeatedly tested and proven over the course of two decades, the value of the PER process was now uncontested. According to a Hungarian participant, “the value of this process for an ethnic minority commanding only 6% of the vote is self-evident given what has been accomplished through dialogue with the majority partner.”

However, this does not mean there are no serious concerns and fears remaining. As one participant underscored, the Hungarian minority, especially outside the two counties of Harghita and Covasna where they form a local majority, is “not in a position to grow numerically” and therefore continues to face “the danger of disappearance.” In addition, the ripple effect of violent conflict across the border (in the Ukraine) naturally raises concerns among both the majority and minority for their own stability and security, reminiscent of the situation in 1991-1993. Romanian authorities are also somewhat concerned with the parallel regional independence-separatist trend in Europe manifest during 2013-2014, notably in the U.K. (Scotland), Spain (Catalonia) and Italy (South Tyrol).

Despite ongoing concerns and worrying developments in the neighborhood, participants were optimistic about the prognosis in Romania. According to one participant, it was even “possible to accelerate the process – now that the initial hurdles and distrust have been surmounted we can move more rapidly to commonly-accepted solutions.”

Observers familiar with Romanian circumstances and with other sets of ethnic relationships in the region in the early 1990s noted the surprising lack of taboo subjects hindering dialogue, the impressively low levels of hyper-sensitivity, and the minimal predisposition on the part of either side to attribute evil intent or bad faith to the other. There is not only a greater willingness – even enthusiasm – to engage but also a greater degree of patience and a more reasonable level of expectations than is commonly met with in such discussions.

Citing the “excellent atmospherics” of the roundtable, one American participant “doubted that there is another country in the region with interethnic issues where such a discussion could have proceeded in such a civilized, constructive manner.”

Though opposing viewpoints were expressed openly, not an angry or provocative word was uttered. Despite differing party affiliations, participants mostly knew each other and had built up mutual trust over the years.

Also noteworthy was the greater inclusiveness of the roundtable in Poiana Brasov, to a level unimagined at the start of the 1990s. With only one exception, PER’s earlier meetings included only representatives from the ruling party and from the ethnic Hungarian coalition (along with several representatives of civic society).[5] The restrictive nature of the invitation lists during that period was closely tied to the fact that both discussion partners had to accomplish rather delicate political balancing acts to keep the effort in moderate hands and out of the hands of radicals less interested in achieving accommodation.

For example, the ruling party in the first half of the 1990s (the Party of Social Democracy in Romania: PDSR) was in coalition with three other parties, two of which were considered right-wing nationalist and neither of which supported the PER process. This time around, in June 2014, representatives from opposition parties were included as well. This inclusiveness was an intentional effort by the Romanian government “to bring the opposition into the dialogue so that they will become partners rather than opponents in a new set of relations to be forged with the Hungarian minority.”[6]


The Romanian Model: Pros & Cons

The core of the “Romanian model” is a commitment to continuing dialogue, frequent consultation, and the mutual exchange of information.  According to PER’s president emeritus, ethnic Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in Romania have proven time and again an unusual capacity to attain a level of mutual understanding that is unique in the region. Of course, elsewhere in the region, others also sit down together and have discussions, but those discussions are much more painful and much less fruitful.

However, he cautioned, constant effort is required to maintain good relations and to fairly serve the both minority and majority needs. Time does not stand still. New problems replace old problems. Expectations remain unfulfilled. Dialogue is always necessary.

The Romanian model has been made possible partly by the predominant “culture of discussion” within Romania, shared by all of its ethnicities. And, partly, it is due to the decision of Romanian majority and Hungarian minority leaders that they would occupy the same political space and not seek the path of separation and mutual self-isolation.

Along with cultural factors and the courageous decision of both communities to address their problems together, credit for establishing the Romanian model is also due to the ability of their individual leaders to work skillfully and effectively in that common political space.

The resilience of that model is particularly remarkable given the current ascension of extremist parties in Europe carrying nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic messages. With the rise of extremism has also come a worrying evolution in attitudes towards minority rights along Romania’s borders (for example, the persecution of minority languages in the Ukraine and in the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova.)

At a time when right-radical and extremist parties have won record gains throughout Europe, their counterparts failed even to gain entry into the Romanian parliament. Participants of both ethnicities attributed the fact that there are no nationalist parties in either the cabinet or the Romanian parliament to the Romanian-Hungarian dialogue established in the early 1990s.

However, as one Romanian participant pointed out, there is little cause for complacency. The market for cultural programs of the sort to increase mutual knowledge of one another is small, especially in the privately owned media. Society remains vulnerable to extremist, chauvinist and populist messages. The youth of every ethnicity have access to an ever-increasing array of radical and extremist messages online. And some politicians are drawn onto this path as a short-term means of generating political support during elections, inadvertently contributing to the long-term development of extremism in Europe.

Iterative Romanian-Hungarian consultations since 1991 have played a significant role in creating mutual respect between parties, persons and processes. Consequent to the initial decisions to engage in the political process, ethnic Hungarian elites previously isolated from central Romanian national politics “learned much about political relations and the friendly resolution problems.” Among the most important lessons learned, noted one Hungarian participant, was that of “creating laws while in power that continue to serve you well once you are out of power.”

This level of respect and trust was by no means easy to achieve. Indeed, during the latter half of the 1980s the repressiveness of the communist dictatorship had exacerbated the isolation of the two communities from each other to such an extent that they then had to become reacquainted with each other under conditions of serious stress and distrust. During the first iterations of “consultation” the two sides came together very much like boxers in a title fight. Only much later were they able to cooperate as a team of problem-solvers.

As one participant noted, the process of building acceptance among Romanian society for minority requests is complex, sometimes difficult and often requires years.  The process must necessarily be both transparent and methodical in order to avoid excessive politicization and enable effective implementation. Shortcuts are likely to rebound to everyone’s disadvantage and “quick fix” decisions arranged behind closed doors are unlikely to survive subsequent public scrutiny and reaction.  Implementation is virtually impossible when decisions are unilateral and unpopular, and any decision is worthless if it cannot be implemented.

Indeed, commented another participant, the resolution of ethnic issues required “time and sensitivity.” And the lifespan of specific resolutions is greatly enhanced when they are based upon principles applicable to everyone. For example, decentralization should be approached on the basis of all the valid arguments, not just on the preservation of ethnic specificity, which only denies it a natural and much larger audience and may create resistance from both majority and other ethnic minority communities.

Several participants of both ethnicities discussed the problem created when more general issues were given an ethnic valence with counterproductive results. Referring to this problem of “over-ethnicization,” one Hungarian participant explained how some proposals emerging from the ethnic Hungarian community have general applicability but, when passed through an ethnic prism, they alienated the larger constituency unnecessarily and rendered their value hard to perceive for mainstream Romanian parties.

The Romanian model of interethnic management incorporated permanent dialogue and the quasi-permanent representation of ethnic Hungarians in government, either through their direct participation in ministerial and sub-ministerial posts or through an extensive series of protocols with the ruling party (on the order of 50-60 per annum) when the UDMR was in political opposition. The protocol system, worked out between the ethnic Hungarians and Romanians without PER involvement, has brought gains to the Hungarian minority and to mutual understanding that greatly exceeded the rather modest goals of the original PER accords.

Performance is a powerful argument. As one Hungarian participant recounted, although he voted at the time against the ethnic Hungarian leaders who took part in the early PER meetings as betraying the interests of their community, had he known then what he has since learned of the discussions, and based on the performance and actual implementation of those accords, he “would have voted for them, for the ideals behind them, for what they initiated and what they accomplished.”

Another participant observed that successful cooperation between the Romanian government and ethnic Hungarian leaders was never achieved through threat and blackmail but rather on the basis of common interest and as stipulated in clear protocols. In this respect, the formal system of protocols protects the discussion from the capricious effects of individual personality, politicization and less transparent special interests.

More than one Hungarian participant thought it unwise to refer to the “Romanian model” as the most impressive in the region (and in some respects in Europe). However, the intent behind this was less to deny Romania’s evident success in this domain then to avoid self-defeating complacency. Too often, front-runners become complacent and discontinue their attention and effort, especially when the issue at hand is conceived of as a problem with a finite resolution, as a race to be won. It was feared by some ethnic Hungarian leaders that recognition of Romania’s status as a European “model” could have an inadvertent demobilizing effect, causing political leadership to drop the ball and allowing things to drift, even to the point of crisis.

The real problem of course is not any specific minority demand or set of demands but a robust interethnic dialogue. And dialogue is not a problem that any measure or set of measures will resolve once and for all. It is an ongoing process, an issue to be managed. The Romanian model has been successful precisely because of a mutual dedication to engage in meaningful dialogue, in spite of the inevitable fumbles along the way. The Romanians do indeed have a model worthy of emulation, but it is a model for maintaining and managing a relationship, not a once-and-for-all solution to a static political problem.


Why Reconvene in 2014?

 Institutional memory needs refreshing if the value of long-established policies and practices is to be understood by new generations of leaders. Moreover, by their very nature long-established policies and practices need periodic fine-tuning, revamping, and sometimes a complete overhaul if they are to remain as pertinent to changing times, political contexts, and community needs as initially designed and intended.

Currently, the generation with direct experience of how fragile the Romanian state was – or was perceived to by both domestic and foreign observers – during 1989-1994, and especially those who took part in the initial, and initially quite difficult, conversations during 1991-1995, is now passing the baton of leadership to a new political generation. That new generation is largely uninformed of how Romanians of both ethnicities managed to forge and maintain constructive dialogue and cooperation. Nor are they fully aware of the rationale and motivations underlying the system of protocols previously concluded.

On the contrary, the parties and principals coming to power since the beginning of the new millennium have tended to regard the issue of ethnic relations as one already “resolved” and therefore as undeserving of much special attention, resource dedication, or political action. No longer able to advance specific political and socio-economic issues of central importance to their constituencies, ethnic Hungarian leaders have tended to turn towards programmatic solutions (such as “territorial autonomy”) developed in other cultural and historical contexts, rather than toward the disaggregation of specific problems more easily resolved.

To some, thisis disturbing, not so much because of suspicion regarding the intent and ultimate aim of ethnic Hungarians in Romania but because of the context of contemporary political developments in Europe and the region. In February 2014 Ukraine repealed its language law allowing the use of minority languages.[7] The May 2014 elections for the European Parliament resulted in record gains for right-wing and far right political forces, in France, Great Britain, Denmark, Austria and Hungary, among others. Given the tendencies evident along more than one of Romania’s borders, it is cold comfort that the Romanians did not return any of their far right political forces to either the European Parliament or to their own parliament.[8]

 Participants agreed that the PER process was enormously successful from the early 1990s until around 2003-2004. It was responsible for achieving stability and increasing security as well as institutionalizing dialogue. But since 2004, and especially since 2007, the process has stagnated and there have even been some apparent reversals, prompting the need for renewal, the need for a new pact. This stagnation of the process and continued failures of implementation provided the basic motivations for the 2014 Poiana Brasov meeting.

As more than one participant underscored, the model needs reaffirmation and the process “needs to be restarted.” One observer described the previously remarkable effectiveness of the Romanian model, especially the governmental protocol system. After noting that this system was taught to political science students, “why,” he asked, “cannot the same approach be adopted today,” when it could provide necessary “instruction for a new generation of Romanian political leadership in resolving ethnic issues.”

Another participant suggested that the process could even be improved. As initially designed, moderate national level Romania leaders reached accords with moderate ethnic Hungarian leaders. While both then had to deal with radicals within their coalitions (and parties), the Romanian leaders were doubly burdened since ethnic Romanians who formed a local minority in the largely Hungarian “Szekler” counties (Covasna and Harghita especially) were not parties to the discussion and felt that their interests were being ignored. As the participant noted, “the only method through which the requests and expectations of the Szeklers can be met in an acceptable fashion is by sitting down at the table with them, and also with the representatives of the local Romanian minority living in the Szekler region, to ensure that their linguistic, educational and cultural needs are met as well.”

Giving thanks for the active engagement of the participants in making a “good start,” the Romanian convener of the roundtable, who was a participant in the original PER discussions, expressed the government’s commitment to the dialogue and emphasized that the younger participants “are the ones who will take over this process.”


Disaggregating Problems from Programs

Resolution of complex political issues first requires their disaggregation into more specific component parts. Programmatic solutions, especially in cases where the defining terms of the program are ambiguous, rarely serve their intended ends. In their aggregate form it is difficult to discern whether specific underlying problems are ideological or concrete, political or personal, a matter of central or local policy, caused by intent or incapacity, accident or misunderstanding. Such complexities were evident during the roundtable discussion.

Hungarian requests were presented in two ways at the roundtable, first as general concerns that there had been “no steps forward” over the last decade; that “existing rights had been withdrawn;” that linguistic rights had “not been put into practice;” and that (privately owned) “media are stirring up political hostility towards the Hungarian community.” Thus, Hungarian leaders called for overcoming stagnation in the dialogue; the restoration of apparently withdrawn rights; the implementation of previously agreed linguistic provisions; and the cessation of hostile treatment of the Hungarian community in the private media.

A second set of more detailed requests contained a mixture of ten general/ideological and concrete elements regarding the Szekler region[9], including (1) designation of Hungarian as second official language; (2) territorial and fiscal autonomy; (3) acceptance of Szekler flag; (4) establishment of a Szekler development region; (5) full decentralization; (6) ethnic proportionality in public law enforcement, judicial and security institutions; (7) regional ownership of mineral resources; (8) establishing a state-financed Hungarian language university; (9) state-financed bilingualism; and (10) the construction of a highway.[10]

Further discussion identified four of these issues as of most immediate concern: the local use of the Szekler flag, economic development, the implementation of bilingualism, and ethnic proportionality in public institutions.


Szekler Flag

As a symbol of ethnic identity, the use of the Szekler flag was both a highly emotional one for ethnic Hungarian leaders and a classic problem of implementation, both in the application of the law and its continued monitoring to prevent abuse. During the dialogue it emerged that although initially viewed by UDMR leaders as an assault on ethnic identity and backtracking on agreements already negotiated with the Romanian government, the issue was not caused by central policy or intent. According to both the evaluation of the Romanian Academy of Sciences commission on heraldry and to the dictates of Romanian law, the Szekler flag is a legitimate and legally recognized symbol that may be displayed alongside the Romanian flag at public institutions.

It further became clear during the discussion, and indeed was underscored by a Hungarian participant, that the problem was manifest in only one of the two majority Hungarian counties (Covasna) while the Szekler flag was flown unobstructed in the other county (Harghita). Thus, the issue was one of abuse by local authorities rather than a central policy of discrimination. Both sides agreed that the unfettered exercise of this right at the local level required closer monitoring by central authorities to curtail possible abuses that could negatively impact ethnic Hungarian-Romanian relations at the national level. The participants shared a general opinion that this issue could be dealt with in the short-term.


Economic Development

Other issues also have complex causes that are easily assimilated to ethnic discrimination when not transparently addressed. Unfavorable patterns of economic infrastructure investment and regional development are a case in point.

Certainly a core area of dissatisfaction was economic stagnation. More than half of the list of ten Hungarian demands were in fact of an economic nature; requests for greater local control over financial and mineral resources, for a higher priority in infrastructural investment projects (for example, highway construction), and for increased state funding for programs that would benefit the community (full bilingualism not only in education and public administration but in commerce as well). One Romanian participant even predicted that if the economic element were resolved than all other elements would fall into place relatively easily.

One major economic issue was the construction of a highway linking the region to the rest of Romania and Europe, long promised but still unrealized. During the course of the discussion it was discovered that the reason for the delay was not primarily one of intentional oversight with ethnic connotations, as feared by some Hungarian participants, but rather a matter of limited financial means. Indeed, it emerged that the feasibility study regarding such a highway had been completed and the financing finally arranged such that construction could begin in 2015.

While the recent string of worldwide financial and economic crises necessarily impacts Romania as well, the Romanian participants were confident that encouraging movement on the highway issue, in particular, could be made in this direction.



At the center of requests related to bilingualism is the dual challenge of supporting use of the minority language to assure long-term survival of the ethnicity while at the same time ensuring general literacy in the majority language even among minority populations to ensure both integration at the community level and equal opportunity at the individual level. These are sometimes perceived as contradictory goals, and the policies adopted to advance one as hostile to the other.

The discussants agreed that these challenges and the fears they might inspire were best approached with sensitivity, so as to ensure a parallel attention to the concerns of local minority ethnic Romanians and to involve them in the dialogue. Consistent concern for minority rights and requirements, not just those of Hungarian minority communities among Romanian majorities but of local Romanian minority communities among local Hungarian majorities, was identified as perhaps the most constructive method for addressing the issue.

Specific complaints were registered regarding (1) the lack of state financing for bilingual signs in all localities with 50% or more ethnic Hungarian population (an accord first reached at Gerzensee in 1993), (2) the lack of trained interpreters to allow full use of Hungarian in the judicial system, and (3) the lack of fully bilingual official forms and documents. While central resistance and local capriciousness may have had a role in the non-implementation of these rights, the overriding problem appeared to be the financial inability to meet the costs of parallel documentation and the training of fully bilingual public officials. Both parties agreed that greater attention should be paid these issues to advance their implementation.


Ethnic Proportionality in Public Institutions

Several speakers raised the desiderata of ethnic proportionality in all units of the military, justice system (prosecutors and judges), gendarmerie, police, and intelligence services.

While the ethnic composition of state institutions undeniably merits close attention, and although ethnic proportionality is both a noble ideal and practical aim to strive for, inferences that current disproportionalities are the consequence only of discriminatory state/government policies may be in error or, at least, simplistic. As the discussion progressed it became clear that causes more complex than central resistance were at play.

As one Hungarian participant observed, there has been a general reluctance among the Hungarian community to seek employment in these public institutions, suggesting that the current disproportionality also reflects a previous lack of ethnic Hungarian applicants. (Indeed, at several points during the twentieth century service in such institutions was viewed as surrendering to cooption and “race betrayal” by radicals within the community and strongly discouraged.)

There are a number of other barriers to strict ethnic proportionality in professional institutions that have less to with ethnicity than to recruitment base and the ability of individuals to meet standard criteria for employment in a particular institution (e.g., educational level, professional training/experience, etc.) That said, outreach programs to under-represented ethnic groups have proven an effective means of reducing imbalances elsewhere. While this issue was not discussed in depth, it was “placed on the radar” for further discussion.




The issue of autonomy was the object of some discussion. One Hungarian participant, after acknowledging the achievement of “more understanding today than yesterday,” complained that virtually “nothing from the perspective of autonomy has advanced.” In further discussion it emerged that ethnic Hungarian leaders in Romania conceived of the policy of autonomy as a means of resolving a series of very specific issues of concern to their community. The term autonomy was thus conditioned by the degree to which those specific issues can be discussed and resolved together with Romanian officials.

The mechanism appears to be rather straightforward. Ethnic Hungarian leaders prefer to resolve issues through dialogue with their Romanian colleagues. If officials and public institutions are accessible and responsive then “autonomy” very much resembles rather standard notions of local autonomy and decentralized authority.  However, when issues are not addressed through dialogue then the notion of autonomy acquires more radical nuances.

When central institutions and officials are unresponsive then ethnic Hungarian leaders try and resolve those issues on their own – independently and separately– more in accordance with radical interpretations of autonomy. The core dynamic has little to do with ethnicity itself. Regional populations regardless of ethnicity tend to seek greater autonomy, and to strengthen their regional identity, when central authorities and institutions prove inaccessible and/or unresponsive to their needs.

On the other hand, autonomy constitutes a red flag for many Romanian elites, who remain concerned as to the ultimate aims encompassed in what participants noted was a rather vague term. These concerns are driven by general precedent and by historical experience. Territorial autonomy presupposes the loss of sovereignty over national territory, and the attempt to diminish any state’s sovereignty over its territory can evoke an almost primordial threat to national security as traditionally defined. Yet advocates of territorial autonomy expressed bewilderment and discomfort when their advocacy is considered a threat to national security.

The issue is confounded, and alarmist interpretations reinforced, by Budapest’s insistent support of “territorial autonomy” for Transylvania, regarded in the past by some members of the ethnic Hungarian community as a step towards transfer of that territory.[11] Indeed, shortly after the roundtable members of Budapest’s nationalist right-wing government, including Hungary’s prime minister, traveled to the Szekler region and publicly called for territorial autonomy.. The question was raised as to whether the use of Budapest’s terminology, rather than building upon the already successful approaches to ethnic relations in Romania, created unnecessary complications in communicating and advancing otherwise unexceptional aims.

One American participant asked whether the use of the word autonomy as the umbrella term for ethnic Hungarian goals did not evoke more alarm than sympathy among the Romanians, some of whom see it as a synonym for separatism. As the participant noted, “To outside observers it appears that the demonstration of interest by Budapest, including the public announcement of visits by high-ranking Hungarian officials to the region, has become a serious issue and concern for Romanian authorities and has had some impact on Romanian perceptions.”

As an ethnic Hungarian participant acknowledged, “There are some moments when Budapest’s involvement complicates matters.” A Romanian participant observed that the current ruling party in Hungary (FIDESZ) had played a role in creating two radical ethnic Hungarian parties in Romania to contest the UDMR. According to the same participant, however, the current ruling party in Romania (PSD) “starts from the premise that the UDMR must be present in parliament, that it must be a party to the discussion.  The party would doubtlessly radicalize if left outside of parliament, without access to the political discussion.”

Previous PER experience had shown that specific requests proved easier to address once they were disaggregated from the rather vague concept of autonomy. At the same time, the powerful cultural and political appeal of the concept the idea autonomy was undeniable, and the difficulty of re-branding a long-standing policy was acknowledged.

While the roundtable could not reach a consensus regarding the pursuit of “autonomy” all participants considered the discussion of what autonomy encompassed in concrete terms to be useful. As several participants noted, the most oft-cited cause of interethnic misunderstanding prior to the establishment of the PER dialogue was the isolation of the ethnic groups and their relative ignorance of each other, leading to suspicion, fear and mistrust. In fact, as one participant observed, “the majority of problems [after 1989] were caused by reciprocal lack of knowledge.” Another participant, who had been involved in the original PER discussions, underscored that the Romanian side was able to see for the first time “detailed information of what autonomy includes, making it possible to work on practical solutions. ”



Importing “Models”

When issues appear intractable – whether because of their inherent complexity, the inaccessibility of central decision makers, or a lack of dialogue – the tendency arises to cast about for “models” functioning elsewhere that appear to address and resolve those issues. While learning from the experience of others is a practice to be commended and supported, the mechanisms by which ethnic policies, practices and mentalities are produced and perpetuated are often oversimplified and misperceived. For example, those seeking to import models from other states are usually impressed by the attitudes and mentalities that exist in those states.

The conclusion commonly reached is that the implementation of the same model will bring about the same or similarly desirable attitudes and mentalities in their country. Such advocacy often fails to consider that the original implementation of the model in question may have been possible because of already prevailing attitudes and mentalities – or because of some painful reckoning best avoided. That is, political and territorial arrangements may have been the consequence of desirable attitudes and mentalities rather than the other way round (regardless of their often very different historical, cultural and security contexts).

As PER’s president emeritus underscored regarding “global” solutions and imported autonomy policies, “God is in the details – but so is the devil”. The importation of some other country’s model may seem desirable when viewed at a distance but closer scrutiny almost inevitably reveals that only parts of the model are desirable and/or applicable. Other elements essential to the model prove far less desirable.

It is often not the model so much as the manner in which it resolves some specific issue or issues that is found attractive. Focusing on the overall “model” can then become more of a distraction and an obstacle than an effective problem-solving method.

The main issue for ethnic Hungarian leaders is not the discovery of the perfect pre-existing model for adoption in Romania but the best means of assuring education in the mother tongue and the use of the minority language in public administration – rights that had been guaranteed (even when not necessarily observed) even under the communist regime.


The participants were unanimous in their agreement regarding the utility of the roundtable and the advisability of a follow-up meeting within a few months.

[1] For example, Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 22-49, drew a line through Romania separating the territories of Transyvlania, Crisan, Maremures and the Banat from the rest of the country. See also “The War in Transylvania” in Trevor Dupuy, Future Wars: The World’s Flashpoints, New York, Warner Books, 1993, pp. 231-251.

[2] Hungarian officials acknowledged this error in 1999, noting that the Romanian census of 1977 that counted 1.7 million Hungarians was “relatively accurate.” See Határon Túli Magyarok Hivatala [Hungarian Government Office for Hungarian Minorities Abroad], Reports on the Situation of the Hungarians, “The Situation of Hungarians in Romania in 2006,” (Accessed 17 July 2006); Hungarians in Translyvania Between 1870 and 1995, Occasional Paper no. 12, László Teleki Foundation, Budapest, March 1999.

[3] Hungarian leaders in Budapest explicitly advocated the territorial autonomy and independence of Transylvania during the end of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s. See e.g., Michael Shafir, “Matyas Szuros’s Interview with RFE’s Romanian Service,” Radio Free Europe Research, RAD Background Report/127 (Eastern Europe), 20 July 1989, p. 4; “Southeastern Europe: Szuros on Hungarian Minority in Romania,” OMRI Daily Digest, No. 198, 11 October 1995.

[4] Under the Swiss canton model, all education and linguistic usage is based on the majority ethnicity, thus there are German, French, Italian and Romansch-speaking cantons. In Finland, the Vaasa region is a Swedish-speaking enclave with its own mother tongue universities. And the South Tyrol in Italy is primarily a German-speaking region with Italian and Romansch (Ladin) minorities and extensive fiscal autonomy.

[5] The 1995 meeting at the Carter Center, Emory University, in Atlanta, GA constituted the partial exception, when a single member of another party to the governing coalition was included to balance an addition to the Hungarian team.

[6] There were 17 official participants at the roundtable, including four members of opposition parties, as well as four observers (two from the U.S. Embassy in Romania and two journalists – one ethnic Hungarian, the other Romanian.) Several political staffers were also in attendance, although they did not participate in the dialogue.

[7] This affected the 14 (of 27) Russian-speaking regions in the Ukraine primarily. However, a Romanian-speaking region and a Hungarian-speaking region were also affected.

[8] Romania has had two parties considered far right – the Greater Romania Party (PRM) and the Party of National Unities in Romania (PUNR). The PUNR failed to enter into parliament in the 1996 elections and has since dissolved. The PRM failed to enter parliament in either the 2012 Romanian elections (polling less than 1.5%) or the 2014 European elections (less than 3%). In contrast, Hungary’s far right JOBBIK party won 16.8% in the 2010 Hungarian elections, 20% in the 2014 Hungarian elections, and 14.8% in the 2014 European elections.

[9] Ethnic Hungarian leaders uniformly refer to “Szeklerland.” Given that the historic and currently proposed borders of “Szeklerland” are not identical, this report uses the term “Szekler region.”

[10] Subsequent to the roundtable, in August, the UDMR submitted a proposal for (1) the delegation of attributions by the Romanian state to regional and local authorities; (2) designation of “official languages in the region”; (3) establishing “ethnic proportionality in public bodies”; (4) establishing “fiscal autonomy”; and (5) designating “the rights of the Romanians living in the area.” Agerpress, August 9, 2014.

[11] See e.g. Stefano Bottoni, “The Creation of the Hungarian Autonomous Region in Romania (1952): Premises and Consequences,” Regio – Minorities, Politics, Society, no. 1 (2003): 71-93.


August 2014

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