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Trouble in Transylvania

A rumour has been doing the rounds in Romania. It’s an old story which has recently resurfaced – people have been saying that bakeries in the Szeklarland, the area at the very centre of the country, in the heart of the region of Transylvania, are refusing to serve customers unless they place their order in Hungarian. They say that the majority ethnic Hungarian population of the area is asserting itself, talking in terms of seceding from Romania and going it alone. To put that prospect in context, it would be like Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire deciding they didn’t want to be part of the UK any more and forming their own autonomous state aligned with Belgium.

“Who occupied Transylvania first? The Romanians who stayed after the Romans retreated? Or was it the Hungarian tribes?”

It has been easy to dismiss these bakery-based rumours – as well as the ones about Hungarian activists planning to introduce a new independent currency into the region – as nothing more than rural legends. And then on Thursday 15th September, one of the hottest days of the year in Romania, the Bucharest Court of Appeal sanctioned the establishment of the newest political entity in Europe, the Magyar Popular Party in Transylvania (MPPT). And suddenly the future of the Szeklarland – an economically uninspiring area, whose only significant resource is its forests – became the most talked-about subject in Romania.

Magyar Popular Party co-founder László To´´kés

The new party and its high-profile co-founder, László Tőkés, claim they want to make things right for the Hungarians in Transylvania. The region is claimed by both Romanians and Hungarians and the quarrel follows a simple historic line of questioning: who occupied Transylvania first? Was it the Romanians who stayed there after the colonising Romans retreated? Or was it the conquering Hungarian tribes that found an uninhabited land when they arrived to Europe in the late ninth century AD? Both camps claim to have proof of being there first, and throughout the 20th century the region was batted back and forth between Hungary and Romania, proclaiming Union with Romania in 1918, being partially awarded to Hungary by Germany in 1940 and being re-assigned to Romania in the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947.

Szeklar Hungarians – at least on the political level – are unhappy with the hand history has dealt them. “Hungarians are losing their identity and their language and we want to keep our community,” says Zsolt Szilagyi, vice president of the MPPT. “Autonomy is the most effective way for peaceful co-existence between majority and minority and to keep the community alive, otherwise it will disappear like the snow in spring.”

Romania’s parliament in session.

Using the EU

Tőkés, who is deputy president of the European Parliament, had turned to the EU to further his aims even before the official creation of the MPPT. On 31st May he opened a Szeklarland Bureau in Brussels, with the aim of generating publicity for the region and attracting investors. The event caused protests from Romanian politicians and public figures and prompted Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Baconschi to demand an explanation from the Hungarian ambassador. One of the reasons for their concern was that the Bureau was opened as part of the House of Hungarian Regions which – as the name suggests – is affiliated to Hungary, not Romania.

Then on 19th September, only four days after its creation, the MPPT declared that they would make use of an EU directive stipulating that talks about autonomy can commence if such an initiative can generate one million signatures from EU citizens. Fearing that this process is the start of a slippery slope that could lead to the division of the country, mainstream Romanian political leaders are, by and large, livid.

“My opinion is that this party was established in an unconstitutional manner,” says Social Democrat MP Lia Olguta Vasilescu. “The political party legislation clearly stipulates that one cannot establish a party if one does not accept the first article of the Romanian constitution, that Romania is a unitary, national, sovereign and indivisible state,” she says.

Romanian president Traian Basescu is concerned by the Hungarian agitation too and, sidestepping a direct confrontation, he has made an interesting gambit. He has announced that he supports a plan to reorganise the Romanian administrative map from 41 counties to seven large regions plus the capital Bucharest and its surrounding area.

This innocuous-sounding move – which Basescu publically insists is simply to streamline the use of EU accession funds – has triggered vehement reactions from supporters of Szeklarland autonomy. They fear that the inclusion of the three Szeklar counties – Harghita (84 per cent ethnic Hungarian), Covasna (73 per cent) and Mures (39 per cent) – into a larger administrative region would dilute the ethnic Hungarian composition of the area.

Szeklarland – the new Kosovo?

Since the fall of Communism, territorial and ethnic disputes in central and eastern Europe have been responsible for some of the bloodiest conflicts of the past two decades. And the dispute over Szeklarland has raised this ugly spectre once again. The question is: might Szeklarland become the new Kosovo?

A Wikileaks telegram released on 20th September seemed to confirm that such fears do exist at a high level in Romania. In a private meeting with American senator Richard Lugar, President Basescu expressed his concern over the recognition of Kosovo and its repercussions for the international system.

“Basescu came to the meeting well prepared to deliver a direct message,” said Lugar’s telegram. “Romania believes that recognition of Kosovo sets a dangerous precedent… and that the basic promise for territorial integrity for multi-ethnic nation states – a key requirement for Romania’s Nato accession – is in serious jeopardy.” Szilagy believes the comparison with Kosovo is exaggerated and stresses that violence is not an option for the Hungarians. “We want to be peaceful but we also want to achieve our goals,“ he says.

The politics of the small steps

Tőkés, the co-founder of the MPPT, has received support from Fidesz, the governing party in Hungary, which since its election in April 2010 has been active in providing support for Hungarians outside Hungary.

On 26th May 2010, immediately after being elected to government, the Fidesz Party approved a law granting citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living abroad provided they could prove their ancestry. The law was strongly criticised in Slovakia where, according to the 2001 census, the Hungarian minority represents 9.7 per cent of the population and mainly lives close to the Hungarian border.

“Bucharest is less than 300 miles from Pristina, capital of Kosovo, and the country remembers only too well the hellish days of war”

The Hungarian citizenship law has implications for Romania too and Vasilescu believes the government is failing to react properly to it. “This is the politics of the small steps,” she says. “It is easy to see how Hungary might negotiate from a different position with Romania if it had a significant number of Hungarian citizens on our territory.”

Former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu

Such thoughts are enough to send chills down the spine of nationalist Romanians. Bucharest is less than 300 miles from Pristina, capital of Kosovo, and the country remembers only too well the hellish days of war as Kosovo tried to extricate itself from Yugoslavia. Even today Kosovo continues its battle for independence with what is now called Serbia and Montenegro. While a similar disaster in Transylvania still seems a long way off, the summer’s events have been extremely unsettling.

László Tőkés

So who is László Tőkés, co-founder of the MPPT and the most outspoken advocate of Szeklarland autonomy and the interests of Romania’s Hungarian minority? Under the Communist regime he was a firebrand pastor who spoke out against the system. He faced harassment and persecution as a result.

On 15th December 1989, hundreds of people gathered in the western city of Timisoara, protesting against Tőkés’ threatened eviction from his home by the authorities: they refused to be dispersed and the crowd grew, its focus switching to food shortages and then to calling for the downfall of Ceausescu. Ceausescu was away in Iran at the time, but when the uprising was reported to him he was livid and sent an order to his soldiers to open fire on the demonstrators. They did – but the violence only stoked the protests, which quickly spread to Bucharest. And then on 21st December Ceausescu returned and gave a televised speech to a huge rally in the main square of the capital.

The cameras caught the moment when the crowd started to jeer the President – and he realised that he had lost power.  Four days later he was executed by firing squad.

For many people being the catalyst for one landscape-altering political movement is enough for a lifetime – but is seems László Tőkés may not be done just yet… l

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