Un sondaj naţional realizat special pentru o conferinţă organizată de specialişti americani pe tema problematicii interetnice în România arată cu 89% dintre români se exprimă negativ faţă de proiectul autonomiei maghiare, în timp ce doar 6% îl susţin, ceea ce reprezintă aproximativ procentul conlocuitorilor maghiari. 27% dintre repondenţi consideră că un conflict interetnic este oricând posibil iar mai mult de trei sferturi dintre aceştia cred că acest conflict va fi instigat de etnicii maghiari. Pornind de la acest sondaj, o conferinţă cu valenţe internaţionale, realizată de prietenii fostului Proiect pentru Relaţii Etnice (PER) – o iniţiativă americană deturnată şi sucombată în urmă cu câţiva ani – a analizat anul trecut cum mai stau românii şi maghiarii după 25 de ani de la momentul 1989, când ungurii şi-au reluat fătiş pretenţiile asupra Transilvaniei, momentan împachetate oficial sub proiectul autonomiei teritoriale a “Ţinutului Secuiesc”. Cunoscutul specialist american Larry Watts a publicat recent Raportul pe care l-a alcătuit în urma conferinţei pe baza analizelor sale pertinente. Portalul Ziaristi Online preia integral, în original, studiul prof. dr. Larry Watts, structurat în două părţi, după cum s-au derulat sesiunile conferinţei Prietenilor PER:
Interethnic Dialogue In The New Romania I: A Round Table Report – August 2014
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.
PER’s earliest work, and its most notable achievements, were in Romania.
Beginning in 1991, PER initiated discussions between Romanian political leaders 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.
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 censes, on the order of 2.5-3.5 million rather than 1.7 million. 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. 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 a meeting convened at Gerzensee, Switzerland yielded 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.
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 Romania – 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 so before, and 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 expulsion 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). 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 one of which was openly hostile to 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.”
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 of 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 be 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, this is 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. 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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. Indeed, shortly after the roundtable members of Budapest’s nationalist right-wing government, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, 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. ”
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.
 Larry Watts served as analyst and rapporteur for PER at past conferences, authoring “Romanian-American Symposium on Inter-Ethnic Relations,” (1991); “The Romanies in Central and Eastern Europe: Illusions and Reality,” (1992); “Nationality Policy in the Russian Federation,” (1993); “Countering Anti-Roma Violence in Eastern Europe: The Snagov Report and Related Efforts,” (1994); and (with Deborah Wilson), “Building Romanian Democracy: The Police and Ethnic Minorities,” (1999), all available at http://www.per-usa.org.
 See, for example, David B. Ottoway, “Romania Seeks to Ease Ethnic Tension; American-Brokered Deal Grants Special Rights to Hungarians,” Washington Post, April 3, 1993.
 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.
 Hungarian officials acknowledged this error in 1999, noting that the Romanian census of 1977 that counted 1.7 million Hungarians was “relatively accurate.” 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,” www.hhrf.org (Accessed 17 July 2006); Hungarians in Translyvania Between 1870 and 1995, Occasional Paper no. 12, László Teleki Foundation, Budapest, March 1999.
 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.
 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.
 These political dynamics are described in Larry L. Watts, “Ethnic Tensions: How The West Can Help,” World Policy Journal, vol. 12, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 89-96.
 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 a last minute addition to the Hungarian team.
 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. A participant list is appended.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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.
 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.
On 3-4 October 2014, the second roundtable on Interethnic Dialogue in the New Romania: “Romanians and the Hungarian Minority Twenty-Five Years After the 1989 Revolution was convened in Poiana Brasov under the auspices of the non-governmental organization Friends of the Project on Ethnic Relations (FPER). As a follow-up to the first held on 14-15 June 2014, this roundtable focused on consolidating the Romanian model of interethnic relations and discussing ways and means of effectively addressing outstanding issues in the ethnic Hungarian–ethnic Romanian relationship, especially the issue of autonomy. Although only several months had passed since the first roundtable, all of the participants, which included representatives of all the political parties in the Romanian parliament as well as civic society and media representatives of both ethnicities, were unanimous in their call for a second round before the November 2014 presidential elections.
The first roundtable had provided the opportunity for both sides to present positions and problems from their perspective, to reacquaint themselves with the positions and perspectives of their partners, and to discuss ways and means of addressing outstanding issues and to better understand the hurdles and hiccups that confront the formation and implementation of ethnic policy. A significant focus of the second roundtable was the reformulation of both sides’ positions to better take into account the perspectives and positions of the other side in the dialogue.
The following summary and analysis was drawn up by the rapporteur, Larry Watts, and does not necessarily represent the official position of any Romanian or ethnic Hungarian party 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 second roundtable took place under even more complicated domestic and international circumstances than its predecessor. Against the backdrop of rising extremism in Europe, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban continued to fan ethnic tensions in the region. Russian forces had militarily occupied and annexed Crimea from Ukraine not long before the first roundtable convened. Between the roundtables, during the summer of 2014, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and Vladimir Putin premised the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine on the claimed need to protect ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities abroad.
Shortly after the first roundtable, while visiting Romania in July 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban delivered a vituperative attack against liberal democracy while announcing his intention to create an “illiberal state” and acknowledging Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with which Orban had become closely allied, as a source of his inspiration. Budapest continued to demand territorial autonomy and secession rights for Hungarian minorities in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and Slovakia while reaffirming Hungary’s commitment to a 1992 accord with Russia in which both sides asserted their claim of authority over their respective minorities in neighboring countries.
The timing of the second roundtable, one month before Romania’s 2014 presidential elections, also raised some fears that the process would quickly become fodder for partisan political competitors, both compromising interethnic dialogue and allowing one or more competitors to exploit it for unfair electoral advantage. Scheduling conflicts on part of the American participants had postponed the roundtable from starting at the beginning of September, as initially projected, until October 3, the official start of the presidential campaign. Had any of the participants wished to exploit the dialogue for partisan purposes they certainly could have done so.
As it turned out, all of the participants, not only representatives of the parties engaged in the election but also those from civic organizations and the media, honored their pledge not to do so and neither the fact of the roundtable and nor its proceedings were mentioned during the electoral campaign. This is perhaps especially notable because the prime minister, one of the (ultimately unsuccessful) candidates for the presidency, had expressed his written support prior to the roundtable but did not exploit that fact for electoral advantage.
However, the discussions were not unaffected by the electoral competition. For example, although it was generally acknowledged at the first roundtable that movement on issues of even immediate concern was likely to be marginal before the elections, Romanian authorities were criticized for this lack of movement nonetheless during the second round. In addition, pressures created by the electoral campaign partly determined the UDMR’s public announcement of its autonomy project several weeks before the roundtable. Thus, an important element of the new round of discussions focused on identifying workable and problematic aspects of the project and better defining the concept of autonomy.
As PER President Emeritus Allen Kassof observed, the roundtable was occurring amidst headlines about lethal conflict in Ukraine, the Scottish referendum on separation from the United Kingdom (voted down just two weeks earlier) and rising secessionist trends in Catalonia, Spain. In the final analysis, however, Romanian interethnic relations would be decided in Romania, by the people engaged in this dialogue. “Your predecessors,” Kassof underscored, established a commitment to interethnic dialogue that was “unique in the region, which I know will serve you well.”
As always, the discussion was informal and off-the-record. Comments and statements were those of the individual participants and did not necessarily represent parties or institutions, unless so stipulated by the discussant. Participants were asked not to quote individual speakers but were permitted to reference what was said in the discussions.
The Project on Ethnic Relations in Romania
PER was a privately funded U.S.-based non-governmental organization based in Princeton, N.J. with the mission of preventing violent conflict and fostering ethnic harmony in the former Soviet space. PER worked widely in the region to provide a neutral forum for discussion for more than two decades in 1991-2012. During that time PER held meetings between ethnic Hungarian and Romanian leaders in Romania, Switzerland and the United States. Former Princeton professor Allen Kassof first created PER within the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) in 1991. Kassof then left IREX to run PER fulltime until his retirement in 2005. Although much of PER’s work required discretion, none of it was secret. After PER officially closed its doors in 2012, Dr. Kassof deposited all of the PER archives with the Public Policy Papers collection of the Mudd Library at Princeton University where they are now publicly available.
In January 2014 Allen Kassof was invited to assess the state of interethnic relations in Romania and assist in unblocking what was widely perceived as a stalled process. After several fact-finding trips to Romania he proposed a round-table discussion involving previous partners in the dialogue as well as the younger generation politicians that had taken or were about to take their place. In this effort, Kassof was joined by two former PER colleagues: Jonathan Rickert and Larry Watts.
Jonathan Rickert, a former U.S. diplomat and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, had already served for seven years on post in Romania when PER began and was subsequently in charge of the Romanian desk at the State Department. Rickert later joined PER’s Advisory Board, on which he served for many years. Larry Watts, a diplomatic scholar and security and defense specialist, ran the Bucharest office as PER’s senior consultant from 1991 until 1998, staying on in Romania to continue work in the democratic reform of security sector institutions. Watts served as liaison with the Friends of the Project on Ethnic Relations that sponsored and organized the roundtables, as well as rapporteur.
Livia Plaks was another critical actor in the PER effort in Romania. An American born in Transylvania, Livia was affiliated with PER from its founding and served as its president from 2005 until 2012. Livia died suddenly in 2013 and is greatly missed.
Motivations for the Autonomy Project
The discussion began with the presentation of a nationwide public opinion poll commissioned expressly for the roundtable on the topic of autonomy. Not surprisingly, knowledge of the formal autonomy project was relatively low given that it was officially launched only two weeks earlier. Thus, 56% of the Romanian population remained unaware of the project and only 28% knew what it was about. However, 89% of all respondents viewed an ethnic autonomy project in largely negative terms while only 6%, roughly the percentage of ethnic Hungarians in the population, viewed it in positive terms.
While concern about serious ethnic tensions and conflict did not preoccupy the overwhelming majority of respondents, a significant proportion (27%) did view interethnic conflict as possible. More than three-quarters of those believed that conflict was most likely to be instigated by ethnic Hungarians. As the poll presenter explained, these public perceptions constitute significant hurdles for advancing any autonomy project that did not address adequately the fears and preconceptions of the majority population.
In addressing the question of “why now,” several Hungarian participants explained that, electoral considerations aside, there were two proximate causes for the autonomy project at this time. In fact, autonomy projects had been discussed within the leadership of the Hungarian community since the early 1990s. However, advancements in cultural autonomy and political access – in no small part due to the efforts of PER during that period – moved comprehensive autonomy projects to the back burner.
Especially significant in this regard had been the semi-institutionalized process of regular consultation and written protocols concluded between the UDMR leadership and the Romanian government that were in operation from the early 1990s until 2004. The consultation-protocol system was initiated under the 1992-1996 Administration of Ion Iliescu and the center-left PSD (then-PDSR) government. The same system was maintained by the center-right Democratic Convention governments under the 1996-2000 Constantinescu Administration, and again by the center-left PSD under the 2001-2004 Iliescu Administration. As one Hungarian participant noted, during 2003-2004 alone some 30 pages of protocols were submitted by the UDMR and were realized together with the government.
For reasons still unexplained the consultation-protocol system ceased to exist under the 2004-2014 Basescu Administration and the center-right PNL and PDL governments. As this system was shut down dialogue withered, political access diminished, and frustration among ethnic Hungarian political leaders and their constituents increased. Equally damaging was the persistence of past accords remaining implemented and the apparently increasing frequency of roll-back. The non-implementation or violation by local authorities of national legislation on bilingualism and the display of regional flags on government buildings in the Szekler region was a recurrent example cited by Hungarian participants.
For a variety of reasons, including the national focus on EU integration and the cooption of individual representatives, projects for cultural autonomy were not introduced over the last decade. Meanwhile, however, problems in the relationship accumulated after 2004 as movement on minority issues slowed to a halt and political access steadily diminished. It became necessary to seek other means of protecting rights won, addressing further needs of the community and gaining government attention.
The other proximate motivation was the nationalist and illiberal trend in Budapest and the breakdown of Hungarian-Romanian relations at the state and government levels. Indeed, Budapest’s history of unilaterally attempting to assert its sovereignty over ethnic Hungarians in Romania, and its continued lobbying against the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon recognizing Transylvania and the Szekler region within it as Romanian territory, made it a highly confounding element in the ethnic Hungarian-Romanian relationship within Romania even before the more extreme nationalism of current Prime Minister Victor Organ and his ruling FIDESZ party.
Consequently, local calls for political decentralization were frequently assimilated to Budapest’s calls for something far more controversial, shutting down discussion of both. The error of viewing the ethnic Hungarian leadership in Romania as secretly pursuing an agenda that Budapest openly espoused was common at the beginning of the 1990s. It was overcome only after multiple iterations of interethnic dialogue, consultation and active political cooperation.
At the same time, Hungary remains the cultural mother country and the political and financial assistance made available to local leaders from Budapest has also supported the legitimate aims of the local community. The resources provided from Hungary are also very significant in terms of local ethnic Hungarian politics as, for example, in Budapest’s financing of two much more radical parties to challenge the UDMR’s preeminence as representative of the Hungarian community in Romania.
Inappropriate tendencies of the Orban government to insert itself into interethnic issues in Romania, and their resemblance to the exploitative “minority protection” practices of Vladimir Putin, with whom Orban has become more closely allied, further complicates the problem. Orban offers an alternative government audience for dissatisfied co-ethnics and actively encourages co-ethnic communities in the “near abroad” to turn his way.
Hungarian participants were divided on the role played by the European Union. Some felt that the EU (and NATO) were obliged to intervene while others felt that appeals to the EU or to other international bodies is unlikely to yield results. Most agreed the basic problem to be the EU’s unwillingness or inability to establish “solid” or obligatory minority rights standards or binding legislation. Likewise, EU best practices were not merely the result of legislation but also were dependent on factors such as resource availability, bilateral relations with neighbors, etc.
The UDMR bore the brunt of criticism from Budapest for closely cooperating with central authorities in Romania. When the Romanian side disengages from that cooperation, when agreements and legislation are no longer implemented and even begin to be challenged, the UDMR is the first to experience the political cost both in terms of the dissatisfaction of its constituents and pressure from more radical organizations. More importantly, when the interethnic dialogue breaks down, when accords and legislation are interpreted ambiguously or implemented inconsistently, it is incumbent on the UDMR leadership to come up with some other way of protecting, guaranteeing and furthering the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.
While recognizing that there is no “once and for all” solution to minority issues, that it is a matter for constant debate and adjustment in order to accommodate new generations and new expectations on all sides, the autonomy project was introduced in part to redress the breakdown of the dialogue and of the consultation-protocol system, and in part to protect the independence of the Hungarian community from more radical external and internal pressures. As one Hungarian participant underscored, “we can keep Orban and Putin out by resolving our own situation.”
As one Hungarian representative explained, ethnic Hungarians were interested not in separatism but in an autonomy for the Szekler region embodying the best practices of the European Union. The Hungarian community had no interest in creating a breakaway area.
At the same time, the representative insisted that only the minority was in a position to judge whether specific problems were resolved and the merit of their manner of resolution, indicating an apparent tension between concepts of local authority and the importance of joint Romanian-Hungarian assessment to render solutions acceptable to both sides.
Specific Issues and General Frameworks
The first roundtable identified four issues of immediate concern: the local use of the Szekler flag, economic development (particularly in terms of a highway linking the Szekler region with the rest of Romania and Europe), the implementation of bilingualism, and ethnic proportionality in public institutions. If the breakdown of cooperation and regional radicalization were the general motivations for the autonomy project then these issues constituted the specific proximate motivations. In the three and a half months following the first roundtable, there had been little progress.
Even if, in light of the upcoming elections, no major progress had been anticipated, the fact that legal processes against local Hungarian authorities regarding the use of the Szekler flag and bilingualism continued during that period was viewed as a cause for concern. Both sides had a stakeholder interest in legitimatizing both the dialogue and closer political cooperation to their respective constituents. However, this effort suffered when the dialogue yielded little or no results. Lacking results, participants lost both credibility and authority and the very idea of dialogue was undermined. Achieving some concrete results after a steady deterioration of interethnic conversation over the last eight years of the Basescu Administration was now more imperative than ever.
When asked by an American participant if the display of the Szekler flag was problematic before 2007, a Hungarian respondent explained that the issue first appeared in 2008 and became more problematic since 2010. Likewise, there were continued problems in implementing the law on bilingualism regarding signs and language use in administration where a minority comprised at least 20% of the community (one Hungarian respondent gave Targu Mures as example of locally-based authorities raising discussion of rights already guaranteed by law.)
One Romanian parliamentarian saw the solution to the flag issue as “simple and straightforward,” if not exactly easy. Each and every flag of Romania’s forty-one counties could be officially displayed in front of the parliament building. Another parliamentarian underscored that at the local level a possible solution could be legislating the obligatory display of five flags – the municipal flag, county flag, Romanian flag and the flags of the European Union and NATO – on all government buildings, especially mayoralty and county council buildings. Implementation of this measure throughout the country would remove it as a source of tension in interethnic relations.
One participant suggested that a related proposal within the autonomy project for recognizing Hungarian as an official regional language might first be approached half-way; by formally establishing it as a regional language without elevating to the same status as the state language. Even prior to this, however, Romanian and Hungarian participants were in accord that it was necessary to facilitate the use of Hungarian in administrative institutions and the justice system where ethnic Hungarians comprise 20% or more of the population, just as the law stipulates. The underlying issue regarding regional languages, one Romanian participant explained, was that they cannot be implemented without concrete understandings of what recognition entails and the costs involved. Otherwise, the lag-time between legislation and implementation can be very long indeed.
The specific problem of a highway that would connect the Szekler region with the rest of Romania and with Europe was the one area that had registered some progress since the first roundtable. The last of three studies, including the feasibility study for the first tranche of the highway between Brasov and Bacau that crossed the Szekler region, had been completed and the highway was now included in the EU’s transportation master plan and thus funded by Brussels. According to a Romanian participant, this represented a win-win-win because the highway had also been championed by Hungary. It was expected that the highway would be realized by 2018, by the anniversary of Romanian unification.
The discussion showed that the two sides operated according to quite different perception biases. For example, the minority tended to see the greatest problem of the EU as national – specifically related to national minorities. Thus, one Hungarian participant described the war in Ukraine, tensions in Spain, and the close separatist referendum vote in Scotland as all due to “majority arrogance” and “lack of sufficient empathy” for minority rights. From this perspective the clear solution was in the further granting of rights and full autonomy.
In contrast, majority leaders viewed the problem as one of national security and territorial integrity. From their perspective the Russians invaded and annexed parts of Ukraine primarily in order to block Ukraine’s further integration with the European Union. Minority rights in that scenario constituted, at best, a justification and cover for more aggressive designs. Generally speaking, the majority was much more sympathetic to the national/state interest concerns of Madrid and London as well. As one Romanian participant explained it, “for us the problem is not strictly tied to superior rights or positive discrimination but to the prosperity and security of nations/states.”
Likewise, when ethnic Hungarian leaders assessed the situation in Romania they tended to compare it with what they perceived as “best practices” – usually the most autonomous cultural and territorial arrangements in Europe. They paid less attention to the special circumstances of those arrangements or to Romania’s more general standing in terms of minority rights in Europe. Consequently, Romania’s – in their view – less than ideal arrangements constituted problematic shortcomings and even discrimination.
In contrast, Romanian authorities tend to compare their country’s performance in recognizing and implementing minority rights against that of all the other EU members, focusing almost exclusively on issues of cultural autonomy. When ethnic Romanian attention is drawn to the territorial autonomies within Europe its focus tends to rest on the special circumstances of each case.
Role of International Actors
At several points the discussion revisited the issue of international organizations and outside actors in influencing or determining the structure of ethnic relations in Romania. Several Hungarian participants voiced dissatisfaction with the apparent lack of EU and NATO attention to the topic in contrast to the 1990s, when it seemed to form a central preoccupation. EU documents were both praised and criticized for setting out best practices and standards and lacking any obligation or enforcement.
As the American moderator noted “in reference to intervention of international organizations – it does have historical precedence when Romania was up for memberships NATO, EU, Council of Europe, so it was not invented by the minority but was something those organizations brought. There was ample precedent in the 1990s – whether or not it is relevant now is another question.”
One Hungarian participant point out that there was no need to fear the involvement of the United States, European Union or the Council of Europe, nor should the fact that they “still have something to say about the minority issue” be rejected. It was precisely the monitoring by these entities that dispelled misconceptions of gross discrimination and, in the end, “proved that Romania did not need monitoring.” Likewise, the existence of very many different approaches within the EU guarantees that the EU will never force a specific approach upon any of its members. The same is true of the United States, as President Carter explained during the PER meeting at the Carter center in 1995 regarding regional languages especially. While solutions must be sought and found by Romanian citizens themselves, international actors often have pertinent experience that may be useful, their involvement (even if as observers) helps to validate the process, and they can help to ensure that the process and circumstances are more accurately understood internationally.
Several Romanian respondents pointed out that the manner of international involvement is very important. When part of a voluntary integrative process, as with NATO and the EU, such involvement was perceived as legitimate and experienced as an objective institutional process rather than political and partisan process. However, if such involvement occurs as the result of appeals made to international organizations over the heads of state and governmental authority, or if intervention is advocated from actors that previously claimed Romanian territories and populations, then the perception is very different. Anything resembling such an appeal to international arbitration, after the Romanian experience of 1940 when Hitler and Mussolini “arbitrated” the temporary loss of Transylvania, constitutes the kiss of death for such involvement.
Decentralization, Sovereignty and the Redefinition of Autonomy
One of the most persistent hurdles in interethnic accommodation arises when heightened fears of loss of identity by minority groups clash against heightened fears of loss of sovereignty and territorial integrity by the majority. The terminology of the debate often contributes to tension. For example, autonomy is synonymous with independence, which often invokes fears of separatism. A similar problem arises when decentralization of political authority and decisionmaking is conflated with a transfer of state sovereignty. These semantic hurdles assume even greater proportion when an outside power makes unilateral claims of sovereignty over the minority population or the territory on which it resides. This tends to create hypersensitivity towards any constitutional, legal or political action that could legitimize secession, diminished sovereignty or autonomy.
The problem of terminology was evident at several points during the roundtable discussion, whenever introduction of autonomy or partial autonomy was raised. One proposal suggested “sovereignty be delegated” to the minorities much like Romanian authorities had delegated portions of sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund or to the European Union, “on the basis of a contract.” A contract in which both sides accepted various obligations. Another proposal suggested experimenting with specific kinds of autonomy for limited periods. For example, a temporary grant of fiscal autonomy such that, if no growth is achieved within three years then the experiment end within in five years.
The main counterargument was that the contractual basis regarding the harmonization of policy with international organizations of which Romania was a member was radically different from an arrangement that undermined the state’s basic contract, the constitution. There is also a confounding problem in any autonomy experiment. Although international law recognizes that state authorities are the only ones with the right to grant autonomy (or not), there is a significant body of international legal opinion that holds that autonomy once granted cannot be revoked without international legal consequences.
Central authorities often resist political decentralization for fear that it may permit or facilitate secessionism. However, the failure to empower local authorities provokes exactly the sort of resentment and resistance towards central authorities that motivates demands for greater local and regional autonomy, and more seriously challenges the state’s sovereign control.
A different dynamic ensues when sovereignty and decentralized political power are viewed separately, the first as uncontested state control over its territory and a guarantee that locally delegated decisionmaking powers are not be abused for secessionist purposes and the second as the necessary power and resources to permit local authorities to more efficiently administer their community. When the issue of state sovereignty is separated from that political decentralization and, equally important, when central authorities openly support and take an active role in implementing that decentralization, sovereignty is strengthened rather than diminished. Active engagement is key to establishing a wide array of crosscutting partnerships further binding the local community with the state/nation.
Redefining Autonomy: Hungarian Perspectives
The American moderator summarized the dilemma of overreliance on the various documents of the OSCE, EU and Council of Europe as the legal basis for many of the desiderata in autonomy draft. Generally speaking, they remain “open to various and conflicting interpretation,” are often ambiguous, and do not create obligations but limit themselves to recommendations. Given this, he proposed an exercise to the Hungarian participants: “How,” he asked, “would you persuade those in political system that it is right, profitable or efficient to accept the autonomy proposal without clear international obligation? What would make your Romanian partners comfortable with either the whole project or significant portions of it?”
Continuing the point, the moderator underscored the impression shared by the other American participants that concepts and terminology with emotive content may be a stumbling block to discussion and resolution of concrete problems. For example, “the interests of Hungarian community are subsumed under heading of autonomy” while Romanians tended to equate autonomy with separatism and the loss of state sovereignty. “I am wondering whether and to what degree the use of word autonomy has become an impediment. What would happen if you reframed the project as a question of equal rights, because many of the points you raise are equal rights. Might you get to where you want by dropping autonomy? Is it possible, without sacrificing any of the community’s needs, to reframe this as a tactical matter?”
Several respondents explained that while the concept of autonomy and the project itself no longer sparked fear within the Romanian parliament when introduced in open discussion, neither did it inspire enthusiasm and engagement on the part of the parliamentarians. Although the 2014 autonomy project was more refined than former proposals, circumstances were felt to be far from the point where a global project could be seriously considered before each of its elements had been discussed, understood, and decided upon separately.
Hungarian respondents were not averse to an alternate approach. As one explained, the autonomy project had two main elements: political-economic decentralization and minority protections. Thus, it was possible to approach the main issues with other terminology.
Another participant reminded those at the table how and why the autonomy project came to be proposed. Whereas PER-facilitated discussion, argument, and offer and counter-offer had resulted in a dialogue with authorities that rendered important progress in interethnic relations during a period of considerable tension in the 1990s – specifically regarding the wars in Yugoslavia and the ethnic clash in Targu Mures in March 1990 – that dialogue had all but evaporated over the last decade. The problem was “how to get Romanian authorities to listen.”
Underscoring that there was no analogy to that tension and violence today, the respondent explained that there were nonetheless examples of neglect not only for long-standing Hungarian desiderata but also for legislation passed but not implemented. For example, the issues of the Szekler flag and bilingual inscriptions are perceived as instances of existing legislation ignored by local judicial authorities. Issues of major symbolic and practical value to the community are resolved inconsistently, even idiosyncratically, such that a Hungarian-language medical school or faculty is not problematic in one city (Cluj) but does create problems in another (Targu Mures), even though other Hungarian-language faculties exist in the same city without creating any tension or problems. Community needs could certainly be addressed issue by issue, but that first requires that the dialogue be reconstructed.
Redefining Autonomy: Romanian Perspectives
Referring to the Poll results showing that 78% of the Romanian population was hostile to the autonomy project, Allen Kassof turned to the Romanian participants and asked what specific problems they had with it. “Suppose the autonomy concept had another name, would you accept that? If not then why would it be unacceptable either to the political class or to the population?”
The main problem, according to one respondent, was “not content but context.” First of all, the timing chosen to launch the autonomy project immediately before a national election was potentially disastrous. The project could and probably would become a political football, diminishing the possibility that it would be discussed seriously. Secondly, the project was being introduced in the midst of a European-wide trend toward nationalism and extremism, and it was not so easy for Romanians to differentiate reasonable ethnic Hungarian demands from the aggressive rhetoric of the Hungarian government, particularly when the latter was splashed all over the international press. Launching the project at this time, it was feared, could very well provoke nationalist discourse in response.
Author’s Note: In spite of such fears, throughout 2014 and as of this writing (March 2015) Romania remained a happy exception to the general resurgence of nationalism-extremism in Europe. The Romanian electorate excluded extremist parties from their parliament from 2008 and from the European Parliament since 2011. Suspicions that the extremist parties and their agendas had been absorbed into the mainstream parties and that they, along with the general population, had swung to the extreme right (or far left), also proved to be unfounded. In November 2014, for the first time in its history, Romanians elected a non-ethnic Romanian as President of their country.
Several Hungarian participants acknowledged that the timing of the project was not ideal and that serious discussion of the elements of their proposal would doubtlessly occur only several months after the election. They pointed out, however, that there were both internal and external reasons forcing their hand. One representative noted with some frustration that it had been ten years since the consultation-protocol process ceased functioning before the Hungarian leadership took the next step and introduced their project. “In the meantime, new parties formed and began pressing precisely on those things that remain unimplemented. Having no other responsibilities, they radicalized. And they have some justice on their side because we did fail to implement those things.”
Another representative exhorted everyone to bear in mind the fact that one of the more radical parties had already garnered more votes than the UDMR in Sfantu Gheorghe. “If we do not succeed then, in another five years, there could be some other politicians sitting here who are much more radical.”
A second problem identified by the Romanian participants (and also acknowledged by ethnic Hungarian representatives) was the over-ethnicization of issues with much broader applicability. For example, significant elements of ethnically-based autonomy would be addressed in genuine political decentralization. Ethnic Hungarian politicians serving at the national level might consider thinking of and approaching problems in national-level terms, recasting their proposals as measures to improve the country, not just the community. The respondent stressed that this was neither a criticism of the mission of ethnic Hungarian representatives nor an attack on their loyalty to their constituents but rather a suggestion to improve the acceptability of their proposals and gain support beyond the ethnicity.
Over-ethnicization was especially problematic because of the noxious impact that Orban’s policies in Hungary and towards neighboring states had on the majority’s perception of the ethnic Hungarian community’s pursuit of its needs. As one Romanian participant explained, “we had not anticipated that so soon after World War II it would be possible for borders to be redrawn in Europe through force. The increasingly evident link between Moscow and Budapest in energy and finance as well as in domestic and foreign policy creates nervousness. When Orban then takes up Moscow’s proprietary approach to co-ethnics in the ‘near abroad,’ Romanians get worried.”
Arguing the need for greater pragmatism, one participant strongly recommended that impact studies regarding the economic, political and social consequences and foundation arguments be included in autonomy proposals. The respondent, a parliamentarian, complained that he was “fed up with draft legislation introduced in Parliament without foundation arguments,” which virtually guarantees “unwelcome surprises.” Arguments set out beforehand allowed one the opportunity to address issues logically and preempt unnecessarily partisan debate, thus making it easier for others to support proposed legislation.
The American moderator noted that while impact statements and a focus on the needs of region rather than just those of the ethnicity are a good idea, they do not necessarily encompass “the important question of national self-identification and cultural preservation” for ethnic Hungarians. This, he stressed, was a “serious request and felt need” that might not be covered by impact analysis unless national identity is specifically included.
Several participants identified communication as a continuing barrier to understanding. The principal problem, not unrelated to the isolation of the area from main transportation routes, was the access of Hungarian-speakers in the Szekler region to Romanian-language news. Thus, the establishment of a bilingual news website was proposed both to address this shortcoming and as a media statement.
There was a general recognition regarding the fact that the bulk of the participants in the roundtable were parliamentarians, including parliamentary group leaders, and that their jobs predisposed them to dialogue and discussion. The situation was more complicated, however, at the party level. There, the tendency to seek out and exploit vulnerabilities of political competitors could still led to nationalist discourse, especially during electoral campaigns. As one Romanian participant noted, despite the fact that all of the parties had cooperated with the UDMR for governance, and that the UDMR was often made part of government, the parties in opposition exploited that political cohabitation from the nationalist perspective, accusing the ruling parties of the moment of “giving everything away” to the Hungarians. Another participant added that although the population had little problem with cohabitation, political elites repeatedly took recourse to the national/ethnic card.
The need to overcome this dysfunctional retrogression, one that was characteristic neither of relations within the population nor of the actual operations of government, led several participants to recommend “an all-party pact like we did for EU integration.” One participant specified that decentralization should be broached the national level for all regions and localities, with special aspects for minorities forming local majorities, so that it is “neither worrisome nor a political football.” As he observed: “A pact on this problem, on the manner in which we approach decentralization and regionalization, is necessary because it cannot be done by one party, and we are all in this together.”
Another participant suggested the use of Romania’s comparative advantages. Returning to the polling data presented at the beginning of the roundtable, he pointed out that the social distance information was heartening. Some three-quarters of the ethnic Romanian population had a good or very good opinion of Hungarians; 85% appreciated them as work colleagues, 80% as friends, 78% as neighbors, 71% as family members, and 46% as political representatives.
A number of participants specifically referred to the Snagov example when expressing their support for the idea of an all-party pact to neutralize tendencies of exploiting nationalism and ethnicity for political advantage. In a display of political accord unmatched in Central or East Europe, Romania had surprised the United States and NATO in 1993 when it launched the first “Snagov Declaration” in which every political party from the extreme left to the extreme right declared NATO membership as their number one national priority. A second Snagov Declaration expressing wholehearted support for EU integration was signed by all of the political parties and submitted along with Romania’s EU application in 1995.
The Snagov declarations created a precedent for cross-party agreement on issues of national interest. One reflection of this legacy was a largely successful 2004 agreement, moderated by PER, in which all of the political parties agreed not to exploit ethnicity as a political slogan during the election that year. As successful as that agreement was it remained, nonetheless, a “gentlemen’s agreement” rather than a national commitment.
Restarting The Process
The American moderator started off with the admonition that old business needed to be dealt with in order to better address new business. Recalling that, at the first roundtable, the UDMR representatives had described how the institutional basis for the good cooperation begun in 1993 had broken down in 2004, and that less formal means of advancing community interests and priorities had slowed to a halt by 2007, the moderator concluded that, clearly, “some important business remains incomplete.” To clear the decks for the next stage of interethnic relations it was necessary to mutually identify “those things agreed that are not yet accomplished” and the best means for fulfilling “commitments and promises already made.”
Indeed, the need to identify a specific list of issues for action after the election was voiced by both Hungarian and Romanian participants.
Along these same lines, several participants advocated restarting the PER process as an effective and forward-looking manner of addressing these issues. One Hungarian participant described how decisions reached under this process enjoyed 99% approval. While it operated, the Romanian majority forced nothing upon the Hungarian community against its will. Local leaders consulted weekly with their parliamentary representatives and the system of memoranda and protocols remained in vigor from 1993 through 2003, resolving many things in a step-by-step manner during that period.
The greatest problem was that the ensuing ten-year lag in which the process no longer functioned made everyone involved look culpable – central Romanian authorities appear guilty for the non-implementation of accords and legislation at the local level, and UDMR representatives appear guilty for failing to advance the interests and fulfill the needs of their constituents, creating motivation for the previously discussed radicalization. Particularly troublesome in this regard was the issue of local flags, draft legislation regarding which was written together with the parliamentary group leader of the ruling party at the beginning of 2014 but was still hanging fire in parliament.
A Romanian veteran of the PER process described how, during 2000-2004, Romanian authorities met with the Hungarian community leaders in all of the sixteen counties where they resided. After 2004, however, these regular visits ended. Likewise, prior to 2004 there was a designated group that met every Monday in the office of the Senate Vice President to discuss Hungarian issues. The same participant was responsible for monitoring the government implementation of parliamentary decisions on those issues. Now, there is no designated group and no one responsible for monitoring follow-up. The result was not surprising. “Decisions might be taken and agreements might be reached but nothing happens.”
In order for the process to be made predictable and consistent frequent meetings were necessary. Moreover, a joint working group should be created that was capable of following through and monitoring implementation. And the first step should be a commonly agreed list of what is possible. Recalling that the interethnic problem was one of management rather than final resolution, the Romanian participant suggested the two sides discuss a pact of the Snagov variety and a restoration of the protocol system as well as a series of specific issues of more immediate concern that might be resolved more quickly, after the elections.
A Hungarian veteran of the PER process observed how much both sides had evolved in their ability to discuss sometimes thorny problems of substance in reasonable terms. He expressed his conviction that the discussion would be continued in more detail after the election. Although the problem of radicalism and extremism might require continued vigilance, the participants could all be thankful that ethnic Romanian and ethnic Hungarian politicians had shown “the wisdom to cooperate in parliament and in government.” He advocated, first, solidarity regarding the national interest because there was “no great difference between Romanian national interest and the national interest of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.” Secondly, Romanian authorities and their ethnic Hungarian colleagues should proactively engage issues of regionalism and use of the mother tongue in order to set forth their own mutually-derived ideas instead of simply responding to ideas formed elsewhere by others, or defaulting to a pattern of avoidance. Most of all, he counseled, the representatives gathered at the roundtable should take full advantage of a stable legislature during 2015.
Allen Kassof concluded the meeting with several general observations to be borne in mind as the process moves forward. “As others have noted today, here is no final resolution to interethnic relations. They are not a problem to be resolved but a dynamic process for which new and more effective means of managing must be sought. Romania’s great comparative advantage is that both sides are willing to speak with the other and have accumulated long experience in so doing. While this is largely taken for granted here its absence elsewhere in the region (and beyond) has repeatedly led to violence. You have an additional advantage in knowing that the specific issues that crop up in Hungarian-Romanian interethnic relations will be resolved because you have resolved them in the past, repeatedly proving your ability to resolve them no matter how intractable they may once have appeared.”
“Attention also must be paid to the need for expressions of identity. Neighboring Hungary has always been a complicating factor but it is particularly troublesome now because of its more virulent form of nationalism and its impact on bilateral relations. In some ways ethnic Hungarians here bear the burden of having to cope with pressures from Budapest and with heightened expectations that they live up to their responsibilities as Romanian citizens because of them. It falls to the local inhabitants to come up with their own approaches and solutions. Budapest can advertise its interest but it is still your issue and not theirs because you all live here and they do not. While ethnic Hungarians have to be conscious of the radioactive fallout created by Budapest at this time, Romanians have to give enough “room” to their Hungarians so they can effectively deal with these pressures. Bear in mind that there are also other, more radical and less reasonable actors more than willing to step in at the first opportunity.”
“If past experience serves as a guide then you can expect that you will achieve an imperfect but workable conclusion, just as you already done before and just as you are doing now, through discussion and dialogue. We will help.”
The Romanian and Hungarian participants expressed their thanks for restarting the dialogue after such a long period where dialogue was lacking. There was unanimous agreement on the need to hold another meeting as soon as practicable following the election.
List of Participants and Observers
(Participants and observers attended in their individual capacities.)
Marius Obreja Lucian
Mihai Razvan Ungureanu
Antal Arpad Andras
Allen Kassof, Moderator
Jonathan Rickert, Moderator
Larry Watts, Rapporteur
Sursa: Ziaristi Online