Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
Tolerant Transylvania
Why Transylvania will not become another Kosovo

Catherine Lovatt

The 1989, so-called revolution in Romania opened up much debate about the future of the former Communist state. Of particular concern was the future of Transylvania. Containing a sizeable Hungarian minority claiming political, social and economic rights, Transylvania was seen as a hotbed for violent ethnic conflict. In 1990, ethnic clashes in Cluj and Tirgiu Mures fuelled predictions about future violent disputes, but little more happened. In Yugoslavia and the former Yugoslavia, conflicts have materialised, but what distinguishes them from Romania?

Historically, Yugoslavia and Romania are examples of ethnically volatile regions. Both countries were constructed by the international arena at the close of the First World War, both experienced a long period of Communist centralism, and both contained large minority groups within their defined territorial boundaries. However, the collapse of Communism brought different results. It created a power vacuum which both nations, to varying degrees, have attempted to fill with nationalism. In Yugoslavia, it was the disintegration of the state that promoted nationalist leaders, such as Milosevic in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia. These leaders stressed the different histories of both Croatia and Serbia, drawing on myths and symbols of the present and past to rally support and emphasise their claims for power. The different ethnic groups responded to different symbolic presences such as architecture and national flags. This symbolism provided sentimentality through which ethnic differences became increasingly apparent and through which ethnic conflict escalated.

A similar situation has been seen in Kosovo. Here, Serbian nationalists claimed an indigenous right to the land describing Kosovo as the cradle of Serbia. In retaliation the Kosovo Albanians drew upon their own historical myths and symbols which they felt demonstrated their right to the territory. The resulting conflict is testimony to the power of nationalism as a motivation for violence.

In Romania the state did not disintegrate, it merely changed form. This was largely because the majority ethnic group were united in one country, it was only in areas like Moldova and Transylvania where bordering nations had large minorities that the possibility of ethnic conflict arose. In comparison with Yugoslavia these regions are relatively small, especially in terms of organised minority representation.

However, the situation is slightly different for the Hungarian minority of Transylvania. They are represented by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), an alliance of political parties and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The 1.6 million Hungarians in Transylvania vote unanimously for their ethnic party and enjoy around seven per cent of the total seats in parliament. The DAHR was formed in 1989 and immediately started to push for greater minority rights for Hungarians. They also attempted to accommodate all political positions ranging from strong nationalism to moderate collaborative interethnic politics. This meant the DAHR could appease the majority of Hungarians in Transylvania through representation in parliament. The 1996 elections resulted in the Democratic Convention coalition achieving power. As members of the coalition the DAHR introduced the Hungarian minority party into the new government. They proceeded to perform an unusual exercise in Romanian political life: negotiations to build a consociational democracy.

Throughout Eastern Europe, the collapse of Communism created a period of uncertainty. In Yugoslavia, nationalism was the escape. In Romania, attention became strongly focussed on how to achieve a stable, secure and democratic environment. The motivation centred on gaining entry into organisations that had epitomised everything democratic and Western, organisations such as NATO and the EU. This necessitated co-operation not only among the numerous ethnic groups within Romania, but with Romania's neighbours. For example, Romania and Hungary are now working together in their quest for entry into the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Consequently, improving ethnic relations has become a priority for both nations.

On a political and economic level Romania is attempting to alleviate ethnic rivalries. However, socially, ethnicity is becoming less important for the Hungarians and Romanians of Transylvania. A new generation with a limited experience of Communism is taking a more liberal stance. As one ethnic Hungarian graduate, Janos Orban, put it: "We are not interested in the nationalist debate, we are Transylvanians, we've always mixed cultures here."(Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Subjective Transylvania, p 10)

Mungiu argues that a "Transylvanian identity" is developing. This may help to explain why there was no escalation of violent ethnic conflict in Transylvania. The notion assumes that all nationalities living in Transylvania - Romanians, Hungarians and Germans - have more in common than distinctive features in their present perception of their civilisation and behaviour. In other words, they form an in-group with other Transylvanians, regardless of their ethnic origin. Even if a separate "Transylvanian identity" is being formed there is still much confusion when it comes to self-definition. For example, if Transylvanian Hungarians are abroad they consider themselves "Hungarians from Transylvania". This idea is clarified in Mungiu-Pippidi's research where one intellectual is reported to have said: "when I say Hungarian from Transylvania that says it all: the nation I belong to, the fact that I am a Romanian citizen and most of all to what part of Romania I belong."(Mungiu-Pippidi, p 15).

The possibility of a developing Transylvanian identity is feasible. However, it is also apparent that within Transylvania there is complex and continuing process of boundary formation occurring. For example, in places with a Hungarian majority such as Sf Gheorghe, the Hungarians (who call the town Sepsiszentgyorgy) refuse to allow the Romanians to learn Hungarian but then complain when the Romanians cannot speak Hungarian. This is partly due to Hungarian cultural arrogance but it is also part of the structuring of society. It is a process by which the Hungarians can maintain a distinct identity and distinguish themselves from the Romanians whom they tolerate but do not necessarily wish to be like.

The collapse of Communism brought with it uncertainty and confusion. In Yugoslavia nationalism became the motivating force for unifying the nation. In Romania, motivation emanated from the desire to integrate with the Euro-Atlantic institutions, to create a stable and secure environment. This necessitated cooperation. Nevertheless, nationalism does exist, often to extreme levels, but by allowing minority groups representation and a political voice tensions have been reduced. Violent conflict has not escalated in Romania but ethnic differences do remain despite the idea of a developing Transylvanian identity. As long as distinctions are made between ethnic groups there is always a possibility that violence will erupt.

Catherine Lovatt, 27 September 1999




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