Vol 1, No 2, 5 July 1999

M I O R I T A:
Romania's Partial Progress in Minority Issues

Catherine Lovatt

National and ethnic tolerance is an aspiration of many Balkan nations. Historically, the region has been subject to intensely felt national and ethnic pride emanating from the numerous ethnic groups living in close proximity to each other, exaggerating their differences and claiming indigenous rights to the same areas of land. This has resulted in conflict and turbulence, as witnessed recently in Kosova. Romania has not escaped these tensions.

With large Hungarian, German and Gypsy minorities, Romania has faced her own ethnic problems. However, since the onset of the Kosovan conflict, Romania has frequently been referred to as a country that knows how to treat her ethnic minorities: a prime example for her Serb neighbours to follow. But Romania's example may not be so advanced.

A bright shining star...

On a recent visit to the Balkans, Madeleine Albright was reported to have said that Romania's policies of tolerance toward her ethnic minorities '...is one we would very much like to see Serbia emulate' (Reuters, 22 June 1999). In many respects, of course, Romania's tolerance has improved since the nationalistic policies of the Ceausescu regime. In the 1980s, Ceausescu had embarked upon a policy of 'ethnic homogenisation' - a hate campaign directed against ethnic non-Romanians and aiming to assimilate them into the Romanian culture. In the 1990s, Romania has moved away from extreme ethnic sentiments to what appears to be a more tolerant society.

The political manoeuvres at the end of the First and Second World Wars saw Transylvania passed back and forth between Hungary and Romania. It is hardly surprising that the largest minority group in Romania is the Hungarians, mostly located in Transylvania. Departing from historical trends, President Emil Constantinescu, rather than alienating the ethnic Hungarians, included their most prominent political representatives, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians (DAHR), in the 1996 coalition government. For the first time, Hungarians have an influential voice in the political decision making process.

Also, an agreement with Hungary in 1996 altered priorities. Romania and Hungary then agreed to co-operate, setting aside the seemingly interminable question of who has the greater right to Transylvania. The priority thus became how the two main nationalities could share the territory and live peacefully together.

The bilateral treaty, along with the introduction of the DAHR into government, proceeded to bring about a unique period in Romanian political history: the beginnings of a consociational democracy - a heterogeneous coalition in an area where ethnic distinctions have caused so many problems in the past. Accommodating ethnic disparities has become possible by accepting that differences do exist. It seems that consociationalism could be a positive way forward for a new, democratic Yugoslavia, if all sides could agree to co-operate and recognise that differences do exist.

...a bit tarnished at points

However, the original motive behind Romania's move toward consociationalism was not to improve conditions for the minorities but to turn away from Romania's Communist past and embrace a 'Western ideal'. This necessitated a whole range of new philosophical approaches and policy shifts, including, co-operation with the Western democracies, improving relations with Hungary and generating more tolerant policies toward minorities. Romania has had a definite interest in enacting a new minorities policy: conceptually, such policies help Romania to realise her 'Western ideal', and practically, they greatly increase the country's chances of gaining entry into NATO and the EU.

One could argue that the motives for minority reconciliation were originally shallow in nature. They were not for the minorities' sake but for the sake of Bucharest's foreign policy goals. Without real support for tolerance from within, the ethnic tensions and hostilities remain and are only held together with the appearance of ethnic harmony.

But if Romanian ethnic tolerance is only a shell without substance, why is it that ethnic hostilities have not escalated into a violent, Yugoslav-style conflict? The collapse of Communism had resulted in clashes between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania, but these were soon brought under control. The predictions of imminent future clashes never came to fruition.

On a local scale differences are still apparent. Different languages are spoken, different religions practised and different historical memories are revered. The 'them' and 'us' attitude still remains but violence is limited.

I am Transylvanian

Alina Mungiu has developed one theory to explain the relative peace between ethnic minorities in Romania. She has suggested the possibility of a developing 'Transylvanian Identity'. This notion assumes that the nationalities living in Transylvania - Romanians, Hungarians and Germans - have much in common in their present perception of their civilisation and behaviour. Therefore, they form an in-group with other Transylvanians regardless of ethnic origin. Ethnic origin does not have to be the only influence over their decisions and practices. It plays a part, but ultimately, features of everyday life which have a distinctly Transylvanian character are more important - things such as food, employment and trade.

Mungiu's argument has certain valid points and presents an alternative answer to the question above, but it does not explain why Romanians and Hungarians distinguish themselves from each other. This is partly due to Hungarian cultural arrogance and partly due to the structuring of society.

Mungiu's notion of a 'Transylvanian identity' is not dissimilar from the idea of a Yugoslavian identity during the Communist era and today. The forced idea that different ethnic groups can create a single Yugoslav identity was fleeting. Without a solid social, political and economic structure, and a unifying component, different ethnic groups more often resort to antagonisms and hostility. This was evident when Tito died in 1980. The unifying component was removed, and in its place, extreme nationalisms arose.

The difference between Yugoslav and Transylvanian identities, however, is that the Transylvanian identity is not a forced notion but a natural, progressive development.

Recent practical steps

For whatever reason, ethnic tolerance has been a key policy area for the Romanian government. In this sense, their example for a new democratic Serbia is positive.

At the end of May, the Romanian Parliament approved a minority-friendly bill concerning the status of the civil service. The new law states that members of the civil service whose duties involve direct contact with the public in areas where an ethnic minority comprises 20% or more of the population, be able to speak the language of that minority.

Also, discussions have recently been continuing over the sensitive issue of minority universities. The debate has progressed over the past two years from violent protest to compromise. The last week of June saw the government and minorities arrive at an agreement. Instead of having separate and distinct Hungarian, German and Ukrainian universities, it has been agreed that already existing institutions should have minority departments where the minority language is spoken.

Commenting on the decision, Bela Marko, leader of the Hungarian Democratic Union said, 'Today's vote shows the coalition has respected its pledge to grant rights to the minorities.' (Reuters, 1 July 1999)

Naturally, the compromise has its opponents. It only meets the minority demands halfway, academics in the universities see the decision as divisive and Romanian nationalist parties continue their opposition protest, claiming that Hungary wishes to regain Transylvania. However, the government's discussion and handling of the issue has become a prime example of how its policies of ethnic tolerance are working.

A mixed example, a long road

Despite moves of this kind, Romania's minority leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the spread of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The Minority Affairs Minister, Peter Eckstein-Kovacs, commented recently that warnings by the National Minorities Council against xenophobia were a result of the national dailies' biased reporting on Romani, Hungarian and Jewish minorities. Dorel Dorian, a Jewish minority representative in Parliament has argued that the wide availability of anti-Semitic dailies such as Romania Mare and Atac la Persoana combined with the often anti-Semitic television stations, Antena 1 and Tele 7 abc, could provide succour to those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.

Further doubts about the ethnic tolerance of ethnic Romanians have been raised by the recent revelation that the Iron Guard are re-establishing themselves. The interwar anti-Semitic, violent, fascist organisation is being revived by the original founder's nephew, Codreanu. This will inevitably instil doubts and fears among minority groups in Romania.

It is apparent that the Romanian government are demonstrating ethnic tolerance. Since their election in 1996, they have implemented policies which show an acceptance and willingness to compromise with minority groups. Though their motives may be less idealistic than practical, the government are building the structure through which Romanians can develop greater ethnic tolerance.

For decades, the Balkans have been subject to intense, destructive nationalism. Developing a national feeling of tolerance is a long process. Ethnic and national disagreements still exist. The Romanian government may project an attitude of tolerance towards minority groups, and Romanian ethnic antagonisms may appear mild in comparison with Serb atrocities, but underneath the shell of tolerance, nationalistic sentiments remain.

A new democratic Serbia could reflect upon the example of the Romanian government and Bucharest's policies toward minorities, but the Serb nation as a whole would have to follow this example, and any counter-currents would have to be checked early.

Catherine Lovatt, 1 July 1999



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Partial Tolerance
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New Minority
Language Law


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Entrance Exam
Corruption Revealed


The Reburial of
Rebane in Estonia

Hungary Returns
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Treasure Trove in Kosovo

The Big Czech Question

Romanian Minorities


The Partitioning of
Kosova Has Begun
in Mitrovica


Baltic States
Czech Republic


Last Train to

Book Shop


The Legacy of
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Central European
Culture in the UK


Miklos Jancso's
Nekem lampast adott kezembe az
Ur Pesten

Karel Kachyna's Krava

with your comments
and suggestions.


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