A long-stifled argument over the ethnic identity of Transylvania, the vast “land beyond the forest” that has changed nationality three times this century, has erupted into an ominous war of words between Hungary and Romania.
Although the conflict so far has been limited to official name-calling and a diplomatic standoff, it is fanning a brush fire of nationalism that could lead to more violence in Hungarian communities that have resisted Romanian assimilation for 70 years.
At issue are the rights and responsibilities of Romania’s largest national minority, the more than 2 million Hungarians who largely prefer their ethnically intact towns and villages to integration with 8 million Romanians who also inhabit Transylvania.
Like much of southeastern Europe, Transylvania has become a caldron of brewing ethnic hostility in the year since dictatorship was overthrown. Romania’s new leaders have rescinded official policies of minority repression, but historic hatreds and discriminatory habits are not so easily disposed of.
Transylvania was ruled by Hungary for centuries before 1920, when it was deeded to Romania in the redrawing of Europe’s boundaries after World War I. Romanians burned and pillaged to retaliate for years of domination by Hungarians, who paid back the savagery in kind 20 years later, when Hungary briefly regained Transylvania by collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Hungarians today officially recognize the border with Romania as inviolable, but they insist that they retain responsibility for their compatriots marooned there.
Hungary claims Romania perpetuates discrimination by refusing to reopen Hungarian-language schools closed years ago. Budapest also demands assurance that Hungarian villages will be spared deliberate integration.
Romania, for its part, dismisses Hungarian concerns about the living conditions of the Hungarian minority as interference in Romanian domestic affairs. It has also denied responsibility for taking care of tens of thousands, mostly ethnic Hungarians, fleeing Romania and bottled up in Hungary after failing to reach the West.
After Romanian ambassador Simion Pop conveyed those positions to Budapest last fall, Prime Minister Jozsef Antall announced that he would not receive the envoy until he publicly apologized for alleged diplomatic slights. When Romanian President Ion Iliescu was finally persuaded to meet with his Hungarian counterpart to break the political stalemate, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry insisted that the meeting be held Dec. 17 in Timisoara, the declared date and place of opposition protests to demand Iliescu’s resignation.
Budapest’s attempt at one-upmanship brought official contacts to a halt. Strains have intensified since late December, when Antall created a new Cabinet-level office to oversee the affairs of Hungarians living abroad.
Balazs Horvath, the new minister, argued that the Bucharest government is obliged to correct the wrongs committed against ethnic Hungarians by past dictators or else be considered to support their repressive actions. To restore the region’s Hungarian nature, Hungarian names must be restored on signs and in official documents, Hungarian-language schools must be reopened and Budapest newspapers must be made available, he said.
Budapest’s position has drawn criticism from liberal circles within Hungary.
“It’s tactless,” said Gaspar Miklos Tamas, a Free Democratic member of Parliament who left Transylvania 12 years ago.
He accused Antall’s government of trying to shore up sagging support by plucking at the nationalist heart chords of Hungarians with dreams of regaining Transylvania.
“While there is rampant and rabid nationalism there that is threatening Hungarians and other ethnic groups, there are (also) encouraging phenomena that go unreported by the Hungarian media and ignored by the government,” Tamas said. “Who in Hungary ever mentions that since the revolution, more than 40 ethnic Hungarian schools have been reopened in Romania? It may be that 300 are needed . . . but it’s unfair to say they’ve done nothing.”
With official contacts at an impasse, extremist groups have a freer hand to provoke clashes like the one last March in Tirgu Mures, where two Hungarians were hacked to death with axes. Nationalists with the shadowy Vatra Romanescu (Romanian Hearth) claim the recent developments show that Budapest harbors revanchist intentions, and they have vowed to defend the territory.