Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Interethnic Relations In The New Romania II: A Round Table Report March 2015


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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] Not surprisingly, knowledge of the formal autonomy project was relatively low given that it was officially launched only two weeks earlier.[8] 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 Orban 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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 - the centennial anniversary of Romanian unification.

Contrasting Perceptions

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.[12] 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 of 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.

Restoring Consensus

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.[13]

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, consistent and 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 have 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.
Affiliations are noted for identification purposes.

Antal Arpad Andras                          Mayor, Sfintu Gheorghe, Covasna
Tanczos Barna                                   Senator
Marko Bela                                        Senator
Erika Benko                                       Counselor to Tamas Sandor
Laszlo Borbely                                  Deputy
Csaba Borboly                                   President Harghita County Council
Tamas Sandor                                    President Covasna County Council
Viorel Hrebenciuc                             Deputy, Vice-President of Chamber of Deputies
Georgian Pop                                    Deputy
Angel Tilvar                                      Deputy
Ionut Vulpescu                                  Deputy
Valeriu Zgonea                                  Deputy, President Chamber of Deputies

Alexandru Nazare                             Deputy
Andreea Paul                                     Deputy

Alina Gorghiu                                    Deputy
Dan Motreanu                                    Deputy
George Scutaru                                  Deputy

Mihail Sandu                                      Counselor to Presidential Adviser Iulian Fota

Civil Society
Ambrus Attila                                   Journalist
Emil Hurezeanu                                Journalist
Marius Pieleanu                                Sociologist
Dan Tapalaga                                    Journalist

            Allen Kassof                                       Moderator                                         
            Jonathan Rickert                               Moderator
            Larry Watts                                        Rapporteur

Ionas Vladimir

[1] For the first roundtable see Larry L. Watts, “Interethnic Dialogue in the New Romania: "Romanians and the Hungarian Minority Twenty-Five Years After the 1989 Revolution, 19-20 June 2014, Poiana Brasov,” https://www.academia.edu/12966725/Interethnic_Dialogue_in_the_New_Romania_I.
[2] Moscow claims authority over ethnic Russians in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic countries, and directly supports several breakaway ethnic regions in Moldova and Georgia “beyond the control of the central governments where the local de facto authorities enjoy Russian protection and influence.” See e.g. Jeffrey Mankoff, “Russia's Latest Land Grab,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 93, no. 3 (May/June 2014).
[3] Charles Gati, “The Mask Comes Off,” The American Interest, August 7, 2014. Also rejecting of liberal multiculturalism, Orban declared that: “we let go of the delusion of the multicultural society before it turned Hungary into a refugee camp.” See e.g. “PM lets go, bounds free,” Budapest Times, March 6, 2015.
[4] See for example, “Ukraine rejects autonomy calls for ethnic Hungarians made by Orban,” Reuters, June 3, 2014; Casey Michel, “Hungary's Viktor Orban Walks in Putin's Footsteps,” The Moscow Times, August 5, 2014; Géza Jeszenszky, “Hungary, NATO And The War In Ukraine,” Hungarian Review 4, no. 5, September 18, 2014.
[5] See e.g. Susanne Gratiu and Kai Olaf Lang, “Das katalanische Labyrinth. Unabhängigkeit oder Verfassungsreform?” SWP-Aktuell (Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit, Berlin), no. 5 (January 2015).
[6] PER also operated in the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and its successor states, Poland and the Russian Federation.
[7] “Research Report: Nationwide Survey,” Avangarde – Grupul de Studii Socio-Comportamental [Avangarde – Socio-Behavioral Study Group], Bucharest, September 20-28, 2014.
[8] The full Romanian language text of the UDMR’s autonomy project can be found at http://www.kelemenhunor.ro/uploads/files/doc/Statutul_Special_al_Tinutului_Secuiesc_din_Romania.pdf.
[9] The Szekler region comprises the largely Hungarian counties of Covasna and Harghita and a section of the majority Romanian county of Targu Mures where Hungarians form a local majority.
[10] The four issue areas came from an original list of ten presented at the first roundtable. Although presented as a priority in both roundtables, the issue of proportionality, specifically, how to go about achieving it, had not yet been discussed at any length.
[11] Illegal display of flags on government buildings had been an issue in Covasna in 2007 as well. See e.g. “Covasna County Council Required to Take Down 25 Flags from its Own Building,” October 10, 2007, http://www.amosnews.ro/arhiva/cj-covasna-nevoit-indeparteze-25-drapele-cladirea-proprie-10-10-2007.
[12] For example, the European Commission judged that “linguistic and ethnic assimilation” were “less severe than in other Central and Eastern EU countries” while the prestige, use and transmission of the Hungarian language in Romania was “quite high.” European Commission, Presence of Regional and Minority Language Groups in The European Union’s New Member States - Extension to Bulgaria and Romania, Final Report, Brussels, June 17, 2009, pp. 6, 23, at http://ec.europa.eu/languages/policy/linguistic-diversity/regional-minority-languages_en.htm. 
[13] “Evolutii geopolitice si minoritati etnice din 2014: 100 de ani de la declansarea Primul Razboiul Mondial” [Geopolitical Evolution and Ethnic Minorities in 2014: 100 Years after the Outbreak of the First World War], Poiana Brasov, Romania, October 4, 2014.