The Transylvanian Question: overcoming political tensions in intercultural spaces


By Sebastian Berchešan


Throughout the ages, the desire for territorial dominance and the use of natural resources created many conflicts between peoples and ethnic groups. Numerous wars, bloody revolts and hatred feelings erupted between the oppressors and the oppressed. In this context, peaceful coexistence and cooperation between different nations seems to be difficult to achieve but, as history proved it, and as the remarkable European politician Robert Schuman phrased it: “We increasingly and clearly acknowledge the existence of a common good, superior to national interest. A common good into which our countries’ individual interests are merged.” (Krijtenburg, 2020)

It seems that this is also the case with the centuries-old conflict between Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania, nowadays part of Romania. After several periods of time when this region was ruled alternatively by the two nations, the conflicts are still alive as we speak, of course in a tacit form. Beyond the daily “casual” conflictual attitudes present in the ethnically mixed communities, particularly in the Szekler Land, there are also political conflicts in the problem. (Done, 2020)

After many years of lobbying for a law that would allow much more autonomy to the region inhabited by the Hungarian minority (Szekler Land), in 2020 because of a parliamentary vacuum, the law was passed by the Lower Chamber of the Romanian legislative. Immediately after, the president issued a public statement underlining the unconstitutional character of that law and called for a rejection in the Senate. This led to political tensions with the Hungarian Government which strongly supports the rights of the Hungarian ethnics from abroad. (Done, 2020)

The recent political conflict might have serious consequences on the economic and diplomatic relations of the two countries. In the last years, the Hungarian exports to Romania accounted for almost 6 billion euro per year while the Romanian exports were half of that sum. Hungary is the 4th most important trading partner for Romania having several major businesses operating there: MOL Group, OTP Bank and Wizz Air to name only a few (Hungary Today, 2021). Hungary was a strong supporter in favour of Romania joining the EU, considering the fact that over 1,2 million ethnic Hungarians live within the Romanian borders. 

Thus, the reconciliation process of the two needs to continue, the real solidarity between people regardless of their ethnic background needs to persist within the mixed communities, the principle of subsidiarity should be understood properly and implemented wisely and supranational approaches should appear in the form of peaceful and productive diplomatic and economic collaboration between the two countries, for the benefit of both. 

“The land beyond the forest”, as its Latin name suggests, Transylvania is a charming multicultural region situated in Central Europe, at the crossroad of many historical commercial routes between East and West, North and South. As a result, throughout its history, many peoples transited the region. (Lendvai, 2003, p. 23)

As the spiritual epicentre of the Dacian civilisation, the ancestors of modern-times Romanians, these lands with their abundant natural resources such as the gold and salt mines in the Carpathians Mountains, represented a great treasure to exploit and to defend. However, at the end of the first millennia, the Hungarian tribes coming from the Uralic basin conquested Transylvania and established their new powerful Kingdom in this land (Lendvai, 2003, p. 26). The conquering process was described in the 10th century “Gesta Hungarorum” (The Deeds of the Hungarians), in which it is depicted as a heroical scene of war between the invaders and the local rulers (Rady, 2009). 

Following centuries of co-living that included some peaceful periods of toleration for one another and other times with violent bloody revolts against the oppressors, during the modern ages the claim of the Romanians’ right to self-determination threatened the Hungarian unity. The fact that the majority of the population was ethnic Romanian in the middle of the 19th century - according to the Habsburg census (von Czoernig, 1855) - even after centuries of Hungarian rule, emphasised their wish to unite with the neighbouring Romanian Kingdom. However, many historians consider that the historical claims based on Gesta Hungarorum were not strong enough since the authenticity of the document is disputed. The Hungarian side claims that during their arrival in Transylvania they found these lands uninhabited, while the Romanians came from the South and settled there afterwards. (Lendvai, 2003, p. 32)

During the the First and Second World Wars, hundreds of people moved from a side of the region to another, the Transylvanian lands changing hands between Romania and Hungary. Following the 1920 Trianon, the region was internationally recognised as being part of Romania. After this immense loss the Hungarians felt that a terrible injustice was done and this fuelled their desire to regain the lost territories (Lendvai, 2003). The outcome of the wars meant for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians that they will have to either stay and adopt the Romanian citizenship, language and norms or leave for good their families and properties. The majority remained and during the first years of the newly installed communist regime, they benefitted of great respect from the authorities which aimed to obtain the political control of the population and thus to impose a unique and uniform “communist identity”, disregarding the ethnicity. The situation changed dramatically after a new communist leadership took control of the country and considered the ethnic minorities as “enemies of the nation”, an image generated by the fear that foreign powers might overthrow the rulers (Cesereanu, 2004). After the Romanian Revolution of 1989 or the “Bloody Christmas”, new tensions aroused in 1990, when a civil-war almost erupted between the Romanians and Hungarians. 

Nowadays, the conflict is taking a tacit form: the Hungarian minority is isolating itself in their own closed communities, refusing to speak the Romanian language in public spaces but claiming a well-desired territorial autonomy. On the other hand, raising nationalism combined with a populist political speech determined undeserved hatred from the Romanian public opinion towards the Hungarian minority. (Done, 2020)

After the establishment of a democratic regime following the events of December 1989, the Romanian Constitution and the following legal enforcements granted protective rights to the minority groups. As a result, in localities where there is a significant proportion of the population part of an ethnic minority, the street signs, communication language in the administrative offices and most importantly, the instruction language in schools, all these are offered also in the language of that minority (Veress, 2020). Today it is very common that the entry signs in most of the Transylvanian cities welcome their visitors in three languages: Romanian, Hungarian and sometimes German. The Saxon and Swabian communities used to be the third large ethnic group in Transylvania but the two World Wars and the harsh years of communism forced them to leave these lands and return to Western Germany. Even though now the German population is accounting for less than 2%, their culture, language and traditions are still alive in the area given the special protective laws that ensured this. 

In the light of the general wave of rising nationalism, oftentimes combined with a populistic speech, parts of the Romanian society consider that the remaining Hungarian communities represent a threat to the national unity of the country. In the historical debates, the Hungarian noblemen are presented as persecutors of the Romanian peasants and given some non-logical mergers between past and present the Hungarian nation of today is seen as an archenemy of Romania (Done, 2020). The mass-media and also some nationalist-populist politicians use this sensitive topic to obtain public’s attention and to manipulate the general opinion for the purpose of obtaining support. On the other hand, the attitude of isolation and the ostentation of Hungarians’ pride is only worsening the situation. In the areas where over 70% of the population is part of this national minority (especially in Szekler Land) the Hungarian language is spoken almost exclusively, and the local celebrations are mainly in sharp contrast with the national history of Romania, creating frustration on the Romanian side. (Done, 2020)

Since the formation of multiple political parties in post-communist Romania during the 1990s’, one of the most visible parties supporting the interests of the Hungarian minority was the UDMR (The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania). Part of several government coalitions and always present in the Romanian Parliament, UDMR marked a number of victories for the Hungarian community (Done, 2020). To another extent, it is at least interesting to observe the “faithfulness” of the Hungarian electorate to UDMR: although the Romanian political landscape is extremely varied, the members of the minority group vote almost always in unanimity for the UDMR party. 

Even with the relatively strong and constant popular support from 1,2 million Romanian citizens with Hungarian origins, UDMR never succeeded in implementing their most important goal: obtaining the territorial autonomy of Szekler Land. The current administrative system of Romania is already based on the decentralisation of decision-making power from the state government to the regional divisions (counties). In this context the law-proposal of UDMR goes beyond these limits, setting a separate legal entity with a separate jurisdiction, independent from the national authorities (Done, 2020). The model after it was conceived is the one currently used by Spain for the region of Catalonia. As it could be observed in the beforementioned case, from autonomy to total independence there is only one step to make, and this is what fuelled Romanians’ fear and stigma towards the UDMR’s plan. Moreover, under the actual constitution the implementation of such a law could not be possible from a legal perspective. 

In this context, the autonomy law was passed by the Lower House of the Parliament “by mistake”, following a vacuum in the procedure of the Chamber of Deputies in April 2020. Shortly after, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis had a prompt public apparition condemning the parliamentary majority for letting such a thing happen. As the official defender of the Constitution, he had a very categoric and critical speech in which he asked the Senate to reject the law-proposal (Romania-Insider, 2020) but he presented it in a somehow populistic manner appealing to extreme-nationalists. This is just as strange as the fact that he is himself part of a national minority - being ethnic German from the South of Transylvania - and given that, he should understand better than anyone how delicate the situation can be. 

Budapest was also prompt in issuing a statement, FIDESZ, the ruling party and the Foreign Affairs Minister saying that it is sad to see a reaction that instigates to hate coming from the Romanian head of state in return for the financial help that the Hungarian Government offered to Szekler Land and thus to Romania. Moreover, Budapest officials asked for official excuses from Klaus Iohannis to the Hungarian people, underlying how this unfortunate statement might influence the important economic and diplomatic relations of the two countries. (Cseresnyes, 2020)

Although it might seem purely a gesture of solidarity of the Hungarian Government that wants to support their co-nationals from abroad, this strategy involves political interests as well. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban has a very logical motivation to show his support towards the Szekler people: his government granted them Hungarian citizenship and voting rights when changing the electoral law, as he is now counting on their votes every time when he needs them (Done, 2020). When it comes to the specific actions “to support” the Szeklers, the Hungarian funds go into cultural activities, youth centres, sports clubs and especially local Hungarian press trusts and printing houses. As it can be seen, this smart investment goes in targeted areas through which FIDESZ and Orban can spread their propaganda and gain even more support for future elections. (Done, 2020)

In February 2021, Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade had an important meeting in Bucharest with several members of the Romanian cabinet, outlining together the path to more cooperation in diverse fields. The officials agreed on important infrastructure projects connecting the two countries such as: the building of the third highway linking the Northern regions, expanding and modernising the Bucharest-Budapest railway to make the journey faster and more comfortable for passengers and more efficient for freight transports and lastly, extending the capacity of the Romanian-Hungarian gas pipeline that will eventually open the market of Central European Countries for the Romanian gas. (Hungary Today, 2021). 

Their message was clear: “Success builds trust”. Thus, the economic interests of the two countries should be a strong and valid reason to overcome the tensions of the past. The recognition of the fact that only by working together they will enjoy common benefits might be the long-awaited answer to the Transylvanian Question. 




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