Game of (Nationalist) Cards

Homogeneous countries can be nationalist. Think of Korea, either North or South. Their nationalism is generally expressed toward other countries that threaten their presumed purity in some way. Heterogeneous countries engage in that strategy as well. But nationalism in these ethnically mixed countries also functions domestically – as a card to be played in the game of one-upmanship between different ethnic groups.

In Romania, the relationship between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians has had its ups and downs over the centuries. During Communism, an initial ethos of internationalism ensured a measure of equality among the different ethnic groups in the country. But Ceausescu presided over a growing nationalist trend in politics. At the international level, he swung the country away from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, even going so far as to oppose the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. At the domestic level, his policies privileged ethnic Romanians and discouraged programs that hitherto provided ethnic Hungarians with a measure of cultural autonomy.

When Ceausescu fell, ethnic Hungarians not surprisingly wanted to get back their earlier status. Some ethnic Romanians, however, interpreted moves to reinstitute Hungarian-language programs in schools or the creation of bilingual signs in areas with large Hungarian minorities as not merely an assertion of identity but an attack on the majority. To complicate matters further, these proposed changes were also tied up with efforts to remove entrenched bureaucrats from the previous order.

“During the second part of the dictatorship, which started in 1965 with Ceausescu, a very nationalistic sort of Communism became increasingly prevalent,” explains philosopher Imre Ungvari-Zrinyi in a conversation we had in his home in Targu Mures in May 2013. “To change the ethnic composition of the Transylvanian region, the Party brought more and more Romanian people to Hungarian cities from Transylvania. The result of this process was that many high-ranking people were Romanians. Accordingly, any attempt to change the former discredited leadership, if this included eventually also the promotion of persons from the Hungarian minority, was condemned as actually anti-Romanian. And then people who wanted to preserve their privileged position as a rule played the ‘nationalist card,’ and said very often that ‘they are doing this to me only because I am an ethnic Romanian.’ Such opinions, present to a large degree in the media, started to distort the political meaning of the ‘revolutionary changes.’”

The efforts of the Hungarian minority to restore Hungarian-language programs in selected schools and universities in Transylvania not only proved a thorny issue to resolve at a regional level. It even, in the case of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Targu Mures, brought down the government in Bucharest.

“Today, it is possible to study in Hungarian, but the claim of the Hungarian professors and students to have an autonomous Hungarian-speaking department was and still is systematically rejected by the Senate of the University,” Ungvari Zrinyi explains. “The political declaration for and against this cause generated the intensification of ethnic tensions in Targu Mures in 1990 and for some years after. Even now, this issue is not solved and continues to be a major source of political controversies at the local and national level. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, as a member of the coalition government with the Democrat Party, recently (in 2012) raised the issue again and had obtained the support of its partners of coalition, but the parliamentary opposition forces (the Liberals and Socialists) have taken this issue as a base for a no-confidence vote against the Democrat government, which caused the fall of the government.”

Despite the ongoing struggle for civil rights on the part of ethnic Hungarians and the continued playing of nationalist cards by extremists on both sides, Ungvari Zrinyi believes that the situation has improved overall. “There have been many changes for the better,” he concluded. “This was made step by step in politics. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania played an important role in this. It not only worked to solve the problems of Hungarians here, but it also played an important role in building Romanian democracy. This last fact has not been appreciated enough by either Hungarians or Romanians.”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

My memory is not so good in this respect. I still remember that it was a euphoric event because it spread the hope of changing the Communist regime in all the East-European countries. I followed all the news throughout Eastern Europe, even from my early youth when I was 12 years old. I listened to Radio Free Europe — mostly for music — but I was also paying attention to many political events. But the exact circumstances and my specific thoughts around the fall of the Berlin Wall, I don’t remember.

 

When you were growing up, were your parents also following these events?

 

I don’t know. We really didn’t talk much about it. I lived here in this house, the house of my grandparents from my mother side. I spent just the weekends and holidays with my parents. I remember that my father was also interested in politics, but we didn’t talk about it much. We talked about it only when the changes came. Before, I remember just a couple of times after I’d grown up and gone to university.

 

Let’s jump to December 1989. Were you here in Targu Mures?

 

Yes.

 

You heard about what happened in Timisoara?

 

Yes, it happened on December 17. I followed with attention the news from the Hungarian Radio Kossuth on the events of Timisoara because my former class master in high school, András Tőkés, wasthe older brother of the reverend László Tőkés, I knew about his act of resistance, but I had no idea what would follow.

 

Were you already finished with your studies at that point?

 

Yes, I’d even finished my apprenticeship. We had in the Ceausescu era a three-year period of compulsory apprenticeship after the university degree. You had to teach in the location picked out for you…and you couldn’t change your location during that. Well, you could actually choose from a list established by the Ministry of Education where you wanted to go, but almost all the places were villages, and in my case, they were very far away from my home and my real professional interests. During that time, Hungarian teachers were often sent to Romanian regions, and Romanians to Hungarian ones. But I had an opportunity to go to a Hungarian village near to the border with Hungary. The problem was that it was 360 kilometers from here, and my family was here. Furthermore the job (teaching history and geography in elementary school) scarcely matched my qualifications.

It was very difficult during this period to get a job back home. All the bigger cities were closed to recently graduated professionals, and it was difficult to get jobs. You could get jobs only in the smaller cities or villages.

 

How big a place was the town where you first taught, near the Hungarian border?

 

1,200 inhabitants. It was one of the bigger villages.

 

You had to teach everything?

 

I had to teach almost everything, except for what I was prepared for! And that was philosophy. I have two qualifications: history and philosophy. So on paper it was a job to teach history at this school as well as geography (in the latter I have no qualification). But in reality I had to teach all the other disciplines — physics, Latin, music.

 

Did you enjoy doing all that teaching?

 

It was not exactly enjoyable. It was not up to me what I could teach. But I enjoyed teaching history and making some rudimentary research in archaeology. My father-in-law was an archaeologist at the museum in Targu Mures, and he helped me to do some research. That region is very rich in archaeological finds. You can find ancient objects even when you’re just out walking. I made a sort of museum at the school — just a table really with some archaeological objects that I found or that pupils brought to school wanting to know whether it was an old or new object.

But I was far from my family. And the job had nothing to do with my real interest, philosophy. I was reading a lot and wrote some articles on philosophy but without the hope that they would ever appear.

 

The archaeological finds were from what period?

 

Mostly Bronze Age, but also objects from the most recent period.

 

What kind of objects were they?

 

They were mostly some pieces of pottery that were very characteristic of that period. Also some stone axe heads. The most recent things were from the First and Second World War. It was very exciting for me to see three postcards made out of birch bark. The post office delivered those letters coming from the prisoners’ camp in Russia. My father had also been a prisoner at the end of the Second World War and after, and he said that this was a daily practice in those times because they didn’t have any paper. They could write a letter if they could find this birch bark.

 

You spent three years there and came back here when?

 

I finished my studies in 1985, and I came back three years later. I started to teach here in many places. In 1989, I was teaching in a village near the Niraj river valley. The name of the village was Dózsa György (Gheorghe Doja), the name of a historical figure. He was a leader of the peasant insurrection in 1514. He supported the abolition of serfdom.

 

In December, you heard about what was happening in Timisoara. And were you here in Targu Mures on December 21? What do you remember from that?

 

We heard that there was a demonstration in the center of town. Many people here in Targu Mures had children who were students in Timisoara. There were rumors about the students’ revolt taking place there, but no one really knew what was happening. The foreign radio stations reported that the army had opened fire on protesters, and there had been several dead and wounded. The parents of the students were anxious that their children might have been killed. So, they went out into the streets to demonstrate, which was absolutely unprecedented in the Communist times. So, we also went to the center of town to see what would happen.

In the very center of town, where the municipal building is now, stood the headquarters of the Communist Party. It was surrounded by the army. They had machine guns and armored personnel carriers. The demonstrators went in the front of the building and shouted against the regime and against Ceausescu. They made reference to Timisoara and what was happening there. We also went there and stayed and watched what was happening, and tried to figure out what we should do.

After a short period, it turned into a stalemate. No one was moving one way or another. It was just a confrontation. Then we went to one of our friends who lived very nearby to discuss what would happen and what we could do. More friends came by and joined the discussion. After an hour or so, someone came there and said that the demonstrators had started to march around the center. There was a news board in the center in front of the theatre with the photographs of the dictator and his recent activities: visits with politicians, visits to factories. The people had broken the windows and took out the photos. The situation became more aggressive. We decided to go there and see what we could do. Somebody from our group had a Dictaphone (which was quite rare at that time). The idea was to make some recordings of the events and to send out of the country to inform the outside world about the events.

When we arrived in the front of the Roman Catholic Church, we saw a young priest (we have found out his name afterwards: Köllő Gábor) appear in the window with a cross and a candle and deliver a speech to the people. It was not quite an incendiary speech, and it was formulated in religious terms including prayers, but he spoke against tyranny and oppression. It was a very brave speech at that moment.

We recorded some part of that speech. Then we went back to our friend’s house to hide this cassette, because we knew that the oppression could start again at any moment. Our friend took this cassette and hid it. And he didn’t find it again for a year! On the second and third day, the events were changing so rapidly that our cassette become insignificant. As the situation become more acute, because the army had opened fire on demonstrators, the idea of having a proof of public protest against the regime wasn’t very important. It is very characteristic of that period that our friend didn’t even remember where he has hiding the cassette.

The second time we went out with the Dictaphone to return to the center, we had already heard the shooting on the street. People came running from the center saying that the police and the soldiers had started firing on the crowd. Then we knew that something was changing. We were trying to think of what to do next. I was trying to decide whether to go to work or not on the second day. I decided that I’d better go. If the repression returned, first they would catch the people who were not at their jobs. At every factory and every school, the directors and secretaries of the Party would inform the authorities about who was there and who was not. So, I went to school. But there were no pupils at school. We just discussed what had happened. Then, after noon, we went back to see what was happening. When I arrived in town, I saw a Romanian flag without the emblem of the Communist regime in the middle. That’s when I knew that something had changed. We went to the center and everyone was very excited.

There were televisions in the windows everywhere and everyone heard in the streets that the dictator had fled. It was a very big moment.

 

How did things change at your workplace when you returned?

 

There was not such a big change. Everybody working in education was waiting for someone from the Ministry of Education to say what the new order would be. In a small village school, there was not such a big change during that first period, although everybody had big plans. At first, the pupils didn’t come to school because they stayed at home. We waited to see in what direction the country was going. I didn’t return to school until the first days of January. During that period there was a lot of joy in the streets, but also a very heavy uncertainty. People were worried about whether the Securitate would come or not. There were lots of rumors about Ceausescu’s Arab terrorists. There were also rumors of two helicopters coming to Targu Mures. Also, before the revolution broke out, six MiGs were training at our airport. These MiGs were supposed to be at the Luna military airport near Turda. But they were repairing the airport, so they were at our airport. The MiGs were in good condition, and we would have been in trouble if they’d been used. There were also rumors about our water supply having been poisoned. I said that this was nonsense. They wouldn’t have done this because they wouldn’t have been able distinguish between the ones they wanted to kill and everyone else.

Every day there was a meeting in the center of town. Everyone who was against the former regime — and even some of those who had been loyal or even exponents of regime – spoke out and said that they had been great oppositionists and heroes. Everyone had a lot to say at that time. We spent that first night and those first days watching television. This was, as you might now, a TV revolution. The center of the new power was in the TV building in Bucharest. Mostly our first impressions come from the TV. We also organized guards at every entrance of the blocks of flats. We were waiting for the terrorists. It was chaotic.

We’d already seen what had happened in Hungary. They’d already formed major political parties. We had some connections with people from there. We read the parties’ basic documents. So we had an idea of which direction to go. I started to talk with young people at the building of the former Young Communists Union. After some time, they selected me to be at the head of the new democratic youth organization. That was a bit later. And they chose me not because I was a young person but because I’d learned a lot about society and politics during my academic life as a student in philosophy. I’d read some basic political philosophy: John Locke, Hume, etc. I thought that if I knew more about these things than an average person, I should as a result be able to give some advice if they wanted it. If they didn’t want it, I’d step back. I wasn’t thinking about being at the center of events.

 

Can you give an example of how your knowledge of political philosophy was helpful?

 

I remember in that first period being in a room full of young people. Some of them sat at a table in the front. One of them said, “This is the program of our organization.”

I said, “This can’t be your program. It can be your statement of intentions. After you organize a meeting when everyone from the organization is present and can express their opinions about this, then it can become a program.”

“Oh, how do you know this?” they asked.

I said something about my background.

“Stay here!” they said.

During this time I was also at the newly born Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania. I consider myself in a sense, though I’m not mentioned, one of the founders. There were many founders, some mentioned and “officially recognized,” some not. I saw that the Alliance was better prepared than the Hungarian Youth’s Democratic Alliance, so that’s why I was trying to help out the youth organization. They wanted to be named not “democrats” but “democratic” to distinguish themselves from the “Democrat” Alliance of Hungarians in Romania. I asked them if they knew the difference between “democrats” and “democratic.” “No,” they said, “but we still want to be different!”

During that first year, every declaration of the youth union started with: “We the young people who made the revolution.” It was not quite true. Here in Targu Mures it was definitely not true. The parents made the revolution because they were worried about their children’s lives in Timisoara. The young people in Timisoara made the revolution, but here it was the parents who made the revolution, even though the casualties here were mostly young people.

 

In Hungary at that point, there was Fidesz, SzDSz –

 

And MDF. The biggest party.

 

How closely were you looking at the political parties in Hungary?

 

We had some contact with all the parties. Some friends who were Hungarian citizens, who had recently fled Romania to Hungary and come back, said that their parties were the best and one shouldn’t trust the others because they were former Communists. Well, almost everyone was a former Communist! Fidesz, which is now in charge in Hungary and turned out to be a neo-authoritarian regime, was very popular especially among the young people. At that time, Fidesz members were young democrats and liberals. These days you can’t say that about Fidesz. As I could perceive at the beginning MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) was also very popular because it had a middle-class orientation, which was something new in that period. It was neither traditional Right nor Left. Only after a year or so, MDF went in three directions — Right, Left, and center. A few years after that, it split into different fractions. Some former MDF members are now in Fidesz and other parties. My political opinions were closest to SzDSz, the Alliance of Free Democrats. And most of my Hungarian friends were in that party, which doesn’t exist any more.

 

The situation seemed to deteriorate in Targu Mures between January and March 1990. How did you feel about that?

 

It was very problematic. In the first week of the revolution, everyone was very happy: Hungarians, Romanians, everybody. And everyone worked together without any animosity. There was a very important proclamation that originated with Hungarian and Romanian intellectuals who were the editors of two journals – Lato and Vatra. Lato is the well-known and much appreciated Hungarian literary review in Targu Mures. “Láto” means “the seer.” It is the title of a poem by the 18th-century poet, Batsányi János. In this poem, he wrote that he who can see should look at Paris to find out what will happen in the future. This literary review still exists. Its first editor was Markó Béla, the second president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

The other journal was Vatra, a Romanian literary review with a high intellectual status and well-known editorial board (but the term became in a short time monopolized by the Cultural Union Vatra Romaneasca, for their own nationalistic policy).

The two journals were in the same building and maintained very good relations (which continue today, too). In the first days, the editors of the two reviews made a declaration that the Communist regime had attained its aims in Romania because the regime had turned people of different social status against one another and mobilized the nationalistic suspicions of Romanians and Hungarians at the expense of the individual’s capacities and performances The Romanians and Hungarians from Romania have a common enemy, they said, and that is the lack of democratic culture and the lack of proper knowledge of one another. It was a very good and important declaration indeed, and it was published in the newspaper.

 

It was published in January 1990?

 

I think it was published in the first days of January. It was very well received by many people, even by people who didn’t exactly understand it — but at least they experienced the feeling and they understood the attitude.

Changes were taking place in the boards of local factories and the institutions.   Most of the persons in charge in the former era were collaborators of the Securitate or functionaries of the Communist Party with close ties to the dictatorial regime. But they were also privileged because they where ethnic Romanians. During the second part of the dictatorship, which started in 1965 with Ceausescu, a very nationalistic sort of Communism became increasingly prevalent. To change the ethnic composition of the Transylvanian region, the Party brought more and more Romanian people to Hungarian cities from Transylvania. The result of this process was that many high-ranking people were Romanians. Accordingly, any attempt to change the former discredited leadership, if this included eventually also the promotion of persons from the Hungarian minority, was condemned as actually anti-Romanian. And then people who wanted to preserve their privileged position as a rule played the “nationalist card,” and said very often that ”they are doing this to me only because I am an ethnic Romanian.” Such opinions, present to a large degree in the media, started to distort the political meaning of the “revolutionary changes.” Another cause for the rise of nationalistic attitudes was related to the claims for the reestablishment of Hungarian education in the high schools.

In that first month, in January, there were no important conflicts. At the end of January, however, the conflicts became more and more apparent. One of the immediate sources of conflict was people’s dissatisfaction with the scale and speed of the changes. Most people didn’t know if the change was irreversible and whether the Communists or another sort of dictatorship would return. They wanted to make some substantial changes in a very short time period – changes in the restitution of property, in the reestablishment of some formerly culturally autonomous Hungarian schools in Transylvania – all of this because they thought the window of opportunity for changes might soon close.

One especially sensitive problem was the Hungarian minority’s claim for their formerly culturally autonomous high schools in Targu Mures, primarily the case of the Bolyai Farkas high school. During the last period of the Communist dictatorship here in Transylvania in the 1980s, the majority of formerly culturally autonomous – i.e, Hungarian-speaking — schools were transformed into culturally mixed schools, with both Hungarian and Romanian speaking classes or eventually solely Romanian ones. So, some of the Hungarians from Targu Mures wanted to have at least one Hungarian high school in their town converted back to what it had been before: a Hungarian-speaking high school.

The first reaction of Romanian pupils when they heard about that idea, was: “What will happen to us?” There was no consensus answer among Hungarians to this question. Rather, there was a variety of answers. One was: “They will not start new Romanian classes from September. So in a couple of years the school will remain solely with Hungarian classes” (which happened in fact after a longer period), trough “the Romanian classes should leave the school in September.” Another was: “the Romanian classes will leave the school immediately.” There was also a lot of confusion regarding where the Romanian classes could or should go. But the vast majority of the answers indicated the formerly Romanian Alexandru Papiu Ilarian high school, which at that moment was also mixed, with Romanian and Hungarian classes. This presumed an exchange of Romanian and Hungarian classes between Alexandru Papiu Ilarian and Bolyai Farkas high school, resulting in one “pure” Romanian and one “pure” Hungarian-speaking high school. This would have been a return to the situation as it was between the two world wars. But when somebody tried to explain this to Romanian pupils who had started to study at the Bolyai high school as “you Romanians should go back to where you came from,” it understandably sounded to them as outrageous nonsense, which predisposed them to the nationalist arguments that were abundant in the media at that period.

The second problem, which caused a lot of tensions and which is still not resolved until now, is the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Targu Mures, where there is no Hungarian-speaking department. In many high schools, even during the Ceausescu period, though not near the end, there were Hungarian-speaking sections and groups. When I was a student in 1981, I started to study philosophy at the Faculty of History and Philosophy of Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj in a Hungarian-speaking section together with my two Hungarian colleagues. But during my studies the section was liquidated, and at the end of my studies our Hungarian-speaking section didn’t exist anymore, I graduated as a student of the Romanian-speaking section. The situation was the same at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Targu Mures. Even if there were many Hungarian teachers, the language of instruction for the most of the disciplines was gradually changed into Romanian, although after World War II this was the only Hungarian medical university in Romania, famous all over the world.

Today, it is possible to study in Hungarian, but the claim of the Hungarian professors and students to have an autonomous Hungarian-speaking department was and still is systematically rejected by the Senate of the University. The political declaration for and against this cause generated the intensification of ethnic tensions in Targu Mures in 1990 and for some years after. Even now, this issue is not solved and continues to be a major source of political controversies at the local and national level. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, as a member of the coalition government with the Democrat Party, recently (in 2012) raised the issue again and had obtained the support of its partners of coalition, but the parliamentary opposition forces (the Liberals and Socialists) have taken this issue as a base for a no-confidence vote against the Democrat government, which caused the fall of the government.

 

What is your impression today of Hungarian life here and the status of Hungarian parties? When I look at the situation after 20 years, it seems like there’s been incredible improvement. Everything seems bilingual: menus, streets signs.

 

I am of the same opinion. There have been many changes for the better. This was made step by step in politics. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania played an important role in this. It not only worked to solve the problems of Hungarians here, but it also played an important role in building Romanian democracy. This last fact has not been appreciated enough by either Hungarians or Romanians.

Of course the situation didn’t become better from one day to the next. It took many steps. Romania joining the European Union was the most important step. Joining NATO and the whole network of the international alliances and organizations was also important. The inner relationship between politics and the economic situation is not something that people really understand. They do not appreciate it as an achievement when the government simply maintains the status quo and prevents the situation from getting a lot worse during the global financial crisis. We’ve experienced faster changes than people can understand, particularly because people’s way of thinking hasn’t changed as quickly. Also, the problems we face today have accumulated over a longer historical period than just the Communist era.

As a middle-class intellectual, I have fully benefited from the changes. But this isn’t the same for everyone. Many people live in very poor conditions. They don’t see a significant difference compared to the Communist period. Some of them even say that Communism was better. Other people, who see the problems from the point of view of a harsh nationalism, say that we haven’t had any progress in basic political status because the Hungarians from Romania haven’t achieved territorial autonomy. But this is not true. We’ve seen a lot of progress. But there has also been a lot of resistance against the democratization by people who don’t want this progress, even now.

A major example of this is the sticky process of restituting properties nationalized by the Communists. In this particular case we have another close connection between antidemocratic politics and nationalism. Here in Transylvania, a large number of the nationalized properties was Hungarian. Among the biggest property owners were the historic Hungarian Churches, which didn’t receive all of their former properties. This process, although partial and very slow, was severely criticized by Romanian nationalists claiming that as a result of this process ”all of Transylvania will become the property of the Hungarians”.

Some Hungarian nationalists say that there is no progress in the democratization of institutions because in spite of the existence of a large Hungarian-speaking population, there are many institutions where they have no access to the bureaucracy in their own native language. Hungarian-speaking civil servants are employed almost exclusively in the areas where the Hungarian population is a dominant majority, but not necessarily also where they are in minority, even a numerous one. The worst situations in this case are in the police, the military service, and the national railways, where in the last 30 years there were no Hungarians among the high ranking officers and very few even at lower levels.

In spite of many deficiencies everywhere you can see that the situation is better than it was before. But people don’t necessarily feel as if things are going in the right direction. Nothing is certain in Romania. Maybe this is the case in other East European countries, too. People here feel that everything we’ve achieved can be reversed.

I can give you an example. The Hungarian politician Attila Marko was a secretary of state in one of the ministries in charge of property restitution. There was a directive from the EU to restitute properties. But as a result of the case of the retrocession of the Székely Mikó College building to the Reformed Church, he was sentenced to three years in prison because of alleged abuse of the public interest. This is a false argument, because with every restitution the state loses property, but the citizens gain, and this is the core meaning. But at the same time the state also gains because it has created the proper relationship between the state and citizen. But when you see that such an injustice can happen 23 years after the revolution, then you feel that nothing is certain even though many things have changed.

 

Just take a look at Hungary.

 

Yes! You are absolutely right. For many years, people believed that Hungary was a forerunner of the democratic transformations. But now Hungary faces a turn toward populist conservatism associated with authoritarianism and the restraint of civil liberties.

 

Targu Mures, May 20, 2013

 


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