Capital Bucureşti
Time Zone EEST (GMT+2)
Country Code 40
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Currency Leu nou (1EUR = 4.1 RON)
Land Area 238,391 sq km
Population 22 million
Language Romanian
Major Religion Orthodox Christianity

Revived Transylvania Dispute Strains Romanian-Hungarian Relations, with Potential for Future Internationalization of the Issue

By Elena Dragomir editor’s note: despite both countries being NATO and EU members, Hungary and Romania have recently returned to a war of words – and flags – due to issues concerning Romania’s Hungarian population. If this kind of situation can occur in 2013, what kind of message does it send to aspiring Balkan countries affected by similar, and even more serious disputes?

Romania and Hungary have recently reopened a chronic bilateral disagreement: the so-called ‘Transylvania problem.’ This dispute is affecting local, national and international relationships between local administrations, political parties, and international diplomacy, with the ripple effect being felt as far away as Brussels.

Over history, the territory of Transylvania has often been a subject of dispute between the two states. Now, however, Romania and Hungary are both members in the European Union and in NATO, making it more hard to believe that they would confront each other (through declarations or otherwise) again on the subject of Transylvania’s territory and status.

Nonetheless, on 7 February 2013, the Undersecretary of State in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zsolt Nemeth declared at the Kossuth Radio Station that Hungary would take ‘diplomatic measures’ against Romania. This would be in response to the Romanian authorities’ decisions to ban the display of the flag of the so-called Ţinutul Secuiesc (Terra Siculorum or Székelys Land) on the administrative buildings in Romania, according to a report from Mediafax.

The spark that started the fire was a domestic Romanian controversy regarding the so-called flag of Covasna County. The general context is provided, on the one hand, by the historical Trianon Treaty disagreements between Romania and Hungary, and on the other, by the irredentist policy of the Hungarian post-socialist governments.

Although nowadays Romania and Hungary are supposed to be allies and partners on the international stage, the Hungarian government apparently seeks ‘to overcome the Treaty of Trianon’ – as the Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek once phrased it – on grounds that ethnic Hungarians in Romania are in danger of being assimilated, and thus of losing their national identity.

Hungarian Diaspora Citizenship Legislation and Romania

In 2001, the Hungarian Parliament voted on the Hungarian Status Law, which resulted in the introduction of a certificate for ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring states of Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia. Claiming to support the preservation of the ‘national identity’ of Hungarians living outside Hungary’s borders, the Hungarian authorities also established an objective regarding the ‘unification of the Hungarian nation’; they argued that the alleged assimilation of the Hungarian minority by the neighboring countries could be prevented only by granting those ethnic Hungarians citizenship (.PDF). In 2010-2011 Hungary simplified the procedure further for ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries seeking Hungarian citizenship.

In 2010, Attila Korodi (UDMR, former Minister of Environment) declared that approximately 1.5 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania will eventually request and be granted Hungarian citizenship, according to Ziare. By December 2011, 200,000 Romanian citizens had applied for Hungarian citizenship, and according to Adevărul, between January and August 2011, no less than 12,000 people from Romanian received it. Many of these people were interested, according to some analyses, in having access to the European labor market, using Hungarian citizenship to bypass restrictions still applied on Romanian citizens in many European states in this regard.

In 2011, the elected presidents of the County Councils of Covasna (Tamás Sándor), Haghita (Borboly Csaba) and Mureş (Lokodi Edit-Emoke) became Hungarian citizens too.  Romania does not have a law banning dual citizenship (Slovakia and Germany, for two, have such a law). Thus, citizens with dual Romanian and Hungarian citizenship are allowed to take up many public offices in Romania. The recent ongoing Romanian-Hungarian scandal has again raised the vexed question of affiliation: to which of the two states are such persons in Romania’s public offices actually loyal?

Ethnic Hungarian Party Agitates in Romania and Brussels

Many Romanians have their doubts. These officials often claim that the rights of the ‘Hungarian nation’ in Romania are not respected by the state.  In making this case they do not however mention contrasting realities, such as the fact that the ethnic Hungarian party UDMR (Democratic Union of the Hungarians in Romania) has been a coalition partner for a cumulative total of 16 years in various post-communist Romanian governments, and that it has MEP representation in Brussels.

What is actually the case seems to have less to do with minority discrimination than with simple math. The actual vote-winning performance of the UDMR is not significant enough to affect the formation of Romanian cabinets. Still, ethnic Hungarians complain that Romania does not respect minority rights each time the UDMR’s weak political performance threatens to make the party unnecessary for forming a government.

Now, UDMR (the former political partner of the Democratic Liberal Party, which lost the 2012 elections) is again in opposition, though the recent Romania-Hungary scandal may well bring it back into the government.  The UDMR mayor of Sfântu Gheroghe (Antal Arpad) has claimed that 70% of the rights of the Hungarian minority are not respected. At the same time, Kelemen Hunor, the UDMR president, announced on 8 February 2013 that the party had just created a special service for monitoring Hungarian minority rights, according to Mediafax.

As Adevărul reported on the same day, a prominent ethnic Hungarian politician has recently lashed out at the Romanian side over the issues. Laszlo Tókés is a Romanian MEP and, from 2010 vice-president of the European Parliament. He is also the former honorary president of the UDMR. On a Romanian TV show he recently made the rather bombastic claim that the Ponta cabinet is promoting an anti-Hungarian (anti-maghiarism, in Romanian) policy “that can be compared only with anti-Semitism and with the hate against the Romani people.”

Top ethnic Hungarian leaders in Romania also complain, both publicly and privately at the European Union, that ethnic Hungarian rights in Romania are not respected. European Union MEPs from UDMR often claim that the Romanian government discriminates against the Hungarian minority. This dialogue in turn provides the government in Budapest with additional pretexts and alleged proofs of the so-called ‘Romanian state policy’ of assimilating the Hungarian minority, and of infringing upon the rights of the Hungarian minority.

Minority Rights Discourse as Pretext for International Arbitration: A Nod to the Soviet Model?

This type of political maneuvering, however, is regarded by many Romanians as an attempt to draw the European Union into an arbitration role in order to resolve the so-called ‘Transylvania problem.’ For Romanians, this reminds of the time when Romania had to give thanks for the benevolence of the Soviet Union in order to have Hungary’s (perceived) intentions with regard to Transylvania’s territory denied.

Throughout the entire communist period, Kremlin leaders often tried to use the Transylvania issue as leverage against Romanian leaders. In 1952, under Soviet pressure, an Autonomous Hungarian Region was created in Romania. It functioned until 1960 ([i]) when it was followed by an Autonomous Hungarian Region– Mureş maintained until 1968. In socialist times, the controversy was often fought out in public by Romanian and Hungarian scholars.

Behind the scenes, however, the Romanian leadership often feared that Hungary was trying to persuade the Soviet Union to ‘act as an arbiter’ – as Romanian communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej phrased it in June 1964 – between Romania and Hungary, to agree to impose its decision upon Romania and to ‘give Transylvania’ to Hungary. ([ii]) During the socialist period, besides the historical type of arguments – such as the claim that the Hungarian ethnic minority represented the majority population in Transylvania, different voices in the Eastern Bloc would emphasize that the rights of Romania’s ethnic Hungarians were not respected and that therefore the Transylvania problem was still an open subject. ([iii]) Is Hungary appealing now to the same type of arguments, Romanians wonder, in order to justify its interests and intentions regarding Transylvania’s territory?

Flag Controversy Reignites the Dispute

Recently, the dispute regarding an autonomous Hungarian region in Transylvania re-emerged, culminating with the current Romanian-Hungarian state tensions. The spark was provided by the controversy regarding the flag of the county of Covasna. In March 2008, the Covasna County Council adopted the flag of Covasna, which became the unofficial flag of the so-called Tinutul Secuiesc (Terra Siculorum).

At the time, the president of Covasna county was Tamás Sándor of the UDMR. In June 2012, Sándor was once more elected president of the Covasna County Council (in 2011, he had also achieved Hungarian dual citizenship). Currently, this council is composed of 30 councilors. These include 18 from the UDMR, four from the Hungarian People’s Party in Transylvania (another ethic party, opened in 2011), three councilors from the Hungarian Civic Party (registered as a party in 2008), five from the Social Liberal Union (USL) and one independent.

Tamás Sándor has asked the mayors in the region to display the colors of the flag of the Tinutul Secuiesc, and the flag was indeed flown on several municipal buildings, including the building of the City Hall of Sfântu Gheorghe and the building of the Covasna County Council. The flag has been also displayed at the meetings of the Council.  In this photo, one may see besides the Romanian flag Hungary’s flag, and the flag of the so-called Ţinutul Secuiesc flying on the building of a council house in Harghita County.

In June 2012, the Prefect of Covasna county, Codrin Munteanu (from the Social Liberal Union, or USL) proceeded against the Covasna County Council’s decision regarding the flag of the Ţinutul Secuiesc. Munteanu argued that the displaying of this flag was not in accordance with Romanian law, and that it was therefore illegal. In January 2013 he asked mayors in the region to stop flying the flag on administrative buildings. In response, on 27 January 2013 Romania’s flag displayed on the building of the Prefectura Covasna was vandalized.

Tinutul Secuiesc and Territorial Autonomy

Tinutul Secuiesc is a term that arbitrarily designates the territories of the Romanian counties of Covasna, Harghita and part of Mureş. These three counties have an ethnic Hungarian majority population. According to the 2011 census, 73% of the Covasna county population, 84% of the Harghita county population and 37% of the Mureş county population declared themselves ethnic Hungarians. The official website of the Covasna County Council acknowledges the Tinutul Secuiesc as ‘a historical-ethnographical region in the center of Romania, well delimited’ and reasons that ‘today the Tinutul Secuiesc includes the counties of Harghita, Covasna and part of the County of Mureş, with a Hungarian majority population.’

The real matter behind the flag scandal is, however, the problem regarding Transylvania’s territorial autonomy. Using as main argument the fact that the ethnic Hungarians were the majority population in the region designated as the Ţinutul Secuiesc, during an Antena 3 TV Show (Sinteza Zilei) broadcasted in the evening of 29 January 2013, Tamás Sándor openly admitted that the real subject of his interest was the ‘territorial autonomy’ of the Tinutul Secuiesc, for which he openly militated. On 2 February 2013, Constantin Niţă, vice-president of the Social Democratic Party, declared – as Jurnalul reported – that Tamás Sándor’s declarations worried him. While the local authorities have and must have administrative autonomy, he said, the “territorial autonomy of Ţinutul Secuiesc is out of the question.”

On 5 February 2013, Zsolt Nemeth, Deputy Foreign Minister in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked the Romanian government to put an end to the ‘war of the flags.’  Arguing that the decision of the Romanian authorities to ban the Tinutul Secuiesc flag from administrative buildings amounted to ‘symbolic aggression,’ Nemeth declared (during a ceremony in a South Budapest district) that the Hungarian government expected Romania to stop this ‘aggression.’ At that ceremony the flag of the Tinutul Secuiesc was displayed. On the same occasion, Nemeth urged the local councils in Hungary to fly the Tinutul Secuiesc flag “in solidarity with the Hungarian population in Transylvania,” and “in support of the autonomy” of the Tinutul Secuiesc region.

Diplomatic Discord

In response to Zsolt Nemeth’s declarations, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Titus Corlăţean, pointed out that the usage of the terms ‘war’ and ‘aggression’ – albeit ‘war of flags’ and ‘symbolic aggression’ – should not be so easily pronounced in diplomatic discourse. The Romanian minister also noted that Hungarian officials should not make use of the issue for their own interest domestic political struggles. “In Budapest one may display any kind of flags one wants,” Corlăţean declared- however, he added, Romania has a law on this issue and “has the right and the sovereign duty to respect” that law.

On 6 February, Hungary’s ambassador in Romania, Oszkar Fuzes, publicly declared that he agrees with Zsolt Nemeth’s declarations, adding that the displaying of the ‘national Székelys flag’ on Romania’s administrative buildings is a ‘natural’ right of the Hungarians in Covasna and Harghita Counties.  According to Oszkar Fuzes, the Hungarian minority cannot feel at home in Romania because it cannot use its symbols and because its rights are infringed upon (încălcate, in Romanian).

Bogdan Aurescu, secretary of state in the Romanian Foreign Ministry noted that Zsolt’s declaration gave explicit support for the region’s territorial autonomy based on ethnic criteria, thereby contravening Romania’s Constitution. To this, Fuzes stated that Romania’s constitution should be modified to replace the wording in article 1, according to which Romania is a sovereign, independent, unitary and indivisible National State; he suggested that the wording should be changed to read, ‘multinational, sovereign and indivisible state’. Moreover, the Hungarian ambassador declared that he ‘asserts (susţin, in Romanian) the cultural autonomy, the territorial autonomy and the personal autonomy’ of the region, and that the Székelys Land should be officially recognized as an administrative territorial region of Romania, and finally that ‘the Hungarian state supports the request of the Hungarians from Romania,’ Mediafax reported.

On 7 February, the Romanian and Hungarian Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Titus Corlăţean and Janos Maronyi, had a telephone conversation, during which they agreed that the common interest of bilateral cooperation “requests the avoidance of the escalation of attitudes and declarations formulated publicly in the two countries.” Despite these vague diplomatic formulations, the Romanian-Hungarian disagreements have not yet been solved. Sooner or later. they will re-emerge, under different pretexts.

References to Kosovo: a New Precedent for Autonomy Demands?

For Romania, the autonomy of the so-called Székelys Land is ‘out of the question’ for several reasons. First of all, Romanian has argued that this demand is fundamentally based on a false assertion (i.e., that the rights of the Hungarian minority in Romania are not respected and that Romania has a state policy of assimilating its minorities).  Second, Romanian leaders note that only about 40% of the country’s overall Hungarian minority inhabits the Ţinutiul Secuiesc, and that it can thus not claim to be representative of the whole minority population.

Third, it is argued that granting the region territorial autonomy would create a precedent, one which the other 60% of ethnic Hungarians would cite in demanding the territorial autonomy of Transylvania. Granting autonomy would therefore create a dangerous precedent for the territorial integrity of the Romanian state. The general fear is that ethnic Hungarians supported by nationalists in Budapest would not stop with cultural or political autonomy, but would eventually seek to unite with Hungary.

In this respect, the Kosovo precedent has been cited as a model by Tokes since 2008, and has triggered significant worries in Romania since then. In 2010, participating at a summer school in Tusvanyos, Laszlo Tokes again rhetorically asked: “if Kosovo obtained its independence, why cannot we obtain our autonomy?” He added that Viktor Orban “as prime minister of the nation” had set for himself the goal of the “unity of the Hungarian nation” in which the Hungarian outside Hungary were also included.

The War in Brussels and Beyond

Seeing all of these hostile statements, political decisions and symbolic acts, some Romanians fear that their government is being implicitly blackmailed by Hungary and by certain ethnic Hungarians in Romania, with the continuous threat of being arraigned at the European Union for alleged violation of minority rights.

The Romanian government is also particularly concerned about the potential for this tactic being employed now because Brussels is seen as favoring its arch-rival, President Traian Băsescu. Last summer, during Romania’s political stand-off and the failed referendum to depose the president, the EU Observer reported that Brussels publicly supported Băsescu, and accused the government of violating the rule of law. (Some notable dissenters from this position would emerge, such as British ELDR President Sir Graham Watson). Nevertheless, this perceived favoritism has weakened and complicated Romania’s ability to respond and react to Hungarian interference in its domestic affairs at the EU level.

In this context, it will become important to observe whether the Romanian government and parliament can succeed in clearly defining Romania’s position with regard to Hungary’s future interests in Transylvania. They will have to deal with vexing related issues such as the problematic issue of dual citizens in state offices who openly profess allegiance to a different state, that is, Hungary.

Further afield, the battle for influence in Brussels continues as elected Romanian representatives such as the aforementioned Tokes and Monica Macovei have been criticized for presenting Romania in a negative light for their own ethnic, personal and party interests. That said, it will also be of interest to note whether such dissenters can gain sympathy among other European Union representatives, especially those who may be naïve or unfamiliar with the issues. In the end, if Romanian leaders and representatives do not find consensus on state interests, the Romanian-Hungarian disagreement could fall victim to EU mediation, which would result in rising ethnic tensions and possible successes for Hungary.

[i] See, for instance, Larry L. Watts, Fereşte-mă, Doamne, de prieteni… Războiul clandestin al Blocului Sovietic cu România, Rao, Bucureşti, 2011, 179-189

[ii] See, for instance, The minutes of the Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers Party [CC of RWP], 4 January 1964, in the Romanian Central Historical Archives (ANIC), Fond Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party (CC of RCP), Section Office, File no 1/1964, 3-31; Report, 7 March 1964, ANIC, CC of RCP, Propaganda and Agitation Section, File no 9/1964, 6-15; Note concerning the discussions between Gheorghiu-Dej and Liu Fang, China’s ambassador in Romania, 5 June 1964, Snagov, ANIC, CC of PCR, Foreign relations, File no. 5/1965, 28-53

[iii] See, for instance, Stelian Mihalcea’s Report from Budapest, 13 October 1964, ANIC, CC of RCP, Foreign Relations Section, File no 24/1964,  15

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