The political scene in Romania is currently gripped by the debate over the minority law. It’s difficult to find English language sources regarding this debate but I think it’s worth looking at anyway. What follows is what I’ve been able to glean about this debate from my limited Romanian and Hungarian and from talking to people. If there are any inaccuracies, I hope someone will please correct me via the comments page.
From what I understand, there is a bill before parliament to enshrine in law basic rights for minorities. It’s not that these rights don’t already exist in practice, but that they are not formally stated anywhere [Edit: Note comments from Andrei below]. This bill is proposed by the UDMR which is the Hungarian party in the Romanian parliament. [The UDMR is a fairly moderate centre right party politically, but its main function is to represent the interests of the Hungarian minority in Romania.] Because of the political makeup of the parliament, the UDMR are almost always a partner in whatever coalition government is ruling, and one condition of their joining the government is that they get to put this bill before parliament. So this isn’t the first time it’s come up, but each time it does, it seems like the dominant coalition partner (whether this be the DA as now, or the PSD as before) renege on the deal and start trying to weasel out of it.
So now it’s come up again. What amounts to a fairly watered down version of the original bill is up before parliament and it is being attacked left, right, and centre. Mostly, of course, by the ultra right, for whom minority rights are anathema. Cornelius Vadim Tudor, the ultra scumbag leader of the ultra rightist Party of the Romanian Nightmare (not actually the real name of the party), is pulling out all the stops to fill the population with fear of this terrifying Hungarian minority. Apparently this law will subject Romanians to oppression by those evil Hungarians. It’s an old trick – white supremacists argue that laws promoting diversity and human rights are actually laws designed to attack white people. So it is with Vadim Tudor. Vadim Tudor is the worst kind of bigot – he’s actually quite intelligent I think and he knows this fear-laden rhetoric is the way to mobilise people to support him. So, he whips people into a nationalistic fervour by claiming that the minorities are out to attack their right to exist and to be Romanian or something. In a recent debate he said, and I swear I’m not making this up “Do you really want Romanians to defend themselves alone? They will! I promise you things will go that far!” That’s practically inciting civil war, and he gets away with that shit, and not only that, but they give him vast amounts of air time on TV. He is utter utter scum. He also described the UDMR as a “terrorist organization”, just to really ratchet up the fear factor among his rural uneducated voting public.
Now, if it were just him attacking the bill, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all, but in fact the supposedly left wing PSD have also seized upon his coat tails for a spot of populist bigotry and have launched into the debate. I didn’t have any respect for them before, but now what little hope I held out for this bunch has gone right out the window. Also members of the DA (the dominant part of the coalition) have been speaking up against it, which means probably that it’s dead in the water. The media here are focussing on what this means for the government and whether the UDMR will pull out of the coalition and bring down the government, forcing early elections. But this is not the real issue (it just allows people to not think about the real issue).
What then, is the real issue? The debate around the bill seems to be centred on the phrase “cultural autonomy”, which, as far as I can tell, allows minorities the right to have an education in their native language and so on. In the case of Hungarians, at least, this already happens (at least up to age 18). What the anti camp are really against, I suspect, is the word “autonomy” featuring anywhere in any document ever. This bill does not, categorically, request any kind for autonomy for Harghita and Covasna counties, nor for Transylvania as a whole. But, the people against it like to present it as the thin end of the wedge and the beginning of this Hungarian master plan to break Transylvania (or parts of it) away from Romania. And of course they then hold up the example of these poor oppressed Romanians living in Harghita and Covasna counties who are already suffering mightily at the hands of these brutal Magyars, and if this master plan comes to fruition will be somehow oppressed and magyarised as they were at the end of the 19th century.
The other issue is language. Now it seems that many Romanians are convinced that Transylvanian Hungarians cannot and will not speak Romanian. I don’t know where they get this idea from, but it seems to have a lot of currency, even among well educated Romanians. Now, it is possible, that in remote villages people don’t speak Romanian well, or in some cases maybe at all. But Romanian is taught in schools, kids need to pass their Romanian exams to get through the various general exams and to leave high school with a qualification. I can honestly say I don’t know and have never met any Romanian citizen who doesn’t speak Romanian. Maybe they’re not all completely fluent and maybe they have an accent, but they speak the language. What seems to upset people is that, shockingly, they persist in speaking to one another in their native language. People who are otherwise quite intelligent have asked me whether this is “normal”. Whether it’s normal that people speak their first language to each other. I have to respond that yes it is, and to deny the people the right to use their native language is characteristic of dictatorships and oppressive regimes. And to offer people an education in their native language in their home country is not in some way weird or anti-patriotic whatever it is they fear. Democratic Spain for example offers Catalans and Basques the right to an education in their native language, while under Franco there were attempts to ban the languages outright. Which of these two governments is more modern and “European”? (I ought to note that one of the bizarrest arguments against the minority law is that it is “un-European”). The only thing that I can possibly imagine is that in the twisted political climate of fear and insecurity brought about by the posturing of idiots like Vadim Tudor, when people hear a conversation conducted by Hungarian Romanians in Hungarian they assume it to be some kind of plotting against the state.
To close, I have to say that listening to the rhetoric of the ultra nationalist PRM, while knowing that they command about 12-13% of recent polls, is the first time since I came here that I have wondered if just maybe there could be some kind of mini civil war in Transylvania. My hope is that the majority of the supporters of CVT and his ilk are actually not from Transylvania and in fact live in isolated rural communities in Oltenia and the like where they can’t do any damage. But this kind of hard line talk of terrorism and of Romanians “defending themselves” is just the kind of thing that Milosevic was saying in 1989. Fortunately, CVT doesn’t have the power that Milosevic did then, but it’s a slippery slope and as long as he’s given a platform to air his odious views, the damage is being done.