Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Subjective Transylvania" - a review

Recently (at the end of a fairly fractious exchange in the comments section of my post on the Romanian Orthodox Church's attempt to Romanianise Csikszereda), somebody enigmatically signing themselves "MS" suggested I read this book which is available online through OSI (Soros) in Hungary. So I did. And it was well worth reading, I can tell you. If you download it you'll find that it's 147 pages in Word, which may be rather daunting, so I'll attempt to offer a brief review here. Hopefully if this piques your interest you'll read it yourself.

The book, which I assume was eventually published by OSI, is entitled "SUBJECTIVE TRANSYLVANIA: A CASE STUDY OF POST COMMUNIST NATIONALISM" by Alina Mungiu Pippidi PhD, who is a Romanian social psychologist. It is a throughly researched study into the disagreements between and perceptions of Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania, including reams of qualitative data. It concludes with some suggestions into what the future might hold and some suggested models for the future in creating a more harmonious situation. It's not clear when it was written, but it was obviously (from the context given) at some point during the Constantinescu government of 1996-2000.

I'll admit that my first impression was a negative one, since early on in the inroduction to the work Dr Pippidi refers to the 1990 ethnic clashes in Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely as a "violent outburst" while then going on to refer to an incident in Udvarhely "where the local community instigated by the town council brutally evacuated four Romanian nuns". Now I'm not familiar with this incident, and have no idea whether the adverb "brutally" is justified (I'm assuming it is), but it seems a bit biased to append it to whatever happened there and to merely refer to the mini-civil-war in which 8 people died and countless others were injured in Targu Mures as a "violent outburst". Given the context in which I'd received the link, I began to suspect that this would be yet another biased nationalistic tract of which there are so many out there (from both sides).

However, I gave the book a second chance, and am glad that I did. Since in the main the author (aside from the instance above and a later jarring reference to "the Hungarian problem") is broadly impartial and prepared to let her subjects speak for themselves. What really surprised me, I suspect, was how familiar all the quotes were - she interviews various groups of Tranyslvanians from different places, different ethnic backgrounds, different age groups, etc - and all of them repeat what I hear more or less every day about the differences and similarities between the two communities. I have cut and pasted some examples below:

Some comments on being a Transylvanian Hungarian
"When I was in Hungary I visited the fathers-in-law of a friend of mine. And they were surprised I speak such a good Hungarian. I never felt so insulted in my life."

"We, Transylvanians, sometimes feel like second rank Hungarians when compared to Hungarians from Hungary and second-rank Romanian citizens when compared to Romanians. We sometimes feel betrayed by both"

and, interestingly, from some of the Romanian subjects:
"It's more honorable to be from Transylvania than from any other part of Romania. When I am sometimes ashamed of being a Romanian I feel better when I think I am from Transylvania "

On the cultural differences: "Romanians need less than we do to feel satisfied. They watch TV and they feel happy, while we are concerned by one or by other and we can't get over it so easy. We Hungarians are so deadly serious"

And the following sentiments I have heard so many times that I have lost count:
This is the bosses business, politics that is; we ordinary people get along fine. (Hungarian workers, Cluj)
It weren’t for politics we wouldn’t even know who’s Romanian, who’s Hungarian, as it was in Ceausescu’s times, we were all alike then. (Romanian workers, Cluj)
You just can’t imagine how well we get along with people here [Romanian]. Politics doesn’t let us live peacefully. (Hungarian peasants, Miercurea Niraj)

I think my favourite bit would have to be this:
The most telling fact is, perhaps, that a social representation of nations living like a family within Romania is simply missing, so difficult it is to imagine an in-group including both Romanians and Hungarians. When asked ‘Were Romania a family, how would it look like’ most Hungarian groups told us they cannot conceive it as a family ‘or we would be the intruders' (intellectual, Miercurea Ciuc). Even Romanians had difficulties. ‘It would be like a mother-in-law with the daughter-in-law’ (classical image of conflict in the Romanian folk-stories) (peasants, Cluj). At the other extreme is this beautiful representation of a young Romanian student in Cluj:
The father should be a German, the Hungarian the cook and the Romanian should take care of the house. Now it's not working because the father is Romanian, not German.

As I say it is a fascinating piece of research, and well worth reading.

At the end Dr Pippidi concludes with the need to find a solution that satisfies the following (very little of which I can find any reason to disagree with):
1. to secure the right of the Hungarian minority to a shared public sphere of its own, that meaning 'a communal domain that is constructed not only as an arena of cooperation for the purpose of securing one's interests but also as a space where one's communal identity finds expression' (Tamir: 1993: 74). This space already exists to a large extent: all that is needed are supplementary legal guarantees.
2. to eliminate by a policy of affirmative action the disadvantages Hungarians still experience (proportion of Hungarian students compared to Romanians; proportion of Hungarian policemen, and so on) This was started in 1997, when the University of Cluj (babes-Bolyai) reserved seats for Hungarians applying for the Law School: this allowed them to be accepted with a much lower threshold than the Romanians.
3. Creating incentives for the Hungarian elite to choose moderate instead of radical policies
4. The same for the Romanian Transylvanian elite
5. Eliminating unnecessary competition between the two national groups as groups wherever this can be avoided
6. Preventing a deepening of the division between the two national groups and keeping a decent level of communication and interactivity between them in order to create at least occasionally a 'in-group' of both Romanians and Hungarians, instead of having them permanently exclude each other.
7. Eliminating the Hungarian theme from the Romanian internal political debate
8. Adjusting the political system in order to satisfy the listed requirements with reasonable costs and at a pace that would not endanger the stability of the political system (so often threatened both by ethno-regionalism and by the Romanian nationalist reaction).

Sadly, not much seems to have changed since the time 8(?) years ago when this was written - Hungarians are still very underrepresented in the police force, for example. (pt. 2)

And finally, in order to achieve the above, the author presents three models and critiques them. These models are
1. Hegemonic Control [the state controls/coerces/forces the minority group into submission]
2. Federalism [autonomous regions are created - the question remains whether these are formed on ethnic lines (cantonisation) or not (federalism)]
3. Consociationalism (yes, I had to look it up too) [By which power is somehow shared, either formally or informally. She opines that this was beginning when the paper was written, as the UDMR (Hungarian party) was at that time part of the ruling coalition. It has been ever since, to my knowledge]

She seems to lean towards the third, and I would be interested to hear how she feels now, given that to all intents and purposes this consociationalism has been going on for ten years now, and the problems seem to be exactly the same as when the paper was written. (I've written to her to ask).

I have been meaning for a while to write a post on the movement for autonomy in Szekely land, and this seems like a good starting point for what will end up being a series of pieces. I realise that there are so many issues to discuss in such a debate (the concept of nationality/ethnic identity; language and culture; balkanisation vs autonomy; centralisation vs de-centralisation; nationalism; discrimination against minorities; and many many others) that to attempt to do so in a shortish blog post would be impossible. I will (over the course of the next months) return to this subject and attempt to build up a picture of what I believe would be the best way forward. Not that my opinion matters as such, but I feel I ought to offer one at least.


booda baby said...

Oh, her reply will be very interesting. I'm assuming/hoping you'll post it.

Thanks for this review! I hope to make some window to squeeze a read in.

Portioning out power, re-shaping a society (vs. a culture) when admittedly, it's a psychology driving things must be a thankless job. Or sheer folly.

For some reason, I signed up to be on the World Bank's newsletter list (just keeping an eye out on Wolfowitz). For some other, equally mysterious reason, I sat through a whole lot of videotaped 'conference' they posted for the discussion of MOU (memoranda of understanding), suddenly on the table after the Paris Declaration.

On some simple, civilian-human level, it's just really annoying that so much brain and purchase power is dedicated to reviewing what are nothing more than 'gentlemen's agreements'.

The people in charge of public policy and its enforcement ought to take classes in Empathy.

There. That's my Idea for the Day. This is why they recommend a full 8 hours of sleep. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, as an(other) English guy who has just arrived to live here, and who intends to drink deep from the beauty of Transilvania, I REALLY want to understand this issue. Keep us posted. My only first impression regarding the speculative "Transilvanian Family" idea of Romanians, Hungarians and Germans: let the Transilvanian dog have a role to play somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I've read the book last spring and found it somewhat obsolete (btw it was printed in 1999) but I guess it preserves its relevancy in some particular areas.
Here's what Alina Mungiu-Pippidi has to say these days (she is the president of the Romanian Academic Society):

Anonymous said...

I'll join the chorus in thanking you for the review. I've printed the work into a PDF and will digest it later, as it promises to be interesting reading.

Of course, my first reaction was a very loud groan of exasperation upon seeing an academic make use of Bram Stoker in a piece I was supposed to regard as serious...

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, yes, I can understand that real Transilvanians must get sick of Stoker and his plunge into the mists of the European hinterland!! Try "The Romanian" by Bruce Benderson for a far superior (and far...err...gayer) investigation into that supposed "otherness" (certainly not to everyone's taste though). Cheers.

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge UDMR has been in the ruling coalition since 1996 and it is still there today, which is quite a performance. It is interesting to see that Hungarians themselves seem to be unaware of this fact (or perhaps unwilling to admit it).

Andy said...

Not sure where that comes from Dan. I've never heard anyone suggest otherwise. Have you heard some large scale denial by Hungarians of the UDMR's role in successive governments, or are you just implying that Hungarians shouldn't be complaining since their party has been in the governing coalition for the last ten years?

Sebi Buhai said...

Rather late, but better than never :-)

A start;, hopefully will raise interesting discussions/debates. And certainly, we'd very much appreciate if you joined in, whenever possible...