Home > Hungary > “The war of the flags”: Diplomatic spat over Szekler territorial autonomy

“The war of the flags”: Diplomatic spat over Szekler territorial autonomy

February 7, 2013

A few months back I ended one of my posts with a question: How long will the Romanian-Hungarian love affair that Viktor Orbán and  Traian Băsescu initiated back in 2009 last?

In the last few days over 200 articles have appeared in the Hungarian media on the “székely (Szekler) flag.” Before I venture into the tiff over the flag, let’s look at who the Szeklers or székelyek are. The origin of those Hungarians who live in Covasna (Kovászna) and Harghita (Hargita) counties in the eastern part of Transylvania is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the most accepted theory is that they were originally a Turkic group that came along with the other Hungarian tribes to present-day Hungary. They were already Hungarian speaking at the time. Originally they settled in Bihor (Bihar) county around Oradea (Nagyvárad). From there they moved farther east and guarded the eastern regions of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Members of Jobbik parliamentary members holding up the "székely flag

Jobbik parliamentary members holding up the “székely” flag

As for the origin of the flag, it is even murkier. The Székely Nemzeti Tanács (National Council of Szeklers) claims that the design they came up with was inspired by the flag of the only Szekler prince of Transylvania, Mózes Székely (1553-1603). However, the flag attributed to Mózes Székely was not his heraldic flag but a so-called battle flag he received as a gift from Prince Zsigmond Báthori before a battle led and lost by him against the royal Habsburg forces. It was just one of many such flags and was never associated with the Land of the Szeklers. I think one can safely say that this flag is a new symbol for the Szeklers, who are currently demanding territorial autonomy within Romania.

So, what happened that caused a diplomatic spat between Romania and Hungary? Last month the prefects of the two dominantly Hungarian inhabited counties forbade flying the székely flag on private or public buildings. This flag had been displayed in Romania since 2010. László Kövér, speaker of the Hungarian parliament who supports the National Council of Szeklers, ordered the display of the flag on the parliament building in November 2010. In January 2012 the demonstrators of the Peace March demanded, among other things, autonomy for the Land of the Szeklers and carried hundreds of Szekler flags. The demand for Szekler autonomy spread beyond Transylvania and gained increasing support in Hungary.

After the Covasna County Court ruled that the Szekler flag cannot be displayed in Romania a local leader of RMDSZ asked Hungarian mayors to fly the Szekler flag in a display of solidarity. That was on January 18, and ever since one after the other, especially the more radical Fidesz mayors, have obliged. First it was Siófok that displayed the flag, then Budafok, and a few days later District VII, the historic Jewish quarter of Pest. No wonder that a blog writer who lives there made fun of all those Szeklers who inhabit Erzsébetváros.

Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry, attended the ceremony that accompanied the display of the flag at the Budafok City Hall on February 5. There he delivered a speech in which he called the Romanian decision to ban the Szekler flag “symbolic aggression” and urged other mayors to follow suit. He insisted that “the steps Romania has taken lately are contrary to Romanian-Hungarian cooperation, the values of strategic partnership, and the norms of the European Union.”

A day later the Romanian prime minister, Viktor Ponta, answered in kind. Romania will not tolerate any interference in Romania’s domestic affairs. He described Németh’s remarks as “impertinent” and called on Romania’s foreign minister to make a vigorous response to the Hungarian government concerning the issue. Bogdan Aurescu, undersecretary of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, considered Németh’s words to be support for territorial autonomy, which the Romanian constitution forbids.

On the very same day Oszkár Füzes, the Hungarian ambassador, was called into the Romanian Foreign Ministry. During the conversation the Hungarian ambassador apparently said that Hungary supports the display of the Szekler flag in Romania. Moreover, he gave an interview to a Romanian television station where he stated that his country supports the Szeklers’ demand for territorial autonomy and gave a piece of advice to the Romanians: they should change their constitution and make Romania a multi-national state. At this point the Romanian foreign minister threatened Oszkár Füzes, who had gotten into trouble earlier in Romania, with expulsion. He added that even before possible expulsion Füzes will be persona non grata in Bucharest. He expressed his hope that Budapest will be able to keep its ambassador in line; if that effort is unsuccessful, “his mandate in the Romanian capital will be short-lived.”

János Mártonyi came to the rescue of his ambassador in Bucharest: “Oszkár Füzes did not say anything on the question of Szekler autonomy that would be different from the opinion of the Hungarian government.” Hungary’s position hasn’t changed with respect of Szekler autonomy in twenty-two years. He added that “we were not the ones who started the war of the flags.’” Zsolt Németh also put in his two cents’ worth, saying that “they are ready to negotiate but the solution is in the hands of Romania.”

RMDSZ, a much more moderate Hungarian party than either Fidesz or the Szeklers’ Magyar Polgári Párt, looked upon all this with trepidation. According to György Frunda, adviser to Viktor Ponta, this “diplomatic scandal” hurts the Hungarian community in Romania. Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ, considered Zsolt Németh’s words inflammatory, adding that the fate of the Szekler flag is not in the hands of Hungarian politicians.

Today János Martonyi phoned the Romanian foreign minister, Titus Corlăţean. From what we can learn from the Hungarian news agency’s report, the two agreed to disagree. But “the negotiating partners concluded that the lessening of tensions is mutually desirable.” They will continue negotiations and “they count on the contribution of the diplomatic corps.” So, it seems that Romanian-Hungarian relations are currently so bad that the conflict needs the mediation of outsiders. It sure doesn’t sound too promising.

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  1. wolfi
    February 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm | #1

    OT (well not totally):

    We’re just watching a movie “Kalandorok” which I got as a Xmas present (with English subtitles for me to learn Hungarian …) which tells the story of three losers in Erdely …

    Starring Rudolf Péter of Üvegtigris fame.

    Unbelievably funny and sad at the same time!

  2. Jean P
    February 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm | #2

    Eva S. Balogh :
    @Ovidiu re county flags. Yes, I read about this Transylvanian custom of having specific flags for counties. Interesting. Originally I wanted to add a few pictures of different coats of arms but I couldn’t quite justify their inclusion. Transylvania has a coat of arms that can be actually found in the coat of arms of Romania. In that one can see the sun and the half moon that is also depicted in this “new-old” flag the National Szekler Council came up with.

    I believe that the yellow thing in the flag is supposed to be a star. The shamans of Central Asia decorated their drums with a star and a half moon.

  3. tappanch
    February 8, 2013 at 3:33 pm | #3

    The Kazakh and Szekely flags look similar.

  4. Ron
    February 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm | #4

    Eva and other Americans good luck with (another) storm. I understand that the state of emergency was declared in Connecticut and two other states.

  5. wolfi
    February 8, 2013 at 3:59 pm | #5

    That blizzard doesn’t look good:
    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505143_162-57568405/blizzard-bears-down-on-retailers-city-governments/
    Let’s hope for the best – Eva, “we”re pressing both our thumbs” as we say in Germany.

  6. February 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm | #6

    tappanch :

    GGo :
    Tappancs, the thing with a price decrease like this is that the more you use (the higher the bill), the more you save.
    Not very fair, but certainly looks good in a cold winter.

    Not quite. There is no meter for (factor), the company can put any number in the formula it likes.

    Am I missing something (again)?

    Surely (factor) is the number of units consumed? And this can easily be checked by just looking at the meter.

  7. February 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm | #7

    Ron :

    Eva and other Americans good luck with (another) storm. I understand that the state of emergency was declared in Connecticut and two other states.

    Why not? I’m really getting sick of it. We really should move south. However, for the time being we have electricity and I will set up tomorrow’s blog this afternoon. Just in case.

  8. wolfi
    February 8, 2013 at 4:12 pm | #8

    Sorry to be OT again, but this really sounds like a Hollywood desaster movie:

    “Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency and banned cars from the road beginning at 4 p.m. today as Massachusetts braces for a potentially historic blizzard that could blanket the state with more than 2 feet of snow, whip up winds to 70 miles per hour, and batter the coast with giant waves.”
    http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2013/02/08/national-weather-service-repeats-its-warning-blizzard-coming-blizzard-coming/lu16IdVkHUKvWpeDP5hf9K/story.html

  9. tappanch
    February 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm | #9

    @Paul
    There is NO meter. The company FoTav declares a different (factor) every month. I have no way to reduce (factor), I have no say how much heat they put into the system.

    As a matter of fact, the outside temperature is not cold now, around 0 C, but they heat too strong, as if it were minus 20 C, they waste resources, as usual (we have to pay no matter what). I and tens of thousands like me have to open the windows

  10. February 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm | #10

    Eva S. Balogh :
    @Paul, the “double” occupation of the Hungarian Basin is not a mainstream theory. It was advocated by Gyula Laszlo and it has been discarded by most historians dealing with the period.

    I wasn’t so much thinking of a ‘double occupation’, as multiple movements into the Carpathian Basin over a fairly long period of time.

    The Hungarians raided across the Carpathians for years before Árpád’s invasion, so surely it’s reasonable to assume that some of these raiders liked what they found and settled in the Carpathian Basin well before Árpád arrived. It also seems to me likely that there could have been other, more sizeable, migrations of Hungarians across the mountains before Árpád as well – he was certainly aware of Hungarians already living in the Carpathian Basin.
    There was also a later mass movement of Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin – those left behind after the original migration.

    So, with the likelihood of sizeable groups of Hungarians moving into the Carpathian Basin, both before and after Árpád, surely it can’t be ruled out that one of those groups could have been the people who we now call Szeklers?

    The alternative theory, that the Szeklers are descended from Hungarians from the west/centre of the country posted to the East as border guards, strikes me as a bit too simplistic and implausable (despite the apparent neatness of the meaning of the name ‘ székely’).

  11. February 8, 2013 at 4:41 pm | #11

    tappanch :
    @Paul
    There is NO meter. The company FoTav declares a different (factor) every month. I have no way to reduce (factor), I have no say how much heat they put into the system.
    As a matter of fact, the outside temperature is not cold now, around 0 C, but they heat too strong, as if it were minus 20 C, they waste resources, as usual (we have to pay no matter what). I and tens of thousands like me have to open the windows

    OK – I didn’t realise you were talking about a community heating system.

    My first experience of Hungary was staying in a panel house apartment in Budapest in the winter and I was amazed that the flat – and every other one we visited – was so hot they had to open the windows! At first I thought this was some compensatory thing to do with living in a country with very cold winters*, it was only later that I discovered that they had no control over the heating.

    I had almost the opposite experience on my second visit, during a heat wave the following summer. Left in the flat on our own during the day, I did the typically British thing of opening the windows to let the ‘breeze’ in – and was not Mr Popular when my hosts returned in the evening to a hot flat.

    *Although I think there is some truth in this. From personal experience, Hungarians tend to heat their houses to a higher temperature in the winter than we Brits do. Typically in the UK the thermostat is supposed to be set to 21 degrees, but if I set the heating to that temperature in our lakás my wife complains it’s freezing!

  12. Jano
    February 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm | #12

    I think it’s a lot wiser to separate the Szekler autonomy issue from current politics. There’s no doubt in my mind that on both sides this biceps flexing is a lot more for domestic consumption. I’m sure that provocation has been going on on both sides but I do believe that a bilingual multiethnic Szeklerland with autonomy inside Romania would be the most civilized solution eventually. That only hurts national pride, not national interests.

    As many has pointed out before me in this thread, the main source of disturbance is that talibans on both sides captured the issue and while Basescu is mainly a pragmatist that was willing to let Orbán run his show in exchange for support from the ethnic Hungarians, the two Victors are almost identical in their attitude and hunger for nationalistic verbal karate. I don’t expect anything good on this front anytime soon.

    Eva, good luck with the blizzard!

  13. gmaghera
    February 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm | #13

    Paul :

    I had almost the opposite experience on my second visit, during a heat wave the following summer. Left in the flat on our own during the day, I did the typically British thing of opening the windows to let the ‘breeze’ in – and was not Mr Popular when my hosts returned in the evening to a hot flat.
    *Although I think there is some truth in this. From personal experience, Hungarians tend to heat their houses to a higher temperature in the winter than we Brits do. Typically in the UK the thermostat is supposed to be set to 21 degrees, but if I set the heating to that temperature in our lakás my wife complains it’s freezing!

    That’s funny… It reminds me how when my dad, or European friends come over to visit California and get pissed at me for having the air conditioner in the house and car set at 72 F (22 C). And putting ice into all of our drinks (even when out in the cold) just adds insult to injury! :-P

  14. tappanch
    February 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm | #14

    @Paul, there were no Hungarians. There were numerous tribes (at least 8+3) with Turkic ruling families usually and Ugric commoners and stolen women from other people.

    Only two tribal names are Ugric (magyar and nyék), the other six (tarján, jenő, kér, keszi, kürt & gyarmat) are Turkic.

    Other auxiliary tribes were called berény, ladány, varsány, várkony (from Avar?), őrs, kaláz (from Khwarezm), kazár (from Khazar), bercel and probably eszkil* (both Volgan Bulgar tribal names).

    The name “magyar” comes from the name of the strongest tribe “megyer”.
    (It is similar to the situation when the Jews were renamed after the strongest tribe Judah among the 12 previously nomadic Israelite tribes.)

    The Székelys moved to Transylvania from the area of Telegd, Bihar in the 12th century – that we know. It is uncertain whether they are descendants of the Eskils.

  15. spectator
    February 8, 2013 at 5:16 pm | #15

    GGo :
    Tappancs, the thing with a price decrease like this is that the more you use (the higher the bill), the more you save.
    Not very fair, but certainly looks good in a cold winter.

    Forgive my ignorance, please, but it looks good to whom?
    The countless of thousands, who using candles and the like to light with, using – if anything – firewood to heat up their dwellings?

    Some days ago I’ve heard (through the internet) an elderly lady speaking in a radio talk-show about the subject. Her utility bills decreased with about 300:-HUF – about one (1:00 €!!) Euro after the ‘good news’.

    You know, why? Because her bill usually is around 3 – 3500 HUF… How comes so cheap?

    She can not afford to heat up her flat with gas, time and again she manages to buy some wood, that’s about the heating. She using gas only to cook, – when she has something to cook at all, and, for lighting she has one 25 Watt’s light bulb what she using sparsely, only when she really needing it….

    What do you think, just how much saving that 10% gave to Orbán, Lázár, Szijjártó?
    Because they needed (deserved?) it, obviously, otherwise why should they got it at all, but still?

    You know, in any normal, civilized society, when a government will support the people in need, they give support for the very people, don’t lowering prices to everyone indiscriminately.
    After all, it wouldn’t even be that hard to grant personal – say, to aunt Bessy – discount on her bills, if they ever intended to help…

    As I’ve heard, they’ve just got the taste of the idea for earnest: already the 30% decrease in the works!
    The best part: the people happily applauding, without realizing, that they been suckered into – again – paying Orbán’s, Lázár’s Szijjártó’s utility bills!

    See, just how retarded a nation can grow in a few years time..? Takes only a handful unscrupulous megalomaniacs, a load of nationalist slogans, a couple of scapegoats to blame for everything, and all goes smoothly.

    Nice, isn’t it?

  16. tappanch
    February 8, 2013 at 5:39 pm | #16

    The Szekelys were divided into branches called “nem” (genus) until the 16th century.

    Two of the branch names correspond to Hungarian tribal names (jenő, tarján), others (örlőc, medgyes, ábrán, halom, aghaz) do not.

  17. February 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm | #17

    “@Paul, there were no Hungarians. There were numerous tribes (at least 8+3) with Turkic ruling families usually and Ugric commoners and stolen women from other people.

    Only two tribal names are Ugric (magyar and nyék), the other six (tarján, jenő, kér, keszi, kürt & gyarmat) are Turkic.

    The name “magyar” comes from the name of the strongest tribe “megyer”.
    (It is similar to the situation when the Jews were renamed after the strongest tribe Judah among the 12 previously nomadic Israelite tribes.)”

    I know. But imagine what my post would have looked like if I tried to be that accurate!

    I was using ‘Hungarian’ as a convenient term to cover all that (as is common, at least in popular histories). As always with Hungary/Hungarians it’s a genetic/ethnic nightmare – the language is the only common identifying factor. Hungarians are Hungarians because the speak/spoke Hungarian (although, as you are no doubt icthing to tell me, even that is a gross simplification). And, interestingly, the Szekers themselves apparently did not originally speak Hungarian.

  18. February 8, 2013 at 6:08 pm | #18

    As for heating costs – when my in-laws built their house they installed a modern gas central heating system. But. linked to the system, down in the cellar. is an old-fashioned ‘burn anything’ furnace.

  19. wolfi
    February 9, 2013 at 3:20 am | #19

    @Spectator and Paul:

    Yes, even here near “rich” Hévíz we have a similar situation regarding heating. Some of our neighbours use only bottled gas for cooking and wood for heating – though there is gas in all the village,installing a central heating system and the connection to the gas line would be too expensive for them.

    Others use any kind of material in their heating – coal, plastic whatever, the smell is sometimes unbelievable …

    When we see the black smoke rising from their chimneys it’s time to go inside and close every opening …

  20. wolfi
    February 9, 2013 at 5:47 am | #20

    Back to the “War of flags”. It now has reached the German media – here’s what our top weekly liberal-left magazine has to say:
    http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/diplomatischer-konflikt-zwischen-ungarn-und-rumaenien-a-882335.html
    Populism and hysterics on both sides …
    And I’ve been thinking that we live in the 21st century, working for a USE = United States of Europe to speak with one voice …

  21. spectator
    February 9, 2013 at 9:18 am | #21

    wolfi :
    Populism and hysterics on both sides …
    And I’ve been thinking that we live in the 21st century, working for a USE = United States of Europe to speak with one voice …

    I wonder if you have heard yet the somehow profane Hungarian expression: “Beating the nettle with the dick of someone else”..?

    That’s what Orban and Co. doing right now, using and abusing the – otherwise rightful – sentiments of the people on both side of the border, never mind, that it hurts the case, and the retorsion hit back to those who still live there, who cares?

  22. Kirsten
    February 9, 2013 at 11:21 am | #22

    Andrei Stavilă :
    Eva, sorry for the OFF TOPIC, but I couldn’t find your email: maybe you can use this picture of a very interesting toy I spotted in Budapest in December http://stavilaandrei.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/my-budapest-30-our-children-must-know-their-leader/

    I hope it is not Made in China.

  23. Andrei Stavilă
    February 9, 2013 at 3:00 pm | #23

    Kirsten :

    Andrei Stavilă :
    Eva, sorry for the OFF TOPIC, but I couldn’t find your email: maybe you can use this picture of a very interesting toy I spotted in Budapest in December http://stavilaandrei.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/my-budapest-30-our-children-must-know-their-leader/

    I hope it is not Made in China.

    Hah, can you ever find something not made in China these days? They even replicated the Heroes Square: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m9y38gQoiY1ru2zy4o3_1280.jpg :)

  24. February 9, 2013 at 4:39 pm | #24

    Andrei Stavilă :

    Kirsten :

    Andrei Stavilă :
    Eva, sorry for the OFF TOPIC, but I couldn’t find your email: maybe you can use this picture of a very interesting toy I spotted in Budapest in December http://stavilaandrei.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/my-budapest-30-our-children-must-know-their-leader/

    I hope it is not Made in China.

    Hah, can you ever find something not made in China these days? They even replicated the Heroes Square: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m9y38gQoiY1ru2zy4o3_1280.jpg

    It’s difficult to know what to think about this!

  25. Yul
    February 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm | #25

    here’s something interesting: the Romanian flag (along with EU and Hungarian flags) in Bedö, a Romanian village in Hungary: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151409510403467&set=a.10150201675448467.330467.85568463466&type=1&theater

  26. spectator
    February 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm | #26

    Yul :
    here’s something interesting: the Romanian flag (along with EU and Hungarian flags) in Bedö, a Romanian village in Hungary: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151409510403467&set=a.10150201675448467.330467.85568463466&type=1&theater

    In my cosmopolitan opinion this is the right thing!
    After all, so far the EU brought us nearest to a life without borders between us after Trianon, why it is so hard to comprehend?

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