territorial autonomy

The Great March of the Szeklers

In today’s post I’m relying heavily on an excellent article by Attila Ara-Kovács on the background of the Szeklers’ demand for territorial autonomy in Romania. The Szeklers (in Hungarian székelyek) live primarily in the hills and valleys of the Eastern Carpathian mountains in three neighboring counties: Harghita (Hargita), Covasna (Kovászna), and in parts of Mureş (Maros). Although the exact circumstances of their settling and their precise ethnic origin are controversial, we know that today’s inhabitants of these three counties have been living there from time immemorial. According to the Hungarian Etymological Dictionary, the written word “székely” dates to at least 1092.

But back to the present. According to the latest census 612.043 Hungarians who call themselves Szeklers live in these three counties, which are perhaps the least developed and poorest regions in Transylvania. Their growing demand for autonomy was prompted by Romanian efforts to rethink the country’s administrative borders. The European Union urged member countries to create regions that would take into consideration a healthy economic mix. Such plans were also underway at one point in Hungary, but they died a slow death, mostly at the hands of the officials of the traditional county administration. Fidesz was also not about to give up the one-thousand-year-old tradition of the county system. After all, it was Saint Stephen who set it up.

In Romania the debate began already in the early 1990s, but it was only in 1998 that a final decision was reached. Romanian officials introduced an administrative set-up consisting of 6 regions whose borders were drawn in such a way that the counties where the Szeklers are in the majority were attached to a larger unit made up of Alba (Fehér), Sibiu (Szeben), and Braşov counties. In this mix, the Szeklers were in the minority, just over 20% of the population. This arrangement was not only unfavorable to the Hungarian minority but also made no sense economically.

Eventually the Romanian government came up with a new arrangement which they are planning to introduce soon. The three Szekler counties will be attached to Braşov county, the second most developed and industrialized part of Romania after the Bucharest region. In this new region the Hungarians will make up 43.85% of the population, a considerable improvement over their present situation. As Ara-Kovács points out, one could carve out a unit consisting only of the three Szekler counties so that the Hungarians would have an absolute majority, but such an arrangement would leave these three counties without any outside, sorely needed financial resources.

The recent demonstrations are in part directed against this plan of forming a larger economic and administrative unit from Braşov, Covasna, Harghita, and Mureş counties. In addition, the Szekler National Council, the chief organization behind the demonstrations, has been demanding territorial autonomy quite independently of the controversial administrative remapping of the region. Let me stress that the present Romanian government is dead set against giving territorial autonomy to the Hungarians. The Romanian constitution specifically states that Romania is a unitary state, one and indivisible. No Romanian government in the foreseeable future will sit down with any group to discuss plans for territorial autonomy. The Romanian government claims with some justification that in the last fourteen years the Hungarians in Romania have had wide cultural autonomy, not only in the territory inhabited by the Szeklers but everywhere a certain percentage of the population consists of Hungarians. Hungarians in Romania have their own schools, they can use their own language, and on the whole their situation is better than at any other time in the last eighty years. Therefore, launching a worldwide propaganda campaign for territorial autonomy is ill-timed and most likely counterproductive.

Then there is the problem with the so-called Szekler National Council itself. It is enough to look at the organization’s website to see that the leadership has very strong ties with Jobbik. For example, on October 25, it was triumphantly announced that “Jobbik joins the Great March of the Szeklers.”

The Great March of the Szeklers

Yesterday I talked about the sympathy march that was organized by CÖF, the so-called civic organization that is in fact financed by the Hungarian government. But the really big event was a 55 km march between Ozun (Uzon) and Chichiș (Kökös) in Covasna county. It was called the Great March of the Szeklers. The organizers were expecting at least 100,000 marchers, some of them wearing the customary local folk costumes. Although we don’t have reliable numbers, by all accounts the crowd was enormous. Naturally there was also a Calvinist church service which was recorded by Duna TV, a state television station providing news for Hungarians in the neighboring countries. The Great March was broadcast by MTV, the public television station.

So the march drew thousands of Szeklers and got extensive media coverage. The problem is, however, as Ara-Kovács points out, that the organizers don’t have clear ideas about what kind of autonomy they really want. “The only thing that is clear is that they want to live their lives without the Romanians.” And surely this is neither desirable nor possible.

The Szekler National Council is actually the creation of Fidesz. It is being financed by the Hungarian government. Even the Great March was financed by Budapest. The Szekler National Council, in addition to its goal of territorial autonomy, has its own political agenda. It wants to dominate Hungarian politics in Romania, taking the reins away from RMDSZ (Romániai Magyar Szövetség or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România), the leading Hungarian party in Romania that has often participated in Romanian government coalitions. As opposed to RMDSZ, which promotes peaceful and cooperative coexistence between Romanians and Hungarians, the Szekler National Council is a radical nationalist party.

Meanwhile in Budapest a sizable crowd, organized by so-called civic organizations and Fidesz, had their not so great march from Heroes’ Square to the Romanian Embassy on Thököly út where the right-radical and anti-semitic Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz, was among the speakers. Some of the demonstrators sent a message to the Romanians inside of the embassy: “The land of the Szeklers doesn’t belong to Romania!” Well, it does and it will.

Viktor Orbán: Hungary, Hungarians, and the world

I will continue yesterday’s discussion of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad because I didn’t cover some important topics. Moreover, at the time of the post’s writing I had access only to Orbán’s speech and not his answers to questions from the audience. Since then I have read a summary of what transpired in the hour and a half after the prime minister finished his speech.

I should emphasize that the Tusnádfürdő extravaganza was organized not by RMDSZ, the largest Hungarian party in Romania, but by the Erdélyi Magyar Néppárt (EMNP) headed by Tibor T. Toró. So, the enthusiastic crowd came from the more radical right in Transylvania, from those who enthusiastically supported or most likely initiated the reburial of József Nyirő whose political sympathies lay with Hitler and later Szálasi. The other important speaker was László Tőkés, who is the chairman of an organization called Erdélyi Nemzeti Tanács which is in close alliance with EMNP.  An RMDSZ politician who was originally chosen to deliver a speech was forbidden to participate.

By way of background, Tasnádfürdő is in the Szekler region. The Szeklers  live in the counties of Hargita/Harghita, Kovászna/Covasna and Maros/Mureş and for a numbers of years have been demanding territorial autonomy which the Romanian majority refuses to grant.

I think László Tőkés’s speech was a window into the mindset of these people.  His speech was sprinkled with statements such as “we now are in a community of the Szekler Autonomous Region” or “we are gathered in Tusnádfürdő of the Szekler Autonomous Region.” These and similar claims give you an idea about these people’s sense of reality.

And as long as I’m bringing up Hungarian minority politics I might as well return to a part of Viktor Orbán’s speech that I didn’t touch on yesterday. It was his close to incomprehensible discourse on the concept of  the “world nation” (világnemzet), a word that at least until now didn’t exist in the Hungarian language. Among the compound words starting with “világ,” “világcég” means “international company” and “világnyelv” means “language widely spoken.” For example, today English is a “világnyelv.”

On the T-shirts: Great Hungary and Even Greater Hungary / Nepszabadság / Malabu

On the T-shirts: “Great Hungary” and “Still Greater Hungary / Népszabadság / Malabu

I guess a “world nation” means that there are Hungarians all over the world but regardless of where they live they all belong to the nation. That is simple enough, but what are we going to do with the following claim? “We must find a way that the Hungarian from Budapest, or rather from Felcsút, the Hungarian who lives in New York or in Argentina will all prosper.”

In my opinion, he can look high and low but he won’t find a way to achieve this, How could he? He has no power over the lives of those who live on a permanent basis in other countries. But it seems that his mind works differently from mine because he claims to have found the key to solving this problem. What is necessary, in his opinion, is “a strong Hungary.” He will draw all these people “into the new political and economic order that is being built by the two-thirds majority.” How, may I ask? But such practical questions don’t seem to occur to his admirers.

The same thing is true about Orbán’s deputy, Zsolt Semjén, who went even further when he claimed that if the Hungarian minorities totally assimilate sometime in the future in Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia, Hungarians altogether will disappear from the face of the earth. What is the connection? Why does the fate of the Hungarians of Hungary depend on the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries? There are, of course, no rational answers to these irrational statements, but that doesn’t seem to bother these people.

In the last couple of days I have been listening to a lecture series on the structure and the laws of the European Union. One of the lectures concentrated on the EU’s stages of development from its beginnings. The lecturer emphasized the fact that the Union even today is an entity in constant change. Something still in the making. The trend is toward closer and closer integration, especially since the crisis of the eurozone. Viktor Orbán will not be able to stop this trend and he can only lose this war. He may win a battle or two, but he will not succeed in transforming the European Union to his own liking.

It seems that Orbán was carried away during the Q&A session when he revealed the “secret”of how he fools the European Union. For example, the EU insists on changing certain passages in the new constitution. Eventually the Hungarian government obliges but at the same time they change a few more words here and there. The final result is that the European Union would have been better off if it hadn’t insisted on the changes at all. What upright behavior! And he is even proud of it.

And, continuing my random thoughts, here are a couple of corrections to Viktor Orbán’s figures. He claimed that since 2010 the Hungarian national debt was reduced through his efforts from 85% to 79% of GDP. A lie. Not since the mid 1990s has the national debt been at 85%, and at the moment it is climbing to a new cyclical high. It currently stands at 81.3% of GDP. Paying back the IMF loan early actually means borrowing money at a higher interest rate to repay a loan with a considerably lower interest rate. But according to his admirers, including László Tőkés, sending the IMF packing is a patriotic act.  As Tőkés said, “as in 1989 a young man sent the Soviets home today the same man with graying hair sent the IMF home.” Another lie. Viktor Orbán didn’t send the Russians home in 1989. Their departure had already been arranged between the Németh government and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

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

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.