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The Promise of Autonomy in Romania

2018.11.16.

On December 1st, 1918 the representatives of Transylvanian Romanians in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Julia) declared their desire to unify Transylvania with Romania. From the end of 1918, the Romanian army occupied Transylvania and Partium and after the Trianon peace dictate of 1920, Great Romania was formed. The Gyulafehérvár Declaration included the intention of the region breaking away from Hungary but at the same time, it promised various types of self-government that would be granted to ’cohabiting nations.’ Hardly any of these promises were put into practice.

The Romanian National Assembly didn’t even ratify the minority agreement that the country had signed with the Entente in 1919 stating that minority rights should be prescribed. Actually, a massive assimilation policy was pursued between the two World Wars. Romanian became the only official language, which was exclusively used at courts (with the aid of interpreters) and in state administration. In public buildings the notice ’Only in Romanian’ was common. Hungarian public servants were finding themselves replaced by Romanians in major cities. In public education, Hungarian was only utilized in church schools. Around 350 000 Hungarians relocated to Hungary due to the policies of the Romanian state between 1918 and 1939.

During World War II, Hitler followed the ancient policy of “divide et impera” with Transylvania and divided it into two parts: Northern Transylvania which was given back to Hungary and Southern Transylvania which remained part of the Romanian Kingdom. Even so, several hundred thousand people remained in both territories as minorities without autonomy. As the two countries already had a historically bad relationship, this only served to increase the tension between them.

Both countries fought as allies of Nazi Germany in the war, but Romania switched sides in August 1944 and let the Soviet Army move into the country. As a result, Bucharest regained Northern Transylvania but had to give up Bessarabia. Although reprisals against Hungarians took place in a few places in Transylvania, ethnic revenge on a larger scale was prevented by the invading Soviet troops. Genocidal events didn’t happen here, unlike in Yugoslavia where tens of thousands of Hungarians were brutally killed, often cruelly tortured beforehand by Tito’s partisans. Owing to Stalin’s pressure in 1952, Hungarians gained autonomy in Szeklerland, which was based on the Soviet model. It was the Magyar Autonomous Region, which existed until 1960 giving some autonomy to Hungarians living there. Though not being very generous, it provided some opportunities to sustain minority culture and ensured a sort of self-government. In 1960 the autonomous region was reorganized, losing areas with a Hungarian majority and gaining new ones where Romanians made up the bigger part of the population. In the new region, only 60% of the population was Hungarian. After Ceausescu seized power in 1965, an even more oppressive policy against ethnic minorities came into being. As part of this, the autonomy was abolished in 1968 when a new administrative system was introduced in Romania. In this way, there has not been Hungarian autonomy in the country for 50 years.

Following the collapse of communism, Hungarians in Szeklerland have expressed their wish for autonomy several times. They have argued that if German-speaking people in SouthTirol, Basques in Spain and Swedes in Finland can enjoy extensive autonomy, then why can’t Hungarians in Romania—especially the Székelys living in an ethnically compact area—acquire the same? Roughly 30 years have passed since 1989, but all attempts have been unsuccessful. In spite of the fact that all Hungarian parties, civic organizations and churches in Romania support the conception of autonomy and the Hungarians living in Szeklerland, Bucharest is still afraid of Hungarian separatism and stoutly refuses any form of autonomy. The autonomy in Szeklerland would make it easier for local Hungarian inhabitants to stay in their homeland and could enhance prosperity in the poor region. Anyway, when looking at the map one can see that Szeklerland has no common border with Hungary as it is situated in the middle of Romania. Consequently, it is hard to believe how Hungarian separatism could manifest here.

It is vital that cohabiting nations in Central Europe reconcile with one another and realize they can only be successful in 21st century Europe if they cooperate. Autonomy would be an adequate sign of such cooperation. Instead of weakening the state that grants it, it enriches it. There is still enough room for national ambitions in the form of peaceful competition.

By Dénes Sályi

On the featured photo: demonstration for the autonomy of Szeklerland.
Photo by Zsolt Kovács/maszol.hu


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