Szeklerland (in Hungarian Székelyföld) is a historical region of Transylvania, a Hungarian province given to Romania by the Versailles peace treaties after the First World War. With a population consisting of an overwhelming proportion (80 percent) of Szeklers (Székelys), it constitutes an ethnic enclave within the territory of Romania. The Szeklers are a separate ethnic group amongst the Hungarians; they arrived at the same time as the Magyars (or perhaps even a little earlier) in the Carpathian basin and settled in the centre of Transylvania.
Szeklerland enjoyed a more or less large degree of autonomy while belonging to Hungary, but this autonomy was completely suppressed after the annexation of Transylvania by Romania. Autonomy could be no more than a dream under the different repressive regimes of the pre- World War II and post-war periods. In 1952, a “Magyar Autonomous Region” was created with certain limited rights, but it was abolished by an “administrative reform” in 1968.
After a series of different initiatives, a Szekler National Council was created in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe) in October 2003, with the aim of attaining Szeklerland’s autonomy through legal and democratic means and on the basis of international law. A year later, a bill was presented with this end to the Romanian Parliament, but was rejected without any debate. In 2006, at an unofficial referendum organised by the Szekler National Council in the region, more than 99 percent of voters supported the cause of territorial autonomy. In the following years, several Szekler city councils initiated referendums with similar results, but to no avail. In 2009, a Statute of Szeklerland’s Autonomy was adopted at Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc), together with a Szekler national anthem and a national flag. However, official Romania turned a deaf ear to the Szeklers’ demands, and President Băsescu even declared to his Hungarian counterpart László Sólyom that “the Hungarian minority will never begiven territorial autonomy”. The measures taken by the Romanian authorities against the Szekler initiatives provoked a series of demonstrations in the major cities around the world, including Vienna, Stockholm, Ottawa, Toronto and New York. (The Editors.)
At the recent Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) annual summer conference in Hargita County, Transylvania, Italian historian Andrea Carteny, a professor at La Sapienza University in Rome and a specialist on Eastern Europe, gave a talk about regionalisation in Romania, and about the prospects for autonomy for Transylvania and the Szekler region.
Professor Carteny has a keen empathy for national minorities, has studied both Hungarian and Romanian history, including the nationalist movements of both countries, and has collected much personal experience in Romania. Since he is familiar with the wider European context, we sought to discover how an “outsider” – free of any native bias toward either Hungarians or Romanians – sees the prospects for Transylvania and the Szekler region.
Andrea Carteny considers the minority issue in Romania from a historical and a European perspective, and believes that following the example of those countries where these problems have been successfully solved, institutions should be created in Romania, both on the regional and the local level, in order to protect minority rights and to preserve ethnic identity.
ITALIAN GENDARMES IN DEFENSE OF ROMANIA
RF: How did you become involved in researching this part of the world? What inspired your interest in Romanian and Hungarian history?
AC: I found it very interesting to observe how these two nations experienced the fall of Communism. It prompted me to look into the situation of our own minorities within and outside Italy. We don’t really have such problems, however. In Istria in the east, there is only a very small minority and the issue has been largely solved. They have cultural autonomy and can use their native language in public administration. I also knew that, since Kosovo gained its independence, Hungary is the only country in Europe with unresolved issues concerning national minority communities in surrounding countries. When I began my university studies with Professor Antonello Biagini, with whom I work to this day, I began enquiring about the subject. He taught a few courses on the history of Hungary and Romania, and of course the situation of Transylvania was always a central issue.
Another reason for choosing this field of study was something that occurred during my student years in the mid-1990s. Biagini invited István Eördögh, a Hungarian historian from Szeged, to talk about his book on Romanian expansion in Transylvania. The day before the talk, the Italian Foreign Ministry telephoned Professor Biagini, asking him to cancel the controversial event: after all, Italy is on cordial terms with Romania, and government officials from Bucharest have telephoned to indicate their opposition to this event.
The professor replied that the book in question was historically well-founded, that he knows the author personally, and that the university remains a free institution until the day they put it under police surveillance. If the Foreign Ministry or Romanian officials wish to take part in the discussion and present their views, they are welcome to do so. The next day, the event was held. And indeed, a large audience was in attendance – part of the room was filled with police, fearing that a conflict might erupt between Hungarians and Romanians.
In fact, nothing of the sort happened. Everyone was very calm, and the Italian students were very interested in the presentation on the First World War and its consequences. After this, I began to study Hungarian, because I wanted to understand things from the inside – I did not want language to be a barrier.
MAROSVÁSÁRHELY (TÂRGU MUREŞ) WILL BECOME LIKE KOLOZSVÁR (CLUJ)
RF: First you learned Hungarian, and then, when you came to Romania, you learned Romanian, too?
AC: When I arrived in Kolozsvár (Cluj), I spoke fairly good Hungarian, but within a few weeks I switched to Romanian – I became “assimilated” among the Romanians. I spent half of my dissertation-writing years in Kolozsvár, at the Italian–Romanian Historical Institute within the Babeş–Bolyai University. This way, I got a taste of what it’s like to be a minority, because when I arrived, I knew only Hungarian. This was an odd experience for me. I am Italian, of course, but the Kolozsvár about which I’d read in books – I couldn’t find it.
What I did find, when arriving in Kolozsvár, was a Romanian city. The historical presence of Hungarians and Germans was still evident – and there are still Hungarians living there, but they are barely visible. The street signs and store signs are in Romanian, and I had to search long and hard to find a place where people answered me in Hungarian.
In Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş), it does happen on occasion that store personnel will greet me in both languages, but if officials continue tinkering with the demographics, within a few years Marosvásárhely will – in a demographic sense – look and feel more like Kolozsvár than Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciuc).
The Hungarians do have certain rights, but as I saw in Italy, in South Tirol and in Sicily, institutions to protect minority rights are crucial. There is no such institution in Marosvásárhely, and in effect official policy has already Romanianised the town. Already, Marosvásárhely is different from the Hungarian-majority towns in the Szekler region.
FOLLOWING EUROPE’S EXAMPLE
RF: So what you’re saying is that institutions are necessary to preserve ethnic identity.
AC: That is absolutely basic. Every country that is European in mentality has regional and community institutions. Bilingual signs are not enough. Such signs are essential, but in addition to bilingualism at every level, it is also necessary to have local and county institutions in place, and regional institutions if several counties are involved. Such a model works in many places – such as Italy (granted, it doesn’t work perfectly due to corruption) – where it is important for institutions to be as close as possible to the citizens they are serving.
Romania plans to create economic regions, but this is different from European practice – in Europe, regions are generally organised along the lines of history or cultural identity. The Romanian government’s solution serves the interests not of the citizens, but rather of those in power. Mussolini did the same in Italy, and Franco in Spain – they wanted total power, and took no account of the citizenry. But in 21st century Europe, such power games should not be allowed; different countries should not be allowed to play by different rules. If they do, East Central Europe would not be equal to the rest of the EU; those countries would be considered second-tier. I believe that Romania, Slovakia and Hungary ought to transform themselves into normal European countries, instead of seeking different solutions.
RF: In other words, the situation of minorities should be handled in line with European models and practice.
AC: Definitely. There are examples that in the spirit of an enlightened rule of law ought to apply to everyone. It would be very important that the debate on these issues is not confined to the domestic arena – because within any given country, people tend to base their arguments and theories on knee-jerk reactions. Instead, reliable and correct information should prevail. In Italy, for example, it would be unheard of for either the right or the left to use the South Tirol issue as a red flag. We often speak about South Tirol, but in fact there are several other regions in Italy, including islands, some of them tiny, whose autonomy provides them with self-esteem. In some regions, local identity is very significant, for example well- known regions like Tuscany, Umbria, Lombardy and Veneto. These are regions with very strong identities, and with their own institutions.
IDENTITY OF BORDER-GUARD NATIONS
RF: Many people like to compare the Szekler region to South Tirol. Is such a parallel justified? Or is their comparison a forced one, because it serves our interests? Are there historical similarities between them?
AC: Both communities live in the mountains, in a border region: here, the Carpathians; there, the Alps. In both cases, the communities developed a sense of themselves as the defenders of a civilisation. Throughout history, despite attempts at centralisation, these regions retained certain privileges. Both communities have a much stronger sense of identity than the neighbouring peoples.
This is also a function of the geographical region. It is not enough to say that people can freely decide to belong to a particular community, or to organise themselves at the community level. Here in the Szekler region, the geographical, linguistic and religious questions are also very significant. In South Tirol, the religious question is also significant, but not to the same extent, since everyone there is Catholic. But linguistic differences remain between the Germans and Italians who live there; they also have very different traditions and customs. Due to centralisation during the 20th century, these regions lost their privileges, but now they wish to enjoy these rights once again. In the more modern regions of Italy and Spain, these rights are recognised. For example look at Navarra in Spain (Comunidad Foral de Navarra – the word “comunidad” means “region”, while “foral” is a recognition of the old privileges). This region, too, is a border region in the Pyrenees. Part of the population speaks Basque, the rest speak Spanish, and the region enjoys autonomous status. This means that a community can possess particular rights within a country, and the central state authority recognises regional identity.
THE MOLDOVAN EXAMPLE
RF: Do you think there is a chance for the Szekler region to gain its autonomy?
AC: Within a European and democratic mindset, it has to be possible. This is exactly what democracy means: that we can discuss things and reach a solution together. If I only grant you something because I want to, that is not democracy. A good opportunity could appear if the issue of union with Moldova comes up again on the agenda. Romanians do not want to discuss the issue of the Szekler region, because they say it is “resolved”. But on the other hand, the Moldovan issue is still an open question. History is ever changing; it never comes to a halt. I think that the issue of union between the Romanian nation and Moldova remains open, and if Moldova joins the EU, then a new situation arises. At that point, the Trans- Dniester issue will have to be resolved, and they will then be forced to consider the issue of federalisation in Romania. At that point, we will no longer be talking about 23 million Romanians and 1.5 million Hungarians – there will also be a very significant Slavic minority, backed up by Russia. The guarantees provided to the Slavs will have to be applicable to everyone, including the Hungarians.
This scenario is, I believe, quite possible. As far as I can tell, the Hungarians here believe so too. It would be helpful to begin a dialogue with those in Moldova who seek unity with Romania, and with the Romanian minority communities outside of Romania’s borders – the issues ought to be placed in the framework of international diplomacy. It is better to discuss controversial issues, even if we cannot agree on them. It’s always worse to sweep them under the rug – the conflicts will continue to simmer, even if they are not discussed.
RF: You have begun to study Szekler history too. Why?
AC: For me, the Szekler region – like the Basque country, Catalonia, South Tirol or Alsace (even in highly centralised France they have ethnically based autonomy!) – represents the richness of Europe. My father, for example, comes from a region in southern Italy with a small Greek community. There are not many of them, but they preserve their language and identity. And this is also important for the Italians who live there. The local Italians feel that diversity enriches them too, and they are proud of the region’s unique characteristics. Historically, Transylvania is just such a diverse region, and even though its Saxon population has almost entirely disappeared, it would be nice to have their history and legacy reflected at the very least on signs in those towns which used to be predominantly Saxon. That is the European way. If we wish to preserve the past to help ensure a better future, we must recognise this diversity. If we deny the past, we will be no more than a colonised territory.
Translation by Katica Avvakumovits