Hungary and Romania face off over an ethnic dispute

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

For Bucharest, exchanging accusations with Hungary offers an opportunity to temporarily distract attention from its domestic situation. The country is emerging from the political crisis that engulfed it in 2012 caused by a dispute between Ponta and President Traian Basescu, writes Stratfor.

Stratfor is a Texas-based global intelligence company.

"In recent statements, Romanian Foreign Affairs Minister Titus Corlatean said relations between Romania and Hungary are currently complicated because of "mistakes" made by Budapest regarding ethnic Hungarians living in Romania.

Corlatean was referring to Hungary's decision to raise the flag of the Szekely Land — the region where a subgroup of ethnic Hungarians live in Romania — at the parliament in Budapest. This is the most recent incident, but the historical divisions between the two countries date back centuries.

Located between Central and Southeastern Europe, Romania and Hungary have a long shared history. Most of the territories of modern-day Hungary and Romania at one point were under Ottoman and later Habsburg rule.

The Carpathian Mountains are the main geographical feature in the region, and the official border between the two nations has repeatedly moved from one side of the mountains to the other since the Middle Ages.

The most recent significant redefinition of borders took place after World War I with the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, under which Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory to its neighbors, including Transylvania to Romania. As a result, Hungarians became the largest minority group in Romania.

According to the 2011 census, there are about 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania, making up 6.5% of the total population. Half the Hungarians living in Romania are Szekelys, a Hungarian-speaking subgroup living mostly in what is known as the Szekely Land, an ethno-cultural region in eastern Transylvania.

From the Middle Ages through the mid-19th century, the region enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy, until the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and several administrative reforms in the 1870s abolished all the autonomous areas in the Kingdom of Hungary, including Szekely Land.

After World War II, the Romanian government created a Hungarian Autonomous Region in the Szekely Land, which existed from 1952 until 1968 when the Communist government reformed the administrative divisions of the country to eliminate any identification of regions by ethnic or cultural divisions.

Following the fall of Communism, Romania's subsequent democratic governments preserved the administrative division of the country, which led to the creation of several initiatives by ethnic Hungarians who wanted to re-establish autonomy.

The political representation of the ethnic Hungarians in the country is fragmented, with three relatively small parties courting the votes of ethnic Hungarians. The largest of the three is the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, a party that is often represented in parliament and has been part of governing coalitions.

The Democratic Union and other Hungarian groups staged peaceful demonstrations in Romania in 2012, demanding greater political decentralization as a first step toward autonomy.

Ethnic Hungarian minorities in Romania are often used as a political issue by the governments in both Hungary and Romania. Hostility to the Treaty of Trianon is at the foundation of Hungarian nationalism, which calls for the restitution of the territories that were lost after World War I.

Budapest also has used the ethnic minority issue as a lever to assert its influence abroad. In May 2010, the Hungarian Parliament decided to give ethnic Hungarians who live outside the country the right to claim Hungarian nationality as a second citizenship — which potentially includes the right to vote.

This move caused tensions with Romania and Slovakia, which also acquired formerly Hungarian territory through the Treaty of Trianon and with it, a substantial Hungarian population.

On 3 February, Romanian officials in Covasna and Harghita counties (two of the three counties with a substantial Szekely population) banned the hoisting of the Szekely flag atop office buildings.

In response, Hungary's ambassador to Romania expressed his support for Szekely autonomy on national television. A few days later, Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen encouraged local governments to hang the Szekely flag in solidarity with the Hungarian minorities in Romania.

Romanian officials denounced these actions as interference by Hungarian politicians in domestic Romanian affairs.

Such tensions between Hungary and Romania are not unusual, and typically have not significantly hindered relations between the two countries. Hungary, for example, supported the entry of Romania into the European Union in 2007.

The two countries are also important trading partners. Indeed, some officials have attempted to downplay any strain in ties, with Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on 18 February denying the existence of problems between Bucharest and Budapest.

However, the dispute over the Szekely Land comes at a unique moment. Both Hungary and Romania are feeling the consequences of the economic crisis in Europe. This is particularly true in the Szekely region, one of the poorest in Romania, making it particularly susceptible to political manipulation, from both Romanian and Hungarian politicians.

In this context, the appeal to nationalism is often a common strategy for governments under financial pressure. Hungary will hold general elections in 2014, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government is under pressure from the most nationalist forces in his own party, as well as from the far-right Jobbik party.

The Hungarian government is also hoping to attract the votes of ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, some of who are now legally allowed to vote in Hungarian elections.

For Bucharest, exchanging accusations with Hungary offers an opportunity to temporarily distract attention from its domestic situation. The country is emerging from the political crisis that engulfed it in 2012 caused by a dispute between Ponta and President Traian Basescu.

Romania had three prime ministers in 2012 amid protests over the country's economic situation and mutual animosity between the main political parties, and the situation only began to stabilize after the December elections.

To a large extent, the claims by ethnic minorities in Romania are largely intended to preserve their cultural identity — the ability to teach their own language in schools or fly their own flags, for example. These issues alone do not represent an immediate threat to the territorial unity of the country.

However, the European crisis has strengthened regionalist sentiments that were previously dormant elsewhere, and Romania fears the quest for more cultural autonomy could escalate rapidly.

In addition, the European crisis is creating a fertile ground for the rise of nationalist parties that criticise the presence of "foreigners," which they consider both immigrants and minority groups in their countries.

It is this confluence of factors that makes the use of nationalist rhetoric in Romania and Hungary increasingly dangerous with the deepening of the economic crisis."

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