Saturday

6th Jun 2020

Bucharest and Budapest in 'autonomy' region row

  • 'As we fight the pandemic, the (opposition) Social Democratic party fights - to give Transylvania to Hungary', Romanian president Klaus Iohannis said in a recent press conference (Photo: Klaus Iohannis)

"As we fight the pandemic, the (opposition) Social Democratic party fights - to give Transylvania to Hungary", Romanian president Klaus Iohannis said in a recent press conference.

This prompted a reaction from Hungary's foreign affairs minister - describing the statement as "inciting hatred".

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The row began when a draft bill granting autonomy to Szeklerland, part of Romania's Transylvania region, easily passed the Lower House of Romanian parliament, without MPs getting to vote on it, after receiving tacit approval once the debate deadline expired.

The draft law moved then to the Romania Senate where is was voted down on Thursday (29 April). The upper house had the final decision in this regard.

But that was not the end of it, as the lower chamber's tacit approval led to a blame game on the contentious issue between the ruling Liberal Party and opposition Social Democratic Party - which holds the presidency of the lower chamber and the majority of seats.

Szeklerland, which used to form part of Hungary, includes a large chunk of the ethnic Hungarians living in Romania.

Szekler people have, over the past three decades, sought to gain autonomy from Bucharest through several unsuccessful legislative proposals.

The Romanian president went on to accuse the Social Democratic Party (PSD) of helping Hungarians, even suggesting that PSD leader had a secret deal with Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban.

It turned into a diplomatic row once the Hungarian foreign affairs minister stepped in arguing that president Iohannis is fomenting hatred between the two countries and demanded more respect for the ethnic Hungarians living in Romania.

But Romania's foreign affairs minister also went on the offensive - defending president Iohannis' statement, saying that Hungarian official remarks are "provocative and inadequate".

"Romania respects its responsibilities towards its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, and urges for restraint during Covid-19 epidemics", the press office of the Romanian ministry of foreign affairs told EUobserver.

Some political pundits, however, see the Romania president's outburst as an electoral ploy to win over nationalist votes and to divert attention from the authorities' handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Iohannis, an ethnic German from Transylvania, has previously been attacked by Social Democratic representatives over his ethnicity, calling him a Nazi and implying secret ties with German chancellor Angela Merkel.

"He just found the opportunity to return the blow and exploit PSD's legislative blunder" is that explanation for the president's comments.

Romania regards the autonomy of Szeklerland as unconstitutional and a threat to its own sovereignty.

Treaty of Trianon

Transylvania, which Szeklerland is part of, was given to Romania following the Treaty of Trianon and the defeat of Hungary in War World I.

The calls for autonomy for Szeklerland have been led by UDMR (Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania), wooing ethnic Hungarian voters with proposals put before parliament which stand little chance of being taken seriously.

Since 2010, the outcome of the treaty has been officially remembered in Hungary as the "Day of National Belonging".

Following the treaty, Hungary lost at least two-thirds of its previous territory and two-thirds of its inhabitants.

Many Hungarians regard the 1920 Treaty of Trianon as a national trauma, triggering deep emotions a century later.

A recent Pew Research Center study shows that two-thirds of Hungarians agree that parts of neighbouring countries, including Szeklerland, should legally belong to them, the highest number in all NATO member countries.

The issue has been exploited by both sides, as tensions between Hungary and Romania have surfaced regularly. The 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians living in Romania make up the largest minority-group in the country.

Hostility to the treaty, which calls for the restitution of the territories that were lost after World War I, has been used for electoral gains by Budapest.

Hungary's Orban already gave ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania and other former territories dual citizenship, enabling them to vote in Hungary's elections.

Boosting his nationalistic credentials is part of Orban's political strategy as he also shelled out tens of millions of euros into the ethnic Hungarian communities of Transylvania.

Bucharest officials have been no strangers to feeding nationalist fears either - as they believe it would help sway some voters and temporarily distract attention from domestic affairs.

Author bio

Cristian Gherasim is a freelance journalist contributing to EUobserver, Euronews, EU Reporter, Katoikos, Von Mises Institute, and bne IntelliNews, with a particular focus on European and regional affairs.

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