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Romania: Hungarian Language Dispute Tied To Historical Conflicts

  • Michael Shafir



Prague, 5 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute over establishing a Hungarian-language state university in Romania is laden with "irrational rationality."

An outsider will have difficulty in comprehending what drives the two opposing sides to take positions that apparently defy the rationality of their own interests. By insisting on the setting up of the university, the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) is -- in the eyes of most members of the ethnic Romanian majority -- betraying the interests of the electorate it represents.

Why, ask Romanians, should an ethnic Hungarian complete his or her education without being capable of integrating himself or herself into the Romanian labor market and into Romanian society as a whole owing to language comprehension difficulties? And why, they add, does the country's large ethnic Hungarian minority (1.6 million) not accept the solution advocated by Education Minister Andrei Marga?

That solution is namely one of "multi-culturalism," such as has been pursued over the past years at the Babes-Bolyai Cluj University. In this context, "multi-culturalism" refers to teaching in several languages, with Romanian, Hungarian, and German being the main ones on offer.

At first glance, the argument is a sound one, the more so as all parties involved are well aware of the high costs of setting up a separate institution of higher education. Such costs involve not only buildings but also the training of qualified faculty.

Rationality, however, is in the eyes of the beholder. What may look irrational to one group is perfectly rational to the other. The bulk of the ethnic Romanian majority, including many of the UDMR's coalition partners, view the ethnic Hungarians' demand with suspicion, regarding it as proof of Hungarian segregationism and, moreover, separatism.

Marga indicated this when responding to the recent announcement by Zsolt Nemeth, state secretary at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, that Budapest is willing to finance the establishment of the Hungarian university in Transylvania.

In his announcement (released to the press as a "personal declaration" rather than an official government statement), Marga said that the establishment of a Hungarian-language university was an issue that is "mainly symbolic" in essence.

Symbols, however, cannot carry the same meaning for all people. They are irrational to those for whom the symbols are meaningless and highly important to those for whom the symbols have significance.

For Romania's ethnic Hungarians, a separate university symbolizes the restitution of their cultural rights, which they considered to have been abolished in the late 1950s, when the communist regime merged the two universities in Cluj into one. It is precisely for this reason that many in the UDMR believe the university must be set up in Cluj and only in Cluj.

In addition, a separate university is considered by some members of the Hungarian elites as a symbol of ensured "cultural reproduction."

Cultural reproduction is at the core of ethnicity, for it goes beyond individual rights (indeed, it may even contradict them) to convey a collective sense of ensured trans-generational communion of values as well as inter-generational communication. And the latter is also trans-border communication.

However, such a separate university may question (openly or otherwise) the concept of the "nation-state." It is no accident that in only one European country, Finland, do minorities (in this case the Swedish minority) benefit from such extended cultural rights. Owing to the suspicion that the Hungarian-language university is laying the groundwork for demands that would go well beyond those of cultural or even territorial autonomy, most ethnic Romanians tend to reject the university.

Viewed from this perspective, statements made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during his private visit to Romania last week have probably exacerbated, rather than alleviated, such suspicions. His comment that "if the [separate] university is not set up, there is nothing to talk about" was obviously taken out of context by his Romanian critics. He made that comment in connection with rejecting "multi-culturalism" as an alternative to the proposed university.

But Orban is certainly aware of the mutual historical suspicion and that the nationalist-inclined press in Bucharest would read it as "blackmail" and as a threat to relations between the two countries precisely at a time when Hungary is about to join NATO and Romania is being left out. The same applies to Nemeth's earlier statement while attending the traditional "summer university" at Balvanyos, in Transylvania. According to Nemeth, the "nation-state" is a thing of the past and the "Hungarian nation's borders do not coincide with Hungary's borders."

Orban and Nemeth, of course, are remaining faithful to their election promise to promote more forcefully the interests of Hungarians abroad than did Gyula Horn's cabinet. The question is whether this "rationality" is "rational" in the post-electoral context.

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