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Romania: Ethnic Tensions Persist

By Istvan Mato

Cluj, Romania; 21 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- During his visit last year to Bucharest, U.S. President Bill Clinton praised thing a model of inter-ethnic cooperation and reconciliation with neighboring states. Just 14 months later, that model seems to be seriously damaged.

Following the 1996 elections, the parties that formed the government asked the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), which represents the 1.7 million-strong Hungarian minority, to join the coalition. That move created a stable parliamentary majority, improved Romania's image abroad, and laid the groundwork for economic recovery.

The government's program made provisions for restoring ethnic minority rights in general and Hungarian-language education in particular. But after less than a year of cooperation the UDMR's coalition partners became hesitant about restoring the rights demanded by the Hungarian community.

Strongly supported by opposition politicians and most of the media, nationalist members of the coalition successfully contested measures that had been introduced by Victor Ciorbea's government.

One such measure was the July, 1997, "urgent ordinance" which provided for the establishment of universities with instruction in minority languages and abolished several provisions contested by the minorities. Opposition politicians, the media and many university leaders criticized the measure, arguing that it might create "ethnic universities". The newly appointed minister of education, Andrei Marga, pushed for acceptance of Romanian-language institutions.

Sensing that the coalition has become increasingly hesitant to support legislation favoring minorities, ethnic Hungarians have demanded the establishment of a Hungarian-language university. But at the beginning of last month, the Education Committee of the Chamber of Deputies restricted the scope of minority-language education.

Several days later, the UDMR's main decision-making body warned that if parliament failed to accept the original version of the government ordinance, the UDMR would leave the coalition. In response, opposition politicians and some members of the coalition on the Education Committee tried to force the UDMR out of the government.

On September 30, exactly two hours before the UDMR's deadline for quitting the coalition, the government approved a decision providing for establishment of a "multicultural" Hungarian and German-language university to be called "Petofi-Schiller."

The UDMR withdrew its threat to quit the coalition. But it again made its participation conditional on implementation of the plan.

This prompted an immediate backlash from most opposition parties. They contested the decision, calling it "unconstitutional and illegal." Some members of the coalition were critical as well, saying that the decision would lead to what they called a "permissive" version of the education law.

In the current situation, in which many coalition leaders show no real willingness to resolve the issue of minority-language education, the UDMR's eventual departure from the coalition appears likely.

This would prompt a new political crisis, possibly leading to early elections. That would result in a further postponement of economic reforms, meaning more economic hardship for all Romanians.

(The author is a free-lance journalist in Cluj, Romania.)