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Romania: Law Allows Use Of Minority Languages In Public Administration

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Romanian President Ion Iliescu late last month signed new legislation which grants ethnic minorities the right to use their language, under certain conditions, in local administrations. Romania's almost two million ethnic Hungarians have welcomed the measure, but ultranationalist Romanian politicians have attacked it as unconstitutional. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports:

Prague, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's President Ion Iliescu last month (21 April) signed a new law allowing ethnic minorities to use their native language in local administrations in those regions where they account for more than 20 percent of the population.

Iliescu signed the law shortly after the country's Constitutional Court rejected an appeal (19 April) filed by a group of 73 deputies from the ultranationalist Greater Romania party (PRM) who had attacked the legislation as unconstitutional.

The ultra-nationalists' objections were aimed at Romania's ethnic Hungarians, who comprise some 8 percent of Romania's population of 22 million and are positioned to benefit most from the law.

Under the law, members of ethnic minorities are allowed to use their native language in dealings with local authorities in regions, towns and villages where they represent more than 20 percent of the population. They can address public administration officials in their mother tongue either orally or in writing and are entitled to receive bilingual replies.

Other ethnic minorities in Romania -- Roma, Ukrainians, Germans, and Serbs -- are less numerous and scattered throughout the country. But most ethnic Hungarians live in compact areas in Transylvania, a region of Romania which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918.

Although ethnic Hungarians are numerically weaker to Romanians even within Transylvania's historical boundaries, in some Transylvanian counties they account for a majority.

In two counties in eastern Transylvania -- Harghita and Covasna -- ethnic Hungarians account for between 70-80 percent of the population and local administration officials there belong overwhelmingly to Romania's ethnic Hungarian party (UDMR). Local council employees also comprise mostly ethnic Hungarians, and the use of Hungarian in conducting public business was already widespread, albeit on an unofficial level, before the law was passed.

Covasna's regional capital Sfantu Gheorghe -- or Sepsiszentgyorgy in Hungarian -- is a town of 60,000 people, of which some 70 percent are ethnic Hungarians. Almos Albert, the town's ethnic Hungarian mayor, says he finds it normal for local council employees to know Hungarian.

"Most of our staff has to be in direct contact with members of the public who, according to the law, have the right to address local authorities in their mother tongue, and I think it is normal for those employees to know this language."

UDMR politicians, who granted parliamentary support to Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's leftist minority government after last year's general election, say the new law is a gain for Romanian democracy.

Guenter Verheugen, enlargement commissioner for the European Union, last week in Bucharest praised Romania for improving its treatment of ethnic minorities. But he urged the government to press ahead with public administration reform and other decentralization efforts.

The ultranationalist PRM has argued that Romanians living in areas with ethnic Hungarian majorities are being forced to learn Hungarian in order to get jobs in the local administration. Deputy Sever Mesca, a leading PRM member, told RFE/RL that the new law violates Romania's Constitution:

"This law allows Hungarian to become a second official language, and that is against Romania's Constitution."

According to the new law, the names of towns, villages, and public institutions in areas where ethnic minorities represent at least 20 percent of the population will be displayed bilingually. Public announcements in those regions will also be made in two languages.

Members of local councils who belong to ethnic minorities will be entitled to use their language in official meetings, provided they account for more than one third of the total council membership. However, oral and written translation of all council proceedings into Romanian is mandatory.

Mayor Albert says he has decided to make knowledge of Hungarian a requirement for those applying for certain positions in Sfantu Gheorghe's local administration:

"For some of the positions -- public relations jobs, for example -- I decided that knowing both languages is mandatory."

PRM members say this is just a first step toward granting collective rights to ethnic Hungarians and eventually autonomous status to Transylvania. PRM, the second largest faction in Romania's parliament, has refused to vote on the law in parliament in January and is now threatening to start impeachment procedures against President Iliescu for signing it.

So far PRM has been a lonely voice among the country's opposition parties and its impeachment efforts are unlikely to bear fruit. But Mesca vows his party will continue to oppose official status for Hungarian anywhere in Romania.

Mayor Albert says the fears expressed by some Romanians -- that ethnic Hungarians will refuse to learn Romanian once they can use their own language in local administrations -- are totally groundless.

"No, no, no, no, no. Such situations cannot occur. It is unacceptable for members of the town [municipal] staff to know only Hungarian -- I will not accept such a thing. Some jobs do require a knowledge of Hungarian, in addition to Romanian. But to know only Hungarian -- no."

Ultranationalists have pointed out that while Romania is granting more rights to its ethnic minority groups, ethnic Romanians in Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and Hungary do not enjoy similar rights. Official Hungarian statistics put the number of ethnic Romanians in Hungary at some 10,000 people, grouped in several villages and small towns in the eastern county of Bekes near the Romanian border. Ethnic Romanians themselves say there might be up to three times as many.

According to Hungary's minorities law, candidates from ethnic groups can run as independents or representatives of ethnic associations in local elections, and are allowed to establish local self-governing bodies.

But Mesca says Hungary should treat its ethnic minorities better and should learn from Romania's experience:

"We would like Hungary to treat its minorities the same way Romania treats its own minorities -- that would be very good. But the self-governing bodies in Hungary are only a false solution to the problem."

Hungary's ethnic minorities have no representatives in parliament. However, Traian Cresta, president of the national association of the ethnic Romanians' self-governing bodies in Hungary, says the Hungarian legislation grants a large amount of local autonomy to ethnic groups. Cresta told our correspondent that ethnic minorities can form their own self-governing bodies in towns and villages where a majority of the elected local council members decide to do so.

"If 50 percent plus one of the elected local council members so decide, they can declare that local council a minority self-governing body."

Cresta says in areas where ethnic minorities live, names of towns, villages, and public institutions are also being displayed in the minority language. He gives the example of Gyula (Giula in Romanian), where ethnic Romanians account for some 20 percent of the town's almost 40,000 people.

Cresta says the Hungarian minority law, dating from 1993, also provides for ethnic minorities to use their native language in dealings with local officials.

"Of course, in every town or village where an ethnic minority group lives, the law says that at least one or two public officials must speak the language of the minority."

Romania's new local administration law now grants the same right to its ethnic minorities. However, Mayor Albert of Sfantu Gheorghe says the new law still allows for little administrative autonomy. He points out that funding for the local budgets has yet to be regulated and says the new law does not clearly define the status of local public property.

Albert also says the law still grants too much power to central government, despite a new provision which says that the prefect -- the local representative of the government -- can not suspend a mayor unless he is under criminal investigation.