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Romania/Hungary: Historic Basic Treaty Signed Today

Prague, 16 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - The prime ministers of Romania and Hungary today signed a much-awaited Basic Treaty between the two countries that has taken years to negotiate.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu, in the midst of a campaign for re-election, was on hand for the signing, which seems likely to increase his chances for winning another term in the November vote. And abroad, particularly in the offices of Western governments and multilateral organizations, many eyes focused on the southwest Romanian city of Timisoara, where the strictly bilateral ceremony took place.

That the two nations, adversaries for decades over border and minority questions, were able finally to agree on a common text has surprised many observers and analysts, who doubted their ability to surmount in a few years time difficulties that appeared insurmountable for decades.

Their agreement has also pleased many Western officials, who had made the document's signing a precondition for both countries eventually becoming members of what reforming Eastern nations consider the West's two most important multilateral groups: the 15-nation European Union and the 16-member Atlantic alliance, known as NATO, both headquartered in Brussels.

Also happy about the signing, and even more closely involved in the treaty's final text, is the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, whose 39 members now include Hungary, Romania and 13 other states from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (with six more Eastern countries now formal candidates for membership).

One critical problem in drafting the treaty, whose resolution finally made Monday's signing possible, was how to deal with the strict standards for treating national minorities laid down by the Council of Europe, which promotes democratic values on the continent. This, of course, had much to do with Romania's treatment of its 1.7-million ethnic Hungarian minority, by far the most sensitive issue between the two countries.

In particular, Bucharest and Budapest had to decide how to treat a recommendation of the Council's influential Parliamentary Assembly, known matter-of-factly as Recommendation 1201. This 1993 official assembly text went even further than the full Council itself -- which has decide matters by consensus -- in seeking from member states safeguards and guarantees of what it carefully called "individual rights, especially for persons belonging to national minorities."

The recommendation goes well beyond existing legislation in many Council member states. It states, for example, that "in regions inhabited by a substantial number of persons belonging to a national minority, they have the right to use their mother tongue in their relations with administrative authorities" and in official proceedings.

For three years, press coverage in both countries of basic treaty negotiations between Hungary and Romania focused inordinately on Recommendation 1201. In many instances, press organs misstated the recommendation's text and intent, as did many politicians who also focused on it. Generally, the Hungarian government wanted the recommendation to be part of the treaty. The Romanian government did not want it in. Nor, even more emphatically, did those Romanian parties opposing the signing of the treaty.

Last month, the two governments finally came up with a common formula for Recommendation 1201. Hungary agreed to Romania's stipulation that if the controversial text was mentioned in the treaty, both sides would be able to attach a joint interpretation of its meaning. The interpretation would state, both sides agreed, that Recommendation 1201 was not viewed by either as granting the Hungarian ethnic minority "collective rights" -- a phrase that the Parliamentary Assembly text scrupulously avoided -- or the right to set up autonomous territorial structures based on ethnic criteria. Eventually, both sides decided to have this interpretation included in the treaty as an annex to the main document.

With that contentious issue resolved, the rest of the treaty was relatively easy. Like many such documents, including one signed last year by Hungary and Slovakia, the Romanian-Hungarian treaty recognizes existing borders and renounces the use of force to change them.

But in the case of Bucharest and Budapest, which have each historically staked a claim to Transylvania -- today, Romania's northern province that is home to much of its ethnic Hungarian minority -- those declarations carry more than the usual weight. And if the document skirts thorny minority issues and rejects the concept of "territorial autonomy," it does uphold international and European norms for preserving cultural identity.

Finally, then, it was the critical accord on Recommendation 1201 that made the difference for the Romanians and Hungarians. The Slovak-Hungarian Basic Treaty signed last March also cited the recommendation but provided no common interpretation of its somewhat ambiguous text. As a result, Slovak officials and parliamentarians have been complaining about their treaty with Hungary ever since, and bilateral relations have suffered as a result.

In contrast, Romanian-Hungarian agreement on minority rights, and their limits, seems to augur well for the future. If the accord does not assure good relations between two countries that have seldom maintained them for long in the past, it is surely a large step in the right direction. That at least is the view from the West. And it's with the West, it's worth emphasizing again, that both countries are seeking ardently to integrate.