Washington, 1 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - A minor incident at the Hungarian consulate in the Romanian city of Cluj highlights a major task for NATO in the coming months: coping with the disappointment of those not invited to join the alliance at the Madrid summit.
Last Friday, three Cluj city workers tore down the Hungarian flag from in front of that country's newly-opened consulate there. The following day local police arrested the perpetrators and returned the flag.
But possibly inspired by the anti-Hungarian attitudes of Cluj Mayor Gheorghe Funar, local Romanian nationalists presented the three vandals with a cash reward for what they said was "a heroic act."
This week, Funar sought to inflame the situation further. On Monday, he demanded that Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea do away with legislation calling for bilingual signs in any area of Romania with a significant ethnic Hungarian minority.
And on Wednesday, he demanded Bucharest expel the Hungarian consul in Cluj. In a letter to the Romanian foreign ministry, the nationalist mayor said that the consul was backing efforts by Romania's 1.7 million Hungarians to gain autonomy.
Dismissed by most Romanians as an ultranationalist, the Cluj mayor is unlikely to gain much support for his ideas. But his incendiary appeals could undercut the trust between Hungary and Romania enshrined in their September 1996 friendship treaty.
That accord -- which not incidentally calls for the bilingual signs that Funar is so much against -- was signed at least in part because NATO leaders had told both countries that they had to overcome their enmity before they could be included in Western bodies.
NATO leaders delivered that message to every country in Eastern Europe, and one of the reasons that so many East European countries have tried so hard to behave well was the conviction that this was the only way that they could get into the alliance.
Now, however, the alliance has announced its decision to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the first round. People and governments in these countries are likely to continue these efforts to meet Western standards as they integrate themselves into the West.
But repeated statements by NATO leaders that the other countries would be invited in the future did little to lessen the disappointment of those who had hoped to get in but now find themselves still on the outside at least for the immediate future.
In most such countries -- including Romania -- both the governments and the overwhelming majority of the population simply decided to redouble their efforts to meet the standards of NATO and the West.
But unfortunately if not unexpectedly, some groups in these countries have reacted with anger. They have a sense that they kept their part of the bargain by doing what NATO wanted but that the Western alliance has not kept faith with them.
And having reached that conclusion, at least some local politicians across the region have sought to exploit this popular disappointment to advance their nationalist agendas and to turn away from the standards that NATO and the West had encouraged them to meet.
Neither in Romania nor anywhere else have such groups gained any significant political following, but the recent events in Cluj show that no one should dismiss that possibility out of hand.
Even more, a recognition of such a danger places an enormous burden both on the governments of this region and on the Western alliance.
The governments must act forcefully against any retreat from the progress toward interethnic understanding and democratic principles lest the opponents of democracy appear to be on the march.
Meanwhile, NATO governments have a special responsibility to convince those countries not invited at Madrid that they can and will gain membership if they show a continuing commitment to the values of the West.
Neither task is going to be easy. And any failures are certain to be exploited by nationalists and other enemies of democracy. But that danger is why coping with the disappointments of those not included in the first round is as important as integrating those invited in.