A Romanian ultranationalist mayor recently ordered some of his Transylvanian city's sidewalks painted in the national colors of red, yellow, and blue, this after having the town's roadside poles and benches decorated similarly. Gheorghe Funar, mayor of Cluj, has long been known for his eccentric ideas and anti-Hungarian rhetoric. Analysts say this latest gesture may not bode well for Romania's efforts toward European integration.
Prague, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ultranationalist mayor of Cluj -- one of the largest cities in the Romanian region of Transylvania -- recently ordered the sidewalks on some of the main roads decorated in Romania's national red, yellow, and blue colors, after previously having roadside poles, traffic lights, and benches painted in the same palette.
Mayor Gheorghe Funar said the tricolor sidewalks are part of a project to brighten the town. Funar told local media he was inspired by a visit to the South Korean town of Suwon, where he saw sidewalks painted in the Korean colors.
Cluj -- a city of some 330,000 -- has been the historical capital of Transylvania, a region that was part of Hungary before World War I. An academic town, Cluj is home to much of Transylvania's ethnic Hungarian and Romanian intellectual elite.
Funar, who became mayor in 1992, has gained notoriety for his eccentricities and anti-Hungarian rhetoric in a town where one-fifth of the population is ethnic Hungarian.
In June of this year, Funar was briefly detained by police after placing cow bones fresh from a slaughterhouse and red, yellow, and blue toothpicks on the city councilors' desks. He said at the time that his actions were "a contemporary art exhibition" and complained to the police that the "exhibits" had been stolen.
Eccentricity may run in the family. Funar's father caught the attention of local and national media earlier this year when he created a red, yellow, and blue homemade wine.
But Gheorghe Funar is also vice president of the country's ultranationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM), which came second in a 2000 general election with 20 percent of the vote and whose leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, made it into the run-off presidential ballot before being beaten by ex-communist Ion Iliescu.
Some analysts say Funar's ability to keep his mayoral job for a third consecutive term in a town renowned for its ethnic tolerance is based on his administrative skills rather than on his anti-Hungarian views.
But local politicians -- ethnic Hungarian and Romanian alike -- have repeatedly accused Funar of mismanagement. They point to the fact that the mayor this year has been constantly at odds with the local council, and that Cluj lacked proper local leadership for months.
Peter Eckstein-Kovacs, a senator and a prominent member of Romania's ethnic Hungarian party (UDMR), says the local economy is down and unemployment is high because Funar's quaint behavior has chased away substantial foreign investment.
Romania -- a country of 23 million -- is home to a 1.7-million Hungarian minority, Europe's largest, which is mostly concentrated in Transylvania. Eckstein-Kovacs, who lives in Cluj, told RFE/RL that Funar's re-election could be based on some Romanians' latent fear of an imaginary Hungarian danger.
"I think this is a latent feeling that if Funar is there, he will keep [ethnic] Hungarians under control. Anyway, Romanians, who have an overwhelming majority in the city, have nothing to fear from the ethnic Hungarians whom they co-habit with on a daily basis."
Eckstein-Kovacs also says Funar has refused to implement a new public-administration law allowing ethnic minorities to use their native language in local administrations in areas where they account for more than 20 percent of the population.
A spokesman for Funar tells RFE/RL the mayor believes that ethnic Hungarians now account for less than 20 percent in Cluj, despite a 1992 official census that puts the number at almost 23 percent. He said Funar thinks the 1992 census was falsified in favor of ethnic Hungarians and will wait until the 2002 census to see whether the law is locally applicable.
The spokesman, Horatiu Crisan, denied accusations of mismanagement and said the mayor has managed to attract millions of dollars in foreign investment.
However, some residents of Cluj, while accustomed to Funar's behavior, say that walking on Romania's national colors is an insult. They also fear Funar's actions threaten generally good inter-ethnic relations.
Local radio journalist Gabriela Pentelescu tells RFE/RL that Funar's behavior has the potential to destroy decades of inter-ethnic harmony: "People learned to live together -- neighbors who have known each other for decades and speak either Romanian or Hungarian; Romanians who speak Hungarian with the neighbor across the street; or Hungarians who speak Romanian. Romanian and Hungarian kids play together. I do not think there is a conflict, it is just a different mentality and culture. But over the decades, a compromise was reached. However, if you want to manipulate, you can always find motives of discontent."
Analysts point out that ultranationalist rhetoric could hamper Romania's efforts toward integration into the European Union and NATO and, at the same time, harm relations with neighboring Hungary.
Romania, one of the poorest European countries, lags behind the other 11 EU candidates, and its relations with more prosperous Hungary have become strained after Budapest in June adopted a law granting certain economic, social, and cultural rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad.
Professor Zoe Petre is a political analyst and was a top adviser to former Romanian President Emil Constantinescu. She says xenophobic and chauvinistic behavior such as Funar's could cause further tension in relations with Hungary and isolate Romania internationally.
Petre tells RFE/RL that Romanian ultranationalism currently represented by the Greater Romania Party (PRM) is the ultimate expression of national communism: "This was the last bait which the national communism promoted by [late communist dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu threw to the more aggressive individuals. In Transylvania, they considered as self-understood that they will get more votes dwelling upon hostility against ethnic Hungarians, which fortunately, is not the case."
But Petre admits some Romanians do tend to blame Hungary and the West for their country's failures. She warns that the PRM is trying to confiscate national symbols and squeeze political profit out of popular frustration.
Petre says many Romanians do not understand that actions such as Funar's could do more harm to the country's European aspirations than decisions made by world leaders. She believes authorities and opinion leaders are failing to tell people that ultranationalists such as Vadim Tudor and Gheorghe Funar aim to isolate Romania.
"The voices which have an impact -- whoever they are, with the exception of extremists -- do not say very firmly that, in fact, in [the ultranationalists'] minds the plan is to separate us from Europe and the rest of the world and to confine us to this kind of tricolor soup they are dreaming about."
Petre says politicians, the mass media and academics alike should go to greater lengths to explain the harm ultranationalism could do to Romania.
Funar, however, appears to pay little attention to outside criticism. The town hall of Cluj has already announced it has pledged some $10,000 -- a considerable amount for the impoverished local budget -- to large-scale celebrations on Romania's 1 December national holiday, including an impressive display of fireworks.
But once the pyrotechnics have disappeared, Romanians will still wake up the next morning to the same lives -- lives often marred by poverty, a lack of positive expectations -- and the specter of ultranationalism.