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East European Perspectives: October 25, 2000

25 October 2000, Volume 2, Number 20
RADICAL POLITICS IN EAST-CENTRAL EUROPE?????PART VIII: Radical Continuity in Romania: The Party of Romanian National Unity (B)

In the previous installment of this study published in "East European Perspectives" (no. 19, 11 October 2000), the focus of analysis shifted to the Party of Romanian National Unity (PUNR) as one more example of radical continuity formations in post-communist Romanian politics. We shall now continue introspecting the evolution of this party.

Its former leader, Gheorghe Funar, has also acquired world notoriety for his dubious architectural initiatives. A statue erected to commemorate national Transylvanian hero Avram Iancu is ample demonstration that "socialist realism" can survive long after the political demise of its proponents. But Iancu's statue plays a clear political role, having been erected together with a number of other tall monuments of nationalist inspiration that are aimed at dwarfing Hungarian symbols in Cluj. The monument is thus part of the long link of provocative acts against ethnic Hungarians that established Funar's notoriety. These are too numerous to detail, but some of them were landmarks.

In 1994, he nearly succeeded in turning the town into a battleground between Romanians and Hungarians, allowing archeological excavations whose purpose was to vindicate the Romanian claim in the age-old historical dispute about the "right of first settlers" in Transylvania (see Shafir, 1994). The excavations were to uncover the remains of ancient Roman structures, and thus "demonstrate" that the Romanians' forefathers had indeed inhabited the locality, whose name had been changed by Ceausescu into Cluj-Napoca precisely for the same purpose. But nobody by now doubts the Romans' presence, and no excavations were really needed to demonstrate it. The Hungarians, who make up about one-fifth of the town's population, feared that the purpose of the endeavor was to eradicate their own monuments attesting to Hungarian historical presence in Transylvania. The excavations were to be conducted in the town's main square and in the vicinity of the Hungarian Roman-Catholic Saint Michael Cathedral. What is more, Cluj deputy prefect Liviu Mendrea, a member of the PUNR, said that the equestrian statue of Hungarian King Mathias (1458-1490), inaugurated in 1902 under the Austrian-Hungarian rule of the region, might soon be removed from Union Square. After the excavations are finished, he said, the square was to be turned into an open-air museum, around which modern stores would be erected.

King Mathias's statue already had a long history of "symbolic conflict." Soon after Funar became mayor, he added to it an inscription saying that the Hungarian king had never vanquished the Romanian principalities and that, on the contrary, he had lost a battle against Moldavian Prince Stefan the Great, thereby sparking protests among ethnic Hungarians. That inscription had first been added to the statue in 1933, under Romanian rule, and removed in 1940, when the Hungarians recaptured northern Transylvania. After the region's return to Romania in 1945, the communist regime opted for a compromise, and for many years the pedestal carried only the Latin inscription "Mathias Rex."

When the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) decided to set up an around-the-clock watch to forestall the beginning of the excavations, Funar claimed that "three buses loaded with terrorists" from Hungary had arrived in Cluj and accused the UDMR of trying to provoke interethnic conflict, since that formation "dances to the tune of the Budapest government, which wants Transylvania back." He also told UDMR representatives on the local council to "get it into your heads that you are here in Romania," and added that "if you don't like it, gentlemen, Hungary is close enough, and the right to emigrate is guaranteed by the constitution" (cited in Shafir, 1994). On 7 July, the situation came to a head, when the archeological team began unloading the equipment for the excavations. The UDMR's "warning system" was activated, the bells of ethnic minority churches began to toll, and several thousand Hungarians (but also some Romanian opponents of the mayor's provocative action, including Doina Cornea), occupied the square. Scuffles broke out with police forces sent to cordon off the archeological team from demonstrators. Finally, the government ordered the excavations to be stopped and a commission of experts sent to Cluj decided that only one archeological probe will be allowed in the square. Its vestiges can be seen to this day, but Funar never scrapped his plan. In late August 1995, he announced that he intends to have the statue of King Mathias removed to Hunedoara, where the castle of the king's father -- who was partially Romanian -- is. "It would be more suitably placed there," he said ("Evenimentul zilei," 1 September 1995). More recently, the conflict around the excavations broke out again, with Funar ordering employees of the mayoralty to oppose the local prefect's decision to cover them with sand (Mediafax, 11 September 2000).

The long list of other provocative acts includes changing the Hungarian names of streets -- Transylvania-born Bela Bartok or poet Ady Endre had to make room for Antonescu, pro-Nazi Germany Premier and poet Octavian Goga, or Hungarophobe national-communist writer Ion Lancranjan -- and banning local radio broadcasts in Hungarian or gatherings of the Hungarian minority marking cultural events (Gallagher, 1993), as well as "de-Magyarizing" world-famous Hungarians. In May 1998, for example, Funar ordered the plaque marking a house where Hungarian national poet Sandor Petoefi visited in 1847 replaced by one claiming that Petoefi had been a Serb born as Alexander Petrovic, who had been forced to "Magyarize" his name. When the CDR-led coalition, which included the UDMR, branded the act as one more display of Funar's "chauvinism and anti-Semitism" and ordered the prefect to send police forces to prevent the "provocation," Funar responded by announcing that the plaque -- as well as 10 other memorial inscriptions -- will nonetheless be placed, including one on St. Michael Cathedral ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 19 May 1998).

Tom Gallagher might have been overstating his case when he wrote that the PUNR's partnership in the governing coalition with the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) between 1994 and 1996 was "a loveless marriage of political convenience." It might have been more accurate to present the partnership as PDSR's option for what in its eyes must have been the "lesser evil" -- the other option being granting access to resources to its ideological arch-rivals of the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR). Former President Ion Iliescu's secret membership in the "Vatra" (see "East European Perspectives," no. 19, 11 October 2000) demonstrates that he was closer ideologically to the PUNR than to the CDR. But Gallagher is right to point out that the relationship was never an easy one. While Funar said what he meant, the PDSR often meant what it would rather keep silent about. He was, indeed, "an embarrassment internationally," as well as "increasingly exasperating" in his domestic political demands (Gallagher, 1997, pp. 39-40). The politically more sophisticated Iliescu, on the other hand, was more aware of the post-1989 international spirit and attempted to walk the tightrope stretched between his heart and his mind.

That exercise by the then president produced a rather incomprehensible picture of Romanian politics, whereby the leader of a political party that was a coalition member would attack the government and the country's president, mincing no words. Repeatedly insisting that the UDMR be outlawed and that the government seize the alleged weapon arsenal of the UDMR, Funar would be rebuked by the government for making "extravagant statements" and by the main coalition party for using "extremist nuances." Yet only days later, Iliescu would say as much as Funar, and not necessarily in a choice of more careful terminology. The UDMR's repeated insistence on achieving autonomy (see below), Iliescu said on 31 January 1995, was a display of "diabolical perseverance." And in the same breath, the president would reject as "irrational" Funar's demand that a state of emergency be declared in counties with a large ethnic-Hungarian population (see "OMRI Daily Digest," 20, 26, and 31 January 1995).

The PDSR, the PUNR, the Socialist Labor Party (PSM), and the Greater Romania Party (PRM) were partners in passing legislation forbidding the hoisting of foreign flags and the singing of foreign anthems. When a gathering organized by the UDMR in Transylvania's Odorheiul Secuiesc in February 1995 hoisted the flag of the Hungarian nation (which has the same colors, but is not identical to that of Hungary's national flag) and sang a tune which (once again) has Magyar-wide, rather than Hungarian-state significance, presidential spokesman Traian Chebeleu deemed the act as "a provocation organized by the leaders of the UDMR" that had "offended the Romanian state." Funar, however, would accuse Iliescu in an open letter of failing his presidential duties of defending the constitution and the rights of Romanians ("OMRI Daily Digest," 7 February 1995). And while the UDMR would protest against the Education Law passed by the parliament in 1995, viewing it as discriminatory, Funar would come out with yet one more open letter to Iliescu, protesting against those few minority rights included in the legislation, which, he said, amount to "segregationism" in education and promote the "Magyarization of Romanians" in counties with a sizable Hungarian minority. After parliament passed the law, Funar demanded that Iliescu refrain from promulgating the legislation, claiming that it paves the way to Hungarian territorial autonomy and threatening Iliescu with impeachment if he did promulgate it. He eventually renounced the idea, not, however, before suggesting that Hungary set up a "ministry of absorption" to "facilitate the return of ethnic Magyars" whose community has been "a hotbed of instability and hate" during their "several centuries-long diaspora." But such statements also suited Iliescu, making it possible for him to appear to national and international public opinion as "reasonable" and "moderate" by comparison (Shafir, 1994, pp. 24-27; "OMRI Daily Digest," 10 and 13 July 1995; Shafir, 1996b).

This was well-illustrated during a visit Iliescu paid to the U.S. in October 1995. Answering questions by journalists on his partnership with parties such as the PRM and the PUNR, he said he was "not happy" with the association but the blame was to be placed at the door of the opposition, which had left the PDSR no choice by refusing to collaborate with his party. The PDSR, according to its chairman, had a reform agenda and in order to see it through was ready to "become the devil's brother in order to cross the bridge," as a Romanian proverb has it. Besides, he said, one should distinguish between the PRM and the PUNR as parties -- with whose support the PDSR had been in the position to introduce reforms -- and their leaders, namely Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Funar, who, he said, "acted in a Zhirinovsky-like manner," trying to attract public attention by making shocking statements (cited in Shafir, 1996a, p. 48).

This should have been the ultimate insult for the two ultranationalists. After all, the Russian far-rightist leader was on record as having said that the Romanians were "Gypsies" who had no right to a state of their own, and that Romania should be dismembered and territorially divided between Russia and Hungary. Tudor, who by then was launching his unsuccessful 1996 presidential bid, did indeed find the insult as perfectly suiting his needs, and set up to make the most of it by responding in kind and more (see Shafir, 1996a). Funar demanded a public apology but soon backed down from the demand. For the time being, the advantages derived from membership in the ruling coalition were simply too obvious to ignore.

With the elections approaching, however, there were limits to what the PUNR leader could accept without risking to lose credibility among his hard core Transylvanian electorate. The name of the limit was the basic treaty with Hungary. In what turned out to be a serious miscalculation, Funar set up to oppose the treaty with all his unrestrained eloquence.

Bucharest and Budapest had been negotiating it for a long time and neither side was really happy with the outcome. The main point of contention was Council of Europe Recommendation 1201, whose provisions the Romanian side had long rejected and wrongly presented as being a first step in a direction bound to lead to the county's dismemberment. In this endeavor, the PDSR and its allies had an unexpected ally in the UDMR, which chose to read the recommendation as advocating autonomy for national minorities. While not ruling out that possibility, the document by no means imposed it. Shooting itself in the foot, the Hungarian cabinet in July endorsed a resolution of the World Federation of Hungarians backing the drive for autonomy and self government of Magyars beyond borders. The step was hardly welcomed by NATO, since one of the main conditions of the organization for integrating new members was to leave out conflicts with neighboring countries. Budapest's hitherto successful pursuit of integration in the organization appeared to be suddenly questioned, as the U.S. mounted pressure on Budapest and then Defense Secretary William Perry, specifically addressing the Hungarian-Romanian treaty, said NATO was not willing to "import security problems" (cited in Shafir, 1996d, p. 30).

Iliescu's Romania grabbed the unexpected opportunity to end its growing international isolation, which was partly due to its coalition line up. Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu was suddenly ready to work out with Budapest a joint interpretation of Recommendation 1201, an offer the Gyula Horn cabinet could not, in the circumstances then prevailing, turn down. At the end of the day, the basic treaty was signed on 16 September 1996 by Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu and Horn in Timisoara, the Hungarian side accepting that an annex to the treaty clarify that the recommendation does not imply the granting of minority collective rights or the right to set up autonomous territorial structures based on ethnic criteria ("OMRI Daily Digest," 17 September 1996; Shafir, 1996d., p. 30).

Funar was expectedly enraged. On 27 August, as the treaty's signing became imminent, he called for Iliescu's "suspension from office" in line with a constitutional provision that allowed that procedure in cases of suspicion of treason. He accused the president of having "jeopardized the future of the Romanian people, of the national unitary state, and of its territorial integrity." The pact, he said, was nothing but "an act of national betrayal" ("OMRI Daily Digest," 28 August 1996). Still, Funar was not willing to forego the benefits of coalition membership. Rather, it was the PDSR that on 2 September announced it was terminating the partnership. Twice in the past, in March and May 1996, the party had threatened to do so in the wake of Funar's attacks on Iliescu, but had failed to act on the threat. This time around, it was in earnest. With elections upcoming and with Funar running against Iliescu, the PDSR was obviously hoping to build electoral capital out of the treaty, presenting itself as a mature and moderate political formation, in contrast not only with the PUNR, but also to its other former allies, the PRM and the PSM (Shafir, 1996c, p. 29). That, too, proved to be a miscalculation, though less gross than that of the PUNR chairman.

It soon transpired that many of Funar's peers in the PUNR leadership were no longer willing to follow him. The party had been showing signs of dismembering for some time now. Some, such as Satu Mare Senator Viorel Salangean, were simply more rational. As a trained economist, Salangean found it difficult to stomach Funar's advocacy of preserving the Ceausescu industrial mammoths or curbing foreign investment to stop Romania's "colonization." He apparently also distanced himself from Funar's ultranationalism, though the claim must be taken with a pinch of salt, since Salangean had joined the party in 1992, when the PUNR was hardly an embodiment of civic-mindedness and moderation. Be that as it may, he resigned his membership in the party in January 1996, becoming an independent (Gallagher, 1997, p. 38). Eventually he would join Melescanu in the Alliance for Romania (APR), which split from the PDSR in June 1997, becoming its deputy chairman. Others were at least as chauvinist as Funar, but found themselves outside the party's ranks because they had depleted it of funds. This was the case of Cornel Brahas, chairman of its Bucharest branch, who, contrary to his own claims, has not quit the PUNR but was expelled from it (see "RFE/RL Daily Report," 22 December 1994 and -- for Brahas's claim -- Gallagher, 1997, p. 39). Nor was it the last time that Brahas, whom we shall meet again, would suffer that sanction for the same offense.

His successor as head of the branch, Emil Pop, would also leave the PUNR on 21 October, as did several other branch chairmen before the 1996 electoral contest. Having been cut off from the pipeline of "gray funding" from government sources, the PUNR was bitterly complaining that it was forced to fund its electoral campaign solely from the legal allocation to political parties (as if this were some financial crime), and -- in what was in all likelihood not far from the truth -- accused other members of the deceased coalition of having benefited from the Caritas pyramid scheme (see "East European Perspectives," no. 19, 11 October 2000) at least as much as the PUNR itself did. In this situation, many leading members of the PUNR began "jumping ship" politically. The first to do so was Transportation Minister Aurel Novac, who left the party distancing himself from Funar's "unjustified" attacks on Iliescu and stayed on as an independent in the Vacaroiu cabinet. Soon after, former Justice Minster Iosif Gavril Chiuzbaian, a vice chairman of the party, resigned his party positions to return to practicing law. In mid-October, Valer Suian, the party's secretary-general, followed suit, stating that he could no longer agree with Funar's "extremist policies." What seems to have triggered Suian's resignation, however, was his replacement as first PUNR candidate on the lists for the Senate in Bucharest by Pavel Corut, the successful author of Securitate-rehabilitating spy thrillers. According to some media reports, Suian had been replaced at the insistence of Sabina Funar, whom some suspected of aspiring to the same political role as that once played by Elena Ceausescu ("Evenimentul zilei," 22 October 1996; "OMRI Daily Digest," 3 September and 22 October 1996; Gallagher, 1997, p. 39).

With party ranks depleted and party coffers empty after the demise of the Caritas scheme and its ouster from the coalition, Funar still sought to enlist nationalist support by repeatedly drawing attention to the "danger" emanating from the basic treaty with Hungary. In a somewhat ludicrous display of "post-modernist kitsch," he placed three plastic glasses -- each painted in one of the colors of the national flag -- in front of himself while debating other presidential candidates on television in November 1996 (personal observation). Then he once more attacked the treaty. But his effort was being undermined by none other than Hungarian Justice and Life Party leader Istvan Csurka in Hungary, who, like Funar, was highly critical of the document. Even the more nationalist-inclined electorate must have wondered. On top of it, Funar faced not only the expected competition of the PRM for the nationalist vote, but also the unexpected one from Iliescu. As polling day drew closer and indications abounded that Iliescu and the PDSR might lose the election, the incumbent head of state changed course and began directing his attacks at the UDMR. Addressing a rally of his followers in Transylvanian Alba Iulia, he accused the UDMR of planning the "Yugoslavization" of Romania and the secession of Transylvania. A highly influential journalist wondered whether one was now witnessing Iliescu's own "Zhirinovskyization," while PRM leader Tudor accused Iliescu of plagiarizing, commenting that his "anti-Magyar campaign is the reaction of a desperate party led by irresponsible leaders" ( cited in Shafir, 1997, pp. 151-152).

The electoral outcome was a debacle for the PUNR. Funar garnered the support of only 3.22 of the electorate in the presidential contest, some two-thirds less than in 1992. In the Chamber of Deputies, PUNR representation dropped from 30 parliamentarians elected in 1992 to 18 in 1996, the party having garnered 4.4 percent as compared to 7.7 percent four years earlier. Senatorial representation was reduced by half -- seven instead of 14 -- reflecting a vote of 4.2 percent instead of 8.1 percent in 1992. The PDSR itself came in second after the CDR and the PSM was not able to pass the electoral hurdle. Only the PRM from among the former coalition members was able to slightly increase its parliamentary representation (see "East European Perspectives," Vol. 2, no. 16, 16 August 2000), possibly picking up some of the PUNR losses. The other three members of the coalition that had ruled most of the time after the 1992 elections had thus paid a heavy price for the country's economic mismanagement and deterioration in living standards. It is in this light, rather than one signifying a rejection by the electorate of extremist policies, that the outcome of the 1996 ballot must be judged.

Although Funar had been one of the few Romanian mayors to be re-elected in 1992 without having to face a runoff -- having scored more that 50 percent in the first round -- the parliamentary and presidential electoral debacle of later that year proved fatal for the PUNR chairman. Even his closest allies, such as Ioan Gavra, now turned against him and, as Gallagher (1995, pp. 38-39) shows, "Funar was [now] receiving the same treatment from his party critics that his chief aide, Ioan Gavra...had reserved for Radu Ceontea when the founding leader of the PUNR has been ousted in 1992." The accusations of excessive and exaggerated nationalism launched against him carried little credibility coming from Gavra, who in 1993 had labeled the UDMR as "the disease of AIDS that is working in the organism of the Romanian state" ("Evenimentul zilei," 18 January 1993; "Adevarul," 22 January 1993). Insults directed at Funar were now similarly formulated, in one more display of shantytown idiomatic ubiquity.

On 22 February 1997, a meeting of the party's Steering Committee decided to oust Funar from his chairmanship, replacing him with former Agriculture Minister Valeriu Tabara, who was to act as interim chairman till March, when the PUNR National Convention was scheduled to meet. For his part, Funar convened a meeting of the PUNR Cluj branch, which on 4 March decided to expel Gavra from the position of PUNR secretary-general, the mayor having earlier announced he did not recognize the legality of the 22 February decision. When the convention met on 22 March, it confirmed Funar's ouster and elected Tabara as chairman. Tabara wanted the PUNR out of scandal headlines. But Funar would not oblige. After ignoring a Standing Bureau warning to withdraw lawsuits against fellow-PUNR members, the Cluj prefect, he was expelled from the party in November, for "negatively impacting" its image ("OMRI Daily Digest," 24 February, 4 and 24 March 1997; "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 1997).

What followed was "the age of mutual excommunication." A meeting of Funar's PUNR supporters in Cluj on 22 November invalidated the decision to expel Funar, "suspended" Tabara from membership, and decided to convene in Cluj an extraordinary National Convention of the "genuine PUNR." On 29 November, two "national conventions" met, one in Cluj, which elected Funar as chairman with a 99 percent vote, and one in Bucharest, where Tabara's supporters "suspended" from membership all those who participated in the 22 and 29 November pro-Funar gatherings. The conflict finally reached the courts of justice, and the Bucharest Municipal Tribunal, which has jurisdiction over all party affairs, in March 1998 ruled in favor of the Tabara wing, deeming all actions taken by the rival wing as "illegal" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November, 1 December 1997, 6 March 1998).

Funar then proceeded to launch his own new Party of Romanian Unity Alliance, whose initials, AUR, were identical to those of the PUNR-Republican Party alliance that had run in the 1990 elections. Three deputies and one senator representing the PUNR followed him in the new party, thus reducing PUNR representation in the legislature even more than the electorate had done. Defections to other parties also followed, though one of these defectors, Senator Teodor Ardelean, returned to the PUNR from the APR in March 2000. Tabara and his friends ran again to the courts, contesting Funar's right to that denomination, and once more won ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 April, 24 July and 29 October 1998; Mediafax, 19 March 2000). Meanwhile, Tudor invited Funar to join the PRM as its secretary-general and on 30 October 1998 he accepted the offer. Most of his followers in AUR did not join him, however. On 29 May 1999, Funar's successor as AUR leader, Victor Roman Constantinescu, signed an agreement with Iliescu on the merger of the two formations. One who followed neither was Corut. On 30 November, he enlarged the radical continuity "family," setting up his own Party of Romanian Life ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 1998 and 31 May 1999; Radio Bucharest, 30 November 1999).

Decimated by internal conflict and by defections, and performing very poorly in the local elections of June 2000, when it scored less than the UDMR in the ballot for the county councils -- where the electoral system is similar to that employed in the parliamentary elections -- the PUNR started desperately to look for electoral allies ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for fall 2000. It was quite obvious that on its own, the PUNR would not make it again to the legislature. At the end of the day, Tabara forged an alliance with former Romanian Intelligence Service chief Virgil Magureanu, whose Romanian National Party had been set up in March 1998. The two formations merged in September 2000, setting up the National Alliance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2000). The merger in many ways marked a "coming of the full circle": "Vatra" -- whose emblem continues to be the emblem of the alliance, as was that of the PUNR -- had been the child of Magureanu's manipulations (see "East European Perspectives," Vol. 2, no. 19, 11 October 2000). Many, however, were surprised by the National Alliance's choice for presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections. He was radical return leader Marian Munteanu, with whose evolution we shall yet have to deal. They should not have been, however. As has been observed, the "Forces of Old" are behind many of the attempts to manipulate nationalism and xenophobia, and not only in Romania. And leaders of radical parties (both continuity and return) are often the conscious or unconscious pawns on a political chessboard whose most important players are not always the most visible ones.


"Adevarul" (Bucharest), 1993.

"Evenimentul zilei" (Bucharest), 1993, 1995, 1996.

Gallagher, T., 1993, "Ethnic tension in Cluj," in "RFE/RL Research Report," Vol. 2, no. 9, pp. 27-34.

Gallagher, T., 1995, Romania After Ceausescu (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Gallagher, T., 1997, "Nationalism and Post-Communist Politics: The Party of Romanian National Unity, 1990-1996," in Stan, L. (ed.), Romania in Transition (Aldershot: Dartmouth), pp. 25-47.

Mediafax (Bucharest), 2000.

"OMRI Daily Digest," 1995-1997.

Radio Bucharest (Alphacont monitoring), 1999.

"RFE/RL Daily Report," 1994.

"RFE/RL Newsline," 1997, 1998.

Shafir, M., 1994, "Ethnic Tension Runs High in Romania," in "RFE/RL Research Report," Vol. 3, no. 32, pp. 24-32.

Shafir, M., 1996a, "Anatomy of a Pre-Election Political Divorce," in "Transition," Vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 45-49.

Shafir, M., 1996b, "Controversy Over Romanian Education Law," in "Transition," Vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 34-37, 72.

Shafir, M., 1996c, "A Note on the Breakup of the Governing Coalition," in "Transition," Vol. 2, no. 20, pp. 29 and 64.

Shafir, M., 1996d, "A Possible Light at the End of the Tunnel," in "Transition," Vol. 2, no. 19, pp. 29-32.

Shafir, M., 1997, "Romania's Road to 'Normalcy,'" in "Journal of Democracy," Vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 144-158.