The first war of nationalist extremism in East-Central Europe in the post-1989 era could easily have been in Romania, not Yugoslavia. Before conflicts between Serbs and Croats escalated into violence, ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians squared off against each other in Targu Mures, a Transylvanian city that had a rough ethnic balance in the early 1990s. The clashes that took place in the city in March 1990 left six people dead and hundreds injured.
One of the reasons for the lack of escalation was the Hungarian minority’s embrace of what Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik advocated in a different context as a “self-limiting revolution.” Solidarity, in Poland, did not push for a maximalist agenda of regime change in the early 1980s because it knew that the Polish government – with the Soviet Union breathing down its neck — would use such demands as an excuse to eradicate the movement, by plunging the country into civil war if necessary. Eventually this self-limiting strategy would translate into a staged transformation of Polish politics and society in 1989.
Faced with rising nationalism in Romanian society, which was manipulated by new elites possessing fragile legitimacy of their own, the Hungarian minority had a choice. It could pursue the more militant tactics of street demonstrations and confrontation. Or it could adopt a self-limiting strategy by channeling its anger and frustration into the political realm. Laszlo Borbely, one of the founders of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSz or UDMR), favored the latter strategy.
“We had to make a choice at the time,” he told me in an interview in his office at the Romanian parliament in May 2013. “We could go out on the streets and not accept interethnic dialogue and the parliament and the local authorities and the democratic way of fighting for our rights. Or we could compete in the elections for parliament and win our rights that way. Fortunately, we chose the way of democracy and the way of dialogue. That’s why the first six years were the most difficult because the Romanian society was not prepared to discuss this kind of question.”
In 1992, in Targu Mures where Borbely got his start in politics, RMDSz elected a mayor and a majority on the city council. But the Hungarian party didn’t control the Mures county council, so any number of conflicts arose over bilingual signs, a proposed statue of the former Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, and even what language the mayors of Mures county should speak to the visiting Hungarian foreign minister. The debates got quite heated. But the conflicts remained at a political level.
Then, in 1996, RMDSz entered the national government and managed, step by step, to convince the majority that the world would not end if Romanian society recognized the rights of its principle minorities. Gradually, though not without having to overcome resistance, the Hungarian minority secured its rights.
“After 23 years, we have to recognize that, of course, we have some additional rights — the right to use our mother tongue, to have our bilingual signs, to have more and more schools and universities in our mother tongue — and we are asking for more rights concerning cultural and territorial autonomy,” Borbely explained. “There are now more than 12,000 young people studying in university in Hungarian. And that’s just at the level of the university.”
The Hungarian party has acquired influence and, as Borbely frankly acknowledges, a sizeable amount of political power. He himself has occupied several important ministerial positions over the years in charge of public works, regional development, and the environment.
“We had a congress two days ago in Miercurea Ciuc,” he told me. “The presidents of all the important parties in Romania were there. They all made very good speeches, not politicized speeches. For us, it’s very important that the Romanian parties look at us not simply as a party that has six or seven percent in the Parliament but as the representatives of a minority. And they should address certain questions whether or not we happen to be in the government.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
At that time we had the 14th Congress of the Communist Party. It was a very closed dictatorship in Romania, and it was very difficult to obtain all the information from Radio Free Europe. And the other channels were very controlled. But one of my friends told me what happened. The best communication in those days was people to people. After that, we were thinking that maybe, maybe something will happen in Romania. We heard about the changes in Hungary, Poland, and other states. And we just didn’t know when the dictatorship in Romania would be finished.
In December 1989, I was in Miercurea Ciuc (Csikszereda). At that time I worked in an office, and I had to travel. I spoke with my wife by phone, and she told me that “something had happened” in the town where we finished our university studies – Timisoara. She spoke this way because we knew that we could not say everything on the phone. It’s the same now actually, for this question has not changed. So she told me that maybe it was a good idea for me to come back in my hometown in Targu Mures. So, I realized that something happened. I came back on December 15 or 16. I heard about what happened with the bishop in Timisoara, Laszlo Tokes, and this movement around his home and his church. From this place the revolution started. And, of course, it was clear to us that something would happen in the country. By December 21, everybody had heard about what took place in Timisoara from Radio Free Europe, BBC, and other radio stations.
Like many other towns, especially in Transylvania, we went out on the streets on December 21 in the afternoon. We joined I don’t know how many hundreds of people around Targu Mures. We arrived in the center at around 8:00 or 8:30 pm. I was with my wife, and we were no more than 20 or 25 meters from the place where six people were shot and killed. They shot at us from the hotel, which was about 15 or 20 meters from where people were protesting.
Which hotel was it?
The Grand Hotel. From the top of the hotel they shot us. And we ran from this place and hid ourselves with our friends. We found out one or two days later that some busses had shown up to collect people who had been in the area and put them in the basement of the Securitate. At the time we saw this bus, but we didn’t realize that it was collecting people. We managed to get home. And the next day, December 22, along with everybody from the factories, we went out again to protest against Ceausescu. And, of course, on December 22 the Ceausescus fled Bucharest. And everybody in the army and the security services realized that they had to change their attitude.
Did anybody ever find out who shot from the Grand Hotel?
Of course not. Now after 23 years it is not so big a debate like it was in 1990. But Targu Mures is only one piece of the puzzle. The most tragic situation was that after the Ceausescus escaped from the Central Committee building in the helicopter on December 22, more than 1,000 people in Romania died. After that, as you know, Iliescu and others arrived, and the new power entered in force. Some people, probably from the Securitate, shot at each other because they didn’t know who was whom. Everybody talked about terrorists, but even after 23 years, nobody knows what really happened and who from the secret services and other institutions was doing the shooting. Just in a few places there were some trials. But there were no clear verdicts on who was guilty. And then, after the suicide of Minister of Defense Vasile Milea, they said, “Okay, because he committed suicide, the head of the army was behind all this, and he can no longer answer.” So, after 23 years we don’t know really what happened.
Do you think that it will be possible ever to know? In other words, for instance, will some files be made available from the archives?
I don’t know. There are some files that have been classified secret for 50 years. But I also don’t know how many files were destroyed by the army, the police, the secret services. Even those who came to power afterwards had no interest in finding out. There were former generals and high-level officials in the National Salvation Front.
The situation in Targu Mures, of course, became even more serious with inter-ethnic conflict later with the clashes in March 1990.
Targu Mures, in my opinion, was maybe the first place for those former members of Communist Party to promote interethnic conflict between the Hungarians and the Romanians as a diversion. What happened in Targu Mures took place before Yugoslavia. It was the first inter-ethnic conflict in the region. Six people died, and more than 300 were injured. The area was full of army tanks, and some people proposed military control over this zone. I was in the middle of the events. It was a failure of democracy and we got instead army control. For my hometown of Targu Mares it was a very painful moment. I don’t know how many years will have to pass before all the memories of this conflict between the two communities will disappear.
I noticed when I was in Cluj and Targu Mures that the situation seemed quite good. There were signs in both Hungarian and Romanian, language programs in Hungarian…
Of course. After the conflict, step by step the situation improved. I have a foundation, the Bernady foundation in Targu Mures, which is named after the famous mayor of the city from the early 1900s, Gyorgy Bernady. We prepared a 12-hour documentary regarding the events in Targu Mures that provides the historical background and what happened afterwards. Unfortunately, it’s not yet in English, just in Hungarian and Romanian. You will see it’s like a thriller — a real thriller, not a movie.
So, yes, of course, the situation has changed. We had to make a choice at the time. We could go out on the streets and not accept interethnic dialogue and the parliament and the local authorities and the democratic way of fighting for our rights. Or we could compete in the elections for parliament and win our rights that way. Fortunately, we chose the way of democracy and the way of dialogue. That’s why the first six years were the most difficult because the Romanian society was not prepared to discuss this kind of question. They also rejected local autonomy. It was a very centralized state. I remember that they removed the county president in 1995 simply because he had the courage to celebrate this Euro-Carpathian region. This was Maramures County in the north of Romania, and they dismissed him this because of his attitude.
So after 23 years, we have to recognize that, of course, we have some additional rights — the right to use our mother tongue, to have our bilingual signs, to have more and more schools and universities in our mother tongue — and we are asking for more rights concerning cultural and territorial autonomy. There are now more than 12,000 young people studying in university in Hungarian. And that’s just at the level of the university.
The situation changed especially after 1996, because that’s when the coalition of the Right parties accepted our party, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR or RMDSz), into the government. I served as secretary of state for public works for four years. After 2005 I returned as minister of regional development and infrastructure for four years. In 2010, I served for two and a half years as the minister for environment. So I have a bit of an overview on what happens in this area. My party put me in charge of maintaining government relations with the other parties. Step by step, we convinced the majority that these minority rights are not against them. And nothing spectacular happened when we had the right to put up our signs in different places. At this moment we have strong representation in local authorities. And here in the parliament, we have seven percent.
There are still some questions, even after 23 years, that are open to debate. On the issue of cultural autonomy, we’ve had a draft since 2005 in the parliament, and there’s been no political will to finalize it. We have three multicultural universities: Babes Bolyai University in Cluj, the University of Arts in Targu Mures, and the University of Medicine in Targu Mures. With the University of Medicine, it was a difficult question to establish a department for Hungarians. They can study in Hungarian but together with the Romanians. This is a debate even at this moment. Over the last 23 years, two governments were rejected by motions of censure, and each time it was because of us. In 2009, when the party of Basescu, the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), lost the majority, it appealed to us because with our votes it probably could have remained in power. We turned them down because we realized that elections were coming up and it would be better for us to be in opposition. And that’s how the first bloc government fell. Then, in 2012, when the government made a decision regarding this department in Hungarian language at the medical university, it was one of the points in Ponta and Antonescu’s motion of censure.
So we are very powerful. We had a congress two days ago in Miercurea Ciuc. The presidents of all the important parties in Romania were there. They all made very good speeches, not politicized speeches. For us, it’s very important that the Romanian parties look at us not simply as a party that has six or seven percent in the Parliament but as the representatives of a minority. And they should address certain questions whether or not we happen to be in the government.
For my speech at the congress, I took two books with me. One was the history of UDMR until 2009. I asked the audience to read this book to see what we accomplished in our first six years. During that time we had I don’t know how many declarations and visits to the Council of Europe and the European Union, and there was no practical transformation or better understanding. Then, after 1996 when joined the governing coalition (the Romanian Democratic Convention), we managed to change step by step the situation in this country and not just regarding minority rights but also the restitution of property. We were the first to address the issue of restitution. For the Szeklers this meant more than 200,000 hectares of forest, which are administrated now by the communities.
In Mures County, mostly?
Three counties: Mures, Harghita, Covasna. And this covers the restitution of properties to the churches and to individuals. This has all been done legally, though because of some difficulties it has not been 100 percent completed. But basically in 2005 we decided this question.
So I asked the audience at the congress to read and see how much has changed. At this moment we have an education law that says for the first time in 23 years that it’s possible to study all materials in your mother tongue. In 1996 we put on the table of the parliament our draft law, which was signed by 500,000 citizens, to replace what had been a very bad law on minorities. This is how we choose to fight. There are a lot of problems still to solve, but we are here to do this.
We also have fought for the Szekler flag, which we’ve used for hundreds of years and nobody cared. But now some nationalists have raised a fuss. This is a big question, the Szekler flag. Some people contacted me two months ago to say, “Mr. Borbely, we in Adunatii-Copaceni, a small village near Bucharest, we have our flag, and nobody came to ask us why we have our local flag!” These were Romanians. So, why are raising a fuss about the Szekler flag and not this flag in Adunatii-Copaceni? So, these are symbolic issues related to cultural identity.
Now there are two big debates regarding the constitution and the regions. Regarding the regions, we were worried that the government will centralize power not decentralize power through this regionalization process. The center would take power from the counties and give it to the regions, which would not be good for us. We recently translated into Hungarian and published a book on the history of South Tyrol by Martha Stocker, the vice-president of the People’s Party from South Tyrol. This region has a very high standard of territorial autonomy. But this came about only after 37 years of fighting, which included exploding some bombs during the 1960s, which was not to kill people but as a kind of economic terrorism. I don’t know how many from this group were put in jail. They had an agreement between Austria and Italy on this issue, and even the United Nations Security Council discussed this question. After 37 years, in 1992 they finalized their autonomy.
So I ask my people, “Okay, we must go step by step and use just the tools of democracy.” There’s no question about our using other methods. But we don’t know when we will succeed in gaining more autonomy. Our vision has to be very clear because at the moment, we have two small parties who are trying to split the Hungarian vote. Fortunately they have not succeeded. In the 2012 elections, after two and a half years of governance, we got about 90% of the votes of Hungarians. This was also after the 25% reduction in salaries in 2010, which was I think the cruelest decision in all the European Union. Even in Greece they didn’t cut the salaries by 25%! So even with this liability, they supported us. It’s because these other two parties fortunately don’t offer any alternative. All they did was criticize us, the UDMR. But the voters know that we are in the parliament protecting them. This will be the most important challenge for us in the upcoming year: to get over this five percent threshold because these two other parties still want to split the Hungarian vote. They are not partners for dialogue, unfortunately, especially because of Bishop Tokes. We shook hands back in 2009, and he ran for European parliament on the list of UDMR. After that he established his own party. So it won’t be possible to work together in 2014.
Our message is that it’s not possible to change the mentality of Romanians in one day or in one week. But that’s what we’re working to do. So, join with us because otherwise we’ll be out of parliament. And if we’re out of parliament, then nobody will show up at our UDMR Congress. Nobody will come because we will be weak without a strong identity and presence in the parliament.
When you talk about the democratic tools available to achieve greater autonomy, does the European Union offer any options? Are there institutions or mechanisms of the European Union that are helpful?
There aren’t really. No. It’s a hard formula the Lisbon Treaty regarding minorities, and we’ve had a big fight to protect the Roma. That’s why we initiated and announced at the congress our program for this European Citizenship Initiative (ECI) [which provides under the Treaty of Lisbon for the European Commission to propose new legal acts if one million EU citizens call on them to do so]. I am the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee here in parliament, and I am responsible for the Foreign Affairs Committee inside of UDMR and it was a surprise for me to learn that 100 million European Union people are living as minorities. That is one out of seven people!
So we hope to finalize in June an organization of more than 90 minorities from Europe. We needed several prominent leaders to sign our Citizens Initiative for the Minorities in Europe. The seven people who accepted to be leaders of this initiative include the prime minister of the German community in Belgium, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the minister of the Schleswig-Holstein region Anke Spoorendonk, the governor of the South Tyrolean Party Luis Durnwalder, and Valentin Inzko, who is the high representative for United Nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These are big European personalities, who I hope will give credibility to this initiative and demonstrate that this is not just an initiative of Hungarians. It’s a global European initiative. It will start in October, and we will finalize it I hope in October 2014.
The European Union has to discuss these questions no matter how sensitive the questions are. But when we discuss these questions in the EU, they take the attitude that these are internal questions. And they mix up recent immigrants and autochthons. We have to convince them that there are minorities who speak languages other than the majority language and that they didn’t just arrive 50 or 70 years ago. No, they have lived there for hundreds of years and have their own culture. They have their own history in these territories.
So I hope our campaign will be successful. We will tell the European Commission that we have the one million signatures, but we also speak in the name of 100 million citizens. This will force the Commission to discuss an issue that affects 100 million citizens. Because if you have a regulation for the curve of a cucumber, then you should some regulations for 100 millions citizens in the EU. Otherwise you are just sticking your head in the sand.
I want to go back to the two other Hungarian parties that emerged but didn’t get very many votes. I understand that they have the support of Fidesz from Hungary.
Yes. It has certainly been a very difficult period. Everybody in this region of Carpathia, this region of minorities from different countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all the Hungarian organizations are looking to us, to UDMR. We’ve had the strongest and clearest attitude since 1990. We didn’t change our name. We didn’t change our program. Our program is 90% the same since 1993. We’ve only formulated some different possibilities of autonomy. And we’ve made some adaptations when we were working with the government party. But we are the legitimate representatives of the Hungarians here in Romania. We have to maintain relations with the Hungarian government whether they are on the Left or on the Right. We are part of the Christian Democratic family in Europe, but inside UDMR we have liberals, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats.
When they came back in power the second time in 2010, Fidesz had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. For the first two years, they were strong supporters of the party of Laszlo Tokes. Actually, there were two movements within Fidesz, and each one supported one of the other two parties here in Romania.
We asked Fidesz not to interfere in our internal political life. But they interfered. Now in Transylvania they have control of some important daily newspapers. We didn’t like it. Of course, we were diplomatic, and it’s not in our interests to fight each other every day. I hope there was a big change in their attitudes after the elections here in 2012. Even Orban said last year that they had to accept what 85 percent of Hungarians in Romania support, namely our party. That was a very important moment. At the UDMR congress in 2010 a lady from Fidesz gave a speech in which she tried to influence us by saying what was good and what was bad for UDMR. Even those who were in favor of other options said that was enough, that she couldn’t just come to our congress and say vote like this or like this.
Now it’s changed. We had our congress two days ago. The vice president from Fidesz and the president from KDMP (Hungarian Christian Democratic Party) were both there, and so was the Hungarian Vice Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen. And all together they say that in this moment that UDMR is the legal representative of Hungarians. So it was a change. We’ll see how we’ll function. They will have elections next year. At this moment more than 100,000 Hungarians from Romania have gotten dual citizenship. They can vote also by post. We asked them not to use this campaign to support the two small parties. Last year, in the campaign for local authorities, a plane arrived in Targu Mures with one Fidesz person supporting the Tokes party and the other for the second small party. This was against the rules we’d established between us. But I think there will be a change. For us the next elections will be very difficult because we have to explain to our Hungarians, who are now living more difficult lives. It’s even more difficult than in the 1990s. Four years ago, they said to us, even though we were in the opposition, “Please do something so that we can have a better life.”
There’s been quite a lot of criticism of the Orban government: the constitutional changes, the media control, the corruption. And there have been increasing calls for governments to criticize Fidesz for its actions. How is Romania and your party handling those increasing calls to criticize Orban?
It’s not good for us. We don’t want a weak Hungary. We don’t want an insular Hungary. They have to realize that even if, on some questions they may be right, they are within the European Union. And there’s been a crisis in the EU. They have to recognize this crisis, and it’s not just an economic crisis. And it’s not just in Hungary. The voices against the EU are getting votes in the elections. I don’t think there’s an alternative to Europe. But probably the EU has to change a little bit too. We try to explain all this to the Fidesz government, but we don’t like to attack them. That’s not our goal.
Of course, Orban was, and even at this moment is, a very good friend of Mr. Basescu. They helped each other when Basescu was in power. Now it’s another government, a coalition of Socialists and Liberal. The two countries should have a dialogue. And we support this dialogue. We have an open door to Ponte, and we have an open door to Orban.
You said that phone conversations are difficult these days in the same way that they were during the Communist period. How do you mean?
For four years, my home phone was tapped – between 1986 and 1989. Also, a few people went to the Securitate to inform on me. One person I knew about because he came to me and said, “I have to go to the Securitate, but I don’t say anything bad about you.” Then about seven years ago, I got my dossier. It contained the phone number of my friend, and it was accurate. The three other informers I didn’t know.
At this moment, the big problem in Romania is the use of current political dossiers to blackmail politicians or to get votes. I’ve had my own experience of this, which I don’t want to talk about. But I looked at my current dossier, and I said, “Wow, a minister of the Romanian government has this kind of dossier even though I was not involved with terrorists or anything like that?” There were seven hundred pages of transcripts. And they didn’t ask me even once, “Mr. Borbely, did you do any of these things?” In that case, I could have answered them and they could accept my answers or not. I’m not against having a prosecutor or having a very independent judicial system in Romania. But we need protections in the constitution and in the laws. Because of my status, my dossier was all over the press. I saw my name in the press, on TV. I was hunted for two or three months, and they asked me about this and that. Now it’s closed, fortunately. But it’s a question of the constitution and the laws. It’s not good to have a system in which phone calls are monitored because they think you will do something in the future. If you have some evidence, okay, then you can obtain a warrant. But just to monitor how many thousands and thousands of people? Someone could misuse this power in other ways.
Are there other foreign policy priorities that you’re pursuing at this point with UDMR?
We are very well known in Europe and in the world. For instance, I have had the honor of serving for a year as the head of United Nations committee on Sustainable Development. It’s because of our attitude. Even at our congress, each of the other parties said that UDMR is a very good partner in government: when we say something, we say it very openly and face to face. We are not “political” in the sense of saying one thing and doing another. So this is a favorable moment for our organization to have a stronger external relationship. I spoke to you about these very important personalities in Europe who signed up to lead our initiative. I, myself, had three discussions with Mr. Lambertz and others. At first they had some doubts whether it was good or not to have this flagship initiative. But after a couple hours of discussions, they accepted it. They accepted it because they realized that we don’t just represent 1.3 million people in Romania. We have an approach that goes beyond just Hungarians. We support all minorities, big and small. That’s why we wanted to put this initiative on the table at the European level.
When you think about how you looked at the world in 1990, hves there been any major shifts in your world view?
When I look back at myself in 1990, it’s incredible: I changed very much. Since 1990, I’ve had the experience to join politics and become a deputy in the parliament, and then a secretary of state or minister in three very difficult ministries. There are probably only two politicians in Romania who have had this kind of political experience.
But with regard to values, my feelings in 1989 when I went out in the streets, they’re the same. When I went through that very difficult period in my life with all those attacks, I was very surprised that even people I didn’t know how they would react supported me. They said, “Laszlo, we’ve known you since 1990. We know how you work with people, how you manage the ministries.”
So, this is for me the most important lesson of life over the last 23 years. It is important to have a route, a road, and then to travel this road.
Bucharest, May 27, 2013