An ethnic map of Romania explains a great deal about the relations between the majority and the minorities in the country. Ethnic Hungarians have an absolute majority in two counties – Harghita and Covasna – in the very heart of the country. Together with parts of Mures county, this region is known as Szekely Land. This area maintained a high degree of autonomy – and distinct cultural traditions from other Hungarians – for 600 years from medieval times through the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Outside of this area, the ethnic Hungarian concentration drops considerably. They represent significant minorities in other parts of Transylvania – Mures, Satu Mare, Bihor, Salaj, Cluj. But then the numbers drop even more. A tiny fraction of the population in Bucharest, less than 1 percent, is ethnic Hungarian.
Overall, Hungarians account for only 6.5 percent of Romania’s population. Obviously the reality for Hungarians in Harghita and Covasna counties, where they are 85 percent and 73 percent respectively, is very different than for Hungarians living pretty much anywhere else in the country. And the number of Hungarians living in this dispersed environment is now larger than those living in the concentrated areas.
The Roma population, meanwhile, is even much more dispersed. The largest concentration is in Mures county – between 6 and 7 percent. Mures is also where Hungarians and Romanians have maintained a rough ethnic balance. In 1990, when ethnic violence flared up in Romania, it was in Mures, and it involved all three populations.
Maria Koreck is an excellent guide to the complex relations between majority and minority in Romania. First of all, she grew up in Timisoara, where Hungarians represent a rather small minority. Since the early 1990s, however, she has lived in Targu Mures, a cultural center of Szekler Land. That’s where I met her in 1993, when she participated in her role as a businesswoman in a delegation from the region focused on women and workplace issues that I helped to bring to the United States. Since that time, she acquired a degree in conflict resolution and worked for many years with the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) to improve inter-ethnic relations.
Koreck agrees that the situation for ethnic Hungarians is better today than it was when I was in the country in the early 1990s. “It’s better now probably because it’s not so important anymore,” she told me in an interview in Targu Mures in May 2013. “Economic issues are more important in the lives of people, which is not necessarily a good thing either. Ethnic issues are no longer a priority. And being a minority is not longer felt to be a handicap. Generally minorities no longer feel like second-class citizens even though sometimes they are still put in situations where they feel that way.”
But there is considerable disagreement among Hungarians about how to achieve further progress on civil rights. “I’m from Timisoara, where we are not the majority, so we have one way of thinking,” Koreck explains. “But in Harghita and Covasna counties Hungarians are the majority, and they have another way of thinking. There are now fewer and fewer Hungarians in Romania. Those who are living as the majority have the view that there has to be a strong core where they live, and that will help the others, too. But others don’t agree with this because they see that what is good for the majority is not applicable when you are in the minority. They don’t believe the majority will be so big-hearted to support everyone who is a minority. So there is a big clash between these two factions. And the thing is that more Hungarians are now living in areas where they are the minority.”
This disagreement can be seen clearly in the debate over bilingualism. “Of course, in Harghita county everyone speaks Hungarians publically,” Koreck points out. “Now by law recently in recent years, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians fought for and won the right that wherever the minority constitutes at least 20% of the population, then the language of that minority can be used publically in court, at the mayor’s office, or wherever. Everything has to be written bilingually, not like in Targu Mures where we are fighting to make the street signs fully bilingual. We don’t think the law has been implemented fully but it’s going in the right direction. Those from the majority think that this has to be done everywhere immediately, that it’s a right and it’s not negotiable.”
We talked about her experiences in the student movement, what it’s like to run a business in Romania these days, her work on Roma education, and why she has decided to get re-involved in politics.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Timisoara, my hometown. I was already a student at university. At that time, my family was very far from anything related to political issues, and I was in a very sheltered environment. We discussed what we heard on Radio Free Europe, so we did know what happened. But we didn’t hope that something would happen at that time in Romania. A little bit later a lot happened here. But the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t change much in my life.
When you say you were sheltered, what do you mean?
My family on my father’s side had been landowners. After the Second World War, the state confiscated the land, and the life of the whole family changed at that time. Because of that, they stayed far away from anything political under Communism, including the Communist Party, which meant that they could not advance professionally beyond a certain point. I was brought up in the context that we should not interfere in any public matters.
In 1989, when I was already a graduating student, it was different. In the first days, we founded the Hungarian Youth Organization, a student organization, in Timisoara, and from that time I was involved. I don’t really know how this could happen, since I was not in the circles that were preoccupied with politics or involvement in the changes. I was not among all the young people thinking about this. I was happily dancing at that time. I was in a student dance group.
It was folk music?
Social dancing. Ballroom dancing like tango, waltz, cha-cha, and so on.
Before 1989, did you think would be a dancer?
No, I wanted to be a building engineer. I graduated as a building engineer, and I even worked as a building engineer for half a year.
So you were both an engineer and a dancer?
When did you establish the student group?
It was in December 1989. In Timisoara, everything happened one week before the rest of Romania. And we students in Timisoara were the first. We were at home because it was vacation in December. So we first of all we went to defend the faculty because we didn’t know what was happening. Then we thought we should have our own organization and see what we could do from that point on. We didn’t know what we really wanted to do. But being Hungarians, we wanted at least to some degree to be able to learn in the Hungarian language at university. Of course, this was not possible at every faculty but at some, yes.
Tell me about your experience of December 1989.
In Timisoara, Hungarians are a minority, and now there are only 5%. Back then it was around 7-10% Hungarian, and all those who identified with their Hungarian identity went to the same school. So the different generations knew each other. It was easy to find out what was happening because we had colleagues who were around Bishop Tokes and his group. On December 16, we already knew that he was being forced to leave his congregation and his residence, and there was a group who was staying to make sure that this would not happen.
I was not part of that group. Because my parents didn’t want me to go anywhere, I pretty much stayed at home in the first days. They went to work, and I had a duty to stay at home. It was like this until December 20. By that day it was pretty clear that the army in Timisoara was already somehow in solidarity with the people in the street. And then we went together on the street.
I don’t remember exactly on which day when we founded the student association, but we formed the group at somebody’s home. It was immediately after December 22. I was not fighting or going out. But we knew what was happening. We knew about the killings in the first days. We didn’t know why or how or what exactly happened – and we still don’t know. This is still a problem. We cannot say that this is really a democratic society yet because the past is still not certain. Everyone would like to know what happened in those days, but particularly those of us from Timisoara.
Was an investigation launched?
There was an investigation, but there are still questions. I very much hope that when some files are opened to the public, we can find out what happened. The problem is that many files were destroyed. And the investigation was very personal against some actors of the so-called revolution, and I don’t think that they were the ones behind it. I’m not even sure that a plan was prepared. I’m almost sure that what happened in Timisoara was not prepared. There was a need at that time to suppress everything, and all the killings were due to this. A lot of people are still angry about these killings, which were so unnecessary. Romania was the only country in the region where so many people died during the changes in 1989. And they were mostly young people.
Were any of them people that you knew?
Yes, one of the participants in the protest march was a very well known chorus leader whom I knew, and he was shot dead. And there was one other person, but he was killed some days before December 16 and we don’t know how or what happened. I also knew people who were not killed but instead put into prison and who survived.
What was their experience in prison?
They were very afraid, and they were beaten, but they somehow had the impression that the people who dealt with them did not really know what to do at that point. They were brutal, but they just wanted to frighten them and keep them in prison.
The tensions in Targu Mures began in March 1990. But at that time, you were still in Timisoara?
Partially. But I was also here in Targu Mures because we had our youth congress here. We were very naive at that time. We had the Hungarian Youth Organization Congress in Targu Mures two days before the happenings. We were in the Youth House, as it was called, and around us were police. When our group arrived by train from Timisoara, we heard at the train station that there was a demonstration in Targu Mures. In Timisoara at the end of March, we demonstrated almost every day for these eight points against Communism, one of which was that the leaders connected to the Ceausescu period should not be elected. There were demonstrations each day. For us, a demonstration was to go a square where we met and we talked. Somebody talked to us, and we talked among ourselves. There was nothing violent.
So we wanted to see what happened at the demonstration in Targu Mures. We went to one of the new neighborhoods of Targu Mures. A pharmacy there had its sign in Romanian but they also put out a sign in Hungarian. It was attacked. What we saw were some people standing around. But it was not a demonstration. We thought some of the people were drunk – we didn’t think about drugs at that time – because they acted like people who were not really thinking clearly. We didn’t stay because we didn’t consider that a demonstration. To us from Timisoara it was more like a small street fight. But that day some fights already took place. People were beaten.
We discussed what we had to discuss at the youth congress. The students here told us about the real tensions in Targu Mures. They told us that learning in Hungarian-language should be equal to learning in Romanian-language. They said that the Bolyai high school, which is a symbol of Targu Mures, should be again just a Hungarian school because it had once been a Hungarian school (at that time it was bilingual). To achieve this goal, there were street demonstrations with books and candles. The tension was building. We discussed all this but those of us from Timisoara couldn’t really understand it. In Timisoara the majority had been Romanian for some time but the respect for Germans, Hungarians, and Serbs was always there. Many families spoke three languages. So this was not really an issue in Timisoara. It was hard for us to understand what was going on in Targu Mures because it was very different. We went home by train exactly on March 20 and heard then what happened here.
You said you were very naive. Why do you say that?
At that time everyone who was in a political institution or was a Party member was prepared at a certain level and had some knowledge. Everybody else was an amateur. And we were young. We were learning in 1990. In 1990, everything opened up, but we had no clue what was happening around us. Some of us read a lot about politics and history, but this was only theory. We had big fights and discussions among ourselves about what we wanted, how we wanted it, and how we could get it. We talked about minority rights and democratic rights more generally. It was not clear whether there would be real change or just a small amount of change. Now it’s clear that we are on a path of change. But at that time it was not clear.
How long did the protests in Timisoara last? The daily demonstrations…
By the end of May it was over. Once it became clear then that it would not be won on the streets, the time of “street fighting” was over. It had been a good place to meet and talk, so it was needed. Later maybe it was not needed. It was becoming clear that whatever happened would take place inside the democratic institutions. There were many youth organizations in Timisoara and elsewhere, which talked to each other and tried to figure out what to do. At that time some young people wanted to go into politics, some didn’t. But it was not clear where to do this politics because the parties were not yet there. This was the time of the National Salvation Front (NSF), which was a big and confusing thing. Since the NSF it was associated with the former Communists, we young people couldn’t really see ourselves in that. Some did, of course, but most did not.
Did the events here in Targu Mures in March affect the situation in Timisoara?
No, it had an effect on the secret service. The Securitate had been shut down after the December events. But immediately after the March events it was reopened. So this had a national effect. Not everyone believes there’s a connection, but I really do. And ever since then the nationalist card has been played when certain people want something to happen on the national level.
What happened with your student movement? Which of your demands were met?
When the vacation was over, the students came home, and we continued our student organization. We were seniors already. I graduated in June 1990. Most of us founders were graduating. But the student organization still exists, though it has changed a little bit on the national level.
And now you can learn in Hungarian at Hungarian faculties at the university. That’s mostly the case at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. But now, much later, we have also private universities in Hungarian language. And whenever it’s possible there are some faculties in Hungarian language.
In Timisoara also?
No. But immediately after 1990, in the engineering faculty there were teachers and many students who spoke Hungarian, so for some years some groups studied and taught mostly workshops in Hungarian. But it was not really feasible. You have to be realistic about these issues: in some places it’s feasible and in others it’s not. Whoever wants to study in Hungarian goes to Cluj or now we have a private university here in Targu Mures financed by the Hungarian state.
I talked with two professors at Babes-Bolyai, one in economics and the other in sociology. They both taught in Hungarian, but they also taught in English. So there are a lot more choices now.
Yes, now there are, and that’s good. But at Babes-Bolyai University it’s still a matter of discussion. In 1993 there was an agreement that was the first step in this process that enabled 300 students to learn in Hungarian. Now there are thousands, so it’s no problem. But there is still a conflict of resources. For instance, at Babes-Bolyai University the leadership is in Romanian hands, and the faculties are not financially independent. They don’t decide what they research. So there’s a fight over independence and resources, but nobody is speaking about that part of it. It’s not just the identity issue. It’s more complex.
Tell me how you ended up here in Targu Mures.
I got married. I was with my husband in 1990 already. When we met I was going between Timisoara and here. And in 1993 I moved here.
And you were working as a businesswoman, weren’t you?
Yes, I worked with the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), and we also had a small business. I made badges beginning in 1990. I still do. Later we had a small wholesale business dealing with electronics and cosmetics. But we didn’t have capital at the beginning, so we always struggled with this small business. I still do the badges, but I left the other business in 1996 or 1997. The NGO part of the work is more interesting for me.
What kind of badges are they?
Classic round ones. You add the graphics. They’re more like buttons. You can put whatever you want on them: slogans, ads, whatever.
And you were doing them for different organizations?
At the beginning, yes, organizations and schools were our clients. Now the advertising firms are my clients. At one time it helped us make a living. Later on when I was more part of the NGO scene, it didn’t. But probably now I will have to expand this business again because my organization is very small. We had a big project for three years, but there are no opportunities to continue with the big project. We’ll try. We have several projects, and I hope one will succeed. But since it’s hard to generate salaries from these projects, it’s good to have something else.
What was it like running a business in those early years?
It was fun building it up the first year, but later on it became boring for me. It was a continuous struggle to keep up with the always-changing legislation. The taxes are high. And sometimes you don’t get paid for a while, and it’s difficult to submit bids if you don’t have enough capital. In the end, it was not a lot of profit. And it was just like working for somebody else.
Did you get any offers from other businesses or individual to provide capital?
No, but it was taken over by a friendly firm. The two firms merged, and I left.
You started working for the Project on Ethnic Relations in 1993. What motivated your becoming involved in that project?
At that time I had to decide what to do. I did the badges, but that didn’t provide a constant income. I needed something more. I had to decide if I wanted to enter politics because I was very close at that time with the youth organizations. There was the Hungarian Democratic Union, and near to that was the Youth Organizations Alliance. From this we had 15 seats in the “mini-parliament” of the Hungarian Union – and I had one of those seats. So, I was involved in the political life at the national level of the Hungarian Alliance. But I felt that I needed to learn and develop, and I was not comfortable with the political party. At that time, the organization was still in the process of development.
It was not really a party because the Hungarian Alliance of Hungarians from Romania was officially an NGO. By the constitution it could participate in the political life of Romania because it represented Hungarians. According to the constitution each ethnicity can have one representative in the Chamber of Deputies. As long as you can get 1,500 or so votes on the national level, then you have a deputy in the deputy chamber. But the Hungarian party also competes like other parties and gets more than 5 percent of the vote. So that’s why we are represented in both chambers.
So you have one representative allotted to you in the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of ethnic Hungarians and then a parliamentary delegation whose size is determined by whatever percentage of the vote you get above 5 percent.
It has changed because before we were voting on lists and now we are voting by sector. Now it’s even harder for a minority to get into parliament, but Hungarians still succeed. We have in both chambers a group of parliamentarians. We play by the national rules, not as an exception. It was a decision in 1990 to act like a party. Up to March 1990, it wasn’t thinking politically. But in March 1990 a decision had to be made: to choose street violence or the democratic way, which meant involvement in the national game. And the Hungarian leaders at that time decided to get involved politically, to be a party and go to parliament.
Did anybody disagree with that?
At that time, yes. Many. And there was a second fight in 1993 about the decision. And now, after 20 years of being very politically neutral, I’m back in this game. And there is an issue around my political involvement, too. There is constantly a fight, and it’s getting interesting, but nasty, too. I’m from Timisoara, where we are not the majority, so we have one way of thinking. But in Harghita and Covasna counties Hungarians are the majority, and they have another way of thinking. There are now fewer and fewer Hungarians in Romania. Those who are living as the majority have the view that there has to be a strong core where they live, and that will help the others, too. But others don’t agree with this because they see that what is good for the majority is not applicable when you are in the minority. They don’t believe the majority will be so big-hearted to support everyone who is a minority. So there is a big clash between these two factions. And the thing is that more Hungarians are now living in areas where they are the minority. So, it’s a big fight now.
Next week we will have the Congress, and it will be a real fight about these issues because until now the leadership is mostly in the hands of those who are not living in absolute majority areas. Actually, the big leadership is from here, from Mures county and Cluj. But the others will be there in force, so it will be a big fight. Of course, this is an inside fight since we are not talking about it very much outside of the community. But there are more parties now. Hungarians now have three parties. Of course, in the recent elections, the Democratic Alliance (DAHR) got over 85% of the votes, but the other parties still exist. It shows that there is something going on that has to be taken in consideration.
Can you explain this disagreement with an example of the difference of opinion or different policy about how the group living in a Hungarian majority area and the people living in a minority Hungarian area look at things differently?
For instance, on the use of the Hungarian language in institutions like schools or other institutions. Of course, in Harghita county everyone speaks Hungarians publically. Now by law recently in recent years, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians fought for and won the right that wherever the minority constitutes at least 20% of the population, then the language of that minority can be used publically in court, at the mayor’s office, or wherever. Everything has to be written bilingually, not like in Targu Mures where we are fighting to make the street signs fully bilingual. We don’t think the law has been implemented fully but it’s going in the right direction. Those from the majority think that this has to be done everywhere immediately, that it’s a right and it’s not negotiable.
They believe the Hungarian language should be everywhere regardless of the 20% requirement? Or implemented everywhere there is a 20% minority?
No, with the 20% requirement. But in many places where it’s 20%, it’s still at the discussion phase. It’s not been done yet. You have to spend money to make these signs and so on. There are economic issues involved. And everyone is discussing it calmly. But those living in the Hungarian majority area say, “No, this is a right and it has to be done.” And where they are a majority, they pretty much do the same thing to the Romanian minority that’s happening in other parts of the country with the Hungarian minority.
What’s happening in Hungary is always better economically than here, even if Hungary is not going very well. It’s more developed, the salaries are higher, and things appear easier than here. So Hungarians here want the same development as in Hungary. And it’s not happening, or it’s not happening fast enough. And sometimes, actually many times, they see that it matters if you are Romanian if you’re hired or not. It still matters. And where Hungarians live in the minority they somehow dream about the past, which was a “glorious” past because it’s easy for the past to be glorious, and they would like to bring back those glories, which is not feasible anymore. I personally think that it doesn’t do us any good, but this way of thinking exists and we have to deal with it.
So tell me more about your involvement with the Project on Ethnic Relations.
The offer to work at PER was good timing, and I stuck with them until 2009. But all during that time I had the small business, and I was running here a small office, which was a local office. Later on I was involved as the program director for the regional office.
What would you say were your greatest accomplishments during that period of time?
I learned a lot. I finished my Master’s after my two sons were no longer babies. I did the Master’s in conflict resolution at Iasi University and Alexandru Ioan Cuza University. I also learned a lot in all the PER programs because you couldn’t avoid learning by doing. But I always said that I needed some theoretical knowledge, and that’s why I went on to the university.
When did you get your Master’s?
It was 2006 or 2007. It was an interesting work. I was in contact at very different levels with very different people. I learned the purposes of neutrality: how hard it is to keep it, how easy it is to lose it. PER succeeded in maintaining neutrality in the region, which was very helpful. We sometimes dealt with some very sensitive issues. And we were allowed to touch those issues because they knew we would never push one solution or another. So we could have these discussions at PER that were not possible anywhere else in the region.
It’s hard to see the results when you do that kind of work because one of the groups you work with are politicians. And many times, from one day to another things change, and that happened a lot. But you also work with other opinion leaders, and there you can see over time that things happen. Of course, you never can tell if it’s your work that made the big difference. But it was interesting to work with journalists, and you could see the biggest results with journalists. For instance, in 1990 journalists were one factor that helped to increase the conflict on both sides here in Targu Mures – both Hungarian and Romanian journalists. From 1993 we regularly conducted workshops and seminars with journalists. They analyzed their own writings — because at that time the news was not really news. It was opinion. That changed a lot. Even today, I feel that it was not a waste of time because when I was recently in a certain situation, the journalists acted very correctly.
Can you talk about that situation?
Since February, I have been the vice president of the Targu Mures organization of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians from Romania on social issues. This is a political function. But, in fact, I’m doing the same thing that I do at my organization. The difference is that now I get timely information, which I don’t get as an NGO person, and I can have timely influence on votes in the local council (though not all the time). In this way, I’ve lost my neutrality.
I was a leader in the NGO group here. In the organization from the beginning we had a resource center for NGOs, which was not funded by anyone and which was mostly virtual, on the Internet. We provided counseling by phone and mail. And for the last 11 years we’ve put on an NGO fair. This was an idea from a former Peace Corps volunteer who said that NGOs should present themselves to the community, like in a fair. We took over this idea and did it. But it took someone from the outside to see how this was possible.
And the fair has featured 62 organizations?
Yes. This year it was 62. Last year it was 51. But this year, because of my involvement in political life, I have to do advocacy with the administration. Sometimes NGOs and the administration fight. And some people don’t like that NGOs are together here as a community. It’s hard to be together. You don’t have money, and sometimes there’s competition. So it’s really hard to develop together and help each other. And some don’t like this solidarity and try to destroy it.
This year we wanted to promote the NGO fair in the Szekler Days cultural event. Representatives from that region approached us and said that Mures county is not very well represented in this event and do we want to promote our fair in their region? We said yes. But there’s a lot of sensitivity when you speak about the Szekler region. And I didn’t think it over, which I should have done because I have worked on interethnic relations. I was very involved in the organizing of the event. I said, “This is cultural, and we want to promote our fair more. Also, we want to get involved other organizations from surrounding counties into the fair.”
But then we had a problem with the local administration. On the fifth day of the NGO fair, two of the participating NGOs said that the Szekler Days event is very Hungarian and it supports autonomy and so it was a bad thing for them to be involved. These two NGOs said that they didn’t know that the NGO Fair was part of the Szekler Days event and that I’d agreed to it because I was a member of DAHR. This shows that this ethnic card can still be played. Only two organizations from the 62 were annoyed about it: Red Cross and Children’s Salvation. Both are not classical NGOs but rather top-down structures sustained by state money. I was very proud that other organizations didn’t react to this. Now it’s very clear where I stand, and from now on it’s an open fight. This time, the playing of the ethnic card didn’t succeed. But if they do it with people who are not really putting an effort into community life, people who are not reading and thinking and talking with each other, then they might succeed.
And the journalists played a more responsible role?
Yes. Somebody told the journalists to approach the NGOs and show them this program of the fair and ask them if they knew about the link between the NGO Fair and the Szekler Days event and if they throught this was a bad thing. This annoyed a lot of organizations. The journalists phoned them up just to get a reaction. But then they came to me. You know how journalists can sometimes ask their questions very harshly. But this time, they asked the question in a very kind manner. I don’t know how it was portrayed on television. But in print, the article said that some organizations had something against the participation of the NGO Fair in the Szekler Days event. Then they quoted me. Then they cited something from the program leaflet about cultural issues. So it was a very fair way of presenting the situation.
Over the last 20 years, it seems like the situation in interethnic relations here in Targu Mures, and in the country more generally, has improved. Why do you think that has happened?
Here in Targu Mures it took a while longer, and these issues are still sensitive. And still the two groups are somehow living separated. There are connections at work or on the street. But otherwise the communities are separated by language. Sometimes the language barrier is useful to protect your identity, but it should be also a little bit easier to mix. It’s better now probably because it’s not so important anymore. Economic issues are more important in the lives of people, which is not necessarily a good thing either. Ethnic issues are no longer a priority. And being a minority is not longer felt to be a handicap. Generally minorities no longer feel like second-class citizens even though sometimes they are still put in situations where they feel that way. Leadership plays a big role in this, and the leadership of the two countries did a good job of making this an important issue but not a top issue. However, sometimes they didn’t take into consideration different opinions in the last years. The top leadership was involved in the national political game and struggling to secure rights for the minority, but they were somehow not very close to the local reality. Now we feel this gap, and I don’t know if it can be closed or not.
When you say that there’s a gap between leadership and people at the grass roots, how is their perspective of people at the grassroots different? Do they want different things? Do they have a different agenda? Or are they simply angry at not being consulted?
After more than 20 years, some things are already normal. You can go to a Hungarian school or a Hungarian-speaking university. There are even firms, important businesses, which are in Hungarian hands. There’s a new generation that doesn’t remember anymore what happened before 1990 – my son, for instance. We talk about it, but it’s not a reality for him. Everything is going slowly for the new generation and even for those not involved in making these changes.
What do they want that they don’t have?
There are problems in education, for instance. There are many bilingual schools but what’s happening inside is not very inter-cultural. The majority is not taught about the minority. What I did for instance at PER, and still do at Diverse, is to make sure the majority knows about the issues concerning minorities — why they are here, what they’ve contributed to Romania at a certain point in history and ever since then. But this is not done on a national level or in the educational system.
It’s not in the textbooks?
We did some things at PER, so some elements are now in the textbooks. Minorities are mentioned in some history textbooks, but this turns out to be maybe ten minutes in one year! The Holocaust is taught in a first-year textbook, but the teacher has to choose to teach it. We did a textbook for history teachers that included the history of minorities in Romania. But it’s not in the mainstream. There are generations who don’t know about the Communist period, about the role of minorities in history. This is a big problem when these students later become decision-makers. They have to know about these things or else they will have prejudices. Hungarians are struggling with this: they don’t understand why the others don’t understand what they want. Then they wait for their own leaders to make the others understand and act accordingly. But the leadership at the national level is playing the big political game and believes that each person has to fight his or her own fight. However, it’s not popular when you say “fight your own fight, I’m not doing it for you.”
What about your 33-year-old stepson? Does he still feel like there’s a gap? Does he still feel like things should change more rapidly, or doesn’t he even care about it?
He doesn’t care. He finished his Hungarian-language studies. He does his IT work in English or whatever. His friends are Hungarians but also international. I think that many people his age and younger are the same. But there still is a huge number of people who are over 30 or 40 like me, and they are influencing their own children. Not everybody is like our son because we didn’t interfere in his mindset about these things.
Did you also do projects on Roma/non-Roma relations here in Romania?
Yes, a lot. When I came to PER in 1993, we had here a pogrom in Mures county. And that was my first encounter with the Roma issue. I was shocked. I didn’t know a lot about Roma at that time, so I had to learn, again, by doing. At that time, there were not so many Roma leaders or students with whom you could easily work. We had projects for young Roma leadership development and programs to educate majority politicians about the needs of the Roma population. We also worked to get Roma language into schools. Now at my organization Diverse, we have a Roma inclusion center.
Here in Targu Mures?
Yes, we’re finishing up this project now. We’ll continue it, just not on the same scale if we don’t get funding. With this project, we try to prepare Roma to get jobs, we do job mediation, and we provide information to beneficiaries about available jobs. We also fight prejudice with cultural events, and we do a lot of counseling. There are still people here in Romania without identity. Tomorrow I will deal with a case of a family with seven children where the mother and the children don’t have any identification papers. We haven’t been able to get anywhere in the courts, so now we’re involving the national television.
There is a big gap between the majority of the Roma and the rest of the population. Legally they are equal — everyone is equal. For instance, they have the opportunity to go to school. But there are many, many steps that have to be taken by a small child to go to school and then stay in school. We have a small after-school program to stop school dropouts, now with about 15 children. But from these probably only five children will pass the class. But these five will be saved and hopefully another 5 will repeat the class and at least stay in school. Ten grades are obligatory in Romania, but we have cases where, in the fifth grade, the school says that they won’t take the child.
Have you seen any improvements, in terms of the general situation of Roma or in terms of the level of prejudice in society over the last 20 years?
At the educational level, the situation is bad. And here in the region it’s very bad. In other regions it’s better, much better. I don’t know why, but in some regions the public administration understands that education is crucial and that the children have to be in school. So, they do something and don’t just leave it to the parents. Immediately after 1990, Roma were the first ones to lose their jobs. Now we have one or two generations of people who could work but they haven’t worked their entire lives. This is like a sickness from which they can’t recover by themselves.
Also, housing is very bad. For 20 years, the administration didn’t care about Roma housing. Many Roma are living in housing that is technically illegal, so they are very vulnerable. They don’t own their property. And if they don’t own anything, they don’t really have any concept of property.
You said you are working with five Roma children.
We started with 18. Around 12 are coming regularly, and five will succeed. That’s a story. There is a big ghetto here where about 300-400 Roma families (between 1200 and 1500 persons) live. Almost half of them are children. There are four or even five schools in or near the community. One of them is hosted by a foundation and has a kindergarten and four grades and about 100 children. Each year the children graduate from fourth grade and are supposed to continue to the normal school. But most are not accepted. This Roma school, which is run by a foundation, came to us three years ago and said that their children, even if they are accepted, fail in the fifth grade and then don’t go anymore to school. Last year I had a little bit of time, and this project gave me the opportunity to see what’s happening and how we can fix it. From April we helped the parents go to the school and ask for a place for their children in the fifth grade. They were refused, even when we went with them.
What was the excuse that they used?
That the children didn’t belong at that particular school. This school treated a whole street of children as if they didn’t exist. So I prepared the paperwork with the school inspectorate. When in September nothing had happened, I told the parents, “Sorry, but if nothing happens then we have to go public.” But we did succeed in getting a kindergarten and a zero class (this is between kindergarten and first grade). And we got another fifth grade. Of course, around 60 children couldn’t get into kindergarten because there were not enough places, and there were several children who didn’t get into the fifth grade for the same reason. But, of course, it was a step. In this fifth grade class were children who were not able to read and write, but they came not from the foundation-run school but from normal public school with a fourth grade diploma.
We also said that we would do an after-school program. We wanted to do it with our volunteers who are young Roma students. They are prepared to be there and help the children do their homework. But they aren’t prepared to teach them to read and write. So then we got a teacher to do this. But, again, these children didn’t have support from their families. Half of them are not even going to school much less the after-school program. But those who are coming to the after-school program can now read and write, but they are not up to the fifth grade. Probably five of them will be now put into mixed groups. The others will fall and then they will not come anymore. But those five will go on to the 8th grade. So with them we succeeded.
With a project like this, people say that the indicators are weak and that it’s not worth financing. True, this is a problem. But if you think that these five children will be able to support their families later — and that we had some effect on some of the other children as well — then I think we did something. But this has to be done structurally within the educational system and not from NGOs who are coming from outside. It’s very difficult to work inside the school. As an NGO, we should work with them on socialization activities, extracurricular activities, intercultural activities – not education. It’s not our task to do education.
Is there anybody in government who’s interested in this work?
The education ministry, in fact, did a lot of things legislatively. I am doing trainings with the ministry and with UNICEF. We have a training course for teachers, directors, and mediators from schools where many Roma children are studying.
This is the ministry at the county level?
No, this is the national level. At the county level, the ministry has the school inspectorates.
And they’re not interested?
The inspectorates are the most hindering structure that I’ve ever had to deal with in each county, regardless of which one. Ours is a particularly bad one. In other counties they have to deal with just Roma and Romanians. But here it also includes Hungarians. In many situations, Roma children who speak Romanian at home were forced to go to Hungarian-speaking schools or Roma children who speak Hungarian at home were forced to go to Romanian-speaking schools. So it’s an ugly game here, and the children are the losers. And there are many children, more and more each year. So there has to be a strategy.
It’s discouraging because on the one hand there are resources available. There’s money coming from the European Union for Roma inclusion.
One colleague in Bucharest from one agency dealing with Roma issues made some calculations a couple years ago, and they’re still valid. He counted the money coming in as about five Euro per Roma, which is less than for a cow in the European Union. So the sums appear big. If you say a million euros, that sounds like a lot. But the needs are so big and complex. Here we need integrative projects, but integrative projects require at least a two-to-five year period and need to focus on small groups. But nobody’s financing such things.
What’s the name of the NGO that you have now?
It’s called the Diverse Association. The name came from an e-newsletter that we did previously about diversity and minorities. We automatically took that over as our name.
Where does your funding come from?
Since the end of 2010 we have partnered with a structural fund project, which is a strategic regional project financed by the EU. We have this inclusion center for Roma. In the project there are six such centers in six Romanian regions, and we are one of them. For three years we got about 500,000 Euro. But this is the only big project we have. Before, we did everything on a voluntary or small project basis, and probably from September it will go back to this. We have some small projects that don’t generate enough financing to even provide salaries. There are just enough funds to implement the project.
For instance, we have a national contest for school children called “Diversity Chance for Future.” In the first level of the project, a team of five children presents how they see diversity in their own community. Then, on the national level, there’s a more theoretical part of the contest, and linked to this we have an intercultural camp each year. Then, with UNICEF and the ministry we conduct a training for teachers. And now we have a DAPHNE project on the safe use of the Internet in the context of ending prejudices, something all European countries are involved in.
People have talked a lot to me about Romania’s low level of absorption of EU funds.
At the end of 2010 we assessed this project. In our field, they didn’t put out any possibilities to access funds. They are blocked. The government has promised that from June they will make available everything that was blocked until now.
It was blocked by the Romanian government? Because of incompetence?
I would say so, yes. A recent example was last November when the government issued a request for proposals. It was on social issues. The government could work together with NGOs, and it was exactly on what we are doing now – the Roma inclusion center and the qualification trainings. They chose three projects designed by us among 13 in this county. But at the end of April, after five months of deliberation, the jury rejected our application. And it was a disaster at the national level as well. Of course, we contested the decision. Everyone did. And we don’t know what will happen. Probably they will relaunch it. But how they organized the whole thing, with the jury and so on, was a mess.
I talked to someone in Cluj who works with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with handicaps or disabilities. They had to lay off two-thirds of their staff because they couldn’t access funds.
Yes. When you access a fund you form a team, you develop an expertise. And if you have no opportunity to continue this, then it likely stops. It was the same with the PHARE projects, the pre-accession projects, which proved that after-school programs are the key to preventing school abandonment. And it went well during the PHARE projects. Afterwards, some organizations struggled to maintain the programs, but everyone else stopped providing funding. The government and the local authorities did not take over these pilot-proven solutions, even though they are not very costly.
I’m curious why you have decided to return to politics.
First of all, we do a lot of advocacy, and there are a lot of small organizations that don’t know how to deal with the administration, how to get funds, and so on. I’ve always felt that I know how it should be done. But there’s nobody with whom you can discuss these issues because the people in the decision-making positions are not discussing it. They are not open to using the experience of people from NGOs or other type of organizations — even if they get it for free. So, for instance, they are not willing to discuss the education of Roma children in the mayor’s office. They don’t want to have strategic discussions. When there’s a conflict, they give in if you are strong enough. But they are not open to discussion or any kind of strategic thinking. That means we don’t have any information about their decision-making process. So, if somebody makes a decision against you, all you can do is fight it. Sometimes you will win. But it’s a huge waste of energy. And it’s too late in most cases.
But if you are inside the game, then, first of all, you get information. It’s not easy, but there are the mechanisms to get it. And you can influence the decisions because this is a hierarchical society. If somebody has a political or institutional function, then he or she is taken seriously. Maybe now I have more experience. I know that the game to which I’m returning didn’t change in the last 20 years, unfortunately. Maybe it even got worse. It surely didn’t get better. The positions are more rigid. In the first years if you came to an agreement, then the agreement was an agreement, even if you did it with your enemy. Now you never know if you shake hands if that is a valid handshake.
I know the NGO world. I know what the needs are. In the political field, there are just a few people who understand the real needs. The game is about just the power, not about anything else, unfortunately, even if nice guys are doing it. So, I’m not sure that I will be able to do something. We have time. We’re not pressured by elections. There are almost three years before the elections in 2016. Okay, next year there will be the European Parliament elections, but that’s not at the local level. So, until 2016, we can build up a strategy on the local level. If I’m not able to influence this strategy, then I will go back to the NGO. Of course, I will not be neutral anymore, and that will be a handicap later if I decide to go back home. But now I’m doing everything possible during these three years in politics and on social issues that are not ethnically defined.
If things go well, would you then consider running for Parliament?
No. I’m not a person to go into an institution that is very rigid. And the Parliament is also an institution. No. And it wouldn’t even happen because very few persons can succeed. It’s not so easy to jump from one level to another. But of course because I’m a woman, there would be a chance, since the Hungarian party is the worst in promoting women.
Right, it’s all men up at the top.
But now it has to change. This can be a chance for women inside the party to rise up. But I definitely don’t want to be one of them. I’m not interested in that part, except perhaps at a local level, such as the local town council. But even that is very difficult. It depends on how I will be earning my living at that time because to be a local councilor is a lot of responsibility. It’s become a problem because the local councilors are very busy people and don’t have enough time to be local councilors. But that would be the maximum that I’d consider. I still would like to run the organization I founded and to make a difference. Having so many uneducated people in the community is bad for the majority, not just for those who lack the education.
When you think back to your perspective in 1990 when you were just finishing up as a student, how has your worldview changed since then?
I had a very narrow worldview at that time, that’s for sure. The world opened up radically at that time. Not many people have had the fortune to live through such a change. I was 22 at that time. I graduated, and then the world around me changed quite a lot. But I didn’t have a worldview at that time. It just gradually opened. Now I know a lot more: not enough, but a lot more. In the last years I even learned to look globally and not just regionally. These days if you are influencing things locally it’s all connected elsewhere. Unfortunately, people are not taught this, and so they have just a local view of things. Things are more interesting now. I can analyze things more deeply. Back then it was just a closed box that we somehow escaped from.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Romania since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to ten, with one being most dissatisfied and ten being most satisfied?
If I think about everything, maybe a seven.
Same period of time, same scale, but your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Romania on a scale from one to ten, with one being most pessimistic and ten being most optimistic?
That’s hard to tell because it doesn’t just depend on Romania. It might be just a five or a six.
Targu Mures, May 19, 2013