Ethnic violence threatening in Transylvania Hungarians fear Romanian forces

November 05, 1992|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,Los Angeles Times

CLUJ, Romania -- When Erno Jakab tried to launch a private cable television service earlier this year, the city fathers of this crumbling Transylvanian stronghold summarily vetoed his plans because the offerings included MTV.

Romanian nationalists who have come to power under Mayor Gheorghe Funar thought the initials stood for Magyar Television, the state network in neighboring Hungary.

It took Mr. Jakab, an ethnic Hungarian, three months to convince authorities that the channel had nothing to do with the country that ruled Transylvania until World War I.

"But is it so unimaginable that in a region where one-fourth of the people speak Hungarian that some programming in that language might find a market in the future?" asks Mr. Jakab, a bearded entrepreneur startled by the tempest swirling around him. "I'm convinced the market is already there, but in this current environment of hysteria I wouldn't dare suggest it."

Since Mr. Funar was elected mayor of Cluj in March, Hungarian-language advertisements and posters have been banned in the city. Bilingual street signs have been removed and fines levied on merchants who deal in both languages.

Romanians who advocate cultural autonomy for ethnic Hungarians are being branded traitors, and political moderates of all backgrounds say that they fear being associated with anything Hungarian. One Romanian scientist was even denounced by pro-regime newspapers for taking part in a Hungarian folk dance with his wife.

A land renowned for its violent history as well as its vampire legend, Transylvania has been swept by a sudden outbreak of nationalism that raises the specter of another officially provoked bloodletting like the one in what remains of Yugoslavia.

Language has been the club with which Romanians and Hungarians have bludgeoned each other for centuries. Each time the coveted region changed hands as the spoils of war, the victors sought to impose their tongue as a means of culturally shackling the vanquished.

Mr. Funar and nationalist instigators from the feared Vatra Romanescu society have rekindled ethnic passions here by suggesting that Hungary is seeking once again to recover the vast Transylvanian region, where 7 million people live. Hungary vehemently denies designs on its former possession, but the protestations are undermined by influential Budapest politicians openly expressing nostalgia for the lost grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the days when Cluj was the provincial capital called Kolozsvar.

Intellectuals, who make up a fair proportion of this university city, say they cannot imagine a return to the times when Romanians and Hungarians fought each other. They point out with pride that only two lives have been lost in ethnic violence in the region since the overthrow and execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu nearly three years ago.

But in Romania, which suffered one of the harshest dictatorships of the Communist era, the creation of an ethnic scapegoat could appeal to the bewildered Romanian majority aching for someone to blame for their poverty and hardship.

"These extremists will look for ways to raise tensions because this is the only way to justify their presence on the political stage," said Octavian Buracu, a Romanian geologist and pro-democracy activist. "If the perceived danger from Hungarians disappears, these parties have no reason for being."

Elections held last month disclosed a troubling rise in nationalist sentiment and strengthened the hand of extremist forces. Mr. Funar's National Unity Party and the reactionary Greater Romania Party won about 14 percent of the vote and are expected to be included in the new Bucharest government still being formed. Mr. Funar has demanded the Interior Ministry portfolio for his party, which would give it control of the security forces and police.

One of six presidential candidates, Mr. Funar ran on the single issue of his claimed "Hungarian threat" and was expected to draw little support outside the Transylvanian region. Despite the crowded field and the broad appeal of the populist president, Ion Iliescu, Mr. Funar garnered nearly 12 percent of the national vote.

Peter Buchwald, president of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, which holds about 7 percent of the seats in Parliament, said Hungarians here unquestionably recognize Romanian sovereignty over Transylvania.

"I hope we will never reach the situation like in Yugoslavia today, because we Hungarians are only 7 percent or 8 percent of the population and, unlike the Serbs and Croats, we have no arms," Mr. Buchwald said. "There is no way we could defend ourselves. We are at the mercy of the majority population, so all we can do is hope."

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