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Szeckler autonomy fuels Magyar hardliners’ politics


The Szeckler County autonomy issue once again brings about turmoil in the Romanian politics. This time the topic was not put forth by Magyar Civic Union hardliners, but by UDMR leaders, who have started the internal electoral campaign.

Ever since March, Vice-premier Marko Bela has appropriated themes of the Magyar Civic Union (UCM) leaders’ rhetoric. On Hungary’s National Day, statements by the UDMR president in the Târgu Secuiesc celebration were tougher than those made by the UCM leader, the Odorheiul Secuiesc Mayor, in the National Szeckler Assembly convened in Odorhei. At that time, Marko Bela said Romanian staff in public institutions had better learn Magyar. Today he asks for autonomy on ethnic criteria for counties Harghita, Covasna and Mureș. But in historic terms, it was not the Romanians who cancelled the Szecklers’ old autonomy status, but rather the Budapest Government in 1867, upon the establishment of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

But the agenda behind these endeavours is not necessarily related to Magyars’ wish for higher autonomy as to Bucharest. The Szeckler area has been divided into a number of provinces controlled by UDMR barons. Senator Attila Verestoy is only the best known of them. In the Szeckler area, Magyar leaders are spinning amounts that would make Nicolae Mischie or Marian Oprișan green with envy.

Because leaders of the Transylvania Magyars control the economic resources of the area. Major businesses thrive, courtesy to the Magyars’ local leaders. This is the case with construction companies winning public auctions, or those exploiting wood resources on the Western side of the Eastern Carpathians.


The grip on resources, the key to UDMR’s “youth”


But UDMR leaders are also the ones who control public money allotted to the area. For over a decade, governmental funds granted by Romanian authorities to the Magyar minority have been managed through the Communitas Foundation. Until 2004, the Foundation was directly headed by UDMR president Marko Bela. Once appointed a vice-premier, he had to give up the Communitas Foundation position, over conflicts of interests. But Marko Bela handed over the umbrella-organisation to reliable people. Communitas continues to fund, on money received from the Government of Romania, various projects submitted by Magyars’ NGOs. And this happens although the Bucharest Government has a Secretary of State in charge with managing funds for national minorities. The symbiosis between UDMR and Communitas is so close, that the Foundation headquarters in Cluj, paid for on Romanian Government money, has become the office of the UDMR Executive Council.

A similar system is used for the control of funds coming from the Government of Hungary. This time, the interface between public money granted by Magyar authorities and NGOs run by Hungarians in Transylvania is the Ilyes Foundation. The Foundation’s Transylvanian branch is controlled by UDMR leaders.


The next generation


But there are several trends in UDMR as well. Apart from the radical one represented by Marko Bela, a moderate trend has emerged. Its key figure is the Union’s executive vice-president Zsolt Nagy, also the Minister of Communication and Information Technology. Zsolt Nagy is currently the most prominent of the young Transylvanian Magyar politicians. He also submitted for public debate a project to reform and modernise UDMR. A number of MPs and branch leaders have already joined him. Such as another vice-president of the Union, Deputy Hunor Kelemen, or leaders of the county branches in Cluj, Bihor and Arad. That is, the most powerful territorial branches of UDMR outside the Szeckler area. Leaders of these branches are not pressured by the Magyar Civic Union competition, and therefore have no reason to radicalise their political rhetoric. Moreover, with Magyars being a minority in these counties, heads of these UDMR county branches need to find strategies to coexist with Romanian politicians. Zsolt Nagy admitted in an interview to Radio France Internationale in Cluj that his supporters may make up a political platform which will claim the upper hand in the UDMR Congress due next year. In terms of ideology, UDMR has so far been authoritatively dominated by the Christian-Democratic Platform headed by chairman of the Union Representative Council, Senator Gyorgy Frunda. Now, the emerging platform may rally the support of other internal political groupings, such as the Liberal Circle, led by former Minister for National Minorities Senator Peter Eckstein-Kovacs.

Zsolt Nagy presented three lines of action to reform the Democratic Union of Magyars in Romania. The first is to reform UDMR internal structures. Young UDMR leaders propose the creation of an intermediate structure between the Executive Council and the Union Representative Council. The former operates as a government, while the latter would be the equivalent of a parliament of Magyars in Transylvania. The Union Representative Council convenes every three months. Which is seen as too long to validate the political decisions that must be made by the UDMR president. There is another internal body as well, the Operative Committee, made up of 120 politicians. But this Committee is anything but operative. The Operative Committee, too convenes every three months, between Union Representative Council meetings. Zsolt Nagy would like UDMR to have a structure similar to a standing delegation, able to convene on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis when necessary. In parallel, the Union Representative Council role should be reconsidered, with the structure turned into a reflection body, in charge with analysing major strategic decisions such as mergers or alliances. The second reform avenue refers to strengthening internal discipline. Essentially, this involves strengthening the Union dignitaries’ accountability, as well as setting criteria to assess their performance, so as to hold them liable whenever they fail to fulfil their tasks. The third reform direction is external communication. The new Union leaders want UDMR officials to prove that they can also deal with other issues than those strictly tied to the Magyar community. Specifically, the new Union strategy would seek to attract votes from Transylvanian Romanians who believe UDMR represents their regional interests better than other parties. Why is this political project so important? If it fails, the alternative is territorial enclavisation, such as the one proposed by Marko Bela.


Illegitimate structures


Szeckler leaders will team up in structures that will not be perceived as legitimate by either the European Union or Bucharest authorities. Within this context, Transylvanian Magyars outside the Szeckler area may be left entirely to chance. A compromise would be to redefine development regions, so as to grant the Szeckler area an official status. Minister Zsolt Nagy says Szeckler counties have shared traditions and aspirations which hardly overlap the ones of other counties in the Centre Region, that counties Harghita, Covasna and Mureș are currently included in. He says there are significant differences between a highly industrial area such as Brașov and the Harghita-Covasna area, where the largest town has 42,000 inhabitants. However, the same Szeckler area also includes major cities such as Târgu-Mureș. But this city, the natural capital of a region such as the one desired by UDMR, is half Romanian. Further, there are towns in Mureș County where Magyars only account for little of the population. This is the case with Sighișoara, Luduș, Iernut, Târnăveni or Sărmaș. These have little to do with Szecklers’ aspirations. And with Sighișoara the second largest town in the Szeckler area, things get even more complicated. Which proves that, populist speeches aside, UDMR leaders are hardly prepared to handle it if Szecklers were granted their autonomy tomorrow.



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