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Carmen Borbély (Romania)

CASE STUDY PRESENTATION

ETHNIC UTOPIA AND REGIONALISM IN POST-COMMUNIST TRANSYLVANIA

 

The project intends to summarize the various aspects of regional ideologies developed in post-communist Transylvania, Romania, focusing on three major trends of redefining Transylvania’s social and political identity after the December 1989 revolution: a. the so-called Mitteleuropa identity, shaped by the cultural program of the “Third Europe” (A Treia Europa) research group of Timisoara; b. the radical regional, anti-Bucharest identity, defined by Sabin Gherman’s “Pro Transylvania” Association in Cluj-Napoca (1998); and c. the mild federalist identity, shaped later (2000-2001) by a group of well-known Romanian and Hungarian intellectuals, channeling their ideals through the Provincia political journal (also located in Cluj-Napoca). The project will also show how these complementary identity issues meet the ethnic utopian ideal of total separation from Bucharest, voiced from time to time by various radical Transylvanian Hungarian intellectuals, as a strategy of distancing themselves from the official daily pragmatism and political battle of the Hungarians’ Democratic Union in Romania (UDMR). The project will also undertake an analysis of the counterpart of these self-defining tendencies, namely the reprimanding political echoes of these regional identities, voiced both by Parliament or the Government and the mass media.

2. DETAILS OF THE PROJECT

2a. Customarily, the Transylvanian regional ideology is related to the sharp critique of the Romanian political and administrative centralism published by a rather obscure journalist of Cluj-Napoca, Sabin Gherman, in the September 16, 1998 issue of the Monitorul de Cluj newspaper. Entitled I Am Fed Up With Romania ! (M-am saturat de România!), the short text denounces the altering of the Transylvanian historical and social identity by the annexation of the region to Romania in 1918, which according to Sabin Gherman brought to Romania’s most prosperous and, socially speaking, most advanced region a specific feebleness and inertia, due to the malignant effect of the corrupt manners and depraved “Orientalism” embodied by the political body seated in Bucharest.

The article stirred a nervous outcry from a wide range of target persons and institutions involved, both anti-Hungarian, nationalistic parties and the Government circles, including President Emil Constantinescu. The outburst voiced the usual rhetoric in these cases, saying that Sabin Gherman’s personal initiative is a dishonest and secretive attempt to break Romania apart, under the hidden guidance of Budapest, and aided by the Hungarians’ Democratic Union of Romania (which actually cautiously distanced itself from the initiative). The political turmoil of the Balkans at that time (the war in the former Yugoslavia, and the setting apart of the different constituent states) aggravated the uproar, so many voices suggested that the manifesto would drive Romania to war and to the disintegration of its sacred national unity. Since the national unity of the Romanian state was defined as such in the 1991 Constitution, many people claimed that Sabin Gherman should be brought to court, and tried for an anti-constitutional offence. On the other hand, influential circles of the American Hungarian minority overtly supported the initiative, providing the anonymous Sabin Gherman with a career he had never envisaged: he was invited to give lectures to prestigious American universities (including Columbia University in New York City), and a thick book presenting the mass media echoes of his text came out, both in Romanian and in Hungarian, from a rather unknown Transylvanian publishing house (Erdélyi Híradó – Curierul Transilvan), providing his ideas with an international dissemination.

2b. My project intends to analyze both the political program involved in Sabin Gherman’s initiative and the similarities between his attempt to conceive Transylvania as a relatively independent region and other intellectuals’ attempts oriented to the same goal, which emerged in Romania after the December 1989 revolution. I do not intend to overestimate Sabin Gherman’s role as a politician, because his action was narrowed down by apprehensions formulated by the Government and the Presidency, as a consequence of which the former journalist of the Cluj TV Studio lost his job. Nevertheless, Sabin Gherman’s action went deep down into the popular realm of the political culture in Romania, the author of the manifesto being perceived as the Big Black Threat of the Romanian politics and state. This popular overemphasis should be considered in this project, because it shaped a negative model which is always referred back to whenever somebody tries to “federalize” theoretically Romania’s geo-political future. For instance, at the very time I was working on this project, the famous political journal 22 published a Memorandum for Regional Construction in Romania, signed by 13 well-known intellectuals, attached to a nervous reprimanding reaction written by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Program Coordinator of the United Nations Development Program (Early Warning System Romania). In this text Sabin Gherman’s name comes back as an obsessive threat, although the Memorandum doesn’t deal with him or his early program at all, and in spite of the fact that linking some of the authors of the Memorandum to Gherman’s name seems to be an outrageous blunder.

3. THE BLACK SHADOW OF FEDERALISM

3a. In an interview which ensued from his article, Sabin Gherman drew the following frame of the new Transylvanian identity: administrative self-determination of the region through a freely elected local Parliament, which is going to get 30% of the general national income. In exchange, the central government in Bucharest will maintain the right to make major political decisions in the region, will conduct its foreign policy and will keep the region within the political and territorial unit of the Romanian state. It is easy to notice that the program suggests a relativistic autonomy, rather than a radical territorial or political disintegration. Moreover, the program targets the administration and the economy, avoiding political matters. The “regional parliament” suggested by the text is still at stake, but it seems to have only economic and administrative competencies.

3b. The project intends to show further that each intellectual program of redefining Transylvania as a region since December 1989 has been a relativistic one. On the other hand, each government dealt with them as absolute threats, bringing into discussions big words like territorial disintegration, collapse of national identity, war waging. The split has created a specific dissymmetry in the discourse: the programs of the intellectuals have become more and more elaborate, while the official and popular response has brought into debate a rather narrow scale of over-repeated stereotypes: a malignant influence conducted secretly from Budapest, political dishonesty and lack of patriotism, intellectual dereliction and anti-constitutional behavior. As a consequence, regional thinking has been perceived in Romania as a felony, committed by wrongdoers who must be remanded in custody. The project intends to demonstrate that by referring to this repulsive judiciary dichotomy, Romania’s public political life actually inherited and voiced again two of the major stereotypes of the former communist regime: xenophobia, and the habit of pinpointing alternative political thinking as a crime.

The project will go on to analyze two samples of this virtual intellectual “identity crime”: the Third Europe cultural program issued in Timisoara and the Provincia regional identity program in Cluj-Napoca.

4. REGIONAL IDENTITY THINKING AS CRIME

4a. The Third Europe (A Treia Europa) is a solid intercultural and inter-state program run by several prestigious scholars in Timiºoara (Cornel Ungureanu, Mircea Mihaies, Adriana Babeti etc.). They edit a research journal (A Treia Europa) and an excellent book collection, together with the Polirom Publishing House in Iaºi. The ideology of the group, which has no political outcome, aims to redefine Transylvania’s cultural heritage as a Central-European one, rather than belonging to the Eastern European block, as Romania is generally regarded. To do this, the group uses spiritual and cultural patterns taken from Mitteleuropa: the former prevalence of Catholicism and Protestantism in the region, the intercultural links between the main cultural groups (Romanian, Hungarian, German, Jewish), the historic tradition rooted in Austro-Hungarian imperialism. Due to the specific historical development of the region until 1918, when Transylvania joined Romania after the World War I, the group defines Transylvanian culture as mitteleuropäisch, which provides the specific evolution of the popular taste towards Biedermeier and family ornamentals, towards the grotesque, the imperial feeling of marginality, and cultural eclecticism. It becomes obvious that such a program raised many angry eyebrows in a Romania obsessed with the uniqueness of its culture and the exclusiveness of its Orthodox tradition, and the Third Europe group came under the heavy crossfire of the nationalist, extremist movements. It is also sad to remark that in spite of the tremendous research invested in redefining Transylvania’s identity as one belonging to the Mitteleuropa tradition, the controversial program of the group could not reach a wider popular impact, Timiºoara and the Banat region (which were, back in December 1989, the hotbed of the starting revolution!) voting unexpectedly for the Greater Romania extremist party in the November 2000 elections.

4b. The Provincia group is by far the most interesting of all the movements aiming at a redefinition of Transylvania’s political, administrative and cultural identity, because it functions as an open debate club, with no other starting ideology than the pro-European attitude of its members. All of them (Mircea Boari, Marius Cosmeanu, Alexandru Cistelecan, Ovidiu Pecican, Antik Sándor, Agoston Hugó, Bakk Miklós, Caius Dobrescu, Hadházy Zsuzsa, Molnar Gusztáv, Szokoly Elek, Traian ªtef, Daniel Vighi) are well-respected and renowned scholars or intellectuals, with many published books, and with a prestige achieved through different partial campaigns (the Pro Europa intercultural exchange program in Târgu Mureº, MA and PhD programs run by several Transylvanian or Western universities, Greek-Catholics vs. the Orthodox in Romania etc.). The ideology of the group was synthesized in a Memorandum for Regional Construction in Romania, published in December 2001, which tackles the following issues, as compulsory parts of a new European identity of Romania:

  • The administrative and political decentralization of the country, by allowing each region to decide by itself the priorities and the needs of its citizens, through a so-called meso-government, which creates its own institutions;
  • The rethinking of national identity in terms of territorial identities, by overwriting the ethnic divisions or the ethnic subcultures. As such, each region should become an intercultural territory, contributing to a better understanding and to a mutual tolerance of the inhabitants;
  • A new type of administration, legitimized by popular referendum and by forthcoming elections, with people being called to the polls in order to elect the “regional councils” or “regional parliaments”, located in the “capitals of the provinces”;
  • The decentralization of the mass media, especially of the TV Studios;
  • The rethinking of Romania’s identity as a “federation” of independent regions, based on three principles taken from the US Constitution (a detail not overtly assumed by the Memorandum): republicanism, the will to be governed, and participative democracy.

The future of the Memorandum is pending, subject to a prospective uproar, which will equal in intensity the echo of Sabin Gherman’s segregational outburst back in 1998. As mentioned above (please see 2b.), before the present project was finished (that is by December 26, 2001), a single worthwhile reaction had been issued, by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (22, XII, nr. 51, Dec. 18-24, 2001, p. 5). Significantly enough, the UN’s Romanian energetic Early Warning Program Coordinator defines the Memorandum as a hazardous political “game”, played by irresponsible scholars attracted by the scent of sudden fame or triggered by shadowy interests, their dark motivations remaining concealed to the public.

5. REGIONAL DEFINITIONS AND ETHNIC UTOPIAS

5a. The final chapter of this project will deal with the interrelation between several attempts to redefine Romania’s identity as a network of independent regions and the radical ethnic regionalism envisaged by some Hungarian intellectuals as an alternative to the official program of the Hungarians’ Democratic Union in Romania (UDMR). As shown above, both Sabin Gherman’s proclamation and the Provincia Memorandum claim territorial autonomy for different intercultural regions, and not ethnic segregation. The aim of the two programs is a trans-cultural region, as a stepstone to a trans-cultural Europe. Their core is relativistic self-determination, although the Provincia program also slips amongst its lines the word “political”, as added to self-determination in the administration, intentionally obscuring an otherwise limpid message.

5b. On a track parallel to this, a different ideology runs in Romania: the utopia of ethnic segregation, especially fervent in the Harghita and Covasna districts. Neither Romania’s present social structure, nor the country’s immediate goals determined by the will to integrate into NATO and the European Union favour the utopia of ethnic cultural enclaves. This ideology proves, therefore, to be a radical popular utopia, rather than an institutionalised one. In this respect, the project intends to stress the paradox that the different political regimes of Bucharest have acted homogenously when dealing with regionalist ideologies, acknowledging the popular utopia of ethnic segregation, and considering that intellectual-led attempts to conceptualise the political problem of regional self-administration are only the by-products of the nationalist, ethnic self-governing utopia. Therefore, no serious debate can be staged in Romania concerning the regional or the meso-government issue, because the issue is immediately discarded, as infamous and perilous.

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