News 08 Feb 13

Romania and Hungary Row Over Minority Flag

Relations between Bucharest and Budapest have dipped following a controversy over the flag of the ethnic Hungarian community in Transylvania.

Marian Chiriac
Bucharest

Romania and Hungary have exchanged diplomatic accusations after Hungary's ambassador to Bucharest and other Hungarian officials complained that ethnic Hungarians were being bullied about flying a local flag.

On Sunday, Romanian officials in Covasna and Harghita counties in central Romania banned the hoisting of the so-called Szekler flag on office buildings.

Hungarian Ambassador Oszkar Fuzes on Wednesday publicly supported their right to hoist their flag - and their demand for autonomy in Transylvania.

The region is home to about 600,000 ethnic Hungarians. Romania is home to many other ethnic Hungarians but the so-called Szekler region, in eastern Transylvania, is where they are most concentrated.

Other Hungarian officials have also joined in, including State Secretary Zsolt Nemeth who asked Bucharest to stop its "symbolic aggression” against ethnic Hungarians in Romania.

"We await for an official position from the Hungarian Foreign Minister, hoping he will clearly ask the country’s representative in Bucharest not to further exceed his prerogatives," Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean said on Thursday.

"An ambassador must not contravene diplomatic norms but should stay within the scope of his authority,” he added.

Corlatean's statement came shortly after Ambassador Fuzes was summoned to his ministry to hear of Romania's "deep concern about his involvement in practices that give the false impression that Romania does not respect the norms in protecting the rights of national minorities”.

The flag issue stems back to November 2012, when a local court in Romania decided it was legal to fly this flag in Covasna county.

Soon after, ethnic Hungarians started to fly the Szekler land flag in front of town halls, which some Romanian officials said was against the law as the flag is not official.

Romanian analysts say the row over the Szekler flag is mainly a matter of politics.

"Romania and Hungary have a tradition of bullying to each other," journalist Sabina Fati said.

"The government in Bucharest is interested in stirring up the hostility between nationalists in both countries because ethnic tensions make it easier to govern and can divert attention from current policies, like tax hikes,” Fati added.

Relations between Romania and Hungary are good in general. After they both joined the EU they decided to leave behind historical disputes, and work together in the EU to promote common and regional interests.

About 7 per cent of Romania's 19.5 million people are ethnic Hungarian, most live in the the central Transylvanian counties. The Szeklers have long campaigned for an autonomous region there.

Transylvania was formerly part of Hungary but became part of Romania after Hungary emerged on the losing side of the First World War in 1918.

Romania’s right to Transylvania is not now questioned by anyone except the most fervent Hungarian nationalists, but the treatment of the Hungarian minority remains a political issue, even today.

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