Romania: Critics See Red over Mayor's Paint Plan

The latest stunt by Cluj's eccentric nationalist firebrand fails to divert attention from accusations of mismanagement.

Romania: Critics See Red over Mayor's Paint Plan

The latest stunt by Cluj's eccentric nationalist firebrand fails to divert attention from accusations of mismanagement.

The fate of Transylvania's historic capital Cluj is sadly typical of places that Romania's former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu tried to turn into industrial bastions.

It is an academic town, home to many of Transylvania's ethnic Hungarian and Romanian intellectual elite. But the old heart of the city has been ripped out. Dreary modern apartment blocks and grey factories stand next to fine examples of Habsburg architecture, built before the First World War when the region belonged to Hungary. These ugly buildings are a grim reminder of Ceausescu's plan to make Romania an industrialised country and obliterate its colorful past.

These days the city is best known for the antics of its maverick nationalist mayor Gheorghe Funar, who took over in 1992. Notorious for his anti-Hungarian rhetoric in a city where around one-fifth of the 330,000 population is Hungarian, he confirmed his eccentric reputation last week by ordering all public waste bins to be painted in the blue, yellow and red of the Romanian flag.

"People will enjoy the colours because they are tired of looking at the same old dirty grey pavements," said Funar, announcing his project to "brighten up" the town.

The inspiration appears to have come from a visit to South Korea, where he saw pavements painted in a similar patriotic fashion. The civic leader has already had public benches and street borders painted in the same design, complementing the numerous national flags that flutter from municipal buildings across the city.

But not everybody is happy with his patriotic initiatives. The Cluj police have taken court action against Funar, accusing him of "offending national symbols". Police spokesman Adrian Marian said the mayor's behaviour showed "disrespect" for the tricolour, adding that he could be punished with up to three years in jail.

Funar shrugged it off. Recently he said the police would be better off investigating alleged local sightings of UFOs - which, according to the mayor, also displayed Romania's national colours.

It is not his first run-in with the local police. He was briefly detained last June after placing the bones of a cow alongside blue, yellow and red toothpicks on the desks of city councillors. The mayor claimed he had staged a contemporary art exhibition.

The locals are used to such pranks but are becoming increasingly weary of them. "Funar is more concerned with painting streets than improving the economy, even though unemployment is high," said a Cluj doctor.

Many local politicians accuse the civic leader of mismanagement and claim he has only kept his post by exploiting nationalist hostility towards the Hungarian minority.

"Most people here are disappointed by their living standards, which have plunged over the past 12 years," said Hungarian journalist Ambrus Bela. "It promotes ultra-nationalist attitudes. There is a feeling that if Funar is there, he will keep the Hungarians under control."

The mayor has certainly done his best to deny them their legal rights. Recently, he refused to implement a new law that allows minorities to use their native language in local government in areas where they make up at least 20 per cent of the population.

Funar claimed Hungarians accounted for less than 20 per cent of the people of Cluj - ignoring a 1992 official census that put the number at 23 per cent.

The Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania, UMR, has repeatedly demanded that the mayor be penalised for refusing to respect the ordinance. But nothing has been done, in spite of worries that his brand of ultra-nationalist rhetoric may hamper Romania's eventual inclusion in international bodies such as the European Union and NATO.

Funar is vice president of the hard line Greater Romania Party, which came second in the 2000 general election. In Romania, extreme nationalism is still a vote winner and for the moment, at least, the mayor remains likely to keep his post.

Marian Chiriac is an independent Bucharest-based journalist

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