Romanians Envious of Hungarian Minority Rights

Plans by Budapest to offer Romania's ethnic Hungarians generous benefits angers Bucharest

Romanians Envious of Hungarian Minority Rights

Plans by Budapest to offer Romania's ethnic Hungarians generous benefits angers Bucharest

Valentin Lovu was none-too-pleased about an item he'd just seen on the Romanian evening news. The parliament in Budapest was preparing legislation granting a package of benefits to ethnic Hungarians, or Magyars, in several neighbouring countries. "I do not understand why they should have more rights than me, as we are all citizens of the same country," he said.

Lovu, who is unemployed, is one of around eight million Romanians who live below the poverty line. "I really want to work, to feed my family. It doesn't matter if I get a well paid job in Romania, in Hungary or elsewhere," he said.

He reflects the feelings of many Romanians, who are clearly envious of the special package of the benefits pledged to their Hungarian compatriots.

The proposed Hungarian legislation, announced last week, would affect around 1.7 million Magyars living in Romania, the largest Hungarian diaspora community. One of the provisions of the bill - which could enter the statute books as early as January - would give them the legal right to work for three months in Hungary, where they would be entitled to travel benefits, social and health care rights and free university education.

Budapest believes the package will encourage Magyars to stay put and not, as feared, migrate to Hungary prior to its joining the European Union - anticipated in 2004. A recent survey showed that around 30 per cent of ethnic Hungarians are currently thinking about emigration, although that figure is two times less than the number of Romanians considering the same.

The proposal has raised alarm bells in Romania. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said Romania would not interfere in Hungary's lawmaking process, but that he would be calling for bilateral consultations on the proposed legislation which he has called "discriminatory".

Nastase also voiced his concern about possible abuse of the law by ethnically-mixed families and fraudsters lured by the freebies over the border. "We may one day wake up to a situation where we have millions of citizens claiming to be Hungarian just because some could not resist the temptation of riding free on the Budapest metro," he said.

The nationalist Greater Romanian Party, PRM, was quick to denounce the Budapest decision, which they said was part of Budapest's grand scheme, as they see it, to annex Hungarian-populated lands.

And neither are Magyars themselves particularly happy with the legislation. Their reasons differ but the general impression is that they feel short-changed.

"I want to be frank," says Denes Lazslo, editor-in-chief of the Hungarian language daily Erdelyi Naplo." We, the Magyars in Romania, were expecting a law which would give us Hungarian citizenship or at least special status, for example the right to a Hungarian passport.

"In my opinion, the present draft bill is insufficient as it grants only a few material benefits and not enough help in preserving our cultural and ethnic identity."

Hungarians in Romania are also unhappy that other issues have not been addressed, such as the territorial autonomy of Szeklerland (a majority Hungarian area in Transylvania), the use of the Hungarian language in public administration and the creation of an independent Hungarian university.

In the minds of Magyars, these issues are more important than the country's most enduring and deep-seated problems - high unemployment and inflation.

Which remain the overriding concern for the average Romanian who feels the draft legislation is downright unfair. "It's not surprising that most Romanians are opposed to special status for ethnic Hungarians," says political analyst Stefan Stanciugelu," they're being offered the sorts of things that Romanians can only dream about."

Marian Chiriac is a regular IWPR contributor

Support our journalists