Catalonia and Hungarian Transylvania — Are there parallels?

While the political leadership of the Hungarian community in Transylvania firmly rejected parallels between Catalonia’s drive for independence and the future status of Hungarian-majority Hargita and Kovászna counties in Romania, the Romanian-language media appears concerned. This is especially true since Catalonia’s dramatic unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October–which was followed by the Spanish central government’s swift move to suspend the region’s autonomy, the sacking of Catalonia’s government, the dissolution of the Parlament de Catalunya, as well as the announcement of new regional elections on 21 December.

There is a striking difference between Hungary’s reaction to turmoil in Spain and that of Romania. Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó issued merely a very general statement, following consultations with Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski. Mr. Szijjártó referred to direct rule in Catalonia–as a result of the region’s arguably unconstitutional declaration of independence–as an internal matter for Spain to settle. Mr. Szijjártó added that he trusts the situation will be resolved in accordance with the Spanish constitution.

In stark contrast, Romania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs went much further, noting the following:

“We firmly and irrevocably deny the ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ of Catalonia. We reaffirm Romania’s strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Spain. Spain is a major ally and strategic partner of our country – relationship reflected both at bilateral level and at EU and international level…We reiterate Romania’s consistent position in favour of the international law, which does not allow territorial changes to occur without the consent of the state concerned.”

The last line is particularly relevant, given the apparent concern within the Romanian-language media about Transylvanian parallels. These pertain primarily to two counties in central Romania, namely Kovászna (Covasna) with a Hungarian majority of 74% and Hargita (Harghita), which has an even larger Hungarian majority of 83%. Together these two counties, along with Maros (Mureș), where 40% of the population is Hungarian, form what is referred to as Székelyföld or Szeklerland.

The red boundary marks what forms historic Székelyföld (Szerklerland), namely the counties of Kovászna, Hargita and Maros. The first two have large Hungarian majorities.

In August 1940, as part of the Second Vienna Award, most of Székelyföld was returned to Hungary, along with the rest of northern Transylvania. These were the regions of Transylvania with the largest proportion of Hungarians. A large majority of these Hungarians–including the sizeable Jewish community of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca)–welcomed the annexation of this region. As a personal aside: a member of my father’s family, all Hungarian Jews from Transylvania, later wrote about the enthusiasm the family felt when Hungarian troops entered Kolozsvár in 1940, and the terrible shock when they were singled out for deportation, by these same Hungarian authorities, in 1944.

It is worth pointing out (and ethnic Hungarian politicians in Romania like Hunor Kelemen have done just this) that while Catalonia sees itself as an independent nation, Transylvanian Hungarians and Szeklers do not. This is why they once cheered their annexation by Hungary. They see themselves as ethnic Hungarians.

That said, there is a historical precedent for much greater autonomy for the Hungarian majority region than that which it enjoys today. In 1952, the so-called Hungarian Autonomous Province was created (Regiunea Autonomă Maghiară in Romanian or Magyar Autonóm Tartomány in Hungarian.) The autonomous province had a 77% Hungarian majority, a total population of 731,387 and incorporated 13 500 sq. km of territory. Hungarian cultural and linguistic rights were much better protected in the Hungarian Autonomous Province than anywhere else in multi-ethnic Transylvania, where a process of assimilation got underway. It is often argued that the existence of this autonomous province was used to justify the forced assimilation of Hungarians elsewhere in Transylvania, as well as severe restrictions on the use of Hungarian in public administration, schools and in courts.

The Hungarian Autonomous Province’s decline began after the suppression of the 1956 Revolution in Hungary and the region was reorganised (with boundaries re-drawn) after 1960. Today, Hargita and Kovászna are Hungarian-majority counties (with a combined population of 515,000), within a unitary Romanian state. Ethnic Hungarian politicians in Romania, especially associated with the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ), call for more regional autonomy for Szeklerland within Romania and essentially advocate for the country to move from a unitary state model to a federal system.

What RMDSZ supports is precisely the degree of autonomy that Catalonia already enjoys within Spain. Árpád Antal, RMDSZ’s leader in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe), the capital city of Kovászna county, noted that the events in Catalonia show everyone in Romania the difference between autonomy and full independence or separation. “During the last 15 years, they have tried to conflate the two terms on so many occasions in Bucharest, but now we can clearly see they are not the same,” remarked Mr. Antal. Then he added, as a warning to Romania’s political leaders:

“If central authorities say nothing but ‘no’ to a community, then the moment will come when that community says ‘yes,’ and perhaps this ‘yes’ will mean negative things for those who say ‘no.’ It is never good if central authorities–in our case, Bucharest and in their case Madrid–respond with a ‘no’ to anything and everything.”

The Romanian news site has already sounded the alarms about the risk of a Hungarian drive for independence in Romania, following events in Spain. Referring to a piece appearing in The Guardian, about other possible separatist movements in Europe, Camelia Badea of Ziare writes: “With about 500,000 inhabitants, Szeklerland is presented as a region in the centre of Romania where ethnic Hungarians want even more autonomy. According to the latest census, as of 2011, almost half of the Hungarians living in Romania and the largest minority in the country live in Szeklerland.”

The Romanian journal Observator Cultural also expressed concern about the implications of Catalan independence for Romania. The journal warns: “The situation is very complicated and particularly sensitive. Europe sits on a powder keg. Around the corner is Scotland and Northern Italy. Maybe the Szekler Land, maybe (God forbid!) Transylvania? And precisely when strong and wise political leaders are needed, Europe and Romania have some bad puppets as their leaders …”

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