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 …”


  1. Avatar Child of survivors says:

    “1945” by Meneshme Films highly recommended for Hungarian and Romanians to watch. An eye opener to the Transylvanian issue which included over 209,000 Jews of Hungarian/Romanian backgrounds.

  2. Nice well written article Adam. On a personal note my father is Hungarian Jewish but were based in Arad (which remained part of Romania). When the German army took over direct control of Romania in 1944 (after collapse of fascist regime) he told me that their family were called to be deported to concentration camps. It was the Soviet Army that spared them (which may explain why my grandfather ended up part of the Communist Party, and they were against by parents’ emigration to Israel).

    A very close friend of our family long since passed away, was from a large Jewish Hungarian family in Satu Mare, he somehow was able to escape from Auschwitz concentration camp during time in work field, found his way back home via Ukraine – unfortunately was too late as all of his family (something like 20-30 people including extended family were gone – and did not survive the Holocaust). The man joined the Communist Partisans fighting the Germans, and even tracked down a particular guard who had tortured him at Auschwitz (prompting him to try the escape). He was involved in Communist rigging of elections after WW2, and was part of Romanian Securitate until retiring alone never having married or starting a family.

    My mother’s family is Romanian from Oradea, and they faced some pressure during 1940 relocation to Arad – but luckily were able to leave before my great grandfather could be arrested (he was very involved in Romanian nationalist movement under the Austro-Hungarian empire).

    It may be helpful to describe Hungarians in Transylvania further by urban and rural groups. The three counties with majority have this both in urban and small town / rural areas, whereas in all the other counties with sizable Hungarian populations (Christian and pre-WW2 Jewish) were in cities. I would imagine Catalonia has a similar distinction, with Barcelona being home to most of the pro-unity crowd, and indigenous Catalan culture being the majority outside of Barcelona – just a guess.

    Keep up the fantastic work. So refreshing to have competent International Relations analysis coming out of Ottawa for a change.

  3. Despite the strong nationalist feelings of a very small number of people, it is actually naive to consider that part of the population of three small counties would even consider to bust up the nation of Romania. In Catalonia the Catalan people are the absolute majority, they had enough of being ruled by other Spaniards with an iron fist.

    But what has been noticed before in Transylvania, that the Transylvanian population, yes Romanians, Hungarians and Germans are in the similar position, they are fed up with Bucharest’s rule.

    There have been noticed a desire to separate, to be free from Bucharest and be independent Transylvanians. Now that may be more of a chance.
    But again, who desires to break up Europe by every tiny little ethnic groups.

    Beside, just how could they afford to survive as a separate nation ? Any one ever thought of that ? It takes a hell of a lot of money !

  4. Bends

    Catalans “being ruled by other Spaniards with an iron fist..”

    Come on! No region in Europe has more autonomy than Cataluna (Belgium is federal). It may support other regions with the taxes it pays, but it also benefits from being the business capital of Spain and of course from having the Spanish and EU market.

  5. “Catalonia sees itself as an independent nation”
    Can you provide any documentation that supports this claim?

  6. In your sentence “Madrid–respond with a ‘no’ to anything and everything.”, you seem to forget that Catalonia got jurisdiction in various matters of culture, education, health, justice, environment, communications, transportation, commerce, public safety and local governments thanks to the Statute of Autonomy signed in 2006.
    Madrid has said ‘yes’ to Barcelona several times in the past, probably too many. Now, Catalonia has an autonomous control of the region with free access to the Spanish and European markets. UK would kill to get this kind of arrangement for the Brexit.

  7. Avatar Belgrade Glendenning says:

    I 100% support giving territories back to Hungary but NOT before that trash Orban goes to jail!

  8. Catalonian independence is about over.
    Madrid did apply the Constitutional authority.
    A few days ago there were about two dozen Catalons with pogo-sticks pledged to fight . But now that is over.
    Maybe some of that breaking up Romania is over for a while.
    Just hope the Bucharest regime is fair to all minorities.

  9. What autonomy can these 3 Hungarian majority counties desire?
    First of all the name they claim, Székelyföld, has no historical background, is a new fabrication of Hungarian revisionist movement.
    Second of all, most of the Bucharest appointed authorities as well as the local ones in the counties of Covasna, Harghita and Mures are Hungarian ethnics. In spite of that, they are still corrupt, they encourage Hungarian separatism and I don’t see how things will get better for them if greater autonomy could be obtained: the region is the poorest of the country and without the money from the central government will get even poorer.
    If autonomy or even independence should be considered, the ethnic Hungarians should give to the Romanian majority an example of honest and correct administration that works for the common citizens not for the corrupt and wealthy politicians and businessmen.

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