On April 29, President Klaus Iohannis resorted to incitement against the country’s Hungarian minority – the first serious attack of this nature from a Romanian head of state since the fall of communism three decades ago. In a two-minute video denunciation, Iohannis falsely accused the 1.5 million-strong Hungarian community – and DAHR, a parliamentary party representing it – of conspiring with the opposition Romanian Social Democrat Party (PSD) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in a secessionist plot to destroy Romania’s territorial integrity.
Hear the speech and DAHR’s response in English:
“It is incredible what kind of agreements are being reached in the Romanian Parliament,” Iohannis said, “while we, myself, the government and the other authorities are fighting the coronavirus outbreak, the Romanian Social Democrat Party, the big Romanian Social Democrat Party, is fighting in secret parliamentary offices to give Transylvania to the Hungarians.”
Rather than encourage solidarity among Romania’s peoples during the global pandemic, Iohannis chose to demean an entire segment of the population, presumably for political gain. Himself an ethnic German, the president also mocked the Hungarian language in front of millions of television viewers: “Jó napot kívánok, PSD!” (“Good afternoon, PSD!”)said Iohannis sarcastically, in deliberately broken Hungarian.
Democratic Norms Under Fire
President Iohannis’ incendiary remarks – broadcast live by all Romanian media – have triggered a wave of anti-Hungarian measures. On May 6, PSD President Marcel Ciolacu submitted a motion to change parliamentary procedure and exclude any bills “threatening the nation-state character of Romania” – presumably to block future legislation that would remedy minority or linguistic inequities. On May 8, the parliamentary People’s Movement Party moved to ban the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR).
Coming on the heels of President Iohannis’ statement, these attempts to stoke xenophobic sentiment evoke the late Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the extremist nationalist Greater Romania Party, who for more than two decades poisoned inter-ethnic relations between the Romanian majority and Hungarian minority.
DAHR President Hunor Kelemen stated:
“It is unacceptable for the Romanian head of state to incite hatred, which in the current crisis is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous. By producing an anti-Hungarian narrative, the president is using the same shameful anti-Hungarian strategy as the one used by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and by nationalistic and xenophobic party leaders in Romania’s more recent history.”
Legislative Attempts to Preserve Language Rights of Hungarian Minority
Iohannis’ anti-Hungarian invective on April 29 came in response to recent votes in the Romanian Parliament on a bill originally introduced by DAHR last year. Bill No. 670/2019 seeks to define the predominantly Hungarian-speaking Székely (Szekler) region as an autonomous region within Romania, endowed with various competencies including expanded language use. On March 25, the Chamber of Deputies tacitly (without voting) passed this bill. On April 29, the Senate voted to defeat the bill, which Iohannis already knew by the time he leveled his anti-Hungarian accusations later that day.
International Response Condemns President Iohannis’ Statement
International criticism of President Iohannis’ attack was unequivocal. In a May 5 letter to President Iohannis, the European Language Equality Network (ELEN), a non-governmental organization based in France, stated that “the comment that the Hungarian national minority is plotting to give Transylvania to Hungary is an act of incitement.” The letter from ELEN further notes that
“the use of Hungarian, depicted as something undesirable by the President, is a right granted to the Hungarian national minority by international legal instruments ratified by Romania (…) and a standard European best practice. To question the use of Hungarian in private and public settings, including its use with local authorities, goes against treaties ratified by Romania and treaties which enabled Romania’s accession to the EU.”
With respect to the autonomy issue, ELEN’s letter is similarly straightforward: “…regional autonomy for national minorities is a European best practice (…) The ELEN finds the statements of President Iohannis unacceptable.”
To see the video statement by President Iohannis (in Romanian), click here.