Romanian Nationalism Double Problem, Double Talk? by Sandra Pralong

Posted on September 30, 1996 by Sandra Pralong

If we accept Rogers Brubacker’s concept of a triad composed of the “national minority,” the “nationalistic state” and the “external national homeland”1 as a new way to frame the issue of nationalism, of all the countries of East and Central Europe, Romania finds itself in the most interesting — if volatile and paradoxical — position. Indeed, according to this framework, Romania occupies two roles at once. On the one hand it is a “nationalistic state” vis-a-vis the Hungarian minority living in Transylvania, and on the other it is, at the same time, an “external national homeland” to the Romanians of Moldova. The case may not be unique in history, but the simultaneity of these two roles poses difficult theoretical and some very practical problems.

Even without the conceptual device of such a “triangular relationship” between states and national minorities, it is obvious that Romania’s position is particularly untenable: on the one hand it needs to assert the doctrine of the immutability and inviolability of international borders (in order to prevent potential Hungarian claims over Transylvania); yet on the other, in order to recuperate Moldova, it has to espouse an overtly revisionist doctrine (maintaining that the border with Moldova is illegitimate — the consequence of a secret, fraudulent international act — and therefore it needs to be redrawn). Given this peculiar position, can Romania pursue “two rabbits at once,” and if so, for how long? And, more to the point, can any one people’s nationalist claims accommodate two mutually exclusive doctrines? Taking the issue one step further, given that Romania sees itself as a national, unitary state (Constitution, Article 1), could such an internal contradiction, indeed such “schizophrenic” expectations, lead to an inevitably fatal outcome?

Before dealing with this issue, one should pause to ask if indeed this is the way the Romanian nationalist debate is framed today: is Romania torn between these two doctrines, inviolability of borders and irredentism? Such paralyzing incompatibility would be the logical outcome of naturally resurgent nationalist feelings, yet, in my opinion, what distinguishes Romania is precisely the fact that nationalist claims are totally counter- intuitive. When active, they seem entirely “fabricated” rather than the natural outcome of a genuine popular movement. Thus Romania’s peculiarity does not result from deep-seated nationalist irrationality, but, quite simply, from the conflicting imperatives of calculated political choices.

My assumption is that in Romania, ethnic tensions are not the result of genuine popular outbursts; Romanians are not the “savage nationalists” they have been, on occasion (unfairly) portrayed to be. Rather, post-1989 tensions — especially between Romanians and the Hungarian minority living in Transylvania — have been carefully manipulated constructs designed to serve political interests, especially in situations of competition for power (such as elections), as well as in the context of economic downturns (to justify economic crisis). My hypothesis can be stated as follows: in post-1989 Romania, nationalism is a tool for political legitimation, an ideology adopted for the pursuit of power rather than a reflection of popular will. The fiercer the competition for power or the greater the economic crisis, the stronger the nationalist rhetoric and the higher the (induced) ethnic tensions.

The “proof” of all of this is “in the pudding” of the nationalist movement itself, for it is easy to see that if nationalism were genuine in Romania, the popular movement would persistently claim Moldova, that which is historically its due; while, on the issue of Transylvania it would remain quiet and calm, since Hungary (at least for the moment) makes no demands to gain it back. Yet, paradoxically, the exact contrary is happening: the nationalist movement is led by the two extremist parties, the Party of Romanian National Unity (PUNR) and the Greater Romania Party (PRM). These parties are agitated exclusively by the issue of Transylvania, and they remain utterly silent about a potential Moldovan re-unification. It is this counter-intuitive commotion — over Transylvania instead of Moldova — which betrays the movement’s lack of authenticity, and points to nationalism as no more than a cynical tool designed to arouse and manipulate popular feelings for political ends.

The “Ancient Hatreds” Thesis

As the fury of nationalism has swept over the former Eastern Bloc, scholars, the media, and politicians alike have been trying to find reasons for it. The most prevalent “explanation” for the region’s surge in ethnic violence has been one rooted in a combination of history, ideology and praxis. It posits that, given Marxism-Leninism’s ambiguous position vis-a-vis the issue of nationalities, and after the massive social and ethnic engineering orchestrated by Stalin, nationalism, always simmering under the apparent calm imposed by Soviet coercion, is finally free to reassert its claims in a manner commensurate with the depth of the ancient hatreds that the region’s various ethnic groups harbor for each other.

Presumably, the theory holds, ethnic hatred has always been present in the region from time immemorial, and even when things seemed relatively calm, it was only a deceptive lull, the passions being only temporarily numbed by the transient forces of political oppression. Indeed, many proponents of the “Balkans-as-simmering-cauldron” theory, as well as those observing the dozens of nationalities and ethnic groups gobbled up by the Soviet Union, are justified in their wonders to how such different people of such different traditions and cultures — not to mention with such conflicting territorial claims could have coexisted peacefully with each other( at least since World War II).

For many a scholar and casual observer alike the primary reason why such deep- rooted hatreds have remained muted restraint is coercion. Observers have a point: harmonious social relations in the East have not been the outcome of “proletarian brotherhood”, nor are they the result of the ” shared socialist ideals” of the past. It is less romantic rigor of socialist discipline that provides the acceptable explanation for what kept the lid on the cauldron for so long. Nowadays, the theory goes, without the watchful (and trigger-happy army) of the Big Soviet Brother, and absent the “persuasive manner” of the national communist parties, the mythical cauldron — now lidless — can finally boil over, which it does with a vengeance: witness mad and maddening wars that have been going on in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Georgia, in the former Yugoslavia, in Chechnya, etc. So obsessed are we with this conflict, and with how to resolve it, that we rarely ask if conflict is inevitable or fabricated, and if the people may not simply have learned to coexist over the years just as they now learn to fight.2

In this new vortex of presumed vicious ethnic resentment, however, there is one conflict which, according to enlightened prognosis, should have preceded and toppled all others, as it is both centuries old and particularly heinous: it is the dispute between Romanians and Hungarians over Transylvania. Why, of all the likely candidates to a prolonged, bloody dispute, this particular one has not really ignited in the open3 is, by the “ancient hatreds” and the “post-Soviet exploding cauldron” standard, a matter of some bewilderment. Happy bewilderment to be sure, but amazement nonetheless as the absence of conflict where it has been most expected defies all theories, perhaps, some would say, as the exception that confirms the rule.

The Puzzle over Romania’s Relations with Hungary…

Trying to explain why this potential conflict is for the moment reduced to a muted and limited guerrilla warfare waged primarily by a lunatic mayor against the traumatized yet increasingly oblivious citizens of the ethnically mixed capital city of Transylvania, 4 help explain some of the motivating factors for the resurgence of conflict in the region. The logic of the puzzle, and a tentative explanation for this mysterious absence of overt conflict where it was presumably most likely, could be encapsulated in what has been so tellingly dubbed as “the dog that didn’t bark theory.”5 Why has there been no overt fight between Romanians and Hungarians? How is it possible that these two countries, far from being at each other’s throats or secretly preparing for the worst, are, in spite of occasional tensions, ready to sign a much-touted and long-expected treaty – one that should recognize, on the one hand, existing borders and, on the other, guarantee full rights to the Hungarian minority? This is a puzzling paradox if we accept conventional wisdom about nationalism erupting in the region as “spontaneous combustion.” Of course, the absence of a major, lasting conflict so far does not mean that conflict is ruled out in the future as well, merely that something that should have erupted in a most damaging way has been kept in check and seems to have been turned “on” and “off’ following political needs, rather than the unstoppable and mythical nationalistic passion.


…and the Other Puzzle of Romania’s Relations with Moldova

The second variable of the Romanian nationalist equation, namely the relationship between Romania and Moldova, is even more surprising in its “tameness” and lack of conflict than the quiet relation with Hungary. There too, for the most part, in spite of considerable potential commotion, a rather inexplicable restraint has prevailed, tarnished only in 1994 by Romanian President Iliescu’s off-hand revisionist remarks about “one nation, two states” to describe Romanian ethnic unity and the artificial institutional separation between Romanians and Moldovans.6 Indeed, if the Transylvanian status quo had no independent reason for being challenged internationally (in the absence of potentially revisionist claims on the part of Hungary), the situation is quite different with regard to Moldova. The international situation there has, on several occasions, created conditions that nationalists on both sides of the Prut River7 could have exploited to push for a revisionist agenda. Again, the question is: why did they not do so?

First, as a part of the same Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that saw the Baitic states handed over to Stalin in 1940, Moldova too had claims to a return to the status quo ante, along with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Contrary to the Baltics, however, for whom the status quo ante represented ’mere’ independence from the rest of the Soviet Union, in the case of Moldova, the status quo ante would have meant both independence from Moscow and return to the Romanian “motherland.” Yet, since 1990 (when the Soviet Republic of Moldova claimed its autonomy), then in 1991 (when Moldova declared its independence vis-a-vis Moscow) and through 1994, the Romanian government kept unusually quiet about the potential for reunification. Romanian authorities all but relinquished claims for the official abrogation of the 1940 Pact’s provisions with regard to Moldova when the fate of the other three Molotov-Ribbentrop victims was being re-discussed. This is indeed unusual, especially if we accept the “boiling cauldron” thesis, according to which nationalistic knee- jerk reactions should have immediately come into the open as soon as coercive pressures loosened their grip.

Indeed, once it became obvious that the Soviet Union was itself in the process of collapse, why is it that the “nationalist fever” did not sweep both Romania and Moldova with the promise of reunion? And if nationalist fervor is supposed to stem from ancient fever, why did the Romanian government not get more actively involved in working out a plan for reunification with the pro-Romanian authorities in Chisinau at that time?8 It seems that once again “the obvious” has failed to happen in Romania; yet another peculiar instance of “the dog that didn’t bark” syndrome. Add to this the intriguing fact that the unexpected Romanian official “revisionism” started manifesting itself only after the tension with Hungary began to decline following the 1992 elections (indeed as it reached its lowest point since 1990), and suddenly President Iliescu’s off-hand remarks on the unnatural existence of two Romanian states may take on a meaning beyond a simple diplomatic slip of the tongue.”

What seems peculiar in these few examples is that, contrary to both conventional and scholarly wisdom, nationalist feelings (hatred, violence and atavistic memories) seem to be playing a rather marginal role as mobilizing factors, unless they are “awakened” in the pursuit of particular interests. If nationalist feelings lie dormant until something awakens them, then that “something” must be, by definition, political, the assertion of a power relationship of some sort. Conventional reasons (ancient hatred and retreat of both Soviet and domestic coercion) are important to the explanation, to be sure, but do not alone suffice.

The Nationalist Movement: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

Faced with the Romanian double puzzle of: a) the incompatible doctrines of nationalism on two fronts; and b) the absence of real overt conflict on either, one may wonder about the logical direction in which nationalism evolves: is it top down, or bottom up? The ancient hatreds and “boiling cauldron” theories imply that nationalism is a bottom- up movement (i.e., a groundswell of popular hatred rooted in history finally being freely unleashed), but then again, as seen before, one wonders why Hungarians and Romanians on the one hand, and Romanians and Moldovans on the other, did not then act on their “ancient passions,” disregarding everything that stood in the way of their realization.

History teaches us that “the people” are often impetuous and irrational, but it is their leaders (i.e., the elites) who either channel the energy towards revolution, or who defuse tensions through institutional change. Normally, popular movements precede their being shaped and articulated by elites. Yet in the case of Romania and in other post-Soviet regional cases, not only have “nationalist leaders” preceded corresponding nationalist “movements,” but in some cases they actually seem to have fabricated such movements, fanning the flames rather than putting them out. This is not in itself unusual; after all, Nazism and the Fascist movement were created from the top down as well. But given the very way in which it is defined, of all popular movements nationalism seems to be the least conducive to a top-down design. Indeed, nationalism implies first the existence of a cohesive group linked together by ethnic ties, and only second is the existence of such a group expected to produce articulated claims to statehood or political representation based exclusively on those ties. Following this conventional definition, the group precedes the movement, which in turn precedes the articulation of specific demands.

Yet in Romania, after the December 1989 overthrow of Nicolae Ceau?escu, the reverse seems to have happened. The ”nationalist leadership” has preceded the existence of a popular movement, and, persistently searching for a following, has created the problem by instigating the population and provoking it in various ways, from the symbolic to the substantive, and from the tragic to the ludicrous. Furthermore, on every occasion it appears that it is the leadership, and not the group members, who find the convenient — and often quite imaginative — casus belli, whenever attention needed to be diverted away from other essential political or economic issues of national importance. Such strategy makes one think

of the Kabuki theater technique, where attention is diverted from the overall scene and focused on a fixed spot (in the case of nationalism on highly charged emotional issues), which temporarily frees the rest of the actors from too close a scrutiny while they are changing their costumes or moving the set.

The Policy Implications of the Two Views of Nationalism

As we observe the evolution of such counter-intuitive, top-down nationalist “movements,” we can legitimately ask whether the wave of nationalism that followed Soviet domination in the region was indeed born from genuine popular will (i.e., from the bottom up). Or was it the case that a natural set of human emotions and fears was used as the basis for a cynical construction, manipulated by political elites (in quest of a legitimizing ideology) bound by no scruples and ready to exploit everything that would serve their political agenda? This issue has practical and policy implications, as the solutions to the region’s escalating nationalist crisis depend on the perception one has of the problem. If indeed we determine that nationalist claims represent genuine popular movements articulating grass-roots concerns of such importance and urgency that they prevent ethnic groups from coexisting peacefully with each other, it is the substance of these issues which needs to be addressed and solved first. If, on the other hand, the “nationalist movement” is best understood by looking at the interplay between various post- communist political elites jockeying for power (using nationalism as a substitute for ideology and as a way to create a platform of “legitimate” popular support), then the solution to the crisis should address the power-politics first, and only then seek a response to the substantive group demands (which would probably relax were it not for the constant instigation of political elites).

Romanian “Nationalism” – Which Way Up?

The point was made earlier that nationalism should be, at its origin, a “bottom-up” movement, because it implies first the existence of a group. Only once the group articulates specific demands does the movement become political.9 So, if nationalism is to be considered a full-fledged political movement, it needs to have a claim and articulate a political demand. For instance, it can either claim statehood, a territory, or autonomy within the borders of an existing state. But the movement cannot be articulated, qua movement, around preserving the status quo, unless it defends the status quo against claims likely to upset it.

Yet in the case of Romania, nationalism makes no claim other than preserving the status quo, Romania’s territorial integrity. It has a “passive” component and does not, for instance, actively claim Moldova back. Interestingly, it follows that Romanian nationalism defends the status quo of territorial integrity in the absence of a real challenge to it — Hungary does not claim Transylvania, at least not officially or overtly. Therefore, in order to justify its existence as legitimate, and in the absence of an existing claim, the current Romanian nationalist movement had to construct itself in two stages: first it had to imagine a threat (i.e., a challenge to the status quo) and create the appearance of its being real; and only then could it position itself as the response to the now “existing” challenge.

Therefore, no “spontaneous combustion” thesis can account convincingly for Romanian nationalism, for the two reasons outlined above: a) Hungary makes no overt claims over Transylvania (and the demands of the Hungarian minority in Romania do not directly threaten the territorial integrity of the state), and b) Romania makes no overt claims over Moldova. The fact that an actual movement nevertheless exists and is an active political player does not belie this thesis — it merely shows that the nationalist movement is a political construction — created rather than spontaneous. Thus “Romanian nationalism,” if not an outright oxymoron, is at least counter-intuitive in its manifestation: both passive (articulated around maintaining the territorial status quo) and much tamer than it first appears (i.e., having relinquished irredentist claims). The Tirgu Mure? events of March 1990 are an example of the nationalist strategy at work, i.e., the engineering or the escalation of a problem to gain a movement legitimacy and achieve political objectives. The same holds true for electoral competitions, in which nationalism is a tool for political legitimation. As stated above: the fiercer the competition for power or the greater the economic crisis, the stronger the nationalist rhetoric and the higher the (induced) ethnic tensions.

Ethnic Tensions Increase during Elections

After almost two years of relative calm (following the Tirgu Mure? events), the inter- ethnic restraint between Hungarians and Romanians was upset in February 1992 during the local elections. Gheorghe Funar, an ultra-nationalist, was unexpectedly elected mayor of Cluj after the second round of voting. Funar defeated the democratic-opposition candidate (who had a comfortable lead after the first round) mostly because, “coincidentally,” in the interval between the two rounds of elections, Romanian state-television (RTV) chose to publicize an old speech made by J6zsef Antall, then-Prime Minister of Hungary, who had said that he considered himself to be “the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians” (i.e., 10 million intramuros and another 5 million living mostly as minorities in neighboring countries, primarily Romania and Slovakia).

According to Romanian TV, to corroborate Antall’s position, a Hungarian Defense Ministry official was said to have issued a similar statement regarding the role of the army! These alleged Hungarian declarations, obviously interpretable as irredentist, were naturally played up by Funar’s nationalist camp, which managed to stir up considerable panic about potential claims over Transylvania, although Hungary officially dismissed such implications. More to the point, Defense Ministry officials in Budapest could find no trace of the alleged declarations about the army as defender of Hungarians abroad. No official was on record as having said such a thing.

Indeed, such statements looked understandably worrisome to anyone concerned with Romanian security and territorial integrity. The problem is that one wonders about the veracity of some of the statements, as well as about the timing chosen to publicize, for instance, Antall’s speech. By the time the Romanian state-owned television and other government-controlled media made a big event out of Antall’s declaration (made public in Romania precisely during the interval between the two rounds of election), the declaration was already a few weeks old and had been made in the context of the launch of a state- sponsored TV satellite channel in Hungary – a rather more “harmless” context than that of political jurisdiction or defense, and an important nuance not alluded to by Romanian commentators. Of course no proof can be found of malign intent on either side, but one does wonder about the political coincidence of such awkward timing. And, knowing how tightly state-television is controlled by the Romanian government (and especially by the Presidency, through the intermediary of the ruling party), one cannot help but suspect the government’s involvement and question its motivations. In the wake of this incident, Gheorghe Funar was elected mayor of Cluj, Romania’s second-largest city and the capital of Transylvania.

As in another context, the Middle East, where the Israelis played with Hamas, eventually creating a monster that may now contribute to devouring it, so too the Romanian authorities seem to have played with fire, pushing the nationalist party out of its relative obscurity and helping anoint it with the coveted legitimacy of elected office.

The Local Elections Create a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

Indeed, the local election served as an unparalleled booster to the Party of National Unity (PUNR), and Funar quickly became a national figure by using the Cluj City Hall as a step toward a higher office on a nationalist platform. Funar’s appearance in the national arena as a daring nationalist “hero” who defied the established order by overtly harassing the Hungarian minority in Cluj seemed to be very much to the liking of the central government. As the mayor moved to expel Hungarian party officials from their offices, to close down Hungarian youth associations, to shut down Hungarian-language newspapers, to remove street signs in Hungarian and many other such chicanery, there seemed, surprisingly, to be no legal recourse against him. The government-appointed Cluj Prefect (whose powers are roughly equivalent to those of an American governor) hid behind Funar’s elected legitimacy and refused to investigate the ways in which the mayor’s actions may have been breaking the law.

By the early summer of 1992, before the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, as the independent media became increasingly critical of Funar’s extremist positions, his nationalist party (PUNR) went on a fierce anti-media campaign, accusing the independent press of having been bought off by Romania’s enemies, thus conveniently dismissing the legitimacy of the media’s criticism. In fact, in order to overcome the domestic newsprint crisis, and given that the government had quite astutely chosen the beginning of the electoral campaign to suspend newsprint subsidies (thus allowing newsprint prices to double overnight), several international donors had financed ’the purchase of foreign newsprint for the independent press so that it could continue publishing during the

campaign. This move was brilliantly – some would say diabolically – used by the nationalists to show how the media was being “bought off’ by foreign interests, which were, according to them, by definition pro-Hungarian and anti-Romanian.

The vociferous tactics and the frontal attack on the media proved a fruitful strategy, as the press spent considerable ink covering Funar’s war with the media rather than focusing on his policies and actions. Once his profile in the national press became sufficiently high, Funar dared to take on bigger targets, His objective became to attack the entire government and most of the state apparatus for having been “sold” to the Hungarians and generally favoring “foreign interests” over national ones. In addition to questioning the Western, pro- European orientation of Romania’s foreign policy, Funar took personal stabs at the integrity and “patriotism” of individual government ministers who were discussing matters of “national interest” (such as the economy), with “alien powers” and “international conspirators” (read: the World Bank and the IMF), ignoring, claimed the nationalists, Romania’s sovereignty as a state.

For instance, in one such incident, PUNR called for a parliamentary motion and a special prosecutor to investigate the then-Prime Minister, Theodor Stolojan, and the Privatization Minister, Mi?u Negri?oiu, because they had accepted a grant from a foreign donor to attend a seminar on privatization held abroad (the ensuing motion was defeated in Parliament). The actual move was aimed at the donor organization10 but the telling detail here is that such a meaningless allegation could have even been considered – let alone taken seriously – as grounds for a Parliamentary motion designed to prove the guilt of a pro-Hungarian, “cosmopolitan” conspiracy at the helm of the country. By the summer of 1992, the nationalists had become uncontrollable. Their attacks on the government marked a watershed in the virulence of their rhetoric, and also a turning point in the balance of forces between the central authorities and their nationalist creation.

From this moment on (with Funar as the “sorcerer’s apprentice” on the loose in the political arena), the nationalist forces not only started to escape central governmental control, but they became increasingly aware of the power they now started to have over their creators, and of the possibility to hold the government hostage to their extremist policies.

Political Configuration The 1992

In spite of the virulent anti-establishment (and anti-Iliescu) campaign waged by the nationalists, President Iliescu was re-elected in September 1992 by a comfortable margin (61.5 percent) and his party, renamed the Democratic Front for National Salvation (FDSN)11 won a majority of the seats in both Houses of Parliament (27.7 percent in the Lower House, and 28.8 percent in the Senate). Georghe Funar himself got an honorable score, ranking third in the presidential race, with 10.88 percent of the votes, but more importantly, his PUNR was now represented in Parliament with 7.7 percent in each House. Together with the Greater Romania Party (GRP), the other extreme-right ultra- nationalist party, the nationalists were now in the enviable position of being “king-makers” since they held the swing vote. Both parties were very much courted by the Front, and eventually, after being given 4 ministerial portfolios, they were invited in 1995 to sign a protocol binding them to the ruling party. Of course, one can legitimately wonder who binds whom in this alliance since the “ruling party” cannot rule without the nationalists.12

The ascent of the nationalists to the pinnacle of the political establishment is a tribute to their astute use of scare tactics to gain political influence. As mentioned at the beginning, the surprising element about the ethnic tensions is precisely that they did not flare up. The reason is that the nationalist movement, always kept in check from the top down, is now also well-controlled by two party structures and by the Vatra Romaneasca association (whose members generally belong to one of the two extremist parties). In a sense, the “dog that didn’t bark” puzzle proves precisely this point: if Romanians had felt a real threat in Transylvania, a genuine nationalist grass-roots movement would have emerged and regular flare-ups would have been inevitable because the various friction points would have been uncontrollable by the political elite. The reason the alleged Romanian nationalism seems so muted and restrained is precisely because there is not much risk of it erupting, unless such is decided upon by leaders like Funar.

Romania and Moldova: “One Nation, Two States?”

The former Soviet Republic of Moldova (which had declared itself sovereign in 1990) proclaimed its independence on August 27, 1991. It was immediately officially recognized by Romania, yet its newfound independence utterly failed to move the nationalists, who were silent on the issue. Indeed a review in the main nationalist weekly following the recognition failed to even mention the event.13 After an initial pro-Romanian, unionist stand that allowed the former Republic to gain independence and pull away from Moscow, President Snegur moved steadily towards creating a distinct “Moldovan” identity as a means of preserving his state’s independence. Other than the fact that Moscow would not have tolerated reunification, the pro-Romanian forces in Moldova were and continue to be quite weak and limited to the Chisinau intellectual elite, in spite of the fact that almost 65 percent of Moldova’s population is ethnically Romanian.

The surprise is the lack of support for reunification in Romania. This position is somewhat understandable on the part of the Romanian authorities, given the Russophile penchants of President Iliescu.14 The greater surprise is the cold shoulder given to this issue by the nationalist parties, which, after all, claim “Greater Romania” as their objective. Never shy about claiming their own and pretending to unmask conspiracies against Romanian interests, the Romanian nationalists have always been struck by extraordinary restraint when it came to waging an “irredentist” campaign vis-a-vis Moldova. Even during the Moldovan imbroglio in Tiraspol and during its problems with the Gagauz secessionists, the subject was handled with utmost discretion by the nationalist forces in Romania, even during electoral campaigns when, presumably, the issue could have proven popular with many Romanian voters.15

Here is perhaps another example of how politics manipulate (or, in this case, stand in the way of) nationalism: although in Romania, reunification with Moldova was theoretically considered to be a highly desirable electoral platform, few, if any candidates picked it up as a campaign theme. The only “unionist” push came from the Moldovan side, with Mircea Druc, former Moldovan Prime Minister, running for the presidency in… Romania! Although Mircea Druc and his Popular Front in Moldova represented only a minority in the Chisinau Parliament, and had little audience with the population (but for a handful of intellectuals committed to reunification), Druc harbored dreams of single- handedly turning the tide of history. Such de facto “technical” unification had become a Romanian staple in 1859 when two of the Principalities, Wallachia and Moldova, had been brought together in a single state by the simultaneous election of the same Prince, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, to rule over each of the lands. Then, the fact of the same prince ruling over two countries had led to de facto union. Perhaps with this historical symbol in mind, Druc decided to try his chances at winning the Romanian Presidency.16

One vignette from the electoral campaign is enlightening with regards to the nationalist attitude about Druc’s election: Druc chose to run as an independent, although he had originally been extended an offer by the Ecological Party to be their candidate. But it is a telling detail that Druc’s candidacy was not on behalf of one of the nationalist parties, in spite of the obvious logic for them to extend such invitation.17 The fact that a relatively obscure, minor party with no unionist agenda and no nationalist inclinations was ready to take on a symbol that the “nationalist” parties refused is quite indicative of the extent to which the nationalist issue in Romania is driven by politics rather than by “nationalist passion.”18

Judging by the opinion polls, the support for the idea of reunification with Moldova is a fantasy harbored by many Romanians. The fact that Druc only got 2.75 percent of the votes is not necessarily indicative of the interest the Romanian electorate shows in the Moldovan issue, but rather reflects a decision (perhaps a wise one) not to waste one’s vote. Bad electoral showing notwithstanding, given the potential popularity of the issue, the opaque silence of the nationalist parties appears glaringly cynical.


It appears that the Romanian nationalist movement is a political construction with relatively little popular support (judging from its showing in the elections), yet with considerable — and disproportionate — political clout. Not only is the parliamentary presence of the two nationalist parties rather weak (7.7 percent) but their voice would not be heard at all (or, if it were, it would not matter) had the President’s ruling party (PDSR) not decided to enlist their support rather than turning towards the more centrist parties such as the Democratic Party (PD), the Liberals, or the Civic Alliance Party.19Probably because to a large extent the nationalists are at least indirectly its own creation, the ruling party is bound by this alliance as much as it is ideologically and emotionally attached to it. Having repeated the threats of anti-Romanian conspiracy so often, the very authors of the scare- tactics are now starting to believe in their own creation. In spite of this very vociferous nationalist lobby (which greatly contributes to tarnishing Romania’s image abroad), the reason why ethnic tensions have been kept in check so far is that, for better or worse, the politicians very carefully control their movement, and there does not seem to be much of a grassroots nationalist sentiment outside the one designed and calibrated by the nationalist leaders. Opinion polls prove this point. For instance, to the question of how they feel about their Hungarian neighbors, Romanians in Transylvania have a markedly more positive view of the ethnic Hungarian population than those elsewhere in the country.20

In looking back at the original question of Romania’s incompatible positions vis-a- vis nationalism, it seems that Romania can, at least theoretically, accommodate two different types of nationalist ideology, one conservative and one “passive” — one defending the status quo and the other presumably irredentist and ready to claim lost territory . The reason for this position is precisely that the “nationalism” represented by the political parties is a purely instrumental political construction, with little inspiration from reality. As mentioned above, if nationalism were genuine, it could not possibly be as restrained as it has been, for incidents would have flared up spontaneously and uncontrollably. The fact that they have not is testimony to its lack of grassroots support. Quite tellingly, the same opinion poll cited above shows that social problems such as poverty and unemployment are perceived to far outweigh the ethnic issue in both urgency and importance. A staggering 84 percent of Romanians and 76 percent of Hungarians, for instance, perceive Romanian- Hungarian relations to be far less problematic than the need to solve Romania’s lingering economic problems. Yet the reason ethnic issues occupy such considerable space on the political agenda seems to be precisely that economic concerns are so paramount, and yet so wickedly difficult to solve.

So, in conclusion, is Romanian “nationalism,” even if constructed, the result of a double problem, and generating double talk? Yes, the potential double problem is real: the two mutually exclusive doctrines of inviolability of borders and of irredentist territorial claims, could not coexist for long in the real world. If the nationalist movement were the result of genuine popular aspirations, it would make the Romanian situation untenable. Luckily, it is not. Rather, the double talk is that of the nationalist parties who have chosen to create a problem where there should be none, and who, ironically, neglect solving a problem which they may indeed have one day. For in Transylvania, responding to the Hungarian minority claims should not jeopardize the territorial integrity of the Romanian state; the nationalist excitement is clearly overblown. The problem, however, arises with regard to Moldova: if sustained unionist demands are voiced, how is Romania to respond? The restraint shown from all sides so far is indeed to everyone’s credit, but the question remains: can nationalist parties be credible if they are merely “hysterical” and have no sustained national(ist) objectives? Clearly not — but Romania is, of course, better off for it.


  1. Rogers Brubaker, talk at Columbia University, spring 1995.
  2. Consider the anecdote of the Dutch conflict-resolution NGO working in Macedonia, whose members insisted so much on “resolving” existing conflict (in an otherwise peaceful, quiet multi- ethnic village) that they ended up creating the very conflict they had come to dismantle.
  3. The Hungarian-Romanian tension has been recently rekindled, but it is still a muted conflict rather than an overt one.
  4. The city of Cluj is constantly subjected to humiliation on the part of the mayor who tries to tear down statues, take out Hungarian street signs, etc.
  5. This expression is borrowed from Columbia University Professor Jack Snyder.
  6. President Iliescu’s speech, Baile Herculane, August 1994.
  7. The Prut River is the natural border that now divides Moldova in two: Eastern Moldova, which is independent, and Western Moldova, which is Romanian.
  8. At first, the Moldovan political debate favored reunification, especially under Prime Minister Mircea Druc.
  9. Nazism can be seen as a top-down popular movement, but it was from the beginning a political construction.

10.The Soros Foundation, accused of favoring Hungary over Romania because of its founder’s Hungarian background.

11.The FDSN changed names again in 1994 – it is now known as the PDSR (Social Democratic Party of Romania).

12.The alliance broke off in late 1995.

13.Possibly an omission due to printing constraints, although one would expect such “good news” to warrant a call to “stop the presses.”

14.Romania was the first post-communist country to sign a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1991, a treaty which was not ratified by Parliament and became obsolete after the dismantlement of the USSR.

15.Romania did, however, give relief assistance to Moldova on several occasions.

16.Druc was probably aware of his rather slim chances, but the move seems like a last-ditch attempt to force Romanian politicians to take a public stand about the issue, and thus put Moldova back on the map, as it were.

17.This is even more surprising given that the Greater Romania Party (GRP) is an extremist, right- wing, nationalist grouping whose much-touted political platform is precisely the return of Romania to pre-1940 enlarged borders (i.e., including Eastern Moldova and Southern-Dobruja territories relinquished to the Bulgarians).

18.Given that President Iliescu had rushed to be the first to sign a friendship treaty with Moscow after the collapse of Communism, but before the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, it seems obvious that what was most feared in this issue was seeing Romania enter onto a collision course with Russia or the Ukraine.

19. There is strong personal animosity between President Iliescu and his former Prime Minister Petre Roman; the leader of the PD is probably one of the factors against this strategy.

20.IMAS Opinion Poll, quoted in Balkan War Report no. 29 (October/November 1994).

Un comentariu la articolul Romanian Nationalism Double Problem, Double Talk? by Sandra Pralong

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