“The war of the flags”: Diplomatic spat over Szekler territorial autonomy

A few months back I ended one of my posts with a question: How long will the Romanian-Hungarian love affair that Viktor Orbán and  Traian Băsescu initiated back in 2009 last?

In the last few days over 200 articles have appeared in the Hungarian media on the “székely (Szekler) flag.” Before I venture into the tiff over the flag, let’s look at who the Szeklers or székelyek are. The origin of those Hungarians who live in Covasna (Kovászna) and Harghita (Hargita) counties in the eastern part of Transylvania is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the most accepted theory is that they were originally a Turkic group that came along with the other Hungarian tribes to present-day Hungary. They were already Hungarian speaking at the time. Originally they settled in Bihor (Bihar) county around Oradea (Nagyvárad). From there they moved farther east and guarded the eastern regions of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Members of Jobbik parliamentary members holding up the "székely flag

Jobbik parliamentary members holding up the “székely” flag

As for the origin of the flag, it is even murkier. The Székely Nemzeti Tanács (National Council of Szeklers) claims that the design they came up with was inspired by the flag of the only Szekler prince of Transylvania, Mózes Székely (1553-1603). However, the flag attributed to Mózes Székely was not his heraldic flag but a so-called battle flag he received as a gift from Prince Zsigmond Báthori before a battle led and lost by him against the royal Habsburg forces. It was just one of many such flags and was never associated with the Land of the Szeklers. I think one can safely say that this flag is a new symbol for the Szeklers, who are currently demanding territorial autonomy within Romania.

So, what happened that caused a diplomatic spat between Romania and Hungary? Last month the prefects of the two dominantly Hungarian inhabited counties forbade flying the székely flag on private or public buildings. This flag had been displayed in Romania since 2010. László Kövér, speaker of the Hungarian parliament who supports the National Council of Szeklers, ordered the display of the flag on the parliament building in November 2010. In January 2012 the demonstrators of the Peace March demanded, among other things, autonomy for the Land of the Szeklers and carried hundreds of Szekler flags. The demand for Szekler autonomy spread beyond Transylvania and gained increasing support in Hungary.

After the Covasna County Court ruled that the Szekler flag cannot be displayed in Romania a local leader of RMDSZ asked Hungarian mayors to fly the Szekler flag in a display of solidarity. That was on January 18, and ever since one after the other, especially the more radical Fidesz mayors, have obliged. First it was Siófok that displayed the flag, then Budafok, and a few days later District VII, the historic Jewish quarter of Pest. No wonder that a blog writer who lives there made fun of all those Szeklers who inhabit Erzsébetváros.

Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry, attended the ceremony that accompanied the display of the flag at the Budafok City Hall on February 5. There he delivered a speech in which he called the Romanian decision to ban the Szekler flag “symbolic aggression” and urged other mayors to follow suit. He insisted that “the steps Romania has taken lately are contrary to Romanian-Hungarian cooperation, the values of strategic partnership, and the norms of the European Union.”

A day later the Romanian prime minister, Viktor Ponta, answered in kind. Romania will not tolerate any interference in Romania’s domestic affairs. He described Németh’s remarks as “impertinent” and called on Romania’s foreign minister to make a vigorous response to the Hungarian government concerning the issue. Bogdan Aurescu, undersecretary of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, considered Németh’s words to be support for territorial autonomy, which the Romanian constitution forbids.

On the very same day Oszkár Füzes, the Hungarian ambassador, was called into the Romanian Foreign Ministry. During the conversation the Hungarian ambassador apparently said that Hungary supports the display of the Szekler flag in Romania. Moreover, he gave an interview to a Romanian television station where he stated that his country supports the Szeklers’ demand for territorial autonomy and gave a piece of advice to the Romanians: they should change their constitution and make Romania a multi-national state. At this point the Romanian foreign minister threatened Oszkár Füzes, who had gotten into trouble earlier in Romania, with expulsion. He added that even before possible expulsion Füzes will be persona non grata in Bucharest. He expressed his hope that Budapest will be able to keep its ambassador in line; if that effort is unsuccessful, “his mandate in the Romanian capital will be short-lived.”

János Mártonyi came to the rescue of his ambassador in Bucharest: “Oszkár Füzes did not say anything on the question of Szekler autonomy that would be different from the opinion of the Hungarian government.” Hungary’s position hasn’t changed with respect of Szekler autonomy in twenty-two years. He added that “we were not the ones who started the war of the flags.'” Zsolt Németh also put in his two cents’ worth, saying that “they are ready to negotiate but the solution is in the hands of Romania.”

RMDSZ, a much more moderate Hungarian party than either Fidesz or the Szeklers’ Magyar Polgári Párt, looked upon all this with trepidation. According to György Frunda, adviser to Viktor Ponta, this “diplomatic scandal” hurts the Hungarian community in Romania. Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ, considered Zsolt Németh’s words inflammatory, adding that the fate of the Szekler flag is not in the hands of Hungarian politicians.

Today János Martonyi phoned the Romanian foreign minister, Titus Corlăţean. From what we can learn from the Hungarian news agency’s report, the two agreed to disagree. But “the negotiating partners concluded that the lessening of tensions is mutually desirable.” They will continue negotiations and “they count on the contribution of the diplomatic corps.” So, it seems that Romanian-Hungarian relations are currently so bad that the conflict needs the mediation of outsiders. It sure doesn’t sound too promising.

79 comments

  1. It’s really very disturbing all this involvement of Fidesz in affairs of the magyars and székelys in Transylvania. They are making things worse for them. On the other hand, we are talking about a flag: a flag that isn’t and never was the official flag of a country or county or town. So why are the Romanians upset? The idea of Székely automony is not new. It’s frustrating to see, once again, how people don’t look around a bit elsewhere to see how other countries have sorted out similar issues, like Alto Adige/Südtirol in Italy. (By the way, they have their own official flag) I could also bring up Quebec as a distinct society within Canada (but let’s not even talk about the language laws…… )

    View Comment
  2. Oszkár Füzes is a weird guy. He was correspondent of Népszabadság (the most popular, though struggling left-leaning daily), no less, in the US a couple of years ago. Yet now he is ambassador in Bucharest, a rather sensitive post for Hungarian diplomats (although I am not sure if there was a huge competition). No CV of Mr. Füzes is available, his backgroud seems rather misterious. But the interesting thing is how he got to be a Fidesz-trusted functionary? In normal circumstances a Nepszabi connection means a complete no-go for Fidesz, well, unless he has proven his absolute loyalty in one way or another. You may guess.

    View Comment
  3. Close to one fifth of the population of Romania is non-Romanian in ethnicity and language use. Thus the assertion that Romania is a unitary state, none of which exist on the European continent, is at best wishful nationalist thinking. There are over thirty autonomous regions on the continent of Europe and each is accepted by the EU. More are in the offing. The call for autonomy in Transylvania is not unusual and in the minds of many long overdue.
    The Szekler flag is a flag of a community domiciled in Romania, thus the charge that it is foreign, does not merit serious consideration. The Romanian Constitution accepts and protects the symbols of its minorities. The whole ‘flag issue’ is a question of tolerance and acceptance of European norms.

    View Comment
  4. Unfortunately, the whole story is a bit more complicated. First, the Romanians (as always) are stupidly doing a lot of mess out of this. The political battle in this country is still going on, and remember that president Basescu has lately posed as a good friend of ethnic Hungarians (when the Government tried to impeach him, he called the Hungarians from Harghita and Covasna not to go to vote, and this was politically used by present government parties to raise nationalistic conflicts). Since almost 75% of Romanians voted three months ago against Basescu (well, more specifically against his party), and since Hungarian ethnics are seen as those who helped him keeping his chair, ethnic Hungarians are politically situated in a temporary bad perspective. On the other hand, ‘taliban’ Hungarian ethnic politicians are fighting a cruel battle with ‘taliban’ Romanian ethnic politicians regarding the future change of the constitution: ethnic Hungarians want to throw away the idea of a ‘national state’, while ethnic Romanians don’t even want to take this into consideration. As a scholar in political theory, all this nationalistic feelings really make me throw up. I do not see very soon a happy ending to all these – as long as ethnic Romanians still have Corneliu Vadim Tudor and as long as ethnic Hungarians still have Laszlo Tokes nothing good is going to get out of this. However, this international conflict around a simple flag shows exactly what all political and social scientists are saying for a long time: in times of crisis, stupid nationalistic feelings get inflated. I do not see a very quick ending to all these – and if Catalonia is going to make the move everyone fears, then there will be a lot of mess all around Europe – Székely Land included.

    View Comment
  5. An :
    @Mutt: Today’s post reminded me of this Eddie Izzard piece, too. Never underestimate the importance of flags!

    Daft as it may seem, people do get very worked up about flags. We only have to look at the US to see this, where the flag is practically worshipped. One of the nice things about living in the UK is that we don’t take our flag too seriously (it’s used on everything from knickers to cars), but I’ve been on demos where the Israeli and US flags have been burnt and that is quite a disturbing thing to watch.

    On a lighter note – I was wondering if anyone would even notice if Debrecen flew the Szekler flag, as the Debrecen flag itself is horizontal bands of yellow and blue!

    View Comment
  6. Csopi :
    Oszkár Füzes is a weird guy. He was correspondent of Népszabadság (the most popular, though struggling left-leaning daily), no less, in the US a couple of years ago. Yet now he is ambassador in Bucharest, a rather sensitive post for Hungarian diplomats (although I am not sure if there was a huge competition). No CV of Mr. Füzes is available, his backgroud seems rather misterious. But the interesting thing is how he got to be a Fidesz-trusted functionary? In normal circumstances a Nepszabi connection means a complete no-go for Fidesz, well, unless he has proven his absolute loyalty in one way or another. You may guess.

    This is what I found regarding him on Origo in 2008.
    http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20080804-karrierdiplomatak-mellett-minden-orszagban-vannak-politikai-kinevezettek.html

    View Comment
  7. This is yet another situation where I don’t understand the ‘logic’ of the Orbán ‘government’.

    Given the history of relations between Romania and Hungary, and they way most people tend to react in this sort of situation (I might have been going to do it anyway, but now that you’re telling me to do it, it’s the last thing I’m going to do), the very worst way of helping the Szekler community towards autonomy would be for Hungary to start trying to force the Romanian government to give it autonomy (or anything).

    So, either Orbán really is that stupid and hasn’t learnt any lessons from history, or he’s up to something else. And that ‘something else’ is almost certainly using the Szekler situation to his own ends.

    View Comment
  8. “After the Covasna County Court ruled that the Szekler flag cannot be displayed in Romania”

    Hi, Eva.

    The flag is not forbidden, that’s how Zsolt Nemeth strategically “misunderstood” the issue.
    It it is allowed, is has been allowed and it has been used during all sorts of political and cultural meetings in the last 5-10 years.

    What is forbidden, the whole issue here, is its display on official-state-administrative buildings (mayor office, county chief). On such buildings the Romanian law says that only Romania’s flag and EU’s flag can be put (and NATO in some situations, military units, etc).

    This Szekeler-flag has become associated in the eyes of the public opinion with the szeklerland-autonomy initiatives and its display on official buildings is not only illegal (any other flag would be) but is also understood as a challenge to the state.

    View Comment
  9. “The origin of those Hungarians who live in Covasna (Kovászna) and Harghita (Hargita) counties in the eastern part of Transylvania is shrouded in mystery.”

    Mystery indeed. From what I’ve read, the academic opinion tends towards the idea that the original Szeklers established themselves in what is now Romania some time before the ‘main body’ of the Hungarians arrived in the Carpathian Basin. (And they probably weren’t the only Hungarian communities already established in ‘Hungary’.)

    The relationship between the main part of Hungary and the Szeklers has always struck me as one of the weak points of the whole post-Trianon ‘story’. The assumption is always that the Szeklers were part of Hungary and Trianon separated them, but their history is actually one of fairly continuous separation from the main part of the Hungarian settlement throughout Hungarian history.

    That is not to argue that their plight isn’t serious and shouldn’t be the concern of their fellow Hungarians, but I doubt that being thought of as ‘part of Hungary’ (especially for purely political, opportunist, reasons) is going to help them. And I suspect that those doubts are also shared by a considerable number of the Szeklers themselves.

    View Comment
  10. Ovidiu :
    “After the Covasna County Court ruled that the Szekler flag cannot be displayed in Romania”
    Hi, Eva.
    The flag is not forbidden, that’s how Zsolt Nemeth strategically “misunderstood” the issue.
    It it is allowed, is has been allowed and it has been used during all sorts of political and cultural meetings in the last 5-10 years.
    What is forbidden, the whole issue here, is its display on official-state-administrative buildings (mayor office, county chief). On such buildings the Romanian law says that only Romania’s flag and EU’s flag can be put (and NATO in some situations, military units, etc).
    This Szekeler-flag has become associated in the eyes of the public opinion with the szeklerland-autonomy initiatives and its display on official buildings is not only illegal (any other flag would be) but is also understood as a challenge to the state.

    Hi Ovidiu (I think I know you from another WordPress blog),

    My understanding is that the law is somewhat unclear (from adevarul.ro). Another article I read from the same site says that it is legal, and it was deemed legal by an ethnic romanian judege. It’s confusing to me.

    Cheers

    View Comment
  11. Hi gmaghera,

    What was deemed legal was the “county-flag” for the Covasna county.

    The county-flag is not the Szekler-flag of which Eva talks, that flag is this one :

    http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/ro-cv.html

    Even this one would not still not be allowed to be put on the buildings, the text of the sentence allows that county-flag be used “used at ceremonies”. Which is not big deal since even Hungary’s flag (Hunagrian minority ethnic symbol) can be legally put on public-buildings on special occasions as 15 March celebrations, cultural-events, etc.

    The conflict started in Covasna because the president of county-councils (Tamas Sandor) and the mayor of Sf.Gheorghe/Szentgyörgy town (Antal Arapd) decided to put the politically-charged “Szekler-flag” on the public building on a permanent basis and refused to requests of the prefect to remove it..eventually it escalated

    View Comment
  12. Andrei,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment, but I couldn’t help myself cringe at the comparison between Vadim Tudor si Tokes Laszlo. There might be some parallels between the two, especially in how they are perceived by the other ethnicity, but Vadim Tudor’s excesses (using derogatory terms, flying off the handle in public, etc.), are hard to match. He can sometime behave very uncivilized which does not stand for Tokes, as far as I know. (I’ve personally met Tokes, interviewing him for a Romanian language high-school newspaper in early 1990 and he seemed very calm and collected. That’s not really what I’m basing my opinion on though).

    But you’re absolutely right about nationalistic ‘taliban’ politicians being present on the Hungarian side as well. I blame both sides. Someday hopefully we’ll get past all of this nationalistic crap.

    View Comment
  13. Hi gmaghera,
    I do agree that the comparison between Vadim Tudor and Tokes Laszlo is not quite common – and maybe not entirely true (maybe that between Vadim Tudor and Gabor Vona is better). However, my comparison does not relate to the two personalities as a whole – of course nobody can find another Vadim Tudor (fortunately!). I was only pointing to the fact that unfortunately both individuals took a very extremist side here: Tokes, with ‘territorial autonomy or else!’, and Vadim, with… anything else! I think that even some form of autonomy (even a federation like in Germany, why not!) can only be discussed by reasonable persons who can use a milder tone.

    View Comment
  14. That the origins of Szeklers are murky, or that the flag is not old enough, are totally irrelevant here; frankly, I don’t see what the analytical role of these claims by the author of the blog is, if any. It is also irrelevant that FIDESZ politicians said what they said, rather than anyone else. What is relevant is the following:

    (1) the Romanian state, as embodied in institutions and laws, like any other nation-state, is an ethnic state; in our particular case the ethnic group that monopolizes its symbols is Romanians,

    (2) it has clearly been shown in political theory and political philosophy starting early 1990s (see for instance the work of Will Kymlicka, among many others) that even the Liberal notion of a neutral state leads, in practice, to effective ethnically based nation-states, where one ethnic group monopolizes language and symbols of the state,

    (3) Romania is an ethnic-nation-state on paper (e.g. the constitution), but in reality it is not, and this creates the tension, whose easing will bring you two options:

    (a) pluralize the language and symbols all the way up to the highest levels of administration (two official languages of the state, two languages used in the national assembly, two flags or one flag containing both types of symbols, even change the name “Romania” to something that does not have ethnic connotations),

    (b) allow as much local autonomy as possible wherever the minority culture resides (so, two languages in the local administration and courts, two types of flags on all local public buildings, etc.).

    Admittedly, option (a) is extremely hard to implement, so option (b) is what we find in places like South Tyrol.

    Returning to our particular case, when a newly appointed state representative in the territory (the prefect) has as his first ruling to remove the Szekler flag from the state buildings, that is quite insolent and, indeed, a symbolic aggression against the local ethno-cultural community. One might also ask: why these prefects are always ethnic Romanians, without exception, and usually sent from the center (Bucharest)?

    To reiterate my opening point, even if the Szekler flag has been created just 5 minutes ago, if the Szeklers chose it as their symbol, the state has to accept it and give it due respect, if indeed the Romanian state is able at all to catch up with the civilized world, which I very much doubt.

    View Comment
  15. István Aranyosi :
    One might also ask: why these prefects are always ethnic Romanians, without exception, and usually sent from the center (Bucharest)?

    Because they aren’t. The former prefect was Gyorgy Ervin (from RMDSZ). He was replaced after the PDL-RMDSZ govt. coalition fell in March 2012.
    If I recally correctly Ervin, had been prefect for 3 years when he was removed.

    The Hungarian prefect Ervin also ended up suing Tamas Sandor in 2011 for because Tamas was refusing to reproduce Romania’s state symbols (coat of arms-seal) on the official documents of the County-Council.

    They are/have been a lot, dozens, of such “mistakes” of the Covasna administration and the new prefect tried have them fixed. But of course they were/are mistakes on purpose, challenging the state in the area.

    View Comment
  16. @Ovidiu re county flags. Yes, I read about this Transylvanian custom of having specific flags for counties. Interesting. Originally I wanted to add a few pictures of different coats of arms but I couldn’t quite justify their inclusion. Transylvania has a coat of arms that can be actually found in the coat of arms of Romania. In that one can see the sun and the half moon that is also depicted in this “new-old” flag the National Szekler Council came up with.

    View Comment
  17. On a related note, here’s an excellent article that appeared in The New York Times a couple of days ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/sports/in-romanias-top-hockey-team-ethnic-hungarians-find-a-strong-voice.html?_r=0

    As far as the flag story is concerned, even educated Rumanians admit that there’s nothing wrong with flying the Székely flag on public and private buildings. For example, the journalist Lucian Mindruta – who lives in Bucharest and has no Hungarian ties, apparently – posted an image of the flag on his Facebook page in solidarity, adding that “today, I’m a Székely too.”

    View Comment
  18. You miss an inportant point. Romania is a multiethnic country one of the last in Europe. I am not talking about the immigrants in France or UK or Bulgaria with two groups, but where various linguistic and ethnic identities live side by side. True, this multiculturalism is much weaker than it was 30 or 100 years ago, but the fact is that Romania still has a number of separate and smaller ethnical identities, a bit like those existing back in Austria-Hungary (an empire, as opposed to a nation state). This richness, multilingutstic tradition is in itself a strength of Romania, and a homogeity (romas are a bit different issue, but they tend to live separately from the majority) of Hungary makes Hungary poorer.

    View Comment
  19. Eva S. Balogh :
    @one can see the sun and the half moon that is also depicted in this “new-old” flag the National Szekler Council came up with.

    The “half-moon and sun” symbol has also been present (since 14th century) on the coat of arms of Wallachia and also on that of Moldavia. Thus on the present coat-of-arms of Romania it can be seen no less than three times (Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia provinces, but not on that of Banat and Dobrogea)
    The symbol is the symbol of the old-Turkish people (Cumans, Pechenegs et al. used it). some Turkish tribes/populations from Central Asia still use it today.

    It is a mystery why it is present on that of Wallachia and Moldavia but the name of first ruler of Wallachia was Basarab (which means in the old Turkish languages: Father-Ruler/Basar-Aba)

    While Basarab was recognized at that time as being a Walach/Romanian by the king of Hungary at that time (“Basarab infidelis Olahus noster” -as Louis Anjou was calling him in a document of the time) some speculate that he was a bona-fide Turkish fellow.

    View Comment
  20. Tyrker :
    … even educated Rumanians admit that there’s nothing wrong with flying the Székely flag on public and private buildings. For example, the journalist Lucian Mindruta

    Romanians are not an 100%-monolithic-block. You can even find Romanians who are skeptical about the claim that Mary gave birth yet she was virgin, but the rest 99.96 % of them declare that they are Christian-true-believers.

    In Romania there aren’t many who don’t get the meaning of this “game of the flag” which is played on the public buildings in the Hungarian dominated Szekely-area.
    And the the polls have shown, repeatedly over the last 10 years, that the overwhelming majority of the Romanians oppose the autonomy projects of the Hungarian minority.
    It would be suicidal for any politician to support these initiatives and, in fact, in the last 10 years there has been no practical advance on this issue. It has been, and it still is, mere talk and demagogy … because symbolic posturing (as this one with flags) is something easy-cheap to do.
    But there is also a lot danger too in this game since the Romanians perceive it as a challenge to “their” country. The intellectuals, as Mandruta and others, and some realize the danger and intervene do play down, calm down, something which everybody in Romania knows that it escalate in a Yugoslavia-like ethnic confrontation in Transylvania.

    Yet some other part of the media tries to ignite the issue, it is the part which is associated with old corrupt elite which now feels the the (EU backed) justice system in Romania has started working in the last few years and are really fearful for they liberty. This part of the elite (elite in the economic-politic sense, not intellectual elite) wants to ignite again the Romanian nationalism and an anti-EU process..not because they would be really nationalists but because Romania’s EU membership has started to interfere with their illegal and corrupt activities.

    View Comment
  21. I would add to the analysis (which I think is very good) of Ovidiu in #28 that the policy of transplanting ethnic Romanians during the Ceausescu era (and even before) into Transylvanian cities previously almost exclusively inhabited by Hungarians led to a few generations of Romanians in these cities who feel insecure and express this by supporting extremist view like those of Funar or Vadim Tudor. They interpret any event like this flag brouhaha as a potential attack on their presence there. I also think that there are some (should I call them naive or what?) Hungarians who still think that this is reversible.

    In my opinion it will take much more time, education and open discussion to eliminate this very harmful phenomenon.

    View Comment

Comments are closed.