“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. gdfxx :
    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.

    Yes! And that’s also what happened in Südtirol/Alto Adige, where Italians mostly from the south were transplanted to cities, towns and villages where the population was all German-spekaing, were given all the government jobs like at the post office and such that caused much conflict (there is more to the story but let’s not get into detail). From my friends who are from Székelyföld I have heard that there were some villages were there have always been Romanians living there alongside the Hungarian majority for centuries and they all pretty much got along, and theses Romanians had conflicts with the newly transplanted Romanians too, not just the Hungarians.

  2. István Aranyosi: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.

    I believe that the rest of the world would disagree with you. First there is the Constitution and/or Basic Law and/or some kind of flag law, which specify what flag is acceptable, where and how you can display it. And what the penalty if you break this law would be.

  3. The amended “Basic Law” will permit the restriction of the autonomy of the universities for financial reasons. It also permits that students can be forced to work in Hungary for an unspecified amount of time if they received any financial support (or loan?) from the government.

    It also bans the homeless. (What about auto da fe against them)

  4. The new amendments further restrict the rights of the Constitutional Court as well.

    ‘If our men do not ask you to examine the constitutionality of part A of a law, only part B, you, the Court are not allowed to examine part A.’

  5. Ron :
    István Aranyosi: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.
    I believe that the rest of the world would disagree with you. First there is the Constitution and/or Basic Law and/or some kind of flag law, which specify what flag is acceptable, where and how you can display it. And what the penalty if you break this law would be.

    Ron, I think both you, and István are correct at some level. While there might not be clear laws around flags internationally (I’ve even had a somewhat difficult time finding the U.S. laws around it, where I live), István is evoking the EU right of self-determination, which sometime conflicts with Romania’s perception of sovereignty. Freedom of expression is another piece to the puzzle. I’ll go back to the U.S. example on this one. It is illegal to burn the U.S. flag, but the Supreme Court has ruled that doing so is part of “free speech”.

  6. Ron: “I believe that the rest of the world would disagree with you. First there is the Constitution and/or Basic Law and/or some kind of flag law, which specify what flag is acceptable, where and how you can display it. And what the penalty if you break this law would be.”

    That doesn’t mean it’s right or civilized. Assume the Hungarian constitution would prevent the use of the Gipsy flag. Wouldn’t you be in favor of changing it?

  7. “Freedom of expression is another piece…”

    “Freedom of expression” is not the issue here. To bring it into debate, to pretend that this is the issue, as Zsolt Nemeth did, is gross political hypocrisy. As some people here may recall, in Harghita and Covasna you can, and you do have, even Horthy-celebrations without any interference from the central Romanian authorities, let alone mere expressing your ethno-cultural Hungarian identity. All places are full of ethnic Hungarians symbols, the language of communication there is Hungarian (Romanians living there have learn the language or leave), the administration and the public institutions are controlled by the ethnic Hungarians.

    The issue here is challenging the state (the Romanian state) by adorning the administration buildings with the well known ‘szekler-autonomy-flag’.
    Nobody in Romania, people and politicians, is that naive so as not to realize what is the message.

    1. Ovidiu :
      “Freedom of expression” is not the issue here. To bring it into debate, to pretend that this is the issue, as Zsolt Nemeth did, is gross political hypocrisy. As some people here may recall, in Harghita and Covasna you can, and you do have, even Horthy-celebrations without any interference from the central Romanian authorities, let alone mere expressing your ethno-cultural Hungarian identity. All places are full of ethnic Hungarians symbols, the language of communication there is Hungarian (Romanians living there have learn the language or leave), the administration and the public institutions are controlled by the ethnic Hungarians.
      The issue here is challenging the state (the Romanian state) by adorning the administration buildings with the well known ‘szekler-autonomy-flag’.
      Nobody in Romania, people and politicians, is that naive so as not to realize what is the message.

      While freedom of expression is usually an individual’s right, it does apply to the collective, too. Would you agree with the point that most of the locals are in favor of this flag? I think the point of contention here is whether the local administrative building should abide by the will of the locals or the central government. And that’s where self-determination comes in. The two notions are related in this case, IMO.

  8. Jano :
    Ron: “I believe that the rest of the world would disagree with you. First there is the Constitution and/or Basic Law and/or some kind of flag law, which specify what flag is acceptable, where and how you can display it. And what the penalty if you break this law would be.”
    That doesn’t mean it’s right or civilized. Assume the Hungarian constitution would prevent the use of the Gipsy flag. Wouldn’t you be in favor of changing it?

    No there needs to be rules and regulation about flags. Otherwise, we could hang up the Romanian flag on top of Hungarian parliament, or British flag or the American flag or in your case the Gypsy flag. This is what I would call the formal rule of the flag.

    As a freedom of speech you can bring any flag you want (in Hungary), exception may be the Nazi flag or the Communist flag. And may be you want to put at up at home.

    As to destruction of the flag in public, I would not know the answer, in some countries the penalty is death and others you are considered a hero.

    I always thought that there was some kind of official thing to do this, which may be deviate from country to country.

  9. Interesting. When I click on this link, at the top is a banner flash ad for the anti-Bajnai campaign
    (Together [with Gyurcsany] they destroyed the country).

  10. Dear Tappanch: it is a coup, and in addition in two months the majority of the constitutional court will be Fidesz appointed. End of story.

    But who cares about the constitution when the utility bills go down? Water, electricity, natural gas and maybe pension will go up? When we finally have a government that dares to stand up against robber capitalsts and foreigners and protect the interests of Hungarians? Why is this a problem? This goverment loves Hungarians, while prevous governments hated Hungarians, Gyurcsány and Bajnai were only happy if they could restrict and introduce austerity programmes to cut pensions and family welfare programmes. Now, that era is over — for good. MSZP and Bajnai are the past. The future is our time, it belongs finally to Hungarians.

    In fact it is now MSZP which is forced to up the ante: they also want tp decrease the bills plus want free higher education. Well, its a bit late isn’t it?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hiUuL5uTKc

    You gotta be smart and think ahead strategically. Ha.

    NOT.

  11. “No there needs to be rules and regulation about flags. Otherwise, we could hang up the Romanian flag on top of Hungarian parliament, or British flag or the American flag or in your case the Gypsy flag. This is what I would call the formal rule of the flag.”

    But that doesn’t need to be restrictive. Every minority should be able to use the flag they choose even on official buildings parallel to the flag of the state.

    On flag burning: It’s just simply primitive and stupid regardless if it’s illegal or not.

  12. Dear Dr Scheppele,

    Is it OK to put things into the “Basic Law” that go against the previous rulings of both the Hungarian Constitutional Court and the European courts?

    ————————–
    @Cicvarek

    My heating bills
    Dec 2012= 1.00*x
    Jan 2013 = 1.35*x
    Feb 2013= 1.97*x

    bill = (fixed charge) + (factor)*(per unit charge)
    Even if both (fixed charge) and (per unit charge) are decreased by 10%, they can write any number in the place of (factor), so the amount of the charge is arbitrary.

  13. Tappancs, the thing with a price decrease like this is that the more you use (the higher the bill), the more you save.

    Not very fair, but certainly looks good in a cold winter.

  14. gmaghera– Would you agree with the point that most of the locals are in favor of this flag ?

    At the verbal-symbolical level I would say that “yes”, they would be in favor. At the level of “really believing” and actually doing something about it the answer is rather “no”.

    There have been many “pro-autonomy” rallies in the last 10 years. The last one was few months ago (just before the general elections) in Sf.Gheorghe/ Szentgyörgy and no more than 1000 people showed up (out of 41 000 Hungarians in the town). It seemed as if there were way more “szekler-autonomy-flags” than people.
    At the booths, RMDSZ- the main Hungarian party which is known for its policy of giving up to the pro-autonomy rhetoric once it joins the Govt. coalition (as it has done for the last 17 years) has got 380 000 votes.
    The competitor of RMDSZ the (Fidesz backed) strong pro-autonomy party, the EMNP-party, a party whose declared purpose was/is the autonomy-issues (and the critique of RMDSZ for its “lack of will” to openly support the autonomy-issues) got only 40 000 votes.

  15. GGo :
    Tappancs, the thing with a price decrease like this is that the more you use (the higher the bill), the more you save.
    Not very fair, but certainly looks good in a cold winter.

    Not quite. There is no meter for (factor), the company can put any number in the formula it likes.

  16. OT (well not totally):

    We’re just watching a movie “Kalandorok” which I got as a Xmas present (with English subtitles for me to learn Hungarian …) which tells the story of three losers in Erdely …

    Starring Rudolf Péter of Üvegtigris fame.

    Unbelievably funny and sad at the same time!

  17. Eva S. Balogh :
    @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.

    I believe that the yellow thing in the flag is supposed to be a star. The shamans of Central Asia decorated their drums with a star and a half moon.

  18. Eva and other Americans good luck with (another) storm. I understand that the state of emergency was declared in Connecticut and two other states.

  19. tappanch :

    GGo :
    Tappancs, the thing with a price decrease like this is that the more you use (the higher the bill), the more you save.
    Not very fair, but certainly looks good in a cold winter.

    Not quite. There is no meter for (factor), the company can put any number in the formula it likes.

    Am I missing something (again)?

    Surely (factor) is the number of units consumed? And this can easily be checked by just looking at the meter.

  20. Ron :

    Eva and other Americans good luck with (another) storm. I understand that the state of emergency was declared in Connecticut and two other states.

    Why not? I’m really getting sick of it. We really should move south. However, for the time being we have electricity and I will set up tomorrow’s blog this afternoon. Just in case.

  21. Sorry to be OT again, but this really sounds like a Hollywood desaster movie:

    “Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency and banned cars from the road beginning at 4 p.m. today as Massachusetts braces for a potentially historic blizzard that could blanket the state with more than 2 feet of snow, whip up winds to 70 miles per hour, and batter the coast with giant waves.”
    http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2013/02/08/national-weather-service-repeats-its-warning-blizzard-coming-blizzard-coming/lu16IdVkHUKvWpeDP5hf9K/story.html

  22. @Paul
    There is NO meter. The company FoTav declares a different (factor) every month. I have no way to reduce (factor), I have no say how much heat they put into the system.

    As a matter of fact, the outside temperature is not cold now, around 0 C, but they heat too strong, as if it were minus 20 C, they waste resources, as usual (we have to pay no matter what). I and tens of thousands like me have to open the windows

  23. Eva S. Balogh :
    @Paul, the “double” occupation of the Hungarian Basin is not a mainstream theory. It was advocated by Gyula Laszlo and it has been discarded by most historians dealing with the period.

    I wasn’t so much thinking of a ‘double occupation’, as multiple movements into the Carpathian Basin over a fairly long period of time.

    The Hungarians raided across the Carpathians for years before Árpád’s invasion, so surely it’s reasonable to assume that some of these raiders liked what they found and settled in the Carpathian Basin well before Árpád arrived. It also seems to me likely that there could have been other, more sizeable, migrations of Hungarians across the mountains before Árpád as well – he was certainly aware of Hungarians already living in the Carpathian Basin.
    There was also a later mass movement of Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin – those left behind after the original migration.

    So, with the likelihood of sizeable groups of Hungarians moving into the Carpathian Basin, both before and after Árpád, surely it can’t be ruled out that one of those groups could have been the people who we now call Szeklers?

    The alternative theory, that the Szeklers are descended from Hungarians from the west/centre of the country posted to the East as border guards, strikes me as a bit too simplistic and implausable (despite the apparent neatness of the meaning of the name ‘ székely’).

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