Friday, April 14, 2006

The Szeklers and the Magyars: A doomed relationship?

When Romania joins the European Union in 2007-2008, it will bring with it one of the largest national minorities in Europe, the roughly one and a half million Magyars of Transylvania. The Magyars are a people whose 20th century history has been defined in reaction to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary after the First World War and the transfer of a quarter of the Kingdom's ethnically Magyar population to other successor states of Austria-Hungary, to what are now the modern nation-states of Slovakia, Serbia, and Romania. After Meciar's post-independence nationalism, Slovakia's Magyars have gained recognition and official status. The situation of the Magyars of Serbia, living in the relatively prosperous northern province of Vojvodina, is more tenuous, aggravated by Serbia's reluctance to leave the criminalized ultranationalism of the past behind. What happens to the Magyars of Transylvania, an old Magyar principality that is even now home to half of the Magyar population in central Europe outside of modern Hungary, is critical.

As it happens, a good chunk of Romania's Magyars seems to be redefining itself as non-Magyar. Recently, the leadership of a population known as the Szeklers, a Magyar-speaking population concentrated in eastern Transylvania that not only retains a distinctive sense of history but is the majority population in a large territory, has agitated for this territory to be made into an autonomous district of Romania to be known as Székelyföld. This failed, not least because of the sensitivities of Romania nationalistst to perceived Magyar expansionism. Already, at least one Internet flamewar has started because of this. What's interesting about this latest crisis in Magyar-Romanian relations is that, as suggested by John Horvath at Telepolis, the call for a Székelyföld has been made despite the Hungarian-Romanian leadership's siding with the Romanian state.

For the past couple of years, a split has emerged within the ethnic Hungarian community in Romania. The Hungarian-Romanian Democratic Alliance (RMDSZ) is the largest ethnic minority party in Romania and used to be considered the de-facto representative of Romania's 2 million ethnic Hungarians. An internal power struggle and disagreement over how best to secure minority rights in Transylvania led to a split within the RMDSZ. One faction, now independent from the main party, favours a more direct approach and direct autonomy; the RMDSZ, meanwhile, favours a more indirect approach and change from within the system.

As a a coalition partner in the present government, the RMDSZ is against the proposed declaration at Szekelyudvarhely, noting that over 16 years of political effort to initiate changed from within is being put to risk. Others, however, point out that after 16 years very little has been achieved by the RMDSZ, and that anything progressive which has been done thus far has been inadequate and usually the result of pressure coming from Brussels under the guise of EU membership, and not the result of the RMDSZ's efforts.

If the Székelyföld became an autonomous district of Romania, perhaps on the model of Catalonia as some have wistfully suggested, the situation for Magyars outside of the Székelyföld would become serious. The Magyars in Slovakia form a coherent majority population in areas close to the Hungarian border, while the Magyars in Vojvodina form another like coherent pocket that could one day become a proposed controversial Hungarian Regional Autonomy. Outside of the Székelyföld, Magyars form a minority vulnerable to assimilation, via individual assimilation, growing Magyar-Romanian intermarriage, and perhaps economic migration to a Hungary steadily advancing into the First World. The Szeklers don't seem to care, not especially. Why? It seems as if, in a democratic Romania where individual rights are generally secure and the Romanian state has to concede minority groups a certain amount of space, the Szeklers don't feel particularly bound to the fate of the Magyars with whom they share a language and the memory of a shared state.

The disassociation of closely related ethnic groups united by some shared features but separated by identities isn't new in central Europe. To Hungary's north, the Czechs and Slovaks have disassociated peacefully despite their cultural similarities; to Hungary's south, the South Slavic peoples of Yugoslavia managed the same task with much more bloodshed. It's rare enough for a minority group to do this, though. The situation bearing the closest similarity to the Szeklers' is that of the Acadians, a Canadian Francophone group concentrated in eastern Canada which traces its origins to a French colony with a separate history from the main French colony in Québec, and which has felt at leisure to distinguish itself from its Québécois neighbours once its fate has been secured by the expansion of official bilingualism. Romania is still far from attaining Canada's debatable level of interethnic peace but it isn't nearly as far as it used to be under Ceaucescu. Assuming that these positive trends continue in the years to come, the split between the Szeklers and the other Magyar-speakers of Romania may only widen, weakening the community's bargaining power at the national level and introducing interesting new dynamics into Hungarian-Romanian state relations. Perhaps ironically, the call for a self-governing Székelyföld might be the thing to do the most for Romanian state unity after the Cold War.


Anonymous said...

You focus on one of the nationality problems in East-Central Europe. Hungarians have the potential of becoming a dominant ethnia but they are passively accepting their dissolution. It is very strange - the ferocious "nem nem soha" Hungarian attitude seems to have disappeared, erradicated by the Communist regime. They dont want to fight anymore, just like the Austrians or the Germans. They want their vacations homes and a modest prosperity.

Dr. Minorka said...

There are serious errors.
"As it happens, a good chunk of Romania's Magyars seems to be redefining itself as non-Magyar."
Wrong! Szeklers are Hungarians. The basis of their drive for territorial autonomy: they are the majority in their counties. Also, there was a Hungarian Autonomous Province, later Maros-Hungarian Autonomous Province, b etween 1952-1968, abolished by the Ceauşescu regime.

Randy said...

I don't disagree with that broadly Hungarian identity. What I was suggesting was that, with the liberalization of the Romanian state removing any need for solidarity, the historical distinctiveness of the Szekler tradition might come to form the basis for a separate ethnic tradition. As the first of your Wikipedia links pointed out, they, along with the Magyars and the Germans, constituted one of the three ruling populations of medieval Transylvania.

Do I think that a Szekler separation is desirable? I honestly don't care one way or the other--it's up to the people involved to determine how they want to identify themselves. They may choose to remain united with the Magyars elsewhere in Transylvania in a common project, or they may choose to forge their own model for territorial autonomy. I freely concede that the likelihood of this may be something I've misjudged, but the possibility does seem to exist.

Dave said...

One very unfortunate thing I find in the issue of Szeklers is what the Romanian press is not well documented and the journalists mislead the Romanian population by spreading hatred.
After World War I., Hungarian culture and human rights have suffered tremendously. Even after the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in 1989, the Hungarians still found themselves pulled down by the extremism in Romanian politics, biased Romanian history books and politically manipulated press releases.
The bad thing is that the Romanian population cannot have clear information about the Hungarians and their values in Romania. The word "Szekler" ("Secui" in Romanian) doesn't mean anything to the Romanian population. Lack of information about Szeklers and the aspirations of Hungarians in general is due to a variety of factors: Romania has known many ethnic conflicts in its past, the details of those atrocities were buried by the authorities; the political "flamability" (extremism is very strong in Romania); the biased press: manipulative and deceptive, defamatory.
In other words, one cannot obtain reliable information about Hungarians or Szeklers from the Romanian press, which literally swims in offensive language and false accusations.
Nevertheless, human rights were never Romania's strong point and the problems will not get resolved by themselves.

Hoosier said...

I will try to write a short history on the matter because I see there is a bit of confusion and despite decrying Romanian nationalism ( which no doubt exists and is as bothersome to me as any other kind of exclusive nationalism) I can detect a lot of Hungarian nationalistic mantras ( a quarter of Magyar population has been transfered to the succesor states").

first the demography. In 2002 Transylvania had 7.2 million inhabitants (out of a total of 21million for the whole country). Out of the 7.2 million people 20% declared themselves of Magyar origin and 75% of Romanian origin. back in 1918 when transylvania became part of Romania the province had 5.2mil people - 57% were Romanians, 27% Magyar, 10% German ( Saxon) and 3% Jews. The first modern census in tarnsylvania was done in 1842 and showed a population of 4.2mil (59% Romanian, 25% Magyar and 12% Saxon).

The Szeklers have some characters that separate them from the rest of Magyars in Romania. They are all Catholics while a majority of the Romanian-Magyars are Protestant. They also have a long history of autonomy during the Middle Ages within the principality of Transylvania and a long history of cooperating with their Moldovan neighbors to the East ( Moldova is Romanian historical principality that included the NE part of actual Romania and the current Republic of Moldova annexed by Russian Empire in 1812).

what goes against their plan is that they number only aprox. 4-500.000 of the 1.5 milion Magyar-speaking Romanian citizens (2002 data) and they live in 3 counties in central Romania - they represent 85-90% of population in the counties of Harghita and Covasna and less than 1/3 of the population of county of Mures/Maros but live compactly on its Eastern side near the Harghita county. The area they live is otherwise surrounded by areas compactly inhabited by Romanians. It is a mountainous area with otherwise poor economy and few natural resources. Their economy is also integrated with the Romanian areas. They will need to get most of their food and energy from the rest of Romania while supplying wood and wood products and very little else.

Transyvania as a whole was indeed an autonomous principality within Hungarian kingdom from 10-11th century until 1526 when the kingdom collapsed to the Ottomans.

there is still debate between Hungarian and Romania historians as to whether Romanians were already present in 10th century when Magyar tribes began pushing from Pannonia into Transylvania. both archeological and literary proof (mainly from Magyar documents) supports the presence of Romanian speaking population( called then Vlachs or Olachs in historical sources) at that time. there is also evidence of compactly Romanian inhabited areas of Transylvania that were ruled by Romanian Orthodox nobility - the Maramures, Fagaras, Apuseni, Salaj, Bistrita-Nasaud, Hunedoara up until 16th century. The Romanian nobility was assimilated mostly after 1526 when Transylvania became an independent principality, as most of Magyar nobility fled Pannonia occupied by the Ottomans and flocked in what is now southern Slovakia and Transylvania.

In 1699 Transylvania became a Habsburg possesion directly governed from Vienna and only in 1866 was included in the revived Hungarian kingdom under Habsburg rule.

in the 13th century the Hungarian kings have also colonised the southern Transylvania with Saxon and Svab immigrants that built seven cities ( the German name for Transylvania being Siebenburgen). at the same time the Szeklars who were regarded then as an associated tribe of the Magyars were settled in the Eastern Transylvania.

The Vlachs formed during the Magyar presence in Transylvania the indentured serv population that worked the land of the Magyar nobility. very likely they were the most numerous ethnic gropu from the very beginning but formed the lower classes so little is told about them. Pockets of free Vlachs remained at the fringes of the province in the mountainous areas and Transylvanian Saxon and Magyar sources document Vlach presence in economic documents. The Saxon prospered mostly by trading with the Vlachs in Moldova and Vallachia where they were given commercial privileges. The Transylvania Vlachs remained Orthodox as their brethren south and east of Transylvania despite the orthodox religion not being recognised officially until 1918.

Throughout the Middle Ages the prices of the Moldova and Vallachia had possesions within Transylvania the same way the English monarchs had possesions in France. ther was also continuos trade between the 3 provinces as well as political cooperation or infighting between the provinces.

Magyar presence in Transylvania has left castles, several cities and overall in 1918 a more developed economy than the other Romanian provinces. their plight is related mostly with the backwardness they were forced into by the union with Romania. and I concede the point. but all this is water under the bridge.

Autonomy of the Szeklers Land is probably historically and culturally justified but economically risky. It is obviously unpopular for the majority of the Romanians, even though it could be overcome by skilfull and likely lenghty negociations.

In my opinion this is largely a futile enterprise as both Romania and Hungary are now EU members and should strive to integrate and get closer. But if the Szeklars believe that is in their best interest to become autonomous they should work toward getting their aim peacefully.

Randy said...

Just for the record, I wasn't attempting to take a particular side in the Transylvania question, for any extremist nationalism. This essay was an attempt to look at an interesting question of ethnic identity, nothing more--all comments are welcome!

Hoosier said...

I think we can all decry the loss of ethnic diversity in Transylvania. This region used to be a lot more diverse than it is today. The German and Jewish populations have all but vanished.

The vibrant pre-1940 urban Jewish communities have been deported by the Magyar authorities to extermination camps between 1940 and 1944. probably tens of thousands of them have been gruesomly killed. of note is that Hungary has ruled between aug 1940 and sept-oct 1944 the Northern and Eastern parts of Transylvania where most of the Jewsih communities were located. While the Jews have been also brutalised and persecuted in Romania during that time there was no deporting of Jews to Germany and no mass-killing have taken place. Actually large numbers of Eastern-European Jews were allowed to transit through Romania and the ones who lived in Romania were allowed to leave it through the Black Sea ports to Palestine via the neutral Turkey.

before 1940 aprox. 760000 Jewish people lived in Romania ( and probably close to half of them were residing in Transylvania). after the war the number has fallen to 420.000. after 1960 most of them have emigrated to Israel and in 1990 only 10000 were counted.

The Transylvania Saxons were also quite numerous in 1930's their number estimated also at 750000. more than 90% of them resided in Transylvania. The ones who had voluntarily joined the Nazis ( a lot of Transylvania Saxons have volunteered to Waffen SS) have withdrawn to Germany in 1944. However, some of them have remained and the 1948 census put their number at around 350000. In the 80's due to economic hardship in Romania and also because West-Germany has subsidised their migration they were allowed to leave. In 1990 only 120.000 were left and their number halfed again by 2002.

I believe Transylvania ( and Romania as a whole) have lost a lot from the mass exodus of these populations that have lived and prospered there for hundreds of years. historical circumstances/tragedies are partly to blame but the main impetus came from the economic distress after 1945. I can not deny a role for Romanian nationalism but all the evidence points for a minor role.

the Magyars and the Szeklars have largely remained and, hopefully, they will find a way to build a good life among the Romanians maintaining at least a bit of the ethnic diversity that has characterised Transylvania during most of its existence.

the economic disparity between Romania and Hungary seems to be closing so there is room for a bit of optimism there.

The point of my posts was that the situation of the Magyar in the countries surrounding Hungary is due mostly to its imperial past. Historically the teritories ruled by Magyars have been ethnically diverse for ages. as long as they were strong enough they could keep it all together. the 19th century has brought a national awakening of these non-Magyar populations. The Slovaks, Romanians, Ukrainians and the Serbs have seceded and joined their conationals. i simpatize with the hurt Hungarian pride but life is life. they were minorities in all these teritories and they have to make peace with this.

Randy said...

I don't disagree that the minority policies of the Kingdom of Hungary were, besides being petty and generally counterproductive, rather short-sighted, and that Hungarian revanchism wasn't a productive force.

Agreed that the gradual closing of the Hungarian-Romanian economic gap is a good thing for both parties, in much the same way as the successful closing of the French-Italian and Swedish-Finnish economic gaps was for those pairs.

Anonymous said...

There is now a very good Secui article in Romanian language:

quite unbiased so the Romanians finally can find out about the Szeklers

Bryce said...

This is a very interesting blog on the demography of the Magyars.

Here is a great website in the Magyar language that might be of interest to you:

Magyar wiki browser

desert said...

WRONG: "As it happens, a good chunk of Romania's Magyars seems to be redefining itself as non-Magyar."

I am Magyar. I am Transilvanian, thus citizen of Romania and over here everyone knows that the Szeklers or Székelys are Hungarians.

There are plenty of good and bad resources on the net, next time document yourself better in the above as well as other questions before posting.

Anonymous said...

As we Szekelys say, the Szekely is Hungarian, but the Hungarian is not Szekely. You can be made a nobleman by the King, but to become a Szekely, you have to be born as a Szekely.
Personally I think that the Szekelys are an ancient Kara-Bulgar Turkic branch with some Alan (Sarmata) mix.

Anonymous said...

I'm Szekler and Hungarian in the same time. Lot of people who declare themselves Romanian today are not truly Romanian. Lot of coming from mixed marriages or diverse non-Romanian background. If could be organised a real census when nobody can be forced or persuaded to hide their identity the Romanian number could drop to 50-60%.
Regarding if in the European Union does it matter the nationality question. Yes I think it does. Otherwise why the Romanian still want to dominate Hungarians(build orthodox churches in ethnic Hungarian territories, fill the local administration with Romanians, force the Hungarian to use their language).
I think for Transylvanian (or Szeklerland) people should be allowed to organise a plebiscit if they want or not to be free (like in Scotland).