Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Ms. Livia Plaks
Executive Director - Project on Ethnic Relations


Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to brief you today on Romania and its largest minorities. A profound change has occurred over the past decade in Romania. From presidents to members of a variety of parties, political leaders within Romania have assumed a discourse that would have been unimaginable a mere decade ago--this, the result of a decade of increasingly deliberate, persistent, and open dialogue. People of divergent political persuasions have participated in order to create a national, albeit imperfect, consensus on issues of national importance, such as improving ethnic relations in Romania. The international community has played a pivotal role (including my organization, the Project on Ethnic Relations) in this effort. But most critical has been the dedication exhibited by Romania's political leadership. Indeed, concrete changes that have taken place at the local level are the most meaningful, largely because Romania's people want to feel secure and to live in peace. But in order to strengthen democracy in the country and build upon its hard-won gains, Romania must follow through both on what it has accomplished, and that which it has pledged to accomplish in the future.

The Complex Relationship with the Hungarian Minority

The relationship between Romania's ethnic majority and ethnic Hungarian minority has seen a complex post-communist history. A long time has passed it seems, since the interethnic violence of March 1990 until the present day participation of the ethnic Hungarian political leaders in the country's political scene.

After the fall of Communism and a brief period of euphoria, the political leaders of the two communities barely spoke to one another. The Romanian majority suspected the ethnic Hungarians of disloyalty and separatism, and the Hungarians considered themselves, with their distinct culture, oppressed by the Romanian majority and government. Today, a politically sophisticated set of ethnic agreements has been developed, unique in the region, which confers particular benefits on the Hungarian minority while improving Romania's image abroad. This is due to a great extent to a decision taken by the Hungarian minority's leadership that participation, rather than confrontation should be their preferred approach. For this reason, the Hungarian minority sent its leaders after the revolution of 1989 to represent them in Parliament, and starting in 1996, within the governing coalition. After the elections of 2000 however, which brought the Party of Social Democracy (PSD--formerly PDSR) into power, the Hungarian minority, represented by the UDMR (Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania), decided once again to join the opposition, feeling that the PSD was unsympathetic to their aspirations. After a brief period of time however, the PSD appeared to change their attitude toward the UDMR and in 2001 entered the first of three consecutive Protocols of Understanding with the Alliance. Indeed, the leadership of the UDMR believes that the Alliance is no longer perceived only as an ethnic party. Rather, the Hungarian minority has come to be seen as part and parcel of the population at large; the problems it faces are similar to those of the majority population.

During the past three years, through three consecutive Protocols of Understanding between the ruling party and the UDMR, the Hungarian minority in Romania has made significant gains. With the passing of the Law on Local Public Administration in 2002, communities with minority populations of over 20 percent have obtained the right to have bi-lingual signs, as well as the use of their mother tongue in administrative matters. Recently, the use of the mother tongue has been expanded to the judicial system. In addition, the Hungarian minority has secured the return of a large number of schools to the community to be used exclusively by Hungarian pupils with education at all levels in Hungarian. A small percentage of church properties have now been returned to the Hungarian community, although more needs to be done in this matter. Moreover, the Protocol of Understanding between PSD and UDMR has been negotiated at the local levels in many counties, mostly in Transylvania.

Such gains notwithstanding, the debates continue. Recently adopted changes to Romania's Constitution have brought major disputes to the fore. Hungarians would like to see Article 1 of the Constitution that describes Romania as a national state be changed recognizing the existence of minorities. In addition, as part of the 2003 Protocol of Understanding between PSD and UDMR, Hungarians expect further changes in the education system at the well-known Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj which would further the education in Hungarian of the students of that ethnicity.

Symbols have always played a significant role in the relations between Romanians and the ethnic Hungarians in Romania. The latest issue concerns the construction of a Liberty Statue in the city of Arad, commemorating 13 Hungarian generals killed during the revolutions of 1848. Although accepted by the leaderships of the two political parties, the project was rejected last minute by members of the Ministry of Culture and has become the topic of heated debates between both ethnicities.

Both UDMR and PSD have undergone changes and splits within their parties. Whether this is due to the stress associated with the cooperation between the two parties of which not everyone approves, or due to other causes, Romania's ruling party, as well as the party of the Hungarian minority, now contain a larger segment of individuals who proclaim nationalist tendencies than one year ago. The demands of the so-called Hungarian "reformers" include a desire for territorial autonomy, dual citizenship with Hungary, and other such issues which not surprisingly have evoked a strong counter-reaction from the Romanian side, both from PSD as well as the other political parties, particularly the Greater Romania Party, which is still a major presence on the political scene. On the other side, members of the PRM (Greater Romania Party) have once again issued their demand that the UDMR be excluded from Parliament.

Many of these disputes have revived issues that traditionally appear just prior to elections. Although Romania will not have national elections before the end of 2004, local elections will take place soon and the election campaign seems to have started with nationalist rhetoric once again. We hope that the rhetoric will be toned down and that reasonable leadership will prevail.

The Challenges Faced by the Romani Minority

It is ironic that the party that has done the most to advance the rights of the Roma in Romania--the Party of Social Democracy now has to confront the most difficult problems regarding this minority, including a continuously racist attitude and discriminatory feelings from the majority population toward them.

The question arises whether the problems associated with the Roma in Romania today are so overwhelming that present strategies are inapplicable, or whether the Government Strategy for the Improvement of the Situation of the Roma in Romania is not being carried out as it should be? Developed in cooperation with Romani NGOs, the ambitious Strategy includes a four-year action plan as well as ten-year action directives.

According to the Government, the Strategy is on track with some minor delays. To be sure, efforts are indeed being undertaken to implement the Strategy. Yet serious challenges remain in the fields of health, education and social security. What has the Strategy accomplished? Perhaps most importantly it has encouraged the creation of an infrastructure designed to handle Romani issues. Started at the national level (monitoring bodies, inter-ministerial commissions), efforts were later undertaken at the local level including the designation of Romani experts assigned to the offices of county Prefects, the hiring of Romani councilors in some mayor's offices, and the formation of county commissions designed to improve the situation of the Roma in every field.

While the year 2001 was dedicated entirely to building up this infrastructure, no funds were allocated for the Strategy. Moreover, what was clearly needed was the development of a qualified group of individuals to handle the Romani issues inside the public administration structures. Regrettably, however, Romani experts were appointed after consultations with a single Romani political organization, the Roma Party (Partida Romilor). Consequently, the "expertise" and certainly the representativeness of these appointed persons have been called into question. Training of these experts took considerable time and was not executed in an efficient manner. The designation of Romani experts could be the key element of the Strategy's implementation, but these experts must serve party interests first and the Prefect's interests second. These do not necessarily coincide with the interests of the Romani community as a whole.

The year 2002 has aptly demonstrated that without funding, the Strategy will fail. Governmental representatives quickly recognized the NGO sector as a valuable resource, both for funding and human capital. Therefore, the infrastructure built to implement the Strategy focused on establishing new partnerships in order to accomplish the Strategy's goals for 2002. The Government allocated some funds, mostly through the budgets of various ministries, yet the lion's share of funding came from the European Union, for example, the PHARE funds.

Various changes in legislation were also made and new laws adopted to influence either directly or indirectly the situation of the Roma in Romania. The law against all forms of discrimination was adopted in order to combat among others, discrimination against the Roma. In addition, the law for guaranteed minimum income (not meant exclusively to help the Roma) brought temporary aid to many Romani families in the country. In order to gain direct access to Romani communities, school and health mediators have been trained and are working with the communities. A law was also adopted to give land to Romani persons. Each year approximately 200 Roma obtain a workplace. Additionally, a law against social marginalization was also adopted. A new generation of young Roma has completed their academic studies and is now poised to assist their communities.

In short, both an infrastructure and limited human resources exist to help meet this challenge. Legislation is adequate and in accordance with international laws in this field.

Where then are the problems? In short, the Government has devoted an insufficient amount of funding to the Strategy's implementation. In addition, local elected authorities continue to try to expel Romani residents from their communities at the behest of the majority population. The educational system at the local level is woefully lacking and the special needs of Romani children are not being met. Low levels of education preclude the Roma from taking advantage of employment opportunities thus perpetuating negative stereotypes and discrimination against the Romani community. The country's high unemployment rate also contributes to its poor social conditions and health, underpinning an increasing rate of criminality.

The rising number of hopeless Romani persons should worry Romania's mainstream society. Indeed, ever-increasing violent outbursts threaten the entire society in Romania. There is a fear among experts and observers alike that the tragic attacks of the early 90s, whereby the Roma were viciously targeted by the majority population, could recur. This social inequality could cause new interethnic conflicts in Romania.

In order to avoid this possibly explosive situation, a professional evaluation of the Strategy's implementation thus far is critical. We must determine both, what was successful and what failed and then discern the causes for these successes and failures. Education may be the key element to solving most of the problems of the Roma. However, this takes time and time is running short. Therefore, alternative methods must be sought. Cooperation among Romani leaders is essential in order to fashion a true partnership with the authorities, yet this is almost non-existent at this time. (It is important to underscore however, that a protocol of cooperation exists between the government and the principal Romani political party). A high level of flexibility on the part of the authorities in addressing Romani issues is also needed, yet this too is virtually non-existent.

The media must also be part of the solution. Indeed, there has been a marked deterioration in the way the Roma are portrayed in the Romanian media. They are represented either as criminals, or as misfits that soil Romania's reputation abroad. The perpetuation of such stereotypes has led to several instances whereby villagers have taken the law into their own hands and decided to punish Romani individuals perceived as guilty of misdeeds.

Discrimination and prejudice against the Roma should be fought assiduously with every available means. Finally, the international community should accept the Romani issue as a common problem and not try to isolate it as a regional problem. More than chastisement, those countries of Central-Southeastern Europe with large Romani populations need encouragement.

The country-to-country situation as regards interethnic relations varies considerably throughout Central-Southeastern Europe. In spite of the challenges that Romania faces with its two largest minorities, few countries have come as far on this front as Romania. With the prospect of NATO and EU membership and the newly strengthened relationship with the United States, Romania must realize that there can be no backsliding with respect to reforms on all fronts. Indeed, Romania has a unique opportunity to serve as a positive example of ethnic understanding and progress in the region.