On the eve of the Helsinki human-rights anniversary, a provincial Hungarian newspaper gave a brisk stir to the long-smoldering dispute between two communist neighbors and allies over Hungary's big Magyar minority in northern Romania. In a distinct break with the quiet diplomacy through which Hungary has previously pursued the issue, the newspaper published detailed accounts of harassment by Romanian border guards of Hungarians going to visit family and friends in Transylvania, for centuries part of the old Hungarian kingdom and still the habitat of some 2 million ethnic Hungarians.
Naplo (``Diary'') gave instances of ``unreasonable delays'' imposed on Hungarians this summer who were seeking to enter Romania at the crossing point at Artand. Many of the complaints, it was said, were authenticated by people who had been held at the border for nine hours.
Many Hungarians whose baggage contained guidebooks to Transylvania, or Hungarian literary works on the region, indigenous Hungarian newspapers and magazines were refused entry, the newspaper said. Goods intended by the Hungarians as gifts for relatives were often confiscated and sometimes fines were imposed for alleged contraventions of customs regulations. One man was denied entry and fined 2,000 lei ($140 at the official exchange rate) for having a pair of blue jeans and a quantity of plastic bags, al l of which were seized.
Rigorous Romanian controls on visiting Hungarians have been standard practice for many years. Previously, however, the guards seemed to have been satisfied with the confiscation of Hungarian printed material or books by Hungarian writers dealing with Transylvania's complicated historical background.
But since last year Western travelers passing through the Artand border point have noted increasingly arrogant Romanian treatment of the numerous Hungarians who flock to the region each summer.
Through the 1970s, Budapest kept the issue discreetly under the rug in an effort to avert the appearance of an open rift between Soviet-bloc allies. But leading Hungarian intellectuals, in defiance of official taboos, began to write openly on the subject, and this gradually compelled the government to raise the question in a series of tough diplomatic exchanges during official visits in both capitals.
For several years, the Romanians have refused to acknowledge the existence of minorities in Romania, either the Hungarian community (the largest miniority group in Europe) or the Germans, of whom there are several hundred thousand in Romania.
President Nicolae Ceausescu's standard answer is that the minority question has been settled for good -- ``on the basis of Marxism-Leninism'' -- and that his country is a unified one with only Romanians within its borders. Some, he says, are of ethnic German or ethnic Hungarian origin, but nevertheless they are all Romanians.
To this Budapest retorts that Vladimir Lenin's ``nationality policy'' called on the majority within a country to ensure preservation of minority culture and language.
And this, says Budapest, is constantly and increasingly flouted by the Romanian authorities, specifically:
In education, by reducing the number of students allowed to attend Hungarian schools and exposing Hungarian children only to Romanian versions of Transylvanian history.
In jobs, by transfering Hungarians to work in purely Romanian regions and by hiring Romanians in preference to equally qualified Hungarians.
In the news media, by removing Hungarian personnel, who are seen as opponents of censorship and other restraints on Hungarian-language newspapers and television programs.
In 1977, the two countries agreed to open consulates: the Romanian office in Debrecen (not far from the border), and the Hungarian consulate in Cluj, the capital of Transylvania.
But the Romanians closed their mission last year. Earlier they had suspended their participation in a two-way coach service between the two countries. When the Hungarians continued to operate their buses, Romania intervened to halt the service altogether.
Conversations here confirm that the minority is not only a government concern, but a subject of deep feeling on the part of the ordinary Hungarian in the street.