Hungarian refugees spark rare East-bloc row. Citing Romania's mistreatment, ethnic minority flees to homeland

The stories tumble out, told in anguished voices, striking the same tragic theme: Andras recounts how he could not ``study in his mother tongue, Hungarian.''

Dora discloses how police jailed her ``for singing the Hungarian national anthem.''

Anika describes how her Romanian boss ``discriminated against Hungarians, giving them the worst wages, confiscating their ration cards.''

Since the beginning of this year, when the Hungarian government announced it would let them stay, some 10,000 of Romania's 2 million ethnic Hungarians - Europe's largest minority - have fled persecution for their motherland.

Some cross the border illegally without passports. Others have passports valid for 30 days. All leave behind their homes and families.

``The flow gets greater each week,'' says the Rev. Attila Komlos at the Rakosszentmihaly Presbyterian Church, which gives the refugees food, money, and clothes. ``They all just say, `I feel like a second-class citizen in Romania, I didn't want to come, but I can't take it any longer there.'''

More than just another gripping human tragedy, the plight of these Hungarian refugees has erupted into an explosive political problem.

Never before has one communist country accepted refugees from another communist country. Lenin expected that nationalism would disappear with the demise of capitalism, and since the Soviet Union assumed control of Eastern Europe after World War II, disputes about national minorities have been suppressed in secrecy.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) ended this silence, opening the way for an unprecedented public row between two neighboring Warsaw Pact allies.

Hungary broke ranks with the Soviet bloc last year by signing a Western resolution on minority rights at the Vienna Human Rights Conference, and Hungarian Central Committee secretary Matyas Szuros this year publicly denounced Romanian behavior.

``These tensions existed before Gorbachev, but we just didn't talk about them,'' says one Hungarian official close to the Romanian question.

The new frankness threatens to exacerbate a host of problems. Over the centuries, Eastern Europe's myriad mix of antagonistic nationalities caused countless confrontations, uprisings, and wars, and in recent years, the tension over minorities has been renewed in East-bloc nations.

The Hungarian minority issue is particularly poisonous. After World War I when the Versailles Treaty broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, large ethnic Hungarian populations were left in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and above all, Romania. Every third Hungarian has a relative in Transylvania.

As the Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu became more and more repressive, dissidents here mounted a vigorous campaign in defense of their fellow Hungarians. The Democratic Forum, a body created last summer to support open dialogue between citizens and authorities, is more concerned with Hungarian minority problems than with democratic freedoms.

For the communist authorities, the issue is just as potent. Dissatisfaction is mounting over falling living standards, and defending oppressed Hungarians in other nations is an effective way to regain public trust without conceding more dangerous political freedoms.

``When we held a meeting last month about Transylvanian Hungarians, the hall was packed,'' says Zoltan Biro, a Democratic Forum member and former party official. ``Both the radical opposition and the party can agree on this issue.''

The convergence of interest has produced a warm welcome for the newcomers. The Protestant leadership - most refugees are Protestant - have opened up churches as relief centers, while the Hungarian Parliament has voted a $60 million resettlement fund to provide shelter, education, and health services.

``If you asked me what's the most remarkable part of this story, I'd say cooperation between church and state,'' marvels Ferenc Nemeth, Director of the Budapest Refugee Center. ``It's been excellent.''

So far, the refugees have faced few problems fitting in. Most are younger skilled workers, who have found jobs in mines and on building sites. Housing is tighter. There already 40,000 names on a list for apartments in Budapest, so the newcomers must make do with relatives or in spare workers' hostels.

As the exodus continues, difficulties are sure to increase. Dr. Nemeth says that he soon will run out of jobs for newcomers. Once the initial pleasure of escaping wears off, he fears many will become homesick. To punish potential refugees, the Romanians rarely give passports to couples, so most often a father or a mother arrives alone.

``Our greatest problem is divided families,'' says Nemeth. ``We've contacted the Romanian Red Cross about reuniting families, and there's been no response.''

Senior Hungarian officials see little hope for an improvement until Romania's leader is replaced. They fear a massive exodus this summer, and complain that Gorbachev's Soviet Union, with its own acute nationality problems, has refused to mediate. Says one official: ``When we try to bring the issue up at meetings between socialist countries, Gorbachev just tells us its up to the two countries to discuss, debate and solve their own problems.''

Until a solution emerges, the officials advise the refugees with a spouse and children in Romania to think twice about settling in Hungary.

Reverend Komlos recently took the time to comfort a factory worker who, after waiting three years, received his passport and exit papers and left his wife and two children in Romania and simply feels he can't go back.

``It's trouble for the future. But how can I criticize someone who has suffered so much?'' asks Komlos.

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