ETHNIC conflict has been a source of instability, and even war, in continental Europe. It is often cited by those who advocate the continued existence of large military alliances. And perhaps the most frequently used example of ethnic strife has been the potential conflict between Hungary and Romania. But with the collapse of the Ceausescu regime this source of instability should disappear.
The reason for the strained relationship between these Warsaw Pact countries has been the plight of the 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania, a region of Romania that belonged to Hungary from the 10th century till 1920. Then Romania was awarded the territory in the Trianon peace treaty after World War I. The region generated tensions in both countries between the world wars. In 1940 about two-fifths of the land was returned to Hungary. In 1947, however, it was restored to Romania.
Soon after his emergence to power, Ceausescu embarked on ruthless persecution of the ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania through systematic political and economic discrimination. In 1988, drawing international outrage, he began a program which involved bulldozing some 8,000 villages, destroying structures of historical value and forcefully resettling 50,000 ethnic Hungarians. Tensions ran high; the Hungarians called the program genocide.
With its perpetrator out of the picture, this tumultuous history can be left behind. The opportunity for ethnic reconciliation between Romanians and Hungarians is better now than at anytime in their recent histories. The political dynamics of Eastern Europe and the circumstances of the demise of the Romanian regime point in the direction of ethnic harmony as a reservoir of goodwill builds on both sides of Transylvania's border.
With the despotic Romanian regime gone, both ethnic groups are coming to understand that the source of their misery has been communist totalitarianism, not each other. Indeed, the revolution against Ceausescu began as a crowd of Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in the city of Timisoara violently clashed with police in an attempt to block the eviction of Laszlo Toekes, human rights campaigner and the spiritual leader of the Hungarian community living in Transylvania. Mr. Toekes now serves on the Council for National Salvation that's trying to put together an interim government in Romania.
The death sentence given to Ceausescu by the new Romanian leaders cited the crime of genocide, acknowledging the Hungarian minority's experience in having their villages and homes destroyed. Recognizing Hungarian suffering builds trust in the Hungarian community towards the new Romanian government.
The government of Hungary, while expressing dismay over Ceausescu's resettlement plan, did everything it could to avoid even the appearance of making territorial claims on any part of Transylvania or instigating ethnic tension. This policy has the full support of all serious opposition political parties and the population within Hungary.
Since its liberalization during the past year, Hungary has became a desirable destination for Romanians seeking refuge from Ceausescu's repression. The Hungarians have taken great pains in their refugee policies to treat ethnic Hungarians and Romanians equally. In recent days Hungarians took to their streets again to celebrate the freedom of all Romanians, while blood donors queued and hoarded food was donated and trucked across the border to Romanians made homeless by the violence in their country.
For the first time in their long histories, both Hungary and Romania have an opportunity to create free political institutions and market economies, embracing the values of individualism. As the post World War II experience of West Europe demonstrates, the best cures for the 19th century ills of nationalism and inter-ethnic hatred are open borders and individual liberty on all sides.