Rivalries Rob East Europe of Bright Future

Ethnic fights keep the region from establishing a democratic tradition

TRANSYLVANIA'S mountainous terrain conjures a range of feelings, from awe at its natural beauty to foreboding at its untamed appearance.

The region's mysterious qualities provided the backdrop to one of the greatest horror stories ever written, "Dracula." But in an area famous for being the home of a monster, it's not the fictional ghoul that scares some Transylvanians. Instead, locals worry about a threat from the past that just keeps coming back: nationalism.

Communism's collapse ripped the lid off long-suppressed feelings of cultural superiority and interethnic animosity. Such sentiments are now present in most Central and Eastern European nations.

The breakup of Yugoslavia was the first manifestation of nationalism's destructive force. While this example is extreme, nationalism retains the ability to distract the region from its most important tasks - economic and political reforms.

"Nationalism can be the fuse for an explosion," says Michael Shafir, an expert on Central European ethnic- minority issues at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. "And if there's one thing we've learned, it's that whatever else it [Central Europe] may lack, there is no shortage of crazy people."

Transylvania, which lies in Romania but is home to many ethnic Hungarians, is arguably the Central European region most buffeted by ethnic tension. But it is not the only area subjected to such disputes.

In Europe, two high-profile quarrels involve Hungary, which is bickering with Romania and Slovakia over the rights of ethnic Hungarians in those countries.

Russia also has been embroiled in both ethnic and territorial disputes with other former Soviet republics. The Balkan war, meanwhile, stirs discontent and fear in such countries as Albania and Bulgaria.

Many observers say nationalism and ethnic minorities are the most volatile issues connected with Central and Eastern Europe's transition to a market democracy. And the longer it takes for the region to establish democracy, the longer the stability of all of Europe will be in question.

Western leaders are paying attention. In March, President Clinton wrote Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar urging resolution of the ethnic Hungarian issue. "Resolution of potential sources of misunderstanding and tension in Central Europe are of the greatest importance for stability in the region and for the prospects of European integration," he wrote.

Western European nations, led by France and Germany, convened a March conference on stability, during which more than 50 nations committed to negotiated settlements of ethnic and border issues. The West has also made membership for Eastern European nations to NATO and the European Union contingent on the settlement of all ethnic-related disputes.

Such disputes perhaps were understandable after the collapse of European communism in 1989, given that the various ethnic groups have had to live side-by- side for centuries. When totalitarianism gave way, it was often replaced by a yearning among the various nations to reconnect with their precommunist pasts. Yet one nation's historical achievements usually came at the expense of their neighbors.

The desire to right what are seen as historical wrongs has heightened tension. Long-forgotten pacts and acts - including the Treaty of Tartu in 1920, the Trianon Pact of 1920, and Benes Decrees of 1947 - are now being cited as cause for redress, revision, or annulment.

"It's unrealistic to expect Central European countries to forget historical injustice and sweep it under the carpet," says Anna-Maria Biro, a leader of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

In one of the area's most volatile incidents, thousands of ethnic Hungarians protested in the Transylvanian town of Cluj last June, when officials planned to remove the statue of a Hungarian king from the city square. Tension subsided only when officials agreed to leave the statue alone.

While this does not compare to the Yugoslav scenario, "history is a major problem," says Larry Watts, head of the Bucharest office of the project on Ethnic Relations, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to easing ethnic tension.

Economics is another problem, experts and officials say. Reform is proving more difficult than many first thought. "Where there is poverty, there is no democracy, law, or stability," says Ghiorghi Prisacaru, head of the Romanian government's Department of European Integration.

Yet inflammatory rhetoric does not always indicate an actual threat to stability. Russia's often-caustic defense of the rights of ethnic Russians living in other former Soviet republics is one example of an exaggerated threat, some diplomats contend. For example, in April, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev announced Russia was prepared to use force to defend the cause of ethnic Russians.

A top diplomat from Estonia, the Baltic nation that has often tangled with Moscow on ethnic issues, brushed off such statements: "There is really no problem. The Russian minority in Estonia doesn't necessarily demand protection. It's more a political matter within Russia."

But in other cases, including Transylvania, the disputes are explosive. For Transylvania, the Paris Accords of 1947 - which transferred the region from Hungary to Romania - are the source of tension. Since the transfer, the Hungarian minority of 2 million in Romania has struggled to maintain its cultural identity.

The struggle intensified in the post-communist age, as both Hungarians and Romanians strove to restore cultural traditions that had been quashed by totalitarianism. Idealized expectations haven't been met, however. Relations have deteriorated to the point that Ms. Biro characterizes the situation as a "bad marriage." Because of the Transylvanian conflict, Romania and Hungary have yet to finalize a basic treaty that would normalize relations.

"Mistrust is so great that a reconciliation is almost impossible," she says. The two sides are now haggling over a draft-education law. Hungarians say the law would stamp out their cultural identity by restricting the right of the Hungarian minority to be educated in their native language.

Romanian officials counter that the bill meets European standards, and blame separatist agitators for undermining stability and tarnishing Romania's image. "The Hungarian lobby ... distorted the meaning of the [education] law," says Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu.

The Hungarian-Romanian case is difficult because both sides have valid arguments, says Mr. Watts, the ethnic relations specialist. Hungarians have reason to worry about preserving their culture. But it's also natural for Romanians to want the Hungarians to assimilate further, he says.

"All ethnic problems become politicized," he adds, explaining that ethnic Hungarians have become a disciplined political force that aggressively defends minority rights. "Hungarians are interpreting the education law in the worst light, partly because it serves their purposes," he says.

In Brasov, Romania's second-largest city and the gateway to Transylvania, local authorities say a modus vivendi is not beyond reach. But when the issue is handled on the national and international level, common ground is lost in recrimination.

"Everyone here grew up together and understands each other," says Achim Velicea, deputy governor of Brasov prefecture. Asked if both government officials and Hungarian leaders in Bucharest were in touch with the grass-roots situation, he replies: "I think so, but not completely."

Hungarian leaders often aggravate relations with high-profile calls for autonomy, effectively demanding ethnic Hungarian veto power over all national legislation. "We are afraid, so we must present a strong face," says Laszlo Mina, leader of the Brasov chapter of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

"Since 1918, the Jews and the ethnic Germans have mostly disappeared from Romania," Mr. Mina continues. "The next minority on history's schedule is the Hungarian. But I don't want to leave because this is my home."

Hungary has tried to settle the ethnic disputes by negotiating basic treaties with both Romania and Slovakia. But in both cases, nationalist forces have hindered negotiations, opposing clauses that allow for autonomy for ethnic minorities.

Central and Eastern European government leaders are aware that their nations would get a boost from EU membership and that integration with the West hinges on settlement of the ethnic question. But, according to people involved in disputes, many of the countries in question lack the democratic skills to negotiate settlements.

"In Central Europe, bargaining has never been fashionable," says Biro, the DAHR leader. "Compromise has a very negative connotation.... Many associate compromise with surrender."

WESTERN nations and institutions could play a key role in overcoming the region's lack of a demo-cratic tradition. NATO has been successful in preventing conflict between members, namely Greece and Turkey. The EU also has helped turn historical enmity between nations, particularly France and Germany, into fruitful economic relationships.

But Western organizations seem reluctant to reach out to Eastern Europe. Many EU member states are grappling with high unemployment and the need to overhaul outdated social-welfare systems. They aren't in a position to argue for spending vast sums on Central and Eastern Europe.

"In many ways, it is a vicious circle," says ethnic expert Shafir about the Western conundrum. "It would take a crisis [in Central Europe] to get the West to act. But the West's inaction may prompt a crisis."

The ethnic question is so dangerous, Shafir and other experts contend, because it can be easily manipulated by politicians. "Many people can play the national card: extremists, those opposed to change; or those who might want to deflect public attention at home from their own problems," Shafir says. "The scenarios are endless."

*Part 1 of a five-part series on minorities in Europe. Part 2 will appear Aug. 22 and focus on Albania.

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