Longtime Balkan Enemies Seek Friendship

Improved relations between Romania and Hungary are bringing a variety of benefits.

It is a sight that would enrage a Romanian nationalist: Hungary's flag flying from an upper window of the temporary Hungarian consulate in Cluj, the historic capital of Romania's Transylvania region.

Last month, crowds of excited Romanian peasants gathered in front of the building, as well as inside the headquarters of the ethnic Hungarian political party here.

But this wasn't an angry, anti-Hungarian mob, as in the nearby city of Trgu Mures in 1990. Rather, these villagers had come to apply for limited World War II-era pensions being offered by the Hungarian government, which ruled northern Transylvania from 1941 to 1945.

"We're hoping that Hungary will give us money," explained an elderly woman. "But if they don't, well, at least we got to come down to the city."

Romanians and Hungarians are starting to put the past behind them, including this century's territorial annexations and wartime atrocities. While the international community spends billions trying to hold ethnically divided Bosnia together, another historic Balkan flash point is mending itself.

Major challenges remain, but improved relations between Hungary and Romania are already delivering political and economic benefits for Romanian citizens of both ethnic backgrounds.

"The situation has improved a great deal in the past year," says Andrei Marga, rector of Cluj's ethnically mixed Babes-Bolyai University. "People are dealing more constructively with ethnic issues and are more open to multicultural ideals."

Romania's 1.7 million ethnic Hungarians (most of whom live in Transylvania) have gained political clout since the election defeat of former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu one year ago.

While Mr. Iliescu had relied on extreme nationalist parties in parliament, the present center-right coalition includes the ethnic Hungarian political party, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

The tourism minister is an ethnic Hungarian, as are the governors of two Hungarian-majority counties.

Meanwhile, the governments of Romania and Hungary have been mending fences. Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn held talks with his Romanian counterpart Victor Ciorbea during a two-day visit to Romania last month. The presidents and defense ministers of the two countries have also met during the past year.

After the Hungarian consulate in Cluj opened its doors this summer for the first time since 1988, the historic enemies announced plans for new border crossings, train routes, and a Bucharest-Budapest highway linking the two countries.

In Cluj, there's a palpable change in the atmosphere. Bilingual shop signs are everywhere, and Hungarian and German are freely spoken - a sharp contrast from five years ago, when a visitor would use Hungarian discreetly, if at all.

A fractious debate over whether to divide Babes-Bolyai University along ethnic lines also seems to be losing steam.

"All the older [Hungarian] people want to speak only about Hungarian language and Hungarian culture," says graduate student Jnos Orbn, an ethnic Hungarian.

"But the younger generation is interested in French, German, Russian, and all sorts of other cultures. We're not interested in these nationalistic debates," says Mr. Orbn.

By making Hungary a friend rather than a foe, Romania has radically improved its prospects for admission to NATO and closer ties to the European Union. Hungary backs Romania's bid to join the alliance and has already assisted its neighbor in joining the Central European Free Trade Zone, reducing tariffs for trade with five wealthier former Communist neighbors.

Diplomats in Cluj and Bucharest, the Romanian capital, say the moves are helping stabilize the Balkan peninsula by linking it with East Central Europe. "There are still extremists here," one says, "but there just doesn't seem to be much grass-roots interest in what they have to say."

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