The Friends You Keep

basescu orban szorolap

Campaign leaflet showing Băsescu (left) shaking hands with Orbán at 2009 Tusványos Summer University.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and President Traian Băsescu of Romania were until not long ago noted for the excellent relationship they maintained in spite of being the leaders of countries that have had a long history of conflict over the issue of national minorities and the mutually coveted region of Transylvania. President Băsescu attended the heavily Fidesz-patronized Tusványos Summer University and Student Camp (Tusványos Nyári Szabadegyetem és Diáktábor) in Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad), Romania in both 2009 and 2010, speaking alongside Orbán on the culminating day of the event both years. During his speech at the annual Hungarian national gathering in Tusnádfürdő in 2009, Orbán voiced support for Băsescu’s reelection bid, while the incumbent president’s party distributed leaflets showing him shaking hands with the Fidesz leader as part of his election campaign in the predominantly Hungarian-inhabited regions of central Romania (source in Hungarian). Their friendship was so prominent, that Băsescu’s domestic political rivals began using it against him: in March 2011, Romanian Social Democratic Party leader Victor Ponta quipped “Let’s not forget who’s friends with the enemies of the country” (source in Romanian). 

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Băsescu (right) with Orbán (left) and Tőkés at 2010 Tusványos Summer University.

Băsescu (right) with Orbán (left) and Tőkés at 2010 Tusványos Summer University.

However, their relationship has soured over the past couple of years. The problem between Orbán and Băsescu starts with former Reformed bishop and Member of the European Parliament László Tőkés of Romania. Tőkés, who became famous as the catalyst of the 1989 Romanian Revolution that overthrew communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, is a member of Romania’s large Hungarian minority and an influential supporter—one might even say member—of the Orbán administration. As the leader of the Hungarian National Council of Transylvania, Tőkés has strongly advocated territorial autonomy in the Romanian counties of Harghita and Covasna, the combined population of which is approximately three-quarters Hungarian. Speaking alongside Prime Minister Orbán at this year’s Summer University and Student Camp, Bishop Tőkés declared (source in Hungarian) to the applause of his audience “I proclaim that we have assembled in an autonomous Tusnádfürdő. . . . I proclaim that we are together in one of the communities of the Székely Autonomous District” (note 1). Speaking in response to a question from the audience, Tőkés asked Prime Minister Orbán to extend his government’s System of National Cooperation beyond the border into Transylvania (source in Hungarian and source in Romanian):

We ask Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the government he leads to build a system of national cooperation in such a way as to provide Transylvania with protectorate status as Austria did with South Tyrol.

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Băsescu (second from left) speaking at the 2013 Summer University—in Izvoru Mureşului.

Băsescu (second from left) speaking at the 2013 Summer University—in Izvoru Mureşului.

Băsescu and the entire Romanian political establishment staunchly oppose revival of the Székely territorial autonomy that Ceaușescu eliminated with the abolition of the Mureş-Hungarian Autonomous Region in 1968 (note 2).  Following a meeting with President László Sólyom of Hungary in Budapest in 2009, Băsescu told the Hungarian News Agency MTI “In answer to the question when there will be territorial autonomy in the Székely lands, I can answer that never, since Romania is a unified, sovereign nation state” (source in Hungarian). Like most Romanians, President Băsescu regards the notion of Székely autonomy as the first step toward territorial revisionism and the eventual return of Transylvania to Hungary (note 3)  On August 1, Ministry of Foreign Affairs State Secretary Radu Podgorean of Romania published the following official statement (source in English):  

It is unacceptable that a political event organized in Romania – the Summer University at Băile Tușnad – should become a platform for promoting revisionist projects that calls into question the unity, integrity and  sovereignty of the state. The statements of the European Parliament member László Tőkés on Szecklerland autonomy in the form of a “protectorate” are the expression of an irredentist vision tracing back to the interwar period.

Speaking on August 12 at the Summer University of Izvoru Mureşului  (Universitatea de Vară de la Izvoru Mureşului), the Romanian equivalent of the Hungarian Tusványos Summer University, President Băsescu reiterated his opposition to Hungarian territorial autonomy, referring to the planned administrative reorganization of Romania into eight, European Union-compatible regions in place of the current 41 counties (source for this and subsequent block quote in Romanian):

You have heard that in Romania a project to administratively reorganize the country is being discussed. . . . I can guarantee that a reorganization based on ethnic criteria will never take place. Those who believe that this is possible have confused us with Stalinists. It was only Stalin that organized the Hungarian Autonomous Region. This is something that will not be done in Romania—an autonomous region.

Though he did not mention Prime Minister Orbán by name, Băsescu then threatened to put an end to the Tusványos Summer University and Student Camp that has served as the venue symbolizing their cooperation and friendship and to open a united front, a tacit allusion to the post-First World War Little Entente, against Hungary (note 4):  

Hungary’s entire political élite is able to stroll about Harghita and Covasna counties and it is likely the last year when they were able to do so in such a relaxed manner. This year the limit was reached when. . . . I tell you from here, from Harghita, that it is too much and it will not be repeated. I believed that decency applied. This year they proved to me that there can be a lack of decency. . . . Hungary has become a hotbed of instability in the region regarding the treatment of minorities. . . . Budapest’s policies have begun to create difficulties. . . . Romania will assume the leadership in bringing Budapest to order. . . . I would like very much that this year’s edition of the Summer University of Izvoru Mureșului not be a reply to Tusványos, because if it takes place as it took place this year, it is possible that it will no longer occur on the territory of Romania.  

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The Székely flag flying at the Hungarian Parliament Building in February 2013.

The Székely flag flying at the Hungarian Parliament Building in February 2013.

For his part, Orbán until now has been careful to avoid personally provoking conflict with Romania and other countries surrounding Hungary that contain large Hungarian-minority populations, engaging his confrontational leadership style instead against the west in general and the European Union in particular. Since becoming prime minister again in 2010, Orbán has used his annual address at Tusványos not to discuss minority issues, but to outline his vision of how Hungary can survive and even thrive within the context of a declining west and a rising east, predicting during his 2011 speech the “collapse” of the western world (source in Hungarian)  and asserting in 2012 that “Europe is staggering toward its own moonstruck ruin” (source, in Hungarian). However, Orbán has either permitted or instructed his closest political ally, National Assembly Speaker László Kövér, to make political gestures over the past year that Romania’s government regarded as interference in its internal affairs: on May 27, 2012, Kövér attended a memorial for Hungarian author and Second World War fascist Arrow Cross rump parliament member József Nyírő in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc), Romania after the Romanian government banned the planned reinterment of his ashes in the town from their burial place in Spain; and on February 15, 2013 Kövér ordered that the Székely flag be flown from a balcony of the Hungarian Parliament Building in a show of solidarity with town halls in the Székely lands that Romanian authorities ordered not to display the symbol of Hungarian territorial autonomy (source in Hungarian). These initiatives presumably served as evidence to President Băsescu that Prime Minister Orbán is an unreliable ally who is attempting to extend the authority of his government across the border into the Hungarian-inhabited regions of Romania.  

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Since forming his second government in 2010, Viktor Orbán has alienated political leaders throughout western Europe with his contentious, undiplomatic behavior. The end of the prime minister’s friendly relations with President Traian Băsescu of Romania suggests that he has begun to alienate political leaders in eastern Europe as well and, now that Hungary has exited the European Union’s Excessive Deficit Procedure, that he may be preparing to revive traditional conflict with neighboring countries as a means of bolstering his political legitimacy as he approaches his second term in office. The way things are going, Orbán’s only political allies among world leaders will soon be those governing authoritarian countries located outside the European Union with which he is seeking to strengthen relations as part of his government’s Eastern Opening policy. 

notes

1-The Székelys are a subgroup of Hungarians, roughly as Bavarians are to Germans, living in the Harghita, Covasna and Mureş counties of central Romania.

2- The Mureş-Hungarian Autonomous Region was established in 1960 as the successor to the Hungarian Autonomous Region founded during the rule of Romania’s Stalinist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1952.  

3- The region of Transylvania was part of the historic Kingdom of Hungary that collapsed with the Ottoman Turkish invasion of the realm beginning in 1526. Transylvania again came under the direct control of Hungary with the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867. The region was officially annexed to the Kingdom of Romania via the post-First World War Treaty of Trianon in 1920.

4- The Little Entente was an interwar (1920–1938) alliance composed of Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia aimed at combating Hungarian revisionism.

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