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    Copyright: All those wishing to use or publish the following text are welcome to do so, provided that they indicate the source and inform the AIM office in Paris which is interested to receive comments and reactions on the information it provides. AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    TUE, 20 FEB 2001 12:59:47 GMT

    Minority Rights and Romanian Law on Local Public Administration

    AIM Athens, February 20, 2001

    On February 16, 2001 Cluj, the spiritual capital of Transylvania was in the focus of national and international media attention due to the demonstration organized by the Great Romania Party (GRP), usually referred to as extremist, xenophobic and nationalist, against the recently adopted law on local public administration, which includes important provisions on language rights of the national minorities in Romania.

    The meeting initiated by Gheorghe Funar, the famous Mayor of Cluj and Secretary General of GRP, well known for his anti-Hungarian sentiments and endeavor, was meant to demonstrate for "the protection of the Romanian language and against the anti-constitutional provisions of the law on local public administration". Although the organizers had expected over 100,000 participants, in the end less than 6,000 participated, mainly villagers transported by buses from neighboring localities, as well as employees of the Cluj City Hall.

    The demonstration itself may justifiably be considered a failure as compared to the intentions and expectations of the GRP; however, the event and what has been voiced during it cannot be ignored, and needs to be handled carefully by the governing party, the Party for Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), which by endorsing the controversial law on local public administration seems to have walked into a trap similar to the one that had made the life of the previous governing coalition extremely difficult.

    In the last elections of November 2000, PDSR won 37% of the seats in the Parliament, and, lacking a reliable and comfortable partner with whom it could have formed a coalition, it was forced to undertake the responsibility of a minority government. In the given situation, PDSR sought political support from three political parties of the opposition, the Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), based on protocols signed with each, that reflected the main priorities of the respective political organizations.

    The adoption of the Local Public Administration Law on January 19 in an extraordinary session of the lower house of the Romanian Parliament was the result of the PDSR-DAHR agreement, and followed the previous adoption of the law on restitution of real estate properties, expropriated or nationalized during the communist rule, which has been voted by the DAHR MPs in the version submitted by PDSR, though it did not reflect all the expectations of the Hungarian minority in Romania.

    The adoption of the law on local public administration was vehemently opposed by the representatives of GRP, the leading political force of the opposition holding 20% of the seats in the Parliament, who declared that the provisions of the law regarding the public use of minority languages are anti-constitutional, since they establish a second official language in the country, excluded by article 13 of the Romanian Constitution. Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the picturesque leader of the GRP, frequently labelled as extremist nationalist, who was close to win the second round of the presidential elections in December 2000 against Ion Iliescu, warned against the possibility of transforming the "language of the horses" (Hungarian) into Romania's second official language.

    With the Cluj demonstration of February 16, the saga of the Romanian law on local public administration has seemingly opened a new chapter, with some new protagonists, but the same old conflicts and contradictions.

    The law adopted originally in November 1991, was amended in May 1997, through an emergency decree issued by the coalition government that resulted after the 1996 elections, which had included - for the first time in the history of Romania - the representatives of the Hungarian minority, too. The emergency decree, together with an ordinance issued subsequently to amend the Law of Education adopted in 1995, reflected some of the main expectations of the Hungarian minority, and the entering in force of the two decrees in mid-1997 were celebrated as a long-awaited victory of DAHR, representing the 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians, 7% of the country's population.

    The subsequent parliamentary debates, which were supposed to approve the decrees, brought to surface, however, deep divisions of the coalition that ruled Romania between 1996-2000, and even within the main political force in it, the Christian Democratic National Peasant Party (CD-NPP). George Pruteanu, then senator of CD-NPP, today senator of PDSR, launched an aggressive nationalistic campaign against the provisions of the decrees, motivated by what he called the protection of Romanians against the danger of losing their identity, particularly in Harghita and Covasna counties, where the Hungarian minority constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population of the two territorial subunits. Under the pressure of this campaign, echoed diligently by the mass media, the approval in the Parliament of the ordinance on local public administration proved to be impossible, the decree being attacked later in the Constitutional Court and declared anti-constitutional.

    Being faced with this situation, the coalition elaborated a new draft of the Local Public Administration Law that aimed at a more thorough reform of local administration, and included the provisions of the previous emergency decree referring to the contested minority language rights. This new draft was adopted in the Senate, the upper house of the Romanian Parliament, soon before the end of the previous term.

    Including the debate of the draft in the agenda of the new lower house of the Parliament was the result, as said earlier, of the post-electoral political negotiations. The House of Deputies adopted on January 19, 2001 the law in a slightly different version as compared to the one adopted by the Senate, but since the differences do not regard the provisions on minority language rights, the necessary reconciliation of the two versions imposed by the rule of the Parliament cannot affect those provisions by any means.

    In its present version, the Local Public Administration Law grants the minorities the right to use their mother tongue in communicating with authorities in areas where they represent at least 20% of the population, to use bilingual inscriptions with the names of localities and public institutions, to be informed in their mother tongue about decisions of the authorities, provisions which are expected to affect at least 11,000 towns and villages of Romania.

    The adoption of the law in the House of Deputies has attracted much international attention and sympathy for the new Romanian government. Due to this attention, the series of comments and protests unleashed by the GRP representatives make the situation of the PDSR government extremely uncomfortable: they may jeopardize not only the internal stability of the government, but its international credibility as well, which is looked upon with much suspicion anyway. The support offered to these protests by a number of PDSR representatives, amongst which the same George Pruteanu, who has created immense difficulties to the previous coalition, is particularly embarrassing.

    PDSR and the Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase seem to have been in control of the situation so far. They succeeded seemingly to silence their internal opposition and have condemned firmly the nationalistic agitation of the GRP in general and its Secretary General, Gheorghe Funar in particular. President Ion Iliescu declared on February 7 that he is ready to promulgate the law on local public administration in its actual form once the Parliament ends the approval process.

    Nonetheless, the saga of the Local Public Administration Law in Romania is probably not close to its end yet. The upshot of the February 16 demonstrations in Cluj are still to be seen, as well as the resolution of the protest signed by several mayors of important cities in Transylvania, who have threatened with strike if the law is applied in its actual form. A protesting document issued by civil society organizations of the Romanian "minority" in Harghita and Covasna counties has recently warned the Prime Minister and the President of the "possible consequences" of the law in the two sensitive administrative subunits. The handling of the issue will probably be significantly affected also by the fact that influential Roma organizations have approached territorial representatives of PDSR to negotiate the application of the law in localities where the percentage of the Roma population allows the use of Romani language in public administration.

    As a matter of fact, the saga of the law on local public administration is part of a more comprehensive debate on the future of Romanian democracy. What is at stake in fact is not less than deciding in favour of liberal democracy or another particular form of majority rule, which Sammy Smooha has called "ethnic democracy". The distinctive features of an ethnic democracy are the dominance of a core ethnic nation, which owns and controls the sate, and which perceives the existence of non-core ethnic groups as a threat, against which the core nation needs to live in a permanent mobilization. Although PDSR seems to be committed to continuing the efforts aiming at the establishment of a liberal democracy in Romania, it will have to perform an extremely difficult task if it wants to avoid the traps of ethnic democracy in Romania. ----------------------------------------------- (1) Levente Salat is Executive President of the Ethnocultural Diversity Resource Center (Cluj, Romania)

    Levente Salat (1)