Béla Markó: Lack of dialogue between Hungary and Romania harmful to Romanian Hungarians

March 1, 2017

Translation of József Barát’s interview with Romanian Hungarian politician Béla Markó entitled  “The demonstrators have no program” (“A tüntetőknek nines programjuk”) appearing in the February 23rd edition of 168óra (pp.34-37).

Béla Markó is the most successful Hungarian politician of the past 25 years, claims László Majtényi, the democratic opposition’s candidate for president (of Hungary) in a speech delivered to the Bibó Society.  The reason for this is that under the leadership of Markó they managed to create a Hungarian language public education system in Transylvania from kindergarten to university, the Romanian Hungarian Democratic Alliance successfully fought for the right to use Hungarian officially, and got back the Hungarian churches which today operate independently, as well as the possessions of private people.  It’s true that in recent times something cracked.

Béla Markó

Transylvania Hungarian poet, writer, editor, politician

  • Born in Kézdivásárhel in 1951.  Took a diploma in Hungarian and French at the Babes-Bolyai university in 1974.  Between 1976 and 1989 he was the editor of Igaz Szó (True Word) in Marosvásárhely.  Between 1989 and 2005 he was the editor-in-chief of the literary paper Látó.
  • He was a founding member of the Romanian Hungarian Democratic Alliance in 1989.  He has been a Maos county senator since 1990.  He was chairman of the Romanian Hungarian Democratic Alliance (RMDSZ) from 1993 until 2011.  He served as deputy prime minister between 2004 and 2007 and between 2009 and 2012.
  • Even during his political career he has been a prodigious author, publishing more than 40 books.

Is it true that your life’s work cracks and pops?

I’m honored if somebody also sees my personal accomplishments among the positive developments that took place in Transylvania over the past 25 years. And yet all that we achieved was a collective result.  I am willing to accept the assessment that the most successful political organization of the past 25-27 years in the Carpathian Basin was the Romanian Hungarian Democratic Alliance.

Do I understand correctly that this is no longer the case?

No, it still is.  But we have to acknowledge that in a certain sense everything we created is really at risk.  But this cannot be traced back to the internal problem of our organization.  RMDSZ continues to maintain that the Transylvanian Hungarians need a unified political organization, as it is only possible to bring about fundamental change with parliamentary politization and influence in Bucharest.  However, the democratic construction in Romania in which we played a role has sagged.  And here fundamentally we are not talking about the relationship between Romanian and Hungarians, with which there are also big problems, by the way.  The real problem is that in Romania there are tensions between parliamentary republican principles and authoritarian populism.  Many believe in Hungary that the current crisis is about a clash between right and left wings.  That is not the case.   Starting from the principles of representative democracy, my generation tried to create a western-type democratic system built on the theory of the separation of power.  The present demonstrations in Bucharest, however, show that this democratic construct is tired and weak.

Western youth are clashing with an authoritarian power?

No.  We see a wave of populism in the streets.  The demonstrators are trying to replace representative democracy with an illusion of direct civil interference.  Because from the streets it is possible to demand changes and achieve certain results, but it is certainly not possible to govern.  The present is the result of long processes as Romania over a decade ago started trivializing parliament, and since then an experiment in legislation compromise.  Obviously, a number of politicians in Romania contributed to this who placed their own interest over that of the public.  Of course, corruption which is so often mentioned today undermined the parliamentary ideal.  The result of this was that gradually the real decisions took place outside of parliament.  Part of them went to the presidency and the other to the courts.

Or even the secret service, which is larger today than it was in 1989.

Yes, the secret service also influences political decisions.  We’ve reached the point where prosecutors and law enforcement agencies are speaking about what laws need to be passed, or not passed, by parliament.  This is very far from the classical separation of powers.

[Philosopher] Miklós Tamás Gáspár wrote that in Romania there is dirty disarray, in which nobody is right.  Corruption of course is a criminal thing, but it is hardly better if an anti-corruption prosecutorial body disrupts relations between politicians in the shadow of a huge secret service without democratic control.

It is not easy to understand what is happening in Romania, and even more difficult from Hungary.  I agree with Miklós Tamás Gáspár’s diagnosis, which I see is shared by only a few on the so-called left-wing.  The majority of Hungarian analysts celebrate the Romanian crisis as though it was a civil movement supporting some kind of western-type liberal democracy opposed to the authoritarian, post-communist system.  This is a huge mistake.  It may be that the dissatisfaction of the civil movement is motivated and inspired by western models.  But the worn and corrupt parliamentary system in reality collides with a concept promoted by the law enforcement, prosecutors and the secret service behind them.  Romanian criminal law vaguely stipulates that prosecutors can initiate proceedings because of political decisions.  The main conflict has erupted around an article according to which official abuse of over [a certain monetary amount] is a crime in Romania.  However, making mistaken, bad decisions is also a crime, according to the law.  This is what the current government wanted to modify, so that only unlawful and illegal decisions constituted abuse of power.  This did not take place as a result of the demonstrations, although it is easy to see that what constitutes a mistaken decision is a matter of judgement.  That’s a problem. if prosecutors and judges decide on the nature of political decisions.

Well-educated, western, urban youth are demonstrating against parliamentary democracy even despite their intentions, even as one suspects they are being manipulated?

Of course, no one among them states that they are demonstrating against parliamentary democracy.  They are demonstrating against the political elite, which historically operates in parliament.  They are dissatisfied with parties and politicians, for which there are truly good reasons.  The parties are full of politicians who have no conviction or program, who move from one party to another depending on their mood and interests, because they are not held back by any principled, political program. The only question is who do we want to install in place of the discredited politicians.  What program do we offer?  I don’t see that the protestors could offer a goal or program.

What does the crisis mean for Hungarians?  Where is their place in the disturbances?

We Hungarians living in Romania are interested in having the most say possible in decisions.  If the venue for this remains the world of parliament, government and local governments then we can have influence one way or another.  Such a system in which important matters are decided by one person, for example the president, cannot be good for us.  Where decisions depend on representatives who are not elected but appointed, they are beholden either to prosecutors or other organizations based on bureaucratic hierarchy.  Of course, a well-functioning parliamentary democracy would be in the interest of all society, not just the Hungarians.  It’s a fact that we need to combat corruption.  But it is necessary to define and sting it on the ear independent of ideology and party affiliation, without resort to political considerations.

RMDSZ was successful so far in fighting to ensure that matters pertaining to the common interests of Hungarians cannot be decided without them.  Is this at risk?

Yes.  These days it often happens that negotiated political agreements call into question rights for which we have fought.  Over the past few years the oversight of many rights enshrined in the constitution and in law has been assigned to law enforcement.  For example:  in Székely Land prefects and civilians filed reports because “községház” (town hall) was written on municipal buildings for which there is no equivalent in Romanian.  If we could discuss such manners, then we could easily find a solution.  However, the court decided that the text should be removed.  This is an absurd story from a Hungarian point of view.  Or another instance: in Marosvásárhely (Targu Mures) over the past few years they managed to agree that a separate Roman Catholic Hungarian lyceum would operate next to the Hungarian Reformed secondary school and the big state secondary school.  The prosecutors, however, launched a procedure.  The Maos county Romanian nationality main inspectorate opposed it on the grounds that supposedly some administrative error took place during one of the phases in creating the school.  In this way the Roman Catholic lyceum is threatened.

You are no longer a senator and have left political life.  You decided this because politics are changing and everything you devoted your life to is at risk?

My parliamentary mandate expired in December, and I did not nominate myself for elections, although I might have.  But I made the decision long ago in the second half of 2010 when I turned down another term as chairman of RMDSZ.  Already I felt that a long procedure had concluded at Bega at the end of 1989, when some Transylvanian Hungarian intellectual romantics undertook a mission to lobby and started engaging in politics.  I was among them.  As soon as possible, we created a political organization to be able to defend our base rights for Hungarians.  We fulfilled our task.  With this the romantic political age came to a close.  Among those who replaced us are a number of career politicians.  We were not that.  And I don’t like it if somebody regards politics as a vocation.  However, for me the time came to evaluate and reflect on what we accomplished and what we got wrong.  Because I am happy if we can speak of results and accomplishments, but I know we did a lot of things wrong.

Are you going to write memoirs instead of poems?

I am going to write my memoirs.

You said you do not consider politics a profession.  However, it requires serious knowledge and experience.

Of course, knowledge is required.  But if I am a teacher, doctor or engineer, then I can plan my life.  It is neither possible nor desirable to base a free life on politics.  Who stands for office has to accept if he fails.  It is a big problem if somebody holds on … at any price, because he isn’t really good at anything.  Who imagines that he must be a politician no matter what, may employ the most immoral means to retain power to the detriment of the voters.

Earlier Fidesz tried to create an alternative organization to RMDSZ.  However, in the December election both parties cooperated.  Seeing this from Budapest, many trumpeted this is a trump of NER (National System of Cooperation ) in Transylvania.

From the beginning I undertook to make it clear, at least that was my intention, that every Transylvanian Hungarian political organization was independent from who stands where in Hungary, be it right-wing or left-wing.  It was necessary to build a series of relationships with successor Hungarian governments, whether they were left-wing or right-wing.  At the beginning I worked well with Fidesz too.  However, the relationship cooled later on.   They never understood that we cannot elect an ideology.  Those in Fidesz did not like that we wanted a good relationship, but insisted we decide on questions pertaining to us, because we know best what we need.  No doubt, Transylvanian Hungarian parties apart from RMDSZ were created with the support of Fidesz, but they wanted organizations in Transylvania that they could operate by remote control.  And that did not pan out.

In Budapest many believe the closure of the Erdélyi Report (Transylvania Report) newspaper was the price of cooperation.  Or a new sign of the remote control.

There were also financial reasons.  It is also true that there are some colleagues in RMDSZ who do not take criticism well.  I think that apart from budgetary reasons this also contributed to RMDSZ letting go of the hand of Erdélyi Report.

When Fidesz showed up in Transylvania in strength in 2010, you briefly entertained the possibility of launching a political career in Hungary instead of RMDSZ.  By the way, I think you would have been elected to parliament from Budapest.  Did anybody advocate this?

Yes, many sought me out from Hungary saying that this was a good idea and that they had really important things to say in matters of nationality politics.  But we are home here in Transylvania, and who does not live in Hungary cannot credibly talk about the things politics addresses there.  On the other hand, while I strove to cooperate closely with Hungary, I was afraid it would detract our political attention from Romania.

But according to my information, you have broken your vow of silence and decided to speak out on questions pertaining to the motherland.

For the most part.  I have an opinion on many things, but the most important perhaps is that I am not at all satisfied with the relations between Hungary and other countries in the region.  Within this of course I am especially concerned about Romanian-Hungarian relations.  There is simply no daily political connection between the two countries.

(Hungarian) deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén said recently that Hungary is not responsible for the delay in improving relations.

It always takes two.  Naturally, I don’t think Romania would insist on close relations with Hungary.  Bucharest would like a close relationship with Washington or Brussels.  It’s a fact that Romania’s policies regarding its neighbors are very weak.  But who has a stronger interest in the existence of such relations? We do, we Hungarians.   The question of where it is possible to use the Hungarian language in Romania, and the degree of municipal autonomy, depends on relations between states.  It hurts we Hungarians the most if there is no dialogue between the two countries,