Romania rejects 'special status' for its Hungarians

RELATIONS between Romania and Hungary, rarely amicable since the end of Communism, sank into more trouble yesterday when the Romanian government dismissed as absurd calls for greater rights by the country's ethnic Hungarian minority. The authorities in Bucharest were especially angered by the minority's decision to ask Hungary to include the demands in a treaty between the two countries that is under preparation.

Marko Bela, leader of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (HDFR), which represents Romania's Hungarian minority, said his community wanted 'special status', including more control over educational and cultural matters, in areas with compact Hungarian populations. The HDFR has long alleged that Hungarians suffer officially orchestrated discrimination, and its call to Hungary to bring the issue into the treaty negotiations drew a stiff response from Bucharest.

'What the HDFR wants can be neither included nor imagined. Such an absurd thing is not foreseen in documents of European institutions, like the CSCE (Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the Council of Europe,' said a Romanian foreign ministry spokesman.

Romania's 23 million people include between 1.6 million and 2 million Hungarians, concentrated mostly in Transylvanian regions that formed part of Hungary for centuries until the redrawing of borders after the First World War. Violence broke out between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in March 1990 soon after the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship, and matters were made worse in 1992 when a Romanian ultra-nationalist, Gheorghe Funar, became mayor of the Transylvanian capital of Cluj.

For its part, Romania has consistently suspected Hungary of trying to regain its lost lands and says Budapest's interest in the Hungarian minority constitutes interference in Romanian affairs.

The latest dispute occurred as tensions resurfaced in Cluj over a planned archaeological excavation around a statue of King Matthias, Hungary's most revered medieval monarch. The statue stands in Cluj's main square, and the city's Hungarians - who make up about 25 per cent of the population - suspect that the excavation may result in the removal of the monument.

The archaeological dig, which has Mr Funar's enthusiastic support, was temporarily postponed by the central authorities in Bucharest, but last week preliminary work began with policemen patrolling the main square and other districts of Cluj. Hungarian activists have appealed to the CSCE human rights office in Warsaw to stop the excavation.