Transylvania's hate campaign: Adrian Bridge in Cluj on the spectre of cultural warfare at Romania's polls

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'WE HAVE to be on our guard all the time,' said Gheorghe Funar. 'These barbarians from Asia have been here for 1,000 years but are still not civilised. They are capable of any form of treachery.'

Mr Funar is mayor of Cluj, the Transylvanian city that is one of the main centres of Romania's Hungarian minority (it once had the Hungarian name of Kolozsvar, but it is not safe to remind him of that). He is also one of the six candidates in today's presidential election in Romania and a leading figure of the ultra-nationalist far right.

According to Mr Funar, the 1.8 million-strong Hungarian minority in Romania and their masters in Budapest are plotting an imminent military invasion of Transylvania, to recapture it for a greater Hungary.

With views like those, Mr Funar has, not surprisingly, ruffled more than a few feathers since becoming mayor of Cluj earlier this year. The city's 100,000 ethnic Hungarians (a quarter of the population) accuse him of inciting racial hatred and enacting a range of unconstitutional and discriminatory policies.

Liberal-minded Romanians accuse Mr Funar of blowing up differences between the two communities out of all proportion and of creating a potentially dangerous climate of mutual mistrust. Many look with horror to the racially inspired conflicts to the east in Moldova and to the west in the former Yugoslavia - and pray something similar is not about to erupt here.

'Of course most of what Mr Funar says is clearly nonsense,' says Lillin Perenc, a member of the Democration Union of Hungarians in Romania. 'We are not calling for a change in Romania's borders and we do not want to undermine the Romanian state. But there are many uneducated people who, when they hear such things often enough, begin to believe them. And once such hatred has been unleashed, there is no telling where it could lead.'

Not even Mr Funar's sternest detractors deny that underlying tension and rivalry exists between the ethnic Hungarians and the 7-8 million Romanians in Transylvania. Scholars on both sides still dispute which group was first to occupy the area and can therefore claim an undisputed right to it.

Some of Cluj's oldest inhabitants can remember the time when the city was called Kolozsvar - a provincial capital in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire that was ceded to Romania after the First World War.

Under Nicolae Ceausescu, a systematic attempt was made to eradicate ethnic differences in Romania. Although he did not use the virulent language of Mr Funar (who describes the former dictator as a 'good Romanian') Ceausescu sought to weaken ethnic Hungarian identity by introducing 'mixed' schools, where instruction was given primarily in Romanian, and by resettling tens of thousands of Romanians in areas that were densely populated by ethnic Hungarians.

'When the revolution came, we thought that at last the discrimination would end and that we would be given full rights,' said Peter Banyai, one of the many Hungarians active in the December 1989 revolution. 'It soon became clear that our hopes were misplaced.'

Although, in the immediate post-revolution period, the Hungarian community was granted unprecedented rights to publish its own newspapers and set up its own schools, it soon became clear the new rulers did not want to grant genuine cultural autonomy.

In May 1990 several people were killed after busloads of Romanians were ferried into the Transylvanian town of Tirgu Mures to battle ethnic Hungarians, one of whom had had the audacity to put up a sign above his chemist shop in both Hungarian and Romanian.

The Tirgu Mures incident, whipped up to serve political ends, has not been repeated. But in Cluj, as elsewhere in Transylvania, Hungarians are terrified that it could be.

Since becoming mayor, Mr Funar has declared dual language signs illegal and resumed the Ceausescu policy of forcing ethnic Hungarians to attend mixed classes taught in Romanian. And he has made it clear that in the light of an imminent attack from Hungary, Romania must have a strong army and a strong secret police - to monitor 'disloyalty'.