Interview with Adrian Szelmenczi

Adrian Szelmenczi (born in 1979) grew up in a multicultural environment in Nord East of Romania, in a Hungarian-Romanian family. He is human rights activist working for Active Watch NGO. He is highly engaged into defending national minorities’ rights and the implementation of the legislation in this matter in Romania.


What did the transition mean to you?

First of all, when we commenced with the T-zero moment of the transition, I had turned 10 years of age. The moment before it was very interesting because all the information I’ve had access to in order to find out about the events in Timișoara and Bucharest respectively, it came from the Hungarian television – the television of the Hungarian state, that is. I was somewhere in the northern side of the country, it was Baia Mare where that I grew up in, and during the moments when the communist regime fell I was visiting my grandmother who doesn’t speak Romanian, in the county of Satu Mare. And I’ve accessed all the information, learned about everything that was taking place in Timișoara, through the Hungarian language broadcasts on the radio and television. You could watch it clandestinely with a lot of white noise. As a matter of fact, in my family, and it wasn’t only us… Romanian ethnics would watch these channels too, especially the children who saw cartoons on Hungarian television – but we had the advantage of understanding what was being said. There was a lot of information we would take from there and I remember very vividly an event that took place during the summer, when events were taking place in the Tiananmen Square in China. And I remember seeing the images, but there was no sound, as it was blocked or interfered with. And there were news broadcasts by the Hungarian national channel, but you couldn’t hear what was going on. That was when I asked my parents “Why aren’t we hearing anything?”. “Because those who lead us don’t want us to hear” was the answer I got. And that was a special moment… my father was very informed about the international events, and I don’t know if he told me this or not, but he knew this would mark the end of the Ceaușescu regime. We had the model of Hungary, also a communist state, which was already taking steps towards democratization… I didn’t understand too much of what was happening, but to me it was weird.

The first moment, that I remember vaguely, was in March 1990. Some inter-ethnic conflicts that are still unclear have taken place at the time in Târgu Mureș, and there wasn’t much talk about them. At the time I didn’t know where they started, but I remember that one morning… or afternoon… I’m not sure what time of the day I used to have classes then, the school teacher told us that something very, very serious was going on in Târgu Mureș, and that Transylvania is in danger and can be lost. We all had to stand and sing Romania’s national anthem, the same one we have now, “Deșteaptă-te Române”. So I had to do this thing just because… we didn’t even understand why they were fighting and what they were fighting for. I know that my father was very angry and used to say that only lies are told on television. I know that on Hungarian television there were images of smashed cars belonging to the reporters who went to Târgu Mureș to make the news. The environment I was living in didn’t have developed inter-ethnic conflicts, but there was a tension in the air. Later on, my parents told me that they wanted to just formally divorce, so that my sister and I could take my mother’s maiden name, just because it was a time of turmoil when they were afraid. They were afraid and there was a weird feeling in the air… to me it was very important to somehow get close to… the majority. However, I had the advantage that despite bearing a Hungarian name, I would speak Romanian very well. I don’t think I had an accent and correspondingly, I could do a lot and integrate and fit into a Romanian environment.

Bearing a Hungarian name and not knowing how to speak Hungarian in Transylvania wasn’t something usual. So it was common to declare yourself a Romanian, there was no problem with this process. So that fact that my name is Szelmenczi hasn’t necessarily made me a Hungarian in the eyes of other people, but having an accent would have had. However, at the same time I felt that there was something wrong and the colleagues from school who attended the classes taught in Hungarian were regarded as something rather special, different. I haven’t interacted with them at all. Accordingly, my experience in this sense was dual: in Baia Mare, while attending school, I was in an exclusively Romanian environment, and when I was visiting my grandparents in Livada, the population was majoritarian Hungarian. In Livada, all my playground friends were Hungarian. In Baia Mare, it was the other way around.

During the transition times, did you feel any kind of pressure due to your both Hungarian and Romanina ethnic belonging? Have you had inner conflicts of ethnic nature? Or was it all natural to you?

In those moments, not necessarily. Even though there was a moment, I’m not sure when, I’ve had this discussion with my grandmother and I’ve told her that I’m not a Hungarian, but a Romanian who speaks the Hungarian language. I don’t quite remember what the reaction was, but I was trying to solve it somehow, in a certain way that was due to outside pressure: being a Hungarian meant that you would get called a “bozgor” [Hungarian word for person without a country, used with offensive intentions by Romanian ethnics]. It was an insult that I’ve heard often, though it was never directed towards me. But it was used against other Hungarian ethnics and I didn’t want it to become an adjective for myself. Also, when we talk about pressure… the school I was attending had this custom to organize an artistic show at the local House of Culture, at the end of every school year. The whole school would attend this ceremony, which means that the hall would fill with students, parents, and teachers. Every class would do something: we would recite poems, stage theatrical scenes and plays, sing with the choir, and all sorts of such activities. But I remember very clearly when somebody, a child, has recited a poem by Mihai Eminescu which says “he who beloved foreigners, his heart should be eaten by dogs”. And I know that I’ve really felt it, I took it very personally because indeed, for the first time in my life, I felt as if it referred to myself and my family. Let’s not forget that at the time, even though Corneliu Vadim Tudor [well-known far-right politician who run for presidency election in 2000] wasn’t active in politics, there was a lot of nationalism in the air. For example, there was a great fear of going to Hungary. Right before March 1990, for the first time ever, we scheduled a road trip with the whole class to Hungary. We finally had the chance to go outside the borders, and which country was the closest? Obviously, the one that’s 70 kilometers away. But when the tension started to rise at the time, we had to cancel the plan.

Did your classmates know that you were speaking Hungarian?

Yes! Yes, they knew. They were accustomed with this fact but it happened to me so many times that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about it anymore: when in a group they talk about “bozgors”, I usually tell them “Wait a minute, I’m one of them!”. They quickly reply “But we’re not referring to you, you’re one of us, it’s not you we have problems with”. I would always hear “I hate the Hungarians” and stuff like that. But when we finally managed to take that trip to Hungary, everybody was shocked, the teacher included, about the high degree of civilization… or maybe it’s not right to call it “degree of civilization”, but it was a much more advanced society. Even if it used to be communist just like Romania, it was much more advanced than Romania at that time. And we were also very well received in the country; we also visited a school in Nyiregyhaza without even announcing our coming – who had telephones at the time? You couldn’t make calls between cities without using the operator. We went there completely incognito. My father had also assisted us, he played the role of a translator, and with his help we could visit a school from Hungary and see how in 1990 they had closed-circuit television. It was something way beyond our imagination at the time, there was indeed a huge difference. I don’t know about the difference between Romania and Occidental states, but there was a huge difference between Romania and Hungary. This event has left marks in regards to my education. But anyway, I continued my studies in school in Romanian.

The next important event was the shocking and controversial mineriade [violent events of counter- protests, when it is suspected that former communist leaders who in power have called the miners to beat down the protesters from Piața Universității]. All I knew about what was going on in Bucharest was that there was a state of pressure, tension, and the elections from May 20th were somehow under the sign of fear. My parents haven’t voted for FSN [The National Salvation Front, a political party created by former communist elites], but they instructed us to not tell anybody who they were voting for. It was a much divided society, or at least that’s how I perceived it. There were many things you were afraid to talk about.

Why do you think that in Romania, unlike other countries such as Poland – where the former communist elites have taken a political break for 5 years, the former regime has been reproduced?

As opposed to Poland and other Eastern European states, what happened in 1989 wasn’t really a regime change. I think that the power has been seized by the second tier of Communist Party members, who were nevertheless communists. In Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, there was a real dissidence. In Romania, maybe also because the regime was much more brutal than in other Eastern-European states, this dissidence could not be manifested. Starting from that simulation of a revolution where we still don’t know what happened, it quickly became clear that the new rulers were not willing to renounce the leverages of power, to step back. And accordingly, the first peaceful power shift took place later, after 6 years. Some people say that it was then that the communist cycle in Romania ended – and I agree with them.

So practically it happened in 1996?

1996, I think, was the moment when Romania has become much more viable from the point of view of a democracy governed by rule of law. Because until then, it really wasn’t the case. Anyway, I know that in 1996 there was the tension that the elections would be lost by Ion Iliescu, but it wasn’t known if it will happen, nobody could guarantee if he would renounce power. So the moment he announced on television that he acknowledges his defeat. All this was the milestone. I don’t know if it’s true and I might not remember it quite precisely, but I have recollections of Adrian Năstase [Minister of Foreign Affairs] saying that before the second round of presidential elections the military tanks would be taken out on the streets. Had it happened, it would have been a demonstration of force, and that’s why people were not convinced that the neo-communists would give up on their power.

What did this transition period mean through the lens of a member of the Hungarian ethnicity? Did you feel like you were more exposed to these changes as a Hungarian ethnic, or did you perceive them just like your Romanian-ethnic colleagues?

Well, except for the events from Târgu Mureș and somewhat of an attachment for those who belong to the same ethnicity, I tried to run away and escape from this subject. I didn’t discuss it, and nor did I have the chance to discuss it while living in an environment that was predominantly Romanian culturally and in my school. It really wasn’t a discussed topic. On the other hand, I can remember some of the discussions that carried more ethnic weight: for example, there was something about the Romanian-Hungarian treaty and bilingual street signs – I had to assist to moments when some of my friends manifested anti-Hungarian feelings. Sometimes I would choose to reply in a manner that closed the discussion, while other times I decided to just keep my mouth shut. But it felt like a continuous discomfort. The way I decided to manifest my identity in relation to others… I certainly didn’t hide my ethnicity, but I applied the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” principle. I saved myself from nasty words and everything. However, I could see what the treatment was for my co-ethnics. I’ve noticed ugly treatment in rather stupid situations: for example, the color green was taboo. I know a case when a classmate of mine had a rock thrown at her in the middle of the street. She wasn’t hurt badly, but some other kid hit her because she was wearing a green piece of clothing… so he threw a rock at her and called her “bozgoroaico”, for no other apparent reason. There were some things that kids would pick up from their parents or the political world.

How did you position yourself in relation to the communist period? Do you think that, for example, your father’s joy at the regime change was a mere hope for a better life, or did it have a component for ethnic affirmation? Was it a hope to get rid of ethnic-themed pressure?

No, from this point of view, my father didn’t feel disadvantaged. First of all, he was a mechanic locksmith at a company that produced clothing, so he was never interested in climbing the social ladder. He was never a member of the Communist Party, he wasn’t interested in pursuing a political career or attaining power, and even if he did he would be disadvantaged as a Hungarian ethnic. So, from this point of view, he didn’t have disadvantages because he had no reason to: workers were not excluded. I don’t know what he felt, I have no idea how he went through these things throughout life because we never discussed these things, but as far as he is concerned, his liberation after the moment we heard that the Ceaușescu regime had fallen… we truly felt a hope for the better. A sense of fear quickly followed the events and I’m grateful to God that my parents were smart enough and my mother was open to differences, as ethnic matters that could have separated a lot of families at the time had no relevance in our family. That was one thing, but I think a lot of families separated due to conflicting political views – support for either the neo-communist leader Iliescu or the historical National Peasants’ Party, I guess. But there was a division, a certain separation in our society and it’s hard for me to imagine how people lived at the time because I was too young to understand. On the other hand, now that I am interested in the subject of the Hungarian minority, both in the communist era and during the transition period, I’m am more interested in the election regional election turnouts from 1990 – as a post-factum experience. And I see how in Harghita and Covasna [the counties in Romania with the largest number of Hungarian ethnics], Iliescu had 20-25% of the votes, while nationally he scored 85%. So in Harghita and Covasna we had a different candidate who was preferred to win the elections, and the situation is completely reversed to the national result. And I think this tells a lot about the Hungarian minority and the way it positioned itself in regards to the majority. Because Iliescu was… well, the elections also took place a month later than the events of March 1990. And it’s absolutely certain that those incidents, if they weren’t organized according to the orders of Iliescu or FSN (The National Salvation Front), they most definitely took place without Iliescu’s attempts to stop it.

If we speak at the general level, the political option was either the National Salvation Front which was an emanation of the Communist Party, or one of the two historic parties: The National Peasants’ Party and the National Liberal Party. First of all, that separation took place because the new power’s propaganda, which had complete control over the television and the radio broadcasts. There wasn’t any alternative television except for the national one, and this situation worked very well in demonizing the other side. They would demonize intellectuals with slogans like “We are the ones who work, not the ones who think” or “Death to intellectuals” – we’re talking about the Mineriade [violent riots of the miners, suspected to be organized by the neo-communist elites]. Therefore, the enemy of this propaganda was either the intellectual, or the party leader who returned into the country after years of exile abroad. We can observe that even for the upcoming elections (of December 11th 2016), the antagonization of the foreigners still works very well. At the time it was about the one who ate soya salami [ the one who sufferend the communist oppression, soya is symbolic food of the communist times as meat was rarely available and often products were labeled as being of meat but in reality they were made out of soya]. And of course, there’s the legacy of national-socialism, from the times of chauvinistic discourse in the Ceaușescu era… I didn’t feel its consequences personally at the time because I was too young, but I’ve read and researched extensively on this topic later in my life – about “the foreigner”. And the last of the foreigners were also very well represented politically or they were represented by UDMR [The Democratic Hungarian Union of Romania Party). There weren’t many German ethnics left since most of them had left, and the Roma were invisible, nobody would talk about them. But back then, all this chauvinism was propagated through television, as the newly-instated power had no interest to create a democratic state. The new power’s sole interest was to get to power by any means, even if it involved turning people against each other. I’m afraid that, sadly, things continue to be the same today, somehow there are things that Romania can’t get rid of. In 2014 we had presidential elections in Romania, and the political messages were directed against the idea of a “foreigner” candidate [current German-ethnic president, Klaus Iohannis] by a left-wing party which also uses similar means to antagonize George Soros – who is both a Hungarian and a Jew. So this hate is still prominent, but the difference is that unlike today, back then there was only one way to get informed – through the Romanian National Television. Newspapers printed by the political opposition weren’t powerful enough and couldn’t reach everybody like television did.

How do you see the evolution of inter-ethnic relations from 1989 to the present day?

Hm… it’s very interesting because there are a lot of things that still happen now, it’s all an ongoing process and we can still see state-level tensions between Romania and Hungary. This time, they are generated by the Hungarian side through totally uninspired action and discourse. If we think about how the relations look today, you hear the very frequently-used expression “the relations between people are good, it’s just the politicians that ruin the situation”. Of course, to some extent, it’s the politicians who destroy the good relations, but I don’t think we currently have tensions between Romanians and Hungarians on the Romanian territory. My personal opinion is that the main actors responsible for the events are the Romanian state and the media. Why? Because there is a lot of intolerance in regard to the political aspirations of the Hungarian minority. For example, the topic of territorial autonomy is not even negotiated and it’s automatically scrapped under the “extremist” label. And it isn’t quite like that. I don’t know if having autonomy among Hungarian minorities is a good idea, but we should at least talk about it. This Hungarian problem is a great stake for the Romanian democracy, and there are many points and criteria where Romania simply fails. Yes, important improvements have taken place, but the discourse is very chauvinistic. I’m not saying that Romania is the worst state in regards to respecting human rights, but it certainly isn’t the best either.

Do you think that the communist past has had an impact on relations? And I’m talking about the fact that for a very long time you couldn’t talk about belonging to the Hungarian ethnicity and this made Romanian ethnics believe this is a taboo subject that they shouldn’t hear about.

Not necessarily… back in the communist days, there wasn’t such a term as “national minority”, there were just co-living nationalities, and the propaganda directed against them was really considerable. For example, I remember reading a report about the events from March 1990, and the Committee of Helsinki stated that the communist regime had tried to create a feeling of embarrassment within the Hungarian community, as mixed families were especially targeted in terms of language and culture. It was something incredible and it was happening due to the way history was being taught and passed on at the time. Hungarians were being presented as assassins of Romanians. Of course, these facts have played a major role in the contemporary events. But it doesn’t have its roots in communism. After 1920, Romania has tried to create a national state that is exclusively ethnic and around the time there were also anti-Hungarian messages. Right now, even the national day is an unfortunate choice for us the Hungarians, and it’s like an arrogance directed against us [the 1st of December 1918 was the day when Romania had officially received the territories of Transylvania]. It’s like saying “We’re celebrating the day when we defeated you”. And this is one of the subjects that isn’t discussed, and right now there is a strong feeling in public opinion that works according to the principle “if you were born in Romania, then you can’t be anything else but a Romanian”. I don’t know If the same principle is applicable to the Romanians who get born in Serbia and Ukraine, but the Hungarians from Romania are supposed to be considered Romanians. This is a phenomenon that can also be observed in public policies.

Which rights have the Hungarians won since the 1989 regime change, and what was the evolution of these rights?

Of course, the first right they won was that of being represented among local authorities – but this wasn’t a right that was one exclusively by the Hungarians, it was much more of a consequence of the inevitable changes democracy brought about. This right came somewhat naturally after the spreading of democratization and organizing free local elections. The situation of education in Hungarian language has improved – despite the fact that there were such schools even in the communist period, their number was drastically reduced. As years were going by, the number of spots available for students who wanted to study in Hungarian was perpetually getting reduced, so that not all Hungarian ethnics could study in their mother tongue. It wasn’t my case because my parents decided that I should study in Romanian.

We won the right to use the Hungarian language in local public administration both in speech and in writing, but it happened really late, in 2001. So there are some very fundamental rights that have been won. Of course, there isn’t the same tense atmosphere that we had 25 years ago. I believe that today the events that took place Târgu Mureș 25 years ago would be quasi-impossible to be repeated, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it because well-planned manipulation can do miracles. These situations aren’t really unavoidable. And Romania, subsequently, has signed the framework convention regarding the protection of the national minorities, and has ratified it too. There aren’t many people who know about it, especially journalists. But it is what it is and there isn’t much you can do about it. Of course, these documents appeared after 1990 and I don’t think a communist country would have even considered ratifying them. The Romanian states assumes the protection of the Hungarian language as a minority and regional language, also through some international documents that were signed – though their application is not systematic. We still have a lot of sentences which are at least bizarre from certain points of view, which are clearly against the Romanian Constitution. We still have situations in which the repression organisms, if I may call them so, take action on ethnic considerations.

Do you believe that the changes from Romania in regards to the Hungarian minority gaining rights are connected to the transition to democracy, or are they connected to Romania’s attempt to become a part of international organizations? I mean, have the rights come as a Romanian will and initiative, or were they imposed as EU integration requirements?

I believe a large part of the changes were brought by external pressure. Romania has had very big problems in terms of international reputation since the events of March 1990 (the Târgu Mureș riots), and also after June 1990 [the first elections after the fall of communism]. Let’s not forget that the first attempt to join the Council of Europe has been rejected, in a time when Hungary was already a member. There have been lots of international pressures, and then came the moment when joining NATO was required, and in order to become a member of the organization, you need treaties of good neighborhood with all the bordering states. That’s how the treaty between Romania and Hungary was signed, even though the negotiations for that same treaty had failed in 1996. So the Văcăroiu government has failed in signing that treaty and it seems that the failure was due to the Romanian part. After the power has shifted in 1996 and UDMR [The Democratic Union of Hungarians from Romania Party] has become one of the governing parties, the negotiations have resumed and that truly was a moment of relief in terms of Romanian-Hungarian relations, as that was the turning point when Romania started to considerably improve its policies and we haven’t returned to the situation of the mid-1990s. No way, we are much, much better than we were then. So signing the treaty with Hungary has included, among others, a commitment by Romania to give rights to the Hungarian ethnic minority, and that’s where it all began. The public local administration law has been ratified also as a result of the treaty signed between Romania and Hungary. After this, of course, there have been the pressures and negotiations with the European Union – but at the moment when they started, Romania had already taken important steps in terms of reconciliation. There are still a lot of problems to fix, but for now the chances for ethnic conflicts are considerably lower, and not just thanks to the Romanian side.

What do you think about the fact that, in spite of a continuous mending of relations with the Hungarian minority, Romania doesn’t make similar progresses with other ethnic minorities – and I’m specifically referring to the Roma minority?

Yes, the way I understand the relations between the two minorities, I can sadly say that if there is a common element that Romanians and Hungarians would unite for, then it’s the hatred against the Roma. And the story isn’t singular, I remember attending a conference where I’ve listened to a Roma ethnic from Kosovo who said that he was being oppressed by a coalition of the Albanian minority and the Serbians. The Hungarian minority is much stronger than the Roma minority from a political point of view, and this is primarily an economic consequence, but also a matter of integration. A medic won’t refuse to treat a patient of Hungarian origins, unless there is a special case in which the patient can’t speak Romanian and communication cannot be made. Discrimination in the Hungarian case isn’t clearly systemic. In the case of the Hungarian minority, the problems are rather political, so all the problems regard the different mode in which the country is politically organized, or matters about identity expression, national day, and so on.

The Roma community, which according to unofficial statistics is much more numerous than the Hungarian minority, has more social problems and discrimination. So it becomes obvious that the Roma’s problems are bigger. The reasons are simple: the lack of education and the lack of political cohesion in organizations. And the Roma population is a lot poorer, less educated, it has lower chances of becoming integrated from an economic point of view, it has a higher degree of school drop-outs, and therefore there is much more isolation from a geographic point of view. The Roma communities are often subject to segregation. These are the differences that that’s why we should think of a better political homogenization of the minority’s interests: the Roma only have one deputy in the Romanian Parliament and he isn’t even voted by his ethnics, but gets the spot on the basis of the principle of representation of ethnic minorities. The fact that a political party of the Roma people doesn’t succeed to draw votes like UDMR (The Democratic Union of Hungarians from Romania) does is a problem: the party of Hungarian ethnics has never had problems entering the Parliament after every scrutiny. But in regards to the Roma, even though they are considered to be more numerous, they can’t organize themselves properly. Of course, this is also a problem of personal identity, as a lot of Roma people don’t openly declare their ethnic origins. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but first of all we have to remember that stigmatization leaves scars. It’s not something to be joyful about, but it’s the current reality. There is no pride in being a Roma ethnic, but there seems to be a pride of being a Hungarian. Of course, you have no reason to be proud about something that you cannot control, but in regards to the Roma, they really need a little nationalism of their own. Something has to happen among their communities in order to mobilize them towards affirming their own ethnic identity. But, of course, we should keep in mind the Maslow pyramid: until you get to that point, there are still a lot of problems to be solved.

For your personally, when has the transition ended, if you consider that it has?

I don’t know, if I look at the upcoming elections (Parliamentary elections, December 11th 2016), then it seems to me that the transition hasn’t ended. I can’t even say that there have been two distinct moments. Indeed, if I am to speak about the transition towards a consolidated democracy… well, that’s a continuous process anyway. But if we talk about the moment when I could really say for the first time that Romania was a democracy, then that’s the year 1996. Clearly, that was the key moment when the primary objective is a peaceful alternation to power, through free elections. 1996 was clearly that key moment. There have been some other weird moments too: the mineriad of 1999, for example, was something that caused a lot of fear and made me feel that the process is not irreversible at all, and a comeback of the former political establishment is possible. Then there was the moment in 2000 when Corneliu Vadim Tudor [outspoken xenophobe, anti-Semite and radical nationalist] has made it into the second electoral scrutiny for president [against the former neo-communist president Ion Iliescu]. And indeed, that was the moment when I voted for the first time, so I forcefully had to vote for the more moderate Iliescu. It was fear that made me go to vote. In terms of ending the transition, I don’t think that it ended yet.

What would the end of transition mean? How should Romania look like in order for this transition to be completed?

Romania should be a consolidated member of the European Union that solves, primarily, the problem of corruption. Sadly though, the European Union is getting increasingly weaker at this moment. I could have said that the changes are irreversible right now, but during the last 2-3 years I’ve began to ask myself if the European Union will still exist, if it will be able to face the challenges. In other words, I can’t see a democratic Romania with a completed transition outside the European Union, but for this thing to happen, we need a stronger European Union. From my point of view, the year 2007 has been extremely important due to Romania’s adherence to the European Union, and the idea that the organization might cease to exist is something that really worries me right now.

Do you think that the socialist or communist past… the political regime we had before 1989, is still following us in any way?

Of course it’s following us, and it’s a statement that is valid for every state in the region. I don’t know what will happen on Sunday [Parliamentary elections were about to take place at the time of the interview], but these elections are very important for the future government. Right now, Romania is the most stable and democratic country in the region. Hungary, Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia… all these countries are facing some severe issues in terms of rule of law, and the European Union appears to be unable to act when confronted with these problems. Somebody said a long time ago that Hungary no longer fulfills the EU adherence criteria that were established in Copenhagen – the ones about democracy and rule of law. It probably has a functioning market economy, but it appears that, sadly, the European Union didn’t mark the end of history. And a model state such as Hungary has managed to drift from democracy to… something that isn’t totalitarianism yet, but certainly a kind of authoritarianism that Viktor Orban publically acclaims. Where was it? It was in Romania that he gave the speech regarding the illiberal democracy. It happened in Tușnad, at the Hungarian summer school, an event that is very important for the Romanian Hungarian community. Obviously, you can’t ignore him and you can’t ignore the fact that 95% of the Romanian Hungarians with double citizenship have voted for FIDES. This says a lot about the political complaints of the Hungarian community and sadly, these news are not joyful.

Interview taken in December 2016 by Irina Ilisei

Translation: Vlad Costea

Stories of Change from Kyiv

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Romania 27 years after: Minority Rights and the Issue of Education

Iulian Stoian is a dedicated human rights activist, advocating for vulnerable groups such as LGBT and Roma minorities. He worked for several prestigious organisations and institutions such as the Romanian National Agency for the Roma, Council of Europe, Open Society Foundation, National Democratic Institute. He has an in depth expertise as program manager, trainer and researcher in working on issues such as Social inclusion, Anti-Discrimination, Trafficking of Human Beings, Roma political participation.

The interview was shortened. You can read the full transcript here: Interview_Iulian Stoian_Transition and Minority Rights in Romania_2016.

Interview with Iulian Stoian by Irina Ilisei in December 2016, Translation: Vlad Costea

Let’s start with a personal question: What did the experience of the transition mean to you?

I was a fresh graduate after the Revolution, and to me the transition meant a series of major experiences to which I felt like a spectator and sometimes like a Guinea pig. These experiments have somehow influenced my professional path, but also my personal life.

When I say Guinea pig, I mean that I experienced almost all the possible changes that a  student could experience at the time, from the modifications to the legislative framework which, naturally, impacted us as subjects of education, but I also career-changing events. For example, I have always prepared myself, from the earliest school years, to become a chemistry teacher.

When I graduated in 1996, I realized that the social reality no longer reflects my childhood dreams. Just like me, a whole generation of teenagers has had this opportunity to look for a different path on the labour market, as well as in career and life.

Did you feel like you were a subject to a kind of experimentation in the society?

I’ve learned to take life for what it is since I was a child. I’ve learned to try to adapt to the new realities. And I can say that from this point of view I was quite privileged, in the sense that everything I’ve done in my life so far has been a part of what I wished and planned.

In the early 1990s, when I was close to my senior year in high-school, I had the chance to work for “Revista 22” [prestigious magazine on culture and politics] and that’s where I got in contact with what is called nowadays ‘the civil society’, with debates on democratic topics, on human rights, and it was then that I realized that the career that I was about to pursue was in the field of human rights.

We were all learning and breathing democracy, and we were all eager to learn about what this new paradigm Romania had become a part of really means: Romania’s transition towards a democratic state, one that puts human rights at the core of its actions.

How do you evaluate the evolution of human rights or the legislation on human rights? You practically were both a witness and a participant to this process of change.

I believe that the evolution of the human rights is an on-going process: it’s a learning process for us all as a society, regardless if you were born and educated during the communist regime, or if you were born in this post-1989 framework.

During these 26-27 years, there was a process of adapting the national legislation to various juridical systems Romania was aspiring to. For example, Romania’s ascension to the Council of Europe produced a series of changes to our legislative framework: we abolished death penalty, we abolished article 200 from the Penal Code which would bring penal charges for homosexuality, and so on.

Lots of such rights have been progressively adopted, but this came at the cost of not educating the population properly during the process. Practically, we were all a part of a learning process, learning by doing if you may.

Was the transition period a continuous progress in regards to human rights, or did it have its ups and downs?

In the field of human rights, I can say that it’s a continuous struggle. For instance, the fight against racism towards the Roma community. It has taken various forms from the cases of violence in the early 1990s – inter-ethnic violence and all the way to more subtle forms of racism which become more and more refined by the day. People learn to refine, if you may, the way they express racism.

In 2008, according to public opinion surveys, 8 out of 10 Romanians didn’t want to have neighbours who were members of the Roma community or the sexual minorities. In comparison, today the number has decreased to 6 or 7 Romanians out of 10 who declare themselves openly against these unpopular minorities.

In regards to these statistics, I don’t think that racism or homophobia have decreased too much, I do believe there is an influence regarding the self-censorship of survey respondents, because we have all learned that we shouldn’t say certain things when we are being interviewed about sensitive topics such as these unpopular minorities.

What do you think would be required in order to grow the majoritarian population’s acceptance in regards to ethnic and sexual minorities? What should be done in our society?

We should also get used to the idea that we all have rights and should benefit from them equally and equitably as citizens. The major fault, if you may, for this high degree of intolerance in Romania is given by the communist regime itself, which used to try by all means to remove every difference between social classes. That utopia of creating the new man who would fit perfectly in certain pre-determined patterns and in which we all had to fit to be accepted in society.

In terms of evolution, where do you think the transition started and ended?

I believe that the transition has started from the moment when the dictator’s helicopter has left the roof of the Romanian Communist Party from Bucharest, from the days of the Revolution when we all wished to be accepted by the international community, to become an occidental state like we used to see in movies and magazines when they would escape censorship… I think that’s when it began and transition still continues to this day.

Were measures undertaken in the early 90s to support human rights?

1993 Romania has adhered to the Council of Europe. I think that was, if you may, one of the milestones for our discussion: the fact that Romania has adopted a series of normative documents which came to consolidate the human rights dimension from the legislation, but also the efforts that we’ve made for the population to know and internalize these values. I think that was a first milestone. The next one, I think that was technically in January 2007, when Romania became a member of the European Union. We have the obligation, through our member state status, to respect and comply to all these laws.

Let’s talk about the adherence of human rights laws now that Romania is in the EU!

As a human rights activist, I knew from my colleagues from countries that once these human rights regulations are adopted, the state’s interest in human rights will decrease dramatically. It also happened in our case, in the sense that it was assumed that as we adopted all the legislation required for Romania, we would also respect it. In practice, things weren’t this way and they aren’t today either. The big problem we notice for years is the wrong application or the lack of application of this legislation.

I believe that here, what plays a big role is the fact that we don’t make sufficient efforts to inform the population, the economic agents, and the institutions about these topics of human rights. I think that the lack of sanctions – even when the infringements are obvious – encourages the others to think that this is the normal state of affairs.

Do you believe that civic education could improve knowledge and respect for human rights in the population, and also make the population empathize with the rights of minorities?

Civic education and education for citizenship should be, in my opinion, the central component of Romanian schools, not only because we have to catch up compared to other states that became EU members before us, but also given the fact that Romania has had one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the former Communist Bloc, and this supressed the civic spirit.

Therefore, citizens associate civic education with the kind of education they would receive before 1989: patriotic education, combined with lectures from the speeches of the former State Secretary of the Communist Party. Because I will say it again, those of us who lived in that period do not associate civic education with education for citizenship as something where you put human rights in the centre. Because, in essence, that’s what it’s about: the rights we all enjoy and we should apply and promote to the others.

Are there visible changes of mentality from a generation to the other, in regards to human rights?

To those who were about 45 years-old during the Revolution hang on to the values and norms they used to respect strictly in the past. So, we can safely affirm that the younger generation which was born after the Revolution is much more sensitive to subjects like human rights and minority rights.

However, I realized that at least in the case of my generation – the ones who graduated from high-school when the Revolution was taking place or were still in school at the time –  among university graduates a very hard to explain conservatism. A kind of conservatism which manifests itself through racism and homophobia, sexism, ultra-nationalism, maybe, and also anti-Semitism. These things come packaged together and can sometimes be discovered among people with an education that would surprize you.

Still, we’re heading towards an area where acceptance towards diversity is higher than what it used to be in the communist period or in the first few years after the Revolution. We enjoy free movement within the EU for quite some years and see what is and what isn’t done abroad, but also have access to information (television, internet) … we all enjoy the right to free expression and right to free information so that we learn about these topics on the go, while doing.

Did the transition period have an impact on the daily lives of people who are part of ethnic or sexual minorities?

Well, we have to make a little distinction: among ethnic minorities, for examples the Roma, there is this widespread perception, that the situation was much better before 1989 in terms of finding a job or having a decent housing, as well as the chance to study if there was a desire for it. Of course, all these things came with drawbacks and inconveniences, such as no right to free speech, to free assembly, or to speak or use the maternal language. There are pros and cons that somehow make the discussion a lot more difficult.

But in my perception, Roma people have been the big losers of the transition. They were the first to lose their jobs, the first to be pushed towards poverty, the first to sell their homes due to poverty, and lots of them have migrated to rural areas or poor urban ghettos. They were literally and practically marginalized from society.

On sexual minorities, I think that they have faced an improvement in terms of perception, for instance some weeks ago, they had a march against the Christian-conservative “Coaliția pentru Familie” (The Coalition for Family), the organization that wants to limit the right to equality for sexual minorities: the right to marriage or the recognition of family life, which is an universal right. We see an increasing number of young people who become sensitive to the problems of this minority and decide to participate actively to associative movements by signing petitions, taking part in marches, manifesting themselves on the internet in favour of human rights and diversity of every kind.

I need to add that also Roma enjoy new supplementary rights since 1989: education in the minority’s language, class on the language, civilization and history of the Roma, special spaces for the Roma youth in high-schools and universities, a series supporting services and professions such as sanitary mediators, or school counsellors who bridge the communities with the local administration.

But these jobs and facilities shouldn’t exist in a normal society because the local administration should be inclusive enough to be able to discuss with the citizens of Roma ethnicity in their language, but also deliver to them high-quality services that are comparable with the services the other citizens receive.

I would say, these jobs and these facilities are transitory. We need to understand that they exist to compensate for historic injustice.

What has civil society done to support minority rights?

After 1989 there was an explosion of forces that were trying to coagulate at the level of political parties, NGOs, foundations, to quickly improve the problems that existed in our society. I remember that at the time there were many functioning foundations and associations which attempted to help children from orphanages, and still it took quite some time.

Minorities of every kind have tried from the very beginning to express their identity. Since the first free elections we have a deputy in Parliament, who benefitted the Roma by coagulating a movement and the establishing an association that gathered together the members of the Roma community at the time.

Also, on the topic of sexual minorities, there were a series of social actors who worked in this area.

I have been involved in civil society, and Roma society, and the one supporting the rights of sexual minorities since the early 2000, and as an evolution I can say that we have had ups and downs. But we are much more prepared right now than we were in the early 1990s, when Romanians would only see certain realities for the first time.

Were people ready at the time? There was a lot of need for people that had the right kind of knowledge, were sensitive towards the issues, knew legal matters, but also had abilities to organize communities. You simply didn’t have all these things in the communist period.

It often happens that the civil society functions primarily on the foundation of good intentions: in the sense that maybe you weren’t the best prepared in a certain field: But if you had the particular interest to work in that area and you were the only one offering these services, then it was clear that those entities, associations, and foundations that were established and deliver services. It went on like this until the accession to the European Union, when it all began to be much more specialized and exchanges became easier to do. The quality of the services provided, however, is questionable. It was a learning process for all of us.

Transformation als Lebensschule

Ostdeutsche Frauen-Biographien als Reibungspunkte der Generationen

„In meinen Gesprächen habe ich immer wieder gemerkt: Da ist etwas, was es bei den Frauen im Westen Deutschlands noch nicht und im Osten Deutschlands noch immer gibt: das tief verinnerlichte Wissen, dass Arbeit Selbständigkeit verleiht, dass Kinder zum Leben dazugehören, dass es keine Schande ist, seine Kinder in Tageseinrichtungen betreuen zu lassen oder nach der Schule in den Hort zu schicken. Kurz: dass zur sozialen Frage immer auch die Frauenfrage gehört“ 

Dr. Judith C. Enders, Mandy Schulze

Die Frauen der „Dritten Generation Ostdeutschlands“, geboren zwischen 1975 und 1985, haben eine doppelte Sozialisation erlebt. Zum einen eine DDR-geprägte durch Eltern und Großeltern, welche den größten Teil ihres Lebens in der ehemaligen DDR verbracht haben. Zum anderen mussten sie sich abrupt in einem neuem Schul-, Ausbildungs-, Beschäftigungs-, ja Gesellschaftssystem zurechtzufinden.

Im medialen Diskurs taucht die dritte Generation kaum auf und wenn, dann sind es oft Beispiele gescheiterter Biografien. Dabei haben sie während des Transformationsprozesses einzigartige Kompetenzen erworben haben, die in vielen Bereichen der Arbeits- und Lebenswelt eine Bereicherung sein können.

Für diesen Artikel haben wir ausführliche Interviews mit 9 Frauen dieser Generation geführt. Die meisten von ihnen hatten für ein Studium ihre Heimat verlassen und waren entweder erwerbstätig oder auf der Suche nach einer passenden Tätigkeit.

Selbstverständlich Selbstständig

Die beruflichen Erwartungen waren das erste Thema, welche die jungen Frauen zwischen 25 und 35 Jahren ansprachen. Neben dem Thema Beruf und soziale Sicherheit, wurde das Verhältnis von Beruf und Mutterschaft bzw. Partnerschaft angesprochen. Sich beruflich zu verwirklichen und damit persönliche und finanzielle Selbständigkeit zu erlangen, beschreiben die befragten Frauen als Voraussetzung für eine gleichberechtigte Partnerschaft:

„Ich glaube in der Beziehung ist sehr, sehr wichtig, dass auch die Frau oder ich eben halt sehr selbstständig ist und da ihren eigenen, eigene Erlebnisse und Erfolgserlebnisse auch hat.“

Darüber hinaus ist dies aber auch Vorrausetzung für die Familiengründung. Wichtig ist bei allem ein ausgeglichenes Verhältnis zwischen diese Sphären: Der finanzielle Erfolg steht nicht im Mittelpunkt bei der Frage nach einem gelungenen Leben. „Ich denke auch, was wichtig ist, dass das Leben eine gewisse Balance hat. Dass man ausgelastet ist mit den Sachen, die man alltäglich tut, und damit halt am Ende eine Zufriedenheit erlangt und glücklich schlafen kann. (…) Ja, da braucht man halt auch nicht so viel Geld. Da ist das eher zweitrangig.“

Die Entscheidung, für die Familienarbeit als Hausfrau und Mutter seine beruflichen Interessen in Frage zu stellen, tauchte in keinem unserer Gespräche auf. Als typisch weiblich – und damit kaum anders als in anderen Regionen Deutschlands – ist hingegen die Bereitschaft zu bezeichnen, das Streben nach Karriere nicht in den Mittelpunkt persönlicher Verwirklichung zu stellen: „Als Führungskraft bin ich jetzt ausgebildet, habe einige Trainings gehabt, habe auch schon viel gecoacht und Leute gehabt, die ich dann inhaltlich und so beraten habe jetzt, aber das ist okay. Also, ja, ich muss diese Rolle nicht haben“. Ebenso als typisch ist es, zugunsten von Familie und Kindern auf Teile der Karriere zu verzichten. Kindererziehung wird als Aufgabe für Frauen aber nicht hinterfragt.

Das Erbe der „Schlüsselkinder“

Die befragten Frauen kamen oft an einen Punkt, an dem sie über ihre Eltern und deren Einfluss auf ihr Leben sprachen. Dabei standen deren Erfahrungen mit der Transformation im Vordergrund. Um dieses Erbe wird scheinbar noch gerungen. Die Sprachlosigkeit zwischen den Generationen wird bewusst problematisiert: „Meine Eltern sind geschieden, also zu meinem Vater hab ich jetzt nicht weiter groß Kontakt. Er ist halt aber das, was so ein typischer Wendeverlierer ist, was man sich darunter vorstellt. Weil es halt eben auch das für unsere Beziehung so schwer gemacht hat und weil mich dann auch immer …

“Also das Problem ist, dass man mit den Eltern nicht darüber reden kann.“

Die Auseinandersetzung mit der Elterngeneration spielt für die jungen Frauen aus dem Osten mit Kindern eine ebenso so große Rolle wie für alle anderen jungen Eltern: „Wenn du Kinder hast, dann spielst du deine eigene Kindheit ungewollt auch immer wieder durch.“ Die doppelte Sozialisation der Befragten in Ost und West spielt in der Auseinandersetzung mit der eigenen Kindheit jedoch eine besondere Rolle und wird zur innerfamiliären und gesellschaftspolitischen Herausforderung:

„So eine simple Frage wie: Sag mal, Mutti, wann hast denn du uns eigentlich immer abgeholt nach der Kita? (…) Und die ist total ausgetickt an dem Tag: Wir haben alle gearbeitet, wir konnten gar nicht anders!”

“Natürlich, wir haben euch um halb sieben hinbringen müssen, weil wir mussten um sieben Uhr auf Arbeit sein! Wir haben Vollzeit gearbeitet, und wir konnten nicht so schöne Sachen machen wie ihr jetzt, und so. Und dann in den 90ern auch: Ja, ihr wart nun mal Schlüsselkinder, und jetzt sagen sie immer Schlüsselkinder dazu, aber es war ganz normal, dass ihr den Schlüssel hattet und nach Hause gehen konntet, wann ihr wolltet. Man hat auch Vertrauen gehabt zu seinen Kindern, und jetzt wird man so [angesehen], als ob man sich nicht gekümmert hat so … .“

Wir müssen reden: über den Wert der Alltagserfahrung

Hier steht das kritisch gesehene Bild der Mutterschaft in der DDR, für das sich die jungen Großmütter glauben rechtfertigen zu müssen, einem echten Interesse der jungen Frauen, die ihren eigenen Platz in der Gesellschaft als Mütter suchen, entgegen. Eine junge Frau spricht allerdings klar aus, was es gesellschaftlich für eine konstruktive Auseinandersetzung und schöpferische Aufarbeitung der Transformationserfahrungen der Eltern braucht.

„Was ich finde, was absolut in diesem medialen Diskurs vernachlässigt wird, das sind so diese persönlichen Biografien, auch abgesehen von Knastgeschichten, mal hart gesagt, oder Fluchtversuchen, oder wie auch immer. Also ich finde so, diesen Mikrokosmos auch einer normalen Durchschnittsfamilie damals in der DDR, auch eben unserer Generation, das wird vollkommen vergessen irgendwie.

(…) Das ist unsere Kindheit, das kann man nicht ändern. Und es ist ja auch gut, wie es jetzt so gelaufen ist, dass die Wende kam, dass wir die Chance hatten, noch mal ganz neu anzufangen, ein anderes Leben zu führen, als unsere Eltern das konnten.

Aber der Diskurs fehlt, die Diskussion in der Öffentlichkeit, aber auch untereinander, dass man sich quasi bekennt dazu auch: Hey, wir teilen da was, wir haben irgendwie ein gemeinsames Fundament, warum reden wir nicht mal drüber?

Also sogenannte westdeutsche Freunde, die dann sagen: Ja, es war ein Stück Geschichte, aber hey, ist doch vorbei. Aber es ist ja noch da, es ist ja trotzdem präsent. Also meine Familiengeschichte prägt das bis heute. Viele Streitereien, viele Zerwürfnisse beruhen immer noch darauf, auf Vorwürfen auf ungeklärten Ereignissen, wie auch immer. Und ja, es wäre schade, das nicht irgendwie auch mal zum Anlass zu nehmen, darüber zu reden“. Oder mit den Worten Martina Rellins, die als westdeutsche Journalistin und Autorin ostdeutsche Frauen nach der Wende befragte:

„Auch in meinen Gesprächen für dieses Buch habe ich immer wieder gemerkt: Da ist etwas, was es bei den Frauen im Westen Deutschlands noch nicht und im Osten Deutschlands noch immer gibt: das tief verinnerlichte Wissen, dass Arbeit Selbständigkeit verleiht, dass Kinder zum Leben dazugehören, dass es keine Schande ist, seine Kinder in Tageseinrichtungen betreuen zu lassen oder nach der Schule in den Hort zu schicken. Kurz: dass zur sozialen Frage immer auch die Frauenfrage gehört“ (Rellin 2004: 11f).

Darum bleibt es wichtig, sich mit den Frauen der ehemaligen DDR und mit ihren alltäglichen Geschichten auseinanderzusetzen, im Gespräch zu bleiben. Gerade für die Frauen der Transformationsgeneration ist dies eine Chance, die eigenen Identität zu schärfen und sowohl die Stärken (Stichwort: weibliche Unabhängigkeit) als auch die Schwächen (Stichwort: Doppelbelastung) der Lebensentwürfe der DDR-Frauen kennenzulernen. Es gilt, medialen Zuschreibungen etwas „Reales“ entgegenzusetzen.

Remembering the 90’s in Russia: Values and Attitudes of the Transition Generation

Results of an interview study conducted by the Sakharov Center Moscow as part of the international project „Transition Dialogue: Mapping a Generation“.

by Oksana Bocharova and Vlada Gekhtman

“We are, in a sense, some of the most fortunate. We saw the heyday of that time. Now we are witnessing the decline of an epoch. But we lived when in was in its full blossom. We had the strength to fight, to conquer a spot, to make a successful, acceptable living”

About the Research

The 90s in Russia were condemned and praised. It feels that the arguments about this time are always an argument not about the 90s – rather than an argument about different sets of values. Sometimes, the transition memories appear very raw, the transit itself is not discussed much in families and among friends.
For this research we talked with people who represent different backgrounds who experienced radical changes or emerged in the course of transition period: business people, entrepreneurs and self-employed (11 interviewees); further representatives from science and education (8) and those with a  media/creative occupation (9). Their common feature is that they have successfully adapted to the new reality, have managed to fit into it. Thus, the participants represent a metropolitan middle class – that is, the values and attitudes that dominated the 90s, and that, in fact, owe their existence to the transition period.

Read the full study here (pdf): Attitudes of the Transition Generation in Russia_Sakharov 2016

Background & Motivation

The 90s is the time we have already lived without Sakharov – he died on Dec, 14th 1989. But Sakharov’s hopes and fears, about a new world that is to come, still stay with us as challenges and questions unanswered. In our work as an institution, we try to acknowledge the 90s as a multidimensional epoch in the history of our country rather than a black and white narrative that diminishes its significance. This research, however, small still allows the reader to have a glimpse into this strange and exciting world of change.

Transition stories from Dnipro, Ukraine (Part II)

Transition stories from Dnipro, Ukraine (Part I)

Transition story from Serhiy Oliferchuk, Kiev, Ukraine

Transition of Ukraine

Jaroslav Belinskiy interview, Kyiv

As a child, Jaroslav won a trip to Switzerland in the Red Cross drawing competion, that was announced in the Pioneers Newspaper. But still in 1991 authorities tried to hide the victory from him in order not to let him travel… A story of change from Ukraine.