The highly controversial meetings, organized by the Project on Ethnic Relations during the early ’90s, were the first occasions when Hungarian politicians from Transylvania discussed minority issues with the representatives of the government.
The politicians of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR) participating at the informal meetings known as the Neptun-talks were not only unprepared, but also naïve.
These meetings from the beginning of the ’90s still divide the Transylvanian Hungarian community: the radical side accuses the moderates for having made unacceptable compromises with the government and representatives of the President’s Office. Basically, they say that the Hungarian community was betrayed.
The Neptun-case marks the division created within the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania. The so-called moderates envisioned a step by step approach to the situation of the Hungarian community. Their strategy was maintaining dialogue with the Romanian representatives and infiltrating into the power structures of the political elites of Bucharest. The radicals rejected compromises and instead of looking for small solutions, considered that the „all or nothing” principle is the only possibility for solving all existing problems.
Very tense situation
In the aftermath of March 1990, a period of very tense interethnic relations, the round-table discussions organized by the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) were the first opportunity for DAHR-members, at that time in opposition, to carry out talks with representatives of the President’s Office and the Government.
Hungarian posts about the Neptun meetings:
Neptuni találkozók 4.: bemutatjuk a PER-csapat szürke eminenciását
Neptuni találkozók 3.: nagyon ismer minket a PER. De honnan?
Neptuni találkozók 2.: három bomba árából elkerülni a háborút
Neptuni találkozók 1.: több száz oldalnyi belső levelezést találtunk
In order to understand the context of the meetings, it is important to know that the Romanian Government was desperate for a breakthrough. The National Salvation Front, the governing party the beginning of the nineties, later followed by the Social Democratic Party, aimed to reduce the isolation of the country; it was the period when Romania decided to approach the West and NATO.
Because of the criticism that several Western organizations expressed towards discrimination that minorities had to face – especially the Hungarian community of Transylvania – for the Romanian Government it became obvious that there was an urgent need for finding a solution that would be accepted and welcomed by the West and would prove the government’s commitment to democratic values.
The US feared an upcoming second Yugoslavia
As the only superpower and survivor of the Cold War, the US showed interest in post-communist countries undergoing transition. In Romania’s case, the US was interested in stable ethnic relations, without tension and a possibility of a conflict. But truth be told, the US had only security and economic concerns.
At the meetings the moderators stressed that the rights of minorities are important only for maintaining peace between the different ethnic groups. The US wanted to avoid instability and the possibility of an armed conflict that resembled the civil war in Yugoslavia.
Too much talking, very few solutions
The meetings at the time were highly debated. Even today there is a lot of rumour surrounding them, despite the fact that very few informations coming from first-hand were made public. Besides the contemporary reports published in The Washington Post and The New York Times, we only know of a couple of press releases and of a single interview in the Hungarian newspaper Romániai Magyar Szó, where György Tokay, László Borbély and György Frunda sum up the events of the meetings.
Not long ago, with the help of scholars working in Princeton, we managed to make photos of the archive of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER). It contains many interesting details on the meetings and based on the documents and the background discussions we had, we tried to reconstruct the talks.
Based on the documents we have at our disposal, we have no reason to assume that the politicians of DAHR, György Tokay, László Borbély and György Frunda did not try to represent the interests of the Hungarian community. We can often hear the assumption that the Hungarian participants held secret talks with the political elites of Bucharest, without the knowledge of the DAHR leaders. This also turned out to be partly untrue.
Based on the so far unpublished materials that we have in our possession and the several background discussions we had, the most plausible interpretation seems to be that the Hungarian politicians of Transylvania were not prepared to properly represent the intererests of the community in the context of such high level talks.
They were unable to evaluate their possibilities, did not manage to understand the political context and committed several errors that weakened their position at the talks.
The neutrality of PER is questionable
The neutrality of the mediating organization, the American Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) is questionable. We can assume that Larry Watts, one of the members of the PER team, was not interested in granting minority rights, instead aimed at reaching a showcase settlement.
The members of the PER team, Allen Kassof, as the chair, Livia Plaks as co-chair and Larry Watts, the head of the Bucharest Office of PER were familiar with the Romanian politics. Given the positions they held during communist times, and as PER members since the beginning of the ’90s they had access to the political power structures of Bucharest and maintained relations with several decision makers.
There is doubt on the honest, mediating role of PER. The documents unequivocally show that since the very beginning, the moderators did favours to the representatives of the Hungarian side, sent them gifts bearing significant value and also occasionally small sums of money.
In a Western academic environment participants usually benefit of a per diem and all other services are covered, this was also the case at PER. However, we believe in these cases accepting payments and gifts is problematic: these PER talks were not academic, scientific debates. They were encounters which aimed at promoting a political agenda and representing the interests of the Hungarian community in order to reach politically meaningful compromises.
It is questionable wheather the DAHR politicians were able to properly represent the interests of the community, given that they were committed to PER, and of whom we know that their interest was to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
Not one, but half a dozen meetings
Contrary to popular belief, the Neptun-case did not consist of one, but of six, possibly even seven meetings. The meetings held at Neptun were not even among the most significant ones. The process became known bearing this name because it was after the second Neptun meeting, in July 1993, when the scandal broke out.
The meetings started in 1991. On the 25th and 26th of February 1993, the meeting held in the beautiful Garzensee region in Switzerland, produced the outlines of an agreement that would take into account the demands of the minorities.
Even though it is not clear what lead to the breakthrough, it is obvious that the talks were held in a positive, almost euphoric atmosphere. The Hungarian participants showed willingness for a compromise: they put aside their collective rights („let’s not discuss collective rights, but laws that encourage minority rights” – Tokay, „collective rights can be discussed without results” – Borbély) and also the idea of an exclusively Hungarian University („lets not have a university only for Hungarians – Bolyai for all minorities” – Tokay).
Instead of the big questions, more humble proposals
László Borbély and György Frunda come up with a series of humble proposals, which are accepted by the Romanian side. The seven measures that aim at improving interethnic relations consist of:
1. The establishement of the Council for National Minorities;
2. Promoting a Resolution on multilingual signs;
3. The Council for National Minorities recommends solving the situation of the Bolyai Farkas High School (student exchange with the Papiu Ilarian high school, so that the Bolyai High School can become a Hungarian high school- editorial comment);
4. The Council for National Minorities recommends creating places at universities that are to be taken by Hungarian students;
5. The Council for National Minorities recommends that the Audiovisual Council would create an Advisory Board on Minorities;
6. Drafting a bill on national minorities;
7. The Council for National Minorities makes the recommendation for the parties that are members of the Parliament to take into account the needs of minorities when drafting the Education Bill.
But from a report issued half a year after the Garzensee meeting, we understand that the only measure taken into consideration was creating a number of 300 places at the University Babes-Bolyai, that would be destined for professors who would later be teaching in Hungarian.
The news of the meetings was made public in June 1993. In both the Hungarian and the Romanian political life it caused a huge scandal. From this point onwards, PER dedicated its activity to saving the political career of the three Hungarian politicians, György Tokay, György Frunda and László Borbély.
It is debatable whether the PER meetings were succesful. What is clear is that PER played a role in ensuring that DAHR became an ally of the government since 1996 and remained a coalition partner for a long time.
Zoltán Sipos, translation: Etelka Tamás-Blaha
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