25 years after Communism fell, ethnic peace breaks out in Balkans

Jim Rosapepe (Ambassador to Romania, 1998-2001)


A few weeks ago, hard on December’s twenty fifth anniversary of the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania elected a German president.


Klaus Johannis (with that name, he wasn’t hiding his ethnicity), the candidate of a center right coalition led by the Liberal Party, defeated Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party. Johannis’ support came from the more western, urban areas — and from Romanians living in western countries like Italy but voting in Romania.

Just when you looked at Syria and Ukraine and thought that ethnic conflicts are unresolvable, Romanian voters — in the Balkans, where World War One started! — showed what “European values” of tolerance, inclusion, and mutual respect are all about.

Frankly, I wasn’t shocked. In the 1990’s when I was US Ambassador, I lived in Romania. And I’ve been back every year since.

Just as Americans chose Barack Obama (African American), Brazilians Dilma Rousseff (Bulgarian), and the French Nicholas Sarkozy (Hungarian), Romanians looked at the candidate, the party, and the policies, not just parentage.

But, in some ways, Romania is a special, and inspiring, case.

Almost twenty ethnic groups — from Croatians and Roma to Tartars and Italians — are guaranteed representation in parliament. Germans, who have been in Romania since the 1200’s, are included.

Interestingly, Johannis isn’t Romania’s first German head of state. In the mid-19th Century, when Romania was freed from Ottoman Turk domination, its political leaders recruited a 27 year old German prince to become the new nation’s king. For Americans whose founding fathers fired their British king, the Romanian story seems odd. But, at that time in Europe, kings were a force multiplier, even young ones from foreign countries. King Carol I served forty eight years and is fondly remembered. His great grand nephew, King Michael, also at age 27, made history in 1947, flipping Romania from alliance with the Nazis to the Allies in 1944.

The biggest ethnic minority in Romania is the Hungarians. In fact, they are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe. More than 1.5 million Hungarians live in Romania, primarily in Transylvania.

Shortly after the fall of Communism, forces in Romania, not unlike some of those around Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia, tried to maintain power by creating violent divisions between Hungarians and Romanians.

“In 1990, there was a moment when Romania could have followed the Yugoslavia path.” Kelemen Hunor, leader of the Hungarian party, remembers. “We had to make a decision to solve the issues using political dialogue and democracy.”

In contrast with the former Yugoslavia, Romania did not go down the road of violence and ethnic cleansing. Instead, it developed a democratic culture of ethnic relations in which the Hungarian minority and others, including Germans, are well-organized and active in local and national politics. Johannis was elected mayor of Sibiu as the candidate of the German Democratic Forum. And the ethnic Hungarian party has been a member of most Romanian government coalitions since 1996.

That does not mean there are no ethnic issues in Romania—in fact, there are serious ones, particularly including use of the Hungarian language in public services, participation of Hungarians in the police force, and the re-creation of Hungarian universities.

Today, ethnic minorities in Romania — Hungarians, Germans, and others — press their concerns in ways familiar to Americans—running for office, writing newspaper editorials, and debating in the Parliament.

In 2000, the US embassy commissioned a public opinion survey to better understand why Romania, compared to the former Yugoslavia, had been successful in interethnic relations. The findings? Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in Romania identified a key difference between Romania and Yugoslavia (at that time): Romania was a democracy, and therefore these issues could be debated in a democratic process.

Obviously, President-elect Johannis is a different generation in a different Europe than King Carol I, who died one hundred years ago. But German culture and heritage still loom large across the continent.

I met Johannis in 2000, soon after he was elected mayor of Sibiu, a historically German, but then and now an overwhelmingly Romanian, city in Transylvania. He and I were recruited by an American Roman Catholic nun who ran a non-profit for poor children; she had us dress up as Santa Clauses to collect donations for Christmas, like Salvation Army volunteers in the US.

Johannis is a tall, cheerful, man who speaks English well and bears a strong resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. His wife, Carmen, is a German-speaking Romanian who teaches high school English. Before his election, he was a high school physics teacher and then superintendent of schools for Sibiu.

In 2009, he was the likely Prime Minister if the center left, the coalition which opposed him this year, had won the election. How much change his victory will bring to domestic or foreign policy is unclear. He is committed to the EU and NATO, to boost the economy and to reduce corruption.

But the real message of this election is not what it says about economic or foreign policy, but what it says about about ethnic relations in at least one Balkan country.

When I asked Romanians in Sibiu in 2000 why they had elected a German mayor, they were direct.

“Who wouldn’t want a German to be your mayor?” they’d say. “They’re well-organized. They make things work.”

The lesson is universal—not all ethnic stereotypes are negative. So much for the impossibility of moving beyond ethnic struggles that last a thousand years.

Jim Rosapepe was US Ambassador to Romania, 1998-2001, and, with his wife, former ABC News Correspondent Sheilah Kast, is co-author of Dracula Is Dead: Travels in Post-Communist Romania, just re issued in its second edition.


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