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Hungary and Romania Get an Offer They Can't Refuse: Make Up or Else

To gain entry passes into NATO and EU they sign a historic treaty

In the seven years since revolution swept through Romania, Elemer Kincses has lost a number of his prized actors.

They left this city's venerable Hungarian theater for the bigger venues of neighboring Budapest and beyond.

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It's not only stardom they've sought, but a ticket out of a homeland grown hostile. The 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians of northwest Romania allege increased discrimination in housing, schooling, and use of their mother tongue. And despite a landmark basic treaty between Hungary and Romania, ratified in Bucharest Sept. 26, few here in the region known as Transylvania expect things to improve.

"For us Hungarians, oppression is a normal way of life," said Mr. Kincses, director of the Tirgu Mures theater. "It would feel abnormal without it."

Still, Kincses and most ethnic Hungarians are cautiously optimistic about the treaty, hailed by the West as a huge stride toward historic reconciliation between long-hostile neighbors.

But the agreement sprang less from goodwill than cool pragmatism.

The United States-led Western powers made the fledgling democracies an offer neither could refuse - no treaty, no chance to join NATO. The security alliance has already learned, from conflict between member states Turkey and Greece, the pitfalls of incorporating border disputes within NATO.

With an eye on the prize

So Hungary and Romania have recognized the inviolability of their respective borders - a prickly issue for 76 years - and vowed to treat their mutual minorities according to high "European standards." Officials in both countries proclaimed it would raise their international standing, enhance regional stability, and boost trade relations.

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But the agreement also elicited howls of protest from the right wing in both countries, who view any compromise as a betrayal of national interest. They warn ominously that interpretation and implementation of the agreement will get messy.

"We know from history that a treaty signed under international pressure is not a treaty, but a dictum," said Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a member of Romania's parliament and president of the nationalist Greater Romania party.

Territorial tug-of-war

Territorial rights to Transylvania, the rolling, verdant swath of land at the base of the Carpathian Mountains, best known as the home of the legendary Count Dracula, have been a source of enmity for centuries.

The Romanians claim it as their 2,000-year-old ancestral land, while the Hungarians regard it as the cradle of Magyar culture.

Transylvania belonged to Hungary until the post-World War I Trianon Treaty dismembered the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The treaty deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its land and population. The territory and people were distributed among Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Croatia.

Hungarians stewed for two decades before lending their support to Hitler in hopes of recovering their land.

Indeed, they reclaimed Transylvania in 1940 and kept it until the Soviet Army rolled into the region and restored the Trianon borders in 1945. The dispute remained unresolved during the Soviet era.

In recent years, most Hungarians have been preoccupied with making ends meet during harsh economic reforms. But Romanian concerns over a perceived Hungarian threat continued, fueled by the insistence of Transylvania's Hungarian minority on ethnic-based territorial autonomy.

Negotiations picked up speed when a socialist-liberal coalition rose to power in Hungary in 1994. Prime Minister Gyula Horn's foreign and domestic policies are steered by the drive to join NATO and the European Union. So Mr. Horn took a conciliatory approach with Romania's nationalist-socialist coalition.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu switched gears last year when the West made it clear that Romania lagged far behind Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in the race to European Union and NATO membership.

That message hit home with the Romanians. Ninety-five percent of them support NATO membership - the greatest ratio in the former Soviet bloc - because they worry about a return to the Russian sphere of influence.

The major sticking point in negotiations was the Council of Europe Recommendation 1201 on minorities and the pursuit of "collective" rather than "individual" rights - in other words, recognizing the Hungarians as a group entitled to special rights, such as Hungarian-language schools.

But in early August, Romania and Hungary struck a compromise. Mr. Iliescu, eyeing Romania's Nov. 3 presidential elections and in need of a foreign-policy victory, proposed that an annex be attached to the treaty, clearly stating it did not allow for collective rights. Hungary, over the protests of many Hungarians in Romania - and aware that preliminary NATO talks begin this winter - agreed to the annex.

The treaty was signed Sept. 16. Romania's parliament quickly ratified the treaty, with Hungarian approval expected this month.

'Proof of the pudding....'

But now comes the hard part - implementation. The Hungarian minority and their patrons in Budapest have their fingers crossed that the treaty's spirit will be honored.

"The proof of the pudding will be in its eating," said Hungarian-born US Congressman Tom Lantos, a member of the House International Relations Committee.

Few expect years of distrust between Hungary and Romania to evaporate quickly. But the treaty deals a blow to extremist forces in both countries and should pave the way for a relationship intertwined economically and militarily. Indeed, the treaty calls for mutual support in their respective bids for membership into NATO and the EU.

"It's clear proof that irrespective of the difficulties and our sometimes tragic historic experience," Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu told the Monitor, "the two countries are trying to learn from the past and look to their common future."

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