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Common Quest Makes Chums of Old Rivals

While the peace process teeters forward in Bosnia, another centuries-old rivalry is being put to rest on the other side of the Balkan peninsula.

Hungary and Romania fought two wars this century over control of Transylvania, the hilly northwestern third of present-day Romania. Relations remained extremely frigid under Communism.

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But recent months have seen a dramatic improvement in relations between the two states. After years of difficult negotiations, a basic treaty was signed last year in which Hungary formally abandoned territorial claims and Romania agreed to guarantee wider rights to its Hungarian minority in education, culture, and local administration.

The new Romanian foreign minister, Adrian Severin, is said to be a personal friend of his Hungarian counterpart, Laszlo Kovacs, and Budapest, Hungary's capital, was the site of his first state visit after taking office. New border crossings and consulates are to be opened, including the Hungarian consulate in the Transylvanian city of Cluj - a long-standing Hungarian demand.

"There's been a very significant breakthrough in relations that will have important benefits for both countries," says international legal expert Boldizsar Nagy of Budapest's Lorand Eotvos University. "Everyone realized that you can't drive the economy with ethnic hatred, and economic growth was what was needed."

The causes of the rapprochement are manifold, but external factors have played an important role. Both countries are seeking membership in NATO and the European Union, and both organizations have made it clear that applicants must resolve problems with their neighbors before consideration for membership.

The carnage of the wars in nearby Bosnia and Croatia provide a sobering example of the dangers of engaging in extreme ethno-nationalist politics. Sources say the lesson was not lost on ordinary Hungarians and Romanians, fewer and fewer of whom support extreme nationalists such as Hungary's Istvan Csurka or Gheorghe Funar in Romania.

Whatever the reasons, the warming of Hungarian-Romanian relations is welcome news for the international community as it comes as the rest of the Balkans are in turmoil. The Bosnian peace is shaky at best. Croatia's leader, Franjo Tudjman, is believed to be ailing and has no clear successor. Friction has increased between Greece and Turkey over the island of Cyprus, and demonstrators are destabilizing less-than-democratic governments in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania.

"Romania is making a very concerted effort to be a leader in promoting regional stability," says US Ambassador to Romania Alfred Moses. "The improvement in relations with Hungary is a very positive development."

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Senior Romanian officials have underscored their intention to join the first group of prospective NATO applicants, which includes Hungary. "It's very important that we be admitted at the same time as Hungary to disarm extremists who would use it as ammunition against European integration," says Petru Cordos, the Romanian Foreign Ministry official who negotiated the basic treaty with Hungary.

But while political leaders in Hungary and Romania are happy, the leaders of Romania's Hungarian minority are cautious. "For real change to take place, there has to be a major overhaul of the system of local and regional government," says Anton Niculescu of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

Romania's current system of local and county administration is highly centralized and prone to corruption and political favoritism, a relic of the Communist era. "It's an undemocratic system designed to concentrate power in the hands of the country's rulers," says Mr. Niculescu. "The system needs to be reformed for there to be true democratization - and real security for ethnic minorities - in Romania."

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