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December 7, 2021

Lost in translation

One of the most representative Hungarian cities for more than six centuries, Cluj does not benefit from bilingual signs today. At one point the net majority, its Hungarian population has dropped below 20 percent, so that it does not benefit from the stipulations of law no.215/2001. Fifteen years ago, the Local Council ordered the setting up of bilingual signs at the locality’s entry and exit points, but the said decision was disregarded by both the former and the incumbent mayor.

Gheorghe Funar, mayor for three terms, stood out through his ultra-nationalism but also through the ridiculousness of many of his measures. During his last stint in office, the ex-mayor lost his majority within the Local Council, so UDMR managed, in an alliance with PSD, to adopt the bilingual signs decision. After he defeated Social Democrat Ioan Rus in the 2004 elections, Emil Boc was in no hurry to enforce the decision either. It’s true that the situation changed radically, so that Cluj returned to normality, and the Funar era remained just a sad memory for most – even though nostalgic persons are not absent and Boc does not want to neglect them.

Not only had Funar painted everything possible in the tricolour, even outdoor litter bins, but he had also closed the city to many investors – who were at any rate spooked by the local administration’s quirks. The incumbent mayor did not even find it difficult to stand out in contrast to his predecessor, all he had to do was leave things as they normally are. But, in general, Emil Boc was also more open, accepting novel Hungarian initiatives and declaratively promoting a multicultural identity for the city. He also used the rhetoric that the ‘Babes-Bolyai’ University had developed during the Funar era, when it was trying to counter both Funar’s nationalist excesses and UDMR’s pretences for a separate Hungarian-language state university – those were the years in which the Hungarian party had started to become decisive in any Government formula.

But this multiculturalism on the part of Mayor Boc did not take concrete form in many things. And when the organisers of the ‘Days of Hungarian Culture’ – a successful summer event in recent years – marked seven centuries since Cluj was attested as a city, the City Hall did not get involved, as if it was someone else’s city. The truth is that two parallel histories co-exist. That of the reality of a Hungarian city gradually Romanianised over the last century, as well as that of a preponderantly Romanian city that is doing everything to forget what it was before 1918. The implications are more concrete than we could imagine at first glance. Since the old buildings and monuments are talking about a different past, the interest in restoring them and capitalising on them from the standpoint of tourism was either absent or tempered.

Funar filled the city with all kinds of statues and monuments bordering on the kitsch, but Boc was in no hurry to apply a new shine to the Hungarian ones, neglected or still hidden in the museums’ storage rooms. Such an ambiguous policy contributed to the failure to win the title of European capital of culture, won by the much more uptight – from an identity standpoint – Timisoara. After several legal adventures, some young Hungarian locals managed to force the mayor to respect the old decision. But Boc, in order to have it both ways, came up with a fantasist proposal. Before Romanian and Hungarian, the city will have a Latin title. Since this was also the site of a Roman city, during the brief period of incorporation in the Empire, the mayor wants to parry the Hungarian past with the Roman one. Funar tried this too, starting off from various archaeological digs in the centre of the city, meant to prove that a Daco-Roman population lived here before the arrival of the Huns and the Magyars. Before Funar, Nicolae Ceausescu tried the same thing, adding the Latin name Napoca to the city’s old name. In fact, the communist leader is the one who managed to change Cluj’s ethnic structure, through the demographic implications of industrialisation. The large number of Romanians who came to work in the new factories transformed a centuries-old majority into a dwindling minority.

Another blow was the fall of communism, featuring significant emigration toward Hungary and the West. But before Ceausescu there were the Romanian historians, particularly the Transylvanian ones, who carried out such a political battle in favour of a people who was, at the time, discriminated within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, insisting on the region’s Roman past. Between the exclusive glorification of Hungarian history and its occultation, there is a just path to take stock of the past, with its disputes and everything.

Ethnic competition must be relativized and depoliticised as much as possible, otherwise it will only prepare future conflicts. Without such a civic education, fear- and resentment-based populisms the likes of Funar or, in a less strident variant, the likes of Boc, will continue to affect the city’s development strategies.

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