Letters to the Editor:
The Values Guiding an East European Minority During Transition
Prof. Steven Lukes, London School of Economics (supervisor)
Prof. Árpád Szakolczai, University College Cork (cosupervisor)
Prof. György Bence, ELTE, Bölcsészettudományi Kar, Budapest
Prof. Christian Joppke, European University Institute, Firenze
Florence, January 2001
For some time after 1989, most of the literature devoted to EastCentral Europe has taken for granted the allegations of the new dominant elite from this region, concerning their will to create a society that would take as a model the „Western” social, economic, political system. That there was a broad national consensus on the image and project of a „good society”, on political, economic, social, moral goals, values, norms, means, and interpretations. It was also taken for granted that the new political elite that accepted to take the lead during transition received a mandate in this sense from society, i. e. they, and their aspirations were legitimate. Further, that these societies had always identified themselves with socalled Western values, had always held market economy, individual initiative, parliamentary democracy (and the welfare state) in high esteem, together with certain moral, artistic, cultural values. In this respect, they all claimed to have more or less respectable traditions, and that Communism had broken this „natural” flow of their history.
But often – especially after some time „traditions” proved to be not so consistent, relevant, or more „cultural” than „political” or „economic” in character. Then traditions were considered as less important, and the problems were solved by the allegedly universal character of the „Western model”, i. e. that it was applicable anywhere, irrespective of traditions. Consequently, it was thought, if that model was properly implemented, after a time it necessarily brought about freedom and prosperity. In order to achieve these goals, only a new legal, institutional, and economic system had to be created, according to a presupposed unique model often made operational by a set of advice.
In 1990, all this seemed to be basic common sense, and on the whole, the projects based on it seemed to be feasible. After some months, it came as a shock that in this part of the world „revolutions”, even if „velvet”, often implied public mass violence, questioning political, economic stability. The formal solutions to the political aspects often neglected the problematic social aspects. Radical change often neglected the rule of law. (How could it not, in the beginning?). It came out that for most of the population the feeling of security, predictability and order in everyday life was more important than (for the moment) vain hopes for sudden welfare, or than parliamentary skirmishes. The bonds of the (primary) group of reference proved to be more important than law, and for some observers it also came as a shock that in Eastern Europe the selfrespecting citizen was usually identical with the not so selflimiting, actually often intolerant Hungarian, Czech, or Ukrainian „patriot”. That in spite of the common keywords, a demagogic rhetoric could stress on the radical divergence of means.
Soon it also came out that the hazy goals of 1989 could not be achieved so easily, that the road to market economy and democracy was full of difficulties, failures, and disasters. This had to be explained. The explanations, interpretations from practically the whole cultural and political spectrum led to an unequivocally negative evaluation of all the social strata that were identified as the major actors of transition. One blamed not only the political elite, the new stratum of entrepreneurs (the socalled „backbone of society”), the intellectuals, but often even the population as a whole (the political culture, or more generally the mentality of the „people”, of the „majority”).
Within this new configuration of the problem, most of the analyses devoted to EastCentral Europe started with asserting that in 1989 these societies were not familiar with Western values, were not part of the „Western tradition”. The mentality of the population it was said contained too many older („communist”, „nationalist”, „nonwestern”, or just „passive”, „traditional”) elements that were inherited from or survived under the former regime. Consequently, these interpretations said, they probably needed an elite that would transmit, mediate to the whole society the political, cultural, economic model to be followed. As a result, the elite became not only the essential element of the interpretations, but often the hero of democratisation, or respectively the scapegoat of failures. The first role was elaborated especially by a certain strand of the literature devoted to civil society. According to this scheme, a spiritual elite educated in respect for Western values, which felt deeply responsible for its society, had made possible the breakdown of totalitarian systems in Eastern Europe, and after that it became the major driving force of the transition to democracy. The „guilty” elite came to be not so much the administrative, political elite of the previous regime (even if its members „reconverted” themselves), but the nationalist demagogue promoting an irresponsible rhetoric, and thus „perverting” with it (civil) society.
The intelligentsia's capacity of building society common actually in both the laudative and the disapproving frames of interpretation had already made it into a counterhero long before, in the literature devoted to national consciousness. This type of consciousness, identity had already been shown to be nothing but a construction of the intelligentsia and of the political, administrative elite. Thus, it is a dominant elite that creates abstract communities (like nations) that tear out the individual from her/his concrete sphere of reference (community). She/he has to change her/his concrete community for a larger one that is mostly unknown, and with values that can be validated in everyday life only with difficulty, and which can be approached, understood only due to the activity of specialised mediators. At the same time, the abstract („invented”) community presents itself (or at least tries to) as if it were to be taken for granted as much as the concrete one. Only that now it can be manipulated according to the will of the mediator (the elite). The mechanism i. e. the constitution of an either „good” or „bad” public sphere, public opinion in the modern age can be applied to other spheres of life as well. In most of the cases, it is the elite that raises and shapes the issues, the values that should guide a certain abstract community, the nation, or the state toward the future.
The image based on the opposition between the manipulatory, „immoral” political elite and a population made up of lonely, alienated individuals, subjects wandering about lost in an abstract community, is certainly very attractive. First of all, because it offers the diffuse moral revolt so typical of East European intellectuals a clear, concrete target. Then, because it is able to give a coherent explanation to a large range of problems, sometimes to practically everything. But this is also a reason for suspicion. It is not accidental that this interpretation starts from the model developed, circulated by members of the intellectual elite, since it is particular for this stratum to strive for coherence. But everyday consciousness, knowledge, does not. And this leads to the following problem: how valid is a view of society that investigates only the values, the activity, the successes of the elite, while the population is seen only as the passive receptacle of persuasion, propaganda, of manipulation, of the values that tie it to abstract communities? Should the population be seen as a sponge, or as a sieve? Is the „people” following its intelligentsia an imitator of („western”) models as well? Or under the stress of everyday life and a badly needed knowledge with which it is not familiar is its life only a series of improvisations? Do the values usually circulated by the elite in the public sphere have such a powerful grip on the minds of those outside it? And even if so, is it not possible that the messages developed by the elite often have a totally different meaning, and thus the consent, the legitimacy so often invoked, claimed is more problematic than it is usually assumed?
An answer to such questions is possible only if one starts from the investigation of texts that were not produced by the elite. Instead, the focus should be on ideas, norms, interpretations that have come into being among „common people”, on the way current or „everlasting”, „local”, „universal”, individual or communal problems are framed. According to the hypothesis of this thesis, if they show a certain deviance from the frames of interpretation circulated by the elite, then our image of the „transition”, of „culprits” and „sins” should change as well.
Such „nonelite” texts dealing with current social, political, economic problems within the sphere of everyday life are not easy to find. In this thesis research focuses on the letters received by a Hungarian local daily newspaper in Romania Háromszék in the period between December 1989 and the end of 1994.
First, the newspaper and the county will be presented, including the relationship between them, what they have meant to each other. In order to understand properly this connection, the broader intellectual context of the newspaper will be shown, and the frames of interpretation that gave meaning, purpose to the role connected to being a Hungarian intellectual in Romania both before and after 1989. Two sections will show the problems referring to the interpretation of the present, post1989 „minority” situation. They will attempt to prove that the roots of the difficulties can be found on the one hand in a more than 70 years old „minority rhetoric”, and on the other hand in some techniques of expression developed during the Communist regime.
The second part of the thesis will be an analysis of the values, norms, goals one can discern from the letters written to the editor. The aim will be to show that certain values prevalent and taken for granted in the „High” public sphere are inexistent, or play no role in the way „common people” organise their life or make sense of the world. The discussion will revolve around issues like common matters and conflicts, social problems, what it means to be member of the people or the nation, what should be the role of the elite, and the image of an ideal society.
The concluding part will tackle the problem of the new social order from the point of view of the Hungarian minority in Romania (although probably the argument could be extended to the whole of the Romanian society). The question will be the following: is in a Weberian sense the new social order legitimate, is it valid, or both, or none?
The daily newspaper Háromszék came into being on the 22nd of December 1989, the very day the Ceauşescu couple was toppled from power. The first issue came out on the 23rd of December. Since it did not come out of the blue, but on the basis, with the infrastructure, people, and ideas of the already existing local daily newspaper, it is very important to give a short presentation of Megyei Tükör, „the paper of Kovászna county's R. C. P. County Committee and of its County Council”. The roots of the presentday newspaper, its selfimage and its image of local society are closely connected to its predecessor's aborted attempt to create a young, highquality, locally based paper with a strong national and social mission. Consequently, first one should have a look at the original newspaper and the county for which it was established.
Historically, the administrative units in Romania were the counties. In 1950, following the Soviet example, the territory of the country was divided into larger units called regions. The Székelyland was at that time divided between the regions Maros (Mureş) and Stalin. The former had a Romanian, while the latter a Hungarian majority. The presentday county Kovászna became part of the latter. In 1952, the borders were somewhat redrawn, bringing into existence the Hungarian Autonomous region a symbol of the socalled Stalinist solution to the minority question. It was an enormous unit, comprising practically the whole Székelyland, a bit even more. According to the 1956 census, its population was of 731,387 people, out of which 575,737 (77.3%) were Hungarians, and 144,624 were Romanians. The large majority of the administrative and political elite was Hungarian. The dominant language in the public sphere including official meetings was usually Hungarian. For those who did not understand the language during the meetings, somebody quietly translated for him/her.
In 1960, the Székelyland was reorganised again. Most of what is today Kovászna (in Romanian Covasna) county became part of Brassó region. Slowly, some leading positions could be occupied only by Romanians, and all activities had to be correlated with the centre in Brassó. The meetings had to be held in Romanian.
In 1968, a new administrative division abolished the Soviettype regions and reintroduced the counties, considered to be more consonant with the country's historical traditions (and consequently also with the structure of Romania's economic infrastructure).
One of the results was the disappearance of the former Autonomous Hungarian Region Maros (Mureş), comprising the large majority of the Székelyland, and with an overwhelmingly Hungarian majority. The general Hungarian opinion about this reorganisation has been that the new division into smaller units was a positive move for certain areas, remaking to a certain degree some of the historical administrative (in this case, also ethnic, linguistic) borders. Nevertheless, large areas with a predominantly Hungarian population became part of other counties with a mostly Romanian population. Since mixtures are taken as attempts at assimilation, the general opinion about this has been negative. According to a common Hungarian interpretation, the administrative divisions serve mixing up the population, so that the Hungarian regions lose their ethnic homogeneity. Thus Hungarian language can be banished from the public sphere, the local elite can be changed to a preponderantly Romanian one, and the population can be more easily assimilated.
However, Kovászna county was in a different situation, since it escaped what was considered to be the hegemony of a Romanian centre. Megyei Tükör was established in 1968, as a direct result of this new administrative division of the country, since each county's Romanian Communist Party committee had to have a daily newspaper. The „new” county named Covasna after a health resort had a traditional historical precedent since the middle ages.
According to the national census of 1966, the population of the county was 176,858, which represented 0.9% percent of the population of Romania. Both by territory and by population it was (and still is) the smallest county in Romania. The large majority of the population lived in villages (121,549, i. e. 68.7%). The county had three towns (later two more large villages became towns), but even these were small: the main city, Sepsiszentgyörgy (in Romanian Sfântu Gheorghe), had 22,058 inhabitants. The rest had a population between 5,000 and 11,000, and even until the middle of the seventies, they used to look more like large villages. But in the odd 25 years since 1968 the image of the county changed drastically. As a result of low quality socialist industrialisation and urbanisation, especially in the capital of the county, most of these small towns had less and less in common with their past. From closed, halfrural settlements they were transformed in approximately 15 years into large agglomerations of blocks of flats. The most spectacular increase of population can be seen in Sepsiszentgyörgy (the population approximately tripled).
According to nationality, the distribution was the following: 79.4% Hungarians, 19.3% Romanians, 0.2% Germans, 1.1% „other”: Gypsies, Serbs, Jews, Poles, etc. It is no surprise that since its creation it has been considered one of the „Hungarian counties” in Romania. It is part of the local common opinion that the official policy of the central power has always done its best to change the ratio of ethnic groups in the regions where minorities were a majority. While in the interwar period the only means for this was the implantation of a new administration, or the administrative reorganisations that included the Hungarian population within units that changed the ethnic ratio (even if not totally), during socialism overstretched industrialisation assured far better results. This is already impossible after 1989, so local common knowledge says the central government tries to implant Romanians by settling military forces and gendarmerie into the county.
As a cultural centre, Sepsiszentgyörgy (not to speak of the other towns) hardly existed. The theatre founded here in the fifties was more of an oddity. Nevertheless, after 1968 the town (and the county) presented several major advantages for more ambitious people. This was part of the general feeling of prosperity, of progress that pervaded Romania in this „liberal” period. And in a new county with a new residential town, seen by the population as an improvement (not being under the patronage of Brassó, i. e. of „Romanians” any more), optimism could be even higher, due also to the new career opportunities. Beside the new jobs in the newly created party and local administration, there was a whole range of institutions, institutes that started their activity then. Among them the two newspapers: Megyei Tükör and Cuvîntul nou. Further, one could also count on more new jobs that would appear as a result of modernisation and industrialisation. Until then, the town and the region around it was only a periphery (the centre being in Brassó), where resources directed towards modernisation hardly arrived. Hopes that this situation would change, and that there would be massive investments in the future, were realistic. All over the country, the fight of the towns and regions for becoming centres in the new administrative system should be understood first of all as a competition for access to resources. It was known that becoming a new centre would mean new investments, jobs for the local population, and obviously more leading posts for the administrative or political, economic elite. Many Hungarians moved into the new county from centres like Bucharest and Brassó to assume positions in the administrative, party apparatus or in the new factories that soon started to be built.
And there were national considerations as well. Again, one should not forget that it was the socalled „liberal” period of Nicolae Ceauşescu's rule. 1968 meant an enormous proliferation of minority cultural institutions: new papers and reviews, a publishing house, television programmes for minorities in Hungarian and German language, etc. Compared to large and prestigious institutions like these, a local newspaper should not have been a match. But the town's symbolic value had in the meanwhile increased enormously. In the beginning of the seventies one could quite often read, hear the idea that Sepsiszentgyörgy should have become the Hungarian cultural centre in Transylvania instead of Kolozsvár (ClujNapoca). The majority of the population and the key party and state officials in the latter it was argued were not Hungarians any more, and in spite of the fact that academic and cultural institutions were there, it was more and more difficult to get resources for activities concerning Hungarian culture. Obviously nothing came out of this, but the emergence of such an idea shows the positive, optimistic atmosphere Sepsiszentgyörgy exhibited for some years in that period.
Most of the people knew that this was daydreaming. Nevertheless, as a periphery even „in Hungarian terms”, culturally the town had not only drawbacks, but advantages as well. First of all, the key positions in the party, police, secret police, local administration, as well as in economy were then occupied by Hungarians. Moreover, they were considered to be mostly „of good will”, i. e. ready to help or turn a blind eye upon moderately articulated national i. e. cultural issues. The new job opportunities, the relatively free atmosphere which allowed for meaningful work, for creative activity, and last but not least what was to be considered the „Hungarian character” of the town, attracted several young poets writers, artists. With a lenient party secretary, a tolerant secret police, and without an already existing cultural interest group to impose allegiances, recognition, promotion (the advantage of a cultural „tabula rasa”!), the town became a really attractive place for those times.
In the following, the short history of Megyei Tükör will be presented briefly. This is important because the image of the paper was created in the first 58 years, and it remained unaltered even when the original paper, its ideas, outlook, topics, etc. had to disappear almost completely. The readers lived with the memory of that image, the journalists were sitting in the pubs and remembering those good old days of the newspaper. It is no surprise that in December 1989 they tried to live up to that ideal.
Megyei Tükör was first a weekly, „the paper of Kovászna county's R. C. P. County Committee and of its temporary County Council”. The editorinchief was Sándor Dali. The most famous members of the staff were young graduates, all from the Székelyland, who used to be colleagues, friends, acquaintances already at the university in Kolozsvár. Some of them were already known (or soon came to be known) as among the most talented writers, poets of their generation.
What was the paper writing about? First of all, its editors revitalised literary report as a genre. The major topics were connected to village life: local mentality, agriculture, rural schools, the problems encountered by young intellectuals when taking up their jobs in villages, the negligence of local authorities, the economic situation of the county, and an eternal topic, services. A whole range of writings aimed at reconquering „lost” cultural, historical terrain, at the revival of history, the strengthening of a local, regional identity. The reports were characterised by strong realism, and the refusal to avoid socalled „delicate” topics i. e. by what was called „courage”, in those days. The columns treating economy were also written freely (for those times), and professionally. Compared to the propagandistic „reports” of later years, the liberty they were granted and allowed themselves! in criticism is surprising. They attacked even such taboo topics like mechanisation, and the efficiency of large farms in agricultural production cooperatives.
Of course, they also had to present party life. But such texts were usually written either by members of the party apparatus, or they were not signed. Foreign politics had nothing personal, it was presented with the strong ideological bias imposed on any newspaper during the Cold War. Obviously the newspaper's strength, major interest was local. Oddly enough, this can be seen in the cultural column as well. It dealt almost exclusively with local events. Thus, it is not surprising that it seems to have been somewhat provincial, closed from what was happening in Romania or the world. Even Romanian literature was very rarely presented. The presentations of theatre productions, films, books, poems, etc. were usually not beyond a moderate level, with the same ethnic (regional) or moral lessons.
And in this respect it is crucial to sketch what was the image the paper conveyed the readers about themselves. Strengthening local and national consciousness (national and local history, personalities, culture, curiosities, etc.) was only one side of the image. And while on the „abstract” level the image was idealised, in dealing with everyday aspects of behaviour, the paper was neither shy, nor indulgent in its criticism. On the one hand, one may consider the critical treatment of the traditional mentality concerning private, „human” problems (even if they were part of the traditional Székely „macho” image), especially divorce, the condition of women, and knifing. On the other hand, the „uncivilised” behaviour of people in institutions, services (that were in some cases new for the population) was also presented. Idealisation of „their people” does not hold back the verdict: it is not only „faceless”, sloppy, incompetently run institutions that are to blame it is a question of personal responsibility, of lack of proper manners as well. And it is the responsibility, the guilt of the customers, the population as well, if institutions, services do not function in a civilised way.
The image they constructed of the „people” and the „lessons taught” need deeper explanation. The intellectual ideal of the staff was that of the traditional Eastern European intelligentsia: the newspaper's duty was to educate, maintain, and help the people. In this respect, the relationship of the paper with its readers the people was seen as being of major importance. The readers were regularly asked to write short reports, presentations of events from their villages, or present complaints, problems, even if of a more personal nature. In exchange, the paper took upon itself the task of helping, looking for solutions, mediating toward the bureaucratic apparatus. These letters acquired a special place within the body of the paper. They were a sort of a mark of confidence. They restrengthened the values through which the editors saw the paper, and implicitly their own identity.
The letters written to the editor appear already in the third issue. From the very beginning until the present day, the letters have proved to be a crucial element in promoting and reproducing a certain type of values, goals, identity, together with the corresponding rhetoric. Some of the major topics of the letters have survived over twentyfive years. Let us see the letters of the first issues. What do „they”, the readers expect from this paper?
like the paper to perform useful educational work, to teach people to love each
other. We think that it may do a lot to further deepen the brotherhood of
Romanians and Hungarians.
Our newly born county should become an example for all the counties.