Living like in Hungary: Orban Bankrolling Romania ‘Ethnic Parallelism’

Viktor Orban’s Hungary is pouring money into Hungarian-language media, education, sports clubs and churches in Romania’s Transylvania, where more than one million ethnic Hungarians increasingly ‘live their lives as if they were in Hungary.’
By Ákos Keller-Alánt

In 2017, an organization called the Transylvanian Media Space Association, or Erdélyi Médiatér Egyesület, had a budget of 140,000 euros and one small Hungarian-language online news outlet called Főtér based in the northwestern Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, unofficial capital of the country’s Transylvania region.

Transylvania is home to the bulk of roughly 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania, some six per cent of the country’s total population and one of the largest ethnic minority communities in Europe.

Főtér began work in 2014, and even now it has only sparsely-furnished offices and an editorial staff of just 10. But while it may have struggled before 2017, its finances are now on firmer footing thanks to two grants given to Erdélyi Médiatér Egyesület between late 2017 and early 2019 totalling 10.5 million euros.

The money came from the Hungarian state, as one small part of a funding line from Budapest to Hungarians in Romania worth at least 150 million euros since 2016 and growing.

Erdélyi Médiatér Egyesület has since snapped up the most important Hungarian-language daily newspapers in Transylvania, several glossy magazines, a literary periodical, television and radio and the most important news portal, Székelyhon.

At Főtér, editor-in-chief Sándor Fall said the money meant little for his operation beyond a new layout and two recent new hires. He dismissed concerns about editorial independence: “No one tells us what we can write about. We write about what we think is important.”

Nevertheless, he admitted that without outside funding, Főtér and other Hungarian-language outlets in Transylvania would struggle to survive.

Indeed, observers of Viktor Orban’s Hungary are skeptical that such largesse comes without strings attached.

They see in his government’s unprecedented spending on ethnic Hungarians beyond Hungary’s borders an extension of the ‘illiberal democracy’ Orban’s Fidesz party has instituted at home since taking power in 2010.

In Transylvania, huge sums have been spent on Hungarian-language media, sports facilities, kindergartens, schools and churches, constructing what Tamás Kiss, a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, described to BIRN as a system of “ethnic parallelism – to build up and maintain a system in which Hungarians can live their life as it would be not in Romania but in Hungary.”

And media consumption is crucial, he said.

When Főtér says it is not censored, “I believe them,” said Zoltán Sipos, editor-in-chief of the only investigative media outlet for Romania’s ethnic Hungarian community, Átlátszó Erdély, or Transparent Transylvania.

But, he said, “self-censorship works just as well.”

“They don’t have a bad word to say” about Fidesz or the main ethnic Hungarian political party in Romania, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, RMDSZ, Sipos told BIRN.

Influential churches are big beneficiaries

Transylvania holds a special place in Hungarian national identity and the ‘trauma’ – harnessed by Fidesz – of the post-World War One carve-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire that cost pre-1920 Hungary two-thirds of its territory and stranded half its population beyond the borders of the redrawn state.

Pursuing the ‘virtual unification’ of all Hungarians, Orban has made it easier for them to gain Hungarian citizenship and poured money into ethnic Hungarian communities in Slovenia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania via local proxies.

That spending has been biggest in Transylvania – roughly 145 million euros in 2017 and a similar amount in 2018. Last year, Hungary launched the Pro Economica foundation – a replica of smaller foundations in Slovenia and Serbia – to funnel a promised 312 million euros in small grants for agricultural development.

As in other countries, scrutiny of how such funds operate is not easy.

“Pro Economica is a private foundation, so FOIA [Freedom of Information Request] doesn’t apply,” said Sipos. “This is the next step in making the trail of the money coming from Hungary totally opaque.”

In addition, other funds arrive from Hungarian government ministries and municipalities, via cultural programs and sponsorship by state-owned companies. As in Serbia and Slovenia, Hungary has bankrolled sports facilities while Hungarian passport-holders in Romania can apply for family welfare subsidies from the Hungarian state as well.

Some tenders can be found online, some programs appear only in the Hungarian state budget, but there is no single database that contains all spending on ethnic Hungarians communities outside of Hungary.

The biggest recipient in Romania is the Calvinistic Church of Transylvania, with more than 130 million euros. The Church is led by Béla Kató, who has dismissed widespread speculation that he is a good friend of Orban, saying they have only a good relationship.

Sipos, who has investigated the Hungarian spending in Transylvania, said the Church spent half of its allotment on renovating churches and considerable sums on upgrading kindergartens, community buildings, homes for the elderly and other properties belonging to the Church.

“We don’t how the Church decides which property will be renovated. We don’t know how the Church chooses the contractors. But we know, for example, that in a project worth 2.9 million euros, the contractor was Constructii Comert Ilcom Ltd. The Kida Foundation, which is chaired by Kató, is 50 per cent owner of that company.” Kató has said previously that every effort would be made to prevent corruption.

Running kindergartens, schools and even a university, the Catholic and protestant churches in Transylvania are deeply embedded in ethnic Hungarian communities and are often the only provider of community programs and support in small towns and villages. One Catholic parish evens owns an ice hockey academy that also benefited from Orban’s cash injections.

“The churches are well embedded into the Hungarian community in Transylvania,” said a source familiar with the workings of RMDSZ but who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Also, historical experience shows that it is extremely difficult to seize properties from the church. That’s why the Hungarian state prefers them to any non-governmental organization.”

Other big recipients are educational foundations such as the RMDSZ-founded Iskola Alapítvány and the church-founded Sapientia Alapítvány.

Kiss, of the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, said such spending was creating an “ethnic parallelism”.

“Schooling from kindergarten till university, sport clubs, cultural institutions and media: one can use it all in Hungarian with and only Hungarians,” he told BIRN.

“New parallel institutions are building up, like the sports clubs. And the already existing parallelism is getting deepened: this is what the kindergarten program is about. When a new kindergarten is built that’s mostly for only Hungarian children. But it is important to emphasize this is what Transylvanian Hungarian leaders always wanted. And they get full support from the Hungarian government.”

The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment, while RMDSZ said party leader Hunor Kelemen was unavailable for an interview.

‘Racism is fuelled from Hungary’

At the core of this policy is control over what ethnic Hungarians in Romania – and elsewhere – read and hear.

Hungarians in Transylvania are not geographically concentrated but dispersed across the region in villages as well as large towns. This hurts the appeal of ethnic Hungarian media to would-be advertisers and means their finances are precarious.

Indeed, most Hungarians there get their news from content produced in Hungary. Of the five most popular television channels available in Transylvania, four are under the control of the Hungarian government.

And according to research conducted by Kiss, Transylvanian Hungarians spend twice as much time watching channels from Hungary than Romanian-language channels – 100 minutes per day on average.

“Media consumption and the integration of Transylvanian Hungarians into the transnational Hungarian-language media-space is one of the most important institutional tools for the virtual unification of Hungarians distributed across borders,” Kiss wrote in a 2018 paper.

Kiss told BIRN that the influence of Hungarian broadcasters was evident in the growing hostility of Transylvania Hungarians to mainly Muslim migrants and refugees trying to reach the European Union from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, a flow Orban sought to halt via Hungary with border fences and dire warnings about the fate of “Christian Europe”.

“There was never a strong anti-migrant propaganda in Romania,” Kiss said.

“But racism was always strong here against Roma people for example. Now the politically instrumentalized racism fueled from Hungary makes xenophobia extremely strong in certain parts of Transylvania.”

In 2017, a video surfaced online from a Transylvanian kindergarten where, as part of carnival celebrations, a young boy dressed up as a police officer with a gun and confronted a girl playing a Syrian refugee with a baby. Then in 2018, residents of a Transylvanian town called police after a group of Israeli tourists turned up and were mistaken for illegal migrants.

As a consequence of Hungary’s domination of media consumption, if the main ethnic Hungarian political party in Romania, RMDSZ, wants to reach its voters, it must often turn to Hungarian broadcasters, increasing its dependency on the Hungarian government.

RMDSZ and Orban’s Fidesz once had an uneasy relationship, but since Kelemen was elected leader of RMDSZ in 2011, the two have found a common language, or what one source familiar with the workings of the party described as a “non-aggression pact”.

“Hungarians in Transylvania are conservative right-wingers; their natural choice in Hungary is Fidesz,” the source said. “It’s not worth it to RMDSZ to have bad relations with Fidesz.”

If Székelyhon, bought by Erdélyi Médiatér Egyesület with money from the Hungarian state, is the most popular online portal among Transylvanian Hungarians, the second is Maszol.ro, which is owned by RMDSZ.

The director of Maszol.ro is the wife of RMDSZ leader Kelemen’s chief of staff. “The party doesn’t have to call the editorial department if they want to ask for something,” a source with knowledge of the site told BIRN.

“Sometimes, an op-ed might criticize Fidesz. But the next day a call comes from Budapest asking RMDSZ, ‘What’s your problem with us?’”

The Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU is funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.

The of this story is the sole responsibility of BIRN and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.