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Autumn 2004

Linguistic policy and national minorities in Romania, by Sergiu Constantin

Basic principles of Romanian linguistic policy as regards national minorities have been stipulated in Constitution and special laws. Although is too early to declare its model it can be considered an example of good practice in a highly sensitive matter. After a short presentation of the background, the paper analyzes the main features of minority language policy in Romania from a legal perspective. It deals in detail with the Constitutional and national laws which regulate the status of the official language, education in minority language, use of minority language in public administration and police forces,   minority language and mass-media. Several considerations regarding the situation of Roma minority are added to complete the image before the conclusions that can be drawn at the moment.

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1. Introduction

2. A short overview of minority issue in Romania in the last decade

3. The legal framework of Romanian linguistic policy
3.1 The Constitution of 1991 and constitutional amendments of 2003
3.2 Linguistic rights and education
3.3 Linguistic rights, public administration and police forces
3.4 Linguistic rights and media

4. Roma minority

5. Conclusions

6. Bibliography


1. Introduction

It is submitted that language policy as regards national minorities in Romania is still a matter of political bargaining although its basic principles were set up already in Constitution and special laws. In my opinion it is too early to declare it a “success story” as the politicians likes to do but nevertheless it can be considered an example of good practice in a highly sensitive matter, in a country and in a geographical region where minority issue represented always a hot potato. It should be emphasized the fact that a combined pressure from European Union, NATO, Council of Europe and Hungarian minority political representatives has proved to be decisive in order to convince Romanian political class to accept reforms as regards minority rights in general. It is obvious that some domestic legislative and institutional measures have been taken in the last decade due to pragmatic political reasons and not because local politicians were eager to regulate the matter. NATO and EU membership depends also on political criteria and this conditionality pushed the treatment of national minorities as a priority on the Governmental agenda. Unfortunately, Romania still doesn’t have a framework law on national minorities but what is quite certain is that the situation of minority rights looks very different from ten years ago. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that laws’ success depends not only on their wording but mainly on their correct and timely implementation.

What are the main characteristics of Romanian language policy? I will answer to this question following the language policies classification made by Kymlicka and Patten (1) who organized them by distinguish between: “(1) tolerance vs promotion-oriented rights; (2) norm-and accommodation vs official-languages rights regimes; (3) personality vs territoriality rights regimes; (4) individual vs collective rights.” Tolerance rights permit to individuals to use whatever language they want in the private life while the promotion-oriented rights means that individuals may use minority languages in public sphere–administration, courts, education system. Romanian linguistic policy is characterized by both tolerance and promotion rights. “Norms-and-accommodation regime” is that one in which the language of majority has the main role being used normally in all sectors of the society but, under specific terms, minority languages may be used as well in relation with public institutions.

In “official-languages regime”, certain languages are declared official and any public service may be received in no matter which of these languages that enjoy an equal legal status. It is submitted that Romania has a “norm-and-accommodation” linguistic policy. Personality principle implies that citizens may enjoy linguistic rights, under the terms of law, wherever they live in the country. On the contrary, according to territorial principle, linguistic rights are connected with certain territorial areas of the country. It is undoubtedly true that in Romania it is applied the personality principle. The dispute around individual and collective rights is a classic one and it doesn’t need more comments. The fact of the matter surely is that in Romania the concept of “collective rights” is strongly rejected by authorities. Although some representatives of Hungarian minority, for example, speak often about collective rights, officially, there are no such rights but only individual linguistic rights which are exercised together by persons belonging to national minorities.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the main features of minority language policy in Romania from a legal perspective. Thus, the focus will be on the linguistic rights guaranteed to national minorities by the existing legal framework. For a better understanding of the matter, I considered necessary to present briefly, in the first part, the context of minority rights issue in Romania in the last decade. The second part deals in detail with the Constitutional and national laws which regulate the status of the official language, education in minority language, use of minority language in public administration and police forces, minority language and mass-media. Third part is reserved for several considerations regarding the situation of Roma minority. The conclusions are outlined in the last part.

2. A short overview of minority issue in Romania in the last decade

In Romania, the last phase of the Communist system was characterized by a virulent nationalistic discourse and its negative effects were visible long time after the dictatorship regime was overthrown in December 1989. The minority issue became clock bomb from the first days of freedom. Officially the largest minority in the country, Hungarians (2) were the first minority group to ask for specific rights. In Transylvania they have requested immediately education in the mother tongue at all levels and segregation of the schools on the base of ethnic criteria. Romanians have reacted strongly against such requests considering them as first steps of a Hungarian revisionist movement. The tension became explosive in Transylvania and the worst scenario became true in March 1990 in the city of Targu-Mures (Marosvasarhely in Hungarian) where ethnic hatred erupted. Romanians and Hungarians were fighting each other and people were dying in the streets. Hopefully the violent conflict was a short one but the trauma it left has deepened the historical mutual mistrust between the majority and Hungarian minority.

It is submitted that in the next six years, at official level, almost nothing was done as regards minorities rights. Moreover, the nationalist Greater Romania Party was a partner in the coalition which was in power. In December 1991 was approved by referendum the new Constitution which declares that “Romania is a sovereign, independent, unitary and indivisible National State“ (Article 1), but "the State recognizes and guarantees the right of persons belonging to national minorities, to the preservation, development and expression of their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity" (Article 6). (3)

In 1991, the Parliament passed the Law no. 69/1991 on public administration which didn’t reflect all the expectation of national minorities and has been strongly criticized by ethnic Hungarian political elite. It contained only two provision regarding minority languages: Article 30 which stipulated that decisions of the local Council are made public also in the minority languages in the administrative-territorial units where a significant number of persons belonging to national minorities leave and Article 54 which allowed minority persons to use their mother tongue, written or orally, in relation with public administration authorities under the condition to attach a Romanian translation of the documents, respectively to use the service of a translator. The most important right obtained by minorities in the early ’90 was the representation in the Parliament. Law no 68/1992 on the election of Chamber of Deputies and Senate assured a deputy mandate for each national minority, under certain conditions. Article 4(1) of Law no 68/1992 stipulates that "legally constituted organizations of citizens belonging to national minorities which fail to obtain at least one seat in the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate in the elections shall have the right to one seat in the Chamber of Deputies, in accordance with Article 59 paragraph (2) of the Constitution, provided that their share of the vote is at least 5% of the average number of validly cast votes in the entire country for the election of a Deputy.”

In 1993, was established a Council for National Minorities composed by representatives of national minorities and civil servants from ministries. This was only a consultative body and its lack of powers marked its activity which can be described as very discreet.

Romania became a member of the Council of Europe on 7 October 1993, signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on 1 of February 1995 and ratified it on 11 of May 1995. This positive measure was followed by a step back. Representatives of national minorities, especially Hungarians, have criticized sharply the Law on education no 84 in the form adopted by Parliament in July 1995. It contained restrictive provision as regards minority rights which were eliminated few years later. Romania submitted its application for EU membership on 22 June 1995. In February 1995 entered into force the Europe Agreement establishing an association between the European Economic Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and Romania, of the other part. In the preamble it is stressed out the "need to continue and complete, with the assistance of the Community, Romania's transition towards a new political and economic system which respects the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

In November 1996, the opposition parties won the parliamentary elections and invited the political organization of Hungarian minority to join the new governmental coalition. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians from Romania (hereinafter DAHR) accepted the political deal proposed and thus, for the first time in Romanian history, in the Government were appointed ministers from a party representing the interests of Hungarian minority. One of them was the Minister delegated by Prime-Minister for national minorities who had the role to coordinate the new Department for Protection of National Minorities established in February 1997. This moment marked the beginning of a new era for national minorities in Romania because of the wave of legislative and institution changes it brought. A process of restitution of real estate good which belonged to national minorities has started. (4) Laws on public administration and education were amended by means of Governmental Emergency Ordinances in order to provide linguistic rights for minorities. (5) The Institution of Ombudsman (6) was established and, as a premiere in Central and Eastern Europe, a framework law on anti-discrimination entered into force. (7)

After the elections of 2000, although DAHR didn’t enter in a governmental coalition it made a political deal with the party in power. Point 8 of the "Agreement on co-operation between the Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania in 2002” stipulates that "[t]he two political parties shall continue to grant priority to the protection of national minorities, institutional and legislative development of their issues. The conditions to secure the right to freely express the preservation and development of ethnic identity shall continue to broaden for all Romanian citizens belonging to national minorities, in order to manifest themselves in areas of cultural, religious, educational, and public life. Special attention shall be granted to the issues of minority communities in the localities where their proportion is small compared to the majority population". In exchange of DAHR’s political support in Parliament and at local level further measures on favor of national minorities were taken. One of the most important moments was the parliamentary vote on the new Law on public administration no 215/2001 which provides for the use of minority languages in administrative-territorial units where a minority represents at least 20% of the population. The National Council Combating Discrimination, a specialized body for implementation of equality principle and enforcement of non-discrimination legislation, was established in 2001. (8)

Provisions regarding linguistic rights were included in 2002 in the new Law concerning the status of policepersons and new Law on audiovisual (9) despite the tensions brought in Romanian political life by the controversial Status Law (10) passed by the Hungarian Parliament in favor of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries except Austria, a EU member state where some provisions of the Hungarian law would have been inapplicable due to their discriminatory effect. (11) In October 2003, Romanian Constitution was amended and the use of mother tongue, under the terms stipulated in the specific organic laws, both in relation with public administration and in the Courts became constitutional principles. (12)

In the last decade there were made public and debated at least five draft laws on national minorities but none of them received the political and public support needed to be put on the parliamentary agenda. Another issue still open is the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages. A draft law on ratification elaborated by the former Department for Protection of National Minorities in 2000 was blocked by political disputes in an electoral year. It seems that actual Government prepares a draft law on ratification as well but, my own view is that nothing concrete will be done this year as politicians are again busy with elections. Most probably the Charter will not be a priority.

3. The legal framework of Romanian linguistic policy

3.1 The Constitution of 1991 and constitutional amendments of 2003

It is submitted that Romanian Constitution in the form adopted in 1991 didn’t reach the expectations of the large Hungarian minority. The representatives of Roma and other small minorities in the country adopted a quite neutral position as regards the constitutional principles regarding their rights. My own view is that while they were not necessary satisfied with the provisions laid down in the Constitution, being aware of their absolute lack the political power, they simply accepted the standards proposed by the majority. On the other hand it is obvious that interests of Roma or small minorities are not always similar the aims of Hungarian minority. For example, while Hungarian representatives were from the beginning against the inclusion of “Nation State” principle in the Constitution, for the representatives of other minorities this is not really an issue. 

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