Rivalries Rob East Europe of Bright Future Ethnic Fights Keep the Region from Establishing a Democratic Tradition Series: EUROPE'S TRIBES

Article excerpt

TRANSYLVANIA'S mountainous terrain conjures a range of feelings, from awe at its natural beauty to foreboding at its untamed appearance.

The region's mysterious qualities provided the backdrop to one of the greatest horror stories ever written, "Dracula." But in an area famous for being the home of a monster, it's not the fictional ghoul that scares some Transylvanians. Instead, locals worry about a threat from the past that just keeps coming back: nationalism.

Communism's collapse ripped the lid off long-suppressed feelings of cultural superiority and interethnic animosity. Such sentiments are now present in most Central and Eastern European nations.

The breakup of Yugoslavia was the first manifestation of nationalism's destructive force. While this example is extreme, nationalism retains the ability to distract the region from its most important tasks - economic and political reforms.

"Nationalism can be the fuse for an explosion," says Michael Shafir, an expert on Central European ethnic- minority issues at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. "And if there's one thing we've learned, it's that whatever else it {Central Europe} may lack, there is no shortage of crazy people."

Transylvania, which lies in Romania but is home to many ethnic Hungarians, is arguably the Central European region most buffeted by ethnic tension. But it is not the only area subjected to such disputes.

In Europe, two high-profile quarrels involve Hungary, which is bickering with Romania and Slovakia over the rights of ethnic Hungarians in those countries.

Russia also has been embroiled in both ethnic and territorial disputes with other former Soviet republics. The Balkan war, meanwhile, stirs discontent and fear in such countries as Albania and Bulgaria.

Many observers say nationalism and ethnic minorities are the most volatile issues connected with Central and Eastern Europe's transition to a market democracy. And the longer it takes for the region to establish democracy, the longer the stability of all of Europe will be in question.

Western leaders are paying attention. In March, President Clinton wrote Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar urging resolution of the ethnic Hungarian issue. "Resolution of potential sources of misunderstanding and tension in Central Europe are of the greatest importance for stability in the region and for the prospects of European integration," he wrote.

Western European nations, led by France and Germany, convened a March conference on stability, during which more than 50 nations committed to negotiated settlements of ethnic and border issues. The West has also made membership for Eastern European nations to NATO and the European Union contingent on the settlement of all ethnic-related disputes.

Such disputes perhaps were understandable after the collapse of European communism in 1989, given that the various ethnic groups have had to live side-by- side for centuries. When totalitarianism gave way, it was often replaced by a yearning among the various nations to reconnect with their precommunist pasts. Yet one nation's historical achievements usually came at the expense of their neighbors.

The desire to right what are seen as historical wrongs has heightened tension. Long-forgotten pacts and acts - including the Treaty of Tartu in 1920, the Trianon Pact of 1920, and Benes Decrees of 1947 - are now being cited as cause for redress, revision, or annulment.

"It's unrealistic to expect Central European countries to forget historical injustice and sweep it under the carpet," says Anna-Maria Biro, a leader of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

In one of the area's most volatile incidents, thousands of ethnic Hungarians protested in the Transylvanian town of Cluj last June, when officials planned to remove the statue of a Hungarian king from the city square. …