[An announcement: Nelli offered me the possibility to post my thoughts regarding „Maghiaromania” at this blog. As I felt myself honored I accepted it and in the future I will try to come up with posts occasionally. However, two preliminary remarks are necessary: I will post in English, as my active use of Romanian is far from being perfect and occasionally I would use historical evidence or illustrations due to my profession.]
The recent events in Cluj – the opening ceremony at the Main Square and the protests of Hungarians, referred to in the previous post as well – offer some insight into an interesting process generated by ethnicity/nationality, the division and occupation of physical and geographical space by entities confined to the same space. The whole story gives a clear outline of the dynamics of the social processes and actions shaping the respective perceptions of an urban environment and highlights how much it is not a foreordained and perennial fact but the result of the very same social actions and interactions. In this sense the post is not intended to be a judgement of the mayor’s actions, a decision whether he or his critiques has right. I would like to emphasize that irrespective of being right or wrong, having the possibility to enforce one’s concept on the others, the social action has its significance in defining a space’s ethnic/national specificities and therefore official prescriptions and the power in itself is almost insignificant regarding the outcome of such conflicts or negotiations.
The story began with an attempt to renovate and reshape the Main Square of the city. The plans were published and generated some discontent immediately, along two – in some cases interlocked – lines: the fear of loss of the traditional cityscape and the fear of loss of the „Hungarian” character of the space. Counterarguments were put forward defending trees, making allegations that the whole attempt is only a prelude to the removal of the statue of Mathias Corvinus, while many people simply feared that the new outlook of the square will be too „foreign” for a space with a very coherent 18-19. century architectural setting. Although it was not hard to unite these two lines as well – the traditional outlook is part of the Hungarian legacy of the town and its alteration will remove its characteristic of the city, the division of opinions that time was not simply a replication of ethnic/national division of the city. Hungarians supported the changes and Romanians were among its opponents as well. (A short excursus in order to grasp better the fears among Hungarians: the fact that the main square remained the center of the city’s life instead of deliberate attempts to create a new center around Avram Iancu Square was a small but not insignificant triumph for many Hungarians and a sign that the city itself resists forceful reorganization, the „Hungarian” Cluj – let’s use from now on „Kolozsvár” – is an organic entity.)
However, the end (or rather a the temporary end) of the process generated a kind of uproar, not independently from the developments regarding the trilingual tablets, that led to a suspicion regarding the mayor’s intentions. When it turned out that the invitation for he celebration was only issued in Romanian and the culture of the Hungarians as such won’t be represented at the event, a group decided to organize protest and some time later they protested once again. The former protest caused some unintelligent remarks from the mayor, referring to the protesters as not being „clujeni”, only people from Satu Mare, while the protesters raised the interest of the media with the action and with their message of claiming the right of the Hungarian inhabitants to be represented. The latter one not only repeated this message but expressed other concerns, for example regarding the disappearance of trees from the square.
In order to better grasp the importance of social action it is appropriate to ask after the state of the square before and after the celebration and the protests. Was it „Hungarian” before the mayer gave it over to the public? Did it became „Romanian” after the ceremony elapsed? And if not, was it saved by the protesters? In the physical sense of the word the square remained the same, neither „Hungarian” nor „Romanian”, of course. The dead stones of houses and pavement could never convey such meanings. The square remained a historical cityscape and a center of urban social life as it was and probably will be for decades. The ceremony changed nothing and even though the new outlook is accompanied by ideas of a reconfiguration of some aspects of the social settings of the city, it is intended to reinforce and not to diminish the central role the square plays. (Although as in every case the expedience of the changes are up to discussion.) Moreover, despite the ceremony and the protest everybody is allowed to think of the space as being either „Hungarian” or „Romanian” or simply an urban space. The ethnicity of the space (if it exists at all) is not given, it is a result of interpretation. But not only result of the interpretation of the respective urban setting, but the interpretation of the action aimed at it or brought about in it.
This interpretation is not without limits, of course. The natural limitations are some very profound convictions of what is considered as being ethnic in one sense or in the other. A main square full of houses built in Brancovenesc style is hard to accept as Hungarian even if every inhabitant would only speak this language and would be supporters of „Jobbik”, an extreme right, nationalist organization in Hungary. But inside these limitations interpretation and contextualization has a very wide room in deciding whether a space is national, national enough, authentically national etc. Or it is not national just urban, modern, cosmopolitan etc. Or it is national but in the wrong sense, i. e. belongs to the other nationality/ethnicity.
Anyhow, what we have seen recently was nothing else than a series of actions in order to define and redefine the ethnic/national affiliation and content of the space. The mayor invoked multiculturalism, but in a very limited sense although quite typical in Romania: the nation state makes no deliberate attempts to eliminate the national minorities. The protesters not only pointed out how distorted this interpretation is, but accused the mayor of deliberately „Romanizing” the square and with their protest they aimed to object it, upkeep the space’s Hungarian character. The important point is that these actions in themselves were enough and capable to convey national character to the otherwise natural square. The space suddenly became either „Romanian” or „Hungarian”, belonging to one of them or to both. The action and the conflict made the necessary definitions and provided them for the participants. Moreover, it is not necessary for both parties to conceive the situation in ethnic/national terms, it is enough if one of them perceives the other’s actions as national ones and defines them as such. If there is an attempt to „Romanize” , „Magyarize” etc. the square the reaction could only be a counteraction defending the differing national character of the space. But it is a common feature of all of these attempts to conceptualize the square beyond being a space of edificies and a setting of urban social life, transcending it as element of nationality. (For example a Hungarian speaker of the second protest referred to the „meaning” of the square to Hungarians as something beyond the practical and experiemental.)
However, not only national interpretations of the space were present, but references to the existence of an urban community as the user of it. The mayor’s dismissal of the protesters as being „strangers” consisted this element, similarly to a Hungarian protester asked by a radio station’s reporter, who answered, that she initially had opposed the plans of reconstruction and knows that there are people among „the others”, the „majority” who felt similarly. And one can also mention the protests against the elimination of flora from the square. But these references remained distorted and subordinated to the broader definition of national space.
It is important to note, that in multi-ethnic/multi-national communities the process of the nationalization of the space is not a rare occurence, rather a normal social process. It is always a negotiation between differing aims and concepts expressed by social action or discourses, therefore conflict is inevitably. Moreover, it has its own history, just as Károly Molter, a Hungarian writer described it in an article on the situation in Targu Mures at the beginning of the 1930s. Molter mentioned the case of the Petőfi statute, that was removed by the Romanian mayor, Emil Dandea, and the remaining pedestal was renamed as the monument of the unknown soldier. However, according to Molter, the local Hungarian community simply reinterpreted this public mark, and referred to Petőfi as the unknown soldier, whose grave is similarly unknown…
In the case of Cluj/Kolozsvár it is not necessary to decide whether the protesters or the mayor had right. The series of action at the end reaffirmed the existence of a „Hungarian” main square, because there were Hungarians who claimed to have such a space there. And this claim could unite liberals and nationalists, as there is no need to deny the existence of a similar Romanian space – a reason for liberals to protest – although it is possible – the reason for nationalists. As not only ethnic/national interpretations of the public space prevailed, these ones were inextricably bound to more pragmatic ones (modernization) and used arguments borrowed from them as well, at the same time affirming the probability to define the city as a community of its inhabitants, and not only a co-existence of national entities.
But there is one serious objection in the way of accepting modernization from the present Hungarian point of view. Although they exercise the interpretation and reinterpretation of public spaces, for many of them the national content is not conveyed by these social actions, but by a given architectural setting of the space, as part of a nationally defined legacy and inherent element of their national culture. Due to this approach every modification of this setting is measured and seen as a loss from this national content and even if this loss is clearly not aimed to install a different national meaning, it is rejected. The social actions have to manifest the existence and defense of a given – and in this sense authentic – national space, and are not a way to occupy and nationalize it. The result, on the one hand: eternity. As long as the Main Square in Cluj will be surrounded by „Hungarian” palaces there will be a „Kolozsvár”. Even though there won’t be any Hungarian living there. On the other hand, fragility and defencelessnes: even if a significant part of the population remains Hungarian, they can’t preserve the Hungarian “Kolozsvár” if they can’t preserve the present cityscape.