The meaning of Klaus Iohannis’ victory in Romania


The election of Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu as president of Romania has been remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only did he lag behind in the first round of elections by 10 percent (30.37 to 40.44%) to Victor Ponta, the prime minister, but also few of the opinion polls expect his victory that turned out to be fairly decisive (for official results see here) after a close run at first, leading 10 percent over Ponta. However, it is less the election arithmetics that are striking as background of the victorious candidate and the type of politics of his opponent.

Klaus Iohannis (or Johannis to use the German spelling of his last name), is a member of the tiny German minority of Romania. He has been mayor of Sibiu for 14 years as a candidate of the German minority organisation, the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. The fact that he won the election in 2000 and subsequently with a large majority, desping Germans constituting only a small minority in Sibiu (less than 2%) suggest a broad appeal transcending classic minority politics. His victory at the national level, now as candidate (and president) of the conservative PNL confirms this. The switch from minority to main stream political parties is difficult in most European countries and the election as president as a member of a minority is quiet extrodinary. Several media attacked Iohannis for his minority background and in particular to him not being a member of the Orthodox church and Ponta himself made use of this theme in a convoluted comment“It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a German ethnic, but no one can accuse me of being a Romanian ethnic. We live in Romania after all and I am proud to be Romanian. The same about religion. It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a neo-protestant, but no one can reproach me with being an Orthodox”. Considering the close link of religion and national identity makes the victory of Iohannis more important. In a region where minorities have been included in parliaments and in governments, but the distinction between minority and majority has remainded salient, his victory is important. While Macedonia had a Methodist president, Boris Trajkovski, he was still clearly identified with the Macedonian majority and Slovakia had Rudolf Schuster as president (1999-2004), who is of German and Hungarian background, but this was not a feature of his political career and he was not a minority representative, but rather a former Communist who had joined the democratic opposition in 1989. The victory of Iohannis highlights the potention of minority politician become national politicians and that starting a career representing a minority does not preclude a broader appeal, in fact without it, Iohannis would have never been able to represent the German minority effectively. A caveat is in place here, the fact that Iohannis hails from the small German minority, associated with Germany and thus the EU and ‘the West’ makes him more able to transcend the majority-minority divide than if he had been a member of the much large Hungarian minority or a socially stigmatized group, such as the Roma.


The second level at which the victory of Iohannis is striking is in the defeat of Victor Ponta. In recent years, Ponta has been on the way to emulate the emerging pattern of soft semi-authoritarian rule in Central and Southeastern Europe, as Hungary under Viktor Orban, Macedonia under Nikola Gruevski, Milorad Dodik in the RS in Bosnia, Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro and recently also Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia. A combination of populism and clientalism has been able to combine control using undemocratic practicies with EU membership (or integration). These elections demonstrate that it them that are the archiles heel of these regimes. While they can manipulate and use state resources to their advantage, they still have to win on election day. A strong social media campaign and highly motivated Romanian voters abroad helped to undermine these practices. Of course, Ponta remains in office as Prime Minister, but complete control over politics in Romania remains elusive for him (unlike Orban). After Dodik suffered an important setback in Bosnian elections last months, it shows that these regimes might have been enduring, but also are weak.

The victory of Iohannis might thus have a demonstration effect on other countries in the region.  While some observers have warned of excessive optimism, in particular in terms of addressing the economic and social ills of society, it does send two clear messages to neighboring countries: First, a member of a minority can become a president and soft semi-authoritarian regimes can be broken, through elections.

Don’t let the Roma represent themselves, they can’t be trusted

Some interviews are best without any comment. Here is an interview with Bela Kurina, who represents the Roma Democratic Party in the Novi Sad assembly. The party caught some attention in May already for not having a SINGLE Roma representative among the six candidates it received after winning 6.4 % of the vote in local elections. Kurin, a former official of JUL and DSS, noted that there are Herzegovinians, Slavonians and Montenegrins on the list, but Roma could be too easily bought to be put on the list.  It isn’t clear who the president of the party is as Blic notes that the president is Tomislav Bokan, who also used to be a DSS official and for the SRS and put three family members on the party list [comment by Kurin: if there were 78 Bokans, they would all be on the list of the party].  There have been some suggestions in Danas, that its electoral success might have been helped by, how shall we call it, some financial assistance to voters.

Now Kurin gave an interview a la for the Vojvodina show politbiro that was re-broadcast on RTS in the talk show “Da mozda ne” on 13 December 2012.

Here are some highlights in English:

“Imagine that we would have Roma on the list of candidates for councilors. This is something I could not allow. You know what happens, not just here, but also in general in Serbia in parliament that the seat [of an MP of councilor] belongs to the person and not the party and that he can decide with whom to be. We simply did not want to have people in the party who will sell themselves… The only party that until the end of the four year mandate [he has a bit of hard time getting that straight], the Roma Democratic Party cannot be manipulated with and not one councilor can be bought because these are people with a material basis and serious, and I think that there is no price for buying councilors of party.”

“We asked from them for the city cleaning considering, as you know, this is Roma business, or rather Roma mostly work there… we were promised this by [the DS] and when we asked for this after the formation of local government, this [option] was for a reason I don’t know eliminated.”

“We also asked for half of the gardening services…in the end we ourselfs said, don’t give us the gardening services, just give us the cleaning services. If we manage this, we can see what we can do, but they did not give it out, they want to control everything.”

And thus the incorruptable Roma Democratic Party broke with the Democratic Party and joined the Progressive Party in their new city government. Now they got their control over the cleaning services, as well as Urbanism (including tourism). And thus the benevolent non-Roma can unselfishly employ some more Roma in Novi Sad.

[thanks to Dušan Pavlović for drawing my attention to this interview]

Is Integration the new Catchword for Minority Politics?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the launch of a new set of guidelines on integration of the High Commissioner on National Minorities in Ljubljana (or rather in Brdo). These new guidelines strike me as a very important shift in the international approach towards minority-majority relations. While so far, the emphasis has been on minority rights, these guidelines take the debate in a different (and so far neglected) direction. They emphasise the need to integrate minorities into society and also outline the responsiblity of the overall society and minority communities.

During the launch I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of integration based on a conflict management perspective on the Balkans. Here, this shift seems long overdue due to two key factors. First, the minority rights standards in the region as often exemplary, very sophisticated and complex, yet implementation is often lagging behind and it is unclear whether these minority rights standards would really suffice to improve minority-majority relations and help marginalised minorities. Second, segregation is a problem in SEE. There is the continued segregation of Roma in special schools and other aspects of everyday life and there is the segregation in parts of Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo where minorities and majorities have little contact and often kept appart in schools. Here, minority and group rights have been an excuse to advance segregation and there is a need to reverse this trend. Integration, if not understood as assimilation, thus forces the state to not just create a little niche for minorities to replicate majority nationalism in minature, but rather requires a change to manner in which the society is constituted.

In essence, integration requires less laws and more policies by the states to actively support the development of cross-ethnic links. This will be tricky as most governments in SEE have been happy to promote minority rights as much as international organisations insisted while building up nation states for the majorities.

The second challenge is about the role of the state. While minority rights are primarily about safeguarding minorities from the state and the state providing particular services to minorities, integration cannot be only pursued by the state. Even minority rights have been hard to implement without social support for it, it becomes impossible for integration. As a consquence, integration is a considerably more long term agenda and cannot come top down from international actors only. This does not mean that international organisations, such as the Council of Europe, the OSCE or the EU such not pursue integration or encourage countries to pursue this policy, but it will be harder than with minority rights to measure success. In my mind, based on the discussion, I think the emphasis on integration should have four dimensions:

1. leading by example. If political leaders from EU members like Germany, UK or France declare multi-culturalism to be dead or pursue repressive policies towards EU citizens who are Roma, this damages the credibility of integration in all of Europe. Strategies of integration are as much needed in ‘old’ EU member states as anywhere else.

2. policies not laws. Integration requires state policies and strategies. Laws can reflect that (i.e. in terms of multilingualism, education), but the initial impetus has to be with the state approach towards diversity.

3. societal change. There is a need to realise that without having a supportive public that endorses the idea of integration (rather than assimiliation, segregation or expulsion), no policy or law can work.

4. decoupleing minority rights from seperation. While some aspects of minority rights require seperation (i.e. teaching in mother tongue), there is a need to balance this with integration and minority rights should not be serving as an excuse to reduce social ties and segregate communities (esp. in schools).

Serbia’s candidate status delay: Romania, the Vlachs of Serbia and the EU

After everybody expected a smooth confirmation of Serbia’s EU candidate status today, following the agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina last week and the support for status by Germany that had earlier blocked Serbia’s bid, the decision seems to have hit an unexpdected snag. Romania has blocked a final decision over the treatment of the Vlach minority in Serbia. This blockage is both surprising and worrying, even if it ended after just a few hours:

Romania had not indicated earlier any intention to block the EU candidate status for Serbia. It appears to have been a surprise by many observers . Such last minute efforts to push ones own agenda on such an important issue is clearly worse than a little sneaky. It undermines the already weak credibility in the region and leave the impression that accession countries can fulfill conditions, but member states will come up with their own ecclectic agenda. As a result, legitimate conditions are tainted by such requests. There is a further problem with Romania’s blockage: While the status of Vlachs leaves much to be desired, the treatment of the community certainly does not merit such an intervention. The most recent report of the Advistory Committee for the Framework Convention notes a number of problems, but nothing either that substantial or specific for the community that would merit such a drastic kin state intervention (if Romania is a kin state at all, a role not accepted by all Vlachs in Serbia).

Delaying Serbia’s candidate status is also likely to doubly hurt the Vlach, Romanian and other minorities in Serbia. The use of the kin state to block (even if it will turn out for a few hours) progress towards the EU over minority rights is only going to have a negative impact on minority rights. Of course, the EU accession process is a key tool to improve minority rights, but not like this: Giving Serbia candidate status and beginning negotiations is much more likely to improve the status of minorities than letting Serbia wait. As with other aspects of the accession process, the actual negotiations are the most effective tool to secure change rather than punishing a country. As a result, the Vlack minority will be more likely to benefit from the candidate status for Serbia as soon as possible rather than from Romania’s intervention at this point. Of course, once negotiations start, the minority rights agenda will be driven by the Commission, not by member states. This means that kin states like Romania now might be less interested in genuine minority rights and rather in flexing their smallish muscle and present themselves as the protector of national interests. Considering the large number of cross border minorities and kin states in the region, the Romanian delaying tactic is a worrying signal for the EU enlargement process and unfortunately unlikely to do much good for minority rights.



Dual Citizenship can be a solution, not a problem

I just published a comment with EUDO citizenship blog on dual citizenship for minorities.  Click here for the comment (The full text is below, to see the previous contributions follow link).

Both the Hungarian and the Slovak changes to their respective citizenship laws can hardly be viewed without considerable discomfort: They clearly constitute nationalist and populist moves that seek to re-affirm ethno-national ownership over the state. The idea that citizenship is linked to ethnic identity, irrespective of the place of residence is not only politically troubling, considering the timing before Slovak parliamentary elections, but also in the way Hungary structures itself as a state towards its own minorities. I therefore share the concerns expressed by Rainer Bauböck and Mária Kovács.

At first glance it appears therefore difficult to conceive of potential benefits the amendment to the Hungarian citizenship law might offer. This is even more evident when considering the matter in its broader regional context. As has been mentioned earlier, a large number of European states offer citizenship on the basis of descent or identifying with a particular nation, often with considerable impact on bilateral relations. In addition to Romania and its citizenship offer to citizens of Moldova (based on Moldova having been part of interwar Romania rather than ethnicity, though), all ethnic Macedonians are able to acquire Bulgarian citizenship based a mere declaration (and over 50,000 of them actually have done so), Croats in Bosnia (and according to the numbers also many other Bosnian citizens) have held Croatian citizenship and Serbs outside Serbia (and hypothetically others) can become Serbian citizens by declaring that they consider Serbia as “their state”.

The political and normative problems of these citizenship regimes, some of which Mária Kovács has alluded to, emerge mostly in the country offering access, rather than in the country where minorities with dual citizenship live: Voting rights might bolster populist nationalist political parties and these policies can be understood as defining the countries in question as ethnic democracies with a privileged core ethnic group.

Here, however, our primary concern is with the impact on the country where the minority with kin state citizenship resides.
First, ethnonational citizenship for minorities is often argued to undermine their loyalty towards the state. Compelling as it may seem, this argument does not convince empirically or conceptually. Take the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the vast majority of Croats hold Croatian citizenship, at least until recently only very few Serbs in Bosnia have held Serb citizenship.  Nationalist parties supported by the respective kin states fought for secession during the 1990s. However, support for a common state over secession has been consistently and significantly higher among Bosnian Croats than among Bosnian Serbs. Citizenship of a kin state may be a symbol of limited identification with the country of residence, but it certainly is not the cause for it. As Andrei Stavila has argued, the citizenship offered by a kin state is only partial, even if it includes voting rights. Health care, education and many services, as well as taxation, which define social relations, remain linked to the country of residence – the only exceptions exist in countries with contested sovereignty and parallel systems of service provisions, as in Kosovo.

Second, it is also argued that dual citizenship gives a kin state a free hand to intervene in other countries’ policies towards minorities. One example might appear to be the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia sought to justify its intervention by claiming to protect Russian citizens. Yet, as Peter Spiro has argued elsewhere,  this argument did not gain much credence outside of Russia and there is little reason to believe that Russia would not have invaded had it not generously granted citizenship to inhabitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Problems stemming from dual citizenship can emerge if the kin state and the country where the minority resides do not possess a channel of communication to supplement the citizenship link between the minority and its kin state. However, this only suggests that dual citizenship cannot be the only component for arranging the complex relations between minority, kin state and country of residence.

This leaves the political disputes that might arise between states and minorities over dual citizenship, as is the case in Hungary-Slovakia, as a final point of critique. However, ethnically based citizenship is less the source of contention than a trigger or marker thereof, pointing to other unresolved issues. It is telling that the changes to the Hungarian citizenship law did not trigger similar strong responses in other countries with large Hungarian minorities, such as Romania and Serbia. As a result, the offer of citizenship to ethnic Hungarians by the Orban government was certainly ill-timed and intended to provoke rather than to improve relations with Slovakia, but it does not lie at the heart of tensions.

The critique of nationalist politics should therefore not distract from considering possible benefits of dual citizenship for minorities. I would argue that holding also the citizenship of the kin state can actually help to diffuse conflicts.  It lowers by implication the importance of the citizenship of the country of residence. In reducing its significance, it can diminish contestation over this citizenship and lessen the sense of having to rely on the good will of the majority (as the Slovak response appears to confirm). Diffusing and reducing sources of contestation can generally improve interethnic relations in divided societies. Not in the case of Slovakia and Hungary, but in post-conflict countries, the extra citizenship is also a sort of insurance policy, combined with an exit ticket. While one can lament the decline of certain minorities as a result (most prominently of course Germans in Central and Eastern Europe), the ‘exit option’ can provide a sense of security which might otherwise be absent.

In conclusion, one needs to note that the reasons for countries to offer citizenship to their ethnic kin are not always the same reasons motivating those who accept this offer. Many Macedonians who declared themselves to be Bulgarian to receive a passport certainly do not consider themselves Bulgarian but rather saw the passport as a useful way to travel. Similarly, many of 800,000 Bosnian citizens who also hold Croatian passports might just find it easier to leave Bosnia or to know that in case their country might suffer renewed conflict, they will be able to exit. Thus, ethnonationalist policies of countries are quickly subverted and citizenship becomes a practical tool for citizens who have experienced the transience of states and citizenship during their own lifetime.

Why Minority Rights does not have to mean segregation…


All eyes on the PM

I recently returned from Macedonia.  The reason for my trip was in fact a very encouraging initiative:  The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities together with the Macedonian authorities has developed a strategy for integrating the educational system. What sounds like one of many projects which have been implemented (or not) across the region is in fact more ambitious and might have an impact well beyond Macedonia. For a while, minority rights have come to be associated with separate institutions and a creeping segregation of minority and majority children in the educational system. This initiative and the position of the HCNM have made it clear that this does not have to be case—in fact, safeguarding the rights of minorities also means facilitating communication with the majority (and vice versa) and ensuring that children from the community can function successfully in society at large.

Thus, the support of the Macedonian government, including the PM and the Albanian coalition partner DUI, might make this initiative happen. So what would happen: Classes and schools would no longer be broken up along ethnic lines, language training in the languages of the other will be strengthened, as will be extra-curricula activities and joint classes. If this experiment will succeed, it can become an example for a more subtle understanding of minority rights in education than dynamics of ethnically separate education in a number of countries in the region.


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