7. Beyond Blue Eyes? Xenophobia on the Eastern Margins of the European Union1

László Fosztó

© 2022 László Fosztó, CC BY-NC 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0282.07


A distant observer of Romanian public events during the past decade could easily conclude that these years were complicated by political and social crises and that the population of this country has gone through a rather difficult period. It is rather telling that there were eleven prime ministers in and out of office between 2010 and 2020. Joining the European Union has proved to be a mixed blessing for Romania. While mass demonstrations, government crises, and moral panics unfolded almost without interruption, the overwhelming majority of Romanians have continued to express trust and positive attitudes towards the institutions of the European Union, even if they concur that these institutions are not interested in their opinion (Alexe 2019).2 Most domestic commentators also agreed that ‘joining the club’ was the best possible geo-political trajectory for Romania. The sceptical outsider might maintain that the process of being absorbed into the larger political and economic structures had immediate negative effects, and that the transformations also entail significant, longer-term socio-political costs.

There are obviously immediate hardships related to massive population movement across open EU borders. Romanian labourers increasingly took up jobs abroad which, even if they promised higher wages, caused family ties to suffer from the separation, and consequently the work experience and job expectations of different generations diverged. There are other problems that spring from joining the common market. But the promise of a common socioeconomic space remained unfulfilled and the success was clouded by a sense of non-belonging. While these issues might be much less obviously connected with the aftermath of ‘Europeanisation’, they reared their ugly head very soon. Experiences of mobility were not always positive, and despite the nominal equality offered by the common EU citizenship, socio-cultural divisions became more salient than before. Being stigmatised and rejected abroad, or returning to an increasingly divided home society, was a common experience for many migrants. While ideas of (Western) civilisation, efficiency, progress, and wealth were hegemonically consolidated in the public sphere, increasing numbers of Romanians felt that they had fallen short of achieving their aspirations.

Mass migration from Romania began earlier following the change of the regime, but its negative effects peaked in this period. The Romanian countryside began to lose some of its most productive and mobile young inhabitants during the first decades of post-socialism, but even these migrants had some difficulties ‘fitting in’ in the destinations. After Romania’s 2007 accession to the EU even the most underprivileged, including the large Romani population, could afford to try their luck abroad. The media headlines in the destination countries carried news of ‘invasion of beggars, and criminals’. And Western governments took heavy-handed actions: most notably, the Italian coalition led by Berlusconi enacted a Nomad Emergency Decree (2008), which targeted inhabitants of the camps where Eastern European migrants were clustered (inhabitants were fingerprinted and selected prior to deportation), the Sarkozy administration in France started outright evictions and ‘voluntary repatriations’ of the Romanian Roma (2010). These policies not only violated EU citizenship prerogatives for free movement but also contributed to the heightening of anti-Roma sentiment, both in the host countries and at home.

The European Commission decided to act on this issue, urging nation-states to step up their efforts for the social inclusion of Roma populations, yet the local effectiveness of the European Framework on Roma Integration (2011–2020) to this day remains debatable. The main conclusion was that nation-states should take greater responsibility for the social integration of their Romani citizens (or at least keeping them home as much as possible), and report back annually to the commission on the progress achieved in improving their situation. Even if self-monitoring of the member states was regularly optimistic, the EU’s own Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), in charge of monitoring, promoting, and protecting human rights, produced a report showing little evidence of progress. Michael O’Flaherty, the acting director of the FRA, in his introduction to this report, warned:

The inability—or unwillingness—to address anti-Gypsyism in order to ensure equal opportunities for Roma is unacceptable. But an important opportunity lies ahead, as the 2011 EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies completes its cycle in 2020 and the EU will soon need to review it. Our analysis makes clear that the process of Roma inclusion cannot continue as ‘business as usual’. It requires an honest and open debate on failures and a renewed stronger political commitment to fulfil the promise of the EU Framework “to make a tangible difference to Roma people’s lives” (FRA 2018: 3).

At the moment of the publication of that report, the new ‘policy cycle’ was already on its way and placed the concept of anti-Gypsyism (a concept coined to describe manifestations of anti-Romani racism) at its core. The new EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation was published in October 2020 with detailed guidelines and an ambitious portfolio of indicators for progress.3 It is anybody’s guess how member states will adjust and implement their own policies to achieve these ‘tangible differences’. In this chapter I argue that while focusing on and taking action against stigmatisation or other negative attitudes as vehicles of Roma exclusion is a necessary move, it is unlikely to be sufficient to tackle the broader problems in the regional socio-political landscape, including the rise of populist politics, increasing xenophobia, and more general social (dis)integration. The ability to understand and address xenophobia and anti-Gypsyism will be much enhanced if we look beyond legal definitions of human rights, without falling back on cultural explanations, or simply blaming it on racist attitudes of individuals. We need to address the socio-economic structures including the historical patterns of social interactions, inquire into the challenges brought about the European integration, and value opportunities, whilst also seeking to limit the disintegrative potential of the common market. In my argument I go back to the work of Karl Polanyi (Polanyi 1944), in an attempt to follow a recent call for “repatriating Polanyi” to Central-Eastern Europe (Hann 2019).

The empirical examples I present come from Transylvania and the issues I address are broad themes recurrently discussed by Chris Hann, to whom this volume is dedicated. The structure of the chapter is the following: the first section is a brief literature review on the role of ethnicity in the political economy of Romania, the second is a sketch on how a Polanyian approach might describe the persistent and emerging ethnic divisions in Romania, showing how ethnic diversity is embedded in economic relationships. While ethnicity was and remains an important part of the social fabric, it provides local modes for interaction which offer a buffer to local communities and through which exclusionary political rhetoric cannot easily penetrate and exacerbate xenophobia. Then in the third section, before concluding, I present some case studies of recent events.

Ethnicity, (Dis)Embeddedness, and the Roma

Ethnic categories have played an important role in the socio-economic organisation of Eastern European societies throughout different historical periods. In this section I will look at some of the rather abundant literature (although this will not be an exhaustive overview) and show how elements of a Polanyian analysis can be connected to existing models. The new mobility of the poor within the EU also renewed theoretical discussions of ethnicity, race, mobility, and social exclusion of certain EU citizens. Many recent analyses blame the continued exclusion of the Roma within the EU on the “racialisation” of the poor both at home (Vincze et al. 2019) and during the migration process (Yıldız and De Genova 2019). In these arguments ethno-racial categories are seen as products of socio-economic processes (and not as the root causes of exclusion). Therefore, they need to be analysed as part of the political economy of the society in which they appear and persist.

Structurally similar arguments have been around for some time, at least since the work of Nicolae Gheorghe and Sam Beck (Gheorghe 1983; Beck 1989) who described the process of racial exclusion as part of the historical processes and political economy of the Romanian principalities. Gheorghe and Beck not only identified roots of racism against the Roma in the economic history of premodern times, but also articulated a critique of the existing system for not being able to address the persistent “Gypsy problem” in the late socialist Romania (Beck 1985). Rather than being remains of the ancient past, socialist systems (or at least the Romanian version in its late phase) actively produced ethnic differences rather than integrating the members of society based on the “socialist citizenship” they professed.4 At the official level, Roma, unlike other “cohabiting nationalities”, did not receive any legal recognition during socialism. Their recognition instead emerged through institutional acts intended to deny and suppress their cultural presence (Fosztó 2018). The economic potential of the late socialist state sharply decreased during the 1980s and integrative efforts gave way to strict surveillance and obsessive xenophobia by the regime. In the late days of socialism, Romania was unable to offer positive responses to the existing cultural diversity of its population. The regime actively reproduced ethnic divisions and increasingly anti-Gypsy attitudes (Beck 1984). One could describe this period of desperate attempts at redistribution of decreasing resources, coupled with surveillance and oppression leading to alienation and xenophobia, as the disembedding effect of an excessive central-command economy, which can cause damage similar to the disruption brough about by the ‘free-market’, as Polanyi has argued (Hann 2009). The socialist transformation of the Romanian economy (collectivisation and industrialisation) and society (regional and local planning, the so called ‘systematisation’, destruction of villages in order to create urban agglomerations, etc.) produced population displacement and enforced forms of mobility which created need, and called for a ‘counter movement’ similar to ‘market-based’ modernisations.

After the fall of socialism, ‘market relations’ were reintroduced to Romanian society, but ethnic divisions did not disappear. Democratic elections brought to the surface political divisions along ethnic lines (most saliently in the case of ethnic Hungarians) and the Roma continued to endure ethnic disadvantage and stigma. Romania’s more state-controlled (neo-patrimonial) transition was ultimately more prolonged, and probably less painful, than for those countries that swallowed the bitter pill of the neoliberal solution such as privatisation of industry and services. Even so, as a large comparative research project led by Iván Szelényi has shown, by the end of the first decade of post-socialism, new patterns of social exclusion had emerged alongside the consolidation of the market economy (Ladányi and Szelényi 2006). Roma in Romania, similarly to other Romani populations in the region, were suffering even worse forms of exclusion than before. By this time the project of the European Union was being touted as embodying the ‘Four Freedoms’ (free movement of goods, capital, services and persons). Romania joined the EU and completed its transition to more neoliberal forms of integration, while the outlook for the Roma was negative (Sigona and Trehan 2009) and even extended new forms of xenophobia at a larger scale (Stewart 2012). The exclusion suffered by Roma is not exclusively a problem of their home societies, as illustrated by the moral scandal at the sight of Roma beggars on the streets of Western European cities. As Keith Hart, talking about beggars, observes: “they infringe the dominant narrative of responsibility and autonomy: they provide a bad symbol of the free-market society that must be presented as inevitable”(Hart 2016: 247).

In the next section I will review some of the regional and socio-ethnic divisions in Romania. These divisions are neither new, nor are they the consequence of EU accession. They have persisted and been reproduced throughout history since the Middle Ages; they are not only a legacy of the past but are also constitutive of existing solidarities and divisions in the present. They have roots in historical forms of integration and provide embeddedness at both local and regional levels. These forms of integration are far from vanishing or being replaced by ideologies promoted by the (capitalist or socialist) nation-state, so it is unsurprising that they are also re-emerging in the new context.

“The Two Romanias” and Emerging New (Dis)Integration

The maps showing the results of the first post-socialist election renewed arguments that in fact there are ‘multiple Romanias’. The formula postulating the existence of “the two Romanias’’ goes back to intellectual discussions in the interwar period (see Butoi 2014 for the case of Mircea Vulcănescu), and the idea that more than one Romania exists had a clear undertone of social critique, and usually emerged from desires and appeals to dissolve regional, ethno-social and other divisions in favour of a more unitary, socially even, and economically just national society. Still, the divisions have proved stubborn, and many would argue that they are a constitutive part of this society. These structures persist due to the unequal levels of development in different regions and for different social groups, which in turn are rooted in the peripheral integration of the country in European capitalist markets during the nineteenth century (Stahl 1980). To phrase it in Polanyian terms, ethno-social divisions are the main form of embeddedness of Romanian economic relations. After the fall of the socialism, divisions between Transylvania and the rest of the country became more salient, but a general rural / urban divide was also quite apparent. Each consecutive election reminded commentators of the persistence of these divisions, which also largely corresponded with political attitudes.

Historically, the ‘first of the Romanias’ was shorthand for the cosmopolitan urban centres, which were home to large numbers of ethnically non-Romanian inhabitants (mainly Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Hungarian and German minorities). The ‘second of the Romanias’ denoted the rural and ‘backward’ majority of Romanian peasants, whose existence was dominated by religion and tradition. The presence of ‘foreigners’ in the cities fuelled ideologies which presented modernisation or progressive politics as alien to the ‘national soul’, which was considered more characteristic of the villages. This backward-looking discourse became a popular tool of the extreme right, which culminated in the legionary movement, and harnessed strong support from students and young urban intellectuals. The cities became battlegrounds for interwar national policies to take modernisation further alongside Romanisation. The Romanisation of the cities acquired a renewed momentum during the late socialist industrialisation. This period also saw an increase in the emigration of Romania’s remaining Jewish and German populations, and as a result Romanian cities are much more ethnically homogenous today, even if some regional differences remain. The most intense transformation of the Romanian countryside happened during the early socialist period, in the collectivisation of agriculture (Kligman and Verdery 2011). While the process was, to many villagers, painful if not disastrous, it did not result in the more cohesive and unitary rural Romania that had been hoped for. In both the urban and rural transformations, one could easily identify state-driven efforts to increase centrality and redistribution, which aimed not only at a more economically equal but also a more ethnically homogenous population. However, redistribution (and regional investment) was not channelled evenly and certain regions were ‘left behind’. The most conspicuous point of difference on the map remains the largely rural area of eastern Transylvania, the Szeklerland, where two thirds of the 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians live. With an unfavourable landscape for intensive agriculture, mountainous and with temperatures much lower than the country average, Szeklerland has become known in public discussions as an ethnic enclave in Romania’s least developed region. Certainly, most inhabitants of the region do not share this view.

Conversely, they are proud of their particularities, and would argue that the maintenance of historical, social, and ethnic structures are the region’s main resources. From an inhabitants’ perspective, Szeklerland continues to be a stronghold of the Hungarian ethnic identity and locally rooted social structures, and this region is the primary constituency for Hungarian ethnic votes in national and European elections. Since the fall of socialism unemployment was high and outmigration from the region also intensified. During the early first years of post-socialism, Hungary was a popular destination. Today, Western EU member states (Austria, Germany, etc.) are much more attractive for financial reasons. The role of the Hungarian state has undergone a series of transformations thanks to the renewed waves of investment (both financial and ideological) during the Orbán governments of the past decade. Inhabitants of the region follow Hungarian-language media (made in Hungary), and are also consumers of global culture. Members of the younger generations (those who grew up after conscription was abolished) regularly speak better English than Romanian. Each summer, poor grades in the school leaving exam, particularly in Romanian language and literature, renew debates on the inefficiency of teaching of the ‘national language’ in the Szeklerland.

The recent dynamics among German ethnic citizens are even more intriguing. The remaining ethnic community is relatively small (about 36,000), however native German-language education flourishes in the former Saxon cities and towns.5 Most of the students in these schools are of ethnic Romanian origins (or are local Hungarians in the case of the Swabian region of Satu Mare / Szatmár). There is an ongoing reinvention of ‘Germanness’ in the absence of ethnic Germans (Oltean, Anghel, and Schuster 2017; Cercel 2019). As a result of this process, there are close to one thousand high-school (lyceum) graduates each year who have followed a full German curriculum. Schooling children in German could be seen as a pragmatic decision by parents who want to equip their children with language skills and a valuable diploma for accessing the job market in Austria or Germany, but in fact many of these graduates do not leave the country. They are increasingly securing jobs in new local associations and businesses, which are flourish thanks to the investments pouring in from Germany.

In the adoption (at least partly) of an affiliation to German culture, a broader integrative process is underway. Parents invest massively in elaborate school leavers’ ceremonies, and whole families increasingly participate in the general renaissance of local rituals connected to Saxon traditions. This reinvented Germanness is embedded in and supported by the Lutheran Church. Many old Saxon church buildings are renovated with donations from and voluntary participation of returning migrants, or the (at least temporarily) remigrating children of those who left Romania in the late socialist period. The whole process can be understood as taming market forces and re-embedding the process within a more ‘Europeanised’ Romania. The embedding process is also hosted and indirectly supported by the public schools designed for the German ethnic minority.

Roma are not clustered in a particular region, unlike the minorities discussed previously; they live all over Romania, although there is a relatively larger proportion of Roma in Transylvanian counties. In terms of the urban-rural divide, a slight majority of Roma still live in villages or small towns as opposed to cities. This demographic aspect is significant, since historically the economic practices of Roma society have always been embedded in exchanges with non-Roma neighbours (most often local peasants). Because they have been excluded from owning land, they have rarely developed a ‘rooted’ local agriculture, and Roma groups have most often specialised in mobile services and trading in goods which were not produced by peasant society. The Romani conception of self-sufficiency prioritises the cultivation of social relations with members of the majority society as opposed to an ideal of economic autarchism through agriculture (see Brazzabeni, Cunha, and Fotta 2016).

The traditional spread of Romani groups can also be explained in terms of their enhanced interaction with non-Roma populations. Territorial separateness most often takes the form of segregated settlements in proximity to the majority. Today, these settlements are characterised by a lack of infrastructure, overcrowding in poor housing conditions, overpolicing, and difficulties in accessing public services. Even if some urban Roma settlements take the form of urban ethnic ghettoes, most impoverished areas are ethnically mixed, with Roma and non-Roma living side by side. These settlements are often stigmatised as ‘Gypsy neighbourhoods’ or ‘țigănie’. Social exclusion, economic disadvantage and racialised identity are all imposed on inhabitants of these segregated settlements and the main channel by which families can escape exclusion is to move out of the segregated settlement. Due to this ethnic stigma and racial exclusion, Romani ethnicity is underreported in the census (official figures show 621,500 Roma vs. an estimated 1.8 or 2 million population). Their dispersal all over the country means a wide diversity of Roma groups. Some of these groups are more assimilated, whilst others continue to maintain their own approaches to community integration. Many Roma are bilingual (speaking Romani and Romanian equally well), yet several other communities speak additional languages. Hungarian (in Transylvania) or Turkish (in the South) are most frequent, but because of the recent migration and return, speakers of Spanish, Italian, or English are not rare either. The example of Szeklerland and the (historically) German regions shows that ethnic categories are not only a part and product of the economic structures, but they also maintain the social embeddedness of economic relations. Ethnicity and language skills are salient human categories and skills in Eastern Europe (as well as elsewhere). The dynamics of these categories are diverse and particular to the particular group. For instance, in Szeklerland we see a history of social closure , while in the case of the renaissance of Germanness, this group is seen as prestigious and worthy of repopulation, while in the case of the Roma we see a variable and resourceful combination of different social skills, and an ability to live in a wide variety of regional and social configurations.

Roma political parties (traditionally allied with the socialists) harness few votes and do not make great efforts to reach out to the ethnic community. But a large number of short livedassociations, foundations, and NGOs who claim to work with and for the benefit of the poor Roma. State support, and more recently, funds from the EU or the EEA and Norway Grants, are channelled through the civic sector. Some of these organisations disappear as soon as projects end and funding dries up, while many others continue to respond to the community’s needs even in situations where public services provided by the state should already be in place. The state apparatus has also developed local and regional structures for addressing the needs of the Roma (there are Roma experts in each county’s local government, and local mediators for health and education, etc.). In Polanyian terms, one could argue that this is a beneficial process as the redistributive efforts of the state are seeking to embed its workings in local relations, however there are also examples of the opposite: there is an ongoing centralisation of institutions on the promise of increased efficacy (and subordination to ethno-political goals) at the expense of local embeddedness. The territorial offices of the National Agency for Roma were dissolved, and the associated posts were relocated to the central office, located in Bucharest, in 2018. Obviously, ethnic categories are not the only categories that articulate the political-economic space: they act in conjunction with other social categories. Ideological divisions are present, and the Social Democratic Party (PSD—the reformed heir of the Communist Party), the largest parliamentary party, is usually central to the political arena. PSD has deep roots in the rural regions, and mainly dominates in the southern and eastern parts of Romania. Another permanent presence on the scene is the Liberals who exist in various different guises (PNL, PD, ALDE). The extreme right of the political spectrum has been virtually uninhabited for at least a decade since the Greater Romania Party (GRP) failed to enter Parliament in 2008 and subsequently faded into insignificance Some of its most vocal politicians were absorbed into mainstream parties.6 In addition to the main parties, different forms of protest movements entered the political arena during this period: from the more ecologically inclined (protesters against mining in Roșia Montana), through to proponents of civic radicalism and those demanding stronger anti-corruption measures (i.e. Save Romania Union).

The connection between ethnic and ideological divisions seems conjunctural. None of the mainstream parties has a clear positive agenda related to ethnic or national minorities, nor are their agendas consistently nationalistic in orientation. On the contrary, most Romanian parties readily enter governing coalitions with the Hungarian ethnic party, the DAHR (Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania). Even if outright far-right arguments rarely surface in mainstream politics, elements of xenophobic discourse are always at hand. Some of the top ranked and most popular politicians come from ethnic minority backgrounds (German, Hungarian, Tatar, or even Palestinian from Syria).7

Ethnic stigma is used largely opportunistically, and xenophobic arguments are spearheads of political arguments. Even if this practice is not without its dangers, the xenophobia rarely penetrates local ethnic relations. The socio-economic context for ethnic relations embeds interactions in the historically established pattern. The fragility of ethnic peace is apparent (at least in the upper echelons of politics). One can follow the recurrent anti-Semitism (mainly in the forms of Holocaust denial and the cult of ‘interwar heroes’), or instances of anti-Hungarian and anti-Gypsy rhetoric. In early 2020 both the acting (Klaus Iohannis) and the previous (Trăian Băsescu) presidents were fined by the National Council for Combating Discrimination for anti-Hungarian and anti-Gypsy speech respectively.8 Some politicians stir domestic and diplomatic outrage with anti-German remarks (i.e. associating Klaus Iohannis with the national-socialist regime) and posting Hitler-moustached representations of the President on social media.9

These attempts to denigrate the President and stigmatise Germans proved to have little effect. Quite the opposite: the renaissance of Germanness is visible in the growing numbers of local councillors and even mayors elected by those towns where the number of Germans had decreased in the past decades. The consequences of emphasising ethnic categories (and those populations who identify with these categories) are far-reaching. At the level of human labour, which Polanyi identifies as one of the fictitious commodities, ethnic categories act as social anchors. They also shape the political sphere, for example the Hungarian party routinely relies on ethnic votes (even if there are signs of decline in the trend of ethnic Hungarians voting as a block). It also has broader political relevance since not only ethnic elites, but all kinds of other political entrepreneurs seek to capitalise on ethnic categories to garner support for themselves or to identify ‘enemies’ and scaremonger against them. However, the connection between the local expressions and lived experiences of ethnic relations and the instrumentalist categories of nationalist politics is not simple and straightforward, as Rogers Brubaker and his co-authors (Brubaker et al. 2006) have demonstrated in the case of Cluj-Napoca. Taking this insight further with a Polanyian twist, I will argue that ethnicity and historical patterns of ethnic relations embedded in the socio-economic sphere act as a shield for local interactions, deflecting (or at least filtering) politically motivated xenophobic arguments. It would be misleading to idealise the role of ethnicity in this social process. While one can see that the established patterns can serve as means of resistance to nationalistic scaremongering, the economy of embedded ethnic relations also perpetuates historical injustices and reproduces inequalities.

Therefore, it would be wrong to expect these historic forms of embedded ethnic relations to contribute to anything other than the re-assignment of the most vulnerable minorities to inferior positions, and these positions, in the case of Eastern European Roma, are in the margins, riven with negative ethnic prejudice, and even historically racialised. Even if arguably the most excluded ethnic category, Roma are not alone as targets of prejudice. A more recent population group who can be seen as displaced from the ethical ecology of Romanian society is the emerging Western diaspora. Migratory processes during the past decade have consolidated a new social category which can be defined by its new form of territorial arrangement and symbolic attachments. The emergence of the diaspora of 3–4 million Romanians within the wider EU over the past decades has generated a new socio-economic actor with a distinct political identity. The employment of this group is very diverse (with high numbers of medical doctors and nurses, students of all disciplines, skilled workers, and domestic care workers, builders and seasonal agricultural hands, etc.), but they are routinely portrayed in the Romanian public sphere as low-skilled workers seeking employment in low-class jobs abroad, thus turning the ‘diaspora’ into a rather stigmatised social identity. They live outside the reach of institutions (except for churches), and they often express deep discontent regarding mainstream domestic politics. The political attitudes of the diaspora first became an issue of public discussion during the two rounds of presidential elections in 2014. During the first round, thousands of Romanian citizens waited in long lines in front of the Romanian embassies in London, Berlin, Paris and the consulates in Munich, Turin and Barcelona. At the end of the day, many of them still remained on the streets and had not been able to vote. The two top candidates were Victor Ponta, the Prime Minister in office, who enjoyed the support of the territorially well-organised socialist party (PSD) governing Romania with a comfortable two-thirds coalition, and his challenger Klaus Iohannis, Mayor of the city of Sibiu, a much lesser-known politician with a German ethnic background (Transylvanian Saxon) supported by the Christian Liberal Alliance, a composite of his National Liberal Party, the Democratic Liberal Party, and the small Civic Alliance. As the first round of voting brought a rather comfortable 10% advantage for Victor Ponta (he obtained 40.4%), he and his party were looking forward to the second round with confidence.

The second round of voting had a similar outcome for ‘the diaspora’ whose many members would be denied their de facto right to vote. But the short period between the two rounds brought about a game-changing process. The Romanians abroad voted massively for Iohannis, but that brought in some 300,000 votes. The real change happened within the boundaries of Romania itself, and Iohannis ultimately doubled his supporters, totalling more than 6.28 million votes (54,4%)in the runoff. We could conclude from this example that migrants sent something else back home, along with their usual financial remittances, such that the friends and relatives of disenfranchised migrants voted in protest. The transnational transfer of attitudes and solidarity is complex: family ties, local identities, and ethno-national allegiance all play a role. Individuals are reconnected in intricate forms rather than simply being disembedded by migratory mobility. It is also clear that traditional forms of local ethnic interactions lose their force and relevance in migratory contexts. We can expect ideological and political messages to reach this segment of society even in the absence of traditional institutional channels. The diaspora continued to play a public role in the waves of anti-corruption protests during 2017–2019, culminating in a large ‘diaspora at home’ protest on 10 August 2018, which was violently dispersed by the Romanian Gendarmerie. More recently, protest votes in the diaspora have taken a xenophobic turn: during the parliamentary election in December 2020 about 26% of Romanians abroad lent their support to a neo-fascist party (AUR) which has just entered Parliament (with 9%).

The preliminary conclusion from these observations is that ethnic categories have not lost their importance during the period discussed. The ethnic embeddedness of local economic ties remain a prominent social feature in Romania and the persistence and re-emergence of local ethnic categories can filter, diffuse, or deflect ideological and xenophobic messages that come from the higher echelons of politics. The existence of embedded historical ethnic divisions is a limiting condition rather than a factor that feeds xenophobic tendencies. Ethnic relations can stand for local forms of tolerance and civility, so turning local relations into more antagonistic, political relations not at all easy for politicians.10 Moreover, the visible popular protest movements are very diverse, and therefore cannot simply be categorised as a reactionary countermovement. For example, the popular reaction against limiting the voting rights of Romanians abroad during the 2014 presidential election paralleled protests from liberal-minded, middle-class citizens against the hegemonic and cynical politics of the ruling socialist government.

In the following section I continue to present examples focused at the local level. I intend to show how local relations pose limiting conditions for outside interventions, including xenophobic messages. My focus will be on the ethnic Hungarian community, and its relationship with imaginary and real migrants, as well as the local Romani population in the new context.

Racialised Encounters with or without Migrants

During the summer of 2015 we conducted fieldwork in a Transylvanian village where Roma, Romanians and Hungarians were living. Our research was focused on issues related to the recent mobility of the Roma. Local Hungarians discussed with approval the mobility of the local Roma and their return with goods and skills acquired abroad (see Toma, Tesăr, and Fosztó 2018). During our stay in the village in August 2015, locals, with increasing concern, followed the Hungarian media coverage of and commentary on the ‘migration crisis’, which was illustrated with abundant images of the refugees camping in front of the Keleti Railway station in Budapest. The locals noted that these migrants’ parallels with Roma made them familiar and even likeable, although their arrival was very much framed as an ‘invasion of migrants’. The images of the imaginary migrants grew darker as time passed.

Just one month later, the Hungarian government announced its intention to extend the border fence built to ‘secure Europe’ between Hungary and Serbia to include a portion of the Romanian-Hungarian border. The leader of the ethnic Hungarian party in Romania was quick to comment that this fence was not meant to separate Romanians from Hungarians and that the border would remain open for regular traffic. He added that the fence might even “be helpful for Romania”, by discouraging migrants from planning to enter the EU though the country.11 This xenophobic politics quickly found an audience, at least within the political sphere, and later in an increasing segment of the Hungarian-language media. The scaremongering against refugees gained new momentum when the government, led by Viktor Orbán, announced its intention in early 2016 to organise a referendum to block the allocation of refugees according to quotas proposed by the European Union. In line with the emerging anti-refugee campaign which followed the announcement, a local newspaper (Székely Hírmondó) reported on an ‘incident’ from a predominantly Hungarian town in Transylvania, Sfântu Gheorghe (Hu: Sepsiszentgyörgy). Reportedly, a dark-skinned male was spotted on the streets of the town and locals called the emergency number, scared of the ‘migrant’. Other press outlets picked up the story, some of them criticising the anti-migrant campaign and mocking the Hungarian locals for their racism and fear on seeing a single black person (Balázsi-Pál 2016a). The online portal then published a correction with a notice that the person who had called the emergency services had phoned the journalist up to say that there was indeed a refugee there, but nobody feared him, and that they had called emergency services because they were worried about the poor man, who admitted not to have any money, and that he hadn’t eaten, and didn’t have any shelter from the cold, mid-February night (Balázsi-Pál 2016b).

This sequence of events is illustrative of the different levels of interpretation and their multiplicity; while the first article (which has since been deleted) fell in line with the Orbán government’s campaign, the second was critical of it, introducing the motive of ‘racism’. The second article’s commentary immediately called for a local refusal, and demands for clarification led to the third article. This sequence shows that far from there being a direct connection between political xenophobic messages and their local effects, encounters with real migrants might not immediately trigger the intended frightened reactions from citizens. The interpretive frames of the media were also reshaped as this story unfolded. The media campaign, originating from Hungary, reached and had an impact on the public sphere of the Hungarian-language press in Romania.

The process was evident once again in another incident (in August 2016), when a Hungarian-language county newspaper (Háromszék) was reporting on how locals celebrated the local feast in a small mountain village inhabited mainly by Hungarians, named Comandău (Hu: Komandó). The locality is situated high in the mountains at the eastern fringe of Transylvania, and its name derives from the term ‘Grenzkommando’, since it was founded as a border outpost under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. As part of the village celebration, a dramatic scene about the ‘migrant crisis’ featuring schoolchildren was presented. A group of children hid in a small van as the “Syrian ice cream lorry” broke through the Grenzkommando, but was stopped by other children, who were acting as border guards. The ‘illegal migrants’ discovered in the van put up a fight, leading to a “spontaneous demonstration demanding Euros, women, and Germany”. Finally, they were all loaded on to a train on the narrow-gauge railway (a symbol of the village’s industrial heritage) and sent to “the Mutti”, so local order was ultimately restored. This scene was most likely intended as a humorous social commentary, and was reported as such in the newspaper (Bokor 2016). It was obviously inspired by the anti-migrant media campaign from Hungary and made rather denigratory references to victims of human smuggling (the refrigerator lorry was a direct reference to a human smuggling tragedy that led to seventy-one deaths in 2015).12 The event attracted harsh criticism from Transylvanian intellectuals and journalists for falling into the trap of a hate-mongering campaign, for the very questionable taste of the adults who had organised the whole thing, and for the irresponsibility of teachers putting their students (among them children of the local Roma playing the part of migrants) through the degrading scene (Magyari 2016; Parászka 2016; Szilágyi N. 2016). The paper that had published the original account (Háromszék) decided to block further public discussion, and warned against casting collective blame on the local community of Comandău (see Szilágyi N. 2016). Responses to the event were echoed in the media in Hungary but did not cross the language barrier into the Romanian press. Another xenophobic incident that garnered national media attention in Romania took place years later (January 2020) in Ditrău (Hu: Gyergyóditró), within the region inhabited by Szeklers. In the locality of about 5,000 the local bread factory decided to hire two bakers from Sri Lanka. A group of locals engaged in a heated discussion on social media, peppered with anti-immigrant hate speech and threats directed toward both the migrants and the owner of the bakery. Under the leadership of the local Catholic priest, these individuals mounted a protest movement and collected signatures against the idea of employing workers from abroad, which were handed in to the local council. Some argued that the racialised conflict overlapped with the exploitation of workers, since the bakery had been unable to find local employees to work in the same conditions, and therefore sought to recruit foreigners (Sipos 2020).

The event was extensively discussed in the press and an entry was even created on Wikipedia to summarise its details.13 It became clear that similar instances of xenophobia against migrant workers had occurred in other regions of Romania, but in this case discontent with the appearance of foreign labourers was clearly articulated in terms of ‘cultural’ and racial difference. The dispute potentially serves as an example of the potential for xenophobic arguments to be more controversial than the actual presence of disembedding economic forces. The ‘Ditrău incident’ turned into an emblem of the effects of xenophobic politics and racialised economic conflicts in Romania. Its occurrence in the context of the Hungarian local majority, which nevertheless forms a minority within the whole of Romania, revealed the dangers of exclusionary dynamics. There are an increasing number of voices among these ethnic Hungarians speaking against xenophobia, and one could conclude that diversity at different levels of society can reduce hate-mongering. Even certain individuals previously attracted to policies and ideas promoted by the Orbán government and the divisive political sphere of Hungary joined in to reject hate speech. Returning to the case of migrant and returning Roma presented at the beginning of this section, in our analysis of the field data we found that in most cases returnees are in a better situation (both in terms of skills, local ties, and finances) to negotiate their local repositioning within the socio-economic fabric. Strategies might differ, for instance in some cases these individuals conform with local social categories and cultural styles, while in other cases they contrast with them (Toma and Fosztó 2018). What seems to be rather widespread is the notion that the ethnic embeddedness of the local economy is not vanishing, even if its categories could be challenged by the new phenomena related to migration and return. The Roma could hardly escape from their position at the margins of local society, yet in spite of this, there are cases where we can witness social mobility that has reshaped the social and physical landscape of certain localities (Toma 2020). Better houses, more visible presence in the local public sphere, and new forms of exchange are slowly remodelling the age-old forms of exclusion. In the most positive cases, the new circumstances offer a reshaped embeddedness of the enhanced economic practices brought about by the new European mobility.

In Lieu of Conclusion: Refocus on the Local

At the beginning of this chapter I referred to a recent report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and its appeal to make “a tangible difference to Roma people’s lives” by public policy interventions. My intention in this text was to show that there are potentials for this transformation even if it is far from an easy task. I hope to demonstrate that anthropological analysis can contribute to this by bringing to the foreground the locally embedded nature of economic exchanges, and warning against the perils of pushing forward disembedding economic forces or transformative attempts, no matter if their origin is redistributive centrality or the state (as has been the case during most of the twentieth century in Romania) or the putatively impersonal logic of the market (as we witness increasingly during the past decades within Romania). In any case, lasting improvements to the social position of the vulnerable can only be achieved if the economic relations will be integrated and embedded into the local social life, which is most often marked by ethnic divisions. I argued that ethnicity in Transylvania, but more broadly in Romania, was historically, and remains today, a means of local embeddedness which maintains human categories and rules of interactions, and anchors local socio-economic exchanges. We should not view ethnic categories as representations exclusively dividing society, but should also see them as part of local social integration which can stand against the excesses of xenophobic attempts by centres of power. Ethnic relations in local communities can stand for local forms of tolerance and civility. Transforming these local relations into more antagonistic political forms is not always as easy as politicians engaged in nationalistic propaganda would wish. Policy interventions need to take account of the integrative and solidarity-generating aspects of ethnic and local identities. I also showed that Roma are rarely assigned advantageous positions by these local categories due to the ethnic and racial prejudices that they suffer.

So will these local relations offer shelter from increasingly xenophobic political messages and rising anti-Gypsyism from the media? Will it be possible, during a period where we see a general disembedding due to market forces, for local society to counteract the exclusionary tendencies? I am moderately optimistic and only hope that an embedded economy in local relations, categories, and interactions will enable a more general protection of human dignity, social rights, and solidarity. To make this happen, analysis and policies cannot continue to remain at the level of international organisations, and states must refocus on the local by taking account of the existing realities and potential on the ground.


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1 László Fosztó is Senior Researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities (ISPMN). During the completion of this chapter he benefited from a grant from the Romanian Ministry of Education and Research, CNCS—UEFISCDI, a project hosted by the Babeș-Bolyai University, number PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-0338, within PNCDI III. The author would like to thank Agnieska Pasieka and Juraj Buzalka for their support and patience.

2 The 2020 Eurobarometer showed that around 60% of Romanians express trust in the European institutions which rates among the highest scores: https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Survey/getSurveyDetail/yearFrom/1974/yearTo/020/surveyKy/2262.

4 Katherine Verdery (1991), approaching the issue from a different perspective, demonstrated how nationalism was an immanent part of the Romanian socialist regime.

5 In the academic year 2019–2020 there were about 15,000 students enrolled in primary school (Grades 1–8), and an additional 3,500 in high school (Grades 9–12). http://www.fdgr.ro/ro/statistici/612; http://www.fdgr.ro/ro/statistici/613.

6 For example, former president of the youth organisation and spokesperson of the Greater Romania party Lia Olguța Vasilescu entered the Social Democrat Party, was elected as a senator, became the Mayor of Craiova, and later even served as Minister of Labour (2017–2018).

7 To name a few of the most visible: Klaus Iohannis is a ‘West-oriented and liberal’ Transylvanian Saxon who is serving his second term as President of Romania. Ludovic Orban is another prominent liberal (Prime Minister between November 2019 and December 2020), born in Brașov to an ethnic Hungarian father and Romanian mother. Despite her name, Laura Codruța Kövesi, head prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate (2013–2018) who has since acted as European Chief Prosecutor (from late 2019) is an ethnic Romanian who married and later divorced a Hungarian, but kept his name. There are many Hungarians in high public office, and a few Roma, such as former State Secretary in the Ministry of European Funds Ciprian Necula, or Valeriu Nicolae, former State Secretary in the Ministry of Labour. There are also others, like Raed Afarat, a Syrian-born Palestinian physician who studied in Romani during late socialism, stayed in the country, and became popular as the founder of a medical emergency service (SMURD). He was briefly in the Ministry of Health, then continued to serve as State Secretary in several consecutive governments. Another Muslim politician served as Ministry for Development and Vice-Prime Minister in a socialist government: Sevil Shhaideh (née Geambec) is an economist of Dobrudjan Turkish and Crimean Tartar origins, married to a Syrian businessman. She was even proposed for the role of Prime Minister, but the President refused to name her due to her husband’s links to Bashar al-Assad.

10 The conspicuous popular absenteeism during the referendum, which was initiated by the Alliance for the Family in aid of a more exclusive redefinition of marriage as a ‘union between a man and a woman’ in the constitution, shows that anti-gay arguments failed to mobilise support, even if churches (with the exception of the Lutheran Church) endorsed and promoted the agenda and priests urged believers to vote.

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