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In the central Romanian city of Targu Mures, a former archaeologist and political newcomer is seeking to heal ethnic divisions and clean up corruption and mismanagement.
It's a sunny Monday morning and the mayor, Zoltan Soos, is in a good mood as he walks into the conference room. A few members of the planning team are already there and the rest arrive in dribs and drabs until all 15 are present. The key officials from the municipal administration greet each other warmly. No one is subservient, or kowtows to the city leader. And that's a big thing in Romania, where hierarchies and institutions are closely observed, especially when it comes to gestures and language.
The mayor talks in a collegial tone and comes across as consensual and team-oriented. And he has some good news. After weeks of acrimony, the municipal authorities have managed to pull out of a contract with a refuse disposal firm. The company had been overcharging and claiming that they had disposed of more garbage than was actually the case. Now, the city has a new refuse service provider and will save some €250,000 ($295,000) a year — the amount that its forerunner had falsely submitted in claims. "It is the end of the trash mafia," says the mayor resolutely.
Targu Mures in the Transylvanian region of central Romania has 130,000 residents. To its Hungarian minority it is known as Marosvasarhely. Despite its modest size and lack of economic importance, Targu Mures is one of the country's most symbolically charged cities. In March 1990, just a few months after the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship, it was the scene of clashes between ethnic Romanians and ethnic Hungarians. The conflict, which was provoked by Romanian nationalists and apparatchiks from the former communist regime, came close to descending into civil war. Over many years controversy continued to dog the city in the form of disputes centered around Romania's politices towards its ethnic minorities. For two decades, Targu Mures was run by a dyed-in-the-wool Romanian nationalist and one of the country's most corrupt mayors. The city was riven with division.
A year ago, this all changed. On September 27, 2020, voters elected Zoltan Soos as mayor. The 47-year-old does not belong to any party. He is an archeologist by profession and used to run the local museum. Soos would never have gone into politics, if it had not been for the problems besetting his home town for decades — from ethnic division to corruption and mismanagement.
Soos is an ethnic Hungarian and his win was a sensation in Romania. If the vote had run along strictly ethnic lines, he would have never been elected In Targu Mures, only 42 percent of residents are ethnic Hungarians. But he stood on a platform that was anti-nationalist, non-ethnic, anti-corruption and pro-environmentalist, and he was the first mayoral candidate in the city's history to explicitly run a bilingual, bi-ethnic campaign. This convinced many ethnic Romanians to vote for him. That is all the more remarkable as many of the country's politicians still continue to stir up prejudice against the ethnic Hungarian minority.
Zoltan Soos represents a trend in urban Romania. More and more city dwellers are electing independent mayors standing on platforms of transparency and good government, who pledge to fight against corruption and for sustainable solutions for infrastructure and environmental problems. In this part of the world, it's a trend seen not only in Romania: In many cities in central and southeastern Europe, including Prague, Budapest, Zagreb and Sarajevo, people have had enough of ethnicism, the lack of political accountability, corruption, environmental pollution and the dearth of prospects. As a result, more and more mayors are being elected who are not part of the political establishment and who the voters hope will actually provide solutions to their problems.
Zoltan Soos is, admittedly, not completely new to local politics in Targu Mures. He was a councillor there for a while and he only narrowly lost the mayoral election in 2016. But, nonetheless, why is a man who completed a doctorate about medieval mendicants and is a specialist on 13th-century Transylvanian castles prepared to enter the cut-throat world of modern Romanian politics? Soos laughs at the question. "Maybe I got it from my grandfather," he says. "He was deputy mayor here in the 1950s and taught me local patriotism." Then he continues in a more serious tone: "I am not drawn to politics per se. I was spurred on by my sense of injustice. In the last 20 years, the city authorities performed very poorly and were extremely corrupt. I didn't just want to criticize that, but also to change it."
A huge task. The former mayor, Dorin Florea, changed party four times in the course of his career and established a very extensive network of cronies that was used to plunder the local authority's finances. The head of the social services department in the city hall tells us, for example, how a private company linked to those at the top organized a food bank for needy pensioners and used it as an front to pocket money from the authority's social funds. However, Soos also stresses that the past cannot always be used as an excuse. "After a year, we can't keep saying how corrupt everything was in the past," he says. "People want to see results."
The mayor and his team already have something to show for their work. As well as switching the refuse disposal service company, they have embarked on the digitalization of the city authorities and a redesign of the dilapidated public transport system. There are plans to renew the bus fleet step by step with environmentally friendly natural gas-powered vehicles. The environment plays a big role in Zoltan Soos's program in general. He wants to create more green spaces and parks in Targu Mures. And he wants to set up a solar farm on the city limits.
Nevertheless, one of the mayor's most important aims is reforming the structure of the city administration. Local authorities in Romania are notorious for their armies of staff compared to other European Union states. But Targu Mures is extreme even for Romania. Until recently, the authority was the city's biggest employer — another result of two decades of corruption. Approximately 1,300 staff were on its books, roughly 2% of the city's working-age population — a record in Romania. "We had more than 100 departmental heads and directors alone," said Zoltan Soos. "Many of them were, themselves, unable to explain themselves exactly what they did. We have now started sacking people and, in the long run, we aim to at least halve the number of staff."
Yet the mayor's most important project is tearing down — what has seemed up to now — the almost insurmountable wall between ethnic Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in Targu Mures. As a 16-year-old, Soos himself lived through the events known as "Black March." He recalls how the bloody ethnic clashes in the city in 1990 disturbed him, and adds that he was convinced then, as he is now, that the two ethnic groups did not really hate one another, but had been instrumentalized.
Im March 1990, Romanian nationalists and members of Ceausescu's Securitate, secret service agents still active at the time, had stirred up unrest against Hungary and its ostensibly separatist plans among ethnic Romanians living in and around Targu Mures. Apparatchiks from the toppled regime were seeking legitimation. Five people died and hundreds were wounded, some severely, during the violent clashes, during which police and army, in part, just sat back and did nothing. For a short time, Romania came close to descending into civil war, a fate that was to become reality in neighboring Yugoslavia.
Nowadays, Soos can talk about "Black March" with a certain degree of composure. He says that people still fail to sufficiently stress that it was not, at heart, an ethnic conflict, but was stage-managed by the former Securitate. "In general, it is important that we are not just familiar with the conflicts of the past, but also the good times, the times that we lived side by side," says the mayor. "Our shared history in Transylvania is a thousand years old and it consists almost entirely of community and coexistence."
It's a rather rose-tinted image, which is probably intended as a political message more than anything else. Ethnic Romanians were long marginalized in the Transylvanian region. However, the tables were turned after the region became part of a new Greater Romania in 1920 under the Treaty of Trianon. Ethnic minorities, in particular ethnic Hungarians, became very much second-class citizens under Ceausescu's dictatorship with its nationalist megalomania. The toppling of the regime has not led to a fundamental overhaul. Nationalism remains deeply rooted in Romania's political culture. That is one reason why many ethnic Hungarians from the Transylvanian region still feel alienated from the Romanian state and have come, in the meantime, to identify more closely with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He, in turn, uses ethnocentric rhetoric and supports ethnic Hungarian minorities with billions of euros.
Zoltan Soos is only prepared to make a tongue-in-cheek comment about Orban: "His viewpoints are very distinctive," he says laughing. The mayor prefers to speak about how he feels. "I feel very at ease in Romania and in Targu Mures and, as an ethnic Hungarian, I have never experienced any discrimination personally. This is also my home."
Then he asks if he can add one more thing: "My team and I would like Targu Mures to become an example of successful coexistence and multiculturalism."