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Inspired by Hungary's increasingly homophobic laws, an unholy alliance of nationalist and far-right politicians is trying to push anti-LGBTQ legislation in Romania too.
Many Romanians probably do not know what the letters LGBTQ stand for, and this is hardly surprising given that sexual orientation and gender identity have not played a major role in the country's public debate in recent years. Although a referendum seeking to prevent same-sex marriage from ever being legalized was held in 2018 after being championed by the Romanian Orthodox Church, it failed after only 21% of eligible voters turned up to cast their ballot.
Now, an alliance of conservative, right-wing parties is attempting to put the issue at the top of the agenda, campaigning against what they call 'LGBTQ ideology' and 'gay propaganda'. It has drawn inspiration from anti-LGBTQ legislation that recently came into effect in Viktor Orban's Hungary, which bans 'LGBT content' in schools for instance, and conflates pedophilia, homosexuality and transsexuality.
Romanians in favor of similar legislation say that minors have to be 'protected' from 'LGBTQ propaganda' and plan to put forward a bill in parliament.
This is a contentious issue in many respects, with ramifications that transcend domestic politics. "The evil is done," wrote Dan Tapalaga of the independent media outlet G4Media.ro. "Subversive anti-EU narrative has arrived in our mainstream too." The lawyer and former presidential adviser on national minorities Peter Eckstein-Kovacs told DW that this was "an attempt to include Romania, which so far has been clearly pro-European, in an anti-European, pro-Kremlin alliance."
The initiative for anti-LGBTQ legislation came from the Hungarian People's Party of Transylvania (PPMT) and the Hungarian Civic Party (MPP), neither of which has any elected members of parliament. However, the PPMT is represented in the Bucharest chamber of deputies by Zoltan Zakarias, who was elected on the list of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR).
The UDMR has not yet positioned itself on the initiative but a spokesperson said that it would do so in autumn if a bill is presented during the new session. However, the alliance has explicitly supported the Hungarian referendum on child protection that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has announced will be held next January.
The UDMR has called on all Romanians who also hold Hungarian nationality to take part in the referendum. Members of Romania's ethnic Hungarian minority have the right to vote in Hungary.
A few days after the first initiative, the far-right Alliance for the Unification of Romanians (AUR), which holds 10% of the seats in parliament, announced that it too would introduce an anti-LGBTQ law based on the Hungarian legislation.
Paradoxically, the party has campaigned vehemently against the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania but its co-president George Simion, who recently described himself as the 'Orban of Romania' is a vocal admirer. His party is trying to join a new European alliance of extreme right parties, which Orban is currently setting up with allies in France, Italy, Poland and elsewhere.
Though a draft law has not yet been presented, there is no doubting the explosive nature of the issue, largely because of the stance of the UDMR. Though it is part of the liberal, pro-European three-party coalition that came to power at the end of 2020, in recent years it has almost become a mouthpiece for Orban and his Fidesz party in Romania.
By lending its support to the referendum in Hungary and possibly to anti-LGBT legislation in Romania, it will drag the Romanian government and all the coalition parties into the conflict that Orban has stirred up with the EU. In actual fact, it might well be a deliberate maneuver on its part because of its opposition to certain anti-corruption and judicial reforms.
The Bucharest-based political scientist Cristian Pirvulescu told DW that the "informal alliance between the UDMR and the AUR" created considerable problems for a liberal government in a liberal-leaning Romania. "This will play into Viktor Orban's hands," he said, adding that what was happening in Transylvania were the first signs of next year's parliamentary election campaign in Hungary. "For Orban, it is very important to have the votes of the Hungarians of Transylvania, who are conservative but not anti-European, and that's why he's trying to mobilize them with themes such as LGBTQ, which divide society and make it easy to obtain votes."
The lawyer Peter Eckstein-Kovacs, who was a member of the UDMR for a long time himself and represented its defunct liberal wing, is very worried about the alliance's policies today, drawing historical parallels. "The Germans of Transylvania had a very strong regional identity," he said. "But in the 1930s the slogan 'Transylvania, sweet homeland' turned into 'Deutschland, Deutschland über alles' (Germany, Germany above all)," he said. "For me, the Transylvanian Hungarians have arrived at this point. The feeling of a Transylvanian homeland is becoming one of common Hungarian blood and homeland. I believe that this is very dangerous."
Cristian Pirvulescu agreed with this analysis, saying that the UDMR used to campaign for the integration of Transylvania's Hungarians into a multicultural and multi-ethnic Transylvania, but now represents the idea of an ethnic and cultural 'Greater Hungary'.
The predicament that the Romanian government is getting itself into over gender identity politics is already apparent. It recently drew the ire of nationalists, representative clergy and even members of the coalition, when it introduced a new identity card that had a designation for GEN rather than SEX. The document was quickly withdrawn.