Everybody needs good neighbours
Hungary is offering itself as a forward-looking European partner to Romania, as Michael Bird finds out when questioning Janos Terenyi, the new Hungarian ambassador
It is the European Union structure that incoming ambassador Janos Terenyi has staked his faith in to assist in bringing political and economic ties between Hungary and Romania to a strong position.
And at the moment, this all seems to be going well.
“I can build my mandate in a period when the perspectives are bright and attractive,” he says, calling Romania his country’s “most important” neighbour.
But this does not make his job an easy ride as he says is “really, very busy”. Hungary’s embassy in Romania is a large enterprise, with the same dimensions as the country’s diplomatic representations in Berlin, London, Paris, Washington and Moscow. His duties see the Ambassador journeying around the country, where the embassy is also looking for further representation. "We have to diversify our contacts,” says Terenyi. “We have a Consulate General in Cluj, an Honorary Consul in Constanta and I hope we can open another Consulate in Transylvania in the near future."
As a precedent for diplomacy, Terenyi likes to echo outgoing president Ion Iliescu, who compared the historical reconciliation between France and Germany after the World War II with the similar process that is undergoing between Romania and Hungary. “It was the European construction that helped to reconcile France and Germany,” he says, “and we hope that the EU enlargement will play a similar role in developing a truly strategic partnership between Hungary and Romania."
Since 1989, Romania’s 9.8 million-strong neighbour has been a target for foreign investment, which was partly helped by the decentralisation of some of the economy in 1968. It has integrated into western institutions a little faster than Romania, with NATO membership secured in 1999 and this year joining the European Union. Its European integration has been arguably smoother than Romania and this could allow it to assist its neighbour in becoming a better student of the integration process.
"I wouldn't like to use the word student,” says Terenyi. “I'm sure Romania needs no teachers to meet the EU accession criteria. I think Romania is able to be prepared to become a full member of the EU in 2007. However, the timetable is very tight and a lot of things remain to be done… There is a strong belief that accession negotiations could be completed by the end of this year.”
But he says that Hungary is open to share its experience. “The process of preparation is not over by signing the accession treaty, it's a continuous one. This is only the first phase. Hungary is starting now the second phase - a process of adaptation to the EU in its everyday life… The day a country becomes an EU member cannot be considered as a watershed - neither in everyday life, nor in public administration or in the business community."
In order to offer their advice on how to cope with entry, Terenyi says the Visegrad countries, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, will be willing to share their combined experience of their first year in the EU in spring next year or on May 1, the first anniversary of their entry, which might take a form of a joint seminar or a conference in Bucharest.
Presently Romania is readying itself for entry by sitting on many EU meetings and took part in the elaboration of the project of the EU constitution, recently signed by Romania and Hungary. He adds: "The interim period between signing the accession treaty and the de jure membership is an excellent learning opportunity because the soon-to-be-members can act as quasi EU countries, although without the right of directly participating in the decision-making process."
Transylvania has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when the region along with Moldova, Wallachia and Dobrogea combined to create the greater Romanian state. After the revolution in 1989 some tensions have existed over the rights of Hungarians to study their language, especially in Romanian schools and universities. Recently this has eased and the first Hungarian language university, Sapientia, is to be constructed near Targu Mures. Noticeable discrimination, for Terenyi, has so far been limited.
"Since my arrival I have not experienced anything of that,” he says. “We are in a very constructive phase of relation building process between our two countries and the level of mutual confidence has reached a dimension that never existed before."
“There are some Euro-regions that spread across Romania and Hungary and by intense development we can reconstitute the natural economic ties that existed until World War I and were then functioning so well."
But this has also meant that parts of the south and east of Romania remain underdeveloped.
Terenyi says that his nation faced a similar problem. “It was a phenomenon we inherited from the past and it came strongly to the surface after the restructuring of our economy. Western Hungary and the capital city Budapest developed at a faster pace then the national average. The eastern parts remain less developed than the rest of the country.”
But he says that this was solved due to the EU and regional development policy, which he is certain will happen in Romania - although the east of Romania lacks the proximity to a EU candidate country to give it the security of a long-term trading partner.
Trade turnover between the two countries amounted to 1.7 billion USD for 2003 and Terenyi believes the expectations for this year will amount to around 2.0 billion USD, while foreign direct investments from Hungary to Romania amount to some 350 million USD.
Terenyi hopes to keep up a steady trade with Romania, which has been helped by large-scale operations in the oil and banking markets. Mol Romania is continuing to build its estate of petrol stations and last April Hungary’s largest bank OTP bought out Romanian-based Robank for 47.5 million USD. The takeover of the small bank, which has one per cent of the market, is a springboard for OTP to launch expansion operations with an investment of around 100 million USD.
But it is not just the development of the west of Romania and Transylvania that Hungary is looking towards. "Hungarian investors, such as Mol and OTP, look at Romania as a significant emerging market and do not limit their activity to only Transylvania or areas where mostly Hungarians are living."
Terenyi is not in a position to comment on the process of awarding to American firm Bechtel of the billion-dollar Government-contract for the Transylvanian (Brasov-Bors) highway, which attracted criticism from the European Union for its lack of a tender, but he welcomes the construction as the highway is important for attracting foreign investment. “Trans-national corporations do not focus on countries, but regions,” he says. “Hungary is more than satisfied that the highway will be built through Transylvania and will run through areas populated by the Hungarian community corresponding to our political and economic interests, which are, in fact, shared by both countries."
Arriving here in the early Autumn, Bucharest itself was a “truly pleasant surprise” for Terenyi. “The town is developing very rapidly, it's full of life, everywhere you can see new constructions and it has a very active cultural life. I think the diplomatic corps has every reason to be satisfied to live in this city."
"I had hobbies when I was younger, but now I'm really overwhelmed with work,” Terenyi adds. “I would like to attend some jazz concerts in the city and get acquainted with Romanian jazz music better. I cherish the ambition to organize a Romanian-Hungarian jazz workshop, not only in my humble capacity as an ambassador, but first of all as a jazz fan."