SFANTU GHEORGHE, Romania: Dozens of wreaths trailing ribbons in red, white and green, the colors of the Hungarian flag, cover the base of a memorial to the 1848 revolution in the town park. But here, deep in the heart of Romania, just one lonely garland bears the country's own blue, yellow and red banner.
New Year's is celebrated twice here, first at the stroke of midnight and then an hour later, when it is midnight in Budapest. When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February, hundreds of the town's Hungarians took to the main square to demonstrate in its favor and, by extension, their own aspirations for autonomy.
The Hungarian minority here is pressing for greater autonomy in a region where its members outnumber the Romanians. A new and more radical group, the Hungarian Civic Party, has risen to challenge the establishment Hungarian party, which has been a member of each coalition government dating to 1996.
Those who argued that independence for Kosovo set a bad precedent tended to talk about frozen conflicts outside the European Union, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova. But even in the European Union, borders are often arbitrary. Many ethnic minorities, including the Basques and the Roma, remain stateless, while others, like the Hungarians in Romania, as well as in Slovakia and Serbia, are still stranded from their brethren.
The Hungarian minority here, known as the Szeklers, certainly believe that their time for independence has arrived and that their proposed, semi-autonomous state, Szeklerland, is an impending reality.
"Kosovo is an example, and a very clear one, that if the community wants to live under self-government, we have to declare very loudly our will," said Csaba Ferencz, vice president of the National Council of Szeklers, a local Hungarian group founded in 2003 with autonomy as its stated goal. Szeklers are a distinct ethnic group from the Magyars, who are Hungary's dominant population.
Their chances of success appear low, but they are pressing ahead to the chagrin of Romanians here, who say that as a local minority they have fewer rights than the Hungarians do as a nationwide minority.
The Hungarian region - made up of part of Mures County and all of Harghita and Covasna, where Sfantu Gheorghe is the capital - was once a border area of the Hungarian kingdom, and the Szeklers its defenders. Since World War I, the Szeklers have found themselves smack in the middle of Romania, a few hours' drive north through the Carpathian Mountains from Bucharest.
The conclusion of the war is best remembered for the harsh terms imposed on Germany. But the peace agreement signed by Hungary in 1920, the Treaty of Trianon, was arguably even tougher. Hungary lost an estimated two-thirds of its territory and nearly 40 percent of its population in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a loss that to this day is known as the Trianon trauma.
Nowhere is the Hungarian minority larger or more vocal in its demands for greater independence than it is in Romania. Out of a total population in Romania of 22 million, Hungarians make up some 1.5 million people in all, about half of them Szeklers. Little wonder that Romania, a member of the European Union and the host of the ongoing NATO summit meeting, joined Slovakia, Serbia and Russia in refusing to recognize Kosovo.
Unlike the Kosovars, the Szeklers are asking for autonomy within Romania rather than complete independence, leaving foreign policy and national defense in the hands of the government in Bucharest. Szeklerland would be close to 10,000 square kilometers, or 4,000 square miles, with a little more than 800,000 inhabitants, three-quarters of them Hungarian.
The headquarters of the Szekler National Council sits in a large tan stucco house a short walk from the center of Sfantu Gheorghe. Out front hang both the European Union flag and that of the Szeklers, a blue field with a horizontal gold stripe down the middle and a gold sun and silver star on either side. The house was previously the home of a lawyer dedicated to the cause of Hungarian self-rule.
The council shares its headquarters with the newly minted Hungarian Civic Party, which was approved to take part in elections on March 14, 2008, as an alternative to the mainstream Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania. After 18 years in power here, the union stands accused, by Romanians in particular, of old-fashioned ethnic machine politics. But their Civic Party opponents accuse them of selling out.
"Since 1996 they are in the government, and we think once they were, they represented the interests of the Romanian majority and not the Hungarian minority," said Zoltan Gazda, president of the new party in Sfantu Gheorghe.
"We have always respected the Romanian laws in our fight for autonomy, but if this does not have a good ending it may raise up other kinds of tensions," Gazda said. "We have signals that the discontent can increase with conflicts."
Municipal elections on June 1 will be a test of strength between the two Hungarian parties ahead of parliamentary elections later in the year. The parties are likely to work out an arrangement to ensure that they do not split the vote in the national race.
Under communism, the regime of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu tried to dilute the Hungarian populations by moving Romanians into areas where they were concentrated, particularly along the border with Hungary.
The Romanians here say the government in Bucharest has subordinated their interests in exchange for Hungarian parliamentary votes. For example, Rodica Parvan, a Romanian member of the town council, said the national government does nothing while subsidies to churches and schools, which are largely segregated, are distributed unequally by the Hungarian-dominated local government.
However, most of the complaints by the Romanian community are over symbolic snubs, like the council meetings held only in Hungarian and Hungarian-language carols pumped through loudspeakers at Christmastime.
On March 15, the Hungarian national holiday marking the beginning of the 1848 revolution against Hapsburg rule, Parvan was dismayed to see the Romanian flag in front of the county government seat hanging at half-staff.
"They told me the wind blew it down," Parvan said.