Keeping Peace in Transilvania


Prof. Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

During the 1980s, the main fear of a war in the Balkans focused on Romania, where 1.6 million of its 23 million citizens are ethnic Hungarians. They lived mainly in Transilvania, a Romanian border region that had belonged to Hungary before World War I [of Count Dracula fame]. Romania and Hungary were enemies in both World Wars, and both committed widespread atrocities and seized territory from each other, and mutual fear and distrust still run deep.

The Romanian government had told Romanian farmers that the Hungarian minority wanted to take their land and return it to Hungary. The infuriated farmers violently broke up a peaceful demonstration of ethnic Hungarians, heightening tensions. But a private initiative helped defuse tensions. Before the situation got worse, Allen H. Kassoff, Livia B. Plaks and Larry Watts from the Project on Ethnic Relations in Princeton, New Jersey, were able to mediate a peace agreement.

They got four senior Romanian government officials, three ethnic Hungarians and one ethnic German together to an initial meeting in Switzerland, followed one year later by a three‑day meeting on the Romanian Black Sea coast, in a castle that had once belonged to former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

They were able to help the parties work out a mutually satisfactory agreement, in which minorities were granted the right to print local newspapers and give school lessons again in their own language, in return for a promise not to seek secession. This effort may well have prevented another civil war like in former Yugoslavia. If three people in two meetings of less than a week may be able to prevent a war through skillful mediation, whereas over 20,000 UN troops in Bosnia tried in vain to stop the fighting there during three years, the cost of mediation is about a million times less than the cost of peacekeeping.

Most of all, it can save many lives. This does not mean that peacekeeping should be abandoned. But it means that more resources should also be put into war prevention. By analogy, building fireproof structures can save a great deal of fire‑fighting and save lives, but this should not mean that we abandon fire‑fighting totally.

Many other individuals and NGOs play a valuable role in helping mediate agreements between conflicting parties, but they now rarely receive any publicity. The media tend to report about cases where mediation fails and fighting breaks out, but they almost never report about cases where fighting has been avoided, and how this was achieved. They have turned the old adage “no news is good news” into “good news is no news.” Better coverage of success stories could encourage others to help prevent war.


Dietrich Fischer (1941-2015) from Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations. He was co-founder, with Johan Galtung, of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment in 1993.

Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Oct 2017.

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