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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 16:57 GMT
Kosovo fans flames of independence
By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Sfantu Gheorghe, Romania

As the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo meet for last-ditch talks outside Vienna, it is clear that few issues have divided the international community as much as the independence of Kosovo.

Poster for the Hungarian Democratic Union in Sfantu Gheorghe
Kosovo's steps to independence inspire minorities elsewhere

The Russians strongly oppose it, the Americans strongly back it, and the Europeans are still trying to agree on a common line.

Most of the European Union's 27 member states seem ready to recognise an independent Kosovo, but a handful of countries - Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Spain and Romania - are concerned that Kosovo might set a precedent for ethnic minorities in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe.

Sfantu Gheorghe is an ordinary busy city in the central Romanian region of Transylvania, with handsome 19th-Century buildings painted in lively colours.

But if you look closely, you notice the street and shop names are written not just in Romanian, but also in Hungarian - because 75% of those who live here are ethnic Hungarians.

Three out of the four local radios in Sfantu Gheorghe are also in Hungarian.

Taking notes

Arpad Antal runs one of them, called Radio Regio. His interests, though, go far beyond his home town.

For the last two years, the young sociologist has spent his summer holidays travelling off the beaten track. From Kosovo to Montenegro, South Tyrol, Corsica, Catalonia and the Basque country - more than10,000km (6,000 miles) through independent-minded parts of Europe.

Mr Antal is an MP for the Hungarian Democratic Union, the party that represents Romania's 1.6 million Hungarians, and his aim is to compare notes on how ethnic minorities can achieve greater rights.

Kosovo, he told me, "is the negative example, the one that mustn't be followed. We want to achieve autonomy through democratic means.

"Obviously we must avoid what happened in Kosovo. But if solutions can be found to grant a special status to a region in Europe, special solutions can be found for any region in Europe, even for this part of Romania where Hungarians represent the majority."

Mr Antal has in mind three Romanian counties with a large ethnic Hungarian population, collectively known as the Szeklerland.

He insisted that unlike Kosovo Albanians, Romania's Hungarians weren't asking for independence, nor did they want to change Romania's borders.

But, he warned, "the European Union must be aware that by integrating Romania, it also integrated an unsolved problem, a possible conflict."

Independence talk

Romanian politicians brand Arpad Antal a radical, but he has got the backing of many ethnic Hungarians.

Interestingly, his travel companion was a Romanian journalist, Dan Manolachescu. What did he learn from the trip?

Dan Manolachescu's and Arpad Antal's Kosovo holiday snaps
Dan and Arpad debate autonomy, but it remains a sensitive topic

"That two persons who are from different communities can live together," Mr Manolachescu said.

"We can have different points of view about one thing, but we can try to understand the other point of view.

"I don't want autonomy but I'm not afraid of autonomy for the Hungarians. I think we can choose the best way to solve this problem. To live together maybe in 50 years without any problems and any crisis here."

Mr Antal and Mr Manolachescu chat happily over their Kosovo holiday snaps. But talk of autonomy in Transylvania - which was part of Hungary until after World War I - remains highly sensitive.

Yet the Hungarian Democratic Union has never resorted to violence. It has actually been part of most Romanian governments since the fall of communism.

Igniting separatism?

So when I asked Romania's Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu about any possible connection between Kosovo and Transylvania, he insisted there wasn't any.

Instead, he echoed Serb - and Russian - concerns that Kosovo could re-ignite ethnic separatism in Romania's neighbourhood.

"Our concern doesn't regard Transylvania," he insisted.

"I want to be clear. Romania is a member of the EU, Hungary too, so we haven't a bilateral problem about the province of Transylvania. Our main concern remains the possibility of creating a precedent for frozen conflicts like Transnistria or Bosnia-Hercegovina.

"It's not an exotic position, it's the position of a state close to the Balkans. I'm sure Romania won't be among the first states that would recognise such an independent Kosovo."

But more than 20 of the European Union's 27 member states are willing to recognise it.

As the internationally mediated negotiations on the future of Kosovo seem to be moving closer to failure, countries like Romania are left with two options - reluctantly fall into line or cause an embarrassing split in EU foreign policy.

President of Kosovo on the objective of the talks

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