Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was slapped with a RON 5,000 (€1,032) by the country’s National Anti-Discrimination Council (CNDC) yesterday, (Wednesday May 20), while today he will receive the prestigious Charlemagne Award of the German city of Aachen for his contributions to European unity. These two unrelated pieces of information seem to be in stark contradiction, so they may deserve closer scrutiny.
First, the man behind the news: Klaus Werner Iohannis (60), was born in the historic centre of Szeben (Sibiu in Romanian) to a Transylvanian Saxon family as the eldest child of Gustav Heinz and Susanne Johannis. (He now uses the alternative spelling Iohannis). A high school physics teacher by training, Iohannis entered politics after several years in education, becoming mayor of his hometown in 2000 and president of the political representation of the ethnic Germans in Romania (FDGR) in 2001.
His career received a major boost in the mid-naughts, when he successfully oversaw his city’s preparations for European Capital of Culture in 2007. This eventually led to him becoming the prime ministerial candidate of an alliance of three opposition parties in 2009. In 2013, he joined the Liberal Party (PNL) and won the following year’s presidential election by a comfortable margin, partly helped by the voters of the largest ethnic minority, the Hungarians.
In theory, himself hailing from an ethnic minority and well aware of their problems, he should have been at least a friendly face for minorities in general. During his two terms in office, however, his relationship with the Hungarian minority, which began as one of allies, has deteriorated significantly since 2015.
But the true cold shower for the Hungarian minority came three weeks ago, when he accused the ethnic Hungarian minority in Transylvania, the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Romanian prime minister himself of plotting to give Transylvania to Hungary. It was also a direct swipe at Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with Iohannis suggesting that Orbán may have promised something to the PSD in exchange for handing over Transylvania.
He may have played the nationalist card to restore some of his party’s popularity lost during the coronavirus pandemic, but nearing the end of his second (and, according to article 84, paragraph 3 of the Romanian Constitution his last) term, he had no real stake either way.
As recipient of the Charlemagne Prize, he joins the ranks of Winston Churchill, Robert Schuman, Henry Kissinger and Pope John Paul II “for lasting services for the unity of Europe”. But does he truly deserve it considering that just the other day his home country’s discrimination watchdog fined him for “an act of discrimination and harming the dignity of an ethnic/national minority”?