Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
Romania Mare (Greater Romania) was founded in 1990 first as a magazine and then as a political party by two former court poets of the Ceausescu era: Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Eugen Barbu. As its name suggests, the ultra-nationalist party has been dedicated to expanding the borders of Romania to encompass Moldova and parts of Ukraine. It has also combined anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment with efforts to combat the political influence of ethnic Hungarians.
In the 2000, Romania Mare reached the apex of its popularity. In the parliamentary elections that year, the party came in second with approximately 20 percent of the vote. Even more surprising perhaps was the performance of the party’s leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who captured 28 percent in the presidential election. By 2008, however, Romania Mare was no longer pulling in enough votes for even a single seat in parliament. And Tudor, serving in the European parliament, had drifted to the margins.
Had Romania suddenly entered a new era of tolerance? To the north, one-fifth of Hungarian voters were still supporting the ultranationalist Jobbik while to the south, a significant number of Bulgarians continued to back the ultranationalist Ataka. Romania, it seemed, has bucked the trend.
Journalist Petru Clej disagrees. When we met in 1990, he had recently started his new profession at Romania Libera. We talked, among other things, about the anti-Semitism of the Peasant Party. I caught up with him in August 2013 in London where he has lived for more than two decades, first working at the BBC and now working as an interpreter in the court system. He still follows events in Romania closely, visiting the country several times a year and writing occasional pieces.
Anti-Roma sentiment remains pervasive in Romania, and anti-Semitism is rising, he told me. As for Tudor, “his place was taken to a certain extent by Dan Diaconescu, who is a populist and whose party got 14 percent of the vote in the last elections,” Clej explains. “His political program is even more ludicrous than Tudor’s. He was promising at one point 20,000 euros to anyone starting a business, the suspension of payments on mortgages for one year, and all sorts of other populist promises. Many of his party’s parliamentarians in December 2012 started to defect to other parties. He was even promising to impose a fine of 2 million euros for any parliamentarian who defected. Obviously it was illegal. This shows that Romanians are not yet over voting for fruitcakes.”
But it’s not just populism. Not far from the surface of Romanian politics is a deep strain of intolerance, including anti-Semitism. “It starts with denial of the Holocaust,” Clej noted. “This is a very sensitive point in Romania’s recent history. There was a Commission set up by President Iliescu and chaired by Elie Wiesel about Romania’s role in the Holocaust. A report was published and endorsed by Iliescu in 2004. The gist of it was that the Antonescu regime was responsible for the deaths of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews as well as 11,000 Roma. As I mentioned, there’s a law that criminalizes Holocaust denial and cults of people like Antonescu. There was an appeal of the death sentence of Antonescu in 1946, which the Supreme Court rejected on the basis of the charge of crimes against humanity. But go on the Internet and where there is a story about Antonescu, you’ll see anti-Semitic comments. And Antonescu was the fifth greatest Romanian in the contest in 2005.”
It goes beyond interpretation of history. “The second aspect of anti-Semitism is international capital — the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union – which they believe is controlled by Jews or the Freemasons,” Clej continued. “There are also quite a few Israelis of Romanian origin who have come back to Romania. They have recovered their Romanian citizenship, which is more valuable now because of the EU membership, and reclaimed their properties. And this too has created irritation. We don’t have parties like Jobbik, so it’s not headline news, but it’s always very close beneath the surface. It’s not like in Russia or Hungary. It’s not violent. In Romania, anti-Semitism was never really mainly ideological as it was in Russia or Germany. It was mainly economic, generated by envy.”
Relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians have improved to a degree, and the border between the two EU members is no longer a point of contention. But there are still tensions, particularly around the top of regionalization, which would provide greater autonomy to different parts of the country, including the area with a Hungarian majority.
Some ethnic Romanians complain that “the Hungarians want to use this autonomy to impose their own ethnic cleansing,” Clej explained. “The more realistic underlying theme is that you have the so-called barons, the local political leaders in the countries, who risk losing their power bases. That’s why you have all this brouhaha about regionalization. It’s a growing trend in Europe, moving toward larger regional entities that are more efficient from an economic point of view. Hungarians obviously want a homogenous region. It’s difficult for many Romanians to accept — not just Romanians in Transylvania. It’s Romanians outside Transylvania who view Hungarians in that part of the country as a threat. They don’t live there, and they have a wrong perception of inter-ethnic relations.”
We talked about a range of issues, from the mysteries of 1989 and his early forays into journalism to the challenges facing the Romanian countryside and the community of Romanians now living in the UK.
How did you get into journalism?
When we met in the summer of 1990, I was working with theRomania Libera daily, which at that time was the second-largest newspaper in the country and the main opposition daily. I had started with Romania Libera in February 1990. As you might remember, I used to work in the computer department in a hospital in Bucharest. I had a friend, Stefan Niculescu-Maier, who I knew had been arrested during the Communist era for editing an illegal newspaper. And now, when Ceausescu fell, he and his co-conspirators were freed, and they became the new leadership at Romania Libera.
I visited Stefan in the first part of January 1990. We had been colleagues in primary school. After a few minutes, he suggested that I join Romania Libera. I told him I had no experience. He said it didn’t matter. “We are going to travel and see the whole world,” he told me. This convinced me. In the first days of February, I joined. I didn’t have a special task. I started as a roving reporter, choosing my own subjects. I also started writing editorials, and this is how I got into this. It was fascinating. As you well remember, that was a time when history was being made in front of our eyes.
I wasn’t reading anything about Romania for the last 20 years. When I came back to the subject, I thought that all the mysteries of 1990 would be resolved — who was responsible for the fall of Ceausescu, what was the role of the army, were there foreign terrorists involved? Were any mysteries solved from that time?
No. Some of the main actors are still alive. Any attempt to solve that puzzle has a political impact, and therefore there would be resistance to finding out. When people ask me what happened in December 1989 — was it a revolution, a coup, a mixture of the two – I always say, “Ceausescu fell on December 22, 1989. And on that date Ion Iliescu replaced Nicolae Ceausescu as head of state.” In this way, the statement cannot be challenged. It’s the lowest common denominator, but at least you have the correct definition.
By the way, I think that today, August 31, is the opening day for the Ceausescu execution museum in Targoviste — in the former barracks where he was put on trial and executed on December 25, 1989.
Who is responsible for setting up this museum?
A local county museum, so it’s not something special. But it shows that 23 years is sufficient time to draw some historical conclusions. Whether there is the will to do it is another thing.
It will probably be quite popular since visitors to Romania only seem to care about two things: Dracula and Ceausescu.
Yes. Here’s another piece of news that shows you how things have evolved. There is clamor among politicians from all quarters to withdraw the medal awarded to Bishop Laszlo Tokes, who started the Romanian revolution on December 15 in Timisoara. They want to take away his medal because of his comments that the Hungarian government should set up a protectorate in Transylvania.
I know that he split from RMDSz (UDMR, the Union of Hungarians in Romania political party).
He was always a maverick and always had a more radical stance toward the rights of Hungarians in Romania. At the moment, he has the ear of the Hungarian government, which is a radical nationalist government.
The people I interviewed in RMDSz were not happy about him or the role of Fidesz in Hungary. On that subject, a recent book was published that claimed that the Romanian revolution was orchestrated by the CIA, MI5, and the Hungarian secret service.
Did they miss the KGB?
Maybe I was the one who missed the KGB. Of those assertions, the only one that had any facts connected to it was the Hungarian secret service. I guess the KGB was mentioned since one of the American diplomats posted to Bucharest later turned out to be a Russian spy, but he wasn’t posted to Bucharest until after 1989.
Jim Nicholson. Yes I met him prior to the May 1990 elections.
Did you think he was a Russian spy?
No, never in the world.
The book asserted that there had been some preliminary secret mission by the Hungarian secret service in the middle of December to Timisoara. Is this commonly known?
I’ve read this many times. But this is mainly put forward by nationalists in today’s Romania, not necessarily nostalgics but people who have turned anti-Western. Nationalists obviously point to the Hungarian secret service, anything Hungarian, as a scapegoat.
But I think it’s too early, even after 23 years, to find out. Especially since the most important secret archives, the Soviet ones, are closed, and I don’t think they’ll ever be open.
You mentioned books. I’m just now about to finish the book by General Ion Pacepa — Disinformation. First of all, it’s full of mistakes. I can give you an example. He mentioned the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Ljubljanka Square in Moscow, which has been reinstalled after being taken down in 1991. A few pages before, he referred to this as the statue of Andropov. Very crude mistakes. Aside from that, the world for him seems to have stopped in 1978 when he defected from Romania to the United States. He is like a convert — very radical in his new cause. He seems to explain everything through the influence of the former KGB, the current FSB. Everything seems to revolve around that. He accuses Barack Obama of Marxism and the United States of becoming a socialist country.
I read his book on the Securitate back in the 1980s. Even then he seemed to be fixed in 1978. These simpler and simpler explanations become appealing.
Perhaps you encounter this in your trips to Romania as well. People want to believe that everything has a cause. Randomness has no place in history or in politics.
Randomness or incompetence.
Yes! They always look for a conspiracy when most of the time it’s just a cock-up.
Do you have any interesting stories from December 1989?
I did have a remarkable time. On December 21, I remember just trying to reach my house, which was very close to the Central Committee building in central Bucharest. I was coming from the other side of the boulevard at about 2 in the afternoon. I was shocked when I saw, near the Intercontinental Hotel, police in riot gear for the first time. The army was on the boulevard, and people were shouting slogans against Ceausescu. It was shocking.
I turned back. Someone in a house handed me a telephone so that I could call home. My wife begged me not to join the demonstrations. Our second child had just been born and was barely three months old. I accepted her request, and anyway I couldn’t cross the boulevard. So I went to a relative’s house and spent the night there. This was December 21-22. The next day I went back to work. Then everything unfolded. There were rumors, and finally Ceausescu left the Central Committee building by helicopter. And then came all that shooting, which is unexplained to this day — who shot, why? Everything is like in a haze. The fog hasn’t lifted after 23 years.
When you started working for Romania Libera, what were the stories you were most proud of?
I wrote a sort of a political fable, which was about the FSLN — with the “L” in brackets — losing the elections. This story was about how the Sandinistas – theFrente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN — lost the elections in Nicaragua in February 1990. The FSN, of course, was the National Salvation Front in Romania, led by Ion Iliescu. My fable was about a dissident housewife who defeated the charismatic leader of the FSLN. The “dissident housewife” was the derisive title that Iliescu gave to Doina Cornea — and of course in Nicaragua the dissident housewife was Violetta Chamorro, who became the president of Nicaragua in 1990.
This essay was very successful. I got many calls. I was invited by Miller Crouch, the first secretary of the U.S. embassy — a charming man – to a meeting along with Anton Uncu and Mihai Creanga, who were the editors of Romania Libera. Another person invited was Eugen Preda, who was the director of Romanian radio, a sort of a Stalinist, though more subtle than that. That was the first topic of discussion, my short political fable. Eugen Preda was asked if the comparison was valid. Obviously he tried to show that it wasn’t. But I remember that with pleasure. Many articles followed.
I left Romania on the morning of the May 20, 1990, election day, and returned on June 9, after two weeks in Canada and one week in the United States. It was a dream voyage of discovery. I had never left Romania before 1990, so it was very enlightening. Just four days after I returned, we had the June 13-15 events in University Square. I was really depressed. Those were the days when I really thought that there was no place for me in Romania. I thought that Silviu Brucan was right, that it would take 20 years for Romanians to learn about democracy. Probably 20 years was an understatement. And my articles in Romania Libera were very sober that summer.
Was there a tradition of investigative journalism emerging at Romania Libera at that time, and how difficult was it in that environment to do reporting?
First of all, Romania Libera was a mix of old and new people. It was not clear what some of the old generation’s agendas were. There was a lot of resistance, even sabotage. I’m not sure that the newspaper wasn’t infiltrated by people in power. So you never knew who was doing what.
There was also a danger of corruption. I knew for sure that there were some people doing so-called investigations but were receiving bribes. It was very unclear. By the time I left in 1991, Romania Libera was in a process of changing. And the whole media landscape was changing. It was not as exciting as it had been in the first part of 1990. Things were becoming a bit more normal.
When you think back to 1990, could things have been done differently? Obviously EU accession was important leverage. Is it unrealistic to believe that there could have been outside leverage from the United States or other European countries?
In hindsight, you could say yes. But I come back to the fog that I mentioned. I remember how my former boss at the Romanian Service of the BBC, Christian Mititelu, used to say about Romania that nothing is clear. If you are a journalist and you see three camels dead by the side of the road, and you want to report that, you might be surprised when one of the camels gets up and starts walking. Nothing is straight or clear-cut — that’s the problem with Romania. Westerners and Americans especially tend to dislike things that are complex. They want the good guys and the bad guys. In Romania, more often than not, the good guys turn out to be not as good as they seemed. This was discouraging for foreigners, especially since all these countries were in a competition. It was much simpler to work with the Czechs, Hungarians, or Poles than to waste your time in Romania. The mentality in Romania lags behind the level of development in these other countries. So, I don’t think much more could have been achieved.
America definitely preferred to deal with the Visegrad Four. And eventually it had to deal with Yugoslavia. Romania and Bulgaria were stuck in between.
And you never knew what Romanians wanted. They were making pro-Western noises, but when it came down to actions — and by this I mention economic reform or setting up democratic institutions — they were lagging far behind. They were dragging their feet as they are now. The most important thing has been the fight against corruption and for independent justice, which has probably been the most difficult of all political institutions to set up.
Twenty-three years ago, I talked with Dinu Patriciu.
Yes, I know him very well.
He obviously did quite well economically.
Yes, though not so well these days.
Some people point to him and others who have been thrown in jail to suggest that the Romanian judicial system has improved.
The best example is the former prime minister Adrian Nastase. Yes, but it’s not only about the top people. It’s about doing business in Romania and not being harassed by greedy tax authorities and having to bribe everyone. Obviously it’s improving. But it’s still not only the matter of putting some politicians in prison. It’s about the ordinary man and woman on the street, that they have their rights protected so they’re not fleeced by the state.
Let me ask you specifically about Patriciu. My information comes from the Romanian documentary Kapitalism. The argument in the documentary was that he was able to make a lot of money in acquiring the oil company RomPetrol in a clear example of government-business collusion. The documentary argued that this was relatively common during Romania’s privatization.
You can see this not only in Romania. The main place where this happened was Russia. If it happens in Russia, it will definitely happen in Romania, on a smaller scale. Dinu Patriciu, at the height of his success, was valued by Forbes at over a billion dollars. But not much more than a billion dollars. There were two Romanian billionaires: the former tennis player Ion Tiriac and Patriciu. Compared to the Russian fortunes, that’s peanuts. But then, in Romanian terms, it’s not. I can’t comment on the specific example. But the problem is also with the laws, which are unclear and constantly changing. In this climate, it’s very easy for this sort of thing to happen.
One of the problems with European accession, it put more emphasis on economic issues and didn’t focus enough on rule of law. The EU, in other words, didn’t insist that countries clarify their laws concerning economic practices. Realistically speaking, was there an opportunity to do that early on?
No. You need external pressure. If you are talking about independent justice, you need the personnel and the means. You cannot have incorruptible judges if they are paid peanuts and their offices are shabby. In this country, the top judges are better paid than the prime minister.
Yes. It’s not just a matter of political will. After 33 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s very difficult to jump over historical stages. In Britain, in two years time, they will celebrate the 800-year anniversary of the Magna Carta. Some of the rights inscribed in the Magna Carta — habeas corpus, trial by jury — are with us today. Yes, you can change the laws, but you can’t change the mentality to suit those laws. In some ways I’m not surprised that Romania has not been able to evolve faster.
The political leadership in Romania is of very low quality today, as you said. Was there a point in the last 20 years when you were more hopeful about a newer generation of politicians?
There were two very important moments. The first was in 1996 when Emil Constantinescu and the Democratic Convention won the elections, and the country was pushed in a firm, pro-Western direction. It ended in disaster in 2000 when Iliescu and PSD were elected again, and when Vadim Tudor and the Greater Romania party polled 28 percent of the vote and took second place in the presidential election.
The second point was 2004 when Traian Basescu was elected. There was a move toward the rule of law, and the fight against corruption intensified. But then it all descended into farce. Basescu, well intentioned though he may be, doesn’t have the political skills to attract support for his stance. That’s partly why there were two attempts to impeach him, which is unheard of in the whole of Europe. From that moment on, it was downhill.
And then remember, from 2004 to the present day, the governments were formed by four parties in combination of two or three: the pro-Basescu party PDL; Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Party, PSD; the party of the chair of the Senate Crin Antonescu, PNL; and the Hungarian Union. At the present time, ideology doesn’t count any more. It’s an empty word.
It’s just a rotation of elites.
Elites in terms of their power though perhaps not intelligence.
I didn’t know that Romania Mare did so well in the election.
Tudor got 28 percent and the party got 21 percent in the Senate.
I’ve never understood Tudor’s popularity.
It was a revenge of the “little people,” the people who were the losers of this transition and who want easy answers for difficult questions. That’s what Vadim Tudor was offering.
He’s now in the European parliament, isn’t he?
Yes, but he lost a lot of his popularity. He hasn’t managed to enter the last two national parliaments. His place was taken to a certain extent by Dan Diaconescu, who is a populist and whose party got 14 percent of the vote in the last elections. His political program is even more ludicrous than Tudor’s. He was promising at one point 20,000 euros to anyone starting a business, the suspension of payments on mortgages for one year, and all sorts of other populist promises. Many of his party’s parliamentarians in December 2012 started to defect to other parties. He was even promising to impose a fine of 2 million euros for any parliamentarian who defected. Obviously it was illegal. This shows that Romanians are not yet over voting for fruitcakes.
I have difficulty separating populist economics and nationalist rhetoric. Sometimes they go together, as with Ataka in Bulgaria. In Romania, I was happy to see that what seemed so dangerous in 1990, the resurgence of nationalism, seemed relatively quiet now. Some people in the country told me I was mistaken and that there was still a lot of anti-Hungarian sentiment and obviously anti-Roma sentiment.
And anti-Semitism, which is on the rise. You just need to go on the Internet and see that the popularity of the Iron Guard is on the rise.
Is it a legal organization?
Some parties claim to be continuing the tradition of the Iron Guard. It’s not legal in Romania. There is a law prohibiting fascist organizations. The same law criminalizes Holocaust denial and the cult of people sentenced for crimes against humanity, and this applies to Ion Antonescu. But it is seldom applied. We don’t have a party like Jobbik, but you have those kinds of politicians in all the parties. And the anti-Roma sentiment is visceral, even with educated people.
And has the sentiment translated into actions?
There was an anti-Roma pogrom in Hadareni near Targu Mures in 1993. But it’s not like in Hungary or Slovakia. In Romania, nothing is as violent as in the other former Communist countries when it comes to nationalism. But it’s all-pervasive. One common feature is the Orthodox Church, which is very popular. This translates not into only nationalism, but xenophobia and homophobia, which are both widespread in Romania.
UDMR seems to have played very smart politics over the decades. It survives as a party and prospered. It has won certain rights for Hungarians in the country. But is that the whole story?
UDMR is part of the political establishment. It has become as corrupt as the other parties. In terms of rights, one of the debates today in Romania is about regionalization. On the surface, they say that the Hungarians want to use this autonomy to impose their own ethnic cleansing. The more realistic underlying theme is that you have the so-called barons, the local political leaders in the countries, who risk losing their power bases. That’s why you have all this brouhaha about regionalization. It’s a growing trend in Europe, moving toward larger regional entities that are more efficient from an economic point of view. Hungarians obviously want a homogenous region. It’s difficult for many Romanians to accept — not just Romanians in Transylvania. It’s Romanians outside Transylvania who view Hungarians in that part of the country as a threat. They don’t live there, and they have a wrong perception of inter-ethnic relations.
I received several notes on something I wrote about Transylvania, challenging my description and making various anti-Hungarian comments. I noticed that they too didn’t live in Transylvania but only talked about visiting there. But when I was in Cluj and Targu Mures, based on conversations and walking around, I felt that the climate had improved. The situation at the university had improved where you can study in both Hungarian and Romanian —
Yes, I don’t think it’s an issue any more. Both Hungary and Romania are members of the EU, and the border between the two is less important. In the region around Oradea, they buy houses in Hungary and they commute to work in Romania. I tell people, “You say that Hungarians are separatists and want privileges? Just go to Moldova and see the attitude of the Russians there. You don’t mess with the Russians, who were the colonial masters in Moldova. There’s no comparison to this. In the Moldovan parliament, you still have deputies speaking in Russian, and there is translation from Romanian into Russian into their headphones but not the other way around.” People live in one country, and it’s difficult for them to look over the fence and see that things can be worse.
By the way, today is the day of the Romanian language — in Moldova but also it has been adopted by Romanians all over. On August 31, 1989, Soviet Moldova made the Moldovan language again the official language. It’s in celebration of the return to the Romanian language.
I talked with a Roma activist from a village outside of Cluj working in the educational system, trying to make sure that Roma children go to school. I also went to a seminar for local Roma elected officials who had come to Bucharest for a training. In 1990, there was so little activism in the Roma community. Today it’s much different. And yet, anti-Roma sentiment remains.
What do you think is the way out of this? This is obviously not an easy question — you could also ask me about racism in the United States.
And Roma were also slaves until 1856. It’s a vicious circle. They perceive an injustice and refuse to integrate. And because they refuse to integrate, they are not accepted. How do you break this vicious circle? In my present job, I see my fair share of Roma who are breaking the law in this country. The main problem is the lack of education and the lack of opportunity. I’ve seen instances in which Roma children go to school here and become successful. Which is not the case in Romania, where for economic and cultural reasons they are failures.
There’s also the situation in which some Roma leaders become corrupt. They get all sorts of money from international organizations and use it for their own betterment and not for the betterment of the community. I saw the notes that you sent me, and I was mentioning 23 years that education was the way out. If we don’t teach them to read and write, it will be a disaster. And it turns out that that’s the solution: education. Cultural change. It’s no good if they continue to marry at 12 or 13 and bear lots of children, and women continue to be illiterate and stuck in the house with the children and the cooking. They will not manage to lift themselves out of their situation.
That was Nicolae Gheorghe’s point of view as well. And also the view of the Roma activist, who had such a difficult life growing up in an orphanage. But through education, he himself became an educator. But he had to overcome so much to be in the position he’s in today.
But it’s a success story. And there are so any stories of failure, which I see on a daily basis. I see so many Roma people who have no chance — they are barely literate, they don’t speak English. Even though here they encounter less discrimination than in Romania, they have fewer opportunities.
You mentioned anti-Semitism. For many people in Hungary, Judaism is not just a religion. It represents two other things — international capital, which may or may not be Jewish, but also liberalism, since so many members of the Liberal Party were Jewish. Members of Fidesz and Jobbik have used this anti-Semitism against international investment and against liberals. I’m curious how anti-Semitism functions in Romania.
First of all, it’s the rabid anti-Semitism of these neo-Legionnaires. It starts with denial of the Holocaust. This is a very sensitive point in Romania’s recent history. There was a Commission set up by President Iliescu and chaired by Elie Wiesel about Romania’s role in the Holocaust. A report was published and endorsed by Iliescu in 2004. The gist of it was that the Antonescu regime was responsible for the deaths of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews as well as 11,000 Roma. As I mentioned, there’s a law that criminalizes Holocaust denial and cults of people like Antonescu. There was an appeal of the death sentence of Antonescu in 1946, which the Supreme Court rejected on the basis of the charge of crimes against humanity. But go on the Internet and where there is a story about Antonescu, you’ll see anti-Semitic comments. And Antonescu was the fifth greatest Romanian in the contest in 2005.
The second aspect of anti-Semitism is international capital — the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union – which they believe is controlled by Jews or the Freemasons. There are also quite a few Israelis of Romanian origin who have come back to Romania. They have recovered their Romanian citizenship, which is more valuable now because of the EU membership, and reclaimed their properties. And this too has created irritation.
We don’t have parties like Jobbik, so it’s not headline news, but it’s always very close beneath the surface. It’s not like in Russia or Hungary. It’s not violent. In Romania, anti-Semitism was never really mainly ideological as it was in Russia or Germany. It was mainly economic, generated by envy.
You mentioned the commission with Wiesel, which reminds me of the other commission — on the Communist regime. I interviewed Vladimir Tismaneanu, who acknowledged the difficulty of the task, but he was proud of its accomplishments. Other people I’ve talked to were not so enthusiastic about the commission’s findings.
It’s tied to personal animosities. We come back to anti-Semitism. Tismaneanu’s father was a Jewish communist, and for this reason some people believe that this doesn’t entitle him to chair a commission on the Communist past in Romania.
How would you assess the Commission’s work? Has it had a lasting impact?
No, it didn’t. For different reasons, it had the same lack of impact as the Wiesel Commission report. People have made up their minds, and it’s easier to read a pamphlet in the newspaper. Both reports are hundreds of pages long. They are very complex. People don’t have time for it, and they’ve made their own decisions. The Wiesel Commission is seen as a Jewish commission, though many of the members were Romanian, including Nicolae Gheorghe. And the Tismaneanu commission was chaired by a son of a Jewishnomenklatura member, so in that case it has no credibility. So, they can’t win!
In terms of access to the Securitate files, you as an individual can look at your own file. Can journalists look at more files than that?
There is a mechanism for access for historical and research purposes.
Have there been any interesting or important revelations?
Every now and then someone is pointed out — like the former chairman of the Conservative Party, Dan Voiculescu, who is a very important person in this government in terms of influence. But I don’t think there’s much public interest. A more recent phenomenon is the prosecution inquiry into the first case of Communist abuse. The former director of the Ramnicu Sarat prison, Alexandru Vishinescu — he was the director of the prison from 1956 to 1963 when some of the present party leaders like Corneliu Coposu were among the inmates — is being investigated for aggravated murder. These crimes are not covered by the statute of limitations. For the first time after 1989 such investigations are taking place.
You talked about the victory of Emil Constantinescu in 1996 and his loss in 2000. Were there things Constantinescu could have done that would have prevented that kind of political oscillation?
Remember, the Democratic Convention didn’t have a majority in parliament. They had to govern in a coalition with the Democratic Party led by Petre Roman at the time. The Democratic Party played a very ambiguous role. Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea’s government fell when the Democratic Party withdrew, and the main culprit was Traian Basescu. Many people forget that.
Constantinescu and the Democratic Convention did as much as they could. In 1999, the EU agreed to start accession negotiations with Romania. When Iliescu and PSD returned to power in 2000, there was no way back. They had to go forward. In some ways that’s the importance of Constantinescu’s four years of power. He’s the one who set Romania on the pro-Western path. Remember, Romania became a member of NATO in 2002 — well, actually in 2004, but the announcement was made in 2002 – and that was under Iliescu. The decision to invite Romania to become a member of the EU was taken in 2004 when Iliescu was still president. By that time it was an irreversible process.
I remember also the sycophantic attitude of Romania to America after 9-11, its support for the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions, and that too was when Iliescu was in power.
You mentioned that reforms continued until accession and then started to peter out. Can you give any specific examples?
One of the best examples is the way in which the infrastructure works. Very little in terms of motorways have been built because of corruption. The audit court has published a report in which they said that the building of motorways in Romania is the most expensive in the EU. Instead of becoming more efficient, they are becoming more expensive and corrupt. Romania also has the lowest absorption of European funds of all EU countries. I don’t know what the situation is now, but there were years when Romania was a net contributor to the EU because it wasn’t absorbing all the funds that it was entitled to.
It’s not even efficient from the point of view of corruption!
The EU has its faults, and there’s lots of corruption in the EU. But still. If you travel in Greece, Portugal, and Spain, you can see tremendous achievements in the motorways, which you don’t see in Romania.
Poland is the example of perhaps the greatest absorption, and Poland will get the largest amount of funds between now and 2020. You can see signs of those investments everywhere. In the countryside there are playgrounds even in the smallest villages. Maybe it wasn’t the best use of funds, but it could have been worse. So, what does it take to boost absorption rates? Is it just a layer of bureaucracy?
It’s not just that. It’s the ordinary people who might benefit — they don’t know how to apply because there is a certain way to apply. You have to know how to present your project. And they don’t know how to do it. And there are lots of crooks who know how to do it, and they have siphoned off the funds. There’s so much that the EU can do and can prevent. But it’s up to the countries themselves to root out corruption.
We’ve talked a lot about the cities. But I’m also interested in the Romanian countryside.
In Romania, 47 percent of the people live there — the highest percentage in the EU.
Have you seen any transformation in the countryside? Romania is now exporting food. But people are still complaining about agricultural imports.
Yes, because they can’t compete with the imports. But there’s another problem: ownership of land. I don’t know what the restrictions are for other countries, but in Romania, there will be no more restrictions on buying land after seven years. People with money will be able to buy land and farm efficiently. Romanians don’t have the money or the knowledge to work large plots of land on a commercial basis. They only have small farms with a few chickens and tomatoes that they sell on the side of the road.
By the way, there won’t be any restrictions in other countries for Romanians in terms of their rights of work, from January 1, 2014. They will be able to work legally in all EU countries including Germany, France, and Britain. There are still 10 countries, including the largest, that restrict the right of Romanians to work.
Are there any examples of large Romanian food processing or food growing enterprises?
Yes, there are. When there were stories about the sale of horsemeat here in Europe, there was a picture of a very modern slaughterhouse in northern Moldova. So, there are examples. But obviously most of them are with foreign investors. The problem with the countryside is that most adults there have left, gone to Italy or Spain to work. People live in the countryside but don’t work there. They tend to commute. You have only very old people and very young people. The villages are deserted.
Communism, they said, eradicated the difference between urban and rural. The reality is that in capitalist countries the difference tends to disappear. But in the Communist countries, the differences grew starker – there was no running water or heat in the countryside, the roads were in a dismal state, and so on.
How many Romanians have left the country? Two million?
More like four million. In last year’s census, the population of Romania was 19 million people. The same as in 1966! The population was 23.8 million at the end of 1989, though it was more recently recalculated so that it was more like 20 million. Obviously the birth rates have plummeted, as in most East European countries. Also, many people have left. Some of them tend to come and go. It’s difficult to say where they live. They work for six months in Italy and then go back to Romania. They build their houses in the villages and then go back abroad to work. It’s a different pattern. But at least three million Romanians have left the country at least temporarily.
You said that 100,000 live here in UK.
And more will arrive with the lifting of the work restrictions.
Will that mean another million people leaving Romania?
It’s difficult to say. I expect that many Romanians in Italy and Spain will come to Britain. The migration will be more within EU countries than from Romania. But you never know: there might a rush of Romanians from Romania.
There is a Euroskeptic NGO here called Migration Watch, which is quite xenophobic. It predicted that in the next five years, the net migration of Romanians and Bulgarians, though Bulgarians are quite insignificant in terms of numbers, will be 50,000 every year for the next five years. So, another 250,000 here in the UK.
That’s a lot, but that means more work for you.
Yes, as an interpreter. It’s the law of numbers: increased migration means increased crime.
You mentioned the crime wave here in UK, which I hadn’t heard of. Is that because I’m not living here?
I’m not talking here as an interpreter, which is confidential, but as a journalist. The figures, released by the Association of Chief Police Officers, is a statistical compilation for all EU nationals committing crimes in Britain, and Romanians are in second place, after Poles.
In sheer numbers.
There are many more Poles here than Romanians.
The Romanians in absolute terms commit 20 percent fewer crimes than Poles. But there are five or six times more Poles than Romanians. So, per capita, the Romanian crime rate is much higher than the Polish crime rate. According to another figure released by the police in the city of London, 92 percent of cashpoint fraud is perpetrated by Romanians.
What is cashpoint fraud?
People going to the cashpoint.
Oh, automatic teller machines.
There is the so-called Lebanese loop, a device put on the machine that retains your card, then the fraudster uses a screwdriver and takes it out. They attach a mobile phone that takes a picture of your PIN when you put it in. Then they use the card and take the cash out. That’s only one of many methods. 92 percent of the people committing this kind of crime are Romanians.
That’s actually quite entrepreneurial.
It’s very sophisticated. These people have syphoned out hundreds of thousands of pounds.
These aren’t just individuals.
No, it’s organized crime.
Are they just here in London?
All over the UK. It’s not uncommon in Italy or Spain. The Romanians have a reputation for cashpoint fraud.
Does the UK government have a particular strategy for dealing with this?
Not only the government. The banks have implemented safety measures, so this kind of fraud has gone down. But the criminals have devised other types, like the “cash claw” which they put inside the machine to collect the cash. They are very inventive. They are always a step ahead.
It’s too bad that they can’t use their knowledge and skills for something else.
You know how it is. Innovation in crime is many times more profitable than innovation in legal activities. The profit margin is much bigger.
Let’s talk about the more positive side of the Romanian community here in London. Is the sheer size of the community here having an impact on the cultural life?
Yes. There are two or three newspapers, but I think only one is still printed. There are more than 10 churches, not only Orthodox but Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Also cultural organizations. It is the first time that you can say in this country that there is a Romanian community. There are places in north London where you can hear Romanian spoken on the street, on the buses. Most of the males here work in construction and the women are cleaners. They’ve started out on the lower rungs of this ladder. Like Poles did many years ago, and now many of them have their own businesses. That’s how I see the Romanian community evolving.
What’s the relationship between Romanians and other immigrant communities?
Romanians tend to be very ghettoized and tend to congregate only among themselves. Otherwise, there have been anti-Romanian headlines in the newspapers about crime and welfare scroungers, but that’s inevitable. This UK Independence Party, which polled 23 percent in local elections, is tipped to become Britain’s largest party in the next Euro elections, which uses the proportional system. In parliamentary elections, they never get more than 10 percent because it’s first past the pole. Their leader Nigel Farage has promised to make Romanians and Bulgarians the top issue, because Romanians and Bulgarians will “swamp” Britain when the new labor regulations go into effect in January 2014. He is using this issue, and quite a few people find this a very popular issue.
I’ve written a lot on anti-Muslim sentiment, and that’s been very strong here in the UK. It’s always interesting to hear about this anti-Romanian and anti-Bulgarian sentiment, because from the racist’s point of view, these people are European, white, and Christian.
Yes, but they’re scapegoats. It’s not a cultural thing. It’s an economic thing. It’s not so much that “they” are taking “our” jobs. But “they” are using “our” general practitioners, “their” children are going to “our” schools, using “our” social housing – it’s all a drain on “our” resources. This kind of discourse is most popular in working-class neighborhoods.
The response to Roma in Italy and France has been quite extreme — to send people back to their countries. Has there been specific anti-Roma sentiment here?
No, because Roma tend to be concentrated in large cities, and these cities tend to be quite multi-ethnic. And here, it’s very difficult to distinguish Romanian Roma from Indians or Pakistanis. They blend into the background.
Have you experienced any anti-Romanian sentiment?
No. Never at the BBC World Service. Not even with the police. London is a very cosmopolitan place. You rarely get this sort of xenophobic behavior in the open. Remember, British people are very adept at concealing their sentiments. But they have very subtle ways of expressing their displeasure. But I wasn’t the subject of any anti-Romanian sentiment.
Do you ever foresee returning to Romania?
No. My mother is still there. And I go back every three or four months. I left there such a long time ago. My home is here. My whole life is here. Romania is becoming a totally different country from what I left in 1991. I don’t feel the call.
What about journalism?
I am still a correspondent for Radio France International. They haven’t closed their Romanian department. I write for Romanian websites, an article now and then. But with TV networks, the only one I accept interviews from is Digi 24, an independent network that is the most impartial of all. Otherwise, I don’t accept such invitations because they are all very biased. I don’t like their journalism.
In those circumstances, it’s a shame that the BBC closed down its Romanian service.
It was inevitable. The BBC closed all its radio operations in Europe. They have kept only three departments on the Internet: Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish. And they are focusing on other regions of the world, especially the Muslim world. Nowadays, they have a TV service in Arabic and in Persian. It’s understandable that they’re concentrating there. And the audience for the BBC had dropped dramatically. In its last year, our Romanian program was rebroadcast on 120 local FM radio stations. But still the audience was dropping because people are less and less interested in politics and political affairs. It’s some sort of normality.
To be apathetic?
Not to be interested in current affairs internationally, not even Romanian current affairs.
When you think back to your worldview around 1990, how much has changed in your own thinking about politics and economics?
You can’t compare. Remember, in 1990, when we talked, I had traveled only twice in the previous six months, once to the Netherlands and then my voyage to Canada and the United States. I knew a lot in theory. But you cannot understand democracy, and especially market economics, unless you experience them. Obviously when you live in a country like Britain, there are plenty of ways of experiencing them.
I remember after one or two years working at the BBC, I went back to Romania. Former colleagues asked me, “Did the BBC give you a house?”
I didn’t understand the question. I said, “They give me a salary and either I rent a house or I buy a house.”
They were used to the fact that a house was given to you by the state in Romania. That’s an example of how different it is. There’s no comparison. In a way I knew this when I left Romania. I knew that I wasn’t willing to waste the next 20-odd years, because I knew that Romania objectively couldn’t develop faster. For my tastes and my aspirations, that wasn’t fast enough.
That’s the big challenge for Romania. The people who have acquired the knowledge are not able to implement that knowledge in Romania.
It’s not just that they don’t want to return. Some have returned only to get the cold shoulder. There are various reasons: envy, fear of competition, lack of understanding from the other people. Some just give up and return to the country that they left in the first place. It’s not their loss. It’s Romania’s loss.
You said that Antonescu was number five in the poll of most popular Romanians in history. And I’ve heard that Ceausescu –
Ceausescu was not allowed as an entrant. Otherwise…
Yes, that’s what I heard. What will it take for that pro-Ceausescu sentiment to disappear? Is it generational…?
No, it isn’t. Opinion polls say two-thirds of Romanians believe that life was better under Communism. Most of them weren’t even born then! I’ve spoken to young Romanians here who speak of the better life under Ceausescu. They don’t know that food was rationed, electricity was cut, abortions were illegal! They’ve heard from their parents — you know how people are, they tend to remember only good things. Not only that, but they remember the good things of their youth, which happened to be under the Communist regime. They didn’t have any terms of comparison. The only comparison they have with Romania before 1989 is Romania after 1989, which is by any measure not a success story. You can’t blame them for it.
In those circumstances, it seems so important for Romanian movies like Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days to be seen by Romanians –
They’re mostly watched outside of Romania.
They’re not watched inside Romania?
Yes, they are watched. But it doesn’t ring a bell. For older people, they don’t want to know. And for young people, it doesn’t mean anything.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Romania from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Romania over the next 2-3 years, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
London, August 31, 2013
Many Romanian dailies and weeklies as well as the government press agency are located in Casa Scinteii. The two most important dailies can be found there: the opposition paper Romania Libera (Free Romania) and the former party paper Adevarul (Truth). I was given a name at Romania Libera–Petru Clej–so I trekked out to the distant Soviet-style building and, after many questions and much finger-pointing, I located him.
Clej is a former computer analyst who only recently has shifted into journalism. In the first rather brief part of our interview, he told me a little about Romania Libera. The newspaper is independent, even from a financial point of view. It even became private in May, now the property of the editorial staff. The circulation is roughly 500,000 though it reached 1.5 million in February and March. Lack of paper and “political sabotage” has brought the number down. The sabotage has consisted mainly of distribution problems: the newspaper does not always get to distant parts of the country. The post office doesn’t honor subscriptions, the copies sometimes get stolen.
Romania Libera adopts an opposition attitude but does not belong to any political party. Its purpose is to be a “watchdog.” The senior editors were jailed in 1989 for working on an underground newspaper.
Presently, RL is printed at the government presses, which creates a certain dependency. Prices for paper have tripled in July. Now, RL costs only 1 leu, but that will probably change. RL also has a weekly and a monthly magazine. It would like to set up its own news agency. Rompress, the state-owned agency, has “an unhealthy monopoly.” With several newspapers–22, Expres, Zig-Zag–Romania Liberajournalists are trying to set up a new Independent Union of Democratic Journalists. The government is considering a new press law that would prohibit, among other things, fascism and any suggestions of actions that go against the law.
At this point, we were interrupted by an American journalist who had come by to give a little talk on press law in the U.S. Sponsored in part by USIA, this journalist was the latest in a succession of moves made by the U.S. to build up Romania Libera.
When I returned to the Casa Scinteii to resume my discussion with Petru Clej of Romania Libera and was rewarded with perhaps the most comprehensive picture of the Romanian scene. Clej was the most helpful in separating gossip from fact (to the degree that such is possible in Romania today). New to the profession, Clej became a journalist on the advice and encouragement of a friend who had been jailed under Ceausescu for working on an underground paper. After the revolution, Clej called his friend and was persuaded to join the new cadre of journalists at the restructured Romania Libera. But, Clej responded, I have no experience. The friend quoted the Romanian proverb: New times demand new people. It did not take much convincing. After all in the new Romania, Clej observed, journalism is an especially exciting job: working for an opposition newspaper in particular allows quite a lot of foreign travel.
We began by talking about Romania Libera‘s situation. The publisher had just bought a printing press in Holland and was planning to bring it to Bucharest to free the newspaper from its dependency on the government’s printers. RL had wanted to buy some land to build a new office to house the printing press and the other operations. But the government had recently passed a law prohibiting the sale of land for construction. Nevertheless, they were waiting for the decision of the mayor. Meanwhile, the state editing house had refused to recognize RL’s privatization, noting that the newspaper could not use a name belong to a previous enterprise. RL countered that its previous owner–the Front of Democratic Socialist Unity–had disappeared after the revolution leaving the paper ownerless. On May, the editorial board announced officially the new ownership. The government did not complain until after the May 20 elections. So far the state editing house has not brought the issue to court.
Meanwhile, RL has begun buying its own trucks for distribution. It is practically the largest privately owned enterprise in Romania today. Other private companies–restaurants, shops, some small factories–are neither as large nor as influential. Are there laws governing these new private initiatives? Decree law #54 issued by the Provisional Council regulates private enterprise–since it was issued by the Provisional Council, though, it will be superseded by parliamentary law which has not yet been developed. Under this decree, 50 per cent of profits go the government. Though a lot, this is a lot better than under Ceausescu when 70-80 per cent of profits went to the state and the remainder was strictly controlled. The 50 per cent of profits that RL now retains has gone to higher salaries and capital investment.
We turned to the events of June 13-15. I presented to Clej the version of events given to me by Florentina Hristea. Were her descriptions and allegations accurate? Clej proceeded to give his version of the events. He began with April 23-24 when police tried to dislodge a group of hard-core demonstrators from University Square. One of the leaders of this group was Dumitru Dinca, a Gypsy, a former member of the National Salvation Front council, “a professional revolutionary who likes power and adventure.” When police tried to dislodge this group, sympathizers–especially students and intellectuals–flocked to the square despite the fact that Iliescu had branded the demonstrators “golan” or hooligans. One of these subsequent participants was the president of the League of Students, Marian Munteanu. At this time, only 100-200 people were present on the square during the day. But in the evening, tens of thousands gathered to hear speeches by Dinca, Munteanu and others. According to a poll done at the time, 50 per cent of these evening supporters were intellectuals. The so-called “lumpen” were a side-effect, a marginal effect: black marketeers, adventure-seekers, petty criminals, prostitutes. But the TV distorted the demonstration by emphasizing these marginal people. Since the people in the countryside could only know of the demonstration by way of TV, these “half truthes” were especially influential. Also, Clej said, some people who spoke from the balcony were not the “cleanest” but the majority were very honest. He admitted that the Liberal and the Peasant parties tried to take advantage of the demonstration, especially in the latter days of the election campaign–but this strategy backfired. Because a lot of provocative behavior occurred in the square in these final days, many Romanians shifted their support away from the opposition parties.
After the May 20 elections, the League of Students and the Group for Social Dialog called for a retreat from the square. The elections were over, the people had decided and there no longer was in their view a point in demonstrating. But demonstrators remained in the square, many of the same who had comprised the hard-core from the beginning. The people who remained, Clej noted, were easily manipulated. More than 50 per cent of those eventually arrested were unemployed. A large number were between 15 and 20. Some were extremists, some infiltrators from the police. These demonstrators called for an independent TV station but the government, backed up by an overwhelming mandate, wouldn’t negotiate. On the night of June 12, the prosecutor called for the police to dispel the demonstrators. On the morning of the 13th, the police were violent and provocative and the reply was also violent. But not more than 500 people clashed with riot police. The police then revealed their utter inability to fight by running away from the stones and Molotov cocktails and retreating to the police headquarters which is located on Calea Victoria not far from University Square (Clej compared the situation to the intifada). The police station was subsequently set on fire–but it is not clear who actually did this. As for the “attack” on the TV station, this was clearly a provocation. The “demonstrators” penetrated the security too easily–this, according to Clej, provided the excuse for suspending the TV broadcast and for issuing the presidential appeal that brought the miners to Bucharest.
According to the Interior Ministry, four people were shot and killed during this period. Many were shot. One died of stabbing and one died of a heart attack. But, Clej says, one of his colleagues counted at least 15 corpses in the morgue that day; another reported additional coffins deposited at the cemetery; a third took a picture of a large number of new graves with hastily erected crosses. None of these reports has really been substantiated, however.
What about allegations of Peasant Party support of the demonstrators? “The Peasant party is one of the stupidest parties to reemerge after the revolution,” Clej said. The harshest blow dealt to this party was, ironically, by Romania Libera. RL printed a story about a meeting in Italy between the Peasant Party and a neo-fascist group. The next day, swastikas appeared next to the Peasant party’s name on their posters. True, Clej said, the National Peasants are not a fascist party–but they have no conception of moderation. It is composed in the main of old leaders simply seeking revenge for the time they spent in jails or in exile. It might be true, he conceded, that they helped the demonstrators. Another ill-conceived move of the party was to add Christian and Democratic to their official name. This recalled to many of the older generation the time when the National Peasant under a similar name had been allied with the Iron Guard, Romania’s indigenous fascist organization during World War II. The group that particularly objected to this name change were Romania’s remaining Jews (20,000; in 1948 there were 400,000; today in Israel there are 450,000; Ceausescu “sold” many for hard currency). Privately, Peasant party leaders have made anti-Semitic remarks. This has taken place in the context of growing anti-Semitism in the country: a synagogue in Oradea was desecrated in January; anti-Semitic comments have been directed toward Brucan and Roman.
[At this point I should mention that I stumbled upon by accident the largest synagogue in Bucharest, a gorgeous 19th century (I think) structure. It is located near the market at Piata Unirii in an area where there is much new construction. Since the Jewish theater is also located in this area, perhaps this was the old Jewish section of town, torn down by Ceausescu to create his Centru Civic. Also, one organization which Clej didn’t mention is Vatra Romanesca which recently appeared as a response to ethnic Hungarian calls for equal rights. Some call it “fascist”; others say it is the only organization willing to stand up against the ethnic Hungarians. The movement emphasizes Romanian customs, spirituality and roots.]
We turned to the question of Securitate. Clej estimated 20,000 officers and a large number of informers in every school, every workplace. The Romanian saying was in every group of three people, one person would be Securitate (which would mean a truly unbelievable 8 million). Clej suspects the number of informers to have been in the hundreds of thousands. He knew of several at the university he attended. “You would be surprised. Many were nice guys. They were that way in order not to attract attention.” Several weeklies, he pointed out, have printed interesting articles on the Securitate. The Securitate clearly went over to the side of the revolutionaries in December. Later evidence has shown that it was in fact the army that did much of the killing in those days–21 killed by the army for instance in Cluj. His own suspicion: the army thought that the revolution was the result of Hungarian secret service provocation. Clej thought there might have been some truth to this suspicion since the revolt began in Timisoara, spearheaded by Laszlo Tokes, an ethnic Hungarian pastor. What then about the shooting and killing after December 21, often blamed on Securitate still loyal to Ceausescu? Clej suspects that this was partly theater concocted by the FSN to establish its image. What proof does he have? None really, except that most of the shooting came from the Securitate building located next to the Central Committee building and all of the Securitate members in that particular office had already given up their arms and gone to the Interior Ministry. So who shot? The army maybe. Also this group of foreign “terrorists” including Arabs and even a North Korean. Proof? Some pictures taken of these “terrorists” in the hospital [I’ve seen these pictures and frankly, they’re not very convincing]. And where is the Securitate today? Some in high places, for instance Virgil Magureanu who is now the head of the Investigative Services and had previously been in the Securitate. Why did they keep him? Probably because he had been involved in this previous coup d’etat plan. Further, he knows a great deal, and he wouldn’t talk if kept on.
What about Prime Minister Petre Roman? The only strong person in government at present, according to Clej. “He has learned a lot of things in the last months.” Before he used to make a lot of mistakes. His views constantly change but now has taken a more pragmatic approach toward the economy. But he gets strong opposition from the bureaucracy and the workers. In fact, he gets more support from the opposition than from the Front.
We shifted to economic reform. The government is trying to privatize the large factories by selling up to 30-50 per cent of shares to individuals. The problem: in order to modernize these factories, Western capital is needed and Western firms have little intention of investing at the moment, “because they don’t see short-term profit.” the goal is to privatize up to 70 per cent of the economy. There are now more fruit and vegetables available at the peasant markets but they are very expensive. There has been limited land reform, with every family getting 5000 square meters for individual use. The farmers are given a choice whether to dissolve their cooperatives or continue them. Some have dissolved. But many farmers are worried about retirement funds. Meanwhile, many young farmers have left the villages. Though the farmers lack essential tools like tractors, Clej expects that Romania will be exporting food products within 2 years.
In terms of foreign policy, the government has adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude. Romania is desperately trying to get into the Council of Europe but is the only country in the region to have been left out. The other major concern is Soviet Moldavia (the former province of Bessarabia annexed by the Soviets in 1940). 64 per cent of the inhabitants of this Soviet republic are ethnic Romanians. They have gone back to the Latin alphabet and have begun extensively to use the Romanian language.
I asked about poverty and social security. The average salary in Romania is 3000 lei ($30 on the black market rate). Pensioners, meanwhile, receive barely a survival minimum. Many poor people were killed by hunger and cold during the latter days of Ceausescu. At the end of the year, he expects a 50 per cent inflation rate. The price of gas has already gone up 66 per cent; paper 200 per cent. The lei has been devalued against the dollar by 100 per cent. Airfare has doubled (a round-trip ticket to New York now costs 30,000 lei). The raising of gas prices has only succeeded in taking money from drivers and using it to subsidize food.
We then talked about the ethnic situation. Gyspies make up 10 per cent of the population, roughly 2 and a half million. “They have been mistreated for centuries. They were slaves until 1860.” A vicious circle has resulted: they have been persecuted and poorly integrated and so many have resorted to crime. Few Romanians want to hire Gypsies since they are poorly trained which makes the circle all the more vicious. Gypsies had 7 parties in the elections and succeeded in getting one representative in Parliament. They tended to vote for Iliescu for president because they were told by their leaders that if Iliescu won, he would allow Gypsies to develop freely their private initiatives. “If we don’t educate them, teach them to read and write, it will be a disaster.” Clej predicts a major social explosion.
Ethnic Hungarians also make up 10 per cent of the population, are concentrated in the north in Transylvania. They are well educated and rather homogenous. Since they were once an empire, they perhaps have “a superiority complex.” “They had an empire, you know. It is not easy to lose an empire,” Clej said. They have never recovered from the loss of 2/3 of their surface courtesy of the Trianon treaty. Ethnic Hungarians were badly treated under Ceaucescu and in many cases forced to assimilate. Clej pointed to the coincidence between the disturbances in Tirgu Mures and the Hungarian elections. Before Tirgu Mures, Democratic Forum was running very close to the Alliance of Free Democrats. In the second round of Hungarian elections, after the incidents in Tirgu Mures, Democratic Forum won handily, perhaps capitalizing on an increase in nationalist feeling. In the two provinces in which they have a majority, ethnic Hungarians want autonomy: separate schools, a Hungarian language university in Cluj and so on. In the short-term, tensions will increase but Clej expects that 1992 and the deemphasis on borders will ease the tensions.
The third largest group are the ethnic Germans, 2/3 of whom want to leave Romania and emigrate to Germany. This is a tragedy, Clej notes, because Germany doesn’t want them. And work is hard to find these days in West Germany. Finally, the Germany minority had often acted as a cushion between Hungarians and Romanians. Now, with only 200,000 remaining, this cushion no longer functions.