Romania: Farce and tragedy in Bucharest

27 August 2012
La Repubblica Rome

Runaway corruption and the political crisis prompted by the battle between President Băsescu and Prime Minister Ponta have shown that Romania’s transition to democracy is far from complete. Writer Adriano Sofri explains that Romanians are bitter and resigned, although some believe that the country still has a bright future.

In Romania, just like in Italy, we have an abundance of banks and churches. And everywhere you look you will see case de amanet, pawnbrokers’ shops, which are usually located just next to one of our innumerable pharmacies: not a good sign.

Life expectancy in Romania is 74.2 years, eight years short of what it is in Italy. This is a country where people do not take care of themselves, where they try to get rid of their aches and pains with medicines.

Prescriptions are valid for three months, and usually a certain amount of time elapses before they are used, because people need to tighten their belts for a while before they visit the pharmacy.

A lot of doctors and nurses are deciding to emigrate. Corruption is omnipresent at every level of the healthcare sector, which offers laughable salaries and pathetically low pensions.

Fistfulls of lei

Patients turn up at the hospital with little packets of notes for every member of staff they will encounter: for the receptionists, the nurses, the stretcher bearers, the doctors and even the anesthetists. When they are naked on their trolleys waiting outside the operating theatre, they still have to have a fistfull of lei for the specialist who is going to put them to sleep.

Corruption is rife in schools, in the police, in commerce, in the tax office, in public exams, and, most importantly, in politics. Encouraged by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, neither of which took the time to look into the details of how it might be done, our politicians have undertaken a massive campaign of privatisations which has amounted to little more than an indiscriminate liquidation of national resources.

The country’s political institutions are in a picturesque shambles. The Social Democratic Party, which, let’s not forget, is the rightful heir to the Communist Party of the old regime, is now controlled by the 39-year-old Victor Ponta, who recently obtained a parliamentary majority through an alliance with the National Liberal Party.

As soon as he took power, he launched a series of initiatives to undermine the judiciary with overall aim of deposing President Traian Băsescu. The president, 61, who is a former member of the Democratic Party, is accused of involvement in the networks of the infamous communist secret police, the Securitate, as are most of the members of his generation who held important posts under Nicolae Ceauşescu (1965-1989).

Referendum

On July 29, the decision to impeach Băsescu was put to a referendum, as it was five years earlier when the people voted massively to keep him in office.

However, a repeat of 2007 was unlikely. Băsescu’s popularity was at an all time low in a context marked by harsh economic measures imposed by the IMF and the EU, the failure of the drive to fight corruption, as well as the president’s partisan and arrogant attitude and his inability to maintain dialogue between the country’s political parties.

Nonetheless, Victor Ponta and his ally Crin Antonescu, who was appointed Acting President in the run-up to the vote, failed to achieve their objective. Only 46% of voters took part in the referendum, which required a “50 per cent plus one” turnout to be valid. A little more than 90 per cent of the votes cast were against Băsescu, however, the president has no intention of stepping down.

Pressure and manoeuvres to undermine all levels of the judiciary right up to the supreme court and the obstruction of attempts to prosecute widespread election fraud are commonplace in a country where jobs and responsibilities that are not directly attributed by the leaders of political factions are virtually unknown.

As it stands, the likelihood is that Ponta and his associates will make do with “cohabitation” until this autumn’s presidential contest, which will likely confirm their success in local elections in June.

For informed commentators, it is a strategy that is tantamount to offering Traian Băsescu a safe passage that will enable him to return to private life and avoid a stay in prison.

American friends

The same commentators also argue that this was one of the reasons for US Assistant Secretary State for European Affairs Philip Gordon’s recent visit to Bucharest. The Americans were friends of Băsescu, and they still want to act as counterweight to his opponents’ links to Russia.

This is the only effective difference between the right and the left in Romania where political alternatives have been blurred by longstanding equivocation. Behind Ponta and his partners, there remains the shadowy figure of 82-year-old Ion Iliescu, a former sidekick of Nicolae Ceauşescu. Although he may not have pulled all of the strings in 1989, Iliescu certainly played a key role in the violent manipulation of the revolution that prevented a fully fledged transformation of the state.

Iliescu will also be remembered for sending thousands of miners to to bludgeon protesting students in 1990, and as the main advocate of the spirit of continuity that marked Romanian “transition”.

The fate of Adrian Nastase, the former social-democratic prime minister and Băsescu’s presidential race rival in 2004, is a testament to the power games that characterise Romanian politics. Sentenced in 2012 to two years in jail for the illegal use of party election funds, he was incarcerated in June.

The charges against him may well be legitimate, but it is certain that they provided Băsescu with yet another pretext for show of strength. In yet another episode in this tragic farce, Victor Ponta has responded to revelations that he plagiarised a good third of his doctoral thesis by disbanding the commission responsible for the validation of university qualifications, while affirming that the use of quotation marks was not obligatory in 2003, the year when he submitted his thesis.

Extreme views

Not surprisingly, in such a political context, the views of Romanians are as extreme as they are interchangeable. It is not unusual to hear the same arguments put forward to support and to blame Băsescu and Ponta (or Iliescu) and more often than not they are both the target of indignation and bitterness.

Some say that we will have to wait for the young generation to sweep away the old guard. But it is even more common to hear that we have already waited for years, and that the young generation has not changed anything. The most that can be expected from the young is that they will leave the country, or that they will want to leave. And most of them simply remark: “There is nothing to be done, that is just the way we are in Romania”.

In all of this, the endless case de amanet, pawnbrokers’ shops, are the one constant. They became a feature of the landscape, or so were told, after the fall of Ceauşescu, when the Turks, and then the Arabs and rich Gypsies came here to buy gold. Romanians pawn all kinds of things and the pawnshops, like the pharmacies, the banks and the churches, are solid institutions in a country that is effectively very poor.

Some of the case de amanet have signs that say: “Open 24/7”. It happens that people need to pawn their engagement rings at 3am, before they go knocking on the door of the pharmacy. However, 65-year-old businessman Sergiu Shlomo Stapler tells me I must not be convinced by appearances. In 20 years, Romania will be the Switzerland of the Balkans.

The country has plenty of clever and well-educated young people, as well as resources that it will learn to use to its advantage — chief among them the country’s oil reserves which are currently in the hands of Kazakh, Russian, French, Italian and American companies, while the Romanians are obliged to make do with crumbs. It is as though we were still in the colonial era.

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