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Romanian revolution
Photo: ahmed bermawy (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
 

The revolution in Bucharest a quarter of a century ago

 

The final part of our mini-series marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe takes gives us a Romanian point of view, as we hear from Georgiana Murariu about the revolution of 1989 and the years that followed.

In the months prior to the spectacle that was the run-up to the recent Romanian presidential elections, I was reminded that it is never too late or too repetitive to re-hash and reconsider the profound effects of Ceausescu's regime.

As an increasingly educated and critical layer of youth intelligentsia derides decisions based on anything other than the desire for Europeanness, the use of politically-loaded terminology inevitably results in the creation of arbitrary divisions between different segments of the population. Sure, most of these are aphorisms about what it means to be an old communist crone, nostalgically clinging to the principles of the redistributive state and its overbearing, yet amiable paternal hand, but there is also a lot of rhetoric around corruption and the wish to free ourselves from undesirable spots on annual lists of bafflingly corrupt countries in Europe. All of which is fair, I suppose, or would be, were it not for the fact that we've never given any second thought to whether our condemnation of corruption is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its manifestation during the late communist era as well as the transitional period after 1989.

Economically and socially, the resulting "grey zones" became less about coping with a seemingly omnipresent government and more about the opportunistic manipulation of old boys' networks and invaluable knowledge to carry on furtively evading tax, whilst promising the people concepts that were once alien to them, like growth and prosperity.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes

 

hungary christmas.jpg
Photo: Danielle Harms; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
 
Old ladies singing carols at Budapest's Christmas market 

 

In the run-up to the winter holidays, E&M's little series about Christmas traditions in Europe continues. This time around, Ana Maria Ducuta takes us inside traditions in Hungary and her mother country Romania, where the Christmas period actually starts in mid-November.  

 

Christmas. The magical word that brings so much profit to merchandisers and supermarkets, making people so eager to buy and spend their money on useless things who somehow compensate for all the bad things that happened throughout the year. The new consumerist dimension of Christmas has basically drowned out its magical meaning and emotional attachment, making it a celebration of irrational spending. But for centuries, Christmas traditions were not only a way of carrying and conveying a message through generations, but also a moment of introspection and the chance to step into an alternative universe, where we find our identity in the customs and traditions of our ancestors. After all, it's all about understanding people's souls. And that is what traditions do: they carry a little piece of soul and identity across time. Christmas traditions are different across Eastern Europe, but they all carry a very important meaning that should remind us that each Christmas could be a re-birth and a new beginning, if only we’d take the chance to search for and find ourselves. In the former Eastern bloc, Christmas was not celebrated during the communist period which lasted until early 1990s (1989-1992) but after democracy was restored restored, Christmas traditions regained their place and importance.  Let's take a look at what happens in Romania and Hungary. 

Hungary

 

Christmas is a magical time everywhere in the world and Hungary is no exception. Hungarian Christmas starts with the celebration of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas. Meanwhile, front yards and tables are decorated with advent wreaths with four candles. Every Sunday before Christmas, one more candle is lit until the last one, which is lit on Christmas Eve, the most important evening in Hungarian Christmas traditions.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
discrimination
Photo: John Nakamura Remy;  Licence CC-BY 2.0 
 
Many Europeans are still fighting against discrimination

 

The concepts of "integration" and "otherness" have been interpreted variously in EU countries, with differing perspectives shaped by local cultural and political contexts. Policies against discrimination have been avidly pursued in an attempt to make immigrants feel home wherever they go in Europe. But social exclusion is always lurking. Ana Maria Ducuta, a Romanian student of Comparative Politics and contributor to the Centre for European Policy Evaluation, gives her personal experience of discrimination and reflects on immigration and related EU actions.

 

Even in our modern Europe, xenophobia is still a plague. Eastern Europeans such as Bulgarians or Romanians who go abroad are regular victims of xenophobic feelings. Eastern Europeans are regarded by some Western societies as barbarians and in some cases criminals too. On many occasions when I went abroad, after people got to know my Romanian friends and me, they have affirmed "we are good people despite the fact that we are Romanians" and that "we know more foreign languages than they ever will". You never get to understand the harmful nature of xenophobic stereotypes until you are faced with a real situation in which you are made to feel unwelcome before you have done or even said a thing.

Published in Contentious Europe
Tuesday, 05 March 2013 23:13

Romania and the Horse Meat Scandal

Horse meat is on everyone’s lips these days. Most likely, literally as well as figuratively. The scandal that started in mid-January and seemed like another endearing phase in Romanian-British relations quickly spread across the continent and all the way to Asia.

Countries like France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Italy and even China have all reported detecting horse meat in frozen products based on minced beef. Several types of lasagne, tortellini, ravioli and pizza from brands like Findus, Nestle and Picard have been withdrawn from supermarket shelves and tested in laboratories. According to French and British authorities, at least one circuit of meat distribution in Europe identified Romania as the country of origin for the mislabelled horse meat. Another transport seems to have come from Cyprus.

European authorities are now trying to establish whether these cases are connected to one another and were orchestrated by a transnational crime organisation or if they are dealing with isolated frauds.

The only clear aspect of this international horse meat "crisis"... is that no one can name a country of origin.

Whatever the origin of the meat is and regardless of how it was labelled – in Romania or anywhere else along the chain of distribution – there are some facts which cannot be ignored. Horse meat and carcasses do not look like beef or cow carcasses. Even if the meat was packed and shipped as beef, the sanitary authorities in the countries of distribution should have been noticed – and they probably did. For example, the head of the French group Findus, Christophe Guillon, said that the horse meat used in lasagne had a French stamp certifying it was beef. The distributor responsible for this mix-up seems to be Spanghero, also a French company, which applied the stamp. This is not to say Romanian or Cypriot producers and distributors had no role in the scam – they may have very well participated, but it is unlikely that they acted alone.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes

Romania’s progress in restoring the independence of the justice system and rule of law has received an unexpected endorsement from the European Commission in the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report. The somewhat positive findings follow a disastrous evaluation last July, when Europe raised concerns about Romania’s commitment to democracy during a political scandal leading to constitutional breaches from the country’s political leaders.

The document, written in a milder-than-expected tone and numbering just ten pages, shows slight progress in the fact that the Constitution and the Constitutional Court’s decisions are once again respected by politicians. However, there are still numerous areas which need improvement. The question that arises after the release of the report is whether it will give the Romanian government a push in the right direction, or a reason to slack its duties.

Independence of justice – a long way to go

Judging by the balance of highs and lows presented in the CVM evaluation, Romania is far from succeeding in having the Commission’s monitoring of its judicial system removed. The monitors find there is still significant political pressure on the judicial system, and the independence of judges remains a problem. The report also shows the government failed to apply part of the ten recommendations EC president Jose Manuel Barroso gave Prime Minister Victor Ponta last summer – despite assurances from the latter that they would be implemented. In addition, European Union officials received “numerous reports of intimidation or harassment against individuals working in key judicial and anti-corruption institutions, including personal threats against judges and their families”.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Friday, 25 January 2013 08:28

New Immigration Flows, Old Stereotypes

The final transitional immigration controls on Romania and Bulgaria are set to expire in January 2014, seven years after these new Eastern Europeans became citizens of the European Union. In the United Kingdom, parallels are already being drawn with the 2004 “wave” of immigration, when Poland and the other A8 countries gained the rights to travel and work throughout the EU. However, the main “pull” factors of immigration, which include employment opportunities, relative gross national interest per capita (GNI per capita) and comparative opportunities across the EU, all suggest that the immigration flow from Romania and Bulgaria will not only be significantly smaller than 2004 levels, but will also be more diffuse throughout EU member states.

2004 reappraised

A recently released study by Oxford University's Migration Observatory has drawn out the long-term impact of A8 immigration on the UK, placing the “tsunami” effect into a broader context. Estimations made in 2004 predicted 15,000 people per year would move from the new EU member states to the UK. The average annual Long-Term International Migration inflow of EU citizens was, in fact, increased to around 170,000 in the period 2004-2010, in comparison to the 67,000 over the previous six years. As a percentage of EU citizens, the A8 immigrants accounted for around 50 per cent of that movement, meaning that Eastern Europeans made up only one-third of the total migrant inflow into the UK. Nevertheless, the failure to anticipate the impact of lifting these restrictions left a deep mark in the political landscape of the UK.

The negative framing of Eastern European immigration has returned [as] an endless stream of "benefit tourists".

The negative framing of Eastern European immigration has returned in the form of an endless stream of unskilled and unemployed “benefit tourists”. It may be narrow politicking but the image has maintained its potency. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) now displays a countdown clock on their website for when, as The Telegraph has also warned, “Twenty million Bulgarians and Romanians will gain the right to live and work unrestricted in Britain.” Research by the Open Society in Sofia actually suggests that the inflow of Bulgarian immigrants would be “far less significant in volume and it is less likely.... [to] cause labour market disruption” than the A8 access.

Published in The Transnationalist
Monday, 07 January 2013 23:51

When the New Boss Came to Town

Just a few days before the parliamentary elections on December 9th 2012, the Romanian government quietly passed a controversial emergency ordinance reorganising the National Audiovisual Council (CNA). Far from going unnoticed, as Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his social-liberal coalition (USL) would have hoped, the imposed changes have sparked yet another fiery debate between media specialists, politicians and European institutions.

Facing public pressure, Ponta did not publish the ordinance in the Official Monitor of the government, therefore delaying its full implementation. Instead, he re-sent it to the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Finances for “improvements”. This doesn’t mean, however, that the matter is closed. Once the two ministries agree on ways to re-write the text, it will be out of anyone’s hands when and in what shape the document will be implemented, or how unexpectedly it will appear in the Official Monitor. The only person holding that decision is Victor Ponta.

The National Audiovisual Council would become an advisory body rather than a public authority.

One of the most feared changes in the ordinance by the members of the CNA is the one limiting the Council’s power to sanction television and radio stations, as well as programme suppliers, for breaching standards. Presently, the CNA is the only public authority able to take such measures. However, under the new regulations passed by government, any CNA sanction that is contested in a court of law will automatically be suspended until the case is closed – which might take up to two years, considering the length of Romanian court cases. Therefore, the Council would become an advisory body rather than a public authority, and its members would be unable to take effective measures when faced with a breach of standards.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Sunday, 09 December 2012 22:14

The Politics of Perceiving Corruption

The latest Corruption Perceptions index by Transparency International (TI) brings into question the description of the European Union's role, often told in dialectic terms, of the transformation of Eastern Europe from a web of Soviet satellites to European states. Whilst levels of perceived corruption in Eastern Europe have remained steady compared with three years ago, and admittedly in some cases improved for those states belonging to the EU, they have also plummeted in those “Western” countries most affected by the euro crisis. The public narrative of corruption would do well then, to shift from a primary reliance on historical cultural explanations embedded in the European Union, and focus more on the particular socio-economic conditions at hand.

The comparative view

The headlines on this year's World Anti-Corruption Day (December 9th 2012) focused almost exclusively on the plight of Italy and Greece. The TI's report, based on averaging a range of independent institutional assessments of transparency and accountability, and therefore a “perception” of corruption, rather than a quantitative assessment of this opaque area found Greece to be languishing globally in 92nd place. Greece was not only at the bottom of Western and Central Europe's rankings but well below a number of post-Soviet states, including Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, for levels of its political and economic corruption.

The logic of an EU leading members on a steady path to Nordic levels of transparency... is sharply undone.

In sharp contrast, a number of post-Soviet states in Europe are slowly, steadily progressing in terms of holding their institutions accountable. Whilst notably behind traditional Western and Nordic countries, Hungary and Poland both improved their rankings, receiving over 50 out of 100 points from across 10 institutional surveys each. Slovenia and Estonia also featured in the top 20 of European countries too. This analysis does not forget that there are notable criticisms to be levelled at Hungary in particular, most notably Victor Orban's assault on the independence of the Hungarian media, the central bank and judiciary independence, but suggests that a comparative view leads to the conclusion that behind the headlines there are moderate improvements to be noted in the conduct of the Eastern European public sphere.

Published in The Transnationalist
Monday, 15 October 2012 13:37

Change: How Badly Does Romania Want It?

As citizens, I think we all have an exhausting duty to know what our governments are up to, and it is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect.” Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War

As the Indian summer of Romania’s political turmoil continues, it is clear the last hope for stability stands in the upcoming parliamentary elections this December. Yet “change” is a funny word for Romanians. No one believes it anymore. Hoping for change is considered naive and inexperienced, and talking about democracy is frowned upon in bitter speeches which ask: “What democracy?” For generations the general discourse in this apathy-hit country has been: “Get real, don’t bother trying to change things. God forbid you might get your hands dirty.” However, as grand as it may sound, the country is preparing for its most important elections since 1990. If ever there was a time to think, act, speak up and try to change things, that time is now.

Băsescu the survivor

As expected, President Traian Băsescu is back in his seat following the failure of last July’s referendum. Băsescu is nothing if not a survivor. He might subordinate the justice system and cut pensions, but he will also put on a t-shirt, hold a baby in front of the cameras, and people will buy it. The problem is that this referendum was a close one: although a little over 46 per cent of the registered voters participated, leading it to be declared invalid, 87.5 per cent of that group voted against the president, which adds up to 7.4 million people. If you consider that in 2009, Băsescu was elected for a second term with only 5.23 million votes, it’s safe to say the population doesn’t want Traian Băsescu as president. So why is the country still stuck with him? As Martha Gellhorn would say: “If we cannot blame our leaders (…) we can only blame ourselves.”

Published in Under Eastern Eyes

UPDATE: This story reflects the situation in Romania on Friday, 6th July 2012. President Basescu has now been suspended by Parliament and will face a referendum on the 29th of July. PNL party leader Crin Antonescu is now the president of Romania, at least temporararily. European and American leaders have expressed clear concerns about the political situation in Romania, all of which have been firmly, even rudely, dismissed by prime minister Victor Ponta. Traian Basescu started his election campaign with the theme "Threats to the justice system" and turned to the people, whom he "never lied to" (ahem..), not even when the goin' got tough. Yeah, we're still a weird country...

It may not come as a big surprise that Romania is a pretty weird country. We have more stray dogs and cats than illegal taxis, we don't like to invest in tourism despite its huge potential, and it takes about ten years to complete a highway which then needs repairs after four months. However, after recent political turmoil, Romania may become famous for something much deeper than any of this - the savagery and stupidity of its political class, the trashing of its own Constitution, and, as much of the international media has already noticed, the breach of every democratic principle out there.

In the last two months we have witnessed the impossible becoming possible. Romanians have always believed their country was a place of all possibilities, but Victor Ponta's government and the centre-left wing ruling coalition (along with every other party and politician) took this belief to the next level.

Romania may become famous for something much deeper - the savagery and stupidity of its political class

Mr Ponta, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was bound not to get along smoothly with President Traian Basescu, who is supported by the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). President Traian Băsescu had designated Ponta as Prime Minister after the previous incumbant had fallen to a motion of no confidence, but the members of the PSD were hungry - they hadn't been in power since 2004 and President Basescu has done nothing but criticise their wrongdoings, while the justice system (allegedly under orders from the president) has taken many of them to court for corruption. Political vendettas, they say. On the other hand, anyone who remembers the pre-2004 period, when the PSD was in power, refers to it as the "golden age" of corruption, of threats to the freedom of the press, of total control over the justice system. This is why it's almost impossible to visualise a healthy collaboration between the two parties and this is why Romanians can't choose sides today.

Published in Snapshot
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