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Vol 3, No 11
19 March 2001
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At Fate's Hand
Timothy Kenny

"Every nation has the government it deserves."
—Joseph de Maistre, 1811

It was in Predeal, Romania, at a conference of student journalists in the fall of 1991, that I first began to understand the iron grip that fate holds on Romania.

I was teaching journalism at the University of Bucharest as a Fulbright scholar, one of only two Americans to have done so after the Christmas revolution of 1989. I was asked to speak to student journalists attending a seminar in the mountains and discuss my life as an American newsman. At the time I was on leave from USA Today, where I was foreign editor. I had traveled throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Russia as a reporter prior to accepting the Fulbright, but I had not been to Romania before.

And so, I was puzzled by one young man's question near the end of our session: "What role does fate play in the United States?" he asked. "Fate?" I said. "What do you mean? Fate doesn't play a public role in the United States. Americans don't believe in fate. Americans believe in hard work and money. They believe in controlling their own destinies. That's one of the important things about America."

Not only did the young man not believe my answer, he seemed disgusted that I would attempt to foist such an obvious lie on him and his fellow students. Maybe he hadn't been to the States, but he wasn't an idiot. Fate was fate. Nothing I said would sway him—or anyone else in the audience—from his belief that fate was important, in the life of Romania or any country. I was disturbed by the discussion and later talked about its implications with students and faculty at the journalism school where I taught. Virtually everyone I spoke with thought the student's question was appropriate and, like him, seemed to think I was being less than truthful in my response. This, remember, was the fall of 1991.

Let's skip ahead almost a decade to Romania's recent presidential election, which brought back Ion Iliescu, the man who was president during my stint as a Fulbrighter. Clearly, little has changed in the ten years since Romania's revolution. Sure, the shops have more goods and luxury European automobiles now crowd the streets with Romanian-made Dacias. But of all the things that need to change in order for Romania to become an accomplished world citizen, the most important is never discussed. Fate, and its underlying role in understanding the Romanian psyche, remains largely ignored in public or private dialogue.

It's that refusal to acknowledge the role of fate—more than any single factor—that keeps Romania mired in its political, social and economic morass. Fate is the unacknowledged god of Romania, a country of 22.5 million that seems to believe its future is guided by some unseen hand its citizens cannot much influence.

Here's how a Romanian friend of mine put it recently: "If something goes well, a Romanian will say: 'Of course, I knew it. I made this happen.' If something goes wrong, the same Romanian will look at the sky and say, 'Who could have known? It is fate!'"

It's this lack of personal responsibility, found in so many aspects of Romanian life, that make it unlike western-style democracy will ever take root there. In his recent book, "Eastward to Tartary," Robert Kaplan writes about "national character" and its role in how nations are formed. Romania has forged a national character that is suspicious, self-absorbed and too often mean-spirited toward its own. Toward outsiders, especially Americans, there is generosity and much good humor.

But behind the scenes—above politics and any notions of civil society—floats the fine hand of fate. And until the role of fate is sharply diminished, Romania will not be able to join the West in the way the Poles have, or the Czechs or the Hungarians. Romania remains a deeply superstitious country, a place where intrigue and conspiracy are accepted as fact by everyone from unlettered peasants to elected officials.

A friend of mine from Romania who holds a PhD and teaches at a well-known American university said after the recent presidential election that he had a strong belief the top candidates—former President Ion Iliescu and Corneliu Vadim Tudor of the Greater Romania Party—were in cohoots. He thought it was possible the two top vote getters had cut a deal to let Iliescu win this time "even though I haven't been able to prove it."

The idea was this: Iliescu's public relations machine would boost Tudor's chances so he would end up meeting Iliescu in the final round. Iliescu would easily win because Tudor was too controversial. In fact, Iliescu did win easily. But no facts have come to light to substantiate the theory behind his victory. It's unlikely any ever will. No matter. Many Romanians truly believe the only way Iliescu could prevail in the election was to run against Tudor. So the opponents cut a deal and through vote manipulation and fraud, Iliescu won.

My best friend in Romania is a former student who is very bright, who has lived, worked and studied in both the United States and Western Europe and who understands the West better than most Romanians ever will. Even she believes political conspiracy theories. To be fair, that's because it's
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often hard to figure out what's actually going on in Romania. Romania is not a place where it's easy to find accurate information about much of anything. Independent, fact-based journalism remains largely the purview of the foreign press. Romanian journalists continue to write stories based on innuendo, intuition and half-truth. TV, radio and newspapers are largely linked to political parties. Analysis mixed freely with straightforward reporting, leaving confused readers uncertain what to believe.

Romanian reporters commonly receive threats and are jailed on occasion. True press freedom remains an elusive possibility. Although Romania is far freer than many places in the world, it has long ways to go in its search for press rights. All of this makes it hard for ordinary Romanians to get what they need—information that could supplant rumor, opinion and outright lies. Lack of education also plays a role in the continued muddled thinking that plagues Romania, which remains a largely peasant country.

"One of the things that is readily apparent about Romanian social and political life is the degree to which Romanians see their history and their destiny as largely the result of powerful and not always apparent external forces that sweep over them," says Arizona State University sociologist Thomas Keil, a Fulbrighter in Romania when I was there. "There also is a tendency to particularize this, so that they perceive individual situations in much the same way."

The western European age of Enlightenment never fully arrived in Romania; neither did the Renaissance in the way it did farther to the West. For most of its life, Romania has struggled to overcome the dual handicaps of poverty and overlords, from the Romans to the Turks to the Soviets. Unlike Poland, which ceased to exist on occasion because of resistance to invaders, Romania remained intact as a nation by not resisting.

And here is what has been handed Romania today: Some 40 percent of its population live on less than USD one a day; unemployment hovers at 11 percent, as it has for most of the decade after its revolution; inflation stands at more than 40 percent. Over the last four years, the standard of living has fallen 20 percent. Life for Romanians is no picnic.

And so, while fate's role continues to hold sway in a way that's beyond the understanding of the West, Romania continues to suffer, often at its own hand. It deserves much better.

Timothy Kenny, 19 March 2001

Timothy Kenny is director of research and news history at the Newseum, an interactive museum of news, in Arlington, Virginia.

Moving on:


Sam Vaknin
New Balkan Tension

Anatoliy S Baronin Jr
The Final Frontier

Timothy Kenny
and Fate

Elke de Wit
Lost Killers

Andrew James Horton

Joanna Rohozińska
God's Eye

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Ákos Topolánszky

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Oliver Craske
Macedonia in the Headlines

Andrea Mrozek
Contemplating Compensation


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