Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 11
6 September 1999

is this the real Romania? R O M A N I A ' S   I L L S:
Strays and Stereotypes

Joanna Rohozinska

It would be too easy to draw grandiloquent analogies between the two most prominent features of Bucharest: the massive neoclassical architecture surrounded by stray dogs and the inhabitants of Romania. However, such musings would only add to the overwhelming number of misconceptions about this country.

Stereotypes of Romania and Romanians abound. The most damaging is that they are a backward culture, simultaneously ignorant and corrupt, and that the conditions which must be fulfilled prior to being considered for NATO or EU accession will introduce a structure to overcome these flaws.

But can remedies predicated on inaccurate images actually help solve Romania's deeper domestic ills? Or will they merely encourage the present leadership to follow the patterns set by their predecessors; by introducing formal changes (such as democratic elections and fiscal reform) and voicing strong support for the actions of Western powers (such as the very vocal Romanian support for the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia) while failing to serve their constituent public (by not, for example, encouraging non-partisan, impartial media or health care reform)?

Any survey of modern Romanian history reveals a seemingly undeniable pattern of corrupt, manipulative leadership combined with a nationalist movement whose primary features are xenophobia and acutely caustic anti-Semitism. This legacy is perhaps best demonstrated by the shocking behaviour of the ultra-right-wing paramilitary group, the Iron Guard, during the Second World War, which has since been overshadowed by the monstrous behavior of the Communist leadership against its own citizens.

Scholars have repeatedly spoken of "social and political culture" in Romania as something self-evident and unalterable, without bothering to define their terms. The belief is that the people within the society must be taught democratic procedures, because they simply lack the experience of reciprocal, responsible government. However, there are two divergent implications to this position, both of which revolve around the question as to whether these societies lack experience due to historical chance and uncontrollable circumstance or whether democracy is inherently antithetical to that society's nature. Simply put, the broader question is whether a society gets the government it deserves.

Within a historiographic or politically theoretical context this would be acceptable, as it remains a polemical matter. However, the questions of NATO and EU accession bring these vague terms into the broader public discourse as foreign (Western) governments repeatedly stress the need for the Romanian government to both implement reforms which would intensify austerity measures within the country and alter its "social and political culture" - or build a "civil society" - to use the jargon.

Too often, Westerners impose their concepts of government and civil society on those who simply have not had similar experiences. Ten years after the fall of Communism, it should by now be obvious that the market system does not necessarily lead to democracy. However, it is similarly erroneous to conclude that the burden of blame for the failure of reforms or the rise of extremist groups on either end of the political spectrum is directly determined by the nature of a society's history.

There is no quick fix to Romania's problems, and the answer does not necessarily lie in either the EU or NATO. It has, however, gained a talismanic quality - much as "democracy" had ten years before - along with a certain mentality that all that is old and identifiable with the ancien regime should be scrapped as it is no good (although not yet viable in Romania, one should consider the radical cuts to socialised medicine undertaken by the Polish government over the past year as a potential trend). It also has the makings for a generational conflict as the younger generation grows impatient with the slow pace of reforms and the reticence of the older generation to enact any radical changes. Although certainly not unique to Romania, it represents an interesting case, as the country truly has been here before - making historic determinism all the more tempting.

The former "pearl of Eastern Europe" always used its Roman roots to stress its Western orientation and, more importantly, its strategic geopolitical position as the natural bulwark against Russian expansionism. Romanian politicians, past and present, have used both these factors to present themselves as the last outpost of "civilised" Europe and therefore the West's natural ally. Through this relationship Romania acquired political and financial support which, more often than not, served to consolidate the position of the political elite rather than benefit Romanian society as a whole. After the First World War, Romanian foreign policy hinged on playing on Allied fears of Communist expansionism, demonstrating their effectiveness in this capacity in 1919 by their participation in the brutal crushing of Bela Kun's short-lived Communist regime in Hungary. The behaviour of Romania's leadership in the interwar period constitutes a neat continuum to the earlier period as they courted the Western allies, London in particular, while pursuing expansionist policies to the detriment of Hungary and the Soviet Union.

But the question remains how one should define Romania's "social and political culture" and whether the repetitive pattern evidenced by its foreign-policy pursuits is indicative of the society's capacity, or desire, for reform. Perhaps it is best reflected in one of the striking features of Bucharest: the plethora of small kiosks, which take up sidewalk space at every intersection and in every metro station. These packed kiosks, where one can buy anything from soap to cigarettes to radios, stand in stark contrast to the echoing, cavernous buildings which were intended to house department stores. That idea obviously failed to catch on, as these buildings now stand mainly empty. Similarly, the more recently introduced Western-style self-service stores are, in general, few and far between and don't appear particularly popular. Upon inquiring why, the answer comes that these stores simply aren't trusted, even though the goods are of fine quality and are often cheaper than at kiosks. Is the answer then that there is a fundamental, ingrained mistrust of anything that appears to be officially organised or sanctioned?

Even if one assumes this to be true, one shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the future of Romania is necessarily bleak; it merely indicates the magnitude of the task which faces Romania's political leadership. There is a deep cleavage (that has arguably always existed) between those who hold power and those they represent. This is obviously not unique to Romania but is striking in this case, as this is one of the few "nations" in the area which experienced self-governance prior to 1918, when Greater Romania was formed. The Bucharest political elites, whose origins predate the formation of the Romanian state in 1878, have consistently pursued policies and employed tactics which would shore up their personal power with little regard of concern for the common people they represent.

The predominant features of Romanian nationalism are its general xenophobia (though mainly directed at Hungarians and Russians) and particularly virulent anti-Semitism. This simultaneous vilification of immediate neighbours (or of internal "others" in the case of Jews) and seeking salvation from those further afield in the West, has resulted in irresponsible government which breeds ineptitude and corruption. Politicians have only ever sought to manipulate the Romanian public and, given such experience, it is little wonder that the current public fails to expect anything different from those now in power.

Politicians and the government have a heady task ahead of them that lies well beyond aspirations to join the Western establishment. They seem to believe that pursuing this current policy of EU and NATO accession will earn them credit at home. Upon closer observation it emerges as merely a modern variation of tactics and policies pursued in the past. Once again, Romania is striving to be the island of stability and the guardian of Western values, flanked by powers which could potentially threaten civilised Europe. The current leadership should be concentrating on co-opting the population and overhauling domestic structures for the sake of those who they have been elected to serve, rather than implementing cosmetic changes (and slowly at that) aimed at demonstrating progress to the Western powers. Romanian politics has looked beyond its borders for both answers to and causes of its domestic ills. The resulting disenfranchisement of the Romanian public and its resistance to officially sanctioned change, therefore, is hardly surprising.

Joanna Rohozinska, 6 September 1999




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