“The saddest country I went to was Romania, years ago, during Ceaușescu’s rule.” This is how the famous British actor Christopher Lee described his encounter with my native land at a time when the Cold War was threatening the stability of the planet.
In 1989, Communism finally collapsed. My generation included, as far as I can tell, countless fans of rock music and avid listeners to the subversive Radio Free Europe. On our first official post-communist Christmas holiday, my family was hoping that the political landscape of Eastern Europe would quickly be shaped by healthy democratic institutions, secure private property and free trade, economic competition, as well as a robust sense of personal responsibility. Those high expectations have been miserably disappointed.
...Romania remains to this day one of the poorest European countries.
Despite its stunning beauty, cultural diversity, and richness in mineral resources, Romania remains to this day one of the poorest European countries. In less than a decade, 20 percent of the total population has turned into economic refugees. The Romanians currently living in exile are some of the brightest, most industrious, and most entrepreneurial people of my generation. Not even in times of famine and war has an exodus of such massive proportions ever taken place.
When dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, Romania had zero public debt and probably more than $200 billion in state assets. Since then, most of the former Communist factories have been turned into piles of scrap iron. A growing demographic contraction is creating a massive labor force shortage while putting public finances at risk. The deficits in the pension schemes are escalating. Despite the fact that it officially belongs to NATO and the EU, Romania suffers at the hands of a mafia-style political hierarchy and cartel-like networks of power at the local level.
State monopolies still govern the transportation, healthcare, energy, and education sectors. Local governments do not embrace merit-based individual mandates for mayors, school principals, and hospital managers. Nepotism and profligacy are rampant. However, the most lethal threat to this young democracy comes from the undermining of the independent judiciary. In recent years, various courts have sentenced to jail a large number of media tycoons and Members of Parliament, including the former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase. The Socialist Party, which is currently in power, wants to reverse this trend abruptly.
Despite its sense of fatigue, hopelessness, and even despair, the civil society has reacted to the constant attacks of corrupt politicians against the magistrates. In January 2017, nearly a million people took to the streets and called for a radical departure from the old-style politics, as shaped by former Communist nomenklatura. Again in January 2018, at minus 10 degrees Celsius, hundreds of thousands of people protested against the malignant status quo, which brings Romania closer to authoritarian Russia than to any flourishing Western democracy.
For more than a year now, ordinary citizens, small entrepreneurs, and young professionals have gathered in the cities of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova. These rallies received significant coverage by the international media. The protestors see corruption as the cause of poverty. They want higher standards of moral integrity in the public realm.
For too long, the “swamp” of Bucharest has failed to discover, to attract, and to promote competent individuals from the private sector into the high offices of the administrative state. One needs to see a “deconstruction” of the monopoly of power. For decades, now, ruthless politicians have stolen massive amounts of state assets. Those in power had only rights and no obligations. When it comes to rigged contracts and public expenses, political bosses don’t hesitate to give their clients a free ride. Red tape is ubiquitous.
“We have to get away from this mindset of dependency.”
The Socialist members of the Romanian Parliament are precisely those who oversaw the massive process of property redistribution, securing themselves economic privileges while skillfully playing the game of Europeanization. Their primary goal now is to prevent any local or national party leader from being charged by the independent prosecutors of the National Directorate for Anti-Corruption (led by Laura Codruta Kovesi). Will they succeed?
Just as in Russia, Moldova or Turkey, fragile civil society stands against the vested interests of the political class, which still controls much of the mass media. Romanian President Klaus Werner Iohannis has embraced the anti-corruption agenda while pushing for reforms in key state institutions.
Though some believe that a magic solution might come from the outside, Romanian democracy will be renewed mainly through an awakening of those civic, cultural, and spiritual traditions that made this nation strong in its historic pursuit of freedom. After all, the notion of sovereignty and self-determination makes no sense when the national elites beg the unelected bureaucrats from Brussels to “rescue” their own country. As the brilliant African president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, put it in a conversation with the French leader Emmanuel Macron, “We have to get away from this mindset of dependency.”
It is true that the young democracies of Eastern Europe have a strategic role to play in the transatlantic alliance. After a hundred years of existence as a modern state, Romania still needs genuine encouragement from its traditional friends for the sake of preserving individual liberty, the rule of law, and vibrant civil society.
Featured image used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0). Some changes made (minor cropping, image flipped horizontally).