Romania and Europe: an entrapped decade

Romania’s post-communist transition was captured by a political elite that consolidated its power, enriched itself and led the country into a European Union that preferred not to notice. Its people are the losers, says Tom Gallagher.
Tom Gallagher
22 March 2010

The twentieth anniversary of the revolt which swept the iron dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu from power in Romania in December 1989 passed with far less notice in the west than the comparable events in Poland, the Czech Republic and East Germany. This may have something to do with the timing; the burst of commemoration and celebration at the moment of the fall of the Berlin wall and the “velvet revolution” left little surplus energy for events further east (see David Hayes, “1989: moment, legacy, future”, 2 November 2009).

But perhaps it owes more to the outcome. For the extraordinary uprising that led the supposedly regimented crowds at a mass rally in Bucharest to turn on the great leader was quickly superseded by a putsch by second-ranking communists, who followed the capture of the tyrant Ceausescu and his equally domineering wife with a hasty trial and  execution. The subsequent road has been uneven and tough for millions of Romanians - but ever since those chaotic days of December 1989, those who took charge in that moment and their successors have never been far from power.

The wizard of Bucharest

The architect of much of this political achievement - perhaps indeed the only truly successful politician in Romania - is Ion Iliescu, who turned 80 years old on 3 March 2010. Iliescu, who served three terms as president (1990-92, 1992-96, 2000-04), designed the country’s hybrid post-Ceasuescu political system, one with outwardly democratic features but intended to foil any change that threatened the power of the new elite he sponsored. This was initially composed of former communists, primarily members of the youth movement and elements of the secret police who had controlled foreign trade; later it was broadened to include resourceful entrepreneurs, sometimes linked with nominal opposition forces, whose fortunes sprung from making profitable transactions with the state (see Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism [Hurst & Co, 2005] / Modern Romania [New York University Press, 2005]).   

The core of Iliescu’s success was to preserve and upgrade aspects of the communist system that could become the basis of the ostensibly pluralist regime now in place. Iliescu and his team were hopeless administrators, and unable to accomplish Romania’s modernisation. But this was never really on their agenda. Instead they were skilful masters of manoeuvre at a time of transition when the rules for governing states and those for managing inter-state relations were changing as a result of the abrupt end of communism over almost half of Europe.

Even today, Iliescu remains a key voice in the Partidul Social Democrat (Social Democratic Party / PSD), the lineal successor  of the Communist Party. It has endured opposition and emerged stronger thanks to its weaker rivals’ failure to uproot its sources of influence within the state. It has adapted to situations that appeared to pose a mortal danger: large-scale privatisation of state business, entry into Nato, and engagement with the European Union. Indeed, its greatest achievement was arguably to drain  the process of Europeanisation of all nearly all progressive content and to force the EU to accept Romania as its twenty-seventh member in 2007 after implementing an extremely limited agenda of change (see “The European Union and Romania: consolidating backwardness?”, 26 September 2006).   

Iliescu, after three terms as Romania’s elected president, retired in 2004. He remains the best-known figure in a PSD which today is dominated by wealthy local bosses and a few powerful national figures (such as Adrian Nastase and Mircea Geoana) with backgrounds in diplomacy and law. Nastase and Geoana (respectively prime minister and foreign minister, 2000-04) - were the PSD’s successive candidates for president in 2004 and 2009; on each occasion Traian Basescu - representing the Partidul Democrat-Liberal [Democratic Liberals / PDL] - won a narrow victory. The most recent election, in November-December 2009, was surrounded by dispute over the integrity of the outcome; but Basescu, who in May 2007 survived an attempt to impeach him for alleged constitutional violations and abuse of power, was eventually confirmed and began his second term in February 2010.

The inside job

Traian Basescu enjoys important executive prerogatives. He has tried to reform the justice system which has continued to be a tool in the hands of the powerful ready to be used against rivals, or indeed ordinary citizens who get in their way. Basescu did not rise up through the communist elite; towards the end of the dictatorship he captained an oil-tanker. His motives for shaking the elite consensus in this way are unclear: it is debatable whether he wants to reduce Romania’s stark inequalities and return “the oligarchy” to some form of social accountability, or merely to insert his own protégés into the ranks of the privileged.

His own party appears ready to curb him if he seeks to challenge the powerful. The PDL’s narrow parliamentary majority has been reinforced by a stream of defections, mainly from the PSD. The group has set up an independents’ party whose aim appears to be to represent the interest of both the bureaucracy and strong economic forces; their influence would reinforce the tendency to use the state as private property. 

Iliescu worked hard to make sure that the state could be manipulated and pillaged in this way. He devised the constitution of 1991 (revised in 2004) which established a bicameral parliament that shared power with an elected head of state. There was care to ensure that parliament would not represent Romania’s 22 million citizens but rather be a forum where members of the new elite transacted their private business. Parties were composed of factions whose members often changed sides irrespective of ideologies, manifestos or programmes. The parties only showed discipline when there appeared a risk that the privileges they enjoyed before the law and in relation to the state budget might be cut.   

Romania’s media has become a powerful tool of depoliticisation and conformity. The major private television stations have been bought up by oligarchs  involved in politics; the coverage of politics has been trivialised, and independent voices are rarely heard. Real hardships, exceeding those in most other European Union states, continue to affect a large segment of the population. Many Romanians deeply resent the huge concentrations of wealth in what was (the privileged communist elite aside) a very egalitarian society before 1989. By 2008, the 300 wealthiest men in the country controlled at least one-third of gross domestic product; the parliamentary elections of that year saw only 39% of people voting.

The transition dance

The privileged position that even some of the most feared members of Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police have continued to enjoy was shown at the funeral of Nicolae Plesita in October 2009. This unrepentant torturer  spent his final days in a hospital of the domestic intelligence service (SRI), though this institution was supposed to have no connection with its dictatorial predecessors (see Dennis Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate: Coercion and dissent in Romania, 1965-1989 [ME Sharpe, 1996]).

Amid such scenes, it is hard to argue that Romania has witnessed genuine de-communisation. The fate of just one such initiative illustrates the reluctance of the new elite to allow any kind of reckoning to be made with a dictatorial past. The National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) ruled in 2007 that Dan Voiculescu - an MP who owns the most influential media trust in the country - was an informer before 1989. The response of parliament was effectively to disable the council.

Democracy-advocates from outside Romania had hoped that the post-communist system would build its legitimacy by acquiring broadly respected rules and institutions. If these democratic structures had proved capable of launching a reform process, then the integration of citizens into political life and the consolidation of a pluralist system would follow. Instead, the distribution of state assets among political players, their key economic allies and a retinue of clients was able to promote consensual behaviour among rival elite forces - and keep Romania’s citizens on the outside.

In June 1990, Iliescu consolidated his authority by mobilising an army of coalminers to Bucharest and launching them on street-protestors with considerable violence. The mineriada was a turning-point: since then, the elite has sought to strengthen the passive features of society. Most Romanians had become used to compliance in the face of the terror endured before 1989 - though in 1996 and again in 2004 they voted out Iliescu’s party. It was easier to oppose than to construct, however: for Romanians found that that most of Iliescu’s rivals had also embraced the view that politics essentially revolves around transferring state assets into private hands and building up a network of patron-client relations.  

The emigration of 10% of the adult labour force to work mainly in different parts of the EU also proved an important safety-valve that prevented any backlash against official misconduct. Across much of the country there was no pretence about who exercised power and for what ends. In districts and towns - particularly in the south and east - families or other kinds of tight-knit alliances enjoy a stranglehold over local decision-making. They often have members or well-wishers in strategic positions in the townhall, the police, the notary office and the courthouse. 

The justice system was released from executive control only in 2004. But Iliescu’s PSD ensured that the supreme council of magistrates, the supposedly independent body managing Romanian justice, was staffed by its own appointees. The European Union - in violation of its own principles - was prepared to endorse this bogus reform during the negotiations for membership (see “Romania: the death of reform”, 25 April 2007).

The European trick

The country’s accession to the European Union was the greatest triumph of Romania’s domestic power-networks. The official European version was that the projection of the EU’s values eastwards in the 2000s was transforming a peripheral country via the exercise of “soft power”. But the engagement with Romania exposed serious design flaws in the EU’s reform-drive. The ambition of a progressive reform of public institutions underpinned by a moral and humanising vision that would facilitate the emergence of an engaged citizenry, has proved to be a mirage (see Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Conquered the Strong (Manchester University Press, 2009).

The failure was preordained, in that the EU over seven years of consultations ended up engaging with the successors of the communist nomenklatura and secret police. Herta Müller, the Romanian-German writer who won the Nobel literature prize in 2009 for her fictional writings about life under the Ceausescu dictatorship, has frequently commented on the ability of old structures to mutate in order to retain their mastery (see Lyn Marven, “Lifewriting: Herta Müller’s journey”, 15 October 2009). A handful of alert EU officials also discovered that the people they were negotiating with were not those who wielded the real levers of power, and that those who did usually kept themselves well hidden.

The Brussels civil servants and their political masters in the European Council told Romania that the road to Europe lay through embracing free-market capitalism and a more transparent democracy. But their only real interest was to see Bucharest complying with the economic conditions; the political ones were of secondary concern.

The EU forgot, or chose to ignore, that the post-communist ruling elite had already been busy for years transferring state assets into private hands. A further contraction of the state and the consolidation of a tight-knit capitalist class based on cohesive power-groups - some with a pre-1989 lineage, others more recent - was presented it with no problems. The Bucharest oligarchy’s masterstroke was to induce major multinational firms to become informal advocates of early membership. The government of Adrian Nastase (2000-04) offered lucrative contracts to top firms, many of whom - in an era of declining political-party memberships - just happened to be a major source of funding for the some of the main parties in (for example) France, Germany, and Italy. These parties, on both the right and left, were prepared to lobby for Romanian membership of the EU even though at that stage it had delivered few reforms. 

The EU was at heart clueless about what it wanted from Romania, beyond the formalistic requirements of membership. By contrast, Romania’s domestic elite had a coherent vision  - the opportunity to entrench their networks of wealth and power at the heart of the world’s most successful regional political and economic entity. 

The circle of power

The success of this elite brings failures in its wake. A politicised and low-grade bureaucracy lacks the capacity to access the billions of structural funds set aside for it, with the incredible result that this poor country is a net contributor to the European Union’s budget. Much of its energy sector was at the EU’s insistence quickly offloaded to well-connected local capitalists who promptly resold it to Kazakhstan’s state oil company. Austrian firms dominate Romania’s financial-services sector, and have dismissed many Romanians with zero compensation; Austrian banks’ exposure in east-central Europe, though reduced in the second half of 2009, is equivalent to about 80% of the country’s entire GDP.

But if Austria will not be allowed to sink, Romania has more to fear. After a decade of EU intervention, it can boast only the garish high-rise headquarters of the financial companies (foreign and local) which have profited from the country’s privatisations. The public infrastructure, far from being modernised thanks to the injection of funds paid for by European taxpayers, has instead fuelled a real-estate boom that benefits only the privileged.      

Nicolae Ceausescu met a violent end. Ion IIiescu, his successor, looks destined to die peacefully in his bed. Both men conserved systems of personal power in which national wealth was first concentrated by the state and then after 1989 privatised and distributed among the state’s well-placed guardians. The result is to trap Romania in underdevelopment. The twenty-seventh member of the European Union is in a vicious circle. Traian Basescu will have a tough job breaking out of it, if indeed he wishes to.

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