Transition in Romania: This Is Not Buying In, This Is Selling Out

March 15, 2008

by Claudia Ciobanu

Ceausescu must be turning in his grave now. This is what I thought after a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, located in the “House of the People”, the former dictator’s mammoth project for a presidential residence in Romania’s capital. The backyard of the huge building, which one has to cross in order to reach the museum, looks like a graveyard, populated only by stray dogs and crows. Inside the exhibition, naturally, none of the socialist realist art that used to be promoted by the old regime; rather, numerous examples of conceptual art, cartoons playing with Walt Disney motifs, and uncountable “subversive” messages.


Even more upsetting than the museum, however, must be what is happening inside the parliament building, hosted by the same “House of the People”. Upsetting not only for dead Ceausescu, but also for the 22 million of very living Romanian citizens. After almost 20 years of so-called democracy, Romanians have ended up completely disenchanted with politics. As the current president Traian Basescu recently declared, during a TV show on the national channel, the political class is like a “splash of dirt on the windows of a house called Romania”. Political parties constantly reconfigure their platforms and alliances. Politicians skip from one party to the other according to the day’s interest. At the moment, the country has no justice minister because the president and the prime minister cannot agree on a nomination, and this after the prime minister removed Monica Macovei, well known for her anti-corruption efforts, to replace her with the personal attorney of one of the country’s rich and controversial businessmen.


Certainly, with the change from state socialism to market economy, business opportunities have been popping up everywhere in the country. And the first to take advantage of them were those well connected with the former “Communist” regime, who knew what and when to buy immediately after 1989, and also had the money for it (in this particular case, those state actors who were managing the sell-out of the country under the rules of market economy happened to be the same with the private actors who were buying in). The richest in the country have made their fortunes just like the well known Russian oligarchs, by buying formerly state-owned assets, in the rushed and confused privatization spree that followed 1989.


Such an example is Gigi Becali, who was clever and informed enough to buy property formerly owned by the Romanian Army in the north of Bucharest, an area that currently hosts all headquarters of multinationals, close to the national airport, where property prices have skyrocketed. Becali invested his thus made money in football, religion and politics and is now one of the most popular figures in the country, oftentimes thought to have good chances to become president. Leader of a populist party whose racist messages border fascism, owner of football club Steaua, and a benefactor of the Orthodox Church, Becali answers to the political needs of that large segment of the population which, impoverished by the transition and disappointed with politics, is searching for a messianic leader that can fix all problems.


Becali was largely brought to fame by a media hungry for the sensational and which, in line with international trends in the field, is increasingly tabloid-like. Most of the important media outlets in Romania are owned by four trusts, one of which is foreign, with the others being the property of wealthy local businessman. The trusts usually own every type of media, starting with the news agency, including various types of print press, and culminating with a television channel. Thus, the sources of information, albeit apparently diverse, are actually quite centralized (a state of affairs symbolically reflected by the location of all these media outlets, which, in spite of the competition among them, are all comfortably situated in “The House of Press”, again, a remnant of the old regime, the former location of the newspaper of the Communist Party).


Either way, people nowadays follow politics more as a show at the end of a hard working day, to have something to bicker about in the break at work or to blow off steam, rather than to understand a political process they should participate in. The country is rushing, because now millions of opportunities never available before are opening up. This rhythm can be felt everywhere, in the crowded public transportation, where one is constantly pushed and kicked, in the hectic traffic, in the busy shopping malls, in the quick coffee breaks, in the manner in which people converse.


Bucharest is booming, job opportunities for young people are many. The city is growing in a distorted way though, concrete constructions appearing around every corner with no concern for urban planning, with no central gathering space, with no place left for benches, trees or bicycle paths, with old valuable buildings being torn down to leave room for new offices, new shops, new mobile phone selling points.


More than 3 million people now live in the capital. Running away from small province towns where life seems still and from old industrial centers that simply died when the factories were closed after 1989. Few strategies exist for injecting life again in such places, usually considered as “necessary sacrifices” in the race for development. Romania’s economy grows at a fast pace, naturally, since it is going through a process of liberalization, but the high growth rates say nothing about distribution and are unsustainable on the long run.

  A good image for what transition has brought to Romania is Unirii area in Bucharest. Unirii is one of the central crossroads in the city, the meeting point of two huge boulevards constructed as a part of majestic pre-1989 urban development visions, suited for megalomaniac Ceausescu. Below buildings whose facades are completely covered by billboards, expensive cars driven by successful young people rush back and forth. Now and then, a street kid gets run over on the green light by such a car, naturally, because he ran in front of it. The driver takes the witnesses’ statements and moves on with his life. The kid was to blame, he rushed in front of the car. But that the kid was lost, dizzy from taking diazepam pills, the drug of preference on the streets of Bucharest, that his parents are nowhere to be found, that, no one in this free, democratic and developing Romania has time to think about at the moment.    

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