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In the Eye of the Romanian Storm

The country is experiencing a palpable sense of change, and there is a general trepidation that it could be for the worse.

by Martin Ehl 7 August 2018

There are clouds in the sky over Romania. The dramatic summer storm I recently saw raging over the Carpathian Mountains at Rasnov, in the central part of the country, is mirrored in the political situation in the lands below, in the second-poorest member of the EU.

 

The governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) has been successful in weakening a strong anti-corruption drive. In a situation similar to that of Poland and Hungary, the Social Democrats have recently changed the law concerning the judiciary, to ease the pressure on their own politicians, mainly PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea, who was sentenced to jail for corruption. The verdict, given in June, is expected to be confirmed by the appeals court in September, so there is some time-pressure to also change the criminal code and exclude “misuse of power for private profit,” as corruption is currently defined.

 

“The number one goal of the Social Democrats is to re-centralize power and distribute money according to their needs – to have as much power as possible,” says Oana Popescu, head of the think tank Global Focus Center. “Goal number two – well, maybe really number one – is to stay out of jail.”

 

We were chatting in the garden of the local community center, under the beautiful Rasnov Fortress, where Popescu’s think tank co-organizes a summer school that forms part of the annual Histories and Film Festival, which took place this year on 20-29 July. This is only one example of how local NGOs help attract hordes of visitors – from all over Romania and from abroad – to this mountain area, rich in history.

 

Even though Rasnov is the fourth most visited place in Romania, it is not living up to its tourist potential. The poor state of National Road 1 (DN1), from Bucharest to the Brasov district near Rasnov, is proof of political neglect. Despite nearly three decades since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the road still only has four lanes for part of its length, and when the inhabitants of Bucharest try to get away to the mountains after the working week, they can easily end up stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, Brasov, the medieval pearl of Transylvania, does not even have its own airport.

 

The worst, according to Popescu, is that political parties are out of touch with voters. The opposition has only one policy – the fight against corruption – whereas people also want a solution to poverty. Even with the highest economic growth in decades, there are officially 3.5 million out of 20 million Romanians working abroad (unofficial estimates talk of around six million). The main reason is that salary levels remain low, even though unemployment is low, as well. For example, in the Brasov area, which is full of new foreign-owned factories, logistics specialists who speak English and German can expect a salary of around 1,000 euros ($1,158), and that’s considered very good.

 

“You come into Romania in the eye of the storm,” Codru Vrabie, a good governance and anti-corruption expert, told me when he took part in one of the film festival’s debates at the end of July.

 

All around, there is a feeling that important changes are taking place in Romania, but mainly for the worse. The president is weak, the opposition fragmented.

 

Another prominent political analyst, Sorin Cucerai, believes that the only opportunity for a radical shift in direction would come from a clash within the Social Democratic leadership. “If Liviu Dragnea goes to jail, there is the possibility of a putsch in the party,” he said. “But for now, nobody knows what will happen.”

 

On the one side, there is resignation, and on the other, endless debate about what might happen.

 

That same balance could be felt at Rasnov’s film festival, where the power of civic Romania was clear – many young people were active and contributing, and concerned about the future of their country, while at the same time enjoying themselves with films and concerts.

 

And that Moldovan band, playing funk music against the backdrop of a Carpathian fortress at night, was not bad at all!

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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