25 December 2009
Twenty years ago Romania underwent a week-long revolution, leading to the overthrow of leader Nicolae Ceausescu. The BBC's Nick Thorpe speaks to one of the key figures during those times - General Victor Stanculescu.
In chequered shirt and dark brown jacket, Gen Victor Stanculescu looks frail but as straight-backed as one would expect from a retired soldier.
We meet in the prison hospital club at Jilava, just north of Bucharest, where only last year he began serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated manslaughter.
He was found guilty of ordering troops to open fire on the crowds in the western Romanian city of Timisoara on 17 and 18 December—a charge he has always denied.
Outside in the prison yard it is bitterly cold, minus 7C.
There are watch towers, rows of barbed wire, and stray dogs inside the prison compound.
Some inmates are hard at work with shovels, trying to clear the snow and ice. If hell was cold, it would be like this. There is even a snowman, wearing a grey prison cap.
The prison hospital where Stanculescu is held is slightly friendlier—a modern-looking three-storey building painted yellow and white.
On his lapel, the general proudly sports a badge. I peer closer. It's in English: Romanian Snooker Association.
"I'm the president of it," the general says proudly.
As minister of defence on 25 December 1989, Stanculescu oversaw the trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the president and first lady of Romania, his own commander-in-chief.
Was the very brief trial and verdict just, necessary or both?
"It was not just, but it was necessary," says Stanculescu.
"If we had left it to the people of Bucharest, they would have lynched them in the street."
He describes two incidents to illustrate how critical the moment was.
On his way to the military barracks where the Ceausescus were being held after their capture, he took the precaution of ringing the anti-aircraft commander in advance.
They agreed that he would be wearing a white scarf as he arrived by helicopter.
The commander had been told to expect an attack by "terrorists" intent on freeing Ceausescu. Thanks to the white scarf, he ordered his men to hold their fire.
'Recognise the sacrifice'
After the trial and execution, as they were taking the bodies away in an armoured vehicle, they were shot at, and three soldiers died, according to Stanculescu.
"This proves that there were some army generals who still supported Ceausescu," he said.
Stanculescu joined the revolution, and served as minister of defence then minister of industry in the new government.
He was first put on trial in 1997, after his ally President Ion Iliescu lost power.
Stanculescu was convicted, but 10 years of hearings and appeals followed. He was only definitively convicted and sent to prison in November 2008.
"I did not give any orders to anybody. And I did not order any unit under my command in Timisoara to carry out any acts of repression," Stanculescu said.
So should those who really were responsible be found and charged?
"All the main actors are now dead, so there's no point in prosecuting them. It should be enough to recognise the sacrifice of those who fought in the revolution—and to make sure their families can live decently," he replies.
Twenty years on, Romanians who lived through the revolution are still trying to make sense of it, and of the legacy of Ceausescu's rule.
"I often ask myself, if Ceausescu were alive today, would he have a chance if he ran for the presidency?" says Stejarel Olaru, head of the Committee to Investigate Crimes of the Communist Era, which was established by President Basescu.
"And I believe he would. People believe Ceausescu did many good things... that he gave the people houses, jobs, and good salaries. His mistake, they think, was that he didn't put food in the shops."
It's a stupid line of thinking, he says, but quite a commonly-held one. The flats were small and cramped, the jobs were often unproductive. And people have too easily forgotten the all-pervading fear of the secret police.
"December 1989 was a conflict between the state and the people of Romania,"' says Claudiu Iordache, director of the Institute of the Romanian Revolution in Bucharest.
"And that fight is still going on today, but by more peaceful means. The state is still imposing its will on the people, who suffer as a result."
23 December 2009
True to its title, the new Romanian film “Police, Adjective” is a story of law enforcement with a special interest in grammar. Its climactic scene is not a chase or a shootout, but rather a tense, suspenseful session of dictionary reading.
I’m not being in any way facetious. The movie’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu, whose previous feature was “12:08 East of Bucharest,” has a talent for infusing mundane, absurd moments with gravity and drama as well as humor. The dictionary in that scene is a versatile comic prop, and also an instrument of instruction and humiliation. It is introduced by an officious police captain (Vlad Ivanov, who played the predatory abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) who wants to teach his underling a lesson.
To say exactly what is learned would not only spoil the ending—this is a cop movie, after all, with a bit of a twist in the tail—but would also blunt the bite of Mr. Porumboiu’s mordant satire. So let’s just note that the Romanian word for “police” is used as an adjective in two ways. The first usage applies to (I quote the English subtitles) “a novel or film involving criminal happenings that are in some degree mysterious, resolved in the end through the ingenuity of a police officer or detective.” In an unexpected and somewhat underhanded way, that describes the action of “Police, Adjective.” It is at least as relevant, however, that the other cited use of the adjective is to modify the word “state.
“All states depend on the police,” says the captain, waving off not only his country’s specific history, but also a possibly significant distinction between its old totalitarian regime and its new democratic order. Mr. Porumboiu, whose hapless characters debate whether the revolution of 1989 really took place in their corner of the country, is not making an argument that nothing has changed in Romania since the bad old days. Rather, he is investigating the nature of bureaucratic authority and the perverse, crushing effects it can have on an individual.
His protagonist is Cristi, a detective played with brusque, weary likability by Dragos Bucur, who in previous roles (notably in Radu Muntean’s “Boogie” and Cristi Puiu’s “Stuff and Dough”) has embodied the malaise of early adulthood in post-Communist Romania. Cristi is working on a case that would, by the standard of American television cop shows, be less than trivial. He is gathering evidence against a high school student who smokes a little hashish and has been informed on by a friend and smoking buddy.
Cristi suspects that the one he calls the Squealer wants to get the other boy out of the way and make a move on his girlfriend, who also hangs out with them. And as Cristi follows them, stakes out their houses and files his reports, he feels more and more uneasy. In other countries, he explains to a prosecutor who is a little more sympathetic than the captain, the casual possession and use of small quantities of hashish is not really a police matter at all.
The crux of the drama in “Police, Adjective” is the tension between Cristi’s professional duty and his conscience, a conflict the dictionary is called on to adjudicate. And the substance of the movie is a series of slowly paced scenes that follow him through his routines. He deals with pushy or recalcitrant co-workers, trudges through days of surveillance work without changing his sweater and returns home for desultory conversations with his wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), who matter-of-factly tells him that things are not working out between them and then continues as if nothing of consequence had been said.
At another point, as Anca, a teacher and something of a linguistic pedant, listens to a romantic pop song over and over on her computer, she and Cristi have a debate about images and symbols in literature. Why, he wonders, don’t people just stick with the literal meanings of words, and forget about all the fancy stuff. His position is a hyperbolically blunt statement of an impulse that drives much recent Romanian cinema, away from metaphor and toward a concrete, illusion-free reckoning with things as they are.
This can be called realism, but that sturdy old word is not quite sufficient to describe “Police, Adjective,” which is at once utterly plain, even affectless, and marvelously rich. Mr. Porumboiu’s style might be called proceduralist. Like Cristi writing his reports, Mr. Porumboiu scrupulously records details in a manner that only seems literal-minded because his technique is invisible, and his intelligence resolutely unshowy.
“Police, Adjective” tells a small story well. At the level of plot, it is consistently engaging, and the psychology of the ambivalent detective, a staple of film noir, is given a new twist in the character of Cristi. But the more closely you look, the more you see: a movie about a marriage, about a career in crisis, about a society riven by unstated class antagonisms and hobbled by ancient authoritarian habits. So much in this meticulous and moving film is between the lines, and almost nothing is by the book.
Opens on Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Written, directed and produced by Corneliu Porumboiu; director of photography, Marius Panduru; edited by Roxana Szel; production designer, Mihaela Poenaru; released by IFC Films. In Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Dragos Bucur (Cristi), Vlad Ivanov (Anghelache), Irina Saulescu (Anca), Ion Stoica (Nelu), Marian Ghenea (the Prosecutor) and Cosmin Selesi (Costi).
23 December 2009
When, exactly, is Christmas Day?
The answer may seem evident to many, but in Moldova this question has been spoiling the seasonal cheer for almost two decades.
There are three kinds of Christmas revelers in that small nation on the edge of Europe—followers of the Moldovan Orthodox Church who celebrate on January 7 according to the old Julian calendar; pro-Westerners and followers of the Romanian Orthodox Church who celebrate on December 25 according to the new Gregorian calendar; and those who compromise by having a double Christmas celebration.
Then there are the communists, who don't observe Christmas at all and exchange gifts on New Year's Eve around a secular fir tree.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Moldovans have been quarreling on the best date to mark the nativity.
This year is no exception.
A decision by the new Western-leaning government to make December 25 an official holiday, in addition to January 7, has angered the Moldovan Orthodox Church and stirred fresh debate about the country's often conflicting ties with Russia and Romania.
"According to our people's Christian tradition, the birth of Jesus Christ should be celebrated on January 7," a woman in Chisinau says. "Why don't the Romanians make January 7 an official holiday to show respect to our Orthodox faith?
"We should celebrate on the 25th like other European countries, but January 7 should also be a holiday, so that nobody is discriminated against."
The dispute first entered the realm of politics last winter when Moldova's then-president, Communist Vladimir Voronin, ruled that the traditional holiday tree would not appear on the capital's main square before December 30—days after Western Christmas.
His unprecedented move sparked outrage among liberal Moldovans, including Chisinau's mayor, the pro-Western Dorin Chirtoaca, who defied the official ban by putting up a Christmas tree in the city center on December 9.
Police removed the tree overnight and blocked off the site.
This year, Voronin is no longer president, and Christmas trees went up unhindered across the country in time for Western-style celebrations.
But the government's decision to make December 25 a public holiday was a step too far for the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the powerful Moscow Patriarchate.
The church lashed out at authorities, saying the decision caused "bewilderment" among the faithful and demanding that it be scrapped.
Prime Minister Vlad Filat made it clear he had no intention of backtracking.
"We took this decision all together," Filat said. "We discussed it with the head of the Moldovan Church, Vladimir. We are surprised by their change of attitude and their behavior. But everyone has his own priorities. The government's priority is to make sure that the rights and liberties of all Moldovan citizens are respected."
More Indulgent Position
The country's other Orthodox denomination, the smaller Metropolis of Bessarabia, which belongs to the Romanian Orthodox Church, has kept out of the Christmas row.
Its position on the matter is a lot more indulgent—for years, it has catered to both camps by holding two separate Christmas services.
Many of its priests disapprove of the Moldovan church's forceful stance and accuse it of using the issue to boost its authority.
"What date one celebrates is a purely personal choice," says Ioan Ciuntu, a priest of the Metropolis of Bessarabia. "Why not make December 25 a holiday if many believers celebrate according to the new calendar? After all, those who celebrate according to the old calendar on January 7 and 8 can continue to do so. These days are not taken away from them. It's very easy to create problems and political games by playing on the feelings of believers."
Moldova is not the only country in the former communist bloc where the Orthodox Church has grown into a major political force since the demise of the Soviet Union.
In predominantly Orthodox countries like Russia, Georgia, or Serbia, the church has come to play a decisive role in public life as politicians increasingly turn to religious leaders for guidance—and, often, voter support.
In Georgia, most people hold Patriarch Ilia II in high esteem. In 2008, a weekly Georgian magazine ("Kviris Palitra") named him Man of the Year after he won 53 percent of votes in a popular poll. President Mikheil Saakashvili garnered only 8.3 percent.
'Captain Must Lead'
Understandably, Georgian politicians have actively courted the Orthodox Church leader.
In May, thousands of opposition activists called on the patriarch following weeks of protests in a bid to obtain his political blessing. Despite his criticism of Saakashvili, he stopped short of publicly backing the opposition.
Ilia has been particularly critical of Saakashvili's failure to avoid last year's war with Russia over the pro-Russian rebel region of South Ossetia.
"The captain of a ship must lead his vessel, be able to maneuver, and escape reefs," the Georgian patriarch said.
Ilia nonetheless agreed to act as Saakashvili's political envoy during a December 2008 visit to Moscow, where he attended the funeral of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy and met with President Dmitry Medvedev.
A humble Saakashvili publicly thanked him for accepting what he called a "diplomatic mission" to convey Georgia's stance on South Ossetia to the Kremlin.
Last month, his government even moved to defend the patriarch's dignity after online videos mocking him sparked national outrage. The Interior Ministry summoned the two teenage authors of the video, and eventually let them go after what they described as a rough questioning.
Perhaps nowhere are the bonds between state and church as palpable as in Serbia, where the death of Patriarch Pavle in November was marked with overwhelming pomp not seen since the 1980 death of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito.
The 95-year-old Serbian patriarch was widely respected for his humility, although he was also blamed for failing to openly condemn Serb ultranationalism.
Secular In Writing
Authorities declared a national three-day period of mourning, shutting down offices and schools. Critics said this violated the constitution, which defines Serbia as a secular state.
Ljubisa Rajic, a philosophy professor based in Belgrade, says the Serbian government is secular only in writing.
"The state has long since lost its secular character. The only question is how far this process will go," Rajic says. "I think it will continue until we have a situation where people who oppose the church's meddling in society and in state institutions will be under suspicion, just like people were suspected of straying from communism after World War II."
President Boris Tadic himself was actively involved in commemorations for the late Pavle, giving an emotional speech at his funeral and calling on a Holy Synod meeting. He described the patriarch's passing as a "personal loss" and said he had often consulted with him about important national decisions.
Authorities also allowed crowds of mourners to file past the patriarch's body and kiss his forehead, flouting strict guidelines issued earlier by the government to prevent a swine flu epidemic.
RFE/RL's Moldovan, Balkan, and Georgian services contributed to this report
23 December 2009
The late communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was deceived by his advisers and still believed Romanians adored him hours before his overthrow, his only surviving child said Wednesday in a rare interview two decades after the fall of the regime.
Valentin Ceausescu described his father as removed from reality in the hours before a rally organized to show support for the Stalinist leader turned against him, forcing him to flee the capital and leading to his overthrow.
Ceausescu suggested that his father's advisers kept him in the dark and led him to misjudge popular anger over his misrule, and that his father instead blamed the Soviet Union for trying to overthrow him.
"He was not informed about the (scope of) the discontent," Valentin told The Associated Press. "Things were kept from him that he wouldn't like."
Some 1,100 people were killed during the Dec. 1989 revolt that ended Ceausescu's 25-year-rule. Most of the deaths occurred between Dec. 22, when the Communist leader fled after the rally, and Christmas Day, when he and his wife, Elena were executed after a hasty trial.
Ceausescu said he would have preferred to see his father killed immediately because hundreds of innocent lives were lost in the interim.
As other Communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe, traditionally tolerant Romanians rose up, angered by years of draconian rationing as the dictator tried to pay off the country's foreign debt. Meat, cooking oil and butter were severely limited and blackouts were common. In winter, Bucharest was the communist bloc's gloomiest capital, its potholed streets gripped by ice and darkness.
When the elder Ceausescu heard that the revolt that began in Timisoara on Dec. 16 had spread to Bucharest, he believed it was instigated by "the Russians," angered by his maverick stance in the Warsaw Pact against Moscow, especially his criticism of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
"I knew it wasn't only the Russians," Valentin said. "It was a rebellion against Ceausescu."
Valentin, 61, has worked for two decades as a nuclear physicist at the Institute for Nuclear Physics outside Bucharest.
He said he followed his parents' trial on television while he was under arrest for undermining the state economy.
"I just watched it and I felt ashamed I was Romanian. I didn't feel they were my parents," he said softly of the trial and its aftermath, including stark black-and-white televised images of his parents slain by a firing squad.
"They should have simply killed him," after he was captured on Dec. 22, Ceausescu said of the former henchmen who fell out with his father and went on to become national leaders. "They didn't need a trial."
Democracy swept away communism in East Germany and Czechoslovakia but the Romanian old guard that took over after Ceausescu perpetuated communist practices, including cronyism and corruption.
"It was not a revolution in the normal sense. It was a mess the way it developed," Valentin Ceausescu said, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking unsweetened espresso in a hotel bar.
Today, Romania is mired in debt—with foreign obligations of almost $113 billion—dependent on an International Monetary Fund lifeline and paralyzed by political infighting including a hotly contested presidential election marred by allegation of widespread fraud.
"People hoped for something from this revolution and didn't really get it," Valentin said. "I see a lot of disillusioned people and it doesn't make me happy."
21 December 2009
All statistics agree that compared to 1989, Romanians’ living standard has improved substantially, while Romanians themselves are a lot more relaxed and enjoy all freedoms, despite the fact that there are still many reasons for discontent.
Speaking about the two decades that have passed since the anti-communist Revolution, the Reformed Pastor Laszlo Tokes, who started the protest that triggered the revolution in Timisoara, offers a religious interpretation of the present:
“If we resort to the metaphor of the walk through the Sinai desert, we shouldn’t be impatient that only 20 years have passed, because this is just half of our pilgrimage. This is the price we have to pay for a peaceful transition, although we cannot say that we had a peaceful start in Romania. Unlike other former communist countries, here we paid in blood and a lot of sacrifice for change. However, the process of change slowed down afterwards and if we want to maintain this peaceful transition, then we have to admit that we cannot move further at a faster pace. Unfortunately, we still see a communist drive opposed to the change of political regime. But can we still uphold this continuity of regime change? Twenty years on, communism continues to exist. We still cannot tell the right from the left. The communists are everywhere, you can recognize them by their day-to-day civic mentality. Such a legacy is doomed, and I hope those of us who have started the 40-year pilgrimage won’t perish before they reach the Promised Land. We all know that that generation of the chosen people who left from Egypt did not reach the Promised Land.”
So what are we supposed to do now that we gained our freedom and consolidated our democracy? Laszlo Tokes again:
“The Nobel Prize that went to Herta Muller is very important and carries a message for those who are committed to the change of regime and the continuation of the journey that began 20 years ago. I see the anniversary of the Revolution not as a festive celebration or opportunity for hero worshipping, but a commitment to continue the process we started 20 years ago. Let us not be overcome by the other type of continuity, the continuity of communism.”
The historian Adrian Cioroianu, who teaches contemporary Romanian history at the University of Bucharest, has provided another diagnosis for the Romanian society after 20 years of freedom:
“In broad terms, the society has suffered a good transformation. But if we look closer, however, we’re bound to become more skeptical. I am very skeptical myself regarding two things. First of all, regarding the progress made by school and education. I don’t think much progress has been made despite a succession of reforms. Secondly, I am not at all optimistic about the situation of civil society today. What we call civil society consists in fact of different clubs and circles and it is infested, just like political parties, by the presence of people who have nothing civil in them. And when I say that civil society is one of the great losers of these 20 years, after being the great victor at first, what I have in mind is a lack of solidarity and the lack of an impact in society.”
Despite all the flaws and drawbacks, Adrian Cioroianu believes the Romanian revolution, the foundation myth of Romanians’ return to democracy, is the most important moment in Romanians’ recent history:
“I think that in the long run, despite all our differences, we should all praise simplicity, professionalism and a clear definition of terms. We should praise simplicity, because the story known as the Romanian revolution was much simpler in its details, the details that are often left out by the TV broadcasts and newspapers. I praise professionalism, because it’s for the historians and not the politicians to write the history of the Romanian revolution. We need to clarify our terms because I am very particular about the term ‘revolution’. I have become more and more embarrassed when we speak about the coup-volution, which is a typically Romanian coinage, a nod to a word introduced by Timothy Garton Ash, refolution, that is a combination of revolution and reform. We called it coup-volution to capture the idea that it was a coup d’etat disguised as a revolution. Despite all mysteries and miracles, I still think it was a revolution.”
The Romanian revolution of December 1989 is also an exercise in collective memory. The more accurate the memory, the less likely Romanians will be to repeat the terrible lesson of communism.
21 December 2009
On 21 and 22 December 1989, Romania's revolution reached its tipping point. The dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled. Millions rejoiced. But, as Petru Clej reports, there are still many questions unanswered over what happened next.
"21–22, cine-a tras in noi?" ("21–22, who shot at us?") is a question that still haunts Teodor Maries, one of many people in Romania who are convinced that the 1989 revolution was not all that it seemed.
Some say that despite appearances, it was not even a people's revolution—more a coup d'etat by a powerful elite.
Mr Maries is still eager for the truth to emerge 20 years after the toppling of the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in a bloodbath that ended a year of otherwise peaceful revolution in Europe.
Nearly 100 people were killed during the night of 21-22 December, after a desperate attempt by Ceausescu's henchmen to stave off the tide of protests just a stone's throw away from the headquarters of the Communist Party's central committee. There, the beleaguered dictator was holed up with the last of his loyal supporters.
Mr Maries, 47, is head of the 21 December 1989 association, a group of surviving revolutionaries from that night.
Paradoxically, it is not the events before 22 December—the date when Ceausescu fled the central committee building, only to be caught, put on trial in a kangaroo court and executed three days later—which attracts Mr Maries' attention, but what happened afterwards.
Of about 1,100 people killed during the revolution, more than 900 died after that date, when the National Salvation Front (FSN), headed by Ion Iliescu, had taken the reins of power.
Mr Maries does not accept the official story of those days—that, following the overthrow of the government, "terrorist" members of the Securitate (the communist secret police), were fighting in desperation to save Ceausescu.
For him, the revolution was hijacked, and the bloodshed stirred up by members of the former regime—a form of organised chaos, designed to legitimise their seizure of power.
"Mr Iliescu knows, in my opinion, everything that happened in December 1989 and participated in mind-boggling decisions for a normal person to comprehend. [Some] 900 people were killed after he had taken power and [he] tried to build his own plinth as a revolutionary on 900 bodies," says Mr Maries.
"Between the 22nd and the 28th, considering there was no war, brother was killing brother."
Revolution or conspiracy?
Mr Iliescu, who was elected president of Romania in 1990, 1992 and 2000, spending 11 years as head of state, has little time for Mr Maries' allegations, dismissing his credibility altogether.
After the campaigner was received by President Traian Basescu earlier this year, Mr Iliescu complained: "Teodor Maries is an impostor, he is not a real revolutionary, and genuine revolutionaries are outraged he dares speak in their name.
"He has no moral authority to speak for 21 December or for the revolutionaries and President Basescu is compromising himself appearing with this sort of individuals," he added.
Mr Iliescu has always said 1989 was a real revolution and that the bloodshed was the result of the power vacuum created by Ceausescu's fall.
Recently, Mr Maries scored a victory, albeit partial, in his 20-year struggle to have the facts revealed. After 74 days of hunger strike the prosecutor general's office sent him documents from the criminal investigation into Mr Iliescu and other leaders of the FSN. Some of these cases have been dragging on for nearly 20 years.
Previously, Mr Maries had taken the Romanian state to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and won a ruling which forced the authorities to release the documents.
Even so, it was only when Mr Maries persisted with his hunger strike that they agreed.
But why are these documents so important?
"These are statements from 12,000 witnesses," says Mr Maries. "When a phenomenon this size is complemented by statements from 12,000 people, you can truly draw a conclusion about what happened."
"Taken together they tell you unambiguously that after 22 December 1989 there was anything but a revolution."
Fight goes on
Mr Maries says the picture built by the statements is that chaos was provoked, by arming civilians and spreading disinformation through Romanian television, which urged citizens to defend public buildings against "attacks by Securitate terrorists".
He cites one of the statements in which, he says, an army commander said he had orders "from above" to destroy the Bucharest Central University Library, in order to create the image of heavy fighting.
Mr Maries says he is hopeful that the criminal inquiry will now make important headway.
But, two months after he ended his hunger strike, the prosecutor in charge of the initial inquiry has still not been re-appointed, and some government offices—the defence ministry and special communications department (formerly a branch of the Securitate)—have still not handed over their 1989 documents.
There are many who doubt that the prosecutor, Dan Voinea, even if he were reappointed, could manage to translate this conspiracy theory into viable indictments against Mr Iliescu and his associates after more than 20 years.
And Mr Maries says there is not a huge appetite in Romania to rake over the past.
"I have been interviewed by many foreign correspondents... But very few Romanian journalists showed any interest at all," he says.
Mr Maries fears the authorities will find a way to bury the investigation, but he refuses to give up his fight.
"I have always been an optimist," he insists.
"[But] I am not the state, they are the state, and it is their obligation to continue this inquiry."
21 December 2009
Cristian Movila was 7 years old when a firing squad executed the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day in 1989, ending more than 40 years of Communist rule.
On the 20th anniversary of the Romanian revolution, Mr. Movila, 27, offers a portrait of his country—a land of winter, Orthodox faith, class divide and industrial decay.
For most Romanians, Mr. Movila said, the economic promise of the revolution has proven hollow. Industrial work, where it continues at all, uses Communist-era technology, he said. Many factories have been abandoned. There is hardly a middle class, leaving masses of poor people in the countryside.
Mr. Movila’s rural subjects are often faceless; silhouetted against a blanched snowscape, obscured by a train window or dwarfed by Eastern Orthodox icons. He tells the story of Romania as much through what is absent—young men, modern industry, summer, color—as through what is there.
“In deep Romania, it’s cold,” Mr. Movila said. “It’s winter. People don’t have food on the table and the crisis is really, really big.”
“The feeling is really deep and black and a little bit death. This is the feeling of my Romania.”
Romania’s acceptance into the European Union in 2007 made it easier for large numbers of working-aged adults from impoverished rural areas to leave the country in search of work.
“A lot of villages are empty just with old people and maybe the child, the children,” Mr. Movila said. Child suicide has risen, he said.
Mr. Movila photographed some Romanians weeping at Ceausescu’s grave. Few Romanians are nostalgic for the Ceausescu era, he said, but many miss having a job.
Still, some facets of rural life move forward. Trains, though outdated and unreliable, move the poor from place to place. Sundays draw the faithful to Orthodox churches week after week.
As the son of a Communist-era train conductor turned railway entrepreneur, Mr. Movila has experienced both privation and privilege. “Before ‘89 was the time that we didn’t have anything on the table,” he said.
Ceausescu’s downfall came astoundingly fast. On Dec. 21, 1989, Mr. Movila’s father told his family to stay indoors. They dragged a wardrobe to block the door and shaded the windows with blankets.
For five or six days they hid. Mr. Movila and his three sisters, his father and his pregnant mother slept together on the floor of the apartment. Only his father left, to look for food.
The radio played constantly, punctuated by gunshots, one of which shattered the window of the Movilas’ living room.
“I remember the shooting around the building we were living in,” Mr. Movila said. “Later, someone said that Ceausescu’s brother was living nearby.”
“I think the first time when I went outside our apartment was on the December 26 or 27, I’m not sure,” Mr. Movila said. “In the center of Bucharest there were bullets everywhere and my father was covering my eyes from time to time because he didn’t want me to see the stains of blood on the sidewalk.”
“It hurts when I realize, after 20 years from that moment that only a few are still thinking about the people that died in that revolution and why.”
Mr. Movila studied electronic engineering at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest. He has worked as a professional photographer since 2003, first on the staff of the Romanian news agency Mediafax, then as a freelancer.
His work has taken him throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe and has appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, Paris Match, The New York Times and on Lens (”Showcase: Too Young,” Sept. 8).
Although Mr. Movila often presents a bleak view of his country, he believes a more promising Romania lies outside his frame. He cites a growing class of urban entrepreneurs and a dramatically expanded civil society.
“Despite all difficulties, Romania is now a democratic country, with all the human rights being respected” said Mr. Movila.
While the world marks 20 years since Ceausescu fell, Mr. Movila said in a telephone interview from Bucharest that Romanians are approaching the anniversary with little fanfare.
“Right now, the country’s really in a collapse,” he said.
“People are really busy, are working from the morning to evening,” he said. “So they don’t care too much about the celebration.”
20 December 2009
"I can't stand this anymore," she said. I looked around, at the bleak platform, at the mass of gray, drab-looking people, at the old train pulling into the station with a long screech. It was freezing cold, and the somber atmosphere just made everything feel even colder.
“I can’t stand this anymore,” my wife repeated, as we boarded an evening train in my hometown Brasov, to return to our tiny apartment in Sfantu Gheorghe, a smaller town some 30 kilometers away where I was teaching high school. “We’re hopeless. We’re just wasting our lives,” she added.
I said nothing. What was there to say? Romanians had been very good at dark humor throughout their tormented history, and the doldrums of communism had only sharpened their wit.
One of the season's jokes was that Dante had been wrong, and that hell was not hot at all, it was, in fact, as cold as a Romanian apartment in winter.
It was Sunday evening, and the train was more crowded than usual, since we were only one week away from the start of the Christmas vacation, or winter vacation in official lingo, as there was no Christmas to celebrate in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.
Wrinkled, gloomy faces, and worn clothes. Dirty carriages. Quiet desperation. There was nothing to remind us of the holiday spirit so cherished in the West, aside from the ragged luggage people were carrying, which looked stuffed with food and home-made wine.
Poor farmers hauling some food from the countryside to their even poorer children and grandchildren living in the cramped city apartment blocks.
They were living on food rations: five eggs per person per month, 100 grams of butter, half a kilogram of sugar, and half a liter of cooking oil. Half a loaf of bread per day, and six kilograms of meat per year—on May Day, on National Day in August, and on New Year.
The worst nightmare was losing one’s ration card. Long live communist Romania. To hell with its people.
I kept to myself, choosing not to answer my wife’s almost desperate remark. Her condition—she was five months pregnant—required some cheering up from my side, and maybe a kilo of oranges. I had neither. We boarded this train once a week to see my elderly mother in Brasov, then coming back to work. Nothing special. Nothing interesting. No hope. Romania was Orwellian.
By the time we got back to our place, it was almost 10 at night. Teaching some early classes on Monday, and then a meeting with a young party official in charge of education. What could he possibly want from me, I wondered? I wasn’t a party member. Had I had another slip of the tongue during classes?
As I was unpacking, I pulled out my valuable portable Sanyo radio-cassette player from the bag, and plugged it in. Five to 10. OK, there was something to look forward to after all. Still time for the headlines recap on Voice of America (VOA), on medium wave. As I was fiddling with the dial, I caught a couple of words in Romanian. “The group of protesters in Maria Square,” the announcer was saying amid strong static, “were dispersed by riot police, apparently after gunfire was heard.”
Maria Square. Did not ring a bell. Another square somewhere in the world. Like that summer’s Tiananmen Square revolt, which I had been learning about every night from Radio Free Europe (RFE) and VOA. Not in Romania, no way, I was thinking. The whole of Eastern Europe is rising, but not us. Poles and Hungarians make revolutions, Romanians make jokes.
My bitter musings were abruptly interrupted by the newsreader’s voice, this time clearer, louder, repeating the complete story before closing the program: “In Timisoara, in Maria Square, the protesters were dispersed by riot police, apparently after gunfire was heard. What started as a vigil against the forced eviction of Pastor Laszlo Toekes from his parish turned into a large antigovernment protest. Security forces opened fire, and there are reports that many people have been killed. We’ll get back to you.”
I held my breath for a second. Then, as the news was sinking in, I whispered to myself, “It’s started!” All of a sudden I felt sweat rolling down my temples despite the cold in the room. “It’s started,” I yelled this time, as my wife burst out of the kitchen, not understanding why I was being so loud. “It’s started,” I kept repeating, as if to convince myself that what I had just heard was true.
That Maria Square was in Romania, and not somewhere else. I looked at my watch. The time was 10 p.m. The day was December 17, 1989. Like my wife, like us, some Romanians somewhere had said, “we can’t stand it anymore.” But they had said it out loud, and many would pay with their lives.
I stayed up all night, glued to my small radio set, trying to learn more. RFE’s Romanian Service, and Voice of America were the only source of information I had. State radio and television were broadcasting the usual nauseating programs about Ceausescu and his wife.
I went to classes Monday morning, hoping to find people talking about Timisoara in the teachers’ room. Surprise. Nothing. Same scared faces, same small talk. Someone had killed the Christmas pig. Shared with another five people, raised on painfully saved bread crusts and stolen potatoes. Should I tell them? Blank looks. No, I shouldn’t.
I left disappointed. The next day, Tuesday, December 19, we let our daytime students leave for winter vacation a couple of days early. Party orders. People were beginning to speak more openly about an ongoing massacre in Timisoara, but fear was always present.
On Wednesday, December 20, by the time we arrived at my mother’s place in Brasov, we had heard that the number of victims was rising in Timisoara. State media were reporting that Ceausescu had returned from his short visit to Iran and was to address the nation later that afternoon.
Waiting for him to speak, we tuned in to Radio Free Europe.
What I felt next I still find hard to describe, 20 years later. RFE broadcast a short recording smuggled out of Timisoara. People screaming, men and women. A woman, shouting, "Romanians, like ourselves! Shame on you!" Then a man, saying, “Shoot, you bastards, shoot!” Then, a second of silence. Just a second. Then gunfire. Then, more gunfire. Then silence.
I raised my head after a long while. Tears were blurring my eyes, but I could still see that both my wife and my mother were crying silently.
Ceausescu’s recorded speech later that evening—about “hooligans, foreign agents, and terrorists ransacking Timisoara” poured fuel on the fire. By now there was no going back, once his hands were covered in blood. He declared a state of emergency.
Somehow, though, he and his advisers seemed not to have realized what they had done, and out of defiance or sheer stupidity, he called a mass rally in Bucharest. It had long been said among Romanians that no matter how many people or places would rise against the regime, nothing would change until the capital, Bucharest—a metropolis of more than 2 million people—would do the same.
In the two cities I was commuting between there was also a massive security presence on the streets. It was amid such a backdrop that on Thursday, December 21, I heard of Ceausescu’s speech being interrupted. But it was unclear what was happening in Bucharest and Timisoara, as the power went out at exactly the times Radio Free Europe was on. There were no available batteries.
I spent much of the night glued to my small portable radio in Sfantu Gheorghe, trying to catch a word, a phrase, whenever the power was on. I fell asleep very late. Our boulevard was pitch dark, and so were the apartment blocks flanking it.
I was woken abruptly by a murmur, more like a muffled roar. Was it coming from my radio, left on as I had fallen asleep? I looked at my watch: 7:30, I had missed the 6:30 VOA broadcast! I jumped out of bed, and looked outside the window, then opened the balcony door, and the roar grew.
I looked in the distance, and I saw a huge mass, thousands of people marching on the boulevard toward us, coming from the city’s eastern industrial platform, many with flags. The sun was blinding me, and I wondered for a moment whether this was again one of those staged “anti-hooligan” demos, like the previous day’s Bucharest rally.
But as they drew near, I noticed there were no red flags, and the tricolor had a hole in the middle. Then, the guy leading the column, a mountain of a man, with thick beard, rose his head and our eyes met.
'Teacher, Come With Us'
Radu, my night-school student, a worker with a big mouth. “Hey, teacher, what are you doing there standing and gazing at us! Come join us!” he roared, and tens of his mates chanted noisily: “Teacher, come with us! Teacher, come with us!”
We did not pause to think twice. Both my wife and I flew down the stairs in a matter of minutes. I told her to go back. She refused. Joining the column of protesters, I thought of letting someone know what was happening in our town. I ran toward the door of the city’s post office, only to see a guy in overalls cut the wire of the only outside long-distance public phone in front of my eyes.
The column headed for the local party headquarters, at the edge of the town's park. The building was surrounded by trucks full of army conscripts, AK-47s at the ready. My wife and I found ourselves pressed against the elevated railing in front of the building. One soldier lowered his weapon and pointed it threateningly at my pregnant wife’s belly.
The crowd began booing and calling for the party boss to come out. He appeared on a small balcony, and tried to speak to the mixed, ethnic Hungarian and Romanian crowd. He was jeered repeatedly, then shuffled in by his security detail. He tried again, with a loudspeaker, from within the building. The jeers were too strong, so he disappeared.
Strangely enough, after a couple of hours of tense standoff, I noticed, there were no police, only army in the cordon around the building. Where were they? I looked worriedly at the crowds around us, which had begun to thin at the edges.
Then suddenly, shortly after noon, the tide turned, and I heard shouts from people coming toward us. At first, we could not understand what they were saying, but it soon became clear, when they began jumping with joy! “Ceausescu has fled! We are free!” Slowly, as if incredulous of what they were hearing, more and more people began hugging one another.
We looked at each other, then at the army conscript still pointing his gun at my wife. “It’s over, man,” I yelled at him. “It’s over when my commanding officer says it’s over,” he replied coldly. “Look behind you,” I urged him, as he suspiciously turned his head only to see the army major throw his cap high in the air. Ceausescu had fled, indeed. It was over. Communism had fallen.
My story, as told to my daughter years later, should have ended here. But, unfortunately, it did not. From 12:09 Friday, December 22, until the evening of Christmas Day, when the Ceausescus’ execution was partially broadcast on state television, hundreds more people died unnecessarily in many cities and towns across Romania in a bloody masquerade presented by those who had taken over in Bucharest as a “fight against terrorists” presumed loyal to Ceausescu.
Whether they were terrorists indeed we never found out. But many civilians were called to arms by the new authorities and local army barracks too easily gave away guns to people as young as 14, sometimes only based on a simple ID. On December 23, in Sfantu Gheorghe, I saw how, from the army headquarters downtown, brand new sniper rifles were being handed over to civilians “to protect the revolution.”
The same night, machine gunfire burst out at precise intervals, seven minutes past each hour. Meanwhile, state radio was broadcasting alarming news about terrorists bursting into apartments and killing people randomly in cities across the country.
On December 24, the same day, we took the train to see my mother in Brasov, where there had been reports of fighting. Mother was alright, thank God. But only yards from my home, on the street I grew up as a child, a huge pool of blood had not dried yet.
Several armed men were hanging around, one of whom I knew. Hey, he told me with pride, we killed a terrorist! A foreign one! In an Italian-registered car, he added, reeking of alcohol. He tried to overrun our checkpoint, we shot at the car, he stopped, got out and tried to run away but we got him in the back!
I turned away and walked downtown, where bullet pockmarks were everywhere. One guy I knew came to me to say "hi." There was no more postrevolutionary joy in his eyes: “Carmen was killed yesterday, in the very first burst of gunfire last night near the Modarom building. She was there with her boyfriend and others to celebrate.”
Carmen Bian, a former middle school and university colleague. The following day I bought the paper and checked the list of dead and the places they had fallen. I paused over a foreign name: Rancati, Francesco, 42. Italian national. Shot by mistake while driving with a transport of humanitarian aid.
It was Christmas Day. Finally, we called it Christmas again. That evening they announced that the Ceausescus had been shot after a trial. I watched in horror. That had been no trial, but a farce.
Then somehow, my mind kept turning to the two people about whose deaths I had learned. A stranger, and someone I knew. Two crosses in the Heroes’ Cemetery in downtown Brasov. They, and hundreds others, could have been alive. The shooting should have stopped on December 22, 1989, at 12:09.
17 December 2009
VIEW: Click on image to read Alida Tomiuc's "graphic novel" recounting the events of 1989 through her parents' eyes.
In late 2004, I was surprised by a request for an interview on how I remembered the 1989 Romanian Revolution 15 years earlier. I was perhaps most amazed that the person doing the requesting—or demanding, rather!—was my own daughter, then nearly 15 years old.
The catch was that it was to be part of a school project. Students were to draw a graphic novel based on someone else's account of a historical event.
The project was inspired by Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical graphic novel "Maus: A Survivor's Tale." "Maus" depicts Spiegelman's father's struggle to stay alive as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust.
My daughter told me that the stories that my wife and I had told her about the final days of communism in Romania sounded a lot like "Maus."
There was another reason my daughter, Alida, chose December 1989 as her theme: She had participated indirectly in the events, as my wife was pregnant when guards pointed a rifle at her on December 22, 1989.
I kept a copy of my daughter's project, which shows how the next generation regards the dramatic events that led to the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu's hated dictatorship.
It all starts with that cold and gloomy night of December 17, 1989, on a railway platform in Brasov, Romania...
16 December 2009
Twenty years ago today, a revolt began in the western Romanian city of Timisoara that would culminate in the toppling of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime and his execution several days later.
Michael Meyer, who was "Newsweek's" bureau chief for Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans at the time, was the last American journalist to travel to Romania and interview Ceausescu before his fall, and one of the first to arrive in Bucharest after Ceausescu's demise.
Meyer, who is the author of a recent book about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, "The Year That Changed The World," spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc about life in Romania before and after Ceausescu's fall and vividly recalled his hours-long meeting with the all-powerful dictator.
Living In A Prison
RFE/RL: You traveled quite extensively throughout Romania in preparation for your August 1989 interview with Nicolae Ceausescu. By that time, huge changes were gaining momentum in other countries of Eastern Europe. But Romania was an exception—almost completely isolated from the outside world, in the grip of a repressive and often violent security apparatus and marred by severe food and energy shortages. I remember that in the scorching summer of 1989 one could hardly find a bottle of cold water in shops or restaurants. Did you notice any sign of boiling anger in the country?
Michael Meyer: None whatsoever. Some of the cab drivers would listen to Radio Free Europe—and people I was able to speak to freely, because listening to Radio Free Europe was a crime against the state—there was some knowledge of what was going on; there was immense unhappiness with the regime.
I met a priest in a monastery in the foothills of the Carpathians; he was talking about how the stores [were empty], how people were starving, how he had to drive once a week 2 1/2 hours into Bucharest to get bread for his congregation and he'd drive back. And he talked about how people had to rise up, and he said, "Publish what I'm saying, this terrible regime that kills its people, that devours its people...tell them: 'use my name,'" and, of course, I didn't because I feared for this man's life.
One taxi driver drove me around and he told me about how his mother and his wife spent most of their day standing in line so that when a shop started selling something—whether it was meat or apples or something else—a line would immediately form. You didn't know what you were buying but you'd buy it anyway so you could trade it for something that you needed. He said that it was like life in a prison. And that's what Romania was.
RFE/RL: Food was the most pressing of all the worries Romanians had back then, and some were saying that the regime, however repressive, would have been more tolerable had people had a little more than their meager food rations and fewer blackouts at night. Elderly people joked bitterly that the situation reminded them of the World War II years, only with less food.
Meyer: I remember [a scene in downtown Bucharest]: the American ambassador's car, gleaming black, the stars and stripes aflutter cruising past as a woman, very neatly dressed in office garb, bent over the sidewalk and scraped an egg that she had dropped on to the sidewalk, broken, into a piece of paper and carefully folded up because a broken egg was so precious that she was taking it home to cook it.
Watch: On December 21, 1989, a speech by Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu was interrupted by unprecedented heckling, followed by four days of fighting between security forces, the army, and demonstrators. On Christmas Day, Ceausescu and his wife were convicted in a secret trial and executed by firing squad. (video by Reuters)
RFE/RL: When, after two weeks of traveling through Romania, Ceausescu finally decided to give you the interview at his Snagov summer residence outside Bucharest, what was your first impression when you saw him? Was his a glorious appearance, worthy of the "supreme ruler" that he was?
Meyer: In shuffled this little man in this ill-fitting suit and plastic woven slippers. He presented a moist weak palm to shake hands—this little man that Romanians feared as the tyrant, the all-powerful, all-knowing god on earth; this bent little figure, not very well-kempt, not very well combed, looking faintly deranged.
We took our places in little chairs and the interview began. And we had some questions we asked. We talked about shortages of food. And Ceausescu said, "How can there be shortages of food?" And I said, "Well, we go into stores and we see nothing on the shelves." And Ceausescu said, "Well, that's because it's all kept in storage."
RFE/RL: His answer proves that—in spite of some rumors at the time that the "great leader," who was 71, might not have known what was happening in the country anymore—he was actually aware of the people's hardships and was attempting to hide the truth. Did he give you the impression that he was still in firm control of Romania or, to the contrary?
Meyer: We asked him at one point whether he thought anyone would rise up against him in the way they are elsewhere, and what he thought about Tiananmen [Square protests of June 1989] and he said the Chinese authorities acted exactly as they should have—it's the role of students to study and it's the role of the government to keep order; of course they handled it appropriately.
["Newsweek" editor in chief] Ken Auchincloss, my boss, asked, "Does it bother you to be called the last Stalinist of Europe?" And he said, "Stalin had much to recommend him, if I could go down contributing as much to my country as Stalin contributed to his own, I'd be happy to be seen in the light of history as a modern Stalin."
And we talked about the cult of personality, and he said: "Cult of personality? I am a man of my people, what cult of personality? All I do is bring good to my people. If that is a cult of personality, the world needs more such cults of personality." And soon the question-and-answer [session] sort of gave way to these long speeches, with Ceausescu waving his fist in the air and pounding on the arm of his chair.
RFE/RL: During the interview, Ceausescu and Auchincloss were seated on a dais. From where you sat, you had a better view of the "Genius of the Carpathians," as he liked to be referred to in the Romanian media. What struck you most about his appearance?
Meyer: I just began taking notes, and one of the notes said "balls," and this was not editorial commentary, this was a literal observation. Ceausescu was sitting and I was looking at his testicles, resting on his seat, in his overlarge trousers, and they...they looked, like, as I wrote in my notebook, overripe tomatoes, sort of flattened, squatted there on his feet—malignant—them so big; him such a small dictator.
And I also made more objective notes about how this man seemed to have no humanity, he seemed to be a hollow vessel of ideas, and telling only about power and ranting on as I imagine [Swiss psychiatrist and thinker] Carl Gustav Jung looked at Hitler—the empty vessel to be filled with the unfulfilled hopes and yearnings of a people and then warped by power. That's how I saw Ceausescu.
RFE/RL: In your book, you evoke another tragicomic scene during the postinterview photo session that to me sounded almost like a premonition.
Meyer: We told him that since this is a cover story in "Newsweek," we should show him in his most human guise and then we went out to this little dock protruded out of Lake Snagov, surrounded by little reeds.
He stood in the sunlight, [as] our photographer Peter Turnley was snap-snap-snapping away and at one point Peter touched his shoulder, to position Ceausescu in the light and this is a man who is never touched—he offered his hand to us, but touching him is really beyond the pale—so Peter touches him but the dictator almost loses his balance, he totters on one foot, he waves his little arms in little circles in the bright sun, and the concluding line in this chapter [in my book] is, "Would the 'Danube of Thought' [one of the glorifying titles attributed to Ceausescu] topple into the drink?"
The Stolen Revolution
RFE/RL: Unfortunately, he did not, and it would take another four months before a popular uprising in Timisoara would eventually spill into Bucharest and end with both Ceausescu and his wife being summarily executed after a mock trial on Christmas Day. By then, it had become apparent that the new power was less of a revolutionary council and more of a second party echelon taking over power from both Ceausescu and from the people who had risked their lives. You came back to Bucharest on the day of the execution, and got to meet some old acquaintances, now in revolutionary disguise.
Meyer: My minder, the head of my particular security detail on the visit during the summer [eds: most likely made up of Securitate operatives], he came to me and said, "Would you like to go off to the television station?" So he took me off and we went out the door and suddenly there was a bout of shooting and he didn't even blink. I blanched!
He seemed to be very comfortable in this world. He took me to the television station, he drove right through the ring of soldiers guarding it with just a cursory nod, past the security at the doors, which had bullet holes in the windows, and up to the room where there happened to be a meeting in process of the National Salvation Front [the newly established provisional government].
There was [former communist apparatchik and future Romanian President Ion] Iliescu, there was [ex-communist dissident] Dumitru [Mazilu], and there was [General Victor] Stanculescu. He was the biggest surprise! He, of course, was the guy who [on December 22 had] ushered Ceausescu off the roof to the helicopter, and he was the fellow who [on December 25 was one of those who] organized the execution squad, and the trial that did Ceausescu in!
And then came that [deputy] foreign minister [Constantin Oancea], the man who sidled up to me when Ceausescu was entering the room for the interview [in August 1989]. I looked at him and he looked at me and he laughed and he said, "Funny to meet you here, Mr. Meyer." Then said, "The lies I told you...." And I sort of laughed and told him, "Well, I didn't believe anything you told me anyway," and we had a good laugh.
RFE/RL: Twenty years after, there is still an ongoing debate as to what extent the 1989 events were a spontaneous revolution or a coup d'etat, in which many people died needlessly. What is your opinion?
Meyer: It took me a long time to piece together my impressions, but at the time I said: "Something is not adding up here. This is supposed to be a people's revolution—it began as a people's revolution, at least as far as I could tell in Timisoara—but it became something else once it arrived in Bucharest."
You know, these were not leaders of a people's uprising. These were an old guard, these were people who had great access, who were very comfortable moving in these circles. Clearly they were taking their lives in their hands, clearly they were taking great risks, but I did immediately begin to wonder, you know, OK, there's clearly been a changing of the guard, a turning of the tide, and Ceausescu's own people are turning against him.
It was a coup wrapped in a revolution. It was a hybrid, and it was a whiff of things to come. Just like the glory—la gloire—of the French Revolution turned to the terror. A lot of people needlessly lost their lives in Romania. The Romanian Revolution was a harbinger of Yugoslavia, with men of power manipulating events for their own ends.
16 December 2009
TIMISOARA, Romania (AP)—With chants of ''Liberty,'' grizzled former fighters in this snow-dusted city Wednesday relived their role in toppling communist Eastern Europe's most repressive dictator. But most Romanians paid little heed—focusing instead on today's economic hard times and political rancor.
The residents of Timisoara were the first to defy Nicolae Ceausescu: It was here that citizens flocked to the defense of an ethnic Hungarian dissident pastor who was being threatened with forced relocation, leading to rapidly escalating confrontations with police.
The next day, police, army and secret service units began firing at protesters, the start of six days of fighting that subsequently spilled over to Bucharest and led to the end Ceausescu and his era of hunger, hardship and repression.
More than 1,000 people were killed in the sole violent upheaval of the revolutions that swept communists from power across Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Of those, 118 were killed in Timisoara.
Timisoara mayor Gheorghe Ciuhandru told a gathering of veteran revolutionaries that the city near Romania's western border with Hungary and Serbia should be proud the uprising began here.
''To those who were born free, I say that things were changed in this revolution. We have freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right to private property.''
Today, Romania is a member of both the EU and NATO, both of them clubs associated with Western values and prosperity—and on the surface seems to have overcome the past.
On Wednesday, this westward looking city of ornate fin-de-siecle buildings, exclusive boutiques, huge shopping malls and fine restaurants was awash in bright Christmas lights and streets were flooded with well-dressed shoppers, some jumping to avoid the spray of slush thrown up by late-model Western cars speeding by.
Almost lost in the downtown bustle was a group of about 70 people, most of them male and in their 50s chanting ''down with Ceausescu,'' and ''Liberty.''
Some juggled traditional beeswax candles with cutting-edge mobile phones, in a telling symbol of a Romania that seemed like a relic of the 19th century just 20 years ago, and a nation with many of the trappings of modernity today.
But 20 years on, the bloody struggle of the war veterans appears irrelevant to a new generation facing economic hardship and political bickering, and focused more on living for today than reliving history. People in passing streetcars stared at the small crowd passively, and a girl in her early teens flashed a tired ''V'' sign as she walked by—without looking back.
Today, Romania is drowning in debt—with foreign obligations of almost 78 billion euros ($113 billion). Although it joined the EU in 2007, the nation remains deeply troubled, plagued by corruption, mired in recession, and paralyzed by political infighting—most recently by a hotly contested presidential election marred by allegation of wholesale fraud.
U.S. Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein paid tribute to the events of 20 years ago—while noting that Romania had a long way to go to achieve from full democratic and free-market values.
''You, in Romania have much yet to do to complete your revolution,'' he said. ''Romania, like America, must aspire to be a government of laws ... not a country where policy and law depends on which party attains a majority of 50 percent plus one.''
''To be blunt: it's time to start doing instead of just arguing,'' said Gitenstein.
Tudorin Burlacu, who was among Timisoara's revolutionary fighters 20 years ago, complained of politicians claiming to believe in democracy but playing by the old, communist rules—in claiming that the revolution was not over.
''It's a free country,'' said the 53-year-old engineer. ''But the state institutions are controlled politically by people who are now in power.''
Asked if he had a message for Romania's youth, he said: ''They have to learn from us, they have to keep fighting from freedom.''
But today's generation has other priorities.
''We saw it on TV, but it's no big deal for us,'' said Iasmina Capverde, 17, of the planned march and other commemorative festivities. ''Maybe for our parents it was a big day, but it's nothing special for our crowd.''
Musicians from the local opera house performed a mixture of Christmas carols and popular Romanian music in a short concert attended by ex-President Emil Constantinescu, in office from 1996 to 2000.
''I am here for those who fought and died for the ideals that changed lives in Romania and wrote a page of heroism in Romania's history,'' said Constantinescu.
The revolt began Dec. 16, 1989, when authorities tried to forcibly move ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Toekes to a remote rural parish. Supporters gathered outside his house and soon the site was teeming with protesters.
Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed after a summary trial on Christmas Day. His brutal reign was underpinned by the notorious Securitate who had an army of an estimated 700,000 informers—about 1 in 20 Romanians—to stifle dissent during 25 years of harsh rule.
Toward the end of the Ceausescu era, ordinary Romanians suffered through harsh rationing in which bananas and oranges became luxuries, as the dictator tried to pay off the country's foreign debt. Meat, cooking oil and butter were severely limited, blackouts were common and in winter, Bucharest was the communist bloc's gloomiest capital, its potholed streets gripped in ice and darkness.
The world greeted Ceausescu's downfall, captivated by television images of poorly clad but jubilant Romanians flooding the streets and riding confiscated military vehicles. Horror after horror of his era was exposed—mental asylums where patients were kept like animals and orphanages whose charges were little better off. But still the people rejoiced—and hoped for better times.
Those times have come, but Romania remains one of Europe's backwaters.
Leonard Iovita stopped to ponder his nation's uneven road to freedom and democracy as he took a break from work at a crammed flower stall outside the Bucharest cemetery housing the grave of the Ceausescus
''We live on a seesaw. When you say it's good, that's when you fall into the pit,'' he said. ''We are broken.
''And I don't think even God can fix us.''
Associated Press writers Alison Mutler in Timisoara and Alina Wolfe-Murray in Bucharest contributed to this report.
16 December 2009
As the white paper was torn away from the yellow wall, a wave of applause passed through the crowd.
Beneath it, four words were sprayed in Hungarian in red paint: "Eljen Laszlo Tokes - Szabadsag" ("Long Live Laszlo Tokes - Freedom!").
For this 20th anniversary of the start of the revolution in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, the Reformed Church chose to restore the original graffiti to its place under the window.
This was the window from which Pastor Laszlo Tokes, an ethnic Hungarian vicar, spoke to the crowds who came to try to prevent his arrest by the Securitate - the secret police - on 16 December 1989.
The crowd swelled, and marched on Communist Party headquarters. It then returned to the streets the next day, and the security forces opened fire.
As news of the massacre spread, people took to the streets in other cities, in solidarity with Timisoara. By 21 December, the waves which began in this city had built up into the tidal wave of Bucharest.
And on 22 December the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fled. He was caught, tried, and executed by a firing squad on 25 December.
20 years on, the BBC has gained access to a remarkable document, the Timisoara station-master's log from November and December 1989. Hand-written, it meticulously records the details of each train which arrived in Timisoara North railway station during the revolution.
Placed alongside the military log-books of the army, the testimony of eye-witness, and those pages of the secret police archives which were not destroyed, the railway notes will help historians get closer to the truth about the revolution.
They may also help prosecutors—if any of the 440 people identified so far by investigators as participants in efforts to suppress the revolution are ever brought to trial.
The log-book was hidden until this year, and was provided by an anonymous person.
"You never met me," he told my colleague, as he handed it over at a late-night meeting. "We never had this conversation."
On 16 December 1989, between 2040 and 2240 in the evening, single wagon train 15/II arrived in Timisoara from Burest. It was met by the station chief.
All other trains had to make way for it.
The timing is significant.
The protest gathering was still outside Pastor Tokes's house—the marchers had not yet moved off into the city. According to Radu Tinu—at that time the number two in the Timis county Securitate—the deputy police chief of Romania, the deputy chief prosecutor, and a Securitate general were on that train.
"I had a horrible week, with hardly any sleep," he told me. He watched the revolution unfold before his eyes, collecting information based on phone taps, bugged buildings and a wide network of informers; and then details of the casualties. He made daily reports to his superiors in Bucharest.
Uniformed security forces first opened fire on the crowd on the afternoon of 17 December.
To this day, former Securitate officers like Mr Tinu blame the army, and the army blames the secret police for the killings.
"We were just an intelligence service. So what we had to do was to get our information and to analyse it.
"Whatever happened down in the street was the problem of the police and the gendarmerie."
More than 1,000 people died during the revolution, including 72 in Timisoara. In one of the most gruesome episodes, 48 bodies were taken from Timisoara hospital and driven to Bucharest.
There, their bodies were incinerated, and their ashes scattered in the snow.
The station master's log book provides evidence of other efforts by the authorities to crush the revolt.
It tells how the electric power supply was cut "accidentally" between Timisoara North and Timisoara East stations.
It shows details of unscheduled trains arriving in the city from other parts of Romania, loaded with workers' militia, armed with wooden bats distributed at army barracks, to punish the people for their disloyalty.
One of the first successes of the crowds was to persuade those workers to join the revolt. After that, the army in Timisoara came over to the side of people too.
'Troops to disembark'
There is another intriguing entry, from 0755 on the morning of 21 December. The protests had spread to other cities by then, but Ceausescu was still in power in the capital.
Supplementary train 1006/A, with two brand new carriages, their windows blacked out, loaded with USLA - anti-terrorist troops - arrived in the outskirts of Timisoara.
"Comrade Captain Brustureanu will indicate where to stop, at the Aradului Boulevard bridge, where the troops will disembark," reads the entry.
From there, they set out across the botanical gardens towards the city centre. Were they sent to fight the army, and seize back control?
One of the tragedies of the Romanian revolution was that so many people died actually after the dictatorship fell, in battles between the army and unidentified "terrorists."
Many were civilians, hit by stray bullets. The youngest victim in Timisoara was just two years old. Few people have ever been put on trial, and fewer still convicted.
Walking down the street, late in the evening, past the ground-floor flat where Laszlo Tokes used to live, we see two small children standing at the window from where he once addressed the crowds, gazing in wonder at the falling snow.
Instinctively, I raise a hand, in greeting.
They hesitate, then wave back.
14 December 2009
The film “Katalin Varga”, a Romanian-British-Hungarian co-production, directed by Peter Strickland, has won the European Film Academy Award (the European equivalent of the American Oscars), in the category “European Discovery of the Year”. The 22nd Awards Gala was held in Germany. The winners were selected by secret vote by over 2,000 professionals of the European film industry, members of the Film Academy set up in 1988.
“Katalin Varga”, the only long-reel with a majority Romanian participation to have been nominated for these prizes in 2009, also got the Silver Bear in Berlin, for outstanding artistic contribution, the Grand Prize in the Copenhagen Festival, the Best Director Award in the Montenegro Film Festival, the Grand Prize of the Piestany Festival in Slovakia, as well as the Special Prize of the Jury of the Mumbay Film Festival (India). The film has also got 3 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards.
Set in Transylvania, central Romania, “Katalin Vargas” tells the story of a woman who has been raped, and who seeks revenge years later. A small team and a minimal budget have been used for the film, with the whole process of shooting and post-processing taking some 4 years. The actress in the leading role, Hilda Peter, from the Hungarian Theatre in Cluj, north-western Romania, got the prize for best acting in the Brussels Film Festival and the best leading actress prize in the “Golden Orange” International Festival in Antalya, Turkey.
The film is already running on big screens in Great Britain, France and Romania. The European Film Academy has granted the best film award to director Michael Haneke for the film “Das Weise Band” (The White Ribbon). The set design was also signed by Haneke. Another Romanian film, “The Death of Mr Lazarescu”, directed by Cristi Puiu, ranks 28th in a standing of the best 40 films of the last 10 yeas, “The Times” writes. The famous British publication says the film, which tells the story of an old man who spends his last hours in hospitals, is not only severe, but also comical and heartrending.
A true modern epic story: it is not a coincidence that Mr Lazarescu’s first name in Dante, writes “The Times”. The film has received many awards and won the “Un Certain Regard” Category of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
13 December 2009
Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a new book titled Dracula Is Dead takes a look at how Romania has fared since the December 1989 overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Host Liane Hansen speaks with co-authors Jim Rosapepe, former U.S. ambassador to Romania, and journalist Sheilah Kast.
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Twenty years ago this month, another panel of the iron curtain fell in Romania with the demise of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day in 1989, ending more than 40 years of communist rule.
A new book looks back at Romania's transformation over the past two decades. "Dracula is Dead" is co-authored by former ambassador to Romania, Jim Rosapepe, and journalist Sheilah Kast. Longtime listeners of WEEKEND EDITION may remember her as an occasional guest host. They're in our Washington studios. Welcome to the program, Jim, and welcome back, Sheilah.
Ms. SHEILAH KAST (Co-Author, "Dracula is Dead"): Thanks. It feels good to be back, Liane.
Mr. JIM ROSAPEPE (Former Ambassador, Co-Author, "Dracula is Dead"): Thanks.
HANSEN: Let me start with you, Jim. The subtitle of the book is "How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy." I'm not quite sure if that's good news or bad news but it's a success story is what you're saying.
Mr. ROSAPEPE: It's a terrific success story. It's really the miracle of the Balkans, because 20 years ago they were in a deeper hole than most of the Eastern European countries. Their economy was in worse shape, their political system was more totalitarism. And in 20 years, they've become a thriving democracy, a rapidly modernizing economy. They're members of the European Union, they're allies of the United States and NATO.
They aren't where they want to be, but they've made enormous progress in 20 years. They worked very hard to allow children from all economic backgrounds to go to college based on merit. As I'm sure your listeners know, this year the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature was Herta Muller, who's from Romania. So, it's a very highly educated country.
HANSEN: I think Americans have some fuzziness about Romania. You actually write that many of us think of Romania as Dracula, orphanages and dictators. Talking about Transylvania, of course, that's the part of the country we associate with Dracula and vampires. And, I mean, even though there seems to be no real nuggets of truth that there was a vampire name Dracula, the country itself has kind of said embrace that idea and kind of has, you know, vampire tourism.
Ms. KAST: Well, they've embraced the tourism, certainly. They're not so crazy about America's fixation about Dracula. We got some questions when we were there a couple of weeks ago about why did you put Dracula in the title of your book? And we explained we were starting from where we think a lot of Americans start. But certainly they've embraced the tourism.
They are very hospitable. It's an incredibly hospitable place. And it's a great place for tourism. And if Dracula is what tourists want to know about, there certainly are places that they can connect to the 15th century prince, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, on which Bram Stoker based his hero.
HANSEN: I'm speaking with Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast, authors of the book, "Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy."
Back in 1989, we were hearing about the deplorable conditions in the orphanages there and many of the orphans were HIV positive. What happened to them?
Mr. ROSAPEPE: They got better. The problems aren't solved, but there clearly were maybe 150,000 children in these orphanages. Not all of them, or even most of them, were orphans in the sense that we think of them. They had parents but they didn't have what we think of as a welfare system where low-income families could keep their kids at home. Instead, when a low-income family had an additional child, they couldn't support, they'd take them to the state institution called the orphanage.
During the Ceausescu period, he wanted to boost the population tremendously so he restricted birth control, restricted abortion. As a result, a lot of poor families had a lot more kids, therefore more kids ended up in the orphanages. It was a poor country. They were treated poorly.
In the last 20 years, there's been enormous effort by concerned Americans, by concerned Romanians, western Europeans to fix that. They've improved the homes for children. They've moved, if they can, from orphanages to foster homes. They promoted Romania adoption of children, as well as many foreign adoptions. There are many Americans who've adopted Romanian children. So, the problem isn't solved, but it's much improved from 20 years ago.
Ms. KAST: And specifically, the kids with AIDS - I mean, Romania had more than half of all the pediatric AIDS cases in Europe for years. And thanks to great doctors and antiretroviral drugs, many of these kids have reached adulthood. And life is tough for them - probably not easy for anybody with HIV/AIDS, but a lot of them are making it.
HANSEN: The world is in the midst of an economic recession now, and you were just in Romania a few weeks ago. So, how are things in Romania?
Mr. ROSAPEPE: They're in the middle of the great recession, just like the United States is. But the important thing in Romania is, as they say, it's a crisis of capitalism now, not a crisis of communism. They're still integrated with the world economy, so when Germany, Italy, France took a nosedive that helped bring Romania down with it.
HANSEN: Jim, you now head an investment firm and you're on the boards of several funds investing in Eastern Europe. Are you bullish on Romania's future?
Mr. ROSAPEPE: Very much so, just as I'm bullish on America's future. We're going through a tough time. But if you have hardworking people, you have motivated people, you have well-educated people, and I would say pound-for-pound Romanians may be more well-educated on average than Americans are.
And then you add the fact that costs in Romania are low, because they were a poor country coming out of communism. They have a tremendous competitive advantage going forward over the next 20 years.
HANSEN: Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast are authors of "Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy." They joined us in our Washington studios. Thank you very much, both of you.
Ms. KAST: Thanks, Liane.
Mr. ROSAPEPE: Thanks a lot.
12 December 2009
The Orient Express—the very name carries an aura of glamour and mystery. Van Helsing rode it to his battle with Dracula. James Bond romanced a beautiful Russian aboard it. And Agatha Christie set one of the best-known murders in literary history aboard that train.
Now the original Orient Express is itself about to become part of history. On Monday, the route will disappear from European railway timetables, a victim of high-speed trains and cut-rate airlines.
The height of the Orient Express' fabled luxury was probably in the 1930s, PBS travel guide Rick Steves tells NPR's Scott Simon. That was back when the train was four sleeper cars and a single luggage car. "But in practice, the Orient Express is the practical way you get across the Balkans," Steves says.
"Back in the Cold War, you were dealing with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and barking dogs. And I remember everybody with a briefcase looked mysterious to me, anybody with an overcoat—what's under that overcoat? And of course, it was that mystique of going east."
Steves points out that there are actually two Orient Expresses. The one that people probably think of now is a tour company that renovates 1930s-era cars and takes people from London to Venice. It's the other Orient Express that's taking its final trip.
"The historic Orient Express — that's the one that was established back in the 1880s—that took you from Paris or London to Istanbul," he says.
Aboard the real Orient Express, you were more likely to meet scruffy people than beautiful Russian spies. Steves remembers corrupt conductors from his trips. "You'd have to bribe your way to get across a border or to get your seat."
"I remember literally sleeping in the hallways of those trains with peasants coming on and off," he says. "It was a vivid, ever changing world. And it was the best, easy, accessible adventure to get on that Orient Express."
The train was the scene of many adventures—both real and imagined—in its 126-year history. Steves says a murder occurred aboard the Orient Express in 1929 while the train was stuck in a snowstorm about 70 miles outside Istanbul. That crime inspired Christie's famous mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express. Christie even traveled to Istanbul while writing the book.
That kind of romance fuels nostalgia for the golden era of train travel, Steves says, the days when people would spend two days on a train to get from Paris to Turkey.
A trip that now costs just $40 and a few hours on a budget European airline. That's an amazing thing, Steves says. "I mean, kids are flying off to another country just to have lunch with their friends, and the glamour and class of train travel has changed quite a bit."
"Travel buffs and train buffs really lament the passing of the good old days of train travel," he says. "Every year there are fewer overnight trains and fewer elegant overnight trains.
"This is just one more loss as we morph into a more modern and affluent world."
Nadirs was first published in Berlin in 1988. Now the book, the first by Herta Müller, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, has been reissued in a translation by Sieglinde Lug. It's a slim volume, but it's packed with a powerfully resonant series of short takes on Müller's childhood in the Banat, the German-speaking region of Romania.
All of the overwhelming details of childhood tumble through the pages of Müller's extraordinary re-creation of her early life in a small village: light, air, wind, grass, trees, cows, and snakes, urine and feces and bodies, the sky, the stars, the moon. Müller's mastery of image and sensations is so sharp I found myself, despite the book's brevity, unable to read more than a few pages, sometimes just paragraphs, in a single sitting.
She leaps from the real to the fantastic in the middle of a sentence, as when she describes her mother lifting out the window glass in their little house and washing the windows in a big tin tub.
"They are so clean that you can see the whole village in them," Müller writes, "as if in the mirror of the water. They look like they were water. The village looks like it was water, too. It makes you dizzy if you look at the village in the glass for a long time."
When, in summer, night falls on her village, she says she never understood how this happened: "Every night the summer drowned carelessly in the middle of the village."
Or when she writes about bathing: "When my skin got dry, it tightened and felt like glass. My whole body felt how I was getting beautiful and I stepped carefully not to break apart. ... My gait had something of my grandmother's starched linen. When I slept in it the first night night it rustled with any move, and I believed my skin was rustling."
The world of the village, as Müller
celebrates it, rustles on these pages. Each line, each paragraph,
such a wedding of insight and the fantastic that I could scarcely
hold the book without trembling.
10 December 2009
Bucharest—Twenty years ago, communist regimes collapsed one after the other like dominoes across Central and Eastern Europe. The last one to fall, in a bloody revolution, was Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But communism has left a poisonous legacy in the vast archives of the secret police, the dreaded Securitate.
Inside a sprawling military compound at Popesti-Leordeni, on the outskirts of the Romanian capital Bucharest, grey metal shelves are stacked with bulging grey files. There are more than two million files on 20km (12.4 miles) of shelves.
Germina Nagat calls it "an evil library". As the chief investigator for the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS), Mrs Nagat spends a lot of time poring over the files.
"You can find anything," she says. "It's a story of human guilt, human weakness, sometimes courage."
What Ioana Voicu Arnautoiu has found here is an incredible story of defiance.
A concert violinist, she was born in a cave in the Carpathian mountains. Her parents were partisans, part of a small desperate band that resisted the communist takeover in the 1950s.
They held out for nine years—surviving sometimes on boiled bark—before the Securitate hunted them down.
Now it is the Securitate's own records that are revealing Ioana's family history, in 85 thick files and a collection of black-and-white photographs.
One shows her mother climbing out of the cave and going down a ladder, carrying baby Ioana under one arm like a doll.
Before her father was executed, the Securitate took a last photograph of his gaunt face, with dark, haunted eyes. Her mother died later in prison.
Ioana was spared. Aged two, she was taken to an orphanage and adopted by a loving family. She grew up without knowing who she really was - until Communism fell and the archives opened.
Her story might be unbelievable—if the Securitate had not archived everything so thoroughly. What in some ways is even more unbelievable is the extensive records on those who did not actively resist.
Almost anything could be a reason for opening a file, Germina Nagat explained: "Persons who had relatives abroad; persons who used to tell jokes; persons interested in studying foreign languages."
By the 1980s, about one in 30 RomanRomanian-German writer Herta Mueller speaks during the Nobel Lecture in Literature on Monday in Stockholm.omanian-German writer Herta Mueller speaks during the Nobel Lecture in Literature on Monday in Stockholm.omanian-German writer Herta Mueller speaks during the Nobel Lecture in Literature on Monday in Stockholm.ans was a Securitate informer, including 10-year old children.
Some did it out of conviction, some were blackmailed. Most were offered something—a rare opportunity to travel abroad or better career prospects.
Like so many Romanians, I too had a file. In 1983, a Securitate officer tried to get me to spy on people I knew in exchange for a passport to travel abroad, and cancer drugs for my father. I said no.
When I asked to see that file five years ago, I was told it could not be found.
But the bulk of the archives was only transferred to the CNSAS before Romania joined the European Union in 2007. And recently, my file also surfaced.
It was with some trepidation that I went to the CNSAS headquarters to read it.
The first surprise was that it came not in one, but two volumes. And it started much earlier than I thought—roughly at the time I became a student of English and Spanish at Bucharest University.
In one report, dated April 1983, a Securitate captain wrote that I refused to sign a written pledge to inform. The next page, marked "Strictly Secret" was signed by his superior.
It is a list of measures to be taken for my surveillance, including bugging my phone calls and intercepting my letters.
I suddenly recognise my father's minute handwriting in a letter to a friend abroad that I never knew he had sent.
It was duly photocopied, together with both sides of the envelope. The file contains many of my own letters. Some passages were underlined in blue or red pen by the Securitate.
The second volume is more of a shock. It contains 138 pages with transcriptions of phone-calls, including with my mother and my then-boyfriend. What we mostly talked about was my father's illness and his impending death.
All those conversations replay in my mind, as I go through dozens and dozens of transcriptions, all written in longhand by what appears to be a whole army of Securitate scribes.
The file ends in December 1985, several months after I had been allowed to leave Romania and just as I started working at the BBC's Romanian Service in London.
As the archives show, another arm of the Securitate continued to monitor me, along with many other exiles working for foreign broadcasters, until the last days of 1989...
Bullet in the head
To see the file at last is liberating, but deeply unsettling. So many strangers photocopied my letters and transcribed my phone calls—and for what?
But opening the archives is unsettling for others too. "These files aren't mine or yours, they belong to the state," said Dumitru Burlan, a retired Securitate colonel who was Nicolae Ceausescu's chief bodyguard.
"If Ceausescu rose up from the grave, he would put a bullet through his own head!"
At the CNSAS, chief investigator Germina Nagat believes that these dark secrets have to be exposed.
She and her colleagues regularly uncover evidence that some of those who collaborated with the former secret police are now senior judges, politicians and top civil servants.
"They have a hidden agenda—resistance to reforms," she said. "To violate the human and civil rights every day, that was their job. And now [they] have to do the reverse!
"How can you do this? You cannot be a ballerina after being an elephant!"
Romanian courts are dealing with some 700 cases of alleged Securitate collaborators in high places, but so far judges have ruled on only three.
There may be many Communist-era elephants out there still trampling on Romania's fledgling democracy.
You can hear more in State Secrets, Oana Lungescu's two-part documentary on the BBC World Service, starting on 10 December.
7 December 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania—President Traian Basescu narrowly won re-election on Monday, and with it the chance to try to lead Romania out of its economic woes, despite deep political polarization that has stymied efforts to combat the crisis.
Mr. Basescu won a second five-year term by less than a percentage point, beating back a stiff challenge from the Social Democratic candidate, Mircea Geoana, a former foreign minister. Election officials reported that Mr. Basescu, of the Democratic Liberal Party, had won 50.33 percent, compared with 49.66 percent for his opponent.
Supporters of Mr. Geoana, who on Sunday night stood before a cheering crowd and declared victory, have already charged that the election was marred by fraud. “We will begin the procedure to contest the result of the election,” said Liviu Dragnea, general secretary of the Social Democrats.
The incumbent’s victory in essence put this troubled country of 22 million back where it was in October, when the government fell in a no-confidence vote in the grip of recession and political paralysis. Analysts said they feared that political gridlock would continue.
“A perfectly divided Romania, facing the crisis, this is the story,” said Dorel Sandor, director of the Center for Political Studies and Comparative Analysis in Bucharest, the capital. “All we did was lose time, more than two months, waiting for after the election.”
And if the parties are unable to come to terms over a new government, early parliamentary elections might add to the instability.
Mr. Basescu has to ask Parliament to submit proposals for a new prime minister. Without a government, Parliament has been unable to pass a budget for 2010, an important step in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $30 billion aid package to help Romania weather the economic crisis.
“I see a period of continued political instability, and unfortunately this will delay actions which would secure I.M.F. funding and which would create a foundation for future potential growth,” said Matei Paun, managing partner at BAC Investment Banking in Bucharest. “No one’s minding the store economically. That’s been the problem for six months now.”
Many Romanian factories have been idled as the recession reduced demand. At the same time, some of the estimated 2.5 million or more Romanians working abroad in countries like Italy and Spain lost their jobs and were forced to come home. A temporary freeze on state-sector salary increases led to protests and strikes.
Mr. Geoana, the challenger, ran a campaign promising to restore stability, announcing a deal with the Liberals to form a new government if he won, and promising to name a popular independent politician, Klaus Johannis, as prime minister. He was favored heading into Sunday’s vote, after leading in the final opinion surveys.
But it was the pugnacious incumbent who pulled out the victory. Mr. Basescu, a former ship captain, has made few friends in the political establishment with a tough governing style. He survived an impeachment attempt in 2007, winning a referendum intended by opponents to oust him.
Mr. Basescu, the former mayor of Bucharest, came to power five years ago promising to fight corruption. He has enjoyed successes in his term, in particular Romania’s entry into the European Union in 2007.
2 December 2009
CHISINAU—For the first time in a decade, Moldovan leaders held official celebrations in Chisinau on Romania's National Day and renewed calls for closer ties between the two countries, which share a common language and history, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service reports.
Moldova's acting president, Mihai Ghimpu, became the country's first leader in more than a decade to lay a wreath at a monument in downtown Chisinau on the holiday on December 1.
Ghimpu, who has confessed to being a "unionist" but has promised not to seek union with Romania in the near future, told reporters today that this is his "national day," too.
"This is the day for all Romanians, and I am a Romanian," Ghimpu said.
"I have laid flowers to honor our ancestors and I want to wish all Romanians happiness and good health. I want good ties [with Romania] and let's not forget that we cannot deny our blood ties."
Also today, at a different event, Ghimpu hinted at a possible change to the Moldovan Constitution to change the name of the country's official language from "Moldovan," as it is now, to "Romanian."
Some top government institutions in Chisinau have already made that change on their websites, where the language-icon has become "RO" for Romanian instead of "MD" for Moldovan.
Other government offices have avoided the dilemma by placing national flags on the site instead of language names.
'One Language, Two Countries'
People in Moldova and Romania speak the same language.
The term "Moldovan language" was coined by the Soviets when they annexed the territory that is now Moldova from Romania at the beginning of World War II, as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
Until 1989, Moldovans were forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet instead of the Latin one, in another attempt by the Soviets to differentiate the new Soviet republic from Romania.
Pro-Romanian sentiment has been on the rise in Moldova ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but it has became more vocal after a new, pro-Western coalition of four parties came to power in July.
In his first trip to Brussels in September, new Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat said at a press briefing at EU headquarters, "Allow me to speak in Romanian, which is my native language."
Moldova's Communist government, which was defeated in a repeat of parliamentary elections in July, had insisted that the language be called "Moldovan," as written in the constitution, and tried to ban a history textbook titled "The History of the Romanians," which some Moldovan teachers used in class.
Romanian President Traian Basescu has recently said that a Communist Moldovan official he did not name had asked for a translator during a visit to Bucharest to talk to him, even though they speak the same language.
Burning No Bridges
But not all its leaders have joined the pro-Romanian trend at the top of Moldova's politics.
Presidential candidate Marian Lupu, the leader of the Democratic Party, told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service on the eve of Romania's National Day that the question of Moldova's official language can wait.
"I dare say that at this point we have a long series of matters [other than the language]: the economy, the social safety net, the school system, health care, which all need to be our top priorities," Lupu said.
Lupu's cool stance regarding Romania has prompted speculation that he is more interested in having good relations with Moscow and with the Communist Party, of which he was a member until this summer, than he is with neighboring Bucharest.
Lupu needs at least eight votes from the Communist opposition in order to win the presidential election in parliament on December 7.
Romania, an EU and NATO member, has welcomed Moldova's calls for better bilateral ties and has promised to be Chisinau's advocate in its aspirations to join the European Union.
Bucharest has insisted for several years that Moldova should be given a firm promise that it could one day join the European Union.
But Brussels has so far offered Moldova only the perspective of better ties and visa-free travel in exchange for reforms.
30 November 2009
Before the glory that was Greece and Rome, even before the first cities of Mesopotamia or temples along the Nile, there lived in the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills people who were ahead of their time in art, technology and long-distance trade.
For 1,500 years, starting earlier than 5000 B.C., they farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2,000 dwellings. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.
The striking designs of their pottery speak of the refinement of the culture’s visual language. Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta “goddess” figurines, originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society.
New research, archaeologists and historians say, has broadened understanding of this long overlooked culture, which seemed to have approached the threshold of “civilization” status. Writing had yet to be invented, and so no one knows what the people called themselves. To some scholars, the people and the region are simply Old Europe.
The little-known culture is being rescued from obscurity in an exhibition, “The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,” which opened last month at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. More than 250 artifacts from museums in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are on display for the first time in the United States. The show will run through April 25.
At its peak, around 4500 B.C., said David W. Anthony, the exhibition’s guest curator, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world” and was developing “many of the political, technological and ideological signs of civilization.”
Dr. Anthony is a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., and author of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.” Historians suggest that the arrival in southeastern Europe of people from the steppes may have contributed to the collapse of the Old Europe culture by 3500 B.C.
At the exhibition preview, Roger S. Bagnall, director of the institute, confessed that until now “a great many archaeologists had not heard of these Old Europe cultures.” Admiring the colorful ceramics, Dr. Bagnall, a specialist in Egyptian archaeology, remarked that at the time “Egyptians were certainly not making pottery like this.”
A show catalog, published by Princeton University Press, is the first compendium in English of research on Old Europe discoveries. The book, edited by Dr. Anthony, with Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s associate director for exhibitions, includes essays by experts from Britain, France, Germany, the United States and the countries where the culture existed.
Dr. Chi said the exhibition reflected the institute’s interest in studying the relationships of well-known cultures and the “underappreciated ones.”
Although excavations over the last century uncovered traces of ancient settlements and the goddess figurines, it was not until local archaeologists in 1972 discovered a large fifth-millennium B.C. cemetery at Varna, Bulgaria, that they began to suspect these were not poor people living in unstructured egalitarian societies. Even then, confined in cold war isolation behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgarians and Romanians were unable to spread their knowledge to the West.
The story now emerging is of pioneer farmers after about 6200 B.C. moving north into Old Europe from Greece and Macedonia, bringing wheat and barley seeds and domesticated cattle and sheep. They established colonies along the Black Sea and in the river plains and hills, and these evolved into related but somewhat distinct cultures, archaeologists have learned. The settlements maintained close contact through networks of trade in copper and gold and also shared patterns of ceramics.
The Spondylus shell from the Aegean Sea was a special item of trade. Perhaps the shells, used in pendants and bracelets, were symbols of their Aegean ancestors. Other scholars view such long-distance acquisitions as being motivated in part by ideology in which goods are not commodities in the modern sense but rather “valuables,” symbols of status and recognition.
Noting the diffusion of these shells at this time, Michel Louis Seferiades, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, suspects “the objects were part of a halo of mysteries, an ensemble of beliefs and myths.”
In any event, Dr. Seferiades wrote in the exhibition catalog that the prevalence of the shells suggested the culture had links to “a network of access routes and a social framework of elaborate exchange systems — including bartering, gift exchange and reciprocity.”
Over a wide area of what is now Bulgaria and Romania, the people settled into villages of single- and multiroom houses crowded inside palisades. The houses, some with two stories, were framed in wood with clay-plaster walls and beaten-earth floors. For some reason, the people liked making fired clay models of multilevel dwellings, examples of which are exhibited.
A few towns of the Cucuteni people, a later and apparently robust culture in the north of Old Europe, grew to more than 800 acres, which archaeologists consider larger than any other known human settlements at the time. But excavations have yet to turn up definitive evidence of palaces, temples or large civic buildings. Archaeologists concluded that rituals of belief seemed to be practiced in the homes, where cultic artifacts have been found.
The household pottery decorated in diverse, complex styles suggested the practice of elaborate at-home dining rituals. Huge serving bowls on stands were typical of the culture’s “socializing of food presentation,” Dr. Chi said.
At first, the absence of elite architecture led scholars to assume that Old Europe had little or no hierarchical power structure. This was dispelled by the graves in the Varna cemetery. For two decades after 1972, archaeologists found 310 graves dated to about 4500 B.C. Dr. Anthony said this was “the best evidence for the existence of a clearly distinct upper social and political rank.”
Vladimir Slavchev, a curator at the Varna Regional Museum of History, said the “richness and variety of the Varna grave gifts was a surprise,” even to the Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Ivanov, who directed the discoveries. “Varna is the oldest cemetery yet found where humans were buried with golden ornaments,” Dr. Slavchev said.
More than 3,000 pieces of gold were found in 62 of the graves, along with copper weapons and tools, and ornaments, necklaces and bracelets of the prized Aegean shells. “The concentration of imported prestige objects in a distinct minority of graves suggest that institutionalized higher ranks did exist,” exhibition curators noted in a text panel accompanying the Varna gold.
Yet it is puzzling that the elite seemed not to indulge in private lives of excess. “The people who donned gold costumes for public events while they were alive,” Dr. Anthony wrote, “went home to fairly ordinary houses.”
Copper, not gold, may have been the main source of Old Europe’s economic success, Dr. Anthony said. As copper smelting developed about 5400 B.C., the Old Europe cultures tapped abundant ores in Bulgaria and what is now Serbia and learned the high-heat technique of extracting pure metallic copper.
Smelted copper, cast as axes, hammered into knife blades and coiled in bracelets, became valuable exports. Old Europe copper pieces have been found in graves along the Volga River, 1,200 miles east of Bulgaria. Archaeologists have recovered more than five tons of pieces from Old Europe sites.
An entire gallery is devoted to the figurines, the more familiar and provocative of the culture’s treasures. They have been found in virtually every Old Europe culture and in several contexts: in graves, house shrines and other possibly “religious spaces.”
One of the best known is the fired clay figure of a seated man, his shoulders bent and hands to his face in apparent contemplation. Called the “Thinker,” the piece and a comparable female figurine were found in a cemetery of the Hamangia culture, in Romania. Were they thinking, or mourning?
Many of the figurines represent women in stylized abstraction, with truncated or elongated bodies and heaping breasts and expansive hips. The explicit sexuality of these figurines invites interpretations relating to earthly and human fertility.
An arresting set of 21 small female figurines, seated in a circle, was found at a pre-Cucuteni village site in northeastern Romania. “It is not difficult to imagine,” said Douglass W. Bailey of San Francisco State University, the Old Europe people “arranging sets of seated figurines into one or several groups of miniature activities, perhaps with the smaller figurines at the feet or even on the laps of the larger, seated ones.”
Others imagined the figurines as the “Council of Goddesses.” In her influential books three decades ago, Marija Gimbutas, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered these and other so-called Venus figurines as representatives of divinities in cults to a Mother Goddess that reigned in prehistoric Europe.
Although the late Dr. Gimbutas still has an ardent following, many scholars hew to more conservative, nondivine explanations. The power of the objects, Dr. Bailey said, was not in any specific reference to the divine, but in “a shared understanding of group identity.”
As Dr. Bailey wrote in the exhibition catalog, the figurines should perhaps be defined only in terms of their actual appearance: miniature, representational depictions of the human form. He thus “assumed (as is justified by our knowledge of human evolution) that the ability to make, use and understand symbolic objects such as figurines is an ability that is shared by all modern humans and thus is a capability that connects you, me, Neolithic men, women and children, and the Paleolithic painters in caves.”
Or else the “Thinker,” for instance, is the image of you, me, the archaeologists and historians confronted and perplexed by a “lost” culture in southeastern Europe that had quite a go with life back before a single word was written or a wheel turned.
Commentator Andrei Codrescu makes a return trip to Romania, his native land, and finds that his jet lag makes what is weird there weirder. He sees a lot of German tourists, visits his brother's new home in the mountains, and brings us up to date on the state of the former communist country.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Thomas Wolfe contended that you can't go home again. To that, commentator Andrei Codrescu adds the word sober.
ANDREI CODRESCU: People, if you think time flows in one direction only, forward, you don't know jet lag. With jet lag, you can move backwards in time and recapture your youth. Me, for example, I flew to Europe. And when I got there at 9 a.m., it was 4 a.m. in New Orleans. All the Europeans were up and about like it was really morning, drinking coffee and looking pissed off like only Europeans who have to go to work can. I'm saying Europeans here, but I mean Romanians in Bucharest. Romania is now in the European Union.
Anyway, I saw them off to work. And then I stayed up until my friend Llona and her son, Luka, found me and took me to a restaurant with steaming food and fiddlers. At about something like 8 p.m., which was about noon back home, I sank into the cuisine of my native land like a worm to the bottom of a bottle of Mezcal and started hallucinating.
Next day, which was—I'm not sure when—Llona, Luka and her colleague, Alex, drove me to Sibiu, the medieval city where I was born, and put me into the hands of poets who are conducting a marathon that involved over a hundred poets reading for 20 minutes each all day and all night. By now, it didn't make any difference to me what time it was back in America because I entered the twilight world of poetry, which is famous for being made by people without watches, and was transported several thousand years back and forth in time in the Romanian language.
My hometown, Sibiu, used to be a quiet place when I lived there as a child because most people had been killed in the war and the ghosts had the run of the joint. Not now. In 2007, Sibiu was proclaimed a world city by the U.N. and, like Gore winning the Nobel Prize, you couldn't just lie there anymore and be a nice place for dreamy kid poets.
It was as full of tourists as New Orleans at Jazz Fest, only the town's half the size of New Orleans and all the tourists are German. And instead of jazz, there were to see a newly renovated old city that sparkled like a mini-Prague with good intentions, hosting simultaneously poetry marathons, the European cultural congress, run-on sentences and a whole bunch of living Dutch painters.
The Brukenthal Museum of Sibiu, known the world over for dead Dutch painters, was now totally out of control.
After I marathoned as long as I could, I celebrated my brother Robert's 50th birthday at the restaurant hand-carved entirely out of wood by a primitive artist, I kid you not. Peasants in flowing white robes cinched to the waist with white belts kept pouring wine into painted clay carafes and setting fire to plum brandy. My brother built himself a house in the mountains. And the very same wood carver carved him a bar in the rock under the house. That's one dude I could employ.
There is no way to make the story short because it's not a short story. It's more like a novel. But suffice it to say, the next day - don't ask me which one—I was in another medieval Transylvanian city being transported by a famous local witch from one tower to another. This city called Cluj, and also Kolozsvar and Klausenberg, is so old that every time the light changes and the river of cars flows forward, another piece of history, like about 500 years of gargoyles, falls off a medieval building and kills a pedestrian.
I'll stop here. But I can tell you that from Cluj I went to Frankfurt, Germany, where they made me into a book and I became very timeless and young because that's what not sleeping for centuries does for you if you don't have the time to look in a mirror. I'm in a hotel lobby in New York now, singing out loud. I can hear you, too.
BLOCK: When he finally gets home, Andrei Codrescu will resume being a professor of English at Louisiana State University.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
23 November 2009
Romania's centrist president will face a socialist former foreign minister in a Dec. 6 runoff election, partial results showed Monday, in a race key to helping the country emerge from a political and economic crisis.
President Traian Basescu received 32.7 percent of the vote, while Mircea Geoana won 30.1 percent, election authorities said in first official results based on around 85 percent of the vote counted in an election tainted by accusations of fraud.
Conservative opposition leader Crin Antonescu polled 20.3 percent, finishing third in a field of 12 candidates—and vowed that he would most likely throw critical support behind Geoana.
Romania's government collapsed last month amid squabbling between the two-party coalition, and the International Monetary Fund has delayed access to a euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) bailout loan while the country struggles to set up a new government.
The president is key to reviving the government because he nominates a prime minister, who Parliament must then approve and who would be responsible for forming a new coalition.
Geoana and Basescu need the support of Antonescu's voters to have a hope of securing victory. Although ideologically, Antonescu and Basescu are closer, Antonescu's party argues that Basescu is a divisive and untrustworthy figure who wants to control parliament and the government.
Antonescu ruled out any cooperation with Basescu, calling him a "demagogue and a populist." He said he would back Geoana, who leads the Social Democrats, as "the lesser of two evils" if his party agreed to appoint the mayor of the city of Sibiu as prime minister over a coalition government with his Liberal Party.
Geoana immediately agreed to Antonescu's request. Basescu wants to form a government from the Democratic Liberal party he used to lead.
Reports of possible fraud in Sunday's election emerged as far more people than normal cast ballots at 3,500 special voting centers that were set up for Romanians who need to vote outside their area of residence because they are traveling.
The Electoral Committee said more than 479,000 people voted at such locations. Witnesses claimed some were being bused there after already having cast ballots elsewhere.
Vadim Zhdanovich, who headed the election observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation, called the elections "generally fair" but said there were flaws that undermined the process, notably the special voting centers.
Basescu and Geoana called the election one of the most important votes in Romania since 1989 and the fall of communism.
Basescu, who no longer belongs to a political party because of constitutional requirements, has lost some public support because of his stormy relationship with Parliament and the country's deep economic crisis.
Romania's economy is expected to shrink about 8.5 percent this year. Unemployment in Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, already stands at 7.1 percent, up 3 percent in the last year.
Voters also took part in a binding referendum Sunday asking if they want to reduce the number of lawmakers in Parliament and abolish one of its two houses. Basescu, who called the referendum, wants a one-chamber Parliament with a maximum of 300 lawmakers, down from the current 471.
Critics say the president would have too much power over a smaller parliament. Partial results showed Romanians overwhelmingly backing the reduction.
Associated Press writer Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest contributed to this report.
22 November 2009
The outgoing president of the center-right Traian Basescu and his Social Democratic opponent Mircea Geoana will compete in the second round of presidential elections in Romania, according to early exit polls released Sunday by the television.
Basescu leads with 33.72% of the vote in a poll conducted by CURS Institute for Public Television, before Mr. Geoana, with 31.44%.
A second survey, conducted by the Institute for Insomar private channel Realitatea TV credits Basescu 32.8% of the votes, before Mr. Geoana with 31.7%.
The Liberal Crin Antonescu came third, according to these polls, with just over 21% of the vote.
Traian Basescu said he won "the stage victory" in the first round considering that the Romanian electorate's choice was "profoundly right" that politicians "must take into account in forming the new government."
He said the referendum, held alongside the election, on reducing the number of MPs was validated, with participation by him above 50%.
18 November 2009
A British man who became a hero in Ukraine for highlighting the famine there in the 1930s is being recognised by his former university.
Journalist Gareth Jones was born in Barry, Wales, and graduated from Cambridge in England.
His name, until relatively recently, has been virtually unknown in the West.
But in Ukraine, he is held in the highest regard.
Ukraine suffered a terrible man-made famine between 1932 and 1933. Between seven and ten million people are thought to have died.
Ukraine now uses Gareth Jones's ground breaking reports in its efforts to secure international recognition of the famine, known in Ukrainian as the Holodomor, meaning genocide.
Now, for the first time, visitors to the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, can see the journalist's personal diaries chronicling what he saw.
They consist of several small books of his observations, and notes of conversations with Ukrainian peasants, interspersed with the odd Russian or Ukrainian word.
A typical entry reads: "There is no bread - they have had no bread for over two months - many are dying. The first village had no potatoes left, and even the beetroot was running out."
The diaries were discovered by Jones's niece Dr Margaret Siriol Colley in 1990, in their old house in Wales.
At the time, in Britain, and in the West, the Holodomor, like other tragic chapters in Soviet history, was hardly acknowledged outside the Ukrainian community.
Even in Ukraine itself, people only began to speak about "The Great Famine" in final years of Communism.
To this day, Holodomor remains a sensitive subject not only for politicians, but for some Western historians as well.
Gareth Jones's reports from the villages around Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, help tell a story very different from the official Soviet accounts.
Jones left Cambridge in 1929. His First Class Honours Degree in French, German and Russian proved invaluable in later years.
His Russian - even his adversaries agreed - was excellent, and his ear good enough to communicate with Ukrainian-speaking peasants of eastern Ukraine. (These days the area is predominantly Russian-speaking.)
Upon graduation, he became a foreign affairs adviser to former British Prime Minister Lloyd George.
Jones visited the Soviet Union three times between 1930 and 1933.
His reports on Stalin's Five Year Plan and the general situation in the Soviet Union grew more and more critical.
In March 1933 he crossed the border into Soviet Ukraine without permission to see for himself whether the reports of famine in territory popularly known as the "bread-basket of Europe" were true.
He found a terrifying situation.
His articles in The Times, however, did not stir public opinion, nor did the articles in The Manchester Guardian by another British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.
Many Moscow-based foreign correspondents chose instead to publish similar-sounding denials of the famine, which was part of Joseph Stalin's programme to crush the resistance of the peasantry to the collectivisation of farming.
The British journalist, Walter Duranty, for example, writing for The New York Times, in his article "Peasants Hungry, Not Starving" denied Jones's reports of famine and claimed that Stalin's Five Year Plan was a great success despite "some minor difficulties".
Duranty is now recognised to have given uncritical, often biased coverage to Stalin's propaganda. Many Western historians consider him to have been a liar.
Indeed, the New York Times did not publish Jones's reply to it until over a month later.
America, still recovering from the Great Depression, did not want to listen to the unlikely story of a government, even a Communist one, deliberately starving millions of its own people.
Furthermore, many pro-Soviet Western intellectuals at the time, including the writer George Bernard Shaw, were vocal in their admiration of the Soviet Union.
Jones's reports of expropriations, famine and deaths at a time when the West was buying cheap Soviet grain and other foods did not change their minds.
Despite his reports having little impact, Jones was accused of espionage and banned from the Soviet Union.
He went to the Far East and, according to his family, was murdered in suspicious circumstances in Inner Mongolia in 1935.
He was just 30 years old.
It wasn't until decades later, in 2008, that he and Malcolm Muggeridge were posthumously awarded the Ukrainian Order Of Freedom medal in a ceremony at Westminster Central Hall in London.
12 November 2009
The uprisings that marked the end of communism in Eastern Europe two decades ago were largely peaceful in every country except the last regime to fall: Romania. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's iron-fisted rule ended in a bloody revolt that left more than 1,000 Romanians dead.
Today, the country is a member of the European Union, with a solid economy and a passionate, if hectic, democratic life. But Romania continues to be dogged by rampant corruption that some believe is threatening the country's future.
Corruption and bribes are part of nearly every aspect of Romanian life: medical care, justice, education, even religion.
In one recent, high-profile case, Razvan Chiruta, a reporter with Romania Libera newspaper, and a colleague went undercover as prospective priests. They videotaped Archbishop Theodosius of Constanta, one of the highest officials in the Romanian Orthodox Church, allegedly agreeing to sell them positions in the priesthood.
Chiruta says they were told to pay $4,500, but it can go up to nearly $75,000 depending on where you are.
"It depends where you become a priest. If you become a priest in the countryside, it's cheaper," he says.
Despite the video evidence, the archbishop remains in his post. He denies the charges. Romanian prosecutors and church officials say they are investigating.
Old Mentality Fuels Corruption
In another case, nothing has happened so far to the former Romanian minister of agriculture, Decebal Traian Remes. Prosecutors caught him on tape allegedly using his ministry to steer lucrative contracts to a friend in exchange for about $20,000, a new car, 200 pounds of pork sausage and about 50 gallons of plum brandy.
Laura Stefan is the anti-corruption coordinator for a Romanian think tank, the Romanian Academic Society.
"There were discussions in forums on the Internet, and one guy was saying, 'OK now we know how much the minister of agriculture is worth. I would like to buy the minister of finance—how much would that be?' " she says.
Stefan says the corruption problem is so pervasive in the country that it is almost unbelievable.
"We're not only fighting the communist mentality and the communist networks, which are still in place. We're fighting a mentality which is as long as [Romanian history]," she says.
"When you are in power, nobody should dare ask you questions. 'How dare you ask us what we do with the money. It's our business. I'm the minister; I decide,' " Stefan says.
The pork and brandy scandal became the butt of jokes in Romania. But other times, corruption has resulted in tragedy. Critics say the culture of corruption has spawned incompetence in key public sectors including the courts and health care, and there is zero accountability.
A Corruption-Linked Tragedy
In their small Bucharest flat in a big, drab Soviet-era apartment complex, Elena and Nansi Lungu look at photos of their 2-year-old son, Sebastian, who is asleep in the next room.
During Elena's pregnancy, she bribed the gynecologist and the nurses, which is a common practice. It was a normal, healthy pregnancy. But on delivery day during the final stage of labor, Elena says she was left alone for long stretches. Then Elena's main nurse suddenly told her she was done with her shift—and left.
"Imagine a nurse who told me she could see the head of the baby but she must go home because her shift is finished—'My time, it's over,' " Elena says.
When another nurse finally showed up—some 45 minutes later—Elena says that nurse was in a panic about what she saw: The umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around the baby's head several times, restricting the oxygen flow.
After 25 minutes, Sebastian was born—but he was nearly dead.
"He didn't scream; he didn't move. He was blue. We try to accept that he will never be like a normal child, healthy. But with every step, we have to improve, a little bit, his life," Elena says.
Each day is a struggle, she says. At 2 years of age, Sebastian can't crawl, can't sit or hold up his head; he doesn't talk.
"We feed him through a tube inserted directly into his stomach and give him food via a syringe," she says.
Now, the Lungus are suing the Romanian Health Ministry and the hospital for criminal negligence and grievous bodily harm, charging that a culture of corruption in Romania has bred incompetence in the health system.
Rule Of Law Never Took Hold
Transparency International, the global anti-corruption group, says Romania has made only modest progress in recent years in combating corruption in the police force. But the group says in nearly all other sectors, the problem remains endemic.
Romanian analyst and professor Daniel Barbu says the country threw off communism, but the rule of law was never firmly established.
"To push forward your career or your business or whatever you need, it's man to man, face to face. We have the rule of people—people in offices, not good laws," he says.
In light of the corruption, the European Union—which Romania joined in 2007—has repeatedly threatened sanctions, including nonrecognition of any Romanian court ruling.
Stefan, the anti-corruption crusader, says living conditions are vastly better today—there are basic freedoms and democracy—but she says her country is still shackled by communism's legacy.
"We're still in the communist mentality, where stealing from the state is good, as much as you can because it was a totalitarian regime and people try to find ways to live better. But I think 20 years after the revolution, maybe [the time has come] for a mentality change," she says.
Civic Accountability Needed
Dan Turturica is editor of Romania Libera, the Bucharest daily that broke the story of the allegedly corrupt archbishop. He says it is up to ordinary Romanians to demand accountability and transparency.
"This is democracy in its very essence. A protest should start immediately from the citizens who can't take it anymore. There is no other way," he says.
But 20 years after the revolution, there is little indication Romanians are clamoring for an end to corruption.
Turturica says after his paper exposed the cash-for-clergy scandal, readers responded with criticism calling the series slanderous—and a leading priest went on live television and denounced the reporters as unpatriotic atheists.
Produced with help from Silviu Mihai.
10 November 2009
Ask the average American about Romania, and the response would probably involve orphans, Olympic gymnasts or Dracula.
Dispelling these common yet one-dimensional views of the country was, in large part, the inspiration for "Dracula is Dead," a new travel literature book by Sheilah Kast and James C. Rosapepe. The book, which will be released Monday, is a thoroughly researched yet conversational tour through the often-overlooked Eastern European country.
"We had the opportunity to live there for three years and travel all over the country," Rosapepe said. "There's a Romania Americans don't know. We wrote the book to help more Americans know it."
From 1998 to 2001, Rosapepe served as the U.S. ambassador to Romania, a post that gave him virtually unlimited access to high-ranking Romanian officials. (He now serves as a state senator representing Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.) Kast, the host of " Maryland Morning" on 88.1-FM WYPR, has a background in news reporting here and abroad. Through interviews and accounts of their experiences living there, the husband-and-wife team reveals a country with a checkered past but a bright future.
Before the fall of communism in 1989, Romania suffered the same fate as many other Soviet satellite states: an economy geared toward heavy industry that led eventually to widespread poverty. In an effort to expand the work force, Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed contraception and abortion and required Romanian wives to have five children each. Unable to support their large families, many abandoned children in orphanages.
Today, Romania is populated with technological entrepreneurs, hard-working young people and plenty of art, music and culture, Rosapepe and Kast said.
"Americans who visited Romania got entranced with the place," Rosapepe said. "They speak English, they're pro-American, they're nice people. It's a very interesting culture and history."
Perhaps Romania's most persistent myth revolves around Vlad Dracula, the basis for Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Also known as Vlad the Impaler, the Transylvanian prince is revered by Romanians several centuries after his death, Kast and Rosapepe write. Though Vlad's preferred punishment was impaling his victims, the legend of him being a blood-sucking demon helps boost Transylvania's tourism trade.
One of the more intriguing figures interviewed for "Dracula is Dead" was King Michael, Kast said. He assumed the throne as a small child, was temporarily deposed by his father and reinstated in his teens. During World War II, King Michael staged a coup that broke Romania's Nazi ties and brought them to the Allies' side. Then, facing communist rule, the king was forced to give up the throne again - all before his 30th birthday.
Kast and Rosapepe devote portions of "Dracula is Dead" to lesser-known political and social subjects, such as how religious belief persisted through communism. And Romania's history of training Olympic gymnasts? "Dracula is Dead" gets to the bottom of it in a sentence: "They practice a lot."
10 November 2009
All this week, we hear firsthand accounts of the end of communism in Eastern Europe 20 years ago in our series Voices from a Revolution. Today, we hear a voice from Romania—Mircea Dinescu—a dissident poet and writer who helped storm the state-run TV station, and the man who announced live on air that "the dictator has fled!"
Copyright © 2009 National Public Radio®. For
prior permission required.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Twenty years ago, change was sweeping across Eastern Europe. This week, were marking the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by hearing the memories of people who experienced the demise of communism.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Romania is the only Eastern European country where the overthrow of communism was violent. More than 1,000 Romanians died battling the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
NORRIS: In 1989, his bizarre mix of Stalinism and personality cult had pushed the country to the brink of ruin. The dissident poet, Mircea Dinescu, was under house arrest for criticizing the regime when change came.
Mr. MIRCEA DINESCU (Poet): (Through Translator) I heard noises and I thought they were just more people going on with that sinister circus show of continuously praising Ceausescu. But then a neighbor came by and told me that the secret police agents guarding my door had run away. So, I went outside, and indeed, all of the six agents who were there round the clock had vanished. I ran out to the street and saw a huge crowd shouting: Down with the dictator, down with Ceausescu. Some people recognized me. They put me on a military tank with a Romanian flag in my hand.
It was like a bad movie about the Cuban revolution. But this was real. We headed toward the state-owned TV station. There we met another crowd bringing in Ion Caramitru, a famous Romanian actor. And because we were all well known, we were sent to announce on TV that Ceausescu had fled. That was incredible: to announce on the Romanian communist party's official TV station that the tyrant had fled. I was very nervous, obviously, because I knew I had to address several million people. I was a bit pathetic. First I said, the dictator has fled, which was really something - to refer a Ceausescu like this was something indeed.
But then I added—God has turned his face toward the Romanians. I wouldn't say something like this now, because now I realize God is apolitical. He doesn't care much about revolutions and societies. But at that time, it seemed to me that we were experiencing a miracle because I had never thought I could participate in such a scene and announce that Ceausescu had run away. That moment set off mass protests in other Romanian cities. At that moment, I didn't think we were going to have capitalism. I didn't know where we were going. It simply seemed to me that the communist era had come to an end. I wasn't thinking of any ideology and I wasn't making any future plans. We had witnessed a miracle.
NORRIS: Three days after Ceausescu and his wife tried to flee, they were executed by firing squad.
BLOCK: Today, poet Mircea Dinescu is a hobby winemaker and political commentator. He laments what he calls his country's sleepiness and lack of civic courage today, after the euphoria of the December 1989 revolution. He was interviewed in Bucharest by NPR's Eric Westervelt.
10 November 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Gheorghe Dinica, a Romanian actor who delighted his country by portraying characters such as villainous politicians and defiant Gypsies in dozens of plays and movies, died Tuesday. He was 75.
Dinica, famous throughout Romania, died at Floreasca Hospital in Bucharest from pneumonia with complications, said hospital spokesman Dr. Bogdan Oprita.
Dinica began his long acting career with a role in a Romanian film version of Albert Camus' ''The Stranger'' in 1963. He went on to perform in many Romanian and foreign movies, soap operas and plays, right up until his death.
In 2007, he acted in Francis Ford Coppola's ''Youth Without Youth'' movie. He also joined French actor Anthony Delon in the film ''L'Homme Press'' in 2005. He said he was never tempted to act in movies produced in the United States.
''I am not Robert de Niro. I am from Romania,'' he said.
Still, some called Dinica ''the Robert de Niro of Romania,'' given his resemblance to the American actor.
Romanians admired him for his wide repertoire and his singing, but also because of his modesty, humor and his refusal to praise the country's late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, as some artists had done.
''I was lucky because my face didn't look that good on television,'' he said.
Dinica frequently thrilled Romanians by spontaneously breaking into song at Bucharest restaurants where he was dining.
Marcel Iures, another well-known Romanian actor, said of Dinica: ''We worked together, we acted and we laughed together.''
''He was an angel all his life,'' Iures said on Realitatea TV.
Romanian actor Florin Zamfirescu said: ''He was loved by everyone: directors, actors and the public, men and women alike. On stage, he was like a fish in water.''
Upon receiving news of Dinica's death, Romanian President Traian Basescu called the actor ''a model of humanity, modesty and generosity.''
Dinica acted in comedy and drama with equal aplomb, and was best known on stage for his role in the seven-year production of the play ''Take, Lanke and Cadar,'' a 1933 dry Romanian comedy by Victor Ion Popa about three friends—a Jew, a Christian and a Turk—who run modest shops in the same area.
In his last two years, Dinica starred in ''Regina'' and ''Heart of a Gypsy,'' two soap operas about Gypsies, a minority in Eastern Europe that faces widespread discrimination. They also are known as Roma.
He also starred in ''Aniela,'' a Romanian period play that came out this fall.
Dinica, who was born in Bucharest in 1934, was awarded several awards in Romania during his life, including the Faithful Service Order in 2008 by Basescu.
Dinica is survived by his wife, Gabriela Georgeta Dinica, whom he married in 1996.
No funeral plans were immediately announced.
7 November 2009
GURA HUMORULUI, ROMANIA—The Bucovina region in the far north of the country, wrote the Romanian scholar Silviu Sanie, is “one of those blessed realms where sacred and secular monuments have enriched the enchanting natural landscape.”
During a recent week’s stay, I found this description remarkably apt.
Once the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bucovina (“land of beech trees”) today straddles the border between Romania and Ukraine: northern Bucovina was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and the region’s historic capital, Chernivtsi (Czernowitz in German and Cernauti in Romanian) lies just 30 kilometers, or about 18 miles, north of the frontier.
The southern part, on the Romanian side, is a world of rolling farmland and steep forested hills, where antique villages and peasant culture coexist with new industry and modern construction. Horses and carts (and the occasional herd of cows) share the roads with SUVs, and intricately carved wood and other ornamentation still decorate many village homes and farmsteads.
Exceptional examples of a rich religious heritage form an important part of the mix.
Here are Romania’s famous painted monasteries, built in the 15th and 16th centuries when the region, a stronghold of Orthodox Christianity, was threatened by Ottoman invaders.
The vividly colored frescoes on their exterior walls, masterpieces of Byzantine painting, tell the tales of saints and heroes, and portray in epic imagery the cataclysmic struggle between good and evil at the end of days.
The monasteries are among Romania’s most celebrated cultural treasures. Listed on Unesco’s roster of world heritage sites, they draw large numbers of visitors throughout the year.
Here, too, however, are religious sites far less known and rarely visited that also form important components of the region’s deeply rooted spiritual patrimony. These are the centuries-old Jewish cemeteries, whose weathered tombstones bear extraordinary carvings that meld folk motifs and religious iconography into evocative examples of faith expressed through art.
I was in the Bucovina to carry out research on Jewish tombstone art, and spent many hours photographing the richly sculpted tombstones in cemeteries in Radauti, Siret and other towns.
But, traveling by car, I was also able to visit nearly half a dozen of the painted monasteries, all of them located within an easy drive of each other.
Among them was Sucevita, a fortresslike complex in wooded hills that today is home to a monastic community of several dozen black-clad nuns. Protected by turreted defensive walls, it has a central church topped by an elegant steeple and covered with wonderfully bright paintings from 1602-04.
The simple church at Arbore, built in 1503, is on a much smaller scale. Shaded by trees in a secluded garden, it features faded but powerful paintings by the 16th-century artist Dragos Coman.
The most famous single fresco is a splendid Last Judgment that sprawls across the back outer wall of the Voronet Monastery, a few kilometers from the little logging town of Gura Humorului.
Here, in tones of russet, gold and a deep, rich blue, Satan sits astride a scaly two-headed monster, immersed in a river of fire. To one side, St. Peter opens the portal of Paradise to the souls of the righteous, while demons drive naked sinners to their fate. The dead leave their tombs to the sound of shepherds’ horns, and land and sea animals of all sorts flock toward the throne of judgment.
The Jewish cemeteries are not as old as the monasteries, but the images carved on their tombstones are to me just as compelling as the vivid frescoes on the monastery walls. On them, hands of God reach down to break the Tree of Life; exquisitely carved animals—lions, deer, snakes, birds, and even imaginary griffins—prance and pose. Women’s tombs are often marked by the depiction of candlesticks, as lighting the Sabbath candles is one of their traditional duties. In many cases, the candlesticks are so elaborate that they look like living trees with braided branches.
Bucovina was once home to a large and thriving Jewish community. Today, however, as throughout much of Eastern Europe, only a few dozen Jewish families live there.
Most of the cemeteries are neglected, but several are fairly well maintained and easy to visit.
These include cemeteries in Siret, on the border with Ukraine. The Old Jewish Cemetery there is one of the few listed as a national monument. Its richly carved tombstones date back nearly 300 years and are scattered picturesquely on steep terrain. A more recent cemetery nearby includes thousands of tombstones, many of them adorned with Baroque-style carvings so ornate that the sculpted forms seem to leap from the stone.
The Jewish cemetery in Gura Humorului also includes a range of highly original sculpted ornamentation. It is located just outside town, and a few kilometers away from both Voronet and another nearby monastery, Humor.
Though there are many organized tours to the painted monasteries, a car is needed to see the full range of sites. The roads and overall infrastructure in Bucovina have been upgraded significantly since Romania joined the European Union in 2007.
There are several upscale hotels, and numerous pensions and guest houses offer inexpensive rooms. Many have restaurants serving hearty local dishes.
31 October 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Actor Ethan Hawke on Saturday praised Madonna for her boldness in speaking out against discrimination against Gypsies, words that provoked boos from thousands of fans at her concert in Romania.
Hawke, visiting Romania to help promote his mother's charity supporting education for Gypsy children, placed the pop superstar alongside Bob Marley and John Lennon as part of a tradition of artists speaking out against racism.
''She transcended being a pop star,'' he told reporters. ''She drew international attention and shone the spotlight on a level of racism and the need for greater education,'' Hawke said.
At an August concert in Bucharest on her ''Sticky & Sweet'' tour, Madonna called for an end to widespread discrimination against Eastern Europe's Gypsies, also known as Roma. Thousands of fans responded by booing her.
''I don't have an agenda, Madonna doesn't have an agenda. We aren't politicians,'' Hawke said.
Hawke, 38, was to speak later Saturday at the Ovidiu Rom charity Halloween ball. He and his mother, Leslie Hawke, the charity's president, were already dressed in costume: the actor in top hat and tails and his mother in a Japanese-style kimono, black wig and geisha-like makeup.
A pair of Madonna's Christian Dior shoes with autographed skyscraper gold heels are to be raffled off at the ball, which is to be held in the giant palace of the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Among the other prizes is a gold chain provided by actress Vanessa Redgrave.
Hawke has been coming to Romania to support his mother's work since 2000, he said.
''I feel I can do something,'' he told reporters, ''instead of being part of the problem.''
Romania has the largest number of Roma in Europe, numbering officially half a million, but whose population is believed to be as high as 2 million. The European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency has said Gypsies face ''overt discrimination'' in housing, health care and education.
Romania, home to the Dracula legend, may have influenced two-time Academy Award nominee Hawke's latest movie, ''Daybreakers,'' in which he plays a researcher in the year 2019 facing a plague that has transformed the world's population into vampires. The movie comes out in 2010.
Prince Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian warlord whose cruelty inspired Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, ''Dracula'' has spawned dozens of Hollywood movies about vampires in the Transylvania region.
22 October 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania—Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. used a visit to Romania on Thursday to hail Eastern Europe on all that has been accomplished in the 20 years since the Iron Curtain fell and to challenge the countries of the region to serve as models for other emerging democracies.
In a speech at the restored Central University Library, where a raging fire set during Romania’s 1989 revolution destroyed 500,000 books, Mr. Biden paid tribute to “freedom’s young defenders” who were killed and called the liberation of the old Eastern bloc “one of the greatest achievements in modern history.”
“Twenty years ago, the world watched in awe and admiration as the men and women throughout this region broke the shackles of repression and emerged a free people,” Mr. Biden said in the auditorium of the rebuilt library. Now, he said, Romania and its neighbors must help countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan develop their own democracies. “You’ve delivered on the promise of your revolution,” he said. “You are now in a position to help others do the same.”
Mr. Biden’s stop here came in the middle of a three-day swing through the region aimed mainly at reassuring Eastern European allies that the Obama administration stood behind them despite efforts to “reset” relations with Russia. As he did in Warsaw, Mr. Biden denied that the decision to cancel former President George W. Bush’s missile defense system in Eastern Europe was made to appease Moscow.
Romanian leaders expressed relief at Mr. Biden’s repeated security guarantees, but no move was made to site elements of President Obama’s reformulated missile defense system here as is being done in Poland. After finishing his meetings in Bucharest, Mr. Biden plans to fly to the Czech Republic, which, like Poland, was to host the Bush system and was shaken by Mr. Obama’s decision last month.
While Mr. Biden praised Romania’s “thriving democracy,” he made no mention of the fact that its government fell just last week after a vote of no confidence in Parliament. When the vice president sat down in Victoria Palace with Prime Minister Emil Boc, he was speaking with a caretaker leader amid disputes over who should take over.
Mr. Biden picked Romania as the venue for his signature speech in part because his longtime adviser, Mark Gitenstein, is now ambassador here. Mr. Biden stayed at the ambassador’s residence on Wednesday night.
The vice president’s advisers said he wanted to use the trip to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the cascading revolutions that freed Warsaw Pact nations in 1989, but also to make the point that the relationship has changed from one of dependence to one of partners. All three of the nations on his itinerary this week are now members of NATO.
“You were present at the creation of a new Europe, a new security, a new era of peace because you were bold enough to seize that moment,” Mr. Biden told an audience of over 200 university students at the Bucharest library. “Be like those in ’89. Be bold. Exercise your leadership. You have a history and you have a tradition. You can make a gigantic difference, and we’ll stand with you.”
17 October 2009
BRUSSELS—The organizers' intentions were plain enough.
Called "Europe 70 years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact," and sponsored by the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the conference was organized to discuss the fates of those countries—together with Poland, Romania and Finland—that were stripped of their national statehood and relegated to the status of pawns in the designs of Europe's two great powers in 1939.
Images of swastikas superimposed over Soviet red stars on a large screen in the conference hall reflected the Baltic governments' views.
They, together with Poland, have waged a long campaign to persuade the rest of Europe that the Soviet Union bears equal responsibility with Nazi Germany for the ills that befell the continent as a result of World War II. One of conference's achievements was to demonstrate how distant that goal remains.
But the accepted wisdom that Germany bears sole blame appears well-entrenched, above all in Germany itself.
Historian Egbert Jahn of the University of Mannheimset argued that the results of the 1945 Yalta conference—in which the United States and Britain acquiesced to Soviet demands to divide post-war Europe—didn't stem directly from the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact.
Yalta, Jahn said, reflected the fact that the Red Army already occupied much of the territory that would later become the Soviet Bloc
"[Critics see] the Yalta regulation of post-war [Europe] as a [betrayal] of the principle[s] of internal law, freedom, and democracy by the Western powers, suggesting that there had been an alternative political choice. But it is difficult to find a realistic counterfactual scenario," Jahn said.
"The Soviet Union had not only carried the main burden of the world war since 1941, its troops [also] occupied large parts of Central [and] Eastern Europe, and Germany."
Jahn adds that there was "no realistic way" of forcing out the Red Army and preventing the Soviet Union from assuming control over the territory.
Jahn also said the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact wasn't the main reason behind the outbreak of WWII. And while he deplored the obscurity that still surrounds the role of the Soviet Union, which invaded Poland on September 17 in 1939 and annexed the Baltic states in 1940, he maintained Germany was the "driving force."
The Nazi-Soviet pact was a "tactical alliance" that was not meant to last by either side, Jahn said. For Germany, he said, it was a way of buying time to put its expansionist ambitions into practice.
French historians, for their part, largely argued that Germany and the Soviet Union shared the blame. Stephane Courtois, of the French National Center of Scientific Research, said there can be "no real reunification of Europe until there is reconciliation—which must include acknowledging the mistakes of the past" by all sides.
The immediate aim of the Baltic States and Poland is to secure an admission of Soviet guilt from its legal successor Russia. First under Vladimir Putin and now under President Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow has instead sought to rehabilitate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Sorbonne University's Francoise Thom said Moscow acts according to a "neo-Soviet" doctrine that seeks to exonerate Moscow from all blame. Russia portrays the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a "defensive" move necessitated by the Western powers' appeasement policy in 1938:
"The neo-Soviet interpretation of the  Munich accord [says] that with this accord, the imperialists formed a common front against the Soviet Union—it is a thesis of Lenin that the imperialists have a tendency to unite along the lines of class interest," Thom said.
"I don't really need to remind [you] that the politics of Munich are explained, above all, by the profound pacifism [of the Western powers].
Western European politicians, especially in private, generally support attempts to take the Russians to task for Soviet crimes. Hans-Gert Poettering, a conservative German politician and former European Parliament, said both Nazism and communism were equally inhuman forms of totalitarianism.
"Both totalitarian ideologies destroyed the dignity of men, the dignity of human beings. They were evil by nature," Poettering said, adding that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and "inhuman and cynical" agreement that "only two like-minded and immoral regimes can arrange."
Che Guevara T-shirts
Eastern European attacks on the Nazi-Soviet pact and its consequences often fail to distinguish between the culpability of communism as an ideology and the crimes committed by communist regimes. Estonia's ex-prime minister Mart Laar left no doubt about his conviction that the root of communist evil lies in the ideology.
Responding to a question on the causes of widespread Western "amnesia" over Soviet crimes, Laar said people in the West simply know too little history.
He said that while Nazi memorabilia is "out of fashion" in Europe, the display of communist symbols remains acceptable in most countries. Very few people, he said, know communism is responsible for vastly greater innocent deaths than Nazism.
"This all reminds us that we are only in the beginning. Because for me, actually, the end of the work will really be when people will not wear Che Guevara T-shirts because [they] know that he was a communist murderer," Laar said.
Spanish panelist Carlos Closa Montero of the National Research Center made clear that wouldn’t be easy.
13 October 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Madonna is putting her shoes where her mouth is.
The Queen of Pop has offered one of her favorite pairs of Christian Dior shoes to a charity supporting Gypsy child education. Organizers said Tuesday the skyscraper gold heels, which are autographed by Madonna, will be sold at the Ovidiu Rom annual ball later this month.
Madonna drew international attention by saying during an August concert in Bucharest on her ''Sticky & Sweet''' tour that widespread discrimination against East Europe's Gypsies, also known as Roma, should end.
Thousands of fans responded by booing her.
''Madonna's very mild comment regarding equality shone a spotlight on a common European attitude toward Gypsies,'' Leslie Hawke, president of Ovidiu Rom, told The Associated Press. ''We're thrilled to have her donation because she is such an icon of innovation and vigor and 'can do' spirit.''
Hawke's son, actor Ethan Hawke, will attend the ball and speak to guests.
Guests at the ball will make donations to win raffle tickets for the auction of donated prizes. This year's items also will include a gold chain provided by actress Vanessa Redgrave.
9 October 2009
No one could say that the members of the Swedish Academy who awarded Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller the 2009 Nobel Prize for literature don't know a thing or two about literary criticism.
These respected experts argued that Mueller deserved the honor for "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose," and the way she "depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," namely her native Romania during the times of sinister communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
One might therefore think that Müller's literary talent has always been appreciated in the right measure. Well, not exactly.
At the time she published her first volume of short stories in Romania in 1982, an anonymous informer, apparently an amateur literary critic, poured scorn on her volume in a note he wrote for his Securitate masters. The informer, whose code name was Voicu, was outraged at what he saw as the absence of "any positive, optimistic element" in her stories.
His note (below), full of proletarian hatred, was made available to the public on December 5, 2008, by the Romanian body that studies the Securitate archives, the CNSAS.
The denouncement singles out a couple of short stories as targets for his diatribes. "The text titled 'Swabian Bath,' for instance," Voicu says in his note, "was made the subject of lively discussion among readers," when first published in a local newspaper. Voicu, probably an educated informer, maybe even a fellow intellectual of the author's, adds, "the newspaper received a series of letters from its readers, protesting vehemently against this text."
An annotation along the side, in the secret police handler's own handwriting, explains—probably to his superiors—the root of the alleged readers' protest, "Herta Müller wrote that all members of [ethnic German] Swabian families customarily bathe in the same water in the same bathtub one after the other." The fact that hot water was a rare commodity, even a luxury in Ceausescu's Romania apparently escapes the officer, who, as a member of the privileged Securitate elite must have had hot water on a regular basis.
The officer adds, for good measure, an observation at the bottom of the note, saying, "HERTA MÜLLER belongs to a circle of young German-language writers known as having a hostile position toward our state."
But Voicu—the informer's code name bears a trace of involuntary humor, since it's a grassroots Romanian name, while his writing and spelling betrays that he is an ethnic German, like the author herself—is more concerned by how the writer depicts socialist morality in her works: "In the text titled 'Meine Familie' (My Family)," thunders the informer, "the Swabian family is presented as depraved, without moral conduct, and every man has children with extra-conjugal (sic!) women."
But nothing stirs Voicu's ire more than Müller's description of what he calls "the total decadence of a German village in [the southwestern Romanian region of] Banat." The "Village Chronicle" story he refers to is full of depravity, says a vigilant Voicu, who accuses Müller of writing about poverty, alcoholism, nepotism, and the lack of hope. In one word, writing about the truth.
"Criticism and more criticism, and such destructive criticism that one might wonder, what good are these texts?" concludes Voicu, before datelining his denouncement, "Timisoara, March 3, 1982." He had to wait for more than 27 years to find out the answer.
8 October 2009
The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t always a bolt-out-of-the-blue surprise, a writer whose work is known only to an elite fraction of American readers. It only seems that way.
But the Swedish Academy’s announcement on Thursday that the 2009 prize had gone to the Romanian-born German novelist Herta Müller—she is the 12th woman to win the Nobel in its 109-year history—caught more readers than usual off guard (Herta who?) and reinforced the Academy’s reputation for being defiantly, if predictably, unpredictable.
Ms. Müller joins the ranks of Nobel laureates—most recently the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio last year and the Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek in 2004—whose work, at the time of their announcements, anyway, was little known and little translated here.
Only 5 of Ms. Müller’s some 20 books have been translated into English. Those translations are suddenly in great demand and short supply; the Nobel committee has given American readers another unexpected and vaguely exotic homework assignment.
The choice of Ms. Müller, whose dark, closely observed and sometimes violent work often explores exile and the grim quotidian realities of life under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, may feed the suspicions that the Nobel Committee has, not for the first time, put political considerations ahead of writerly ones.
Ms. Müller’s story is undeniably fascinating. She was born in 1953 in a German-speaking Romanian town. During World War II her father served in the Waffen-SS. Her mother spent years in a work camp in what is now Ukraine.
Ms. Müller was later fired from a job as a translator at a Ukrainian machine factory after refusing to be an informant for the secret police. She left Romania for Germany in 1987, along with her husband, Richard Wagner. She has often spoken out against oppression and was critical of East German writers who did collaborate with state authorities.
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, made it plain that Ms. Müller’s personal story was appealing, as well as her prose. Announcing the prize, he spoke of her “very, very distinct special language, on the one hand, and on the other hand she has really a story to tell about growing up in a dictatorship.” She also has a story to tell, he said, about “growing up as a stranger in your own family.”
The grit and force of Ms. Müller’s writing may win over skeptics. Her sensibility is often bleak, but the detail in her fiction can whip it alive. In her novel “The Land of the Green Plums,” published in the United States by Metropolitan Books in 1996, she described poor, young Romanian college girls in their dorm room, without Western makeup, trying to make themselves beautiful:
“Under the pillows in the beds were six pots of mascara. Six girls spat into the pots and stirred the soot with toothpicks until the black paste grew sticky. Then they opened their eyes wide. The toothpicks scraped against their eyelids, their lashes grew black and thick. But an hour later gray gaps began to crack open in the eyelashes. The saliva dried up and the soot crumbled onto their cheeks.”
The Nobel Committee cited her as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
According to Ladbrokes, Britain’s largest bookmaker, the Nobel Prize this year was supposed to be the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s to lose. He was said to be a 4-to-1 favorite near the end of the voting.
American fiction writers were also thought to have a better shot than usual. Bruised feelings linger over an interview the Nobel secretary, Horace Engdahl, gave before the award was announced last year.
“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world,” Mr. Engdahl said, “not the United States.”
“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” he continued. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
“That ignorance is restraining.”
Not that he didn’t have a point about America and literary translation.
With that statement Mr. Engdahl crushed the hopes of Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and perhaps most notably John Updike, who died in January and is now ineligible. The last American writer to win a Nobel was Toni Morrison in 1993.
Should Ms. Oates and Mr. Roth, Mr. Pynchon and Mr. DeLillo never win a Nobel, however, they will be in exalted company. Among those who never won the Nobel Prize: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust.
Herta Müller’s selection may seem like another Nobel head-scratcher, but she is an often inspiring one.
About learning to become a writer while under a dictatorship, she has said: “I’ve had to learn to live by writing, not the other way around. I wanted to live by the standards I dreamt of, it’s as simple as that. And writing was a way for me to voice what I could not actually live.”
8 October 2009
Herta Müller, the Romanian-born German novelist and essayist who writes of the oppression of dictatorship in her native country and the unmoored existence of the political exile, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.
Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy described Ms. Müller as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” Her award coincides with the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism in E urope.
Ms. Müller, 56, emigrated to Germany in 1987 after years of persecution and censorship in Romania. She is the first German writer to win the Nobel in literature since Günter Grass in 1999 and the 13th winner writing in German since the prize was first given in 1901. She is the 12th woman to capture the literature prize. But unlike previous winners like Doris Lessing and V. S. Naipaul, Ms. Müller is a relative unknown outside of literary circles in Germany.
She has written some 20 books, but just 5 have been translated into English, including the novels “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment.”
At a packed news conference on Thursday at the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in Berlin, where she lives, Ms. Müller, petite, wearing all black and sitting on a leopard-print chair, appeared overwhelmed by all the cameras in her face. She spoke of the 30 years she spent under a dictatorship and of friends who did not survive, describing living “every day with the fear in the morning that in the evening one would no longer exist.”
When asked what it meant that her name would now be mentioned in the same breath as German greats like Thomas Mann and Heinrich Böll, Ms. Müller remained philosophical. “I am now nothing better and I’m nothing worse,” she said, adding: “My inner thing is writing. That I can hold on to.”
Earlier in the day, at a news conference in Stockholm, Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Ms. Müller was honored for her “very, very distinct special language” and because “she has really a story to tell about growing up in a dictatorship ... and growing up as a stranger in your own family.”
Just two days before the announcement, Mr. Englund criticized the jury panel as being too “Eurocentric.” Europeans have won 9 of the past 10 literature prizes. On Thursday Mr. Englund told The Associated Press that it was easier for Europeans to relate to European literature. “It’s the result of psychological bias that we really try to be aware of,” he said.
Ms. Müller was born and raised in the German-speaking town of Nitzkydorf, Romania. Her father served in the Waffen-SS in World War II, and her mother was deported to a work camp in the Soviet Union in 1945. At university, Ms. Müller opposed the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu and joined Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of dissident writers who sought freedom of speech.
She wrote her first collection of short stories in 1982 while working as a translator for a factory. The stories were censored by the Romanian authorities, and Ms. Müller was fired from the factory after refusing to work with the Securitate secret police. The uncensored manuscript of “Niederungen”—or “Nadirs”—was published in Germany two years later to critical acclaim.
“Niederungen” and other early works depicted life in a village and the repression its residents faced. Her later novels, including “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment,” approach allegory in their graphic portrayals of the brutality suffered by modest people living under totalitarianism. Her most recent novel, “Atemschaukel,” is a finalist for the German Book Prize.
Even in Germany, Ms. Müller is not well known. “She’s not one of these public trumpeters—or drum-beaters, like Grass,” said Volker Weidermann, a book critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper. “She’s more reserved.”
Ms. Müller also has a low profile in the English-speaking world, although “The Land of Green Plums” won the International Dublin Impac Literary Award in 1998.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 2001, Peter Filkins described “The Appointment” as using the thuggery of the government as “a backdrop to the brutality and betrayal with which people treat one another in their everyday lives.”
Lyn Marven, a lecturer in German studies at the University of Liverpool who has written about Ms. Müller, said: “It’s an odd disjunction to write about traumatic experiences living under a dictatorship in a very poetic style. It’s not what we expect, certainly.”
Michael Naumann, Germany’s former culture minister and the former head of Metropolitan Books, one of Ms. Müller’s publishers in the United States, praised her work but said she was “not a public intellectual.”
She has, however, spoken out against oppression and collaboration. In Germany, for example, she has criticized those East German writers who worked with the secret police.
A spokeswoman for Metropolitan, a unit of Macmillan that released English translations of “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment” in the United States, said the publisher would reissue hardcover editions of those books. Northwestern University Press, which published the paperback version of “The Land of Green Plums,” said it was reprinting 20,000 copies.
In Germany, Ms. Müller’s publisher, Carl Hanser Verlag, was also scrambling to reprint more copies of “Atemschaukel,” as well as other titles from her backlist. Asked whether winning the prize while relatively young could hurt her work, Ms. Müller said: “I thought after every book, never again, it’s my last. Then two years pass, and I start writing again. It doesn’t feel any different after I’ve won this prize.”
The awards ceremony is planned for Dec. 10 in Stockholm. As the winner, Ms. Müller will receive 10 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.4 million.
Motoko Rich reported from New York, Nicholas Kulish reported from Berlin. Also contributing reporting was Victor Homola in Berlin.
30 September 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Gen. Nicolae Plesita, the ruthless chief of the Securitate secret police who arranged shelter in Romania for the terrorist Carlos the Jackal and was tried on charges of being an accomplice in the bombing of Radio Free Europe, died Monday in Bucharest. He was 80.
The Agerpres and Mediafax news agencies quoted family members in reporting his death.
General Plesita commanded the Securitate’s foreign intelligence service from 1980 to 1984. He gained notoriety for his contacts with the terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, known as Carlos the Jackal.
Mr. Ramirez was hired by the Securitate on the orders of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to assassinate Romanian dissidents in France and bomb the Radio Free Europe offices in Munich in 1981. Nine people were injured in the attack.
In 1998, General Plesita told court prosecutors that Mr. Ceausescu had ordered him to find temporary shelter for Mr. Ramirez in Romania after the bombing.
After the 1989 anti-Communist revolt, General Plesita faced a military trial in Romania on charges of being an accomplice in the Radio Free Europe attack. The trial was interrupted several times, and he was eventually found not guilty earlier this year.
In post-Communist Romania, he continued to attract attention with his revelations about the Communist period.
Several times he described how he beat up the dissident writer Paul Goma and dragged him around Securitate cells by his beard. In 1982, when General Plesita ran the Securitate’s foreign intelligence service, a Securitate agent tried to poison Mr. Goma, who was in exile in France, but the attempt failed.
General Plesita showed no remorse for crushing anti-Communist dissent. His public appearances and relaxed manner were accepted in post-Communist Romania partly because many former high-ranking Securitate officers still have important positions in politics and business.
After Communism ended, General Plesita continued to live in a villa in Bucharest reportedly given to him by Mr. Ceausescu.
Born April 16, 1929, Nicolae Plesita was recruited to the Securitate as a teenager and rose in the ranks after he helped eradicate the last vestiges of anti-Communist resistance in the Transylvanian mountains in the late 1950s.
In 1977 he helped stifle striking coal miners in the Jiu Valley when their unrest posed a threat to Mr. Ceausescu. After that he was put in charge of foreign intelligence.
A committed Communist, General Plesita was a harsh critic of Gen. Ion Pacepa, a top-ranking Securitate officer who defected to the United States in 1978.
Mr. Ceausescu hired Mr. Ramirez to assassinate General Pacepa but he failed.
31 August 2009
Romania's former sovereign, King Michael, is one of the three surviving heads of state from World War II (alongside Bulgaria's King Simeon and Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk), and the only one involved directly in the war. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc spoke to the 89-year-old former monarch at his residence in Aubonne, Switzerland, about the start of the war and the impact of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe.
RFE/RL: We're marking this month the 70th anniversary of two fateful events in European history that also had a subsequent impact on Romania. On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact with a secret protocol that would result, less than a year later, in Romania losing territories to the USSR. And on September 1, as a direct consequence of the pact, Germany attacked Poland, thus triggering World War II. I would like to ask you to recall the moment when you learned about the beginning of the war—what did you feel then?
King Michael: At that time I was still in school, and I wasn't involved with the running of the state, my father [King Carol II] did it all with his government. Of course, we knew what was happening around us, but the implications—deep implications—at the time, were difficult to understand, because I was concerned with what I had to do in school. But we felt deep down in a way without saying it, so to speak, that something very nasty was going on. And finally, what we felt was exactly what has actually happened.
RFE/RL: Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, and on September 17, the USSR invaded eastern Poland. The Allied powers, however, did not declare war on the Soviet Union, and Romania felt threatened from two sides. This feeling of unease you mentioned, the instinct that something bad was to come, did it have anything to do with the fact that even though Romania had established diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, it knew that the issue of Bessarabia was still pending?
King Michael: Yes, of course. The question of the Soviet Union at the time—we always kept it in our minds as something to be very careful of, because you never quite knew what was coming next. We had seen a lot of things about the history [of Romania and Russia]; it was enough to understand we could have been in a dangerous situation later on.
Because we had the possible danger from the Soviets, on the other hand, the German Nazis were also working up something and we were sort of caught between the two. So there are many, many things that people may be criticizing and so on, but we ought to—this is the thing I realized later, not at the time itself—we were facing danger in the sense that either the Soviets or the Nazis, if we didn't do the one thing or the other that they might have liked, we might have lost our independence. So it's a very difficult situation, come to think of it, after it happened. How do you try and steer as much as one can without being too dangerous? That was our problem.
RFE/RL: With the benefit of hindsight, as Your Majesty said, there are historians who say that if Romania had chosen to resist the Soviet ultimatum of 1940 and defend Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina, even though it would have been defeated and lost several tens of thousands of soldiers, it would have stood to gain more morally and even politically, like Finland. Why did Romania not fight?
King Michael: This is a question we have thought about very deeply. It is quite obvious that we all thought about that, even if later. Maybe something should have been tried, at least morally speaking. Now we were facing a colossus—the Soviets—and it would have been very possible that if we had presented some resistance, morally good as it may have been, we might have had an invasion, with the Russians all over the country. You could never tell exactly, but you know, you have to be very, very careful about certain things. So it is also possible that it was the thought of the government and of some other people then that it was perhaps safer to take a humiliating situation and try to safeguard the rest and the independence of the country. This is something that many other people in the West, of course, do not quite understand and not see the true situation that we were in.
RFE/RL: So basically Romania could have been in mortal danger as a state, it could have disappeared from the map, because Hungary might have taken Transylvania as well?
King Michael: That could have been the very possibility because the Nazis were on one side, the Soviets were on the other side, and we had certain problems with the Hungarians. Who knows what might have happened. We tried to be as friendly as we could with our neighbors but sometimes you don't know what might come out of it if you're not careful.
RFE/RL: Yes, someone once said that the only friendly neighbor Romania had was the Black Sea. In 1941, Romania took part in the invasion of the USSR initially under the justification of liberating Bessarabia, but later on it kept fighting alongside Germany on Russian territory and experienced the Stalingrad catastrophe. Many have said that Romania should have stopped at the River Dniester. Would that have been possible in 1941? What was it that Romania had risked?
King Michael: This was a very complicated situation. Because we were trying, at least, to get Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina back, and it would have been absolutely impossible to do that by ourselves. So at the time when [Marshal Ion] Antonescu was leading the state, he wasn't the head of state, he was leading the state—the fuehrer...[chuckles] he decided that, probably for a short period, the only thing that could be done was to join the German troops and get back Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina. The problem was, how far could we go?
Because I remember very well, sometime later, Marshal [Carl Gustav Emil von] Mannerheim in Finland was, to a certain degree, in the same sort of situation that we had been in—he joined the war against the Soviets but he stopped at the previous Finnish frontiers [after recovering Karelia]. And the result was that he lost the same part [Karelia] again anyhow. So we might have found ourselves in the same type of situation, that we might have taken back our territories and then lost them anyhow, and the situation might have been even worse. It is possible. In view of what happened afterward, it could have been very dangerous.
RFE/RL: But at least, could it have been presented to the great powers afterward not as a war of aggression but rather as a justified attempt of getting back what had been lost?
King Michael: I am very sorry to have to say this: The United States
was still much too far away, while Great Britain and France, based
on some experience I had afterward, they couldn't care less about
our part of Europe. I remember very well when in 1938 my father took
me to London on an official visit. I was not directly involved but I
remember hearing that he was trying to get some sort of
understanding from the British government to, not exactly safeguard
us, but at least to have a minimum of [British] interest in our
country and what was happening in that part of Europe, but
unfortunately it did not happen that way.
I've said it before, many Western countries did not know or care much about the history of our part of Europe. They didn't care much about what happened if we lost independence and the whole place was occupied or not—not enough interest.
RFE/RL: In 2005, you were invited by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the Moscow celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. You have declared repeatedly that the Soviet Union's actions were "extremely horrific for Romanians" and said Russia should officially condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Do you still maintain this statement?
King Michael: I've been saying that since long before 2005. And when I was invited to Moscow for the celebrations, I was extremely surprised about that, I must say, because after all the history we and Russia had together I couldn't quite believe my ears. But I must say that now that the Soviet Union's finished and gone, I would like to see the Russians—how should I say—a little more open and honest about these things. They should say something about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to put it right. I think it would be the right thing to do.
Memories Of Churchill, Hitler
RFE/RL: You mentioned earlier that Marshal Antonescu was the leader of the state—the conductor—but Your Majesty was the official head of state, and in your capacity you negotiated and met with the main players in the events during the war. Did you ever meet any of them personally? What impression did they make on you?
King Michael: Although I was the head of state, I wasn't allowed to do anything, because [Antonescu] was dealing with everything, taking care of politics and all. So, negotiations as such, no I couldn't conduct them. I didn't meet all of the leaders, only some of them. I met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill after the war, and also U.S. President Harry Truman when I visited the United States in 1948.
Churchill was very polite, as he usually was, but my impression was that he didn't even really know much about our country. One moment we were talking about some situation, and then he all of a sudden just said something like, "I don't know, does Romania have a constitution?" I was flabbergasted when I heard that, and I couldn't continue and I replied, "Yes, of course we have a constitution." I mean, Churchill was such an intelligent man and he had done so much to serve Britain during the war, but in a way, [about] all the rest of it [Europe], not that he really didn't know [about it], I don't know, I really can't quite understand how he came to that.
Something else, he did not actually recognize us when they had the conference in Yalta [in February 1945]. As far as I could make out, from what I understood, they drew up this list which was scribbled by hand with the spheres of influence, so we were already given up, so to speak.
RFE/RL: How about Hitler? Have you ever met him?
King Michael: Hitler, yes, I met twice. Once, with my father, when we came back from England and France in 1938. My father had discussions with him. I don't know what went on because I don't speak German at all. And then the second time, when my mother [Queen Elena, Carol II's estranged wife] wanted to go back to Florence to arrange some things, and we talked to Antonescu, and he gave us permission, but he said if you go to Italy you will have to meet the royal family of Italy, so you can't go without meeting [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini probably, and Hitler! [chuckles] So, Antonescu fixed our trip, that we should go to Florence by going through Berlin! Mother didn't want that, but we did it. That's how it happened. We had lunch with Hitler someplace in Berlin. As I said, I don't speak German, but my mother could speak a little German. Not very much came out of the meeting, even though we had an interpreter.
RFE/RL: What was the impression Hitler made upon you? Did he strike you as someone extraordinary, or was it only the legend that was being built around him?
King Michael: When he came on a problem that interested him, I don't remember exactly what it was, but when he started...he was just making speeches to the people who were there for lunch...he suddenly had an expression fixed in his eyes, which looked to me very uncomfortable. When he started the speech he sort of went off, round and round. It was just a question of a few minutes, but you could see it on his face, when he came on the subject he'd wanted, he just went on like, huh...a bit unpleasant, though.
RFE/RL: Was he, excuse me for asking that, Sire, but you're actually someone who did see him, was he frightening?
King Michael: No, you know, we were so far [apart] on mentalities, that it [Hitler's intimidating impression] was like water off a duck's back, you know [chuckles]. It didn't go in. And my mother also wasn't impressed at all.
RFE/RL: You've mentioned Mussolini. Did you also meet him?
King Michael: I met Mussolini in Rome for 20 minutes during that same trip. He was, well, like all Italians we knew. How he got himself involved so much with Hitler, it's hard to tell, that's another problem.
RFE/RL: In 1940, at the Vienna Arbitration where Hitler and Mussolini decided to break a part of Transylvania and give it to Hungary, Mussolini shocked the Romanians by demanding "justice for wounded Hungary." Romanians felt betrayed by what they had seen as a "Latin brother," to such an extent that then-Foreign Minister Mihail Manolescu collapsed when he saw the new map of Romania.
King Michael: That was something that we didn't quite understand. What did Mussolini have with the Hungarians? Why was he pushing them so much, and not us? After all we were a Latin nation like the Italians. This was a situation that was very difficult to understand.
Helping Romania's Jews
RFE/RL: Romania's alliance with Nazi Germany was marked, aside from the hundreds of thousands of Romanian military casualties, by despicable acts, such as the extermination of Jews and Roma from Romania and Transdniester. I would ask you to tell us about the action Your Majesty and the Queen Mother took to stave off these crimes.
King Michael: You know, Antonescu was a very funny character in a way. I should mention that he had been our military attache in London before the war. Did that [period] leave some leftovers in his mind? I can't tell. But he had a certain respect for my mother. After all, after my father left in 1940 [after Antonescu took over and forced Carol II to leave], he very quickly told my mother to come back [from her exile in Italy]. He did that. But with me, he treated me like a child, therefore I could not conduct many discussions with him, because it was useless.
What happened with the Jewish situation especially was that we knew, we had very close relations with the chief rabbi of Romania, Alexandru Shafran, and thanks to him, we knew exactly when something was being prepared against the Jews. He used to come and see us, especially my mother, and explained exactly what was happening, and then she sent word to Antonescu and to [Foreign Minister] Mihai Antonescu and managed to get certain things through. Not as much as one would have liked, but she did. She managed to save about one hundred and something thousand Jews in Romania and from Transdniester. It wasn't as much as she would have liked, but it was something all the same. And that was because of Antonescu's respect for my mother.
She managed to stop a very nasty thing that was being prepared in Bucovina, and she managed somehow to get Antonescu to stop a part of that—the deportation of the Bucovina Jews to Transdniester. For some Jews and Roma in Transdniester, she also managed to get the approval of Antonescu to send several trains with food and clothing for them. And this went on for quite some time, because Rabbi Shafran used to come every two or three weeks to say that something else was being prepared against the Jews, and she immediately let Antonescu know how she felt about that, and even enlisted the help of the Orthodox Patriarch Nicodim. I could do only very little personally since Antonescu didn't consider me anything very important [chuckles].
RFE/RL: How wrong he was in the end....
King Michael: The other Antonescu, [Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu] was more respectful toward me, but Ion Antonescu, once he decided what he was going to do, he didn't explain anything.
RFE/RL: Your Majesty, did you have any hint at the time that something horrific was taking place in territories occupied by Nazi Germany? Was there any rumor about the Nazis perpetrating a horrendous act of mass murder against the Jews?
King Michael: Very little, but we had an inkling. Some of our people coming back from Europe smelled something. But details as to where or how, no. We knew though that something very unhealthy was going on, but we couldn't put our finger on it.
RFE/RL: The Queen Mother was subsequently honored by the Yad Vashem Museum.
King Michael: Yes, it was a number of years afterward, because they have very strict rules about Yad Vashem, and it took about two-three years to go through all the files, and they had a lot of documents from the SS concerning my mother.
There is something else that maybe I should mention. Antonescu wanted me to go and see the troops during the war, because I was also the head of the army. So he wanted me to go to Odessa, to Trasndiester and so on. I refused. I refused flatly. I told him, "We have no business over there." And then I took a plane and flew directly from Bucharest to Crimea. I spent two days there seeing the troops, then I came back. I refused to put my foot in Transdniester. And as far as I know, the Russians knew that, because they mentioned something to me afterwards.
RFE/RL: August 23 has dual significance for Romania. One side, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, is profoundly negative. But the other, August 23, 1944, is positive. That is when Your Majesty ordered the arrest of Antonescu and brought Romania out of the war against the allied powers. Historians agree that your courageous action actually saved Romania. Could you evoke that day of August 23, 1944?
King Michael: The preparation for August 23 actually started in late 1942. In spite of Antonescu's dictatorship, Romania's traditional political parties—the so-called historical parties—were left alone and were not abolished, and we had a lot of contacts with them in Romania, besides, myself and the parties sent emissaries to discussions with the Allies in Ankara and Cairo.
As time went by these discussions were getting very acute because the situation was getting out of hand on the front, and we were telling them, "We need some help, we want to get out of this but we cannot do that alone." Much later on I understood that all the appeals we were sending to Americans and the British to help us, they were letting the Russians know about. Which was not very...how should I put it...I'll not say anything.
And this went on for quite a long time, because we never got even the slightest help. Yes, morally, maybe, but that doesn't help much when you're with the noose around your neck. So, finally when the situation got completely out of hand after Stalingrad, and the Russians were already getting very close to Bessarabia again, we discussed with political parties. Because the British and Americans had insisted that we bring the communists and the socialists in our group, we did that.
And then, accidentally—this is very queer how history does things—I was in Sinaia [royal residence in the mountains] at the time, and then an indiscretion of our doctor happened—it was a very awkward situation if you like, but that's how it happened, a couple of days before August 23. We were discussing that we had to talk to Antonescu, and that we had to ask him to make the armistice and stop the war, but we had yet to come up with a particular date. And finally we decided that it was going to be August 26.
Our personal doctor was hosting one of Antonescu's staff officers at his house in Sinaia. The officer received a phone call from Bucharest, and, as the doctor's residence had three phones, the doctor accidentally picked up one of the receivers and overheard by chance the conversation in which the officer was being informed that Antonescu was leaving for the front the following days. See how history happened! And then the doctor came rushing to us and told us, "Look, I heard that Antonescu is going to the front the day after tomorrow!" and we all understood that something urgent had to be done. I immediately came back to Bucharest and gathered all the people we were talking to and informed them.
And that's how we came to act on August 23. We decided I should summon him for an audience to me to explain to him what was going on, and that the Russians were at the Dniester. Then I had a two-hour meeting with the head of my military household, [future Prime Minister] General Constantin Sanatescu and we set the details, that if Antonescu refuses, we will put him away.
So after many discussions, after I asked him and told him that we had to do something and stop the war, General Sanatescu told him, "If you can't do it, then let someone else do it!" and Antonescu then turned to him and said, in front of me, "What, leave the country in the hands of a child?" So finally, when he said flatly that he refused to declare an armistice, we had a code word, and I said very loudly, "Well, I'm very sorry, but there's nothing else I can do!" and then a door opened and three noncommissioned officers and a captain came in and took him. Locked him up in a room in the building.
RFE/RL: What was his reaction? Did he say anything to anyone?
King Michael: He turned around to the general and said, "What is this?" And then he wouldn't say anything, we locked him up in a house.
RFE/RL: There are reports that when the news of Antonescu's arrest reached Berlin, Hitler ordered his ambassador to Bucharest, Manfred von Killinger, to arrest you in turn. Your bold move could have had a different, dire outcome for you. Were you aware of the time that this was a fast-moving game and whoever moved faster would gain the upper hand?
King Michael: It was very fast indeed, because we had arranged with the commanding officers of Bucharest garrison, where we had few troops, and we even managed to get a few from outside the capital, and instructed them that, in case something happened with my life, they take over the situation. What I found afterward was that Berlin tried to find another Romanian general to take over the situation in Bucharest and replace Antonescu, but there was no such general. They were all loyal to me. Ambassador Killinger then came to the palace, but he did not try to arrest me or something, he just told me that I was playing with fire.
RFE/RL: Sire, I will attempt to set the record straight. There have been voices in Romania saying that Antonescu was hugely popular among the troops and in the country while you had been isolated. Or, the very fact that those troops chose to side with you and not with Antonescu, indicates that you have made the right decision in the eyes of history.
King Michael: That is, of course, true, because I was the commander in chief of the army, and had already had contacts with the commanders of some big units on the front line. No one, absolutely no one tried to set Antonescu free.
RFE/RL: The Republic of Moldova, whose territory is largely that of Bessarabia, is an entity that came into being as a direct consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. We could say that the Republic of Moldova is the place where World War II has not yet ended: Transdniestrian separatism, political instability, a struggle for geopolitical spheres of influence, immense poverty, all these are consequences of the appearance of an artificial state resulted from the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia. How do you see the future of this entity?
King Michael: It is a very difficult question to answer really. I very, very often think about that place and the people, and a feeling comes around sometimes.... And I know very well that they have an extremely difficult, horrible situation there, I know very well about that. The trouble is that we can't do very much about it. The one thing we could do, we should do, is to have a very good relationship with them, even as things are now, because in fact, it is up to the Bessarabians themselves to try and do something. We can't interfere. I've noticed that the last election there seems to be a little different from the others. Is that positive? I hope so. But I think about the people there very, very often, and it is very, very painful.
RFE/RL: Do you see the Republic of Moldova turning West or East in future?
King Michael: Well, as far as I understand they want to be West—the people—but, can they? That is the big question, because as I said, it is up to them to decide.
RFE/RL: Do you think the European Union should have a more prominent role in helping Moldova get closer to Europe?
King Michael: That would be the normal, logical thing, yes. But how far are they willing to go, that is the question. Because still, it is inexplicable to me, there's a sort of fascination that comes out of Russia. I don't want to say too much about this, but Russian people are very special people, and they have also gone through absolute hell for 80 years or whatever it was, but there is a fascination about them [in the West], of course it is an enormous country, and sometimes, the Western Europeans don't always put the foot down where it should be. They should also try and get Bessarabia back into Europe. Not because they are changing frontiers for the moment and all that, but it is part of Europe because it was [part of Europe].
Bringing Romania Back To Europe
RFE/RL: After 1989, you made substantial efforts to promote Romania's Euro-Atlantic integration, even when the new power in Bucharest treated you with hostility. The recognition and influence Your Majesty enjoys in Western chancelleries contributed to a great extent to speeding up Romania's joining EU and NATO. You are a most eloquent example that in spite of adversities of history and fate, patriotism and moral rectitude always win in the end, no matter how long the battle. It was a long way, marked by sacrifices for the king, but now the king has returned home, even though it is a changed home. When you look back, what are your feelings?
King Michael: It is difficult to put it exactly in a row of words. We were part of Europe, always have been, and I think that one of the things which are part of my duty is to try and get the country back the way it was, as much as possible, which is very difficult. Don't forget that when I went there was from 1997 on after Emil Constantinescu was elected president. With the few governments before that I couldn't even get back to Romania. Now we are in a place that we should be, but we still have a long way to go. But we are in the right kind of alliance and we have to stick together with the other Europeans.
During the drive to help Romania gain NATO membership, I and the rest of my family involved in this effort had some very interesting meetings with military people and politicians and it worked. I even saw some of the military people that I wasn't supposed to see because it [Romania's NATO membership] wasn't [a] done [deal] yet. There are ways of doing things, anyhow, we managed to do it somehow, I have a lot of explanations. And, that's never come up and it shouldn't come up, but the fact is that I managed to see quite a number of people then and it finally worked. But we had to pull our weight [chuckles].
RFE/RL: In a book published in 1992, you affirmed that you believed in miracles. Now, no matter how much fateful significance this year may have, there is still one event that we mark this year which was nothing short of a miracle: the fall of communism in 1989. In the summer of 1989, much of Eastern Europe was still under the grip of totalitarianism. Several months later, the "socialist" camp crumbled like a sand castle, culminating with the violent uprising of the Romanians. Two decades on, do you believe that, in Romania's case, this miracle has been completed?
King Michael: No...I would say, no.... A lot has been done, yes. But I have said that a lot of times, even though people probably don't like that—that the Soviet Union, the system collapsed, but communism has not disappeared. No. Much has changed, but a lot of things underneath...it's enough to scratch a little bit and you'll find that again.
You know, after 40-50 years of what we went through, this is something like the Chinese drop, you know. Drop after drop after drop, I don't know how many people understand that, but after you get that [ideology] drop by drop for so many years, you start thinking it's your own idea. It is a very insidious way of behaving. On the surface of things much has changed, yes. But every once in a while you'll find some little things [from the past] that suddenly begin appearing again. And, you know, in all honesty, it's not just about my country but other countries as well.
You see, my idea, or my feelings about certain things are like this: one talks a lot about forgiveness, which is the right Christian, moral thing to do. There are certain things though, and certain positions. In my case, whether I'm still the active king of Romania or not, it is still my duty to look after my country. You said before that they treated me so badly and so on.
Yes, it's quite true. While I was away, and even after I came back. But that is a personal thing. And, the personal things, you can forgive, or not forgive, that is your own business.
But when you see what some people have done to one's own country can you forgive that sort of things? In my mind, as a Christian, I say no, you cannot. Because tens of millions of people have been destroyed practically, gone through absolute hell, and then suddenly you say, well, it's all finished let's forget it. You don't forget it. You know, the Jewish people, they have something like a prayer, I guess the title of that prayer is "We Remember." And, if our people and others will remember [the crimes of communism], that will be an extremely positive and moral way of thinking. But I know it is very difficult after all those years, because you lose your sense of direction.
RFE/RL: As the sovereign of the Greater Romanian Kingdom, which Your Majesty identifies with, do you have now, seven decades after the tragic events of 1939, a message for all Romanians—inside and outside Romania's borders?
King Michael: If they want things to go on better than they are now, the thing I want to ask the Romanian people very much is to stick together, because some people are trying to separate them and we are not going to get where we should. We have to show solidarity among ourselves, remember that we are in Europe, and behave properly toward the others. Because it is not good doing certain things that everybody knows about in Romania now and when the foreigners criticize us we say it's none of their business. Of course it is their business, because we are part of Europe.
The Romanian people should really get together and wake up, because we've still got a long way to go. We have to get together and pull together and bring back Romania as it should be. I won't say necessarily as it was, because those are things of the past. But those things of the past should be an inspiration for the future.
That is my deep wish for the Romanian people to get together and stick together and try and think of the future. Not necessarily the private future, even though that is a good thing too. The thing is that if you're part of your country you have to pull your weight for your country.
Wikipedia 26 June 2009
Wikipedia 29 May 2009
14 May 2009
Last year, the first foreign-language edition of the Book Review launched in Romania. Now, in another unexpected bit of cultural turnabout, Midtown Manhattan has gotten what must be its only Romanian bookstore.
Well, sort of. From now until July 15, all you need to do to browse the hippest bookstore in Bucharest is stroll to 38th Street and Third Avenue, where a temporary outlet of the chain Carturesti has set up shop in the exhibition space of the Romanian Cultural Institute New York.
Oversize photos on the wall give a sense of the relaxed, Euro-cool mood of Carturesti’s nine branches, which are known for funky designs selected in architectural competitions. Shelves and tables feature colorful and attractively designed novels, art books and poetry collections, as well as DVDs and CDs, along with some rustic stools—based on the famous three-legged chairs of Horezu—to sit on. Alas, you can’t sample the full range of fine teas that Carturesti’s cafe’s are famous for dispensing, though you can peruse a book called “Confessions of a Coffee Drinker” (if you read Romanian, that is).
At the exhibit’s opening, the novelist Filip Florian, whose book “Little Fingers” will be published by Harcourt Brace in July, stood out front smoking (but not complaining—apparently you can’t smoke in Romanian bookstores either). Inside, guests mingled over coffee and croissants while Marius Parghel of Carturesti’s Timisoara branch, who curated the exhibit, gave a tour of some literary highlights.
There were books of surrealist poetry, books of avant-garde plays, books about the Romanian royal family (quite strong sellers, apparently), books by the dissident journalist and politician Octavian Paler and the writer and Orthodox monk Nicolae Steinhardt. There was also a healthy selection of novels by Mircea Cartarescu, described by Parghel as “the only Romanian author with chances for a Nobel.” His trilogy, “Orbitor” (“Glaring”), Parghel said, is an attempt to create “a mythology of Bucharest and its communist space,” using metaphors from medicine and alchemy, along with some techniques reminiscent of Latin American magical realists, to evoke an “underground of the mind.” (Can’t wait for the translation? Check out Cartarescu’s short story collection “Nostalgia,” available from New Directions.)
But one thing the bookstore didn’t have, strangely, is a cash register, though the organizers say an English-language version of Carturesti’s “libraria online” should be up and running soon.
(The Carturesti exhibit is on view until July 15 and again from mid-September through the end of the year at the Romanian Cultural Institute New York at 200 E. 38th Street.)
5 May 2009
CENEI, ROMANIA—For centuries—from the Hapsburg Empire through Communist dictatorship—peasant farmers here have eked a living from hogs, driving horses along ancient pocked roads and whispering ritual prayers on butchering day.
Old customs and jobs are dying and the air itself is changing, however, transformed by an American newcomer, Smithfield Foods. Almost unnoticed by the rest of the Continent, the agribusiness giant has moved into Eastern Europe with the force of a factory engine, assembling networks of farms, breeding pigs on the fast track, and slaughtering them for every bit of meat and muscle that can be squeezed into a sausage.
The upheaval in the hog farm belts of Poland and Romania, the two largest E.U. members in Eastern Europe, ranks among the Continent’s biggest agricultural transformations.
It also offers a window on how a Fortune 500 company based in Virginia operates in far-flung outposts. Smithfield has a joint venture in a Mexican hog farm located near where United Nations scientists are investigating a potential link between pigs and the new strain of influenza in humans. With the exact origins of the virus still in doubt, Smithfield emphasizes that the disease has struck none of its hogs or employees.
But Smithfield’s global approach is clear; its chairman, Joseph Luter III, has described it as moving in a “very, very big way, very, very fast.” In less than five years, Smithfield enlisted politicians in Poland and Romania, tapped into hefty European Union farm subsidies and fended off local opposition groups to create a conglomerate of feed mills, slaughterhouses and climate-controlled barns housing thousands of hogs.
It moved with such speed that sometimes it failed to secure environmental permits or inform the authorities about pig deaths—lapses that emerged after swine fever swept through three Romanian hog compounds in 2007, two of which were operating without permits. Some 67,000 hogs died or were destroyed, with infected and healthy pigs shot to stanch the spread.
In the United States, Smithfield says it has been a boon to consumers. Pork prices dropped by about one-fifth between 1970 and 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, suggesting annual savings of about $29 per consumer.
In Eastern Europe, as in American farm states where Smithfield developed its business strategy, the question is whether the savings are worth the considerable costs. The company says it is “sensitive to our neighbors’ concerns” and that complaints are often from disgruntled residents left behind.
But Robert Wallace, a visiting professor of geography at the University of Minnesota says Smithfield’s global rise is part of a broader “livestock revolution that has created cities of pigs and chickens” in poorer nations with weaker regulations. “The price tag goes up for small farmers.”
In Romania, the number of hog farmers has declined 90 percent—to 52,100 in 2007 from 477,030 in 2003—according to European Union statistics, with ex-farmers, overwhelmed by Smithfield’s lower prices, often emigrating or shifting to construction. In their place, the company employs or contracts with about 900 people and buys grain from about 100 farmers.
In Poland, there were 1.1 million hog farmers in 1996. That number fell 56 percent by 2008, as the advent of modern farming methods transformed agriculture, according to the Polish National Agricultural Chamber.
Two years ago, Daniel Neag housed 300 pigs in the empty stalls of his windswept farm near Lugoj, in Romania. Since 2005, membership in his breeder association plunged to 42 from 300. The secretary treasurer tends honeybees.
The impact on the environment is even more marked. With almost 40 farms in western Romania, Smithfield has built enormous metal manure containers to inject waste into the soil. “We go crazy with the daily smell,” said Aura Danielescu, the principal of a school in Masloc, who closes her windows tight.
Smithfield farms in Romania’s Timis County are among the top sources of air and soil pollution, according to a local government report, which ranked the company’s individual farms No. 13 through No. 40. The report also indicates that methane gases in the air rose 65 percent between 2002 and 2007.
Taxpayers footed part of the bill; Smithfield tapped into millions of euros in subsidies—from a total of €50 billion available in the E.U. last year—that are meant to encourage modern farming balanced with care for the environment.
In a similar chain of consequences, separate subsidies mined by Smithfield helped support the export of cheap pork scraps from Poland to Africa, where some hog farmers also are giving up because they cannot compete.
Smithfield representatives strongly defend their methods. They say they did everything they could to quash the Romanian swine fever outbreak, and they contend the lack of licenses was an oversight. “We have learned not to assume that a government’s awareness of our plans and operations is the same as permission to keep moving forward until we have obtained all necessary permits,” Charles Griffith, a company lawyer, said in answer to written questions.
Company officials also point to heavy investment in poor parts of Eastern Europe and a commitment to reinvesting profits locally. Mr. Griffith highlighted among Smithfield’s contributions the “acquisition, renovation, and construction of meat processing plants, swine farms, feed mills, and cold storage facilities,” and support for “networks of independent farmers that are contracted to shelter and feed pigs to market weights.”
For all that, some villagers in the new hog country say they are dazed. “For them, it’s like dealing with primitive people in the bush, where only power and strength is important,” said Emilia Niemyt, the mayor of Wierzchkowo, a Polish village of 331 people that has pressed complaints about odors. “They fulfill the idea of conquering the East with the methods of the Wild West.”
ASSEMBLY LINE OF PIGS
When the East beckoned in 1999, Smithfield exported a vertical integration strategy, copied from the poultry giant Tyson Foods. The chief promoter of that strategy was Mr. Luter, whose family transformed a 73-year-old meatpacking operation into a behemoth with almost $12 billion in annual revenue.
Every stage of a hog’s life—from artificial insemination to breeding genetic characteristics—is controlled. A handful of employees tend thousands of hogs that spend their lives entirely indoors, under constant lighting, to spur growth. Sows churn out litters three or four times a year. Within 300 days, a pig weighing roughly 120 kilograms, or 270 pounds, is ready for slaughter.
Smithfield fine-tuned its approach in the depressed tobacco country of eastern North Carolina in the 1990s. In 2000, money started flowing from a Smithfield political action committee in that state and around the United States. Ultimately, more than $1 million went to candidates in state and federal elections. North Carolina lawmakers helped fast-track permits for Smithfield and exempted pig farms from zoning laws.
As Smithfield flourished, the number of American hog farms plunged 90 percent—to 67,000 in 2005 from 667,000 in 1980. Some farm states grew wary. When Hurricane Floyd struck North Carolina in 1999, torrential rain breached six pig waste lagoons, prompting the authorities to impose a construction moratorium on new pig farms using lagoons.
Missouri, too, pressed Smithfield to install technology to reduce odor. In Iowa, Smithfield lobbyists fended off efforts to force meatpackers to purchase hogs on the open market instead of using only their livestock.
Facing more restrictions in the United States, Smithfield took its North Carolina game plan to Poland and Romania, where the company moved nimbly through weak economies and political and regulatory systems.
Today Smithfield is the biggest pork producer in Romania, where it owns an enormous meatpacking plant, almost 40 hog farms and croplands sprawling over 50,000 acres. In Poland, the company employs 500 farmers to raise hogs that are bound for its Communist-era slaughterhouse, Animex.
Smithfield declined to disclose the total of subsidies it has collected. Romania pays a levy of around 30 euros per pig raised suggesting that, by producing 600,000 a year, Smithfield was eligible for 18 million euros in special national subsidies intended to improve the leanness of hogs. Though the company said late Tuesday that not all its pigs qualified for the subsidy, it did not say how many are. Newly released Romanian data show the company collected almost €300,000 in cropland subsidies last year and more than €200,000 in special funding for new European Union states. In Poland, Smithfield reaped more than €2 million for its subsidiary Agri Plus.
“Subsidies are money,” Luis Cerdan, chief executive of Agri Plus, said. “It improves the profits of the company.”
But Mr. Griffith, Smithfield’s lawyer, characterizes total benefits as tiny. Even more so, he said, “when you consider that we have not taken any cash out of these operations and have no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.”
HELP AT HIGH LEVELS
When it first arrived in Eastern Europe, Smithfield courted top politicians in both Poland and Romania, the latter a particularly poor country of 23 million with a weak government and under constant E.U. pressure over corruption.
In the post-Communist disorder, it is essential to know your way about. In Bucharest, Smithfield turned to Nicholas Taubman, a wealthy Republican businessman who was the U.S. ambassador to Romania during the administration of President George W. Bush. Mr. Taubman escorted Smithfield’s top executives during meetings with the Romanian president and prime minister and president.
“I’m from Virginia and they’re a large corporation and I know them very well,” Mr. Taubman said, noting that he had also helped Ford Motor, which had an easier time in Romania because it had the support of a government minister.
Once the top leaders in Romania showed their support for Smithfield, developments fell into place; about a dozen Smithfield farms were designed by an architectural firm owned by Gheorghe Seculici, a former deputy prime minister with close ties to President Traian Basescu of Romania, who is godfather to his daughter.
Further help came from a familiar front: Smithfield’s lobbyist, the Virginia firm McGuireWoods, set up a Bucharest office in 2007 to liaise between Smithfield and the Romanian government. In many ways McGuireWoods was the perfect choice; it had also represented Romania for three years to press its NATO-membership campaign.
Mr. Basescu, the president, was not shy in acknowledging the company, which he praised at a joint news conference with President George W. Bush at a NATO summit meeting last year. Smithfield was also very visible in its appreciation: It contributed €20,000 to pay for Romanian ceremonial uniforms at the summit meeting, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Mr. Taubman said that access was vital. “It’s extremely difficult to do business there unless you have someone like the prime minister or someone in the prime minister’s office who reaches down to whomever is concerned and says this is what to do,” he said.
As straightforward as that may seem, lobbying on the part of a big firm from the United States—the superpower that East Europeans seek to please—raised some eyebrows.
“We understand public diplomacy and political lobbying,” noted Steen Steensen, an agriculture expert at the Danish Embassy, whose country has also expanded hog farms into Eastern Europe. ‘’But we trust that the business and commercial channels operate in a normal and fair way.”
“Smithfield’s dominance and manifest aggressive approach is worrying,” Mr. Steensen said in one agricultural report.
The connections in the upper reaches of government meant that Smithfield could weather protests from local communities. The company was fined €9,000 for spilling manure on a local highway while transporting waste from a leaking container; €35,000 for a leaking bin that seeped hog waste into soil; another €35,000 for four farms operating without permits in Arad County; and €18,500 for not preventing water pollution.
Some villagers, however, concentrate on the advantages. “I have land near them and there’s no problem,” Dorin Mic Aurel, mayor of Masloc, said. Smithfield is the biggest taxpayer in Masloc, contributing $27,000 yearly that helped bring running water to the village.
But Smithfield found it hard to overcome fallout from the swine fever outbreak that struck Cenei. At the time, hog corpses lay in heaps, and residents remember chaotic efforts to shoot and burn them. That particular strain affects only hogs, but scientists have found elements of swine viruses—one from Europe or Asia, the other from North America—in the genetic code of the new influenza A(H1N1) virus.
When Ioan Ciprian Ciurdar, deputy mayor of Cenei, said that the stench from nearby farms was overpowering, Smithfield responded that a heat wave was to blame.
Mr. Ciurdar said that he had visited the farm with a colleague who snapped photographs until a security guard demanded the camera and destroyed the pictures. “If you’re an owner,” he said, his voice rising, “it doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.”
Smithfield contends that “it is impossible to know” why the pigs got sick, while noting a breakdown in the supply of government-supplied swine flu vaccines. But several officials on both sides of the debate believe that Smithfield was overwhelmed by its own industrial machine and its ever multiplying pigs.
“Thousands of piglets were born,” Mr. Seculici, the architect, said. “There was no place to put them because the new farms weren’t finished. Nobody admits this, but this was the cause of swine flu. They were forced to improvise.”
Smithfield acknowledges that it placed young pigs on farms under construction, but insists that doing so had no impact on health.
“It was done too fast; that caused a lot of problems,” Mr. Taubman, the former U.S. ambassador, said.
When it came to cleanup, Smithfield again turned to special E.U. subsidies, requesting $11.5 million in compensation. But the local authorities—those with the power to dole out the money—balked at the demand, outraged that the epidemic was taking place on unlicensed farms which they accused of lax biosecurity measures.
A special mission of the European Commission confirmed some of their complaints, finding that Smithfield had failed to submit regular reports on the deaths of its pigs and that employees moved freely between farms despite suspicions of swine fever.
“Although we acknowledge these dysfunctions, this does not mean that our farms were operating outside the purview of Romanian authorities,” Mr. Griffith, a lawyer for Smithfield, wrote. “Our farms were operating openly and in regular, day-today contact with those authorities.”
“When we discovered that a number of our farms in Romania were operating on an emergency basis without all required permits,” Mr. Griffith said, Smithfield acted “to obtain all required permits.”
Blocked from collecting the money, Smithfield turned to Valeriu Tabara, head of the Romanian Parliament’s agricultural committee. With support from other politicians, Mr. Tabara pushed for an amendment that would enable animal owners to be compensated for disease-driven losses regardless of ignoring proper biosecurity measures.
Smithfield is uncertain if the amendment will be beneficial to the company. The revision, Mr. Griffith said, “would generally not apply retroactively to our claim.”
Mr. Tabara has no doubts, however, saying that “Smithfield is in the category of companies that have registered losses.”|
A STRUGGLE ACROSS CONTINENTS
When Mr. Neag, the former hog farmer, strides his land, only two animals trail him: battered mutts.
He is a cereal farmer now, like many other former hog farmers who complain their annual incomes have fallen by about half to €5,000.
“I didn’t think they were the enemy like someone who comes to take the bread from our mouth,” Mr. Neag said, recalling the arrival of Smithfield.
That lament echoes as far away as the Ivory Coast.
Patrice Yao’s pig farm in Abidjan, near a local prison, is part of a cluster where farmers like him and Basile Donald Yao are trying to survive despite a flood of cheap frozen pork from Europe.
“My farm isn’t working,” said Mr. Yao, 27, who owns about 45 hogs, compared with 100 three years ago. “The Europeans are sending all their cheap meat to our market.”
The Animex packing house spokesman, Andrzej Pawelczak, declined to identify where the Smithfield pork products were sent in West Africa. But in Polish Farmer Magazine he identified the countries as Liberia, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
According to Polish agricultural officials, Animex collected more than €3 million in export funds.
In the face of that, Ivorian farmers cannot compete. Fresh local pork sells for under $2.50 a kilo, while Europe’s frozen offal is a bargain in bustling markets at $1.40.
Mr. Yao said that many pig farmers have left, in search of work. Like Romanian ex-farmers combing Europe’s construction sites for work, he is considering becoming an export himself.
“I’ve already got my passport and when the occasion presents itself I am going to leave,” he said.
“I dream of leaving for Italy or Spain. There is nothing here for us.”
Wikipedia 17 April 2009
14 April 2009
CHISINAU, Moldova—If the residents of Chisinau ever forget that they live on a fault line, they can count on Christmas to remind them.
For two years running, the city’s 30-year-old, Romanian-educated mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca, has erected a Christmas tree in time for Dec. 25, when the holiday is celebrated in Romania and Western Europe.
And both times, the 67-year-old, Soviet-educated president, Vladimir Voronin, has ordered it removed, because Moldova officially celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, in keeping with the Russian Orthodox calendar. The dispute has taken on a loopy, Keystone Kops character, with reports of fir trees detained by the police in the forest or “abducted during the night by unknown persons.”
As the world learned last week, though, the divisions within this society are dangerous and deep. In a way, Moldova is grappling with the same challenge as Georgia and Ukraine—trying to join the West after decades of Russian influence. But Moldova’s narrative is complicated by its history of domination: over the last two centuries, the territory once known as Bessarabia was ruled by the Russian czar for 106 years, then by the Romanian king for 22 years and then by the Soviet Union for 51 years.
After nearly two decades of independence, Moldova’s citizens are still at odds over the basic question of who they are. That division boiled over last week, when a huge anti-Communist demonstration turned violent. Its participants, in their teens and 20s, say they are desperate to escape a Soviet time warp and enter Europe. But many of their elders feel more affinity with Russia, and see the protests as a plot by their western neighbor Romania to snatch away Moldova’s sovereignty.
But Claus Neukirch, deputy head of the Moldova mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said he did not believe that the demonstrators sought unification with Romania.
“It is rather a movement eager for recognition that the two countries have the same roots and the same language—and that Moldova is part of Europe and not part of Russia,” he said. “Bessarabia has been on this fault line through all of history.”
What Moldovans think about Romania and Russia depends entirely on whom you ask, even among the 76 percent of the population that, according to the 2004 census, identify themselves as ethnically Moldovan.
Vyacheslav Turcan, a burly 39-year-old taxi driver, gets misty recalling his service in the Soviet Army, which he said taught him “culture, decency, respect—how to carry myself.” For him, the Soviet era was a time of predictable plenty, when Romania was the poor neighbor, reliant on Moldova for shipments of potatoes.
Now, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, with remittances from workers abroad making up 36.5 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. Mr. Turcan has joined the army of foreign workers, driving a cab in Russia. He has faith in Russia as an ally in a time of crisis; Europe seems untested and unreliable. Ask him about Romania, and he darkens.
“They’re Gypsies,” he said. “They occupied Moldova before, and they want to occupy us again.”
Vasile Botnaru, a journalist, has a different perspective. He was 13 when he stumbled across Romanian books in his father’s attic and realized, to his astonishment, that the language was so close to Moldovan that he could read it without a dictionary. Everything he had learned in Soviet schools—that Moldovans were ethnically and linguistically distinct from Romanians—was wrong, he said.
“Willingly or not, this history that they had hidden began to come out onto the surface, like oil on water,” said Mr. Botnaru, 52, who now works as a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “I understood that we had a shared history.”
As the Soviet Union entered its final years, a movement to reconcile the two countries burst into the mainstream. Moldova’s Parliament switched to the Roman alphabet, and Romanian replaced Russian as the state language. Clocks changed from Moscow to Bucharest time, and the government introduced a new flag virtually identical to Romania’s.
Unification with Romania became a high-profile political cause. Its splashy figurehead, Iurie Rosca, spoke beside huge maps of a “greater Romania” that included most of Moldova.
But the notion was anathema to Russian-speaking Moldovans, the Soviet-era elites who made up about a quarter of the population. And in 2001, after a decade of unruly capitalism had left the country bankrupt, there was a swing back to the old order. Voters elected the Communist government of Mr. Voronin, who promised to restore the Soviet-era safety net and join a union with Russia and Belarus.
“Moldova must hold out in Europe as Cuba is holding out on the American continent,” he told a rally celebrating Lenin’s birthday shortly after his election, Interfax reported. “We will hold out to the end as Cuba is holding out among imperialist predators.”
Since then, the reunification movement has faded to the margins of political life. Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy, an independent research organization, said only 15 percent of Moldovans would support unification with Romania if a referendum were held now. Political elites, meanwhile, have lost interest for pragmatic reasons.
“Not everyone wants to be second in Bucharest if they can be first in Chisinau,” said Konstantin F. Zatulin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
But the question has never been entirely set aside, either. As recently as 2006, President Traian Basescu of Romania said, “The Romanian-Moldavian unification will take place within the European Union and in no other way.” The issue was churned up again by last week’s protests, when Romanian flags were raised at two government buildings. Mr. Voronin has said he can prove that Romanian agents planned and organized the protests.
“I would not call it nationalism, because nationalism is when people fight in the interest of their own nation,” Mark E. Tkachuk, one of Mr. Voronin’s key aides, said in an interview. “This I would call ‘unionism,’ when people are fighting for the liquidation of their own nation, and absorption by another country.”
Opposition leaders reject that explanation. Iulian Fruntasu, a deputy chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, said the accusation of Romanian influence diverted attention from growing complaints about the ruling Communists. Deep down, he said, Russia knows it is losing its hold on young Moldovans. Faced with this crisis, he said, Moscow-backed leaders “would claim we want to join with the moon.”
“What they were able to do in Soviet times—it’s not possible any more,” Mr. Fruntasu said. “They have the Russian-language media, but this is another generation that has access to the Internet and books. No one now believes that there is a Moldovan language and a Romanian language. People travel a lot. I don’t think Russia in the long term has any chance to keep Moldova in its orbit.”
In the meantime, Moldovans will part ways every Sunday morning, with some headed to a Romanian Orthodox Church and some to the Russian Orthodox Church. At newsstands, Russian newspapers refer to last week’s events as a “putsch,” and Romanian newspapers cast them as a revolution. Mr. Botnaru says he has friends on both sides of the divide, and they keep asking him to choose.
“It’s like stupid parents who get divorced and say to their children, ‘Who do you love more, Papa or Mama?’ ” Mr. Botnaru said. “There are children who cannot love either Papa or Mama. And there are a lot of people in that situation.”
Opposition to Boycott Recount
MOSCOW—Moldova’s main opposition leaders announced Tuesday that they would not participate in a vote recount in disputed parliamentary elections, and the president of Romania angrily rejected accusations that Romanian agents were behind huge anti-Communist rallies last week.
“We will not allow Romanians to be blamed simply because they are Romanians,” President Traian Basescu of Romania said in an address to Parliament in Bucharest that was posted on his Web site. “We will not allow Romania to be accused of attempting to destabilize the Republic of Moldova. We will not allow Romanians who live across the Prut to be humiliated simply because they believe in an open society.”
Communists made a better-than-expected showing in parliamentary elections held April 5, leading to youth demonstrations that turned violent. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova immediately cut diplomatic ties with Romania, saying its secret services had staged the events in an attempt to topple his government.
Mr. Voronin ordered a recount of votes last Friday. But Vlad Filat of the Liberal Democratic Party said at a news conference that he would insist that the elections be invalidated and held again, Interfax reported. Mr. Filat said voter lists had included the names of long-dead people, minors and longtime expatriates.
13 April 2009
What we are currently witnessing in Chisinau is the beginning of a revolutionary movement.
I wish to emphasize this, because revolutions are the only means of action against political systems that are defunct, but refuse to admit it. The political regime in the Republic of Moldova is indeed such a case. The country has been governed for many years by the Communist Party of Moldova (CPM), an unreformed, unrepentant party of the Leninist mold.
I disagree with those analysts who consider this party communist only in name, on the grounds that it allegedly reconstructed itself as a political formation foreign to traditional communist principles. True, it would be absurd to assert that the CPM is communist in a classical sense, because things have changed radically in the past 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. But if one takes into account the CPM's motivation, its nostalgia for the Leninist past, and the way it rules the country, the CPM led by Vladimir Voronin is the clear successor to the Soviet-era Communist Party of Moldavia.
Voronin himself has said so many times. He and his comrades have viciously and unswervingly opposed even the most anodyne decommunization initiatives. Moreover, on December 18, 2006, when Romanian President Traian Basescu condemned the communist regime in Romania as "illegitimate and criminal," Voronin's party issued an official denunciation of the “Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania” (which I chaired), the document on which Basescu's statement was based.
I wish to stress a few things about the movement that is taking shape in Chisinau. First and foremost, I consider it to lie within the continuum created by the revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. Two decades after those historic events, we are seeing, in a former Soviet republic, a movement which I believe is fundamentally spontaneous and characterized by a liberal anticommunism centered on honoring and actualizing individual human rights. The primary and essential principle of modern liberalism is the recognition of the inalienable rights of any human being.
The protests in Moldova show us beyond any doubt that anticommunism is not an illusion. The essence of the demonstrators' message, both to their country and to Europe, is anticommunism: the simultaneous rejection of the police state that Comrade Voronin so deftly built while in power, and of the endemic corruption generated in this country by state-sponsored Mafioso networks.
Last but not least, Voronin's overreaction to the post-election protests—repression by the secret police, mass arrests, sealing the country's borders, censoring information and the media—clearly shows his Stalinist mentality. The governing principle of his politics is Lenin's old dictum: kto kogo—who will prevail over whom? The pillars of the CPM regime are hostility to the rule of law, undermining pluralism, and total disregard for civic dignity.
A Movement Emerges
I would also like to stress that this is a revolution of an anti-ideological type, as clearly stated by the Anticommunist Forum in Moldova, an organization that emerged spontaneously over the past few days. We are dealing with a movement that has not yet assumed a clear political coloring. In their own words: it is transparent and pure.
This indeed is a beautiful definition, a truly poetic self-description. You may ask: What does poetry have to do with revolution? Revolutions are poetic moments. The epic lies within the minutiae of mundane politics. Poetry alone can do justice to the empowering and liberating revolutionary act.
Undoubtedly one must always be careful when dealing with metaphors. One must resist the temptation, so typical of utopian radicalisms, to develop them too far. But in Moldova now there is no utopian ideal in operation. The younger generation has risen against the neo-Leninist CPM. And the prefix "neo" is the key to the story here, because it shows that the CPM regime is a form of authoritarianism with a very distinct ideological flavor, and of a characteristic cynical and sycophantic nature.
It is regrettable, as Romanian historian Armand Gosu has remarked, that in the ongoing geopolitical games on the eastern flank of the European Union, EU representatives' shared fixation with Russia's strategic position seemingly deters them from taking a categorical stand in defense of the "young generation of Moldovan citizens who wish to built their destiny in freedom." As in 1989, Europe was caught unawares by a rejection of the status quo from below. The established power game in the region takes priority over the civic rebellion from within.
Where is the pro-democracy movement in Moldova heading? That will depend largely on how it chooses to organize itself. The Moldovan case falls into the category of "new social movements," such as Vaclav Havel’s Civic Forum in former Czechoslovakia in 1989-1990.
The revolutionary movement in Moldova will almost certainly give birth to several new political parties. I can easily believe that the anticommunist forum in Moldova will produce a democratic, liberal youth party. Hungary's FIDESZ (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége, Alliance of Young Democrats), the original statutes of which even included an upper age limit of 35 for membership, could serve as an excellent example.
I believe that those who took to the streets in Chisinau and occupied the official buildings on National Assembly Square are the opposite of homo sovieticus (Soviet man), and the antithesis of homo prevaricatus (mendacious man, a term coined by Russian sociologist Yury Levada). They are people who demand simply to live in truth, to reject hypocrisy and duplicity—people who refuse to relinquish their human dignity in the face of abuse of power.
This protest will not end soon. The approaching commemoration on August 23 of the 70th anniversary of the shameful and criminal Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact may well serve as the catalyst for a renewed opposition onslaught against the neo-authoritarian and neo-Leninist regime of Comrade Voronin and his clique. The memory of the victims of 20th century totalitarianism will surely strengthen the political will of those who are now fighting for democracy and freedom in Moldova.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, director of the university’s Center for Study of Postcommunist Societies, and the author of numerous books, including "Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism" (University of California Press, 2003). In 2006 he served as chair of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
9 April 2009
On April 6 and 7, a crowd of thousands of mostly young Moldovans erupted into violence to protest the preliminary results of the country's April 5 parliamentary elections. The storming of the parliament and presidential residence were the first violent political actions in the country's post-Soviet history and came as a surprise to virtually all observers.
As the smoke clears, the country is coming to grips with the question of how events took such a turn.
There is no shortage of explanations for what happened in Moldova this week. Everyone, it seems, can point the finger at someone.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has said repeatedly he believes the protests were sparked by Romania.
"The neighboring state, Romania, has been involved in all these events. We have proof of that,” Voronin said. “Romania's ambassador will be declared persona non grata today. This is a political step meant to make the Romanians understand that we have our own independent state, Moldova. They shouldn't stick their noses in our boiling pot, as we Moldovans say."
Speaking on Russian state television, State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Babakov, of the A Just Russia party, repeated Voronin's charges against Romania. Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said many foreign countries, "including the United States," have the expertise to carry out uprisings such as what transpired in Moldova and argued that "the same tactics" were used against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, as well as in Ukraine and Georgia.
Some in the opposition, however, think Voronin instigated the unrest to justify a crackdown and secure his hold on power. At a meeting between Voronin and opposition leaders on April 7, Our Moldova party leader Serafim Urechean raised his concerns with Voronin.
“I am very concerned that all these actions were organized today [April 7] by the special services, because you can see a logic behind them, a reason,” Urechean said.
“Are you saying this seriously?” Voronin asked.
“Yes, this is very serious,” Urechean said. “I am strongly convinced that this was organized by the special services. Which one? I don't know. You are in charge of the country and you have to answer this."
Others see the violence as the actions of spontaneous, leaderless youths who are frustrated with the waning of Moldovan democracy. Former Moldovan President Petru Lucinski told RFE/RL's Moldova Service that there is no need to look further to explain the unrest.
"I see it as an unorganized youth movement,” Lucinski said. “On the 6th, it was OK, but on the 7th there were more people coming and they could not be controlled. They didn't have any leaders. One part went in one direction, a peaceful one. And another part took a violent turn."
What is clear is that Moldova is a deeply divided country facing dire economic straits. The protesters were primarily Western-oriented, urban youths who are frustrated by the country's Communist rulers. The Communists, however, are supported by an aging, largely rural electorate that is more comfortable looking to Russia for support.
Remittances from Moldovans working abroad—many in the European Union, many in Russia—once made up one-third of GDP, but that source of revenue is drying up as the global economic crisis deepens.
On top of this, Voronin's second and final term as president is drawing to a close and the new parliament will choose his successor. Analysts believe Voronin intends to maintain his hold on power, perhaps by becoming parliament speaker.
In addition, there is evidence that the country's Communist Party itself is divided between the conservative, Russia-oriented followers of Voronin and a younger generation that favors greater Moldovan integration into European structures. That faction is headed by parliament speaker Marian Lupu and Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan. In the present crisis, however, the party has been united.
All these divisions leave Moldova, a country with weak and underdeveloped political institutions, vulnerable to domestic and foreign manipulation.
Although Voronin has generally tried to follow a path toward integration with the EU, he has tried to do so without antagonizing Moscow. However, with his grip on power in transition, some analysts think he may be inclined to strengthen relations with the Kremlin.
Moldova is among the six Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member countries that will be formally included in the EU's Eastern Partnership at a summit in Prague on May 7. Russia has harshly criticized the EU initiative as an attempt to set up a sphere of influence among the traditionally Russia-friendly countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Russian Duma Deputy Babakov told Russian state television that the violence in Chisinau could have been avoided if Moldova had been "better integrated" into the CIS and other Russia-dominated regional structures.
Nicu Popescu, a researcher at the European Council for Foreign Affairs in London, told RFE/RL's Moldova Service that Russia will likely benefit most from this week's events in Moldova, at least in the short term.
"Under these conditions, the only beneficiary of this could be the Russian Federation,” Popescu said. “We can draw some parallels between the current events and the protests in Ukraine in 2002. That action, called Ukraine Without Kuchma, was brutally suppressed. And those events in Ukraine in 2002 pushed President [Leonid] Kuchma to become more authoritarian, closer to the Russian Federation and to make more concessions. But it also radicalized the opposition."
Popescu added that in response to the unrest, Voronin will likewise become more authoritarian, meaning that Moldova will be increasingly isolated from the West and, therefore, dependent on Russia.
However, he added, this is not inevitable. "What Moldova needs today is a negotiated solution—a solution in which the Communist Party, the opposition parties, and civil society come together to the negotiating table under the mediation of the European Union to defuse the crisis and find a peaceful solution to strengthen Moldovan democracy and prevent the country from becoming isolated from regional processes," Popescu said.
At present, though, that seems unlikely. The European Union has been largely silent on the Moldovan crisis, issuing on April 8 a tepid statement urging "proper respect for freedom of the media and freedom of expression."
Analyst Andrew Wilson, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters the same day that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana should mediate in Moldova. "The EU should go and it should go now," Wilson was quoted as saying. "But, yes, that would annoy the hell out of Russia."
RFE/RL's Moldova Service contributed to this report.
8 April 2009
CHISINAU, Moldova—On Wednesday, Moldova’s Parliament building was seared black from fire, and its ceremonial entryway was spray-painted with crossed-out hammers and sickles. Filing cabinets lay where they crashed to the ground the night before, while office papers were tangled in the boughs of pine trees.
Ruslan Grosu, 21, stood outside, trying to make sense of it.
“A little revolution happened here,” he said. “There is this power in our youth, and they should respect our wishes.” But from inside the building came the bleak sound of workers knocking out broken windows, and Mr. Grosu felt compelled to add this: “Almost all of us think it is bad and evil, what happened here.”
“We are not thieves,” he said.
A day after a huge anti-Communist rally turned violent in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, everyone was speculating about who was behind it.
President Vladimir Voronin said the event had been planned by Romanians, and called for the Romanian ambassador to leave within 24 hours. Youth activists charged that opposition parties had hijacked an otherwise peaceful crowd for their own purposes. And the opposition leader Vlad Filat said authorities had allowed the protests to get out of hand in order to portray the president’s challengers as extremists.
But Dumitru Minzarari, a political analyst, thought the best answer was the simplest one.
“It was a spontaneous event,” said Mr. Minzarari, who works at the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, a policy research organization here. “The real reason behind this was that young people just revolted. These are not Soviet-educated people who are submissive and afraid to get into the streets.”
Nobody was killed in Tuesday’s violence, but 118 police officers needed medical assistance and 43 of them were hospitalized, said Alla Meleka, a spokeswoman for the Moldovan Interior Ministry. The city ambulance service reported that 79 civilians received medical care and that 14 of them were hospitalized.
Crowds gathered again on Wednesday in the city’s main square, but it was a chastened group of around 1,000, a fraction of the 10,000 to 15,000 estimated on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s protests, 193 people were arrested, Ms. Meleka said. Moldova’s Prosecutor General’s Office announced that it would investigate each case and pursue criminal charges against organizers.
The half dozen young activists who enlisted Twitter, Facebook and text messages to organize a “flash mob” on Monday have withdrawn from the protests entirely. In an interview, one activist, Natalia Morar, 25, said that she expected to face charges, and that she and other organizers had received phone calls that were “not so much threats as warnings that we will be in very big danger during the next few days.”
What bothers her the most, she said, is the suggestion that she and her friends somehow contributed to the violence, which she watched on television. “Believe me, there is nothing at all enjoyable about it,” she said.
The protests have exposed a split in Moldova, the first post-Soviet state to vote Communists back into power. Mr. Voronin was elected president in 2001 on a wave of deep disappointment that the Soviet collapse had brought Moldova little but poverty, corruption and civil war.
Mr. Voronin, who once led the Moldovan K.G.B., won re-election in 2005 pledging to renew relations with Europe and strengthen democratic institutions. But many of his opponents saw his commitments as hollow.
Many of the young see Romania, a European Union member just southwest of Moldova, as a symbol of promise. There have been short-lived movements to unite the countries, which were one from 1918 to 1940. Attempts in 2002 by the new Communist government to impose a Moldova-centric school history curriculum that played down Romanian influence prompted protests in the capital. A main complaint among youths in the recent protests was about the government’s restrictions on passage into Romania.
As protesters flooded the Parliament building on Tuesday, one raised a Romanian flag on the roof, something that Mr. Voronin pointed out Wednesday. “We know that certain forces from Romania masterminded these riots,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency. “Romanian flags which were planted on state buildings in Chisinau prove this.”
The protests were first called on Monday, after preliminary parliamentary election results showed that the Communist Party had won about half the vote, giving its deputies enough leverage to appoint the next president.
Helen Pascari, who gathered in the square with friends, said none of her peers had expected Communists to hold onto power for another four-year presidential term. “We want some changes in our country,” she said. “Any kind of changes.”
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Moscow.
8 April 2009
Moldova's president has accused neighbouring Romania of stoking
the protests that erupted into violence in the capital Chisinau on
Vladimir Voronin said the Romanian ambassador would no longer be welcome.
Thousands of young protesters thronged Chisinau, fighting police and ransacking parliament, in protest at the results of Sunday's election.
Official results gave the ruling Communists about 50% of the vote in the Romanian-speaking ex-Soviet republic.
International observers said the vote appeared to have been fair, though one told the BBC she had her doubts.
President Voronin, a Communist, was quoted by Russian agency Interfax saying: "We know that certain political forces in Romania are behind this unrest. The Romanian flags fixed on the government buildings in Chisinau attest to this."
Earlier he described the violence as "a coup d'etat".
Some of the protesters on Tuesday had called for the unification of Moldova with Romania, its bigger neighbour.
Russia's foreign ministry said there was a plot aimed at undermining "the sovereignty of Moldova".
Summoned on Twitter
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for calm and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said violence against government buildings was "unacceptable".
The streets of Chisinau were quiet on Wednesday morning. Protesters had left the scene of the rioting on Tuesday night, and police retook control of parliament.
But opposition leaders said protests would continue.
Vlad Filat, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, called the demonstrations "a spontaneous action by protesting young people".
He said the opposition had tried to prevent excesses, like the attacks on parliament, but said: "We are not scared of arrests or intimidation. The people do not want to live like this and want to live free and without fear."
Word of the demonstrations was spread by text message, via the internet, and on social networking tools.
"We sent messages on Twitter but didn't expect 15,000 people to join in. At the most we expected 1,000," Oleg Brega, of the activist group Hyde Park told the Associated Press news agency.
Chisinau Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca, a member of the Liberal Party, said: "The elections were fraudulent, there was multiple voting."
The opposition have called for ballots to be recounted or the vote to be reheld—a request rejected so far by the government.
A report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Sunday's vote gave a mostly positive assessment of the poll.
But a British member of the OSCE's observation team questioned that conclusion.
Baroness Emma Nicholson said she found it "difficult to endorse the very warm press statement" from the head of the OSCE.
"The problem was that it was an OSCE report, and in the OSCE are, of course, the Russians, and their view was quite different, quite substantially different, for example from my own," she told BBC News.
She said she and other observers had a "very, very strong feeling" that there had been some manipulation, "but we couldn't find any proof".
Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, is the poorest country in Europe, where the average wage is just under $250 (£168) a month.
The people speak Romanian and the country shares many cultural links with Romania. However it was annexed by the Soviet Union in World War II and gained independence in 1991.
There remains an unresolved conflict with the breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, which has run its own affairs, with Moscow's support, since the end of hostilities in a brief war in 1992.
26 March 2009
Romania is about to be cut off from the foreign tour operators' catalogues, after the decision to reduce the visiting program at the Bran Castle, the popular destination known as "Dracula's Castle". The foreign tourism agencies are unhappy with the fact that the castle's furniture is being moved to the Bran Customs building and that the weekly visiting program now includes two days in which the castle is shut.
The Bran Castle was returned to the descendents of its former owners on May 18, 2006, and will continue to be visited as a museum until May 18 2009.
25 March 2009
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lenders have agreed in principle to provide Romania 20bn euros (£18.4bn; £26.9bn) in aid.
The IMF will lend 12.95bn euros, the European Union will provide 5bn euros and the World Bank will lend 1bn euros.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is to invest up to 1bn euros in Romania over two years.
Romania is the third EU nation to be given IMF aid recently, after loans were given to Latvia and Hungary.
The latest IMF economic program has been agreed by its staff mission, but needs approval from the executive board and management.
Similarly the World Bank needs to agree its part of the deal and the European Commission must approve its contribution.
The IMF said core measures under the plan are aimed at "strengthening fiscal policy further to reduce the government's financing needs and improve long term sustainability, thus preparing Romania for eventual entry into the euro zone".
"This is very good news for Romania because the sum covers entirely the financing gap," Ionut Dumitru of Raiffeisen Bank said.
"I expect the first impact of it would be an improvement of foreign investors' perception towards the country."
The EBRD said about half of its loan would be dedicated to the financial sector, with the remainder invested across the broader economy, including in the corporate, energy and energy efficiency and national and municipal infrastructure sectors.
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8 March 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania—Alina Lungu, 30, said she did everything necessary to ensure a healthy pregnancy in Romania: she ate organic food, swam daily and bribed her gynecologist with an extra $255 in cash, paid in monthly installments handed over discreetly in white envelopes.
She paid a nurse about $32 extra to guarantee an epidural and even gave about $13 to the orderly to make sure he did not drop the stretcher.
But on the day of her delivery, she said, her gynecologist never arrived. Twelve hours into labor, she was left alone in her room for an hour. A doctor finally appeared and found that the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around her baby’s neck and had nearly suffocated him. He was born blind and deaf and is severely brain damaged.
Now, Alina and her husband, Ionut, despair that the bribes they paid were not enough to prevent the negligence that they say harmed their son, Sebastian. “Doctors are so used to getting bribes in Romania that you now have to pay more in order to even get their attention,” she said.
Romania, a poor Balkan country of 22 million that joined the European Union two years ago, is struggling to shed a culture of corruption that was honed during decades of Communism, when Romanians endured long lines just to get basics like eggs and milk and used bribes to acquire scarce products and services.
Alarm is growing in Brussels that Romania and other recent entrants to the European Union are undermining the bloc’s rule of law. The European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, published a damning report last month criticizing Romania for backtracking on judicial changes necessary to fight corruption. And Transparency International, the Berlin-based anticorruption watchdog, ranked Romania as the second most corrupt country in the 27-member European Union last year, behind neighboring Bulgaria.
Those who have faced corruption allegations in recent years have included a former prime minister, more than 1,100 doctors and teachers, 170 police officers and 3 generals, according to Romanian anticorruption investigators.
Romanians say it is the everyday graft and bribery that blights their lives, and nowhere are the abuses more glaring than in the socialized health care system.
Interviews with doctors, patients and ethicists suggest that the culture of bribery has infected every level of the system, sometimes leaving patients desperate.
One doctor said a patient recently offered him a free shopping trip to Dubai, an offer he declined.
The issue of health care corruption gained national attention in January when a 63-year-old man, Mihai Constantinescu, died of a heart attack in the waiting room of a hospital in Slatina, in southern Romania. Mihaela Ionita, the nurse who wheeled him from room to room trying to get a doctor to treat him, said in an interview that she believed he had been refused care “because he appeared poor and could not afford a bribe.” The hospital said Mr. Constantinescu had not seemed an emergency case.
Dr. Vasile Astarastoae, a biomedical ethicist who is president of the Romanian College of Physicians, which represents 47,000 doctors, blamed a pitifully low average monthly wage of about $510 for doctors for the bribe-taking.
“Patients don’t want to go to a doctor who is distracted thinking, ‘How will I feed my kids or pay the rent?’ ” Dr. Astarastoae said. “So there is a conspiracy between the doctor and the patient to pay a bribe.”
He said that unlike in many Western countries, where doctors are respected and handsomely rewarded for years of hard study, the medical profession here had been denigrated under Communist leaders who made workers in factories the country’s heroes.
A 2005 study conducted by the World Bank for the Romanian Ministry of Health concluded that so-called informal payments amounted to $360 million annually. When an illness requires hospitalization, patients typically pay bribes equivalent to three-quarters of a family’s monthly income, the study showed.
Some doctors say that the bribery culture is so endemic that when they refuse bribes, some patients become distraught and mistakenly conclude it is a sign that their illnesses are incurable.
Doctors and patients say the bribery follows a set of unwritten rules. The cost of bribes depends on the treatment, ranging from $127 for a straightforward appendix-removal operation to up to more than $6,370 for brain surgery. The suggested bribery prices are passed on by word of mouth, and are publicized on blogs and Web sites.
Victor Alistar, director of Transparency International’s Romanian branch, said public hospitals routinely exchanged “supplementary payment” lists to ensure that they had the same rates.
Dr. Adela Salceanu, a psychiatrist and antibribery advocate, recalled that one friend, a 42-year-old lawyer, recently broke two legs in a basketball game and was taken to a hospital for surgery. When he did not offer money to the orthopedic surgeon on duty, his procedure was postponed for a week; he finally received treatment, but only after paying the doctor an extra $510.
Mugur Ciumageanu, a psychiatrist who has practiced in public hospitals in Bucharest, said that when he was a young doctor, a senior physician forbade him to talk with patients for three months. She explained that by spending more time with patients than she was, and appearing more caring, he was putting a dent in her bribery earnings.
Marilena Tiron, 26, a recent graduate of a medical school in Bucharest, said the issue of bribery did not come up in her optional medical ethics class at the University of Bucharest’s Medical School “since the teachers were taking bribes themselves.”
Dr. Astarastoae, of the Romanian College of Physicians, acknowledged that bribery needed to be rooted out. He said that the college had the power to revoke the licenses of doctors implicated in a bribe but added that few patients were willing to identify their doctors for fear they could be shunned by other doctors.
The Ministry of Health has taken some steps to try to change the culture of bribery. It recently set up a free phone line for patients to report abuses. Within an hour, it was jammed with calls. Hospitals here are plastered with antibribery posters.
But Liviu Manaila, Romania’s secretary of state for health, said in an interview that the culture would not change fundamentally until doctors’ pay increased. While he said the government’s budget was too strained to raise wages, he proposed revamping Romania’s socialized medical system so that patients took on a greater burden of the costs. He said their payments could be used to pay doctors higher fees.
Ms. Lungu, Sebastian’s mother, said that whatever changes were made, they should start now, before other children suffer like her son, who will probably spend his life in a vegetative state.
“The problem is that all this black money absolves doctors of their moral responsibility toward their patients,” she said. “It has got to be stopped.”
5 March 2009
David Nolan Gallery
When Mr. Savu was a child, Romania was still under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. And although Ceausescu was deposed and killed in 1989, the technological impoverishment and isolationism of his quarter-century rule continues to mark the country, as Mr. Savu’s pictures suggest in his slightly dazed and fogged-in version of the Social Realism that was once considered a utopian aesthetic.
In his paintings, most set in semirural landscapes with evidence of towns or cities not far off, everyday life goes on as if indifferent to politics. Commuters wait for a bus; workmen make concrete; a couple lie together on the grass. But beyond the couple looms a hulking building, a factory or an electric plant, apparently deserted. The workmen stand in a hangarlike interior, empty and overgrown with weeds. Only one painting depicts a world filled with material things, and these are wrecked cars and discarded furniture piled up in a trash heap, through which men sift and dig.
There is nothing radical about Mr. Savu’s art. It is the opposite of cutting edge, which seems to be its point. Emblems of past promises for a utopian future and scenes of a present still poisoned by those promises exist on a continuum in these wry but unlaughing, beautifully painted pictures. They could be taken as stagnant idylls for a new Depression, except that an old one hasn’t ended. (A painting by Mr. Savu is also in the booth occupied by Plan B gallery, based in Cluj and Berlin, in this year’s Armory Show, which is reviewed on Page 23.)
1 March 2009
“Martisor”, flowers, gifts – all were given yesterday to ladies and young women throughout the country. Celebrated by all Romanians and taken over, from them, by all neighbouring peoples, a different symbolic significance was attached in time to Martisor.
Displayed for sale some time ahead of March 1, “Martisorul”, under different forms – flowers, gifts or plain necklaces made of white and red threads – were given yesterday to ladies and young women. Romanians had a large choice available, for “martisoare”, as prices were for all and they were made for every taste, according to Antena 3.
The tradition of “martisor” is specific to the Carpathian area and to the neighbouring regions and it goes back to pre-Christian time, when it marked the beginning of the new agricultural year. According to Agerpres, Martisor has gained, in time, a different significance, and it currently means any object given which has white and red knitted thread. In the past, the thread had at the end a coin, which was used as a talisman against bad thoughts or as magic for happiness. Currently, martisor has the shape that the one who gives intend it, it can be a jewel, a decoration object, pendants of wood or silver with zodiacs, a ticket to a cultural event or anything that has a white – red shred.
Along with Martisor there are Babele (Old Women Days), a tradition that lasts, depending on the region, 12, 9, 6 or 3 days. These are the days when Baba Dochia removes her winter clothes. The name comes from the Christian martyr Evdochia but it includes reminiscences of a much older domestic pastoral goddess by which the people explain the unstable nature of the weather in early March. The first three “babe” represent spring, winter and autumn – sewing, summer work and harvesting. The weather phenomena of these three days are usually telling something about the time period they represent. People must choose a day, out of the 12, and the way that day is represents how their whole year ahead shall be.
Martisor fairs in Bucharest museums
In Bucharest, the most important museums opened their gates for the thousands of visitors willing to offer to the loved ones, “martisoare”, displaying a large choice of martisoare, which are nicely coloured, brighter and unique, in their way.
Necklaces, earrings, pendants, brooches of natural crystals and polished or stone birds are only a few objects that could have been purchased by Bucharest inhabitants from Martisor Fair, organized by National Museum of Geology in Bucharest.
Those who entered the Museum of the Romanian Peasant found both classic “martisoare”, made of painted wood, glass or immortal natural flowers, and modern “martisoare”, made of special materials. This year, the museums at Bucharest became appealing for the Capital inhabitants also through cook “martisoare”: kurtos kalacs, ginger bread, home made cookies or honey. At “Dimitrie Gusti” Village Museum (Muzeul Satului), one could find unique martisoare, funny and coloured martisoare, made by the students from National Fine Arts University, along with traditional “martisoare”, made by craftsmen from various regions of the country.
Yesterday, flowers and “martisoare” instead of fines and penalizing points
Yesterday, Road Police organized, throughout the country, actions aimed at observing the compliance with the legal norms related to driving on public roads. According to the Info-traffic Department within Romanian Police General Inspectorate (IGPR), the women drivers received, yesterday, flowers and “martisoare” instead of fines and penalizing points.
Flowers for women journalists offered by president Basescu on martisor day
President Traian Basescu offered flowers yesterday to the women journalists accredited to accompany the official delegation that represents Romania in the informal reunion of the EU heads of state and governments in Brussels.
The Martisor offered by the President was a violet freesia to which a white – red thread was attached.
Wikipedia 26 February 2009
26 February 2009
BUCHAREST, Romania—What are the arts worth?
In straitened times it’s easy to mistake cost for value. You might also say it’s the difference between cash and culture, the price of something and what’s ultimately priceless.
Romanians, it seems, have been prone to confuse the two since even before the revolution that overthrew the country’s Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and executed him and his wife, Elena, nearly 20 years ago.
That’s one explanation, at least, for why, when the courts here recently ruled that some art formerly in the possession of the Ceausescu family should be returned to Nicolae’s only surviving child, Valentin, Romanians hardly blinked.
The art is mostly Romanian paintings, but also some Goya prints. That ruling was not quite an equivalent to German courts handing art formerly at Berchtesgaden over to Hitler’s relatives. But it was close.
A soft-spoken 60-year-old physicist who never helped run his father’s regime, Valentin Ceausescu has said the works he wanted to get back belonged to his own former wife, Iordana, an art historian and the daughter of a onetime Communist leader. Valentin’s father, who didn’t approve of the marriage, expelled her years ago to Canada.
Other works being returned, however, belonged to Valentin’s brother, Nicu, a much-loathed figure when he was the dictator’s heir apparent. He died of cirrhosis in 1996, at 45. (Ceausescu’s third child, a daughter, Zoe, who also had some works of art, died from lung cancer in 2006, at 57.)
Ultimately, of course, everything that belonged to the family of Ceausescu, a onetime apprentice shoemaker from a peasant village, derived from the privileges of power.
The case went through many convolutions over seven years. Valentin argued in court that what had been confiscated from him after his father was overthrown was not state property—never mind if, as the state argued, none of the Ceausescus ever bothered to document properly what was in their possession, as the Ceausescu regime required every Romanian to do.
An eyebrow or two might have been raised when the court then agreed with Valentin, at least among Romanians who could recall how the dictator enriched his homes, his family members and others close to him by seizing art and property from innumerable countrymen.
But the ho-hum response here speaks volumes about this struggling country’s cash-versus-culture climate. With most barely scraping by, Romanians admire private enterprise more than they value some vague notion of shared artistic heritage.
“Since the revolution the country is only about private enterprise,” said Cristian Stanescu, a journalist who covered the trial for the local newspaper, The Guardian. He echoed what others here say: “Romanians sympathize with Valentin because he worked the system to his advantage. Our idea of culture now is making money. We still have too many basic needs to worry about elevated ones like art and the state.”
Alin Ciupala, a thoughtful young historian of Romanian history at Bucharest University, put his countrymen’s indifference to their artistic heritage another way: “In Romania under Ceausescu there didn’t exist, as there did in the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, any underground cultural movement. There was no samizdat culture. And so there never was a tradition here of cultural liberalism, of cultural resistance. Intellectuals were opportunistic. The instinct to survive has always been highly developed in this country.
“If Valentin had obtained from the courts big castles, or land, it might have provoked a reaction and reduced public sympathy for him. But paintings and prints, works of art? They don’t mean that much for most Romanians.”
The art the court agreed should be handed over to Mr. Ceausescu is still in storage in the National Art Museum, where it has been since being seized years ago. One estimate put the price tag for the lot of pictures, some 40, at somewhat less than $1 million, but that was only a wild guess.
Goya aside, the best-known artists among the work being returned, Victor Brauner and Theodor Pallady, aren’t exactly big names outside the country. Like Valentin Ceausescu and his wife, but for very different reasons, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu also amassed works by Romanian artists, in their case pre-modern and Socialist Realist, although for a while, while the Communist leader was courting Richard M. Nixon and Charles de Gaulle during the 1960s, the state officially tolerated modern art for the sake of Western consumption. Briefly Romanian artists had a window onto what was happening in America and Western Europe.
But then, culture having only been a political tool, the window eventually shut. After Ceausescu visited Pyongyang in North Korea, he decided to rebuild his own capital city. The result was to wipe out much of historic Bucharest to make way for grotesque and gigantic building projects that still spoil the city center, and sycophants kept a virtual army of state-approved artists busy painting portraits of Ceausescu and his wife, thousands of them. These ended up in public buildings and in the various homes of the dictator, who loved to receive as birthday gifts pictures of himself showing how much the Romanian people loved him. Ceausescu constructed a whole building to store these portraits.
As it happened, the National Museum of Contemporary Art here had some of them on view the other day. Mihai Oroveanu, the museum’s director, hung them in one gallery—diagonally, to make clear that the show was not actually a tribute.
Big, brightly colored scenes of Communist kitsch, they showed the dictator and his wife smiling before reverent mobs of workers, receiving flowers from ruddy-cheeked female soldiers, and wearing white 1970s leisure suits that, like the peaked winter hat Ceausescu made de rigeur for all loyal apparatchiks, became the height of Romanian fashion once upon a time.
Radu Filipescu, a former dissident imprisoned and beaten under Ceausescu for distributing antigovernment leaflets, recalled Romanian life back then. “The most interesting books I read were in prison,” he said one recent evening, with a laugh. “There was not a lot else to do.” But he was also half-serious.
“Today Romanians are totally consumed by competition and money,” he explained. “It’s easier for them to keep warm memories of the past, when life certainly was not better, but in some ways it was not as difficult. They don’t want to concern themselves with Ceausescu at the moment.”
All of Europe wrestles with the last century, at different speeds. A generation of Spaniards is just getting around to unearthing the graves of Republicans killed under the rule of Francisco Franco, more than three decades after his death; France and Poland still haven’t quite confronted their conflicted roles during World War II. Germany struggles with addressing the legacy of its division, 20 years after the Wall fall.
Here, Ceausescu and his wife aside, few Romanians were prosecuted for what happened during the Ceausescu era. Nobody served more than a few years in jail.
“It is incredible to give back paintings to the son of a dictator,” said Stejarel Olaru. He oversees the government-sponsored Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania. “But people don’t care.”
And so it’s left to Valentin Ceausescu, of all people, to deal with the past. He agreed to meet one afternoon in a nearly empty restaurant outside Bucharest. Nervous and defensive, he stressed that the art his parents had in their homes was borrowed from state-owned museums. The works he fought to recover, the only ones he really cares about, he said, were collected by him and his former wife, a private affair.
“I was defending my name,” he said. “These works were part of my past, my life. Some were gifts from a painter who was a friend.”
If the museum abides by the court order and turns the pictures over, which he said he still doubts, Mr. Ceausescu plans to give most of the works to Iordana, keep two or three for himself, but sell none.
The issue was never profit, said the son of the dead dictator. It was justice.
“I’m not pressed for money,” he
wanted to make clear. “The whole point was that there should be a
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16 February 2009
The World Records Academy provides a description for the “Evening Star” that might be fit for today’s “Youtube generation,” presenting it as a mix of the plots of “Gone with the Wind,” “Star Trek” and “Love Story.”
Bucharest - Mihai Eminescu’s “Evening Star” was acknowledged by the World Records Academy as the longest love poem in the world, due to its length of 98 verses, on Saturday, February 14, on the occasion of Valentine’s Day, the Academy announces. The official website of the World Records Academy outlines: “The Legend of the ‘Evening Star’ tells the story of a young princess praying each night to the Evening Star. The Evening Star falls in love with her and is ready to give up its immortality, yet realizes that his pure love for the young girl cannot be shared by an ordinary human being.” World Records Academy describes the “Evening Star” for today’s “Youtube generation” as a mix of the stories presented by the motion pictures “Gone with the Wind,” (a romantic drama), “Star Trek,” (a famous science fiction story) and “Love Story” (a romantic poem with a sad ending that generated the famous film).
“Eminescu’s linden” from the Copou Park in Iasi is over a century old and is considered “the lovers’ tree.” It is also mentioned by the World Records Academy as the place where Eminescu found inspiration. At the time being, the place became one of the young lovers’ favourite locations. “It is a miracle that this tree managed to survive for so long,” Mandache Leocov, former manager of the Botanic Garden in Iasi declared. “Tourists from all over the world – including far countries such as Brazil and Japan – are coming especially to visit “Eminescu’s linden” in order to share a kiss in a place that is rumoured to bring luck to lovers,” he added.
NASA also named a crater on Mars by Eminescu’s name, because “Eminescu is a successful and influential poet, considered Romania’s national poet.” Moreover, 2000 was declared by UNESCO “The Year of the Poet Mihai Eminescu.” The World Records Academy has acknowledged several Romanian records, such as the one achieved by sportswoman Nadia Comaneci – the most ranks of 10 reached at the Montreal Olympics, of the gymnastics trainers Octavian Belu and Mariana Bitang, considered the most successful trainers in the world, the Palace of the Parliament, considered the greatest, the heaviest and the most expensive administrative building, as well as the six world records reached by the most successful young artist ever, Cleopatra Stratan. Moreover, the Academy has acknowledged the longest basketball game – in Sibiu, the greatest “balmos” (Romanian dish consisting of cheese, milk and corn, editor’s note), made in Alba and the longest “bulz” (another Romanian dish, consisting of polenta and cheese, editor’s note) in Covasna.
The World Records Academy is located in Miami and is the greatest organization to register world records of all domains. It is the partner of Google News, a content/news supplier and a member of the National Geographic Society.
Wikipedia 17 February 2009
By Dan Bilefsky
VALEA DANULUI, Romania—For millions of Romanians, migration has been an economic lifeline. But for 12-year-old Stefan Ciurea, the thought of his mother leaving to work as a maid in Italy was worse than death: he hanged himself with a leather horsewhip from the branch of a cherry tree.
After taking one last photograph of himself with his cellphone, Stefan, a quiet, diminutive boy who collected foreign coins and made toy swords out of scrap metal, posted a note to his chest.
“I’m sorry we are parting upset,” the note said, referring to his pained efforts to stop his mother, Alexandrina, from migrating to Rome, part of an exodus of one-third of Romania’s active work force. “You don’t have to worry about my funeral because a man owes us money for timber. My sister, you should study hard. Mom, you should take care of yourself because the world is harsh. Please take care of my puppy.”
Two years later, Ms. Ciurea, a 38-year-old single mother, is a cleaner in Rome, one of an estimated three million Romanians who have migrated westward over the past five years. She said Stefan’s suicide had given her a stomach ulcer. After his death, she waited a year before deciding to leave her two other children, who were teenagers, behind.
But in the end, economics prevailed: she could earn about $770 a month cleaning houses in Italy, more than three times her wage as a seamstress in Romania.
“Stefan’s death is the tragedy of my life,” she said in a telephone interview from Rome. “But I left because I was poor and couldn’t feed my children. If I could, I would come back to Romania tomorrow.”
Many in this poor Balkan country of 22 million dreamed of escaping during decades of dictatorship. The exodus of poor, rural Romanians began after the fall of Communism in 1989 and intensified two years ago when Romania joined the European Union. Spain, Italy and a handful of other countries softened immigration rules to attract less expensive workers from the East.
Diligent Romanians became the strawberry pickers, construction workers and housecleaners of choice, doing jobs that workers in richer neighboring countries no longer wanted.
But while migration has brought economic gains—migrants sent home nearly $10.3 billion in remittances last year—it has also exacted a heavy toll on the country left behind.
The migration ripped apart the social fabric, creating a generation of what some sociologists call the “strawberry orphans.” An estimated 170,000 children have one or both parents working abroad, according to a recent study by the Soros Foundation.
The same study found that children with parents abroad were more likely to abuse alcohol and cigarettes, have problems with the police and underperform in school. Conversely, some children who blame themselves for their parents’ departure become straight-A students in the hope of luring them back.
Denisa Ionescu, a psychologist who works with the children of migrants, said they were at higher risk for depression, especially if it was the mother who left, while some of the children suffer from feelings of abandonment.
“In Romania, it is the mother who cares for the children,” Ms. Ionescu said. “So when the mother leaves, the child’s world falls apart.”
Of the children left behind, 14 have committed suicide over the past three years, according to researchers with the Soros Foundation. It is unclear what role their parents’ leaving played in the children’s decisions to take their lives, except in the case of Stefan.
But psychologists say the effects of migration have been especially acute because Romania is a largely rural country where close family ties underpin all aspects of life. In some cases, migration causes already dysfunctional families to implode.
Gheorghe Ciurea, Stefan’s 16- year-old half brother, said Stefan was a quiet, affable boy. But when he learned that his mother was leaving and he would be in the care of Stefan’s hard-drinking father, who never married Stefan’s mother, he locked himself in his room and refused to come out for days.
After the suicide, Stefan’s father moved out. Now Gheorghe, whose own father is dead, lives alone in their cramped, messy house in this village about 105 miles northwest of Bucharest.
He said he dropped out of high school because he could not afford the tuition. He does odd construction jobs to scrape by. The house is freezing, and he wears a wool coat inside. To pass the time, he plays backgammon. His sister, Alina, 17, lives with her boyfriend. Being alone has forced him to learn to cook. He calls his mother every day.
“I miss my mother,” he said from Stefan’s room. “At some point, she says, she will bring me to Italy so I can work in construction, but I am still waiting. I am still waiting.”
Outside, down a dirt road, dozens of new homes have sprouted, the product of toil abroad. Vasile Dina, the vice mayor of Valea Danului, said he could barely meet the demand for new housing permits. But the wealth came at a price.
“We have more tax revenues, nice cars on the road, people send their children to university in Bucharest,” Mr. Dina said. “But the sad truth is that if we were still living under Communism, Gheorghe would be going to school—not sitting at home by himself.”
Mihaela Stefanescu, who coordinated the study for the Soros Foundation, said the billions in remittances had helped eradicate extreme poverty and had empowered working mothers like Alexandrina Ciurea.
But she said the migration was also redefining the notion of the traditional Romanian family.
Many children of migrants live with grandparents, some of whom are not able to deal with the demands of rearing young children.
Divorce among migrants is rising, with sets of parents sometimes migrating to different countries. In extreme cases, children are abandoned or sent to orphanages, child advocates say. Some work as prostitutes or get involved with criminals.
An Emmy Award-winning documentary series, “Any Idea What Your Kid Is Doing Right Now?” shown on national television here, featured a family of six children left with their blind father after the mother went to work as a maid in Germany. She met another man and never returned. Soon, some of the children were forced to stop going to school and find work to survive.
Ms. Stefanescu said migrating parents were spoiling their children to allay guilt.
“People are going on spending sprees in order to overcompensate for their humiliation and guilt at having had to leave the country to support the family,” she said. “Migrant kids have new bikes and the latest mobile phones.”
Economists warn that the benefits of working abroad may prove short-lived, especially if the global economic downturn forces workers to return home to an economy that can no longer absorb them. Some companies dealt with worker shortages caused by the migration by importing workers from Turkey, China and India to fill jobs in construction, agriculture and textiles.
Tens of thousands of Romanians are already out of jobs in Spain and Italy, and alarm is growing that a mass return could overstretch an already teetering Romanian economy.
“The short-term economic gains of migration will not justify the long-term costs,” said Radu Soviani, a leading economist. “It is a national tragedy.”
Wikipedia 14 February 2009
Wikipedia 11 February 2009
Wikipedia 11 February 2009
Wikipedia 9 February 2009
3 February 2009
The International Court of Justice in The Hague has delivered its ruling on the long-running dispute between Romania and Ukraine over an islet in the Black Sea—called Serpents Island—with access to potentially large reserves of oil and gas.
The court delivered a compromise decision that awarded part of the disputed sea floor to each country, but the biggest share went to Romania.
Romanian leaders hailed the decision. Speaking in Gyula, Hungary, Romanian President Traian Basescu said the verdict was "a major success for [Romania's] Foreign Ministry."
In Bucharest, former Romanian Prime MInister and opposition leader Calin Popescu Tariceanu said the court's decision will allow Romania to drill for oil and gas under the Black Sea. And a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Adrian Severin, said: "From now, Romania is able to exploit its full territory, including the continental shelf, and also has a better perspective for better relations and economic cooperation with Ukraine."
Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Kupchyshyn said the decision is "a wise compromise, and both parties are bound by this decision.... From now on there are no contradicting points between Ukraine and Romania."
The ruling means that the maritime border between Romania and Ukraine must be drawn up without consideration of Serpents Island.
At stake are oil exploration and drilling rights in a 12,000 square kilometer area of the Black Sea.
Romania has previously estimated that the disputed continental shelf there may contain reserves of 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas and more than 10 million tons of oil. Foreign oil majors have expressed interest in more fully exploring the area, and potentially investing in extraction.
Romania brought the case to the world court in 2004, after both Kyiv and Bucharest agreed to submit to the court's arbitration after years of fruitless bilateral negotiations.
Romania's case was that Serpents Island should be defined only as a rocky outcropping, and therefore need not be considered important enough to be a factor in drawing the Romanian-Ukrainian maritime border.
Ukraine's case was that Serpents Island should be defined as an island, as its name suggests, which would mean that the continental shelf around it would fall to Ukraine's possession.
The court's decision ignores the island as a factor in establishing the common boundary, and draws an equidistant line from the Ukrainian and Romanian shorelines. That awards the majority of the disputed territory to Romania.
Bogdan Aurescu, the head of the Romanian legal team, welcomed the result. "The boundary clearly separates the territories that can be used by Romania and Ukraine," Aurescu said. "It is a better line [for Romania] than any solution that could have been obtained through negotiations, better than anything Ukraine has offered."
Serpents Island was owned by Romania until 1948, when the Soviet leadership ordered it transferred to Ukrainian control. Romania has not contested Ukraine's ownership, but it has complained that Kyiv has been developing the island in order to bolster its undersea claim at the world court.
European parliamentarian Severin said the settlement imposed by the court has benefits for the whole region. "There are two major benefits," he said. "Number one is that a dispute between two neighboring countries is over, and this dispute was a burden on their bilateral relations; the second benefit is that Romania has a clear definition of its rights."
Presently the island has a population of about 100 people, mostly border guards, but also scientists and shopkeepers. It has a lighthouse, and a harbor is under construction.
Ukraine's representative to the court, Volodymyr Vasylenko, said before today's ruling that his side expected a compromise decision that would give something to both appellants.
RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report.
Wikipedia 2 February 2009
Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January is an occasion for Jews and Roma (Gypsies) to remind the world how their families were terrorised and butchered by the Nazis in World War II.
Roma in Vlasca, a village in southeastern Romania, told the BBC's Delia Radu about their wartime ordeal.
The Roma people of Vlasca—traditional metal workers called Kalderash—are closed and inward-looking. They are reluctant to talk to anyone from outside the community.
It took weeks of negotiation to hear the accounts of Holocaust survivors in the village.
Historians often call it "the forgotten Holocaust". Up to 500,000 Roma are believed to have died in mass shootings and Nazi gas chambers.
Recent studies have brought more of their suffering to public attention, but to this day little is known about the Roma targeted for persecution and extermination by the allies of the Third Reich on the eastern front.
The men are the first to speak—and later, when it is the women's turn, they leave the room.
Sandu Stanescu remembers how, in the early summer of 1942, some policemen installed a table by the road, covered it with papers and made lists: Roma families, extended families, communities—shatras.
The Nazi-backed ruler of Romania—military dictator Ion Antonescu—had just received his reward for attacking the Soviet Union: Trans-Dniester, "the land beyond the Dniester". It was a chunk of land in the east, between the rivers Dniester and Bug.
The territory, most of it part of today's Ukraine, became Nazi Romania's ethnic "dustbin" for Jews and Roma.
Conveniently the nomadic Roma had carts and horses and the police only had to escort them across the border.
But as soon as the convoys reached Trans-Dniester, the Romanian authorities confiscated everything.
"We lost our carts, horses, all our baggage and all the gold our fathers had hidden in the carts' shafts," Mr Stanescu says.
In freezing cold, with no food, thousands of Roma were marched towards the river Bug. The survivors were forced to live in camps of flimsy hovels on the outskirts of war-torn villages, or in stables on deserted collective farms, to provide forced labour.
"My father, Mihai Gheorghe, died there, my mother Maria died there, both my brothers died there," says Mihai Gogu.
"They died because of the bitter cold, because there was nothing to eat and you couldn't wash. I think filth was the main killer: lice were crawling everywhere, like teeming ants in an anthill. That was our ordeal."
Scavenging for food
One man speaks of "beatings, disease and bitterness in the fields".
Mihai Iorga recalls how his mother had "brought with her some embroidered pieces of cloth, like those ones people arrange on walls under the icons".
His sharp grey eyes are moist and he stands in the middle of the gathering to tell the story better.
"She tried to sell those in the neighbouring village, for food. But a Romanian policeman and a Ukrainian guard saw her, beat her badly and threatened to shoot her. She rushed back home crying.
"Me and my brothers begged her not to go again. But the following day off she went. She did what she did and managed to find another way to sneak back into the village.
"We waited and waited, fearing she might never come back... But lo and behold, there she was, carrying two buckets of potatoes and sweet cornflour! Oh, how we hugged her, how we kissed her! She then baked those potatoes straight on the flame because we were left with nothing, not even a pan or dish for cooking.
"Afterwards she managed to find a small tin. She melted some snow in it, there was no other source of water, and made a nice tiny polenta. It was so good! We felt so good!"
In 1944, when the war front moved west and the Romanian administration withdrew from Trans-Dniester, the Roma had to walk back hundreds of miles, "covered in mud, covered in bitterness".
A teenager at the time, Mihai Gogu was the only survivor in his family and saw many children dying on the road.
"We walked back, barefoot. Parents carried children on their shoulders. But time and again, one of these little ones would slip and fall off the grown-up's back. They died of hunger."
Mihai Iorga's father was taken ill and died during the return journey. It was his mother who managed to see her children safely to Romania.
The men leave, the women enter in their flowery scarves.
During the deportation pregnant Roma women were killed because they were unable to walk fast enough.
"A heavily pregnant woman was shot before my eyes," Maria Mihai recalls. "She fell on the ground. And the baby started struggling inside her."
The women remember how their mothers had to find water and food miles away from the camps, there were long queues at the wells, sometimes the water sources had dried up. They remember their mothers making clothes out of thick brown paper potato sacks.
But most stories revolve around the constant fear of being raped by the armed guards.
"Both my parents died. I was only a girl, in the flower of my youth. That was very dangerous. They tried to take us young girls by force," says Natalia Mihai.
There were horsemen hunting women and little girls hiding under their mothers' long-layered Gypsy skirts.
"Once they put a gun at a girl's neck and raped her, something like a whole committee raped her and they were shouting and chanting," says Floarea Stanescu. But Natalia Mihai asks her to stop: "Don't remind me of all that, I feel like dying".
A report by the International Commission for the Study of the Romanian Holocaust says the number of Roma victims in Trans-Dniester is difficult to establish, mainly because the lists of deportees were negligently put together.
Some 25,000 Roma deportees are accounted for and the number of dead is thought to be 11,000. According to the report, half of the deported Roma were children and the women were frequently subjected to brutal sexual attacks.
Now that the Roma women in Vlasca have finished their stories, the men are back.
Both groups make a few final comments about the food in Trans-Dniester. "The Ukrainians used to catch those underground creatures, moles, you know", says Maria Mihai. "They skinned these animals and either ate them or sold them to us."
"Yes," says Mihai Iorga, "I ate moles too, on the banks of the Bug".
"And when we saw those moles, we wept with revulsion," continues Maria Mihai. "And we ate dogs, too… Yes, dead dogs, sweet Jesus, we were given dog meat, too."
"But in the summer, the mussels in the Bug were a luxury," says Mihai Iorga. "She knew how to cook those, my poor mum."
Most of the Holocaust survivors in Vlasca have received compensation via the International Organization for Migration, in Geneva. The IOM says survivors and their close relatives receive up to 7,000 euros (£6,590; $9,070) each.
The compensation is paid under an IOM partnership with Germany.
Wikipedia 27 January 2009
The Bran Castle might be turned into a private museum, starting May this year. “We want to make a private museum. We are not discussing the sale of the museum, but the possibility that the museum would be overtaken by a private administrator who would keep it as a museum,” Colin Trandafir, the lawyer of the Habsburg family declared.
Therefore, Dominic of Habsburg will visit Romania on January 27 and wishes to meet both the Culture, Religious Denominations and National Patrimony Minister Theodor Paleologu, and the Tourism Minister Elena Udrea.
Colin Trandafir outlined that the meetings’ agenda was not definitively established yet.
The Bran Castle was returned on May 18, 2006, to Dominic of Habsburg, and will remain a museum until May 18, 2009, administrated by the Romanian state, by means of the Ministry of Culture. The retrocession disposition of the Bran Castle was signed by the Manager of the Bran Museum, Narcis Dorin Ion.
Moreover, the former Minister of Culture and Religious Denominations, Adrian Iorgulescu, and Dominic of Habsburg signed an administration agreement of the castle on May 26, 2006, stipulating that it would remain a museum for the three years to come. After the retrocession, Dominic of Habsburg gained back the ownership of the following properties: the Castle, the “Queen Marie” Tea House, the Castle of Princess Ileana, the Administrator’s House, the “Queen Marie’s Heart” Tabernacle and a surrounding lot of over 7,500 square metres, the 28,000 square metre park of the castle, the two lakes located in the park of the castle, with a total surface of 1,400 square metres and the access road of 1,650 square metres. The retrocession decision was contested by the PD Deputy Dumitru Puchianu in 2007, and a Committee of Parliamentary Investigation was established and assigned the task of analyzing the legitimacy of the Castle Bran retrocession. According to the report filed by the Commission, adopted by the Chamber of Deputies in September 2007, the retrocession of the castle was not made to the entitled persons and therefore the retrocession documents are annulled.
Nonetheless, the Government established that the retrocession of the Bran Castle was legal, as some of the inheritors – Alexandra Baillou and Jerrine Habsburg Lothringen submitted official documents showing that they gave up their inheriting rights, and the private ownership of the building was not unconstitutional.
Movie Review California Dreamin' (2007)
By A. O. SCOTT
Marion Hanciarek/Mediapro Pictures
Poor Captain Jones. An American military intelligence officer in command of a company of marines, he finds himself, in the autumn of 1999, stuck in a Romanian backwater called Capalnita. Charged with the apparently simple task of delivering some non-lethal equipment, by train, to NATO forces dealing with the situation in Kosovo, Jones stumbles into a Balkan world of bureaucratic intransigence, corruption and local feuding. A square-jawed by-the-book kind of warrior who keeps whatever sense of humor he might have on lockdown, he struggles to understand why he must spend five days languishing in a place he describes as lost “in the fold of some map.”
It may be just as surprising to find Armand Assante, who plays Jones, giving the performance of his career in a modest Romanian movie: “California Dreamin’,” the first and only feature directed by Cristian Nemescu, a phenomenally talented young filmmaker who died in a car accident shortly after completing it.
Mr. Assante, a solid, hard-working actor with scores of roles on his résumé, inflects Jones’s crisp, authoritative martial gestures with hints of inner complication. Trying to assess the delicacies of the situation on the ground in Capalnita—even as he tries to force or coax his way out—he walks a fine line between hero and clown. He may be the new sheriff in town, or else just another player in the circus passing through.
The stranding of Jones and his men could be the biggest thing ever to happen in Capalnita, and the cause of it is Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), the village’s bitter, semicriminal stationmaster, who lives above the depot with his daughter, Monica (Maria Dinulescu). Like most of the women in town, Monica regards the arrival of the Americans as an occasion for sexual adventure and possible escape.
At a party thrown together by the unctuous, opportunistic mayor (Ion Sapdaru), the local young men stand around looking glum while their girlfriends flirt and dance with the foreigners. Monica is drawn to Sergeant McLaren (Jamie Elman), Jones’s second in command, and though they have no language in common their first touch produces a literal electric shock. The eventual consummation of their attraction causes a blackout and several explosions.
“California Dreamin’ ” is a rambunctious, closely observed comedy of cultural collision, its satirical gaze aimed at Romania’s foibles and also at the sometimes lethal absurdities of geopolitics. A crucial decade younger than the other filmmakers associated with Romanian cinema’s recent renaissance, Mr. Nemescu, 26 at the time of his death, did not share their penchant for long takes and stripped-down realism. Compared with Cristi Puiu’s “Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (to limit the field to Cannes prize-winners by directors with nearly identical first names), “California Dreamin’ ” filters its local concerns through a restless pop sensibility.
Its themes are serious, but they are addressed with a playful exuberance that suggests a young man’s unbridled delight in every aspect of filmmaking, a spirit that also infuses Mr. Nemescu’s wonderful short films “C Block Story” and “Marilena From P7.” His nascent style was eclectic and sometimes chaotic, but “California Dreamin’ ” shows his ability to direct actors in two languages, and to execute set pieces—from McClaren and Monica’s intimate moments to the farce of the mayor’s big shindig—with precision and panache.
“California Dreamin’ ” is being released as it was shown in Cannes in 2007, which is to say in an unfinished (or, as the title parenthetically suggests, “endless”) state. Had he lived, Mr. Nemescu would probably have trimmed and tightened the movie, which at more than two and a half hours runs a bit long for the scope of its story. But loose-jointed though it is, it is never boring. It rambles a bit, but it always has something interesting to say.
In particular, I think, to American audiences. Given everything that has happened since, the Kosovo intervention of 1999 may not seem like a terribly relevant or significant moment in history. But viewed through the lens of the Iraq war—which was surely on Mr. Nemescu’s mind in 2006—this odd little Clinton-era anecdote takes on some unsettling resonances.
Jones arrives, as Americans so often do, with high ideals and good intentions, greeting the people of Capalnita with a sincere respect that contains more than a hint of condescension. The villagers are mired in their own problems—a power struggle between Doiaru and the mayor and a simmering confrontation between the stationmaster and workers in a factory he wants to buy, to say nothing of the romantic agonies of the town’s young people—which the Americans can neither ignore nor solve.
The Americans, so powerful and confident, so attractive and so clueless, are regarded with ambivalence by the Romanians (including the director), whose self-image combines a sense of grievance with a certain stiff-necked pride. They live in a small country that has often found itself in the path of imperial powers, a condition they address with guile, stubbornness and a measure of grace. And lately with some pretty great movies.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Cristian Nemescu; written by Tudor Voican and Mr. Nemescu; director of photography, Liviu Marghidan; edited by Catalin Cristutiu; production designer, Ioana Corciova; produced by Andrei Boncea; released by IFC Films. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. In Romanian, English, Spanish and Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Armand Assante (Capt. Doug Jones), Jamie Elman (Sgt. David McLaren), Razvan Vasilescu (Doiaru), Maria Dinulescu (Monica), Alex Margineanu (Andrei) and Ion Sapdaru (the mayor).
Radio Romania International
He was a staunch defender of the Romanian language in front of the many attempts of Russification and promoted the awakening of the national culture in a Republic of Moldova politically dominated by the Communists. He was, as President Traian Basescu said in a message of condolence "a voice of the Romanian conscience". A member of the Romanian Academy, Vieru was nominated by this institution for the Nobel Peace prize in 1992. Academy member Razvan Teodorescu said about Grigore Vieru’s personality:
"Grigore Vieru is, at a time when the Romanian movement, the concept of Romanian, the idea of the noble Romanian language is no longer of real importance to some cultural and political personalities, the harbinger of a generation of Romanians who kept the idea of nation alive and fought for it."
Nicolae Dabija, a writer and journalist from Cishinau, was his colleague, and he deplores the death of a man who was a symbol for the Romanians in Bessarabia:
"Vieru had a huge role in bringing closer the two banks of river Prut. He fought for the Romanian language, for the switch to the Romanian alphabet, for the Romanian identity. He was one of the initiators of the “flower bridges” linking the two countries. All his achievements are like monuments, like statues he erected during his life. He was more than a poet, he was both a poet and a militant, in a way he was the symbol of an estranged Bessarabia."
|17 January 2009
by Nick Thorpe
Scrap metal was once a lucrative trade for Eastern European gypsies but as Nick Thorpe reports, this has been devastated by the global economic crisis.
Melting snow has turned the unpaved roads of Zizin into streams of mud, ankle deep.
Wading through it, in search of drier ground, your ears grow accustomed quickly to the gentle murmur of the wintry village, dogs barking, cocks crowing, neighbours calling out to each other through hazel fences.
There are sharper sounds too, like the fireworks set off by children in far-off cities.
But there is no money for such frivolities in this predominantly gypsy village.
The sounds are made by bull-whips, lengths of rope with horse-hair tied in knots at the end.
Cracked incessantly by the kids at the end of streets, in the yards of houses, but above all on a small hill which overlooks the village.
Splitting the sky apart for a split-second, as though in the space created, poverty might be transformed into wealth, tin into gold.
Zizin - the name itself sounds like sheets of tin falling on tin. And that is how many of the gypsies here made a living, until the global financial crisis struck.
Like millions of scrap-metal hunters and gatherers around the world, the gypsies of eastern Europe did well from the tinkers' trade in recent years, as the price of metals soared.
A huge hunger for metal in the construction industries of India, and China in particular, fuelled the price rises. But that has all changed now.
Gypsies and non-gypsies alike snapped up every scrap as it fell by the wayside, and today, it seems, there is little left for anyone to gather up.
As scrap became scarcer in recent years, the theft of metal became more common in eastern Europe and beyond.
One of the first Soviet locomotives in Ukraine, all 14 tonnes of it, and a metal bridge which connected a village in the west of the country to the outside world, were the most brazen thefts.
In Hungary, the re-opening of the Freedom Bridge over the Danube in Budapest, closed for many months for repairs, was postponed after thieves in eastern Hungary went off with hundreds of steel girders prepared for it.
The guttering and even the roofs of churches, and bronze plaques to Holocaust victims have all disappeared overnight.
And copper wire, used in railway signalling, was especially prized. Sixty three trains were disrupted in one day alone near Prague, when a length went missing between two main city stations.
Both the Czech Republic and Hungary have now passed laws imposing strict controls on the operation of scrap metal yards. Hungary alone has 20,000.
Now everyone selling is obliged to record their identities, and full details of their loads.
But the new legislation may prove redundant. The economic downturn means people are not spending on scrap metal. Prices paid for it have fallen in some places by 90%.
From Zizin, Ion Ocelas, a father of five children with a sixth on the way, used to make the trip to the scrapyard in the nearest city, Brasov, almost daily.
Now he says it is hardly worth it. He used to get 33 euro cents (£0.29) for each kilogramme he brought in, now he is getting three cents.
Even if his horse-drawn wagon was piled high, he would only come back with a handful of small coins, less than a beggar might make for a day's pleading on the pavement outside the famous Black Church in Brasov.
"I'd like to work as a welder," he says, as he restacks the last of his metal collection - the twisted blue bonnet of a car, pots and pans, and something white and spiked, like the head of a metallic thistle - "but there's no work for welders round here, still less for gypsy welders."
"People here have no time to think about the future," says Father Raia, an Orthodox priest of gypsy origin, when I ask him what hope he sees. "They have to eat today."
At the main scrapyard in Brasov, buried deep in waste land beneath the girders of a new road, the manager refuses to talk.
But on the western outskirts of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, the owner of another yard, Ciprian Porumb, is happy to unburden his concerns.
"I used to get the $450 (£300) a tonne for this," he waves his hand at a mountain of scrap, still being unloaded from lorries.
"That fell to about $150 (£100), but I dare to hope it will improve again soon."
As he speaks, a four-piece gypsy street band, blasting on trombones and drums, marches boisterously by, serenading the ladies at the upstairs windows of the drab flats which overlook the scrapyard.
Back in Zizin, Ion's seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is feverish. The doctor has been called.
We leave the village as darkness falls, and an ambulance siren mixes with another orchestra of children crying, horses braying, dogs barking and always the whips, cracking in the frost.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 17 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.
Wikipedia 10 January 2009
On this day...
|Radio Romania International
Here are some of the nominees: the governor of the National Bank of Romania Mugur Isarescu, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, former hostage and runner in the Columbian presidential race Ingrid Betancourt, the Dalai Lama, the world famous writer of the “Harry Potter” series J.K. Rowling, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Romania’s President Traian Basescu and outgoing Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu.
As 2008 was an Olympic year, many of you nominated not only Romanian Olympic champions like judoka Alina Dumitru, marathon-runner Constantina Dita-Tomescu, or woman gymnast Sandra Izbasa, but also US multiple Olympic champion, swimmer Michael Phelps. Artists and singers were also in the focus of attention and got two nominations. Your choices were two Romanian musical phenomena, 5 year singer Cleopatra Stratan and self-taught tenor Costel Busuoic, now living in Spain.
But the personality of the year 2008 on RRI comes from the political world. Almost two thirds of our respondents nominated…THE US PRESIDENT ELECT, BARACK OBAMA. Akkilou Yacoubou of Benin explains: "His being elected president of the US, although he is an Afro-American, has left a mark on the world. Additionally, he showed a lot of determination to get there. He is the personality of the year, because he embodies the hope of the entire world right now".
For Andrea Lucarini of Italy, Obama "represents renewal and peace". Luo Xiaofen of the People’s Republic of China writes: "I nominate the US president elect, Barack Obama. He can bring hope to the US and luck to the whole world!". And Martin Rogan of Lockerbie, Scotland in Great Britain explains: "I would be surprised if Barack Obama is not the overwhelming choice as Personality of the Year. For a black man to win the presidential nomination from a major U.S. party is epoch-making in itself but to go on and win the presidency by what, for a Democrat, is a very decisive margin, demonstrates how much the attitudes of American voters have changed in my lifetime. Obama is a remarkable figure in himself but he is also representative of what I hope is a new U.S.A. A great many hopes rest on him. (The American electorate has made history by electing Barack Obama)."