7 December 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Media tycoon Dan Diaconescu drives a white Rolls Royce, looks like a used car salesman in his shiny mauve jacket, promises to create thousands of jobs and has emerged as a key player in Romania's bitterly contested parliamentary election.
The owner of two television stations, Diaconescu's populist party is running third in Sunday's vote, according to polls. The gray-haired, multimillionaire talk show host from Romania's disenfranchised south appears to be tapping into widespread discontent with traditional political parties seen as arrogant, sniping and corrupt.
"People cling to me like I'm their only hope," the lanky 44-year-old said in an interview with The Associated Press this week, after driving six hours from the poor mining town of Targu Jiu, where he is running for a seat in Parliament. "They say I'm the one who'll save them from poverty, they ascribe to me qualities that I don t really have, or they consider me some sort of Messiah, a savior of Romania."
Even by Romanian standards, politics have been tumultuous this year. The impoverished Balkan nation has seen three prime ministers and Cabinets, huge anti-austerity protests, and a government criticized by the European Union and the United States for failing to respect the rule of law during a failed bid to impeach President Traian Basescu.
Many in the country of 19 million are fed up with a bitterly personal power struggle between Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta, especially as the country remains one of the poorest and most corrupt members of the EU, and endures deep austerity cuts in return for a €20-million ($26-million) bailout to help its foundering economy.
Polls give Ponta's center-left governing coalition a comfortable 57 percent of the vote. But a fresh political crisis could break out after the election if, as threatened, the center-right Basescu refuses to nominate Ponta—whom he recently called "a pig," "a compulsive liar" and a "little cat."
Diaconescu is frequently dismissed by mainstream politicians as an unsophisticated arriviste from the backward south, whose marathon talk shows on his OTV channel — with the slogan "Live Sensationally"—made him a star. But he has taken votes from both Basescu and Ponta, and will likely be a pivotal voice in the new Parliament. Basescu's allies are expected to rely on him for support.
He has earned admiration from everyday people as a sort of Romanian Oprah Winfrey, a man from a modest background who made good and hasn't forgotten his roots. Though he drives a luxury car, he has never fixed his crooked teeth and is very quiet about his personal life and assets.
"I like Diaconescu because he is pleasant and respectful to everyone whatever their class," said Lucia Popescu, who works as a security guard in Bucharest. "He thinks before he speaks, he is gentle and people have had enough of mudslinging all day long, on the TV and in the newspapers."
In a country where corruption is virtually a way of life, Diaconescu has not been immune to such allegations himself. Ponta accused Diaconescu of being a con man over his failed attempt to buy a chemical plant for €45 million ($59 million), saying the entrepreneur never had the money and that it was just a pre-election publicity stunt.
Diaconescu himself is under investigation for two fraud-related cases, for allegedly trying to blackmail a mayor to stop him airing damaging information, and for fraud in the chemical plant deal. He claims the charges were trumped up—and calls himself an outsider who understands business better than many in government.
Diaconescu, whose campaign is awash with his "lucky" color purple, promises to slash sales tax from 24 to 10 percent, create thousands of jobs and give €20,000 ($26,000) to budding entrepreneurs. He told the AP he would find the funds from public money that is currently siphoned off by corrupt officials.
"We believe that if this money is no longer stolen by our new political class, Romania would have 40 percent more, and here I' m talking about wages or pensions," he said.
His populist party, which was only created two years ago, is polling 15 percent, trailing just behind Basescu's allies, the Just Romania Alliance, a new grouping of center-right parties.
They are unpopular for past austerity measures and perceived cronyism.
"We work 15 hours a day for 1,000 lei (€225) a month, is that normal?" said Ioana Stoian, a 27-year-old vendor, wrapping a sweet cheese pastry. "Diaconescu will do something. They (politicians) do nothing apart from steal and fill their pockets."
But some wonder whether he can be anything more than a protest candidate.
Diaconescu's party emerged "due to the disappointment of the electorate and Romanian society toward unfulfilled promises made by President Basescu and governments," said Stelian Tanase. But he predicted the party might not have the staying power to last.
The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu has never won an Academy Award, but he is nonetheless part of Oscar history. In 2008, his “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a drama about an illegal abortion that had won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival the previous spring, was considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, but ended up being snubbed by Academy voters. That led to a change in the rules, taking some of the power to choose nominees away from voters and conferring it on a special committee.
Now Mr. Mungiu, 44, is back and competing with a new film, “Beyond the Hills,” that has again scored big at Cannes, with awards for screenplay and the performances of its two lead actresses. Set in an Orthodox monastery, it examines the friendship of two women who grew up together in an orphanage but have taken strikingly different paths as adults. One has become a nun, finding inner peace, while the other has migrated to Germany and is so deeply troubled that when she returns to visit her friend that she ends up being subjected to an exorcism. (It’s based very loosely on a 2005 case in which a Romanian novice died in an exorcism.)
“Beyond the Hills” was shown at the New York Film Festival this fall, when Mr. Mungiu was in town and sat down for an interview, and it will close the festival Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema at Lincoln Center on Wednesday. Here are edited excerpts from that October conversation:
Q. The real-life incident on which your film is based has been amply written about in the press and in two books by Tatiana Niculescu Bran. What compelled you to go back to this episode?
A. I knew about this story for a very long period, because this was in the press a lot, and I was preserving all the clips and I read the books. Eventually I googled to see what the reaction of people was seven years later, only to discover that people were still so concerned and preoccupied and polarized by this that, apart from the books, I couldn’t find any balanced position about what happened.
For me it was very important to see all the things this story can reveal. And this is why I decided to make a film out of it. Actually, the great difference between the books and what I did is the relationship between the girls, which never existed in reality but which gave me a reason for everything that happened.
Q. For those two vital roles, you chose performers who had never acted in a film before, and they ended up sharing the best actress award at Cannes. How did you achieve that?
A. Well, this is the crucial decision you need to make on a film like this: Who are you going to work with? We had the kind of liberty we’ve never had before to just experiment with them, in the rehearsals and at the shooting. We rehearsed a lot during casting, read a lot, and I acted a lot for them, so I am giving them directly the tone of voice, the energy, the rhythm, the body language that I want. Guidance, but not with words. I’m not telling them what to do, I show them how to do.
But it’s fair to say that by the end, I had adapted as much to them as they adapted to me. We did what was there in the script, but each time it wasn’t possible to get the dialogue exactly right, I was adapting what I wanted to do and editing the scene to what they could do. Because you can’t push onto the actors something that does not belong to them.
Q. For many foreigners, their main image of Romania, to the extent they have one at all, is of a strange and superstitious place, with Transylvania and vampires and all of that. Are you worried that “Beyond the Hills” could reinforce those stereotypes?
A. I hope the film will not be seen and interpreted like this. I think this is a local story speaking about things that are very general. What people are asked to do in the name of love for God, for example, this is the same in a lot of different religions. It’s the same mechanism, the way it works. Sin and the way evil works into the world, the way violence evolves into people.
One of the things that really interested me to investigate was, how does violence find a place in this community? They are very mild people who start by sitting at the same table with this girl, and somehow a few days later they feel they are not fighting her, but demons inside her, and are entitled to make decisions about her life. How does this happen, practically? Where is this moment? I don’t think this belongs to a society that is underdeveloped, I think this can be understood to speak about things in a more general way.
Q. Having seen three of your films, I have a sense that certain themes fascinate you, such as women in a situation of duress. Is that fair to say?
A. Yes, but in “Tales From the Golden Age,” there were also episodes that involved men in difficult situations. So it’s not exclusive. Actually, I am much more interested in the situation than the character. I don’t start from characters. I need a situation that is very complex and layered and gives me the possibility to speak about a lot of things at the same time. I can’t handle very simple things. I always need to have first of all a strong conflict between some people, and a world behind. At first this was the world of the end of Communism, and now it’s this religious world.
Q. I also want to ask you about the Oscars. You know, don’t you, that you’re already famous in Oscar history?
A. (Laughs) Yes, in a very strange sense. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect too much from the Oscars for the kind of films I do. I hope that people will watch the film and have the patience to understand that there is a kind of cinema that is different but that is also cinema, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Q. Are you talking about the general audience or the Academy voters?
A. I’m talking about the Oscar committee and also the Oscar voters. What’s important in cinema is to have options and allow spectators to say, “Let’s see, I’m going to see this kind,” to have this liberty, to be able to choose. But you can’t have a film which is going to be appreciated the same everywhere — in Cannes, at the Oscars, in Romania. You just do the kind of cinema you are interested in, and then the film will have its fate, in different contexts with different people.
Q. Does winning prizes mean anything to you? Because your films have done very well at Cannes.
A. This has a very precise meaning. It helps the film to be seen, that is the benefit of awards. And the Romanian new wave, this exists just because of Cannes, honestly. We wouldn’t represent anything, even in Romania for our spectators, unless there was this kind of appreciation. Actually, in Romania people haven’t seen my films a lot. But they appreciate the fact that I’m appreciated. This is it. I’m carrying the banner, like a football team and Nadia Comaneci, stuff like that.
Ordinarily, a change of government in a Balkan capital would be little cause for concern at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But when you sponsor a Romanian film festival, and your Romanian partner comes under attack by the new authorities in Bucharest, thus jeopardizing your joint undertaking, you may find yourself thrust into a political imbroglio.
The festival, Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, will begin as scheduled on Thursday night at Lincoln Center, running through next Wednesday. But the film society has severed its connection to the Romanian Cultural Institute, the festival’s original government-financed co-sponsor, in favor of collaboration with a new, private entity, called the Romanian Film Initiative, run by the former director of the institute’s New York office.
In the last decade, the emergence of a Romanian new wave has been one of the most startling developments in world cinema, with one film after another winning prizes at Cannes and elsewhere. In New York a festival of Romanian movies was first held in 2006 in TriBeCa under the auspices of the cultural institute, and last year was invited to move to Lincoln Center.
But the arrival of a new administration in Bucharest “sent us back to square one,” said Corina Suteu, who resigned in September, along with her deputy, Oana Radu, as director of the New York office of the Romanian Cultural Institute. “The present authorities have gone back to a discourse on culture that is very archaic, and they do not consider new wave cinema as being ‘representative’ of Romania.”
At Lincoln Center, film programmers said there was no hesitation about continuing their partnership with Ms. Suteu and her associates and they opted not to explore the possibility of an officially sanctioned event.
“Under this leadership, the cultural institute did incredible things to make the new Romanian cinema visible in the United States, so there was never any question in our minds,” said Scott Foundas, associate program director at the film society. “Our feeling always was that we think very highly of these people as curators, have very similar taste in cinema and are very pleased to have them as part of the extended Lincoln Center family.”
The government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, which came to power this spring, is a seemingly unlikely coalition between former Communists and a conservative party. In June it issued an emergency ordinance modifying the 2003 statute setting up the Romanian Cultural Institute, which had previously reported directly to President Traian Basescu, Mr. Ponta’s political rival.
“It’s an Ionesco-like government,” said Mihai Chirilov, the artistic director of the film festival, referring to the Romanian playwright who is considered a father of the theater of the absurd. “It’s a very unexpected combination that shows their only aim is power.”
As a presence on the New York cultural scene since shortly after the fall of Communism in 1989, the Romanian Cultural Institute has not limited itself to promoting its national cinema. The institute has also helped bring Romanian writers to the annual PEN World Voices literary festival, supported visual artists in their efforts to get their work shown locally, and collaborated on shows featuring Romanian music, both classical composers like the pianist Dinu Lipatti and pop groups like Timpuri Noi.
In place of that longstanding emphasis on making Romanian culture better known in the West, under the new emergency ordinance the institute’s primary task is “to uphold the identity” of Romanians living abroad. The previous, outward-looking policy was condemned in the ordinance as “highly negative” because it “impairs on a permanent basis the feeling of belonging to the Romanian nation in the case of those temporarily living in other countries.”
The Romanian director Andrei Ujica has made several critically praised films, including “Videogram of a Revolution” and “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” shown at the New York festival in 2010, that examine the relationship between political power and media manipulation. In a telephone interview from Berlin, where he teaches cinema, he described the new government policy as an “abusive change” and “anticultural.”
“It’s a kind of attempt at a small cultural revolution, in a Maoist meaning, but in a new form, coupled with the new tabloid culture that has become so strong in East European countries,” he said. “That is a new and dangerous mixture, with a very rigid nationalist focus.”
On the Web site of Mr. Ponta, the government has denied any intention to seize control of the cultural apparatus or limit freedom of expression. “The decisions that have been adopted are meant only to build a more comprehensive democratic framework for the Romanian Cultural Institute’s functioning and to redress the problems pertaining to its spending of public money,” an official statement said.
With government financing ruled out, Ms. Suteu and her associates did what everyone does these days: they began a Kickstarter campaign that raised $22,000 from some 300 people. In other gestures of support, leading Romanian artists, writers and film figures, both in the diaspora and back home, signed protest petitions and also contributed money, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, which promotes cultural and other exchanges between the United States and the former Soviet bloc, supplied a $50,000 grant.
The festival opens on Thursday with “Of Snails and Men,” an absurdist comedy by Tudor Giurgiu, and will conclude with Cristian Mungiu’s religious drama “Beyond the Hills,” which won two awards at the Cannes film festival this spring.
In between, the bill includes several works by promising new directors and a retrospective of the films of Alexandru Tatos, who died in 1990 and is considered a major influence on the new wave.
Unusually, the program also includes two panel discussions, titled “Creative Freedom Through Cinema: Romania and Hungary,” that will be linked with screenings on Saturday and Sunday. Hungary, Romania’s neighbor, is included in the discussion because the nationalist government there has been criticized as curbing freedom of expression.
“Corina and Oana have been very quick on their feet to make this happen, which I’m not sure everyone could do,” Mr. Foundas said. “It was a very bold move on their part, and without skipping a beat, they have created an entity to protect the independence of this festival and to continue going forward in the way we want to see.”
26 November 2012
Late American actor Larry Hagman, who died last week, came to Romania in the 80's, when the soap opera Dallas, where Hagman played the famous oil magnate J.R. Ewing, was becoming popular in the then communist country as well.
The British newspaper Sunday Times recently published an article about Hagman’s trip to Romania in the 80's and the money he received from the communist regime for letting them use his image on a billboard in Bucharest.
Larry Hagman had told this secret to an American journalist, but asked him not to publish it while he was still alive. “Hagman said he had no objection provided a bag filled with hard currency was left in the ladies’ lavatory of a government office for his wife to pick up the next day,” according to the Sunday Times article bylined by John Harlow. His wife indeed picked up the brown bag with money and the couple spent it fast.
In 2011, Hagman said the soap opera Dallas had a huge influence in international politics and that he was convinced that broadcasting the series in the 80's in a communist country like Romania could have been one of the triggers for the 1989 revolution which led to the fall of communism. The Ceausescu regime agreed to broadcast the movie to show its people the bad ways of the West, but the plan backfired, Hagman believed. Romanians saw how life could be elsewhere in the world and ended up wanting to live that very life.
Larry Hagman died last Friday at a hospital in Dallas. He has been diagnosed with liver cancer 20 years ago and for the past year he had been fighting neck cancer, which stemmed from his initial liver disease. Hagman, 81, was performing the role which made him famous around the world, J.R. Ewing, in the soap-opera reboot for TNT.
“Larry Hagman was a giant, a larger-than-life personality whose iconic performance as J.R. Ewing will endure as one of the most indelible in entertainment history. He truly loved portraying this globally recognized character, and he leaves a legacy of entertainment, generosity and grace,” wrote Warner Bros in a statement.
21 November 2012
Jack Esten, Picture Post/Getty Images
Having brilliantly documented the horror of Stalin’s Soviet terror machine in her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag,” Anne Applebaum now offers a bulky sequel, “Iron Curtain,” about the brutal effort of that same machine to crush and colonize Eastern Europe in the first decade after World War II. Her evidence, once again drawn from archival research and some survivor interviews, is overwhelming and convincing. But the heart of her story is hardly news.
That Soviet tanks carried Moscow-trained agents into Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany was known in the West at the time and has been well documented since. When those agents set out to produce not only a friendly sphere of Soviet influence but also a cordon of dictatorships reliably responsive to Russian orders, Winston Churchill was moved to warn, just days after the Nazis’ surrender in 1945, that an Iron Curtain was being drawn through the heart of Europe. (He coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.) And Matyas Rakosi, the “little Stalin” of Hungary, was well known for another apt metaphor, describing how the region’s political, economic, cultural and social oppositions were to be destroyed by “cutting them off like slices of salami.”
Applebaum tracks the salami slicing as typically practiced in Poland, Hungary and Germany, and serves up not only the beef but also the fat, vinegar and garlic in exhausting detail. She shows how the knives were sharpened before the war’s end in Soviet training camps for East European Communists, so that trusted agents could create and control secret police forces in each of the “liberated” nations. She shows how reliable operatives then took charge of all radio broadcasting, the era’s most powerful mass medium. And she demonstrates how the Soviet stooges could then, with surprising speed, harass, persecute and finally ban all independent institutions, from youth groups and welfare agencies to schools, churches and rival political parties.
Along the way, millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were ruthlessly driven from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Millions more were deemed opponents and beaten, imprisoned or hauled off to hard labor in Siberia. In Stalin’s paranoid sphere, not even total control of economic and cultural life was sufficient. To complete the terror, he purged even the Communist leaders of each satellite regime, accusing them of treason and parading them as they made humiliating confessions.
It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?
In her introduction Applebaum says it is important to remember that “historically, there were regimes that aspired to total control,” not only of the organs of state but also of human nature itself. We should be studying how totalitarianism worked, she maintains, because “we can’t be certain that mobile phones, the Internet and satellite photographs won’t eventually become tools of control” in other places. Well, Vladimir Putin may yet make her a prophet, but so far this century, technology has become a welcome defense against tyranny.
More relevant to contemporary discussion are some themes Applebaum evokes along the way but never develops. She begins her tale by insisting that the United States and Britain, having promised the East Europeans a democratic future, quickly abandoned them to Soviet domination. True enough. Yet what were the West’s alternatives? The door to Europe was left open for Stalin in 1945 because the Americans were rapidly redeploying to fight Japan and eager to enlist Stalin in the Pacific war. Applebaum does not speculate about how Soviet colonization might have been forestalled or what methods of intervention for freedom we should be applying now in Cuba or North Korea, Syria or China.
Similarly, she barely touches on the contrary claims of some historians that it was not the West’s appeasement but rather hostility against the Soviet Union that provoked Stalin’s aggressive responses. These scholars accuse the United States of having triggered the cold war, thus baiting Stalin into taking crude defensive countermeasures. Applebaum’s evidence provides a telling rebuttal to those “revisionist” theories, but she never really engages them.
Most conspicuously missing is any sustained examination of Soviet motives for the rape of Eastern Europe. What did the Russians want? Revenge against Germany and its allies? Compensation for their enormous loss of life and suffering in the war and the spoils due a victor? Was the domination of neighboring states a wildly arrogant policy of defense so that no conqueror could ever again follow Napoleon and Hitler to Moscow? Or was it a revival of Russia’s imperial desire to annex at least half of Poland, to secure a rebellious Ukraine and to incorporate the Baltic States and various adjacent Balkan lands?
Applebaum’s overriding interest is in Stalin’s deranged tyranny, which aggravated the postwar horror inside the Soviet Union at the same time that it was being slavishly imitated by his East European henchmen until his death in 1953. Yet Stalin’s successors were just as intent on preserving their dominion. Why? Applebaum contends that Stalin, having once postponed the Soviet dream of igniting an international Communist revolution, “was preparing to relaunch it” in 1944 as the Red Army rolled westward. But that passing comment — and debatable premise—is all she offers to explain Soviet policy.
While her documentation of the Soviet takeover is impressive, at this late date fewer facts and more analysis would have been welcome. The seeds of the Communists’ ultimate failure in East Europe are strewed throughout her book, but with little explanation. She shows how poorly the Communist regimes provided for their consumers and how they alienated the workers in whose name they governed. Why? And does not this subject require lengthy discussion of how Communism collided with the deeply rooted nationalisms of the region? Applebaum incisively demonstrates the moral confusion that haunted Roman Catholic leaders and other opponents of the Communist regimes, some openly hostile, some reluctantly cooperative, many simply passive. But how should we evaluate their choices?
“Iron Curtain” is not a full history of the Iron Curtain because of Applebaum’s decision to end her history in 1956, just as Poles and Hungarians openly rebelled against Soviet control. There then followed a 30-year effort in the Kremlin to stabilize and reform all Communist societies, but the East Europeans remained restive, held captive only by Soviet armed might. The colonization became a huge burden on the Soviet economy, and the lures of Western democracy and economic achievement produced corrosive holes in that curtain. Finally, when Mikhail Gorbachev refused to shoot to preserve his costly empire, the curtain collapsed altogether and dragged down the Soviet center as well.
Applebaum rightly concludes, long before that climax, that the totalitarian spell could never be sustained for long. But she declines to generalize about the reasons or the defenses we all may need against other totalitarian threats. Instead, what she has given us is a concrete and sad record that honors the memory of the millions who were slaughtered, tortured and suppressed in the mad pursuit of totality.
Max Frankel, former executive editor of The Times, reported for many years from Moscow and Eastern Europe.
21 November 2012
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Saul Steinberg, the pre-eminent cartoonist of the 20th century, specialized in high-I.Q. humor. In an age when cartoons were populated by henpecked husbands and conniving wives in hair curlers, he found his inspiration in the unlikely realm of philosophical inquiry. Long associated with The New Yorker, he once filled four pages of the magazine with a field of hand-drawn question marks.
His best-known work was perhaps too famous. He complained about being known as “the man who did that poster.” He was referring, of course, to “View of the World From 9th Avenue,” his myopic, Manhattan-centric map that was scaled and skewed to capture the interior cartography of New Yorkers, where places like Kansas City and China do not exist except as dots in the irrelevant beyond.
Deirdre Bair, in her gripping and revelatory “Saul Steinberg: A Biography,” redraws the world map, pushing Ninth Avenue into the background and foregrounding the view from Bucharest. Steinberg spent his first 19 years in Romania, a primitive and repugnant “sewer” of a country, as he liked to say. He was among the waves of Jewish refugees who fled to safety here during World War II. It says something about his ethnic-tinged sense of humor that he once described Picasso, after visiting him at his villa outside Cannes, as “an old Jewish man in the Florida sun—all torso and shorts.”
Who was Saul Steinberg? His acquaintances thought of him as an elegant dandy who seemed catlike in his refinement. In his prime, he lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, dined out most every night and held forth at dinner parties with piquant erudition and wit. But behind the thick glasses and mandarin mask lay a haunted figure, a fearful man who visited indignities upon himself and those around him. As Bair reveals, his love life was a string of infidelities, and crabbiness was his default mood. He eschewed interviews and spurned the company of very young children.
He was born in 1914, at a time when Romanian Jews were still deemed unworthy of the rights of citizenship by their own government. His father, Moritz, earned his living designing and manufacturing cardboard boxes, and the family’s circumstances became precarious with the rise of the ultraright Iron Guard. Everywhere he turned, the young Steinberg was faced with the sting of exclusion and state-sanctioned insult. He claimed, only half-jokingly, that “even dogs gazed at us reproachfully.”
His high school diploma stigmatized him as a Jew, a person professing the “Mosaic” faith, which gave him a theme. It allowed him to see how a document that purports to confer identity can obliterate identity. In later life, his artistic output included a series of humorous diplomas and certificates. In fact, much of his work appropriated and satirized the visual conventions of government documents, with their seals and rubber stamps, their flowery signatures, their clumps of text that no one ever read. A government document, as much as any fine-art print, is made from ink on paper. This is the medium on which Steinberg staked his career and gained his citizenship in the art world.
He was seldom without a suitcase. After studying architecture in Milan, he sailed to New York in June 1941 by way of Lisbon. He arrived at Ellis Island, only to be refused entry because the quota for Romanian refugees had been surpassed. He was put on another ship, this one to the Dominican Republic, where he slept beneath mosquito netting and waited his turn to enter the United States. A year later, he finally got to New York and, after a euphoric interlude exploring Manhattan, received an inconvenient assignment: The United States Navy was sending him to China.
By then he had met Hedda Sterne, an abstract painter and fellow Romanian émigré who valued books and reading as much as he did. Together, they practiced speaking English and declared a moratorium on their native Romanian, “a language of beggars and policemen,” as Steinberg scoffed. They married in 1944, at City Hall in Manhattan. Just a few weeks later, they were entertaining a pregnant friend when Sterne looked out from the kitchen into an adjoining room and was startled to see her husband passionately kissing their guest. “In a way, sex was his life,” Sterne later said. “He deprived himself of true union because he was not ever in love.”
He made passes at whomever he desired, including the teenage daughters of his dearest friends. Over the years, women excoriated him for his callousness but were willing to stay on friendly terms with him. They indulged him, mothered him, made allowances and moral compromises; his work was manifestly first rate, and talent tends to foster forgiveness. The critic and art historian Dore Ashton once wrote to him: “I well know that deep sentiment is alien to you, that somewhere you are lamed and that secretly you are afraid of and despise love. You give yourself to no one but take. . . . ” Then she signed off as his “faithful old friend.”
The latter half of Bair’s book is taken up with a detailed accounting of a pathetic affair. Sigrid Spaeth was “a stunningly beautiful German girl” who was in her 20s when she and Steinberg met. Her father had been a member of the Nazi Party, applying voluntarily, supposedly on the grounds that he needed to get ahead at work. Her idea of fun was to accompany Steinberg to dinner parties and watch the faces of guests go cold as she disclosed her origins. She liked to joke that her parents’ participation in Nazi thuggery was limited to tossing a few stones through the windows of Jewish-owned businesses.
Their relationship continued until 1996, when Spaeth, then 60, jumped to her death from the rooftop of her apartment building on the Upper West Side. One of her costliest taunts to Steinberg lay waiting in her last will and testament. To his enduring dismay, she bequeathed her apartment, which he had purchased for her, to her shrink, a Jungian psychoanalyst.
Steinberg lived for three more years and much of the time struggled with intractable depression. With mixed results, he turned to Zen meditation, psychoanalysis and even electroshock therapy. Decades had passed since he left Hedda Sterne, but they were, astoundingly, still married, and he counted on having a long, soothing phone conversation with her nearly every day. One of the most touching sections of the biography chronicles his late-life friendships with the writers Ian Frazier and Prudence Crowther, who oversaw his day-to-day care after he received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. His final lamentations were witty and profound. “I am dying,” he announced. “I can feel it, but what am I dying for?”
For all its inspired moments, the book is riddled with factual errors that are surprising in a work of this seriousness. At times it reads like nothing so much as a helpless plea for the presence of fact checkers at publishing houses, however cutback-conscious they may be. Bair refers to Marc Chagall as “Meyer” Chagall. She misspells the name of the painter Syd Solomon. Describing an opening-night dinner at the Whitney Museum, she reports that paparazzi lined the street as Jackie Kennedy and Woody Allen “mounted the steps into the museum”—yet there are no stairs outside the Whitney. In regard to The New Yorker, Bair refers to “the magazine’s legendary reader, ‘the little old lady in Dubuque.’ ” Yet its founding editor Harold Ross declared in his prospectus for the magazine that it was, expressly, not edited “for the old lady from Dubuque,” a jab at the provincialism of rival magazines.
Nonetheless, there is much that is new in Bair’s book, and Steinberg emerges from her account as a paradigmatic 20th-century exile and traveler, crossing and recrossing fixed boundary lines in both his life and his work. In his heyday, art critics butted heads over whether his drawings should be considered cartooning, illustration or museum-worthy art. By now such attempts at classification seem beside the point. Most of us do not believe that an invisible velvet rope separates museum art from magazine art, or that a painting hanging at the Museum of Modern Art is automatically superior in aesthetic terms to a children’s book illustration. The truth is that any genre can produce works of enduring power.
Steinberg certainly produced his share of classics, and in the process he helped pave the way for a culture of boundary-blurrers. They include the current generation of graphic novelists, whose work exploits what was perhaps Steinberg’s principal achievement. He showed that literature can be created without using a single sentence.
Deborah Solomon, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell” and a forthcoming biography of Norman Rockwell.
Drawing From Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, and The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
12 November 2012
A commission of Romanian and Russian historians will meet in March 2013 to discuss Romania’s national treasure, which, according to some Romanian officials, is in Moscow. The Russian Ambassador to Bucharest Oleg Malghinov however said there isn’t anyone qualified to certify that the treasure still exists and is in Moscow. In a recent TV show in Romania, the Ambassador said the fact that the whole discussion had become political does not help, and that historians should be left to solve the problem.
He also argued that Romania’s attempt to include recovering its treasure and discussion with Russia as part of a European Commission resolution is not the right way to approach the issue. “Historical issues are very complex . . . I don’t think that there is anyone sufficiently qualified to say whether the treasure exists or not,” said the Russian Ambassador.
Romania’s Foreign Affairs Minister Titus Corlatean said earlier in October that Romania’s treasure is definitely in Moscow, and recovering it is a priority for the ministry he leads, but the chances of this happening rely on a functional political dialogue with the Russian Federation. In 2017, it will have been 100 years since Romania’s treasure was sent to Moscow, the Romanian Minister said. “There were some small gestures from the Big Brother at the time, the Soviet Union, which sent some of the pieces of treasure back to Bucharest, which provided confirmation of its existence and presence in Russia, should we have needed another one,” said Corlatean.
Romania sent its treasure to Russia during the First World War, to protect it from the army of the Central Powers, which had occupied a large part of Romania. After the Russian revolution and the installation of communism, the treasure was never fully returned. Romania received three different lots, in 1935, 1956 and 2008, containing some of the objects in the treasure, but most of it remained outside Romania, turning it into a sensitive issue between Romania and Russia.
The treasure included 93 tonnes of gold, most of which was gold coins from individuals, companies and private banks in Romania, and 2.4 tonnes of gold bullion, belonging to the Romanian Central Bank (BNR). It also included documents, manuscripts, old coins, paintings, rare books, church objects and collections, as well as public effects and various valuables. The Russian Empire at the time signed only with the Romanian Central Bank, and not with the owners of the goods, who had deposited them with BNR.
A first tranche of the treasure, including mostly the rare objects, documents, manuscripts, but none of the gold objects, was made in 1935. A second tranche, including the Pietroasele treasure (in picture), with 22 gold objects, as well as painting by Nicolae Grigorescu, jewelry, some gold coins and medals was sent back in 1956. In the early 90s, when Romania was no longer a communist country, Russia’s response was that there was not a treasure problem anymore, as it had been solved in 1956. In 2008, in an attempt to recover the remainder, Romania received an extra 12 gold coins from Russia. Earlier in 2003, a commission of historians was set up to study the issue, after Russia refused to include the treasure in the friendship treaty signed the same year.
9 November 2012
75 years have passed since King Mihai, the last Romanian sovereign, received the Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. The moment was celebrated on Thursday, the day when Christians celebrate the archangels Michael and Gabriel, at the Savoy Royal Chapel in London, the headquarters of the order, in a ceremony attended by the king and members of the Romanian Royal House. The event was followed by an official dinner, attended by representatives of Queen Elizabeth II, members of the British government, and officials of the city of London.
A great great-grandson to Queen Victoria, Mihai I of Romania is the only surviving head of state from WWII. His longevity itself is not a merit, but his deeds speak volumes, domestically and internationally. In 1944, as young king of Romania, Mihai dismissed Marshal Antonescu, head of the pro-Nazi government, ending his dictatorship and breaking off relations with Hitler’s Germany. This courageous gesture was evaluated by some historians as having shortened the war by as much as six months. History, though, has not been kind to Romania and its sovereign.
In March 1945, the Soviets imposed in Bucharest a puppet government with the sole purpose of dismantling the democratic state and imposing a red dictatorship. The royal strike and manifestations in support of King Mihai could not prevent the expected outcome. Stripped of prerogatives, Mihai I abdicated, under pressure from the communists, and went into exile. This exile went on unnaturally for two years after the fall of communism. The then president, Ion Iliescu, a former apparatchik, held a deep dislike of the monarchy.
The normalization of relations with the former sovereign started as late as 1996, when Emil Constantinescu took power as president on behalf of a center right coalition. That is when the Romanian state started the process of providing the king with material and moral reparations.
The Royal House now enjoys the respect it deserves, and the essential role played by the kings of Romania—Carol I, Ferdinand, Carol II and Mihai I—in building the modern Romanian state cannot be denied. In 2011, when he turned 90 years old, King Mihai gave a memorable speech in Parliament, amazing the political class with the clarity of his vision on the country’s situation. On that occasion, he said: “I don’t see Romania today as a country inherited from our parents, but a country borrowed from our children”.
Here's a distant relative somebody might want to keep at arm's length - the Romanian government is releasing tourism material highlighting the British royal family's links with the brutal Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania. The Telegraph says Romanian tourism officials hope to attract more British tourists to visit the country.
Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, dropped this nugget last year on an interviewer: "Transylvania is in my blood. The genealogy shows that I'm descended from Vlad the Impaler, you see. So I do have a bit of a stake in the country."
Vlad is the bloodthirsty Transylvanian tyrant of the 15th century who impaled his victims on wooden stakes and allegedly dipped his bread in their blood. His evil acts inspired Bram Stoker to create his fictional character, Count Dracula.
Charles is fond of Romania—he owns property in a rural region, reports the Telegraph, and helps fund a charity there that supports his long time efforts toward organic farming. The paper also lists the descendants of the bloodthirsty Vlad down to Charles's grandfather, George VI and mother, Elizabeth II.
And, as Romania remembers its historical tyrant, Google is remembering the Gothic author who popularized him: today's Doodle honors the 165th birthday of Bram Stoker.
8 November 2012
The Google Cultural Institute is marking the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall with a series of online exhibitions. Produced in partnership with various organizations, including Romanian television TVR, the exhibitions use photos, documents, video and personal accounts to retell the story of the momentous event that shook the world and redrew Europe’s political map more than 20 years ago.
The revolution in Romania is well represented—there is a blow by blow account of the overthrow of Communism, with photos and video of news broadcasts, as well as exhibitions on the revolution in Timisoara and Bucharest. Each exhibition provides fascinating images and broadcasts from the time, with quotes and insights from people directly involved with the uprising in Romania. The Romanian section is completed by an exhibition charting the trial and almost immediate execution by firing squad of tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.
See Google's Online Exhibitions
6 November 2012
After screenings in Florence and Bucharest, film maker Dan Dimancescu talks to Romania-Insider about his groundbreaking documentary on the ancient inhabitants of Romania—Decoding Dacia—ahead of its US premiere at Fisher College in Boston on November 15.
Decoding Dacia’s story begins with tragedy; Dan Dimancescu’s 26-year old son Nicholas started the project, but was killed by a fall from a high cliff in the Carpathian Mountains during filming in 2011. His father decided to complete the film as a tribute to Nicholas and also created a scholarship program in his memory.
Dan Dimancescu, who is also the Honorary Consul of Romania in Boston, says that throughout the project, he had a central question, the deceptively simple “Who were the Dacians?” Although easy to ask, the answer is far from straightforward to answer as written records on the Ancient Dacians are scant. Like many other ancient peoples, the Dacians didn’t record their own history. Indeed, written records were the exception rather than the rule in the Ancient World, and as with the Celts, the only extant sources on Dacians are by Greek and Roman writers. Dan said that during the film making he tried to see beyond the pedestrian recounting of historical facts, and instead look at the geography, the people and the lifestyles found in the Carpathians in an attempt to find the “essence” of Dacia.
From a historical point of view, Decoding Dacia, produced in 2011-2012 (Trailer below), uses Trajan’s campaigns and the first century Sarmizegetusa Dacian fortress as a jumping off point. The Roman Emperor Trajan’s campaigns between 101 and 106AD focused on the royal seat of Sarmizegetusa and culminated in its destruction. “That period is the one we focused on in the film because it is dramatically recorded in great detail on Trajan’s Column in Rome (in picture, detail of the column). Sarmizegetusa was destroyed by Roman legions and today is visible in scattered ruins,” said Dan.
Despite its great archeological significance, Sarmizegetusa is only accessible by a 25km dirt track. The site has suffered in the modern era; an ill-conceived restoration during the Communist era caused damage and more recently looters have stolen golden artifacts from Dacian sites. However, the future looks a little brighter: stolen Dacian gold is steadily being recovered, Sarmizegetusa is now a UNESCO heritage site and the Romanian government has recently pledged EUR 4- 5 million for archeological studies and preservation work at Sarmizegetusa and other hill top Dacian sites.
For the first time, Decoding Dacia shows 3D reconstructions of the Sarmizegetusa site, as well as other hill top fortresses and Trajan’s military bridge over the Danube. “The site was never a ‘city’ as we would know it—but rather a fortified sanctuary and royal residence with a community of a few thousand settled in its vicinity at 1500 meters altitude,” said Dan of the Dacian ‘capital’ Sarmizegetusa. The construction style is generally believed to be of Hellenic influence and the sanctuary, walls and nearby fortifications were built from massive stones from around 50—60 km away. According to Dan the Dacians were experts in the manufacture of iron and there is evidence of extensive ironworks at Sarmizegetusa and other Dacian sites.
The landscapes and people of the Carpathians played a big part in the project. “We spent time and effort capturing the exceptional beauty of Carpathian landscapes over a year of seasons—and most importantly the traditional lifestyle of people who live in this environment in ways largely unchanged over the millennia,” said Dan. The locals are all aware of the Dacians, however, to varying degrees of sophistication. Some locals known as “malorman” claim to be descendants of the Ancient Dacians and the peasants often tell stories with a semi-mythical slant of their ancient brethren. Farming, and in particular plowing, appears to have led to locals discovering many Dacian artifacts over the years.
As well as taking a look at geographical context of the Carpathians and the ‘modern’ Dacians, Decoding Dacia presents a thorough and up to date view of the historical tribes of the region. Pride of place goes to Decebalus, last king of the Dacians, but the monicker ‘last king’ is perhaps a little misleading. Generally, the phrase implies decay, the end of a civilization, the collapse of an empire, but this is not really the case with Decebalus and the Dacians.
According to Decoding Dacia producer Dan Dimancescu (in picture), although Dacian history spans some 800 years—from around 700BC to the time of Trajan and Decebalus—the records are sparse and the picture that emerges is not of a unified kingdom that passed from one king to another with a central capital city and a fixed hierarchical administrative system. Rather, the Dacians appear as a loosely associated group of tribes that shared geographical location, customs and presumably language. Occasionally, a king appears to have united them, as was the case with Decebalus, who rule from 87AD until 106AD.
Dacian raids into Roman territory on the other side of the Danube brought them into conflict with Roman Imperial might. The Emperor Domitian initiated a campaigns against the Dacians in 86AD and 88AD, but they ended in disaster and the Romans were forced to sue for peace, for which they paid dearly. If level of respect from enemies is a measure of greatness, then the Dacians received high praise.
From the end of the wars with Carthage until the decline of the Western Empire, Roman armies suffered very few military reverses and it’s difficult to overstate how big a deal defeat in the Dacian campaigns was to the Romans. Precious few other notable adversaries emerge from the height of Roman military power during the Imperial period—apart from the great Arminius of Germania, it is difficult to think of another enemy accorded similar acclaim as Decebalus by the Romans. Historians of the time describe Decebalus as an extremely capable military commander, able to capitalize on victories as well as limit damage from defeats. He chose when to attack and retreat well and was an expert in both ambuscades and pitched battles.
It took two hard fought campaigns by the Emperor Trajan—widely considered one of the greatest emperors and a distinguished and highly able military commander—to finally subdue Decebalus and the Dacians. King Decebalus chose suicide rather than submit to being paraded through the streets of Rome as a prisoner in the triumph for the Roman victory. “Trajan chose to honor his defeated enemy by placing at least 100 marble statues of Dacians in his Forum. This is an unprecedented homage both in Roman times—not to speak of up into our own modern times—to an enemy,” said Dan.
Decoding Dacia, however, suggests another less noble motive for Trajan’s campaign than Rome’s honor—gold. “It is well known that Dacia was decimated and eradicated as a culture by the Romans, what is less known is that the plundered riches of Dacia changed the course of the Empire,” explained Dan. He presents the Roman conquest as an early example of imperial appetites for Romania’s natural wealth, followed over the millenia by Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Ottomans, Nazis and the Soviet Union, who came looking for gold, silver, salt and later oil.
Trajan used the riches of Dacia to pay for public games and finance a grand building scheme in Rome, including Trajan’s column and Forum. The plunder also bankrolled further military campaigns. As for the Dacians themselves, their view on wealth was perhaps quite different. “The great wealth accumulated by the Dacians in gold and silver due to rich mines on their territory was hoarded not as property of the King but as donations to the deities,” Dan explained.
The legacy of the Dacians, for Dan Dimancescu, survives in the places, the people and their spirit. “Decoding Dacia is about geography, imperial appetites, and a people who have endured and survived the harsh Carpathian environment as well as invasion, plunder, and abuse over centuries of time. It is in that survival instinct—especially in the mountain highlands—that is closest to the heart and soul of Romania.”
Decoding Dacia, produced by Kogainon Films, will be screened for the first time in the US on November 15 at the Alumni Hall of Fisher College, 118 Beacon Street, Boston. To reserve a seat, go here.
Liam Lever, email@example.com
“Watch out! Gypsies steal little children.”
That’s what Mugur Varzariu was often warned when he was growing up in Bucharest, Romania. Years later, working as a marketing strategist, he regularly heard—in “polite society,” no less—that the Roma people were lazy or criminals.
The Roma are often referred to as Gypsies, a term many consider offensive. Their ancestors, who came to Europe from India, have faced oppression and violence for centuries in Europe. They share language, culture and—until the 20th century—a nomadic way of life.
Mr. Varzariu, 42, knew very few Roma before he switched careers two years ago to become a photographer. In July 2011, after hearing that the mayor of Baia Mare, a small city in northern Romania, was building a 6-foot wall to separate a Roma community from its neighbors—creating a ghetto—Mr. Varzariu traveled there to see for himself.
The Roma he met were different from the racist stereotypes he was raised with.
The Roma of Baia Mare were impoverished. Although some worked as garbage collectors or in a furniture factory, the pay was so low that “you can barely raise one child, but certainly not six,” Mr. Varzariu said. Other Roma worked sporadically as day laborers or were unemployed. Yet the Roma he met were friendly and generous. “They shared their food with me even they had very little,” he said. Mr. Varzariu also discovered they faced many daunting barriers.
“They are discriminated against from the moment they are born,” he said.
The area being walled off consisted of public housing, some without running water or electricity, where families crowded into one-room apartments. About 1,000 Roma live within the wall.
Though detested by the Roma, the wall was quite popular among most of Baia Mare’s population. And it proved to be a smart political move for the mayor, Catalin Chereches, who was overwhelmingly re-elected this year.
After building the wall, the mayor forcibly evicted another community of Roma on the outskirts of Baia Mare in May and June of this year. They were moved into a former office building and laboratory that was part of an abandoned copper factory. Cyanide and other toxic chemicals lingered in the walls and floors, and many of the Roma fell ill.
The new wall and creation of a ghetto, coming amid the rise of far right-wing parties in elections throughout Europe, raised an ominous specter.
During the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Roma were systematically killed by the Nazis in concentration camps and extermination camps. The Roma were the largest minority in Europe when many were expelled from France by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2010. (The current president, François Hollande, has continued the policy.)
Mr. Varzariu returned to Baia Mare this summer to document the effects of the recent evictions. Although his experiences have altered how he views the Roma, he says little has changed among other Romanians.
“There is no understanding of the real situation by the authorities or the general public,” he said. “We as Romanians want to have someone else to blame for our own mistakes, and the Roma people are our own scapegoats. If we blame them, maybe we will look better in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world community.”
See many more photos in the original article.
27 October 2012
ZARNESTI, Romania (Reuters) - Two brown bears in Romania have been rescued from a zoo where conditions did not meet European Union animal safety standards and have been transferred to a sanctuary where they were released on Saturday, wildlife experts said.
The two male bears were removed from the decrepit Onesti zoo in eastern Romania and driven to Zarnesti, 150 kilometres (93 miles) away, which houses the country's first bear sanctuary in a forest.
"These bears used to live in small concrete enclosures... They will be released soon in this beautiful forest area (after quarantine). That's a huge difference," said Victor Watkins, a wildlife advisor at the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Sixty seven bears are now housed in the sanctuary. Many of them were rescued from ramshackle zoos or from cages at roadside inns and restaurants where they were used to entertain guests.
Up to 7,000 bears live in Romania's largely unspoilt mountains. Several people, including foreign tourists, have been killed or injured by bears in recent years and experts have warned that their habitat is under threat from construction.
A poacher was killed as recently as last month after a bear attacked him after escaping from his trap.
The law limits the number of bears that can be killed by hunters to under 350 a year. Officials say some hunting is necessary to control their numbers.
(Reporting by Sinisa Dragin; Writing by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
BUCHAREST—This summer, after the police arrived at the handsome villa of the former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase to arrest him on corruption charges, he apparently pulled out a revolver and tried to kill himself. Millions of Romanians watched on television as Mr. Nastase, 62, was carried off on a stretcher, a Burberry scarf wrapped around his neck. He survived, and one week later was behind bars.
But this is Romania, where everything, it seems, is a matter of dispute.
Anti-corruption advocates hailed Mr. Nastase’s downfall as a seminal moment in the evolution of a young democracy. Others have called his conviction for siphoning $2 million in state funds for his presidential campaign a show trial. Mr. Nastase’s opponents now allege that he faked a suicide attempt in an effort to avoid prison. His son Andrei Nastase, who was at the house at the time, said the accusation was absurd.
Whatever the truth, Adrian Nastase now occupies a cell measuring 4 square meters, or 43 square feet. On his jailhouse blog, he recently recounted how prisoners ate cabbage and potatoes, braved rats and had hot water for two hours twice a week.
Today, analysts here and abroad say the Nastase case has come to reveal as much about Romania’s political polarization and dysfunction as its halting steps toward greater democracy. It comes amid heightened fears in the European Union that its newest and weakest members are not up to the task of rooting out corruption that is a legacy of decades of Communist rule and, indeed, of weak governance before that.
Across Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, countries are experiencing a surge of instability that, analysts say, stems almost in equal parts from endemic corruption and the sometimes ham-fisted efforts to combat it in the context of bitter political rivalries.
The European Union, with 27 member nations, is so concerned about creeping lawlessness among its new members that Romania and its neighbor Bulgaria, which both entered in 2007, have not joined the bloc’s passport/visa-free travel area. On Thursday, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said concerns about corruption and fraud in Romania had prompted it to block E.U. development aid, potentially worth billions of euros.
In Croatia, which is set to join the European Union next year, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has been charged with embezzlement.
Romania, in particular, has struggled to overcome the aftermath of the ruthless, corrupt dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Over the past six years, 4,700 people have gone to trial on corruption charges, including 15 ministers and secretaries of state, 23 members of Parliament and more than 500 police officers.
To many, Mr. Nastase, a former member of the Communist elite who was prime minister from 2000 to 2004, is emblematic of a generation of still active politicians who assumed that power and influence could shelter them from the law. Once asked to account for his apparent wealth, he defiantly roared, “Count my eggs!” a Romanian slang word for genitals.
Monica Macovei, a former justice minister who is close to Mr. Nastase’s archrival President Traian Basescu, said that “There are too many people from the Communist era like Nastase who are still in power, and this has polluted the political class.”
She said the former Communist bloc was struggling to root out corruption, in part because in the push to join the European Union, the new member states of the east had rushed through judicial reforms it had taken Western Europe centuries to put in place.
Mr. Nastase’s suicide attempt, she said, was pure “theater.”
While few but Mr. Nastase’s closest allies—including the current prime minister, Victor Ponta—have sympathy for a man known as “Seven-Houses Nastase” by the Romanian news media because of his opulent lifestyle, some have questioned the zeal of his prosecution.
Mr. Nastase’s lawyers gave a litany of judicial abuses in his case, chief among them that the prosecution called 972 witnesses—more than in the Nuremberg trials—while the defense was permitted to call only 5. They said prosecutors had brazenly charged Mr. Nastase as leader of a party rather than as a former prime minister to avoid the required parliamentary approval of the charges.
Victor Alistar, head of the Romanian branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, said the lopsided nature of the prosecution raised questions about whether Mr. Nastase had received a fair trial, regardless of his reputation.
“If you are going to catch a big fish,” Mr. Alistar said, “you need to do it properly.”
Prosecutors said so many had testified against Mr. Nastase because the corruption was so widespread. During his trial, they charged that under Mr. Nastase’s influence, companies were pressured into taking part in a 2004 construction conference whose participation fees were used to help finance his failed presidential campaign in 2004.
He also received a separate three-year suspended prison sentence for blackmail and was acquitted of corruption in a case involving a suspicious $400,000 inheritance left to his wife.
All the while, Mr. Nastase has declared his innocence, calling the charges against him a preposterous “political game.” In court this month, Mr. Nastase asked that the week he had spent in a hospital after shooting himself be subtracted from his two-year sentence. The motion was rejected.
He declined to be interviewed. But his 26-year-old son, Andrei, a businessman, said in an interview that his father had been despondent after becoming the victim of a political witch hunt by Mr. Basescu, the president.
Andrei Nastase said in the interview that the notion that his father had faked his own suicide to escape prison was both hurtful and abhorrent. In August, the general prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Nastase’s “act” had been voluntary and that police had respected legal procedures.
“I saw with my own eyes—it was not a magic trick,” the younger Mr. Nastase said, showing blood residue on the back of his father’s silver-colored watch, which he now wears. “Mr. Basescu saw my father as a threat and these charges were created as a means to get him out of political life.”
The Romanian government recently drew European criticism for trying to influence Romania’s constitutional court after a failed effort to impeach Mr. Basescu, who himself was under fire for trying to influence prosecutors and judges.
Some analysts said Mr. Ponta, the prime minister and a former protégé of Mr. Nastase, had wanted to remove Mr. Basescu from office before he could target other senior officials in the Social Democratic Party.
In an interview, Mr. Ponta, who visited Mr. Nastase in hospital, said the attempted suicide had shocked him. Calling Mr. Nastase “the best prime minister Romania ever had,” he said the case showed how justice in Romania had become politicized.
Those skeptical about Mr. Nastase’s suicide attempt say he conspired with the police and doctors to fake a shot wound that might keep him from going to prison.
The anti-corruption agency is now investigating whether a doctor and three police officers colluded to help Mr. Nastase evade prison. Witnesses outside the villa on the evening of the apparent suicide attempt said they had never heard a gunshot. Mr. Nastase, an experienced hunter, is right-handed, but shot himself with his left hand.
Ioan Rus, then the interior minister, told Romanian reporters that he had spoken to Mr. Nastase on the eve of his arrest because he feared he would do something drastic. When Mr. Rus offered to spirit him out of his house in a police car to avoid a public arrest, Mr. Nastase declined, he said.
“‘This will never happen,”’ Mr. Rus said Mr. Nastase had told him. “‘I will never leave my home. I will decide by myself what’s to be done.”’
George Calin contributed reporting.
22 October 2012
The 91st birthday of Romania’s former king Michael I on October 25 will be celebrated with a series of events, including a gala concert at the Athenaeum and the opening of the King Square in Bucharest.
The King Square will be inaugurated at the intersection between Kiseleff Boulevard and Ion Mincu Street, on Thursday, October 25, starting 11:00. King Michael, Princess Margareta and her husband Prince Radu, as well as Prince Nicolae will attend the event. The same day, King Michael will be awarded the title Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Bucharest. A gala concert will follow at the Romanian Athenaeum the same day, held by the Foundation Principesa Margareta. Funds raised from the concert will be donated to charity and fund projects of talented young artists. Violinist Alexandru Tomescu and the Stradivarius ensemble will perform at the concert. Last year, King Michael’s 90th birthday brought European royalty members to Bucharest.
Following a decision from 2011, the Royal House in Romania will no longer be called The House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, but the Royal House of Romania. The members of the Royal Family will also give up all their titles given by the heads of the Hohenzollern royal family.
The House of Hohenzollern is one of the most important dynasties in Europe. The Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen is a wing of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Kings Carol I (1881-1914), Ferdinand I of Romania (1914-1927), Mihai I (Michael) of Romania (1927-1930 and 1940-1947) and Carol II of Romania (1930-1940) are part of this dynasty.
16 October 2012
It seems autumn is the season of film festivals, at least in Romania. If you are up for documentaries and a picturesque small-town feel then you should hit the road today because the ‘Astra Film Festival’ has just started in Sibiu (running October 15-21). The initiative is one of the most important anthropological and documentary festivals in Europe and used to take place every second year. Thankfully the management decided otherwise and starting with this year it has become an annual event. Its relaxed, family atmosphere makes it very cozy to attend. And then there is always the closing party with its epic amounts of Transylvanian sausages, plum brandy, and Balkan music, where film goers can easily chat to directors and guests.
‘Astra’ focuses on Central and Eastern European productions and as such Romanian documentaries are aptly represented. The focus is less on big matters but rather on details and minority issues. The best example is the HBO-financed pic ‘Doina groparilor/Digging for Life,’ which takes a deadpan look at an unlikely profession: the film follows a group of gravediggers working in the biggest East-European cemetery near Chişinău, Republic of Moldova, delivering surprisingly funny and wise insights on life, death, and a job with a routine.
Another recommendation is Laura Căpăţănă-Juller’s ‘Aici… adică acolo/Here… I Mean There,’ which picks up on of the most pressing social issues in Romania, namely the large number of citizens working abroad and the children they leave behind. The director follows two teenage girls in rural Maramureş growing up without their parents, who have been working in Spain for more than ten years. The delicate and non-judgmental picture is a most necessary account of a collective drama happening right before everybody’s eyes.
Speaking of collective dramas, the escape thriller ‘Fuga din paradis/Heavenly Run’ tries a bit too hard to squeeze tears from the audience but as a document of bleak times, desperate measures, and spectacular twists, it is definitely worth a watch. The film interviews a group of Romanian friends who came up with a hair-rising idea to flee the country in the 1980s and survived a series of unbelievable events until they reached their happy ending.
As with every year, the focus on the Roma population is strong and Ivana Mladenovic’s internationally acclaimed ‘Turn Off the Lights’ is a fine take on the issue. The film looks at three former convicts facing the problems of their newly won freedom after being released from prison and shows once again the prejudice surrounding the minority as well as the conflicting traits of these men, making for a thought-provoking and moving watch.
Be sure to check out Astra’s official website for more detailed information on films, guests, and side events.
12 October 2012
Ten Shropshire firefighters have set off on a 1,700-mile (2,735km) drive to take four old fire engines to Romania.
The engines, between 13 and 20 years old, will replace much older and "cumbersome" vehicles used by crews in Transylvania, the service said.
Hundreds of people from across the county held cake sales, collections, car washes and auctions to raise £11,000 to fund the scheme.
Three service support staff and a council worker also left on the trip.
The initiative has been arranged with the Mihai Eminescu Trust, a charity preserving Saxon villages in Romania, whose patron is Prince Charles.
Assistant chief fire officer Steve Worrall has organised the trip, as well as previous projects which have seen 11 old engines delivered to countries including Bulgaria and the Czech Republic over the past five years.
The journey to Transylvania will take four days and pass through eight countries, with firefighters taking turns to drive the engines.
Mr Worrall said: "The fire engines in Transylvania are from the 1950s and 60s and can be too big to get around these villages.
"The ones we are taking are smaller and more nimble."
He said an important part of the project was taking equipment to the region and fitting fire alarms in homes in the mediaeval village of Viscri.
Mr Worrall said many homes there were quite isolated and this act would "save lives".
The 200 smoke alarms were donated by a manufacturer while the surplus fire equipment was given by brigades around the UK, he added.
Mr Worrall, a firefighter for 30 years, visited Viscri in May and said people were still using horse and carts to get around.
"It was an experience like nothing else. It was almost like being in a theme park it was so medieval," he said.
Colin Richards, historic buildings manager at Shropshire Council, is among those taking part in the project.
He will work with a team of craftsmen to restore medieval buildings in the region.
Mr Richards said: "The landscape is similar to Shropshire's a century ago. Taking fire and rescue equipment will conserve precious heritage and save lives."
12 October 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania—Victor Ponta came to power in Romania in May amid high hopes that the boyish-looking 40-year-old—the youngest prime minister in the European Union—would usher in a generational change in a country that has struggled to overcome one of the harshest Communist legacies of the former Soviet bloc.
Instead, Romanian politics have seldom been more poisonous. After Mr. Ponta’s failed attempt to impeach President Traian Basescu in July, the two men can barely stand being in the same room with each other, according to associates. They are now locked in an uncomfortable cohabitation until elections in December. And even that vote, analysts say, may prove inconclusive.
The upheavals of this country of 22 million have added to concerns in the United States and Europe about the political instability and threats to democratic institutions that are intensifying across the former Communist bloc.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has come under criticism for flouting democracy with a series of measures that have brought the judiciary and media to heel. In the Czech Republic, the government has teetered on collapse with ministers involved in wire-tapping and corruption scandals.
But Romania, in particular, lies in a region without a history of stable, enlightened governance, even before it suffered through the ravages of World War II and then decades of the meglomaniacal Communist dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu, who was overthrown in the most violent of the revolutions that undid the Soviet bloc beginning in 1989.
Since then, Romanians have labored to build democratic structures virtually from scratch, finding themselves in a far more challenging position than almost any of their post-Communist neighbors. Romania’s foibles, then, have provoked debate about whether it and Bulgaria, which both entered the European Union in 2007, were invited in too soon, before their cultures of lawlessness, corruption and winner-take-all politics could be uprooted.
The vociferousness of the domestic battle in Romania has overshadowed policy making, rattled the currency, the lei, and undermined investor confidence in a country that is the second poorest in the European Union after Bulgaria.
Mr. Ponta’s government issued more than two dozen emergency decrees since it took office, allowing it to bypass Parliament. It replaced the country’s ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the Constitutional Court. Opposition politicians routinely accuse each other of being stooges and liars.
Some members of the pro-government media have accused critical foreign journalists of being anti-Romanian agents. The public remains disgusted with endemic graft and corruption. Adding to the mistrust are accusations that Mr. Ponta, a former prosecutor, plagiarized his doctoral thesis (he has acknowledged some shortcomings).
In an interview at the gargantuan and opulent 1,100-room Palace of Parliament—an architectural monstrosity built by Mr. Ceausescu as a monument to his authority and grandeur—Mr. Ponta acknowledged mistakes, but fell short of expressing outright regret.
He showed barely concealed contempt for Mr. Basescu, a former ship captain, whom he accused of brazenly clinging to power, despite having been rejected by a majority of Romanians, calling the president politically “illegitimate.”
“My mentality as a new generation of politician is to respect the institution even if I don’t respect the person,” he said, referring to the president. “He will never give up. He is a former sea captain and you won’t see a former sea captain being humble or giving up.”
Mr. Ponta said his main shortcoming had been not to effectively communicate the reasons behind the impeachment vote. To repair the country’s image, Mr. Ponta said he was studiously avoiding confrontations with the president, and had even recently removed himself from an acrimonious meeting about foreign policy to avoid another public and damaging bust-up.
Mr. Basescu declined an interview request, in keeping with the conspicuously low profile he has maintained since the referendum on his impeachment, which was favored by an overwhelming majority, even though the turnout of 46 percent was below the 50 percent needed to make the vote valid.
“Our European and American partners appreciate stability and predictability, and the lack of these two leads to overreaction and misunderstanding,” Mr. Ponta said, explaining the lessons he has learned since then.
Indeed, Western diplomats were so concerned that the country was teetering toward lawlessness that in August Washington sent the U.S. assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip H. Gordon, to Bucharest, where he met with both men and warned that Romania must uphold the rule of law.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, have also voiced concern. Talks, which had been scheduled for September in Brussels on Romania’s bid to join the European Union’s coveted visa-free zone, have been postponed.
Romania has to “remove all doubts on its commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the respect for constitutional rulings,” Mr. Barroso warned Mr. Ponta last month in Brussels.
The move for impeachment was triggered by accusations from the government that Mr. Basescu had overreached his mandate by, among other things, refusing to appoint ministers chosen by the prime minister, pressuring prosecutors in legal cases and using the secret services against enemies.
Mr. Basescu, who has denied the accusations, accused the prime minister—already under fire for riding roughshod through parliamentary checks and balances—of orchestrating a “coup d’'état.”
Monica Macovei, a former justice minister and close ally of Mr. Basescu, asserted in an interview that the breaches of the rule of law in the run-up to the referendum were worse than anything seen since the Ceausescu era.
But she insisted that Romania’s membership in the European Union had been instrumental in overcoming the political showdown. Romania’s justice system is closely monitored by the European Union, which also gives Bucharest much-needed funding. That gives Brussels significant leverage over the country.
“We joined the E.U. to follow the rules, not to destroy them,” she said.
There is little indication, however, that the political tumult will end soon. Mr. Ponta’s leftist coalition is expected to do well in the elections in December, analysts say, but may fall short of winning a majority that might break the deadlock.
While the prime minister’s performance has generated doubts, voters appear even more disenchanted with the rightist party of Mr. Basescu, which they associate with deeply unpopular austerity measures.
More than anything, the relentless sparring and stalemate has engendered a deep sense of disappointment among Romanians in the promise of their young democracy and disillusionment in their political leadership.
“Our politicians behave like children fighting over a toy,” said Monica Cristea, 43, a manicurist from Poenari, a village near Bucharest, where many of her neighbors had left to find work in Germany and Italy. “They have destroyed our international reputation. I am outraged. I don’t like any of them.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune
5 October 2012
The Making Waves festival dedicated to new Romanian cinema and held in New York will go ahead and be independently led by Corina Suteu (in picture, left), former director Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) and Oana Radu, the former deputy director of ICRNY, who both recently resigned in protest against changes the government is making to the institute. The festival by will be held between November 29 and December 5 at the Lincoln Center, New York.
The festival will provide an overview of the recent film production—including fiction, documentary and short film—and a series of special programs, retrospectives, debates, book launches and other events. Directors, actors, producers and film critics from Romania and USA are all expected to attend the event, including Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, veteran director Lucian Pintilie, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu and Andrei Ujica. The Romanian Film Initiative was co-founded by Mihai Chirilov, the festival's artistic director, and Oana Radu.
The festival is supported by Trust for Mutual Understanding and the Blue Heron Foundation, as well as by directors Bobby Paunescu and Tudor Giurgiu and visual artist Adrian Ghenie.
The festival will launch a funding campaign, aiming to attract support from fans of Romanian film in the US and Romania.
Following the decision in August of H.R. Patapievici to leave the ICR leadership, many others also quit the Institute in protest against budget cuts and the interference of the Romanian authorities. Many luminaries from the arts came out in support of the Cultural Institute and Corina Şuteu, former director of the ICR in New York, was among those who resigned in protest from their positions in Romania's Cultural Institute.
4 October 2012
Maud and Miska Petersham, married book illustrators in Woodstock, N.Y., sat across from each other as they worked. From the 1920s to the ’50s, they ran a prolific studio at their handmade stone house. They took on classic stories like “Heidi” and “Rip van Winkle,” along with nonfiction about rayon and wool that is now obscure, and Queen Marie of Romania’s fairy tale starring a magic doll.
Children and teachers sent fan mail. “It has gone through the school like wildfire,” a Utah schoolteacher wrote to the Petershams in 1941, praising the couple’s alphabet book with patriotic pictures.
The Petersham archive survives in the hands of family members and the University of Southern Mississippi’s library. The historian Lawrence Webster mined the material for a book, “Under the North Light: The Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham” (WoodstockArts), and an exhibition that opens on Saturday at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.
In the show’s 100 illustrations and family photos and greeting cards, one unifying theme is bright colors and floral patterns resembling Hungarian folk art. Miska Petersham grew up in Hungary. Around 1912, shortly before he moved to New York, he Americanized his original name, Mihaly Petrezselyem.
As a child in the 1950s, Ms. Webster met the illustrators. Maud Petersham was shy but tireless about executing ideas, and her husband was “big, noticeable and impressive as a presence,” Ms. Webster said in a recent phone interview. She added that he never lost his accent and “called everybody ‘Sveetie Dear.’ ”
The Petershams’ house on Glasco Turnpike, with floor-to-ceiling windows that illuminated their drafting tables, is largely unchanged and has been on the market for about $440,000.
2 October 2012
GURA VADULUI, Romania — Can the latest fad for wine enthusiasts possibly come from an eastern European country whose wine-growing traditions are as old as Christianity?
Romania is the sixth-largest wine grower in the European Union and its enthusiastic proponents say the aspect of its 180,000 hectares of vineyards, unique soil, unusual grapes and inexpensive costs make it a producer to watch.
"What is unique about Romania is certainly the soils that can give unique characteristics to the wine," said Stephen Donnelly, oenologist of the Budureasca vineyard some 90 km northeast of capital Bucharest.
Romania's wine region lies on its western coast alongside the Black Sea, where vineyards dot the mostly sunny slopes and play home to grapes with names such as Feteasca Neagra and Tamaioasa Romaneasca.
"The two varieties I get most asked for when I do shows in London are Feteasca Neagra and Tamaioasa Romaneasca, which are both indigenous varieties," Donnelly told Reuters. "Because everyone has tasted Merlot from Chile, Argentina, so it's nothing special there."
The Tamaioasa grape has ancient Greek origins and has been cultivated in Romania for more than two thousand years.
"Pale straw in colour, strong aroma of elderflower, strong flavours of fresh lychee, and with a soft natural sweetness and a long finish," is how Donnelly described the wine.
Price-wise it's competitive with its established European rivals in the export market and one of the very few sectors of the Romanian economy that is attracting EU development funds.
A bottle of Budureasca's finest wine can be bought in EU shops for as little as 6 euros ($7.74). Compare that to a Carignan varietal particular to France's less-lauded Languedoc wine region which costs 7.49 pounds ($12.10) at a British online wine shop or a mid-level Margaux from Bordeaux at 14.99 pounds ($24.21).
The Budureasca winery, whose name comes from an ancient Dacian archaeological site, exports a meagre five percent of its wine to Canada, Belgium, Sweden and Germany and plans to expand its export base to United States and across northern Europe.
"Its soils, the southern exposure, on 45 degrees are on a parallel with Bordeaux ... and limestone gives strength and mildness to red wines," Budureasca director Dumitru Varga said.
Many western importers have yet to see Romania as a member of the world's select wine club and the country suffers from a reputation for widespread graft, cumbersome commercial practices and shaky political foundations.
"The problem we had and we are still having is the fact that Romania's image is a bit stained," said Gabriel Lacureanu, oenologist at the nearby Basilescu winery.
Although Romania uses modern wine-making technology, a winter freeze and this summer's scorching temperatures hit production, estimated to drop 30 percent from 4.1 million hectolitres in 2011 when it exported only 130,000 hl.
Imports were nine times larger.
"Romania has a great future. When I do (go to) London I see we have a nice big stand with Romania," said Budureasca's Donnelly. "But we're standing there trying to literally grab people to come in and it's a shame." ($1 = 0.7749 euros) ($1 = 0.6192 British pounds) (Reporting by Ioana Patran; Editing by Radu Marinas and Paul Casciato)
28 September 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — One painting shows a peasant crucified above a hole in the shape of Romania. Another of a man holding a book is painted in the style of Pablo Picasso.
Neither work would have been displayed in public during the communist era, when censorship was rife and art was used as a propaganda tool to glorify late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. A new exhibit of some 650 paintings that opened this week at the National Library seeks to show how some artists subverted the regime, creating works that criticized communism or painting in styles like cubism that were out of favor.
"Its late justice," said Ruxandra Garofeanu, the curator of the exhibition, who worked for two years to assemble the works from 27 museums and 30 collections in Romania and abroad. "It shows there was resistance to the regime, not a violent resistance it's true, but not everything was social realism."
The exhibit, which will run until Dec. 2, shows some works being seen publicly in Romania for the first time. Previous exhibits of communist-era art focused on how artists paid sycophantic tribute to Ceausescu, showing him as a demigod or a revolutionary hero. This selection reveals how some painters refused to follow the slavish aesthetic of the time.
Escapism is a recurring theme. A man floats above the earth in one painting, while another dressed in white rides a horse on a beach, far from an industrial city seen in the background.
A key work depicts a beheaded Stalin relieving himself in the top hat of Winston Churchill. The enormous canvas in hues of gray and blue was painted by Ioan Dreptu over 22 years and first went on display in the Van-der-Heyt Museum in Wupperthal, Germany, in 1986, three years before the collapse of communism.
"What should be seen here is that during communism .... painters and artists resisted the socialist pressure and painted or created works according to their tastes and how their souls dictated to them," said Vasile Dobre, who visited the exhibit.
27 September 2012
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - After four months in power and a failed attempt to oust the president, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta is under fire at home and abroad, with his coalition under strain before an election in December when victory is now far from assured.
Ponta, a leftist Social Democrat, seemed to have it all when he became the European Union's youngest prime minister in May, his alliance with liberals enjoying a robust parliamentary majority and opinion poll ratings above 60 percent.
Now the man who was supposed to represent a change of guard for his party, successors to the Communists of late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, is under strain.
Rather than tackling the many problems of the EU's second poorest country, Ponta's term so far has been dominated by his party's attempt to overthrow President Traian Basescu, which has provoked conflict with the judiciary, concern in Brussels and uncertainty among investors over a deal with the IMF.
"The governing parties have come across as trying to secure all the levers of power without regard to democratic checks, and the very negative reaction of western states has shaken confidence," said Sergiu Miscoiu, an analyst at the CESPRI political think-tank.
Five years after joining the EU, Romania has made little progress under a series of short-lived governments in reforming its state-dominated economy and fighting widespread corruption. Basic problems which most EU countries overcame decades ago, such as running water supplies for all, remain unsolved.
Instead, many Romanians feel sidelined within the EU. Brussels is monitoring its respect for the rule of law and its drive against corruption, and the country remains excluded from the passport-free Schengen area.
"We hope that following the elections in December, the political turmoil will end and the authorities will focus more on improving the country's economic situation," said Grzegorz Konieczny, who runs Fondul Proprietatea, a 3.4 billion euro fund that holds stakes in dozens of Romanian companies.
AUSTERITY AND CRONYISM
Ponta, a former prosecutor and amateur motor rally driver who turned 40 last week, won power in a parliamentary confidence vote which toppled the previous centre-right prime minister after just three months in office.
His Social Liberal Union (USL), a fragile alliance of social democrats and liberals, drew on discontent with austerity and cronyism to dispatch the old Basescu-allied government. Then it set its sights on the president himself.
The new government issued more than 40 emergency decrees in its first two months, allowing it to bypass parliament and limiting the powers of the Constitutional Court.
Ponta accused Basescu, a former oil tanker captain, of blocking government policies and turning a blind eye to corruption. The USL used its parliamentary majority to suspend the centre-right president and called a referendum in July on his impeachment.
Of those who voted, 88 percent backed Basescu's impeachment but the turnout was only 46 percent. The Constitutional Court, which had ruled that at least half the electorate should vote, threw out the result and the president was re-instated.
As tensions rose between the government and judiciary, the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe said the Constitutional Court had asked for help in protecting its independence from political pressure. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also expressed his deep concern to Ponta about allegations of pressure being applied to judges on the court.
With Basescu back in office, Ponta has tried to portray the incidents as mere fallout from disputes at home.
"I don't like those who come to make denunciations in Brussels or Strasbourg hoping this will help them at home, but on the other hand I don't think we should battle the European Commission over our domestic wars," he said.
Ponta played down the possibility of trying again to oust the president for now. "I don't think we can take such a decision today and such a risk for the country. Romania must avoid a crisis of the same depth in the future," he added.
The rows with Basescu and the court have hurt international trust in Ponta. "Where is the guarantee it won't happen again?" said an EU diplomat. "Regaining the lost credibility with external partners will be neither easy nor quick."
The turbulence has also raised doubts among investors over how closely Romania will stick to the reforms required under its 5 billion euro aid deal, which is led by the International Monetary Fund and is needed to shore up investor confidence.
The cost of insuring Romanian debt against default rocketed and the leu currency plunged to all-time lows over the summer.
While the government has largely stuck to the headline targets of the 2011-2013 aid deal, bringing down the budget deficit, Romania has consistently failed to use EU funds fully, privatize and reform its failing state-owned companies or overhaul its outdated energy production.
The presidential dispute has an additional twist. Soon after coming to power, Ponta was accused of plagiarism in the thesis which earned him a doctorate in law.
Ponta accused Basescu of planting the charges but the row took off when former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, a political ally who supervised Ponta's disputed doctorate, was jailed for corruption. Nastase tried to kill himself and Ponta once again blamed the president, claiming he controlled the courts and had orchestrated the conviction.
Nastase's case was an overdue signal that Bucharest was finally getting serious on graft, and anti-corruption experts say this may have prompted Ponta's rush to oust Basescu. The president has the final say on nominated judges and prosecutors.
With 19 members of parliament from Ponta's alliance and several from the opposition under investigation, both sides want to keep their people out of jail and the EU is monitoring the appointment of a new chief prosecutor and anti-corruption chief.
All the turbulence is also undermining what little faith Romanians still have in the political class.
"The issue is politicians put their well-being first rather than the country's. This is something that needs to be changed," said Madalin Teodoroiu, a 26-year old junior architect.
SHOWING THE STRAIN
The USL, formed last year, could still win an outright majority of seats in parliament in December. But failing to remove Basescu has knocked its popularity, which polls now put at just above 50 percent, and the USL is showing the strain.
"This alliance was created so that everybody would win, and at the moment they are starting to lose," said Adrian Basaraba, a political science professor at the University of Timisoara.
A gap is widening between Ponta's Social Democrats and the smaller Liberals (PNL), led by the older and gaffe-prone Crin Antonescu. Ponta has warned his party members to keep their opinions private or risk exclusion from the election race.
"Together with the PNL we have failed, so it is being considered as a joint failure - though Crin Antonescu is seen by many as the main culprit," said one senior Social Democrat.
Basescu will nominate the prime minister after the election, and if the USL falls short of a majority he could ask a conservative ally to form a coalition. Even if the USL scores an outright win, Basescu has a record of trying to split alliances and has said he will never again appoint Ponta.
"We are all aware that this close to elections we have to stick together, whether we want to or not," said one USL member of parliament.
(Additional reporting by Andreea Birsan and Radu Marinas; Editing by David Stamp)
24 September 2012
There’s a popular southern fiddle tune called The Big Sandy named after the actual river that divides West Virginia and Kentucky.
And that’s the geographical setting for the famous and bloody feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Last night at the Emmy’s, the History Channel won several honors for its miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys.”
So do you know where the filming took place for this 19th century American drama?
Can you name the country?
Kevin Costner has won Lead Actor for his work on “Hatfields & McCoys.”
The TV mini-series for the History Channel is based on one of the most famous blood feuds in American history.
Costner accepted the award saying: “This didn’t really figure to happen, in fact we had to go all the way to Romania to film this very American story. I’d like to thank that film community for helping us, in Bucharest.”
Romania is the answer to our Quiz.
Bogdan Moncea is marketing director for Castel Films, a movie production company based outside Bucharest that helped produce the series for the History Channel. He tells The World the experience of shooting Hatfields and McCoys in Transylvania illustrates how Romania is fast becoming a new Hollywood
The horses, guns and actors in this story of honor and revenge travelled a long way from the Appalachian Mountains.
The film was shot in the shadow of the southern Carpathians in a region known for its medieval castles, monasteries, and—dare we say it—vampires
24 September 2012
The New York Gypsy Festival—a celebration of the diverse music and culture that falls under the “gypsy” rubric, is going on now in Manhattan. (Festival organizers use the terms “gypsy” and the more precise “roma” interchangeably.)
The festival’s headliners, a brass band called Fanfare Ciocarlia, were in town on Saturday to perform a rollicking set for a sold-out audience at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. It didn’t take long for that audience to get out of their seats. By the third song the aisles and floors were packed.
Oprica Ivancea, the band’s clarinet and sax player, was impressed. “You are a very good dancer,” Ivancea told the crowd partway through the set, rather appropriately referring to the excited crowd in the singular. “In fact you are one of the best dancers which I have seen in my life. But the next song, you cannot dance. Because it’s too fast.”
He was kind of kidding about not dancing, but the song’s tempo was no joke. Fanfare Ciocarlia plays really, really fast.
Costica Trifan, who plays trumpet and sings in Fanfare Ciocarlia, was coy when asked about the band’s velocity. How we do it is a secret, he said, but we never set out to be so fast. We just want to make sure everyone is having a good time.
Bringing the party is in the group’s DNA. The 12 members hail from a village in northeastern Romania called Zece Prajin. They started playing together in school, and were soon doing village baptisms and weddings.
And they might have remained on the Zece Prajin wedding circuit if Henry Ernst, a German guy who’d become obsessed with Romanian music, hadn’t stumbled into their remote village one day in 1996. Within a few minutes, Ernst had a beer in his hand and about 20 musicians playing for him.
“They simply blowed me away,” Ernst remembered when we sat down with him shortly before Saturday’s show. “It was magic, it was so powerful, it has such a humor, that I decided not to stay for one hour; it’s better to stay for three months.”
Ernst soon had the band touring Europe, then Japan and Australia and North America. They’ve cut a few albums too.
Their live shows blend the traditional music of their Roma ancestry with other music from the Balkans and beyond. Among the songs in that “beyond” category are the James Bond theme, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and the Steppenwolf song “Born To Be Wild,” which was featured in the movie “Borat.”
Costica Trifan, speaking through an interpreter, said that hits like this were always a part of their repertoire—they were, after all, a wedding band. “We always played different musical styles,” he said. “Weddings would start off with traditional music, but later in the night people would start requesting ABBA or pop music or themes from TV soap operas.”
Their catchall repertoire and their frenetic musical delivery has won the band fans the world over. Trifan said that their popularity abroad has actually sparked a brass renaissance in their own village.
“By the 1990s, people in our village had lost interest in the traditional brass music—people wanted to hear other types of songs. But now the roots—the kinds of music we play—are coming back,” he said.
There were glimpses in Saturday’s show of what the epic, daylong parties back in Zece Prajin must be like—the exuberant dancing and clapping and shouting and singing. At the end of the show, the band came back for a second encore. Instead of taking their places onstage, they launched into a song and marched straight into the audience.
They snaked through the crowd and out into the lobby. Fans circled around them. They played through chorus after chorus, notching up the energy a bit each time. You got the sense that they could have gone on forever. They didn’t, though. There was an after party to get to.
Humans were tampering with nature long before the Industrial Revolution’s steam and internal combustion engines arrived on the scene. The invention of agriculture around 8,000 years ago, some argue, significantly changed ecosystems as it spread around the globe.
Although scientists are only just beginning to understand how these ancient alterations shaped our world today, a new study in Scientific Reports suggests that millennium-old development along the Danube River in Eastern Europe significantly changed the Black Sea ecosystem and helped create the lush Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine.
“My team had a big surprise,” said Liviu Giosan, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the lead author of the study. “We found that around a thousand years ago, the entire basin changed dramatically, though that later made sense when we put it into context.”
Dr. Giosan and his colleagues originally set out to see how changes in historic sediment movement – from glaciers, rivers, agriculture and felled forests, for example – influence the ocean. The ocean is a big place, and it quickly dilutes sediment. To get around this problem, they decided to study the Black Sea since, while it connects to the ocean, it is confined and relatively small. Understanding the Black Sea meant taking a deep look at the Danube River, the sea’s major source of freshwater.
The team used a variety of methods to reconstruct the water bodies’ dual histories. They took sediment samples and used radiocarbon dating and a technique called optically stimulated luminescence to reconstruct each layer of sediment deposits, starting around 9,000 years ago when the ocean first invaded the Black Sea. Sediment accumulation, they found, suddenly spiked about 2,000 to 1,000 years ago. “Probably 40 percent of the Delta was built in the last 1,000 years,” Dr. Giosan said. “Finding that was like a eureka moment.”
Spurred on, they measured how the sea’s salinity changed over time. When the Black Sea first connected with the ocean, they found, its salinity steadily increased, reaching near-ocean salt levels around 3,000 years ago. But then salinity began slowly decreasing, leveling off about 1,000 years ago at around 20 grams per liter of dissolved salts, compared with 35 grams per liter in the ocean. Running computer models of these results, they found that a combination of decreased evaporation from naturally lower temperatures and a greatly increased river flow caused the salinity to decline.
Finally, they extracted preserved DNA fragments from 44 sediment samples to determine how communities of aquatic organisms shifted over the years. Around 1,000 years ago, tiny algae called diatoms abruptly began dominating the Black Sea’s waters. Diatoms build their shells from silicate, Dr. Giosan noted, a compound found in soil. Other microorganisms that thrive in nutrient-rich water also began turning up in high numbers around this time.
To try and understand how all of those findings fit together, they built a computer model that took into account the Danube’s physical parameters and the history of land use there. The story that emerged explained their discoveries in the context of the larger human landscape. Around 3,000 years ago, humans began clearing forests for agriculture in present-day Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, they found, and around 1,000 years ago, the agricultural efforts significantly expanded. With fewer trees to trap rainwater, the Danube’s volume probably increased; it carried far more eroded nutrients and silicate-laden soil with it and its salinity decreased, laying the foundations for the modern-day Danube Delta.
Today, the Danube Delta encompasses a rich assembly of 23 different ecosystems, including wetlands, lakes, lagoons and dunes. Over 300 species of birds pass through the delta, and 45 species of freshwater fish inhabit its waters. “What our ancestors did without purposefully having it in mind was to enrich that part of the world and increase the diversity of the land,” Dr. Giosan said.
He hypothesizes that humans probably had a hand in shaping other coastal and delta systems around the world, but further studies of individual sites would be needed to verify this.
Although humans may be inadvertently responsible for some of the Danube region’s current biodiversity, Dr. Giosan emphasizes that the human impact on the area over the last century has been drastic in terms of changes in land use, positive and negative. “We don’t need to wait 1,000 years” to recognize that, he said. “It’s already happening now.”
7 September 2012
There are plenty of stereotypes attached to the Roma — a traditionally itinerant people, mostly in Eastern Europe and often called "gypsies" (a term derived from "Egyptian," once their assumed place of origin).
"For many of the estimated 2 million Roma in Romania, or about 10 percent of the population," according to National Geographic, "life is poor and nasty, their communities stuck in squalid city slums or in cardboard shanties on the edges of town."
That's why, to some, the idea of "wealthy Roma" may seem like an oxymoron. But a story in the magazine's September issue explores one town outside Bucharest where the Roma are building mansions that fly in the face of those stereotypes.
Writer Tom O'Neill (no relation) explains that Roma in the town of Buzescu originally made money as Kalderash, or coppersmiths. But after the fall of communism, O'Neill explains, the Kalderash traveled the country gathering scrap metal from abandoned factories and sold it for a pretty penny. "By playing the commodity market," the article reads, "some Buzescu Roma reaped hefty profits."
Without revealing too much more, it's a fascinating read about what O'Neill calls the "rarest of Europe's demographics," and there are more photos over there.
2 September 2012
The Transylvanian town of Rosia Montana has been at the centre of a long-running debate in Romania, as politicians consider whether to give the green light to a large opencast gold mine in the region.
It was an advert which ran with surprising regularity on Romanian TV in the autumn of 2011 which first alerted me to the Transylvanian mountain commune of Rosia Montana.
A local woman appealed to viewers to understand the plight of those living in the town. There was no work, she said, and Rosia Montana needed to start mining gold again to provide them with a future.
Romania is one of the EU's poorest nations and unemployment is high, so the promise of foreign investors wanting to re-open the town's communist-era mine appears to be a much needed lifeline.
Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) is the company behind the project, which was first mooted back in the mid-1990s. It says the new mine could benefit the Romanian economy to the tune of $19bn (£12bn) and create thousands of jobs.
It is an enticing proposal for a country which was bailed out by the IMF as recently as 2009. Yet over a decade on, politicians continue to drag their feet on whether to give the project the green light, or not.
Right across Romania people have an opinion on Rosia Montana and not everyone is sympathetic to the the plight of the town's unemployed.
"If this project starts, life is over for me," says Sorin Jorca, a Rosia Montana local, speaking to the BBC's Crossing Continents programme.
Standing in his exquisite rose garden, he tells me about everything he is set to lose.
"I would lose my house, the graves of my parents, the church, and the heritage that belongs to all of us.
"The mining industry is very dirty, they will use tonnes of dynamite each day. Think of the noise, the toxicity—life here is going to be impossible," he says.
Mr Jorca has set up an opposition group—The Rosia Montana Cultural Foundation—and is making the most of being able to say "No" in this one-time communist state.
His organisation is part of a broader church of international NGOs and action groups across Romania, which to date have managed to stall the project.
The most prominent is Alburnus Maior Association, led by charismatic farmer Eugen David.
"There is no compromise," he says. "I have found my place in a big family of anarchists, ecologists and anti-multinationalists.
"Civil society has grown up—we have gathered around a clear cause."
However, in Rosia Montana campaigners like Sorin Jorca and Eugen David are in a minority. Certainly my visits to the beer-fuelled town cafe left me in no doubt that the majority opinion was in favour of the project.
"It's our single opportunity to work," one man tells me.
"The last three generations of my family have been miners and I want to work as a miner," says another.
"The majority of the people want the mine to go ahead."
Thousands of jobs
Almost everybody I meet in the town appeared to be employed by RMGC—excavating, restoring and waiting for the mine to open.
According to RMGC, 95% of the locals want the project to begin and the town is plastered with brash yellow banners reminding any passer-by this is a mining town.
At the moment, that claim remains presumptive, but if managing director of RMGC Dragos Tanase gets his way, it will once again become a reality.
In a sharp suit he arrives from the capital Bucharest ready to extol the benefits of the project.
"Romania has a huge chance with mining. If we really develop this industry we can develop tens of thousands of jobs in areas like Rosia Montana," he tells me.
"Let me tell you, if the mine doesn't start, this village is going to die."
Mr Tanase is also keen to push his Romanian credentials: "I was born in Romania, I have grown and lived in Romania."
This emphasis on nationality is understandable given RMGC is 80% owned and funded by Gabriel Resources—a Canadian mining company. The Romanian government owns the remaining 20% stake.
Many within the country worry that to give the go-ahead to the project would be to sign away Romania's most valuable natural asset—and its ancient heritage.
Deep underground, Dragos Tanase takes me on a tour of Rosia's Montana's stunning 2,000-year-old Roman mining galleries, which have attracted talk of possible UNESCO World Heritage status. The company admits that large sections of the ancient mines would be destroyed by its new opencast mine—along with the peaks of four local mountains.
But the company also promises to invest in the town's heritage, to turn it into a tourist attraction once the mine has been drained of its gold reserves.
"After we're done here, you're not going to notice a mine was here," says Mr Tanase.
"We're going to take money from the mine and invest in the heritage of Rosia Montana. We're going to invest in hotels and sustainable development."
I suggest to another seasoned opponent of the Rosia Montana project, Mircea Toma, that it might be worth sacrificing a number of currently inaccessible Roman galleries if the mining company funded the preservation of others.
He is unimpressed. "How many columns would it be reasonable to conserve out of the Greek Acropolis?" is his disdainful reply.
Mr Toma's implacable opposition to the project runs deeper than a concern for heritage preservation. He does not trust the Romanian government to handle such a significant project.
"This is not a fight between the civil society and a private company, this is a fight between us and the state and the state is suspect of corruption," he says.
This fear of corruption and a lack of faith in the Romanian political system has united many opponents of the Rosia Montana project. The government's reluctance to publish the contract it signed with RMGC has exacerbated suspicions there is something to hide.
Fear of a political fallout from giving the mine the go-ahead is high among the country's politicians, despite the economic benefits the mine might bring.
The former finance minister and one time employee of RMGC Sebastian Vladescu tells me that when he was in government, many politicians, including President Traian Basescu, were in favour of the project.
Mr Vladescu said politicians were prone to procrastinate where big decisions were needed, fearful of allegations of bribery, generated by the opposition and media over big contracts.
"When you cut pensions and wages nobody presumes you can be bribed for that. When it is about a project of $1.5 - $2bn instantly a discussion about a potential bribe will start," says Mr Vladescu.
"This is something politicians always avoid, so it's not used in campaigns against them."
No accusations of corruption have been levelled against RMGC but the emotional issues surrounding Rosia Montana's gold mean the proposed mine has become something of a poisoned chalice for successive governments.
The country's political turmoil was compounded further this summer following an unsuccessful attempt to impeach President Basescu and with elections approaching in November, the Environment Minister Rovana Plumb is cautious in her comments about the future of Rosia Montana.
"We believe the issue has such big implications for Romanian society, and has generated such a large negative reaction, that it must be treated with the utmost seriousness," she says.
"The correct development of the decision-making process cannot be conditioned by time and it is not exaggerated to carefully evaluate the project for several more months."
So for the time being the wait over Rosia Montana's future is set to continue. To mine or not to mine, remains the question.
21 August 2012
Romania’s Constitutional Court ruled Tuesday that a referendum on whether to impeach the president had failed because the minimum voter threshold was not reached. The ruling clears the way for President Traian Basescu to return to his post, the latest twist in a power struggle between a left-wing government and the populist center-right president. Mr. Basescu was suspended by Parliament on accusations of overstepping his authority by meddling in government business and the judicial system. The judges voted 6 to 3 that less than 50 percent of the electorate had voted in the July 29 referendum, rendering it invalid.
20 August 2012
Second of two stories (see below for first story)
Spray-painted graffiti covers the gray, communist-era concrete building housing a cramped two-bedroom apartment that's home to seven boys and their "dad."
They are among more than 60 boys who have grown up here, in the Berceni section of Bucharest, Romania, under the tutelage of 45-year-old Florin Grosuleac. Known as Good Shepherd, the single-apartment home was founded by Grosuleac 13 years ago and is one of a handful of private houses for abandoned boys across the city.
For a lucky few, Good Shepherd has offered an alternative to state-run orphanages or, more likely, the streets — a fate Grosuleac himself endured.
"I used to be like this — an abandoned child. I was left behind by my mother. My father took me in later," Grosuleac says. "My mother would drop me off on Monday and pick me up on Friday evening for years until, one day, she just didn't show up."
Grosuleac decided to leave the orphanage for the streets in hopes of finding his father.
"But until my father came, I went through all this struggle of surviving as a kid on the streets. I would beg and steal and fight for a piece of bread," he says. "It's a Romanian story."
Romania's Legacy Of Abandoned Children
The tragedy of Romania's orphans came to light shortly after the 1989 fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who had largely closed off his country to the outside world. With Ceausescu gone, images of destitute children overflowing from decaying orphanages flashed across television screens around the world.
For 10 years, prospective parents from the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere flocked to Romania in hopes of adopting one of these children. But in 2001, Romania put a moratorium on foreign adoption and ended it all together four years later.
Today, more than 70,000 children fall under the care of Romania's Department of Child Protection, though many working in child welfare say there are tens of thousands more on the streets.
Grosuleac's goal, he says, has been to find these "lost boys" and help them, at least, survive. He aims not only to provide food and shelter, but also to teach life skills so they can make it on their own.
"In the beginning, I went on the streets," he says. "I found the kids on the streets doing drugs. ... The hardest thing I have had to do is convince these boys they need help, because in the past they didn't realize they need help. They wanted to be on their own."
A Tight Squeeze
The four-room apartment has two bedrooms, a kitchen and an office. It has housed as many as 12 boys. Seven live here now, including Grosuleac's two biological sons, who are now in their 20s.
Four are in one small bedroom and three are in the other — sleeping on strategically arranged bunk beds. Grosuleac sleeps on a small bed in the office.
Life at Good Shepherd can still be tough, Grosuleac says.
"There were days when we were starving to death and we didn't have anything to eat for days, and we would all pray here on our knees and someone would appear at the door with a stack of hot pizzas," he says.
But the boys agree that they are better off than they would be otherwise.
George, 23, came to Good Shepherd after the death of his grandmother, when he was 12. George's last name has been withheld for his protection; those identified as orphans in Romania are often discriminated against and sometimes passed over for jobs and apartments.
"[Florin Grosuleac] always tried to get me the best thing, the best education, and tried to make me think for myself and to look for good things in life," George says. "The only thing I lacked was parents, but in a way it was compensated by the people from the foundation."
Like many other boys raised by Grosuleac, George graduated from high school and started working in hopes of earning enough to go out on his own. At 16, he started working during vacations from school as a receptionist at an auto supplies company.
Paying Their Way
And, like the other boys who have been able to balance a job and school, George contributed to a general fund to help pay for the apartment's rent, utilities and food. Several boys earn money by playing instruments at churches of varying religions across the city.
Grosuleac also has a job outside this house. He is a chauffeur four days a week, with most of his earnings going toward the house and the support of his three biological children.
His two sons help the orphans with homework, among other tasks. Grosuleac is divorced, and his daughter lives with her mother.
Rent runs about $450 a month, and utilities range from $200 to $350. At the beginning, additional funds came from foundations in America, and later, from The Netherlands, Grosuleac says. But donations are few these days. He blames the worldwide economic crisis.
"From time to time we get some donations," he says. "There is no money coming from the government. ... The government has no responsibility whatsoever. They are not involved in any way. And they are not helping out."
Grosuleac says he appealed to the government at one point.
"Their response was 'Who asked you to do this? Why are you doing it?,' " Grosuleac says. "Whatever it means, social assistance, it is left off the end of the list."
Grosuleac does get about $12 a month each for the two youngest kids because they are not yet 18 and therefore still fall under the Department of Child Protection. Several attempts to contact the department for this article received no response.
"There were several times over the years when I sat down and said, 'It is enough. I can't go forward anymore,' " he recalls.
Preparing For Adulthood
Most orphans in Romania, by law, must leave the state institutions when they turn 18. There are exceptions; those who manage to attend college, for example, can generally stay a few more years.
But many find it difficult to enter society after living in an institution. Few have learned the life skills needed to survive — how to find an apartment and a job, to earn, save and manage money.
"I am trying to make sure after they finish up school, they get a job and are prepared to be on their own," Grosuleac says.
For one thing, all the kids have chores. He also teaches the kids to cook by having them prepare evening meals for the house.
While he aims to ready them for life on the outside, Grosuleac doesn't force the boys to leave when they are 18.
"If they want to leave on their own, it's their decision. But I continue to support them," he says.
How successful his boys end up being depends, he says, on their intelligence and motivation. Some have gone to college or learned multiple languages. One graduated from law school.
"But still, those kids who didn't bet on education, they have jobs, they got married, they have their own houses, their own families — there are none of them without jobs," he says. "I am so happy; I consider that the foundation has reached its goal — to make sure they have jobs, they aren't on their own, they are constructive and productive members of society."
The Next Step
But, like any dad, he continues to worry about them.
Grosuleac says he was happy to find another foundation, SansaTa, which aims to help young adults leaving orphanages and group homes. The founder and director of SansaTa is an orphan who grew up in one of Romania's infamous institutions.
"I was so stressed — what is going to happen to these kids next? I brought them here to this point, but what will happen to them now? The fact that ... some of these kids are now in this project is a huge relief and accomplishment, because now I can sleep soundly," he says.
SansaTa, or "Your Chance," has developed a plan for helping young adults go from orphanages to small apartments. The blueprint for the first building is complete, location secured, and its first 12 residents have been named. The foundation is fundraising now, and its future residents will work on the construction to help pay for their apartments.
George, living at the Good Shepherd apartment, is one of those on the list.
As for the future of Good Shepherd, Grosuleac says he believes he has taken in his last orphan.
"I would love to continue, but not under these conditions," he says. "Under these conditions, we're not much better off than a regular poor family."
Meghan Collins Sullivan is a former supervising editor at NPR. Her reporting in Romania is supported in part by a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
19 August 2012
First of two stories (see above for second story)
The 1989 overthrow and execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu provided the first glimpse of a country that had been mostly closed to the outside world — and many of the scenes were appalling.
Among the most disturbing were images of tens of thousands of abandoned children suffering abuse and neglect in Romania's orphanages. Many were confined to cribs, wallowing in their own filth and facing mental health issues.
There was outrage in the West. Foreign charities came in to help. Europeans and Americans adopted thousands of children.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the fate of Romania's abandoned children is an unresolved issue. While the orphanages, in general, have improved, the number of children in state care — more than 70,000 — is nearly the same as it was in 1989. Many in the field say there are tens of thousands more on the streets who are not being counted.
Romania remains a relatively poor country, and the legacy of Ceausescu's policies has not been completely erased.
Romania's adoption laws are complex and are seen as one of several reasons there are relatively few adoptions domestically. Annually, between 700 and 900 children are adopted of the 1,200 to 1,400 considered adoptable. Foreign adoptions, which were common during the 1990s, were halted a decade ago.
A revision of Romania's adoption law, which went into effect in April, aims to make more children eligible for adoption and more quickly. But many involved in child protection doubt that the new law alone will significantly improve the lives of these abandoned kids.
Bogdan Panait, head of Romania's Office for Adoptions, says he hopes the new law can bump the number of children considered adoptable to 2,000. But this number would still be less than 3 percent of the children in state care and less than 9 percent of those residing in non-family situations.
"It's not a system for children's rights. It's a system for parents' rights," says Bogdan Simion, executive director of SERA Romania, a nonprofit foundation that is one of the largest financial contributors to Romania's child welfare system.
Consider the case of Tatiana. She spent two years in a baby ward at a Romanian hospital because she had no birth certificate, her caregivers say. But the law states a birth certificate should be issued within 45 days, even if it means listing the mother and father as "unknown."
In Romania, to be considered "adoptable," a child's biological parents must be deceased or indicate that they have no interest in having a relationship with the child. But beyond this, all relatives as distant as siblings of grandparents also must sign away rights to the child. The aim to reintegrate a child into his biological family, for better or worse, is considered the ultimate goal.
The biggest change in the new law is a child's eligibility for adoption should be considered after a year without a parental relationship.
But what a "relationship" is, exactly, is unclear. How frequent must contact be to constitute a relationship?
"As often as possible," says Ramona Popa, ROA's cabinet director. "It depends. There are possibilities because sometimes it is very hard for them to come."
Many children now linger in the system because their mothers express interest by stopping by once a year.
Mothers have the option of leaving their newborns at the hospital when they go home. They do not have to give up the rights to the child at this point –- or ever. Some kids are lucky enough to get moved into foster care, which is required prior to adoption eligibility. Others remain at the hospital until they are 2, and are then moved to orphanages.
One foster mother living in Eastern Romania says she considers the two children she fosters her own. But she's unlikely to adopt them. She worries what would happen if she brought the idea up to the children's mother at this point. She's afraid the mother, an alcoholic and victim of domestic violence, would block the adoption and, possibly, take the kids back.
"It's a hard situation because they are not legally adopted," says the foster mother's biological daughter, Cristina. "But they are so much a part of my family. But they are not legally abandoned and they are not adopted either."
For Panait, there are many challenges. Any new approach not only requires the buy-in of a separate-but-intertwined child welfare system – but also relies on changing the minds of a people.
"This is a first step," he says of the revised law. "We are trying, after we are finalizing this first step, to find a solution for all the children. And after we will try all the possibilities. Probably we will have to find other solutions."
Many of the problems today can still be traced back to Ceausescu. When he came to power in the mid-1960s, he aimed to create a race of Romanian worker bees. He instructed all women to have at least five children, and outlawed abortion and birth control.
But many parents couldn't afford to feed and clothe families of seven or more, and children were abandoned in the thousands each year and the state orphanage system grew.
Many thought the state would be able to do a better job of taking care of their kids than they could. And this mentality, especially among the poor, remains today.
Most of those who apply to adopt children are couples who have been unable to have children on their own. Yet few Romanian couples are open to adopting children with disabilities or those of Roma descent.
Meanwhile, studies by the U.S.-funded Bucharest Early Intervention Project and other groups show that mental, physical and emotional issues that result from living in a non-family setting, such as anxiety and attachment disorders, have a much better chance of reversal if the child moves into a family setting before they turn 2.
But within the current structure, it's difficult to get children into the arms of a couple before this small window of opportunity slips away.
Tatiana, the 2-year-old toddler left at a Romanian hospital, was lucky enough to form an attachment to a caregiver who took a special interest in her.
"To get to adoptability you will need a period of 18 months, which is huge. For the child this is huge. For the small child it is huge," Simion says. "It touches the very soul of its brain development. So this has to stop."
Meghan Collins Sullivan is a former supervising editor at NPR. Her reporting in Romania is supported in part by a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
13 August 2012
Ionut Alexandru Budisteanu has a vision of using technology to give sight, of a sort, back to the blind. The 18-year-old high-school senior from Râmnicu Vâlcea, Romania, has spent the past year working on a project that combines a webcam, computer programming, and a series of small electrodes to help blind people recognize images by using their tongues.
Budisteanu’s project, “Human Computer Interface: Using Artificial Intelligence to Help Blind People to See With Their Tongue,” earned him the 2012 IEEE Presidents’ Scholarship. The honor, presented in May at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, in Pittsburgh, comes with a US $10 000 scholarship to be paid out over the student’s four years of undergraduate study.
The IEEE Computer Society also named Budisteanu its First Individual Award winner at the Intel fair, for which he received $1000, a certificate, and a subscription to one of the society’s magazines. The teenager has won more than 100 other awards in competitions in Romania and around the world. Some of his previous projects include writing software to identify natural disasters via satellite, and a method to recognize burglars from mug shots using facial recognition programs.
“I am very proud. This award motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing,” Budisteanu says.
He says he first set out to make a human-computer interface, like a bionic arm, to help disabled people for the Intel fair, but he was inspired to take a different direction by his uncle, who has been blind for 26 years. “I decided to make a device to help blind people,” he says.
Initially he thought of using 3-D radar to create information about a person’s surroundings and transmit it as an audio file to the ears. But in his research he found that was more likely to create a two-dimensional, rather than a 3-D, image in the person's mind. Further research found three other possible parts on the human body that could be used as transducers for 3-D information: the fingertips, the armpits, and the tongue.
The tongue won out for two reasons. It is much more sensitive than fingertips, and the human brain uses some of the same neurons to process taste as it does for sight. This overlap of brain function enables blind people to learn “images” from the tongue faster than from their fingers.
Budisteanu began experimenting by writing software that could translate webcam images to electrical pulses in real time. The pulses were then sent from the headphone port on his laptop to a sensor matrix placed on his uncle’s tongue. The matrix, comprising an 8x8 grid of low-power electrodes measuring about 25 millimeters by 25 millimeters, delivered an electrical interpretation of the image to the tongue.
Since an 8x8 grid provides little detail, his uncle was unable to identify objects on his own. He required training. Accordingly, Budisteanu would use the webcam to transmit an image of either real objects, like cars or forks, or photographs of other objects such as a zebra, then tell his uncle what it was. “He was trying to memorize the electrical meaning on his tongue,” Budisteanu says. After about 20 minutes of practice studying the way each object or image was represented on his tongue, his uncle could distinguish from among about 52 objects and recognize them without prompting.
The system also provided some spatial context for the images. “When I placed a black object on top of a white table, my uncle was able to recognize where it was on the table, whether it was left, right, front, back, or in the center,” Budisteanu says.
His uncle also could recognize the shapes of letters. The letter B, for example, was represented by a larger amount of electricity in the middle of the matrix and more on the right side.
The teen has experimented with two cameras, allowing the system to provide a modicum of stereovision and depth. The software picks out the closest, most relevant objects to display on the tongue rather than any information in the distance.
Although he has been writing software since he was 10 years old, the webcam-matrix experiment was Budisteanu’s first electrical engineering project. He bought the equipment—including a two-channel oscilloscope, a signal generator, and a soldering station—for about $2500. It all came from winnings he collected from international contests he entered.
So far he has completed three prototypes of his tongue matrix, improving the design each time. He hopes to contract with a company to build a matrix with a 60x60 grid of electrodes, which is more than he could accomplish in his home laboratory.
“I am very proud to represent my community and Romania with this international award,” he says. He is also honored to represent his town, he says, because Râmnicu Vâlcea is home to so many hackers that it is often called “Hackerville.”
“I am proud not to be a phisher,” he adds, “and to represent computer science and artificial intelligence in this contest.”
Budisteanu still has one more year of high school remaining, after which he says he hopes to attend Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, or Stanford University, and eventually become a professor.
“The people changing the world,” he says, “are the researchers and teachers.”
11 August 2012
BUCHAREST (Reuters)—A U.S. envoy will meet Romanian government officials in Bucharest on Sunday to discuss concerns about democracy in the country, the U.S. State department said, after attempts by the prime minister to oust the president.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta's drive to force out President Traian Basescu has been condemned by the European Union and United States, which say his cabinet is undermining the rule of law.
The row has stalled policymaking in Romania, delayed vital economic reforms and raised concerns over the Balkan state's International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.
Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL), backed by parliament, has suspended the right-wing president, accusing him of abusing his position to block government legislation.
A July 29 referendum on whether to impeach Basescu won 88 percent support but turnout was below the 50 percent threshold required by the Constitutional Court to validate the vote.
Ahead of the referendum, Ponta's government had sought to trim the court's powers and threatened to replace judges before international pressure forced it to back down and accept the court's ruling on the minimum turnout.
The court was expected to rule on the validity of the referendum earlier this month. But it postponed the decision until August 31 after USL officials said Romania's electorate was smaller than the figure used to calculate the referendum turnout and that, using the new figure, the turnout did pass the threshold.
"Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip H. Gordon ... will meet with senior government officials to discuss the concerns the United States has regarding recent government actions that threaten democratic checks and balances and weaken independent institutions," the State Department said in a statement on Friday.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a letter to Ponta on Friday that the government had reneged on a commitment to protect democracy and the rule of law, citing delays in the ruling on the referendum.
The government said the Commission had incomplete information, saying it was the Constitutional Court who set the August 31 deadline to see updated voter lists, and reiterated its commitment to abide by any court ruling.
Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Pravin Char
2 August 2012
ROMANIANS are even more tired, frustrated and angry than many other Europeans. Romania, the seventh most populous country in the European Union, ranks at the very bottom of almost all European human development measures. Its poorest citizens are paying the harshest price for the current fiscal tightening and years of negative or slow economic growth. Five years after Romanians acceded to the European Union, their hopes have been shattered, the promises made to them have been repeatedly broken, and their quest for dignity at home and in Europe has been denied.
On Sunday, Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, narrowly survived a referendum calling for his impeachment, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of those voting supported his dismissal. His lifeline, a last-minute legal maneuver introduced by the Constitutional Court and accepted by Parliament, required an absolute majority of eligible voters to participate for the referendum to be considered valid. Although more than seven million people voted against him—more than the number that elected him in a narrow 2009 presidential runoff election—they did not constitute more than 50 percent of the electorate.
To further complicate matters, the court has postponed until Sept. 12 a decision on whether the referendum was valid, throwing the country into a prolonged period of political uncertainty.
The partisan divide, which reached its pinnacle in Sunday’s referendum, has been managed clumsily by all sides. The majority in Parliament, an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party, were angered by Mr. Basescu’s interference in the legislative process and went on a blitzkrieg, changing laws and institutions and replacing the leaders of both chambers of Parliament. With Parliamentary elections only a few months away, the escalating drama called into question the country’s democratic, economic and political stability.
Romania’s plight is closely connected to Europe’s current troubles. In the middle of an economic and political predicament that they did not create and had no control over, citizens all over Europe feel cheated. Governments they voted for have failed to protect them.
While Mr. Basescu held the fiscal austerity card high as a sign of Romania’s commitments to Europe, the country was sliding into poverty and chaos. Austerity is creating room for extremism on both the left and right, and now an adversarial and acrimonious style of politics is making Romania’s European partners doubt its democratic strengths and question its commitment to shared European values.
Strident voices steal the stage while the democratic mainstream of Europe is busy fighting the debt crisis. Frustrated with the limits of their own policies, European officials have now vigorously reacted to Parliament’s ham-handed attempts to create a clear political playing field. Europe wants to contain anti-democratic trends, but Romania’s citizens should not be forced to foot the bill for democratic lapses elsewhere in Europe. Creating an artificial set of ostracized countries on the continent’s geographic and political periphery will put us on the slippery slope toward a redivided Europe.
The crisis has been brewing for many years while observers largely ignored it. Focusing mostly on corruption and the justice system, critics rarely addressed Romania’s core problem: the profoundly dysfunctional political process.
For two decades, politicians in Romania have walked a tightrope between public priorities and the vested economic interests. Many businesses seek lucrative government contracts, and too many politicians are interested only in the spoils—a practice that perverts the political process. Boycotted elections, won or lost by a small number of votes, and suspicion of fraud have been trademarks of the past decade.
A vitriolic political environment emerged, one that lacks actual debate. The political parties are blamed, concealing the reality of the corrupt political system plagued by nepotism and fiefs pushing agendas that have little to do with the citizens’ priorities. The justice system cannot be independent as long as political forces systematically use it as a battleground and tool of influence. Parts of the news media and nongovernmental organizations have been made economically vulnerable and increasingly partisan.
I know how hard it is to bring about meaningful and lasting reform. But I have seen it happen before. As foreign minister from 2000 to 2004, I was involved in the effort to bring Romania to the point of joining NATO and the European Union. Now we must undertake bold reforms once again and act in solidarity for the public interest despite our political differences.
The agenda is clear: legal checks and balances must be strengthened; the fight for social justice and equal opportunity must become a central task of government; competing politicians must tone down the rhetoric and actually talk to one another. Without a functional and independent justice system, the country will not be able to escape the vicious nexus of private economic interest and politics. And that, in turn, will require a review of Parliament’s role and the financing of the political parties and elections.
It is now up to all of the country’s politicians to come up with a new plan to answer the slap Romania’s citizens delivered to them in Sunday’s referendum.
Mircea Geoana, a Romanian senator, has served as Romania’s ambassador to the United States and its foreign minister and ran for president in 2009.
PARIS—Romanian voters may have succeeded in ousting their president after all.
The country’s Constitutional Court said Thursday that it could not certify the results of Sunday’s referendum to remove the president, which initially failed for lack of sufficient turnout, even though the overwhelming majority of ballots were cast in favor. The court said that it had received contradictory data from different agencies on the number of eligible voters, and that it would take until Sept. 12 for it to resolve the issue. The announcement plunged the country into further political turmoil.
“The referendum should have been annulled,” Aspazia Cojocaru, one of nine judges on the court, said after the court announced its decision. “Everything was based on false data.”
Final counts released by the Central Election Bureau on Wednesday said that only 46.24 percent of the country’s eligible voters had cast ballots; more than half of all eligible voters are needed for the result to be valid. Of those who did participate, about 87.5 percent voted to remove President Traian Basescu.
But the court said the figures from the election bureau, the Internal Affairs Ministry and the National Statistics Institute were conflicting. It said it intended to review the voter rolls, and called on the government to provide an updated set by the end of August.
Officials said there were concerns that the rolls included many people who were dead, in prison or otherwise ineligible. If the figures are altered after the deliberations, the turnout in the referendum may prove to have been greater than 50 percent.
The governing coalition of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, which instigated the referendum, has complained publicly that the voting roll figures were outdated. “We consider the court’s decision as correct, and we will respect it,” Mr. Ponta said Thursday.
With Mr. Basescu’s fate once again in doubt, analysts said the court’s decision had intensified the battle between him and Mr. Ponta, who called for Mr. Basescu to resign despite the turnout. Mr. Basescu was suspended before the referendum, and that suspension will continue.
Mr. Ponta has in recent weeks come under international criticism for flouting the law in his determination to unseat Mr. Basescu. But the prime minister’s defenders accuse Mr. Basescu of abusing his power by refusing to appoint ministers selected by the prime minister and by using the secret service against rivals.
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a political analyst who is president of the Romanian Academic Society, said that the court’s decision on Thursday was itself a breach, since the same court ruled in June that the referendum be conducted using the electoral rolls that are now being contested.
She said it appeared that after the referendum revealed how unpopular Mr. Basescu was, the court decided to rule in line with public opinion rather than adhere to the letter of the law.
“Everyone has known for months that the voting lists are bad and outdated,” Ms. Mungiu-Pippidi said. “But that has always been the case in Romania, and by that logic we would have to nullify the election results for the past 20 years.”
George Calin contributed reporting from Bucharest.
PARIS—President Traian Basescu of Romania survived a referendum on whether to impeach him after low voter turnout invalidated the vote, opening the door to further political infighting and instability.
Under voting rules, the referendum could only be valid if more than 50 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote. With 97.5 percent of the votes counted, the central election bureau said Monday morning that the turnout was 46.13 per cent. About 87.5 percent of voters who participated voted to impeach Mr. Basescu, it said.
The tactics employed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, the president’s rival, to try to drive him from power had come under heavy criticism from the European Union over concerns that Mr. Ponta’s government had breached the rule of law.
While the outcome removed some political uncertainty, retaining a deeply unpopular president at loggerheads with a prime minister who tried to oust him threatened to mire the country in protracted political paralysis. It also raised questions about whether Romania could retain a financial aid package from the International Monetary Fund and others worth around $6.2 billion.
Early signs indicated that the country was in for a lengthy political battle. Mr. Ponta has said repeatedly that collaborating with Mr. Basescu would be impossible and on Monday he reiterated his view that Mr. Basescu had been discredited. He questioned his authority after what he called the “massive vote” against him. “We have nothing more to discus with a man rejected by the citizens,” Mr. Ponta said.
But Mr. Basescu, 60, a former sea captain and anti-corruption crusader, hailed the result Sunday night. “Romanians rejected a coup d’état,” he told reporters. “The flame of democracy is still burning.” However, he acknowledged he had lost popular support and promised to work for national reconciliation.
Mr. Basescu last week had characterized the referendum as a political putsch and had urged his supporters to boycott it, saying that “jailable politicians” were behind the vote. Analysts said that the tactic, combined with widespread political apathy among the electorate, had helped him survive. Many Romanians were on their summer vacations on Sunday, when scorching temperatures may also have kept people at home.
Mr. Basescu, who has been president since 2004, survived an earlier attempt to oust him in a referendum in 2007, with about 74 percent of the votes cast opposing his removal. Voter turnout then was about 44 percent.
Romania, which is among the poorest countries in the European Union, has struggled to overcome lawlessness and corruption since it joined the union in 2007. Critics say Mr. Ponta’s governing coalition has undermined democracy by dismissing the speakers of both chambers of Parliament—an action the opposition attacked as unconstitutional—and replacing the country’s ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the Constitutional Court. The governing coalition has also threatened to remove judges from the Constitutional Court.
Mr. Ponta has promised to undo his government’s emergency measures, and his defenders said the referendum was a justified step against a president who had abused his power. Mr. Ponta has accused Mr. Basescu of violating the constitution by using the country’s secret services against his political enemies, by refusing to appoint cabinet ministers chosen by the prime minister, by putting pressure on prosecutors in criminal cases and by engaging in illegal phone tapping. Mr. Basescu has denied the accusations.
The vote was also seen as a referendum on Romania’s struggling economy. Mr. Basescu is associated with deeply unpopular austerity measures undertaken after Romania turned to the I.M.F. for emergency loans following the onset of the recession in 2009. To narrow its deficit, the government cut spending and government salaries and raised sales tax rates.
Under the Romanian constitution, the president can be impeached and removed from office only for grave misdeeds. Analysts were divided on whether anything Mr. Basescu had done satisfied that requirement.
Christian Pirvulescu, the dean of political science at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, said that the referendum had been necessary to restore balance to a political system that had been hijacked by the president. But he added that the ease with which politicians were able to manipulate the political system for personal ends showed the frailty of Romania’s political culture more than two decades after the fall of communism.
“We don’t have a real democracy in the western or American sense of the term,” he said.
Many voters echoed the complaint that personal political rivalries were overshadowing their economic hardship.
Raluca Ulea, 29, an unemployed lawyer, said on Sunday that she voted against removing Mr. Basescu because she feared a descent into chaos. “In this crisis period, a coup d’état is the last thing we need,” she said.
But Mihaela Cretu, 60, a retired math teacher, said she voted in favor of ousting the president because he had slashed state salaries and pensions: “He has made the lives of Romanians very difficult.”
Some analysts said the crisis started in June when Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister and Mr. Ponta’s political mentor in the Social Democratic Party, tried to commit suicide, hours after the country’s Supreme Court ruled he must serve a two-year sentence for corruption. Mr. Nastase’s supporters insist that his conviction was politically motivated, and analysts said Mr. Ponta wanted to remove Mr. Basescu from office before he could make targets of other senior figures in the party.
George Calin contributed reporting from Bucharest, Romania.
BERLIN — Bulgaria and Romania were the subject of scathing reports by the European Commission last week, as the commission again criticized both countries for endemic corruption, weak rule of law and exporting criminal gang activity, especially Bulgaria.
But what can realistically be done to persuade the two governments to embrace long-term commitments to establishing the rule of law and fighting corruption?
As I explain in my latest Page Two column (SEE BELOW), Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to join the Union in 2007, though these problems were evident then — and reported by the E.U. — because of the belief that joining the Union would encourage the reformers while exclusion would hurt efforts to modernize the countries.
But now the European Commission has a responsibility to act. It can do several things. It might withhold the special structural and development funds that amount to several hundred million euros. It has already delayed both countries’ access to the Schengen accord that would allow their citizens to cross most European Union borders without passports.
The ultimate sanction would be to suspend the voting rights of Bulgaria and Romania. In practice it would mean that neither country would be able to vote along with the other E.U. member states on issues that affect them.
It would, however, be extremely difficult for the member states to reach agreement on suspending voting rights.
But if the E.U. is true to its word about upholding democracy, the rule of law and human rights, then the option to suspend voting rights should be taken seriously.
Doing so would also send a signal to countries applying to join the bloc, such as Serbia, that the E.U. is not going to allow its strategy of enlargement to be tainted by corruption.
Indeed, if anything, say analysts, the unfinished transitions in Bulgaria and Romania point to the difficulties the E.U. will encounter when dealing with other Balkan candidate countries.
E.U. member states knew that neither country was ready to join. They just had to look up the European Commission reports describing the endemic corruption, the powerful criminal networks engaging in human and drug trafficking, and the weakness of the judiciary and the rule of law. Still, there was the sentiment that it was better to allow Bulgaria and Romania to join to encourage the reformers rather than keep them out, which would delay modernization.
Since joining, both countries have, haphazardly, tried to deal with corruption. But as the European Commission made clear in detailed reports on the two countries published last week, the overall picture still is miserable.
“Transitions to a market economy and the rule of law are immensely complex,” said Antoinette Primatarova, a European expert at the independent Center for Liberal Strategies research organization in Sofia. “The European Commission underestimated the systemic deficiencies that we inherited from the communist era and before.”
Still, over 20 years since the collapse of the communist system in Bulgaria and Romania, one might have expected a younger generation in both countries to adopt a political culture that would represent a break with the past.
Yet the European Commission has accused Prime Minister Victor Ponta or Romania of running roughshod over the rule of law in order to oust President Traian Basescu from office.
Mr. Ponta, 39, leader of the formerly communist Socialist Party, has fired two ombudsmen from the opposition, dismissed directors of institutes responsible for looking into Romania’s communist past and tightened his grip on state television. Mr. Ponta also seems determined to protect former and indicted communists from the courts.
“Ponta has set back any improvements we tried to make over the past few years,” said Monica Macovei, a conservative lawmaker in the European Parliament.
As justice minister in Romania from 2004 to 2007, Ms. Macovei had started to overhaul the judiciary to make the courts independent and fight corruption. “The public and the politicians have to understand that the transition means accountability,” Ms. Macovei said. “That means checks and balances.”
In its report on Bulgaria, the Commission singled out the role of organized crime groups. According to Europol, Bulgarian criminal networks were active in 15 E.U. member states, specializing in human trafficking and credit card fraud.
Inside Bulgaria, the Commission said that these organized crime groups played a unique role. They were exercising their influence over the economy in a way that restricted competition and deters foreign investment. “It also gives these groups a platform from which to influence the political process and state institutions,” the Commission said.
So what went wrong with Bulgaria and Romania?
Ms. Primatarova believes that changing a political culture shaped over many decades takes more than the adoption of a host of essentially technical E.U. laws.
For years, the European Commission and the E.U. member states have stuck to a formula that stipulates that candidate countries should adapt their economic, trade, environmental and health legislation to E.U. legislation. But adapting is one thing. Implementing it — and changing a political culture — is another. The Commission, Ms. Primatarova said, failed to appreciate how long transitions take to replace deeply entrenched structures.
Yet several other former communist countries have done better with transition. In their cases, two elements seem to have helped: if they had strong dissident movements during the communist era, and later, if they decided to open the secret police files.
Poland, which joined the Union in 2004, had a strong anti-communist opposition that served it well in entrenching democracy during the 1990s. Poland, too, at an early stage started dealing with the communist past.
The former Czechoslovakia, which had a small dissident movement, introduced in the early 1990s one of the most radical “lustration” or “cleansing laws” of the communist secret services in the region. Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president, the late Vaclav Havel, had no sympathy for collaborators.
Hungary also introduced a cleansing law in 1994. But it has been slow to make the secret police files accessible to the public, despite the intense anti-communist rhetoric of the government.
Both Bulgaria and Romania have only recently begun to deal with their communist past — and tentatively at that.
Ms. Macovei believes that opening the secret files earlier could have made a difference to tackling corruption or dismantling the entrenched communist networks.
Despite failing to do that, being inside the Union is making a difference, said Daniel Smilov, a political science professor at the University of Sofia. “It has given civil society the chance to fight for change and accountability,” he argued. “We would be far, far worse off outside the E.U. The transition would even take longer.”
Judy Dempsey is Editor in
Chief, Strategic Europe for Carnegie Europe
10 July 2012
No longer is the government in Romania characterized merely by mistakes, excesses and professional incompetence. Prime Minister Victor Ponta has launched a brutal attack on the country's institutions, democratic principles and the rule of law.
Newly installed Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, 39, and his political allies are attempting to consolidate their power in Romania . After replacing the parliamentary president and restricting the powers of the country's Constitutional Court , the coalition led by Ponta, a Social Democrat, is now seeking to impeach President Traian Basescu. The parliament began proceedings last Friday, suspending the president. A nationwide referendum is to be held at the end of the month. The opposition is calling it a "coup," and Romanian philosopher and art historian Andrei Plesu, 63, is also concerned. He is viewed as an intellectual authority both in Romania and abroad. Prior to the fall of Communism Plesu was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest, but was forced to give up teaching when he was banished to a village for associating with dissidents shortly before the overthrow of then dictator Nicolae Ceauescu. Plesu served as minister of culture after 1989 before working as a philosophy professor. From 1997 to 1999, was Romania 's foreign minister as an independent. He currently heads the New Europe College in Bucharest.
During my stay in Berlin in recent weeks, I met with the former mayor of Budapest several times. Starting in 1990, Gábor Demszky governed the city for 20 years; now he was telling me about the situation in Hungary. He sees it as a fatal mixture between the administrations of Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian head of state who served at Hitler's pleasure, and János Kádár, the later head of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party. According to Demszky, the situation is characterized by dictatorial and fascist impulses, an atmosphere of personal power struggles and drastic restrictions of free speech.
I was pleased to be able to tell him that Romania was in better shape. There is certainly corruption, I said, and there are dangerous political and administrative turf wars and every conceivable form of abuse and blunders. But, I added, we are not on the verge of dictatorship. Almost two months have passed since then, and now I must change my assessment: Romania is looking more and more Hungarian!
I have no intention of idealizing previous governments. They had to implement austerity measures that protected Romania from the kinds of chaotic conditions that prevail in Greece. But they also created resentment among Romanians by tolerating too many moral and legal offences within their own ranks. They paid little attention to education and healthcare, and they served their own political clientele, thereby obstructing efforts to rebuild the country's ruined infrastructure.
I worked for five months with President Traian Basescu, whose overthrow is currently in the works, and I know how destructive and brutal his behavior and his words can be. But the new government, which is a not very convincing mixture of the Socialists — who emerged from the old communist party — and the National Liberals, has managed to almost completely eliminate the European idea from the canon of government.
A Suicidal Declaration
It isn't just mistakes, excesses and professional incompetence that we are talking about now. We are talking about a radical and brutal attack on the country's institutions, on democratic principles and on the independent and reliable judiciary.
In a suicidal declaration, the current prime minister, Dr. Victor Ponta, claims that he devotes "75 percent of the time in government meetings to political turf warfare." For weeks, he has been confronted with accusations that he plagiarized extensively when writing his doctoral thesis. Yet his behavior leads us to conclude that he doesn't know what constitutes plagiarism. He believes that he can copy 85 pages from another work with impunity, and without identifying the text as a quotation. When the commission that was appointed to investigate the charges of plagiarism confirmed the suspicion, it was summarily dismissed.
Meanwhile, the prime minister travels to the EU summit in Brussels even though he lacks the mandate to represent Romania. In doing so, he ignores a ruling by the constitutional court that it was the president who should have gone to Brussels instead. And what happened next? The powers of the constitutional court were drastically curtailed.
Half-baked amendments are bulldozed through the parliament and institutional powers are restricted, established procedure is ignored without any plausible explanation being provided. The management of the national archive (which had been tasked with securing access to documents relating to the communist dictatorship) is dismissed as are the boards of the government-run television station and the institute for investigation of political crimes before 1989. The same fate befalls the ombudsman, who represents Romanian citizens in complaints against government entities, as well as the chairmen of both chambers of parliament.
An Ordinary Phenomenon
The Monitorul Oficial — the Romanian official gazette — is placed under control of the government and the Romanian Cultural Institute becomes the provenance of the Senate. It was one of the few institutions that did outstanding work in recent years. Now, however, the management — seen as being supportive of the president — can be replaced.
All of this is taking place during a period of long-deferred economic, financial and organizational problems. Within two months, the prime minister nominated two education ministers, only to quickly withdraw their nominations because of plagiarism allegations. Then he appointed a third candidate as interim education minister, only to ultimately choose a fourth, who faces pending litigation over an alleged conflict of interest among his various positions.
Prime Minister Ponta took a similar approach with his culture minister, who was forced to resign for a similar reason. Then, the position of agriculture minister was filled with a parliamentarian even though (or perhaps because) he is involved in a fraud trial with the Agriculture Ministry. The list could go on and on.
The interior minister, by the way, has defended the prime minister in his plagiarism scandal by pointing out that plagiarism has been an ordinary phenomenon since the days of Aristotle and Plato. And the foreign minister states that Europe's leading politicians could take a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin's book when it comes to competency and efficiency.
The governing coalition has rushed into the impeachment proceedings against the president. The new president of the Senate, Crin Antonescu, who became Romania's acting president on Friday due to the suspension of Basescu, attained his position as the head of the Senate despite an unusual circumstance: He was absent from about 98.5 percent of the sessions of the body which he now leads. There is nothing on the 52-year-old's résumé to indicate why he should be suited for his future duties. The only political idea on his agenda is the impeachment of Traian Basescu.
Spinning Out of Control
An atmosphere of amazement and uncertainty prevails in Romania. Two Nobel Prize winners, Herta Müller and Tomas Tranströmer, many foreign institutions, the ambassador of the United States in Bucharest, the European Justice Commissioner, leading European politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, countless Romanian artists and intellectuals, various institutions of civil society and youth organizations are protesting against current developments — because it has clearly begun spinning out of control.
Who wants to live in a country like this? For my part, I feel burdened by the atmosphere created by the Romanian government. I want to be able to do my work, and I have no special demands. All I want is a minimum level of normalcy that makes it possible for me to bring my projects and my life to a successful conclusion.
In essence, this is also the responsibility of governments. They should make it possible for the people in their country to go about their business in peace, and under humane conditions. But for some time now, I have been waking up every morning to witness the disconcerting signs of social decay.
And now, for the first time in 40 years, I am not eager to return "home" from Berlin.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
BERLIN — The political crisis in Romania deepened Friday after the Parliament in Bucharest voted to impeach President Traian Basescu amid rising international criticism of the government’s apparent attempts to usurp power and subvert the country’s young democracy.The impeachment was one step among many that critics say Prime Minister Victor Ponta has taken in recent months to consolidate his rule. The governing coalition has already fired the speakers of both chambers of Parliament — an action the opposition called unconstitutional — and replaced the country’s ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the Constitutional Court.
The court’s justices have been threatened with removal before their terms were up, although that idea was scrapped after an international outcry. But Mr. Ponta reduced the court’s power and is moving ahead with the impeachment.
Mr. Ponta and his left-leaning Social Liberal Union contend that Mr. Basescu has violated the Constitution and accuse him of acting as a dictator, although the powers of the Romanian president are limited compared with the prime minister’s. The Constitutional Court ruled Friday that Mr. Basescu had not violated the Constitution, although the decision was nonbinding.
“What dictator lets the opposition have the post of prime minister?” Mr. Basescu asked in the debate leading up to the vote, which he lost decisively, with 256 members of Parliament voting to remove him and 114 voting against. In the next step, Romanian voters will decide in a nationwide referendum, planned for July 29, whether Mr. Basescu can remain in office.
In a statement on Friday, the European Commission said it was “concerned about current developments in Romania,” in particular the moves to reduce the power of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court.
“The rule of law, the democratic checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary are cornerstones of the European democracy and indispensable for mutual trust within the European Union,” it said.
A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said Friday that she was watching the situation “with deep concern.”
It is the second time that Mr. Basescu — a former sea captain, anticorruption crusader and polarizing political figure — has faced a referendum to remove him from office. A similar effort in 2007 failed when 74 percent of the voters opposed the move.
But Mr. Basescu’s association with detested austerity programs has taken a toll on his popularity, and opinion surveys show he could lose this time. Romania’s political class is divided by bitter personal rivalries and a public that has taken to the streets in sometimes destructive protests against the austerity programs, as well as the stagnant growth.
Parliament already passed a law that would ease the removal of the president through a referendum, requiring a majority of those voting. Previously, a majority of all eligible voters was needed.
After a recession in 2009, Romania was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans, which required the government to take drastic measures to curtail deficits, including cutting government salaries and raising the sales tax. The recent political turmoil, and the stern warnings from foreign leaders, have helped to drive the country’s currency, the leu, to a record low against the euro.
The situation in Romania was the latest example of instability and weakening democratic institutions in the former Communist bloc. Civil society groups have criticized Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, for undermining democracy there. But the attention of European leaders appears to be so absorbed by the euro crisis that problems elsewhere seem to attract attention only when they reach a critical point.
“There’s a greater and greater political trend toward an emphasis only on the euro zone,” said Hugo Brady, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, referring to the 17 countries that use the currency. “It’s almost as if it is now a 17-member European Union and other countries just by-the-by in terms of their problems.”
Romania has exhibited growing signs of political instability. The previous government fell at the end of April, two months after taking office, and Mr. Ponta became the country’s third prime minister to hold the office this year.
Mihai Radu contributed reporting from Bucharest, Romania.
5 July 2012
Another contribution from my Princeton colleague Kim Lane Scheppele:
Kim Lane Scheppele
Now it’s Romania’s turn to worry those of us who care about constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law.
A political crisis has gripped Romania as its left-leaning prime minister, Victor Ponta, slashes and burns his way through constitutional institutions in an effort to eliminate his political competition. In the last few days, Ponta and his center-left Social Liberal Union (USL) party have sacked the speakers of both chambers of parliament, fired the ombudsman, threatened the constitutional court judges with impeachment and prohibited constitutional court from reviewing acts of parliament – all with the aim of making it easier for Ponta to remove President Traian Basescu from office. They hope to accomplish that by week’s end.
In just a few months in office, Ponta’s government has caused a great deal of political damage. Setting its sights on the next election, Ponta’s government passed an election law (later rejected by the constitutional court) that would make it much easier for the government to stay in power. The government has already neutralized the legal effects of decisions of their key opponents — the constitutional court and the president — by taking control over the publication of the official gazette that determines when laws and decisions come into force. If the government fails to publish the decisions of the constitutional court and the decrees of the president, they are simply not law. To top it all off, Ponta launched a culture war.
Things are moving fast. Another EU democracy in the east is unraveling the rule of law by attacking all legal constraints on the power of the prime minister.
Behind the desperate actions of the last few days is a highly polarized political environment fueled by an economic crisis.
Romania was one of the countries hit hard by the global recession. In 2009, Romania got a $26 billion bailout from the IMF in exchange for a harsh austerity program. The center-right coalition of Prime Minister Emil Boc survived 10 confidence votes before resigning in early 2012 amid growing protests. Angry crowds in the streets in January rejected draconian public spending cuts which included, among other things a 25% cut in public sector wages and dramatic slashes in public benefits.
The next prime minister, Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, took office in February 2012 as political chaos grew. He barely got a chance to govern before he was toppled by a no-confidence vote in April, which brought USL leader Victor Ponta to power. Ponta and his party next face the voters at the regularly scheduled election in November.
In the last two weeks, Ponta’s government has been rocked by two scandals and a fit of pique, which could well combine to bring him down even before the November poll. But Ponta doesn’t want to give up power. His frantic reactions of the last few days seem to be a desperate attempt to cling to office, even if it means smashing all other constitutional institutions to do so.
The first scandal involved corruption. Two weeks ago, another former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted on corruption charges. Ponta supporters, for their part, believe the case against Nastase was politically motivated. Nastase is generally thought to be Ponta’s mentor in politics, and so the conviction meant that the trail of Romania’s legendary corruption culture was leading ever more obviously to Ponta’s door. As police came to cart Nastase off to jail, however, Nastese shot himself in the neck and wounded himself seriously enough to go to hospital instead.
The second scandal involved plagiarism. The 39-year-old Ponta had received a PhD in law in 2003 from the University of Bucharest with a dissertation on the international criminal court. Last week, the ethics committee of the university found that 85 pages of his 307-page dissertation had been cut and pasted from the work of other scholars, leading some to start calling him Prime Minister Copy Paste. When the charges of plagiarism were not yet proven, Ponta said he would resign from office if they were found to be substantiated. Once they were, Ponta’s education minister angrily dismissed the committee that had found against him. Ponta has vowed to stay on as prime minister. Wednesday, it emerged that Ponta claimed a master’s degree on his c.v. from the University of Catalina in Sicily but the president of that university says that Ponta was never there. Ponta just altered his c.v. as a Romanian website comparing the two c.v.s has shown.
The fit of pique involved a trip to Brussels. The President Basescu asserted that he had the right to represent Romania at the European summit last week. Ponta, as prime minister, insisted that he travel to Brussels instead. Ponta got the parliament to pass a resolution mandating that the prime minister represent the country in Brussels. Basescu went to the constitutional court which ruled that the president had the legal right to represent the country in international meetings. Ponta angrily defied the ruling of the court by going to Brussels the day after the court decision. The official gazette, now published by the government instead of by an independent body, never published the decision, which means that the government effectively blocked the court decision from taking effect. Ponta’s presence in Brussels created the understandable impression that Romania’s leadership was in chaos.
This week, after returning from that trip, Ponta sprang into action to prevent the two scandals and the fit of pique from bringing down his government. He started replacing all those who could oppose him. He angrily attacked the constitutional court, calling for his justice minister to remove from office all of the judges who voted against him in the matter of the Brussels trip. This caused the constitutional court on 3 July to send a rather unusual letter – a desperate plea of help — to all of the European officials who might have jurisdiction. Backing down, Ponta’s party passed an emergency resolution through the parliament, removing the power of the constitutional court to review any of the parliament’s actions. The constitutional judges are all there — but have no power to do anything about the escalating crisis.
All of these machinations seem to be aimed at one target: President Basescu, who has been president since 2004 and who was once affiliated with the center–right Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), which currently opposes Ponta’s government in the parliament. Ponta has not missed an opportunity to accuse Basescu of everything — from ferreting out Ponta’s plagiarism to inciting the judges of the constitutional court against him.
Ponta’s government is now moving fast to remove Basescu from office. By neutralizing the constitutional court, firing the ombudsman, and sacking the presidents of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, there is no institution of state that could stand in the way of a vote to impeach.
On 4 July, Ponta’s parliamentary majority brought in a 17-page indictment against the president. But presidents, under the Romanian constitution, can only be removed for “having committed grave acts infringing upon constitutional provisions” (Article 95), something the document never argues. An impeachment vote, however, is expected by week’s end.
The parliamentary vote to impeach Basescu would have to be approved in a popular referendum before it could take effect. A previous USL government had voted to impeach Basescu in 2007, but then his popularity enabled him to defeat the motion in a referendum. Now that Basescu has spent two years helping to enforce the IMF/EU austerity mandates, however, he is not so popular. It is not clear he could win a referendum at this point. Ponta, then, might just succeed in bringing down his long-time opponent without following the niceties of the constitution.
Even if the efforts to remove the president and the constitutional court judges fizzle, it is not a pretty sight when a democratic government goes rogue. Ponta’s rage against the constitution shows that he doesn’t respect legal limits, and that is dangerous.
Is Romania therefore becoming another Hungary? It all sounds familiar — the attempt to dismantle constitutional checks on power by an imperious prime minister who hates to lose. But there the similarity ends. Orbán is a man of the political right; Ponta hails from the left. Orbán has been head of a party for more than two decades; Ponta is a comparative newcomer to Romanian politics. Orbán has absolute control over his party; Ponta must govern with a coalition that consists of at least one party that has switched sides before.
Though misery is not a competition, the Hungarian situation is far more serious than the Romanian situation — at least right now. Viktor Orbán has rewritten the Hungarian constitution, implanted his own loyalists in virtually all important state institutions, compromised the independence of the courts, centralized local governments, rigged the electoral machinery and otherwise dug himself in, both legally and practically, for the long haul. It is hard to see how his party will ever be forced from power because there is virtually no independent political institution left standing that would give any opponents leverage from which to launch such an effort. And the political opposition is in complete disarray.
By contrast, Romania’s strong multiparty system forces Ponta to govern with a fickle coalition in a context where there is a seriously organized opposition that controls at least some of the key offices of state. Ponta has not yet captured the presidency and the constitutional court, which have shown their willingness to block him. And he has not been able to rewrite the constitution just to keep himself in power.
Ponta may well have the same ambitions as Orbán but, so far at least, he hasn’t had the success at changing the entire system of power. Ponta seems to be aiming at getting rid of particular individuals who oppose him, not at changing the whole constitutional system into a dictatorship. But these are still early days. Ponta has only been in power since April.
The fact that Romania isn’t as bad as Hungary — yet — doesn’t mean that all in Romania is fine. The speed with which this crisis has escalated as well as the tenacity with which Ponta is clinging to power are both reasons for serious concern. If Ponta succeeds in ousting the President Basescu and muzzling the constitutional court, a constitutional coup is still a possibility in Romania. That is why people who care about constitutional democracy must pay close attention.
29 June 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Defying an order to disband, an academic panel ruled Friday that Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta plagiarized large sections of his doctoral thesis and called for him to be stripped of his Ph.D. The announcement adds to the political tensions in this Eastern European nation, where the president and prime minister are jockeying for power.
The 39-year-old Ponta had earlier said he would resign if found guilty of plagiarism following a recent article in Nature that alleged that he lifted passages of his thesis. He declined to comment on the ruling.
Just hours before the decision was announced, the education minister — a Ponta ally — had tried to dissolve the panel, saying he wanted it to have more members. But the panel members apparently ignored the order to disband.
Marius Andruh, who heads the 21-member National Council for Attesting Titles, Diplomas and University Certificates, said it had determined 85 of the 307 pages it assessed had been copied without proper attribution.
The subject of Ponta's thesis was the International Criminal Court. The prime minister has conceded that he credited sources in the bibliography but not always in footnotes. Ponta also insists that the charges are politically orchestrated by his rival, Romanian President Traian Basescu.
It was unclear whether the council members had political affiliations. But chairman Andruh was one of the Romanian academics who publicly accused Ponta of plagiarism in the Nature article. The publication said its plagiarism allegations were based on documents from an anonymous whistle-blower.
Education Minister Liviu Pop, who tried to disband the panel, claimed that the ruling was politically motivated and invalid because eight of the 21 members were absent.
Ponta was attending a European Union summit in Brussels on Friday. Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are endemic in Romania, a country of 19 million.
After communism fell in 1989 and Romania pursued free market reforms, a large number of private universities and institutes opened, offering what some say were spurious academic qualifications.
Over the past five years or so, the Romanian Cultural Institute has become an important force in global cultural exchanges, promoting writers, artists and especially the critically acclaimed cinema movement known as the Romanian New Wave. But the coalition government that recently came to power in Romania has ordered an end to that international focus as it tightens its political control over the institute, actions that have set off protests among arts groups throughout Europe and the United States.
Under an “emergency decree” handed down on June 14, the institute, a non-partisan entity that formerly reported directly to the president, now responds to a Senate riven by partisanship. Its new mandate: to direct its activities at the Romanian diaspora community. As a result, collaborations with American arts institutions—including Lincoln Center, co-sponsor of an annual Romanian film festival, and publishing houses specializing in translated literature—could be in jeopardy. And in recent days, organizations including the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum and Melville House have sent letters to the new prime minister and other government authorities, urging them rescind the measure.
“The decree itself was a complete surprise, and we were not consulted,” Horia Roman Patapievici, a physicist and writer who is the president of the institute, said in a telephone interview from Bucharest, the capital of Romania, an East European country with fewer than 20 million people. “But even more surprising was the shift in focus. Our strategy since I took over the presidency in 2005, has been that we should open to the outside world. Our aim is to relink the Romanian cultural market, cut off from the West, with the western cultural market, and in New York, you saw the result. We have been very present even though our material means are limited.”
In an e-mail, the film director Cristian Mungiu, whose “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, described the government action as a “brutal intrusion of politics in the cultural life” of Romania that shows a “complete lack of respect towards the artists and intellectuals that were amongst the rare providers of good news about Romania in the last years.” Mr. Mungiu, who is one of more than 3,000 intellectuals and creative artists to sign a petition protesting the new policy, added that the tendency of the new “political majority to remove all the representatives of the former regime from all public positions, irrespective of their professional capacities and results and to replace them with their own supporters, is unethical and encourages a certain kind of moral corruption that we need to fight against.”
Asked why the government had ordered the change, Mr. Patapievici suggested that electoral politics play a role. Like the United States, Romania has an election scheduled for November, and since the Romanian diaspora is allowed to cast ballots, focusing on their cultural desires at the expense of the international public and younger, globalized Romanian expatriates “is transparently an electoral measure, to cajole their votes,” he said.
But Mr. Patapievici also said that nationalist groups in the Romanian senate object to his “cosmopolitan” tastes and approach. He said that when he testified to the Senate’s cultural commission last week, he was met with hostile questions along the lines of “Why don’t you speak to national values? Why do you have anti-Romanian attitudes?”
The new situation in Romania resembles that of Hungary, where a right-wing nationalist government has also tightened controls over culture and freedom of expression. Romania differs, however, in at least one important respect: the new government there is a coalition between parties of the left and center-right, headed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party, which is associated with Ion Iliescu, an 82 year old former Communist apparatchik.
On Friday, the government ombudsman challenged the legality of Mr. Ponta’s decree, arguing against it before the country’s Constitutional Court. A ruling could come as early as July 5, and if it is adverse, Mr. Patapievici said he would “reject the political subordination” of the institute, which presumably means he would resign.
Mr. Ponta last week denied that he was shifting control of the cultural institute away from president Traian Basescu, his longtime political rival, so as to force Mr. Patapievici, an ally of the president, to resign. He said his actual objective was to depoliticize the institute’s top staff and operations and allow more parliamentary supervision of its expenditures at a time when Romania is undergoing fiscal austerity.
“Putting the R.C.I. under parliamentary control is the democratic choice and aims to make the institution more transparent,” the government spokesman, Andrei Zaharescu, said. “Use of public funds must be above any suspicion and only through transparent and democratic parliamentary control this can be achieved.”
With the political situation still in flux, American arts organizations that have worked closely with the institute have rallied to its side.
“The art world in New York continues to be amazed how this group representing a country whose population is a fraction of Germany, Britain and France and whose resources are circumscribed can be as effective and efficient as the cultural services of these other nations,” wrote Lawrence Kardish, a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In her letter, Alissa Simon, senior programmer at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, praised the institute for providing “a precious neutral space for international cultural exchange.”
Corina Suteu, director of the New York office of the institute, which also has offices in cultural centers like Berlin and Paris, said the repercussions would be significant if the changes go through. “First of all, there will a return to archaic attitudes, with complete political control,” she said. “The Senate can say ‘I don’t like this kind of art, you should present this instead.’ But we have to present all kinds of Romanian culture. This is how we become visible abroad.”
8 June 2012
In his eloquent essay “The Great Christmas Killing,” the Hungarian novelist Peter Nadas describes his intense, ultimately chagrined response to a documentary about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Neither his opposition to capital punishment nor his belief in the importance of “just, legal procedures” keeps Nadas from feeling a surge of vengeful delight as he witnesses the final hours of the Romanian dictator. “Ceausescu just kept looking at his wife, rolling his small, shifty eyes and grinning nervously; you could tell he couldn’t grasp what was really happening or figure out how he might gain the upper hand.”
I don’t suppose it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that a novel entitled “The Last Hundred Days” and set in Bucharest in 1989 also includes an account of the trial of the Ceausescus. At the book’s conclusion, its young British narrator has just escaped from Romania and landed in Belgrade, where he’s watching the judicial proceedings on television:
“It is only the Ceausescus we see, sitting at a small table in a Targoviste bunker. They were defiant to the end, and strangely tender in their small proprieties. It is always the small proprieties that stick in the mind. Perhaps it’s because they seem to take death’s measure and, for a brief moment, to square up to it: the way she buttons up her coat and juts out her chin, decisively; the way he strokes her hand, smooths his hair, puffs out his chest. . . . They are found guilty of a range of crimes, from starving their people to owning too many pairs of shoes. At one point, their defense lawyer has to be reined in by the prosecutor because he is shouting abuse at them.”
Reading this section of Patrick McGuinness’s first novel, I recalled the Nadas essay and admired the skill with which McGuinness inspires in the reader something like the complex responses Nadas observes in himself: an almost giddy triumph tempered by the sobering realization that the brutality of these summary executions will only prolong the country’s history of violence and oppression.
As “The Last Hundred Days” begins, its unnamed narrator has come to teach at a university in the Romanian capital. He seems not to care, nor do we learn, what happens in his classes. He is much more concerned with his fellow faculty members, in whose lives he becomes deeply entangled, and with the fact that his every move is being closely monitored. “This is what surveillance does: we stop being ourselves, and begin living alongside ourselves. Human nature cannot be changed, but it can be brought to a degree of self-consciousness that denatures it.”
By far the most theatrical of the book’s many colorful characters is the narrator’s colleague, Leo O’Heix, a man of such prodigious energies that, one senses, he would be bored by anything less dangerous and frenetic than the high-risk multitasking that constitutes his ordinary routine. Teaching is his day job. His true vocation is trafficking in the black market, living what passes for the high life in Bucharest, and knowing, bribing or blackmailing everyone worth knowing, bribing or blackmailing in the country’s byzantine hierarchy.
In addition, Leo obsessively documents magnificent historic landmarks—churches and monasteries, mostly—that the government is razing to sever its people’s ties with their past and make room for more ugly, state-socialist architecture. At an exclusive restaurant where the house specialty is “Pork Jewish Style,” a dish “in which a whole continent’s unthinking anti-Semitism is summarized,” Leo describes “a world of suspicion and intrigue in which he is happy, stimulated, fulfilled,” and the narrator suddenly realizes that “the place suits him, not because it resembles him but because he is so far in excess of it.”
The narrator’s friendship with Leo gives him access to a wide range of acquaintances across the strictly enforced class divisions of a theoretically classless society. He has a passionate love affair with the spoiled, beautiful (“arresting was the word, though we tried to use it sparingly in a police state”) daughter of the deputy interior minister, and he makes friends with an elderly hero of the Communist revolution who is writing two versions of his memoirs—one for the censors at home and another for publication abroad. He meets an outlaw band of dissidents who ask his help in smuggling refugees across the border into the former Yugoslavia.
Of course, it’s true that people everywhere turn out to be quite unlike our first impressions of them, but such misapprehensions can prove fatal in the narrator’s new social circle. Everyone, or almost everyone, has a secret identity, a hidden, often sinister relationship to a culture based on death and the threat of death. After all, a large percentage of its citizens have been recruited to inform on their neighbors for the Securitate. Each startling discovery the narrator makes about the people around him increases our interest in the outcome of the novel and in the physical safety and survival of its central characters. Incarcerations, purges, state-sanctioned beatings and murders punctuate the plot.
Late in the novel, the narrator’s new girlfriend, a doctor at a filthy, inadequate local hospital, learns the horrifying truth about the disappearance of her beloved brother. Will her relationship with the narrator end as abruptly as his liaison with the deputy interior minister’s daughter, who accuses him of being a voyeur? “You’re not part of anything, not any of it,” she tells him. “You watch, that’s all! You float along.” Why, one might ask, are we reading “The Last Hundred Days” when there are already so many accounts of this period (among them, Norman Manea’s memoir, “The Hooligan’s Return”) by Romanians who experienced the full force of the tyrannical Ceausescu regime?
What keeps us interested in, and sympathetic toward, his outsider hero is the fact that McGuinness writes so very well. A poet and a professor of French and comparative literature at Oxford University, McGuinness—who lived in Bucharest during the time he is describing—is observant, reflective, witty and precise. He is capable of combining the essayistic, the lyrical, the humorous and the aphoristic, sometimes within a single paragraph, as he does in these musings on the Romanian dictator’s taste in statuary:
“Ceausescu sculptures were always one and a half times life-size, so that when you stood beside them you were outscaled, but realistically—diminished yet in a discomfitingly human way. Saddam Hussein or Kim Il-sung had 70-foot sculptures of themselves; not Ceausescu. He made sure he looked as if he was simply made differently, a superior version of the human, as befitted the leader of an atheist state that believed in the superhuman and not the supernatural. With Ceausescu statues, it was their very moderation that made them so excessive, so troubling to be near.”
Such writing makes “The Last Hundred Days” an incisive and engaging account of a society and a historical period that is essential to remember, especially now, as the Soviet bloc recedes into the past, along with its painfully clear illustration of how people are liable to behave when they are bullied by their government and encouraged to view their fellow citizens with terror and paranoia.
Francine Prose’s most recent book is a novel, “My New American Life.”
2 June 2012
Johnny Weissmuller, byname of Peter John Weissmuller, original name Jonas Weissmuller (born June 2, 1904, Freidorf, near Timişoara, Romania—died January 20, 1984, Acapulco, Mexico), American freestyle swimmer of the 1920s who won five Olympic gold medals and set 67 world records. He became even more famous as a motion-picture actor, most notably in the role of Tarzan, a “noble savage” who had been abandoned as an infant in a jungle and reared by apes.
Weissmuller, whose parents immigrated to the United States when he was three, attended school only through the eighth grade but was trained in swimming at the Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago. He was a member of several championship relay and water-polo teams that represented the club during the 1920s. In individual freestyle swimming he was U.S. outdoor champion at 100 yards (1922–23, 1925 [no competition 1924]), 100 metres (1926–28), 200 metres (1921–22), 400 metres (1922–23, 1925–28 [no competition 1924]), and 800 metres (1925–27); and he was U.S. indoor titleholder at 100 yards (1922–25, 1927–28) and 220 yards (1922–24, 1927–28). At the 1924 Olympic Games he won three gold medals, for the 100-metre and 400-metre freestyle and the 4 × 200-metre relay (he also won a bronze medal as a member of the U.S. water-polo team); in 1928 he won two more gold medals, for the 100-metre freestyle and 4 × 200-metre relay.
Despite his athletic records, Weissmuller is best known for his motion-picture role as Tarzan of the Apes, a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Weissmuller starred in 12 Tarzan films between 1932 and 1948, beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). He later created the role of Jungle Jim, a guide, for both television and motion pictures. His autobiography, Water, World, and Weissmuller, appeared in 1967.
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The magazine’s recent article about Treece, a Kansas town rendered virtually uninhabitable—only two residents remain—due to mining waste and environmental degradation, evokes the fate of another spot half a world away: Geamana, in Romania. The Hungarian photographer Tamas Dezso, who since 2009 has been documenting forgotten people and places in post-Communist Eastern Europe, took this picture of Geamana in 2011.
The photograph is striking, but the reality behind it may be more so. According to Dezso, in 1978 Nicolae Ceauşescu, the leader of Romania, which is rich in mineral resources and has been mined since at least the first century A.D., decided to open Roşia Poieni, one of Europe’s biggest copper mines. The government then forced the inhabitants of the nearby village of Geamana to move out so that an artificial lake could take its place and serve as a kind of catch-basin for the mine’s contaminated sludge to flow into.
In a striking parallel with the situation in Treece, whose last two inhabitants are Della and Tim Busby, Geamana, too, has what are apparently a last pair of holdouts, an elderly couple named Ana and Victor Praţa. The residents of Geamana, like those of Treece, were offered buyouts to relocate somewhere else, but the Praţas thought the amount offered was too low, so they stayed. Over time, as the lake has risen, the couple has moved their house higher and higher up the hill; they now live 15 to 20 meters away from the lake. Dezso’s local assistant, who helped him gather the information about Geamana, says that as far as he knows, Victor (who worked for 15 years in the Roşia Poieni mine) and his wife, Ana, are the only people still left in Geamana.
Here is what the village looked like around 30 years ago. The “X” marks the location where Dezso stood in order to take his portrait of Geamana.
Earlier this month, Catherine Ashton, the European Union high representative for foreign affairs, applauded the resumption of freight rail traffic through eastern Moldova as “a crucial step forward for restoring confidence between the sides to the Transnistrian issue.” For many this may have been the first time they became aware of something called the “Transnistrian issue,” let alone Transnistria itself.
You’ll find Moldova on a map—it’s right there, a pork shoulder of land between Romania and Ukraine—but not Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway republic in the east of Moldova. And if Transnistria were on a map, it would be easy to mistake it for a misprint, a river inked too wide (to continue the porcine metaphor, if Moldova is a pork shoulder, Transnistria is a sliver of bacon). Located mainly on the eastern bank of the Dniester, Transnistria stretches for about 250 miles north to south, averaging no more than 15 miles across. It thus patently lacks what military experts call ‘strategic depth’—the ability to retreat without automatically suffering defeat.
But Transnistria has one strategic advantage over Moldova, which proved crucial enough to win its de facto independence exactly 20 years ago: the support of Russia—or to be more precise, of the Russian 14th Army, then stationed in and around Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol (a smaller Russian force remains today). When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, independence was thrust upon all its constituent republics, including Moldova, the only Soviet republic with a Romance-language majority. The consequent resurgence of Moldovan nationalism, which included laws promoting the national language to the detriment of Russian, grated on the russophone majority in eastern Moldova, on the heavily industrialized left bank of the Dniester.
More important for the region’s future than its steel and electricity plants was the identity that had been forged for its inhabitants: industrialized areas like these, attracting workers from all over the Soviet Union, were a proletarian version of the American melting pot. It was in places like this that Homo sovieticus would be produced. And here, at least, the experiment succeeded. But instead of precursors to the future, the Soviet breakup turned these New Men and Women into relics of the past.
And so, the rebellion that established the independence of Transnistria was not motivated by Russian nationalism, but by Soviet nostalgia—or, rather, by the inability to imagine a future other than a communist one. For many years after independence, Transnistria tried to re-establish that ineffective mainstay of communism, so eagerly rejected elsewhere: a centrally planned economy.
In many ways, it’s still 1990 in Tiraspol, the republic’s capital. Lenin’s likeness may have been toppled across the rest of the former Sovietosphere, but his statue still stands atop a pedestal in front of the Parliament building on Tiraspol’s main square, flanked by angrily flapping concrete flags that make him look like the Militant Angel of Egalitarianism. Streets are still named after communist luminaries like Karl Liebknecht and proletarian high holidays like October 25. The most telling example of the Transnistrian time-slip is the unrecognized nation’s flag: the only one anywhere in the old U.S.S.R. still to sport the hammer-and-sickle emblem of Communism.
But Tiraspol in no Soviet Pompeii. A visitor from the Soviet past would be puzzled by the abundance of sheriff’s badges on all buildings. The badges refer, indeed, to Sheriff, a conglomerate that dominates the entire economy of Transnistria, owning (among many other things) a chain of gas stations, a TV channel, a mobile phone network, a car dealership, a building company and the country’s foremost football club, FC Sheriff Tiraspol.
In a way, Sheriff symbolizes Transnistria’s parallel path to Russia on its course from state socialism to state capitalism. Its name reflects the previous occupation of its two founders—former KGB agents. And Transnistria’s economy is not just monolithic and oligopolous; it has specialized in some of the handful of activities open to rogue statelets: money-laundering, people-smuggling and weapons-manufacturing, among other black-market industries.
It remains a black hole of legality on the doorstep of the European Union, and it’s a pressing problem. Moldova is said to be on an “irreversible” course to membership, but only if it resolves the Transnistrian issue. Obviously, reintegration in Moldova is the last thing Transnistria’s present leadership wants. They’d rather be absorbed by Russia—which is a bit of a stretch, as Tiraspol is about 350 miles removed from the nearest Russian border, with Ukraine between them. For its part, Russia prefers to keep the republic at arm’s length, supporting its autonomy but not recognizing its independence.
So, until the slow erosion of local demography dramatically alters the political force field, things stay as they are. In its desperate and largely fruitless search for allies, Transnistria has joined forces with other forgotten flashpoints of the former Soviet Union. It is one of the four member states of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, the others being Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The main aim of the organization, also dubbed the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States, or the Axis of De Facto, seems to be to at least recognize one another’s independence.
All four statelets are in effect Russian pawns on the chessboard of its “near abroad,” but they seem stuck in a quadruple stalemate. They are unable to survive without Russian support, but Russia is unsure whether these forward-positioned pieces are assets or liabilities. The lack of international recognition compounds the sense of limbo and hinders economic development—except of the criminal, smuggling-based kind.
What a difference legality makes. The contrast is particularly stark with Kaliningrad, a bona fide Russian exclave on the Baltic coast. When the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union went the way of the American Confederacy, one could have postulated a disastrous future for this bit of Russia jammed in between Poland and Lithuania. In the early 1990s, Russia even discreetly sounded out the option of selling the region back to Germany. But the oblast has gone from basket case to powerhouse: it is now one of Russia’s best-performing regions, attracting western investment and increasingly benefiting from its proximity to the European Union instead of being hindered by its isolation from Russia.
Maybe someday the same can be said of Transnistria. But only if the Dniester loses the doubtful distinction as one of Europe’s last unrecognized borders.
Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.
 Baroness Ashton had been European commissioner for trade before assuming her present role in 2009. In true European Union style, it would be too easy—not to mention controversial, and untrue—to call her Europe’s foreign minister. Though her relative obscurity is commensurate with her job’s inconsequentiality (see also Herman Van Rompuy, Europe’s “president”), she has been called the “best paid female politician in the world” by The Daily Telegraph. Her basic monthly salary is just over 23,000 euros.
 Or of Catherine Ashton, vide.
 “Nistru” in Romanian/Moldovan. Not to be confused with the Dnieper (Dnipro), which flows a few hundred miles to the east, through Kiev. Both names are of Sarmatian origin, the former meaning “the close river,” the latter “the far river.” The Dniester has something of a history as a border river, in previous centuries also having been the boundary between the Polish and Turkish empires.
 The Russian military presence, now no more than 1,500 strong, is designated as the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova, and is under direct command of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow.
 Like French, Italian or Romanian, Moldovan derives from Latin. The question of how different Moldovan is from Romanian is a political one. In Soviet times, Moldovan was heavily “russified” to distance it from Romanian. The tug-of-war between Moldova and Transnistria is partly over whether education east of the river should be in “western” (Latin) or “eastern” (Cyrillic) script.
 Before its self-declared independence, Transnistria generated 40 percent of Moldova’s total G.D.P.
 Officially known in Russian as the Pridnestrovskaia Moldovskaia Respublika, the shadow republic’s name is often shortened to Pridnestrovye or PMR. Under the country’s first president, that acronym was also jokingly said to mean “Papina i Moia Respublika” (“Daddy’s and My Republic”), as President Igor Smirnov’s sons Vladimir and Oleg were reputedly deeply involved in a Russia-style entanglement of business, politics and crime. The official Moldovan designation is “Stînga Nistrului” (“Left bank of the Dniestr”). Because of the different spellings of the river name in Romanian/Moldovan and Russian, the region is known in the west as Transnistria or Transdniestria.
 The date of the October Revolution of 1917, but only according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. The Gregorian date would have been Nov. 7, 1917. The Soviets adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918, bringing Russia in line with the rest of the world.
 Transnistria’s national flag is the old Soviet one with a horizontal green stripe across the middle third. See this page at Flags of the World for an image.
 Hence Baroness Ashton’s interest in the matter.
 Transnistria is roughly 30 percent Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan; low Russian birth rates and emigration towards an economically better-off Russia could make a future Transnistria less intransigent towards Moldova.
 Both areas are situated in Georgia, but controlled by secessionist movements supported by Russia.
 For more on Nagorno-Karabakh, see this previous episode of Borderlines.
 Russia recognizes the independence of all CDRN states except Transnistria. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have secured recognition by Nicaragua, Venezuela and a handful of other real-world states.
 Before World War II, Kaliningrad was Königsberg, the capital of the German region of East Prussia, which was divided between and annexed by Poland and the Soviet Union in 1945.
As a child growing up in a tiny, German-speaking village in Romania, on the edge of Transylvania, Herta Müller was assigned chores that included herding cows. Out in the pastures with little to do, she amused herself by giving names and personalities to the flowers she collected and the clouds that drifted by, or imagined a future as a seamstress, like her aunt, or perhaps as a hairdresser.
But a career as a writer, much less one who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature? She could not imagine such a thing, living as she did in linguistic isolation and under surveillance as part of a suspect German minority under the drab Communist dictatorship that came to be ruled by the megalomaniacal Nicolae Ceausescu.
In the end, though, it was precisely that claustrophobic atmosphere that provided the material for novels like “The Appointment” and “The Land of Green Plums.” When she did win the Nobel Prize, in 2009, the jury citation extolled her as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
“I never wanted to be a writer,” Ms. Müller said in an interview while in New York this month for the PEN World Voices literary festival. “There were no books at home.”
But when, as a teenager, she was sent off to high school in Timisoara, the closest city, she said: “Whatever I read went under my skin, I almost devoured the literature, which became like a road to discovery. And this is how it stayed. I always wanted to know, how should one live? I write in order to bear witness to life.”
Exposure to those new ideas made her a nonconformist and ultimately a dissident, fired from her job for refusing to cooperate with state security. Her first efforts as a writer were when she was a university student, and she and a group of friends published unauthorized literary work and statements in favor of freedom of expression.
Valentina Glajar, a Romanian-born scholar who teaches at Texas State University, was a translator of “Traveling on One Leg,” an early Müller book. She has also examined some of the secret police dossiers on Ms. Müller that were declassified after the collapse of Communism in 1989, two years after Ms. Müller had immigrated to West Germany and began the uneasy process of trying to define her place in that new setting. Ms. Glajar was startled by what she found.
“What most impressed me was how many of the facts in her file she then expressed artistically in her writing,” Ms. Glajar said. “So much of it is true. And like everyone else, I was surprised by how many sources in her wider entourage had to inform on her: her neighbors, the director of a theater in Timisoara, a teacher at one of the schools where she taught kindergarten who was someone she considered a friend.”
Ms. Müller, intense and birdlike, has a new novel out, which has just been published in English by Metropolitan. Called “The Hunger Angel,” it signals a bit of a departure from her earlier work. Though similar in subject matter, it looks beyond her own experience to a trauma endured by her parents’ generation: the deportation of thousands of long-established ethnically German Romanians to labor camps in the Soviet Union as World War II was ending.
That episode was always hovering over family life when she was a child, Ms. Müller, who was born in 1953, said. When her mother, who had spent five years in the Gulag, “combed my hair, she would tell me how her own head had been shaved, and without telling me she had learned it in the camp, showed me how to peel a potato so that the skin was very very thin, and nothing was wasted.”
Then there is the matter of “this awful name, Herta,” she added, speaking in German through an interpreter. “I have it because one of my mother’s friends in the camp was named Herta, and she died. My mother had promised that if she had a daughter, she would name the child after her friend. I learned this not from my mother, but from my grandmother when I was still very little. I did not know what a camp was then, but I was surrounded by things that had to do with the camp.”
The moral dimensions of the situation were further complicated by Ms. Müller’s father’s service in the Nazi SS during the war. “My father was on the side of the murderers, and my mother had to pay for that,” Ms. Müller said. “It was a really big dilemma for me that I came from the side of the murderers, and that everyone was still singing these Nazi songs in the village. It really tore me to pieces.”
“The Hunger Angel” began as a collaboration with Oskar Pastior, a Romanian poet of German descent who defected to the West in 1968. He took Ms. Müller to see the camp where he had spent four years as a young man, and when he died of a heart attack in 2006, she decided to continue the novel on her own, partly as a homage to him.
In 2010, after “The Hunger Angel” was published in German, Ms. Müller learned that Mr. Pastior had been an informant for the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. Only four reports from him have been found, she said, and they seem written in an opaque, pro forma style meant to be uninformative. But the real-life confirmation of betrayals and machinations she portrayed in her novels shook and saddened her.
“He and I became very close, and I could not imagine that he had really worked in this fashion,” she said. But upon reflection, she decided she needed to take into account certain extenuating circumstances: “In the 1950s you would get 20 years if you said no, so if I imagine that you came out of the camps, are you supposed to go back to jail for another 20 years? It is an incredible blackmail.”
“If I had known this before he died, I could possibly have separated from him,” she added, and “abandoned this project.” She continued, “But how terrible it would have been if on top of everything he had gone through, I had done that also?”
Because the tales Ms. Müller tells are so gripping, often in a nightmarish, Kafkaesque way, it is easy to overlook the quality of her prose. But the novelist Claire Messud, who recalls the challenge of having to translate a passage of Ms. Müller’s while studying German, noted her “transformative ability to take stories and make them into something larger than themselves.”
Ms. Müller’s body of work “does seem like movements of a symphony, up until this new one,” Ms. Messud added. She moderated a panel with Ms. Müller during the weeklong PEN festival, which ended on May 6.
“But always her writing is very vivid and concrete, as if her will to live is in her prose,” Ms. Messud said. “There isn’t a single one of her books you’d describe as cheerful, but they are nonetheless exuberant, they are full of life, a life that comes from the use of language and the observation of detail.”
But Ms. Müller has a peculiar relationship with the German language and Germany. Even after having lived there for 25 years, she continues to be something of an outsider, partly because of her accent — “I speak a kind of Hapsburg language,” she said — and outlook, but also because of her unusual style and vocabulary, full of invented portmanteau words.
“She writes about things sometimes for which there are no words,” said Philip Boehm, her main English-language translator. “She has a curious way of naming the world, and a lot of her prose is constructed of collisions between words and phrases that may seem on one level not to fit. But it’s like certain chemicals or molecular structures that bond in different ways, and when the bond is dissolved, a tremendous amount of energy is released.”
Related Times Topic: Herta Müller
10 May 2012
The Maryhill Museum will unveil a new 25,000-foot wing this weekend, nearly doubling the size of the museum.
Colleen Schafroth is the Executive Director. She tells OPB's Oregon Art Beat, the new addition is a major development in the museum's history.
"The Maryhill Museum building was first completed about 1918. Renovated and dedicated in 1926. Opened in 1940. And the new wing is the first addition to that building in of all those years," says Schafroth.
The new wing will be a place to display the museum's collection, instead of keeping it in storage. That collection includes sculptures by Rodin and many Native American artifacts. But you'll also see a few Maryhill oddities, such as miniature French fashion mannequins, and a room full of furniture and paintings donated by Queen of Romania.
Schafroth says the 1918 mansion with the 2012 addition will create what artists might call juxtaposition.
"The historic building behind us is there in all its beauty, and then the new wing is quite different. So that people coming here on any one given day will immediately recognize the old, and the new."
Schafroth is standing on the edge of the new wing's outdoor plaza, which offers an expansive view of the Columbia Gorge. "Isn't that amazing? You can see the tugs going up the river. You can see the trains going by," she says.
This spot will be center of the party this weekend, and will feature dance performances and plein air painting demonstrations.
Schafroth says this weekend's grand opening marks more than a year of construction and was funded by a $10 million capital campaign.
"This is really just a stunning project for the museum that's going to provide additional space for art workshops or performances. Also for the collections. And to take advantage of this view. You just couldn't ask for anything better."
The new wing of the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, about a hundred miles east of Portland, will be dedicated this weekend. You can watch the video below and view more photos at our Arts and Life page.
9 May 2012
This weekend, Maryhill Museum is throwing a party. They're dedicating a brand-new, 25,000-square-foot wing to the museum. It's the first addition to the iconic building in almost a century.
"The idea behind the new wing was started in 1993 and was inspired by Mary Hoyt Stevenson, who really wanted to see new collections come out and [make available] new things for people to see," says Executive Director Colleen Schafroth.
"With this new room we're going to show additional things that are in the collections like our ceramics and our British painting. But we're also going to have additional spaces for people to learn about art and to make art. So it's very exciting to us."
The Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing features dedicated space for education, collections work rooms, research spaces and a café. The new wing also leads visitors toward Maryhill's outdoor sculpture garden with epic views of the Columbia River Gorge.
You can be a part of this historic event.
The official dedication ceremony is Sunday, May 13th at 2 pm, and there are activities all weekend long including sculpture garden tours, plein air painting, dance performances and of course, spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge.
by Herta Müller
For the sake of full disclosure, I'll tell you that I had not read Herta Muller for a number of reasons before the appearance of Nadirs, her brilliant collection of short takes about a family of German-speakers living in the Romanian countryside. I don't know that I would have picked it up if Muller, a Romanian-born writer who works in German, had not won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. I can tell you I was pretty happy that I did. Nadirs was—is —a terrific work of short fiction, showing off Muller's powers as a world-class creator of fiction driven by visionary power. I was ready when her latest novel, The Hunger Angel, arrived in the mail. It's a latecomer to the crowd of books written about internment during World War II—doubly so, because the war ends when the internment of the main character begins.
Young (and gay) Leo Auberg, a Romanian-born of German descent, is 17 when the Nazis are defeated. He is arrested in a sweep by the occupying Soviets to find indentured laborers for Russia's coal and mineral industry. From January 1945 until the beginning of 1950, Leo works from before sunrise to after dark shoveling coal, hauling concrete and lugging bricks. He is consistently overworked and underfed—haunted by chronic hunger, or what he calls "the hunger angel" who lurks, and looking for an opportunity to seize him and pull him over into the darkness of death.
years later, Leo writes of his ordeal: "How can you face the world
if all you can say about yourself is that you're hungry ... Your
mouth begins to expand, its roof rises to the top of your skull, all
senses alert for food." Even as Leo describes his constant state of
hunger, he asserts, "No words are adequate for the suffering caused
Müller deploys a large range of figurative language to make Leo's condition known to us, in images made of words but standing beyond language. Words about hunger, in fact, Leo says, "make up a map, but instead of reciting countries in your head you list names of food. Wedding soup, mincemeat, spare ribs, pigs knuckles, roast hare, liver dumplings, haunch of venison."
Seasons go by—adding up to years—as the novel increases in intensity in episodic fashion rather than by means of a well-made plot. Though striking characters do abound: the ruthless Russian camp commandant Shishtvanyonov; Tur Prikulitsch, the kapo who issues commands but does not work himself; the wrongfully imprisoned Jew Zither Lommer; Irma Pfeifer, who dies in a pool of mortar, frozen but immortalized; the dutiful camp barber Oswald Enyeter; the attorney Paul Gast who steals his wife's food; and others, all hoping to endure the tortures of hunger, cold, harsh labor, ferocious boredom—the chapter on boredom is one of the most fascinating you'll ever read on the subject—and unjust internment. As with Irma Pfeifer, not all of them do.
Leo endures, of course, surviving to tell this dark and urgent story. The method Müller deploys to portray such endurance should last as well. Perhaps, like me, you'll be waiting for each of her new books from now on.
It is more than 20 years since revolution and reform swept through Central and Eastern Europe. First in Poland and Hungary, then the wall that divided Germany for so many years came tumbling down, and on Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu's long running regime fell in Romania.
It was far from a peaceful coup, with many killed in the fight for freedom, and though there are of course conflicting views on the events that led to Ceausescu's execution, what is undeniable is that the changes in Europe that year created the map we know today. In Romania, as with many of the former eastern bloc countries, a new generation have since emerged with no memory of the communist country and oppression of that time.
Photographer Dana Popa was born in Romania in 1977 and so fairly young when the first shots rang out. Her latest body of work, After the New Man, explores the legacy of the communist years, and like her previous project, not Natasha, it uses photography as a way in to a complex subject.
"Twenty years after the fall of the communism I needed to go back and investigate the first generation that was born at the same time Romanians gained their freedom," she told me. "For me they were the lucky generation, whilst their parents are doomed to live between two worlds, communism and capitalism."
Popa explains that the current generation was raised into consumerism, noting that even amongst themselves they would often speak English.
Her project mixes photographs of those young adults with landscapes that seem to ooze with the grey decay of a communist empire, all alongside photographs from her family album. The photographs are a feast for the eye, rich in colour and taken with an unforced style and the end product of many months, indeed, years making the right contacts and opening doors. "I always like to wait for that moment when I think they are revealing themselves," said Popa. "They don't hide anything anymore; they allow me to see them as they are. That's what I like to think."
Popa spent two years meeting young people, understanding what it means to grow up now. "Connected to the world via internet, with access to the latest news, and freedom to travel anywhere in Europe, with possibilities of driving convertible cars in their 20s and studying abroad, they cannot imagine the grim realities of long queues for milk, limited food supplies and rationing of petrol," says Popa.
"Nor can they imagine disappearances without trace, the political prisons and labour camps, the everyday censorship with bans on foreign media and travel. This is a generation that has no memories of communism. It grows up with no sense of the immediate history and its impact, like a soul who does not identify the body it is incarcerated in."
That "missing past" is actually all around in the landscape which portrays a different era and time, the decaying concrete blocks clashing with the youths getting ready for a night out.
"The communists 'Golden Era' constructions are strong," says Popa. "I am not referring only to the most obvious visual legacy: the blocks of flats webbing through the country, but also to mentalities and habits."
"This series talks about how these young people in search of an identity navigate through the juxtaposing layers of the past and the present, how a coherent image is constructed out of fragments of memory and 'Western'-inspired bits of lifestyle and aspirations, and how this ostensibly contradictory synthesis gives them a sense of displacement."
I found the inclusion of the archive shots of Popa's family fascinating, especially the one of her mother, which had it been in colour could sit alongside the modern pictures. I asked her if she saw it that way, or do they represent a past that has now gone? "I felt my visual interpretation of the linear present needed a tangible reference to embed in," Popa says.
"It is a past that is gone now. The propaganda and the rules of that society were absurd. But at the end of the day as many differences I saw between this generation and the generation of our parents, there are strong similarities, too, and by bringing in the archive I started a visual dialogue between the two worlds."
3 May 2012
A statue representing the birth of the Romanian nation has been greeted with derision by the public and critics.
The sculpture, unveiled outside Bucharest's National History Museum, portrays a naked Roman emperor Trajan carrying a wolf.
It is supposed to represent the fusion of the Roman empire with the ancient tribes of Dacia.
But the work by Vasile Gorduz has been described as a "monument to Romania's stray dogs".
Gorduz, who died in 2008, was a central figure in Romania's art establishment for decades, and in the 1990s was the professor of sculpture at the National University of Arts in Bucharest.
'Doubtful artistic quality'
The nudity and apparent awkwardness of the Trajan figure, the impracticality of the pose (neither arm supports the wolf's weight), and the appearance of the wolf, have all attracted negative comments.
"I have never seen anything so grotesque, a wolf with a pitbull's head, a lizard's tail and a tumour on its neck, carried by a guy who is visibly embarrassed by his nudity," said one woman passer-by.
Even the curator of the museum has joined in the criticism of the work.
Ernest Oberlander Tarnoveanu told AFP news agency that, sooner or later, it would have to go.
"I am not a prude or a conservative, but the statue should never have been erected here because of its doubtful artistic quality," he said.
Satirical website Times New Roman (in Romanian) commented that "Bucharest's mayor has just inaugurated the first monument dedicated to Romania's stray dogs".
Other commentators have wondered why "the dog is levitating", and why the animal wears a scarf "while the emperor isn't even wearing any underwear".
22 April 2012
BUCHAREST—Romania is set to start exploring its shale gas reserves in a drive for energy independence, despite local protests against the potential risks and Europe-wide concerns about the technology used to exploit unconventional gas sources.
Several oil companies have expressed interest in exploring what is believed to be the country’s significant potential. According to an assessment by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary may together be sitting on top of about 538 billion cubic meters, or 19 trillion cubic feet, of technically recoverable shale gas reserves.
The U.S. energy company Chevron has, since 2010, obtained concessions in Romania, covering a combined area of 870,000 hectares, or 2.2 million acres, in the Eastern plains and the Black Sea coastal region of the country. After surface prospecting, the company is planning to start an exploratory drilling campaign this year.
“Chevron believes that Romania holds potential for a successful project,” Thomas Holst, country manager for the company, said in an interview.
“We are in the early days of activity. No wells have been drilled,” Mr. Holst said: “That is why it is critical to conduct a standard natural gas exploration.”
Chevron’s plans have resulted in protests by environmental advocate organizations and local politicians.
In Barlad, an economically depressed town near the Moldovan border, 2,000 locals gathered in March in a rare demonstration against activities planned in the area. The region’s economy, hit by the loss of heavy industries since the fall of communism in 1989, would benefit from the large investments that shale gas development would bring. According to Romania’s Mineral Resources Agency, for example, exploratory drilling in the Dobroudja region, on the Black Sea Coast, could bring more than $80 million in investment over four years.
But the Barlad protesters said they were worried about the potential effect on the local environment.
In neighboring Bulgaria, Parliament, under pressure from protesters, imposed a ban in January on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the technology used to extract gas from shale. The ban caused cancellation of Chevron’s Bulgarian exploration permit.
Romanian environmentalists hope to emulate the Bulgarian example. “We don’t want exploration for shale gas to go ahead, because of the method used, which is the only one available at the moment,” Miruna Ralea, executive director of the environmental group Alma-Ro in Bucharest, said in an interview.
“Fracking is strongly polluting, and, in our view, the risks are by far higher than the benefits,” Ms. Ralea added, citing the dangers of polluting arable land, chemical leaks and the huge use and pollution of water resources.
Romanian activists are not fighting Chevron, they are fighting the government, Ms. Ralea said, lamenting a “lack of transparency and information” on planned exploration programs. Contracts between Chevron and the authorities have been classified as secret, she said.
Alexandru Patruti, head of the mineral resources agency, was not available to answer questions on shale gas operations, despite repeated calls: But in an interview with the local Web site HotNews earlier this month, he said unconventional gas was “a resource that not a single state or company can afford neglecting.”
“We are at the start of a period in which we will study rocks that contain unconventional reserves,” Mr. Patruti said, adding that a study conducted by Romanian researchers was looking at archival geological information to be able to determine where reserves might lie.
Concerning the effect that shale gas operations could have on the environment, Mr. Patruti said, “Exploiting any mineral resource is a process that has an impact on the environment. But this impact can be controlled and minimized by respecting good practices and further regulation of operations being carried out.”
According to Pierre Thomas, professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, hydraulic fracturing is “relatively secure,” but only if drilling is preceded by expensive studies, and the operation is monitored thoroughly.
Still, “therein lies the problem, considering the very high number of drills, and the fact that companies look to make the most savings possible,” he added.
Aside from the usual effects linked to any industrial activity, Mr. Thomas pointed to the possible contamination of deep aquifers by the chemicals used in the process and to heavy metals liberated during fracking.
In any case, “one day or another, petrol, gas and coal reserves will dry out,” Mr. Thomas added. “The race for shale gas pushes this inevitable moment away, but doesn’t help avoid it.” Exploiting shale gas simply postpones the strategic shift to renewable energy, he said.
A report commissioned by the European Parliament in 2011, on the effects of shale gas and shale oil production on the environment and on human health, assessed the risks to the environment and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and evaluated the European regulatory framework.
“Whenever exploration and production of unconventional fossil fuels has been done at relevant scale, it has had an effect on the environment,” said Uwe Albrecht, head of the energy and environmental consulting firm Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik in Germany, one of the authors of the report. “As it generally involves processing significantly larger amounts of material, as well as higher energy and water consumption, the overall impact will be higher than for conventional oil and gas wells.”
The report also showed gaps in existing regulations, like the threshold for Environmental Impact Assessments to be carried out on hydraulic fracturing activities. “At present, the threshold is set far above any potential industrial activities of this kind, and thus they are just not covered by the corresponding regulation,” Mr. Albrecht said.
The 27-nation European Union lacks a unified stance on fracking. Attached to its energy independence from Russia, Poland, for one, has resisted calls for restrictive European legislation on shale gas.
“We understand the concerns related to gas explorations from shale formations in Romania,” said Mr. Holst, of Chevron. Still, he said, not a single case of groundwater contamination had been linked to shale gas production since fracking was first used in the United States on an industrial scale in the 1970s. “As more information will be presented, people will be able to take an informed decision,” he added.
“I believe that the citizens of Romania would want to know if those resources exist in their country,” Mr. Holst said: “It is of strategic importance for Romania to develop energy security.”
Romania has been an oil and natural gas producer since the late 19th century. One of the first refineries in the world started operating in 1856 near the town of Ploiesti, north of the capital. But today, like its neighbors, it depends heavily on imported Russian gas.
In a recent speech, the Romanian president, Traian Basescu, answered critics of shale gas. Citing the United States and Poland, with the largest estimated reserves in Europe, as examples, he urged Romania to reduce its import dependency.
With legislative and local elections coming up this year, the subject has brought heated political debate and revived arguments about other long-stymied international mining projects.
“Romania is seen from abroad as a country where everything is possible, and not without a reason,” Ms. Rulea said, pointing to what she said were blurry links between business and political leaders.
18 April 2012
Romania has become the latest country in Eastern Europe struggling to find a solution for the millions of people whose houses, churches, private factories and land became public property under the Communists, who came to power across the region following World War II.
Around 40,000 Romanians and foreigners are still owed compensation 23 years after communism ended. Last week the government proposed paying 15 percent of the property's value over a 10- to 12-year period but has indicated that it may be open to changes. Whatever emerges will have to be voted by Parliament.
U.S. Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein suggested that Romania should comply with the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled against the country several times in property restitution cases.
"We do have concerns with the current proposal ... this is not the right solution," said Gitenstein.
The Romanian government hinted that it was ready to discuss the offer.
Dan Suciu, a spokesman for the government, said it was appealing "to all political parties to find a a solution."
Former owners were expected to hold talks with Finance Minister Bogdan Dragoi later Wednesday to voice their dissatisfaction with the current proposal.
Property restitution has been a thorny issue in Eastern Europe since communism ended in 1989— and has become even more fraught in recent years due to the economic downturn.
Romania has been hit hard by the financial crisis of the last few years. In 2009, it took a €20 billion ($26 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank after its economy shrank by 7 percent.
The ramifications of the downturn have been felt far and wide, including in Romania's policy to property seized under the Communists. In 2005, the Romanian government passed a decree to speed the return of real estate, schools, hospitals and other property, but economic problems have made the law difficult to enact.
12 April 2012
A woman mourned at the graves of relatives in Copaciu, Romania, on Holy Thursday for Romania’s Orthodox majority. As part of a tradition in southern Romania, Orthodox women went to churches and cemeteries to light candles and burn incense for relatives, ahead of Orthodox Easter on Sunday.
9 April 2012
With her severe bob and heavy line of red lipstick, the author Herta Müller looks like she fell out of an Otto Dix painting. After Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009, one critic sniped that she should get a new haircut, lest foreigners assume that’s how all German women look. Other reactions to the Nobel news were more basic: “Herta who?”
Now there is “The Hunger Angel” (Metropolitan Books, $26), a translation of the novel that came out the year Müller won the prize. The original German title, “Atemschaukel,” is hard to translate but refers roughly to the act of breathing—something the book’s narrator, Leo Auberg, can no longer take for granted. He fears for his life, and with good reason: it’s 1945, and Leo is a gay ethnic German living in Romania, about to be packed off to a hard labor camp in Ukraine to help “rebuild” the Soviet Union.
“The world is not a costume ball,” he says to himself, as he meticulously gathers his belongings: a burgundy silk scarf, melon-colored gaiters, a coat with a velvet collar. Once he reaches the gulag, Leo is pressed into service at a coke processing plant and his daily concerns shrink to how much bread he needs to fend off starvation.
Müller herself is ethnically German and grew up in Romania, and her previous books, including “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment,” drew on her firsthand experience of repression under Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. But whereas Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” an obvious touchstone for Müller, is an uncomplicated damnation of Stalinist repression, this new novel skates onto slipperier moral ground. Leo and his family have too recently reaped the benefits of being German in a pro-Nazi-country to be easily considered victims. For them, the war years were marked by cold cucumber salad on the veranda and quietly disappearing Jewish neighbors.
Müller’s father was a member of the Waffen-SS, and in a terse afterword to “The Hunger Angel” she writes that her mother spent five years in a Soviet labor camp after the war and would rarely speak of the trauma. “My childhood was accompanied by such stealthy conversations; at the time I didn’t understand their content, but I did sense the fear.”
5 April 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania—Baby Andrei has confounded doctors just by being alive: The tiny boy with twig-thin limbs was given just days to live when he was born with almost no intestines—eight months ago.
Now there's a glimmer of hope for another miracle.
People in Europe and the United States have started offering funds to help Andrei get a complicated intestine transplant in the United States, the Romanian pediatrician in charge of the baby's care said Thursday.
The offers came after an Associated Press story last week chronicled how Dr. Catalin Cirstoveanu, head of the neonatal unit at Bucharest's Marie Curie children's hospital, flies babies abroad for lifesaving surgery to get around a culture of corruption in which many doctors won't operate unless they're bribed. AP photographs of Andrei in his incubator generated sympathy around the world.
"Offers of help have come in, particularly from abroad, from a non-governmental organization," Cirstoveanu said.
The cost of the surgery goes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, way out of the reach of Andrei's Gypsy parents, who live in a poor part of eastern Romania. Romania's average monthly salary is €350 ($460).
The bribery culture in Romanian hospitals is so ingrained that nurses expect bribes just to change sheets. Surgeons can get hundreds of euros (dollars) and upward for an operation, while anesthetists get roughly a third of that.
Cirstoveanu runs the cardio unit at Marie Curie. But its state-of-the-art machinery has lain idle because he has banned staff from taking bribes. So he flies sick babies to western Europe on budget flights so they can get treatment from doctors who won't expect kickbacks.
Andrei, who still weighs less than an average newborn, has just 10 centimeters (4 inches) of intestine, compared to about three meters (yards) for other babies his age. Like them, he has started teething.
He has captured the hearts of his nurses, some of whom played the lottery to try to raise the money needed for surgery in the U.S., which Cirstoveanu hopes the infant will now get for free.
Andrei's parents, who live hundreds of kilometers (miles) away, rarely visit. Nurses take turns cuddling the bony baby, who loves human contact and screws up his face and wails when put back in his incubator.
Andrei's alert gaze and keen interest in the world around him appear at odds with his frail, shrunken frame of just 2.8 kilograms (6.16 pounds). He has grown less than one kilogram (2.2 pounds) since he was born premature on July 27 in the small town of Tecuci.
"He has no muscles or fat on him, but gets annoyed when no attention is paid to him," said Cirstoveanu, who personally oversees the sick baby's development.
Without surgery, he said, Andrei could expect to live for "one, two, three months."
Andrei's parents all but despaired of saving their son when they approached Cirstoveanu for help.
Now, it seems possible.
"He should have been dead by now, but he has another chance," Cirstoveanu said. "But he needs this operation soon. It is very urgent."
30 March 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Dr. Catalin Cirstoveanu runs a cardio unit with state-of-the-art equipment at a Bucharest children's hospital. But not a single child has been treated in the year-and-a-half since it opened.
Medical staff he needs to bring in to run the machinery would have expected bribes.
So Cirstoveanu has launched a lonely crusade to save babies who come to him for care: He flies them to western Europe on budget flights so they can be treated by doctors who don't demand kickbacks.
That's what Cirstoveanu did last week for 13-day-old Catalin, who needed heart surgery. Cirstoveanu packed a small bag, slipped emergency breathing equipment into the baby carrier and caught a cheap flight to Italy, where doctors were waiting to perform the surgery.
The operation was successful. Two days later, though, a 3-week-old baby that Cirstoveanu whisked away to the same clinic in northwestern Italy—with tubes piercing her tiny frame—died before she was able to have lymph gland surgery.
"I was very worried it wouldn't work," said Cirstoveanu. "But in Romania, she would have died anyway."
The soft-spoken Cirstoveanu is fighting an exhausting and largely solitary battle against a culture of corruption that's so embedded in Romania that surgeons demand bribes to save infants' lives and it's even necessary to slip cash to a nurse to get your sheets changed.
It's one of the reasons why the country's infant mortality rate is more than double the European Union average, with one in 100 children not reaching their first birthday.
"To be honest, it's so deeply rooted into our system that it's really difficult to eliminate," Health Minister Ladislau Ritli said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Officially, the new cardio unit that Cirstoveanu runs at the Marie Curie children's hospital isn't functioning because jobs have not been filled. The real reason appears to be that Cirstoveanu has banned staff from taking bribes. That means that high-tech machinery lies idle because qualified experts do not bother to apply for jobs, as they know they cannot supplement their incomes with bribes.
The zero-tolerance policy to corruption makes for a grueling work schedule for Cirstoveanu, who needs to shuttle babies abroad for surgery—and take care of them on the flight. During the two-hour flight with the girl who died, Cirstoveanu fixed tubes, sedated her and hand-pumped oxygen to keep her alive.
In the less than 24 hours Cirstoveanu had in Bucharest between returning from Catalin's trip and departing with the little girl, he even squeezed in a shift at the Marie Curie clinic.
Patients in Romania routinely discuss the "stock market" rate for bribes. Surgeons can get hundreds of euros (dollars) and upward for an operation, while anesthetists get roughly a third of that, depending also on what a patient can afford. Nurses receive a few euros (dollars) from patients each time they administer medications or put in drips. Getting a certificate stamped to have an operation abroad can easily cost hundreds, if not thousands of euros (dollars) if you ask the wrong doctor.
While the Romanian state appears unwilling to do anything, it often ends up footing the bill.
At the Marie Curie unit, Catalin's operation would have cost €2,000 to €3,000 ($2,700 to $4,000) without bribes. Romanian state health insurance is paying 10 times that for his operation in Italy—a small fortune in a country where the average monthly salary is 350 euros after tax.
Many disillusioned doctors have abandoned the country, which spends just 4 percent of its gross domestic product in health care—about half of the percentage of GDP spent by Western European countries.
Last year, some 2,800 Romanian doctors—discouraged by the antiquated and corrupt health system and low wages—left to work in western Europe, according to the Romanian College of Doctors.
"Ideally, we would have decent salaries and nobody would be tempted to accept informal payments," said the Ritli, the health minister. "And the population would be educated so people would believe that this is not the only way to get proper health care."
Bribes across Romania accounted for some $1 million a day in 2005, according to a World Bank report; more recent estimates are not available. The culture of bribes—or "informal payments" as they're commonly known—is tacitly accepted.
But anger is rising. One of Marie Curie's donors, Procter & Gamble, has several times gone back to the hospital and the Health Ministry to ask questions about when the unit will start functioning.
The tragic plight of Romanian children is nothing new.
In a misguided effort to boost Romania's then-population of 23 million, Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned birth control and abortion, which led to thousands of infants being left in orphanages in harrowing conditions broadcast around the world after his execution in 1989.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the country's shortcomings are again being seen through the gaze of children and powerless parents trapped in a web of corruption.
For those whose children die shortly after birth, grief is magnified when they do not receive a birth certificate or even see their babies alive. Angela Vasile, whose baby daughter, Cristina, only lived one day, saw her infant just once after she'd died, lying on a metal table.
She was then put in a ward of nursing mothers, adding to her anguish.
Bianca Brad, a Romanian celebrity, spoke out publicly about the pain of losing her baby at birth—calling the situation "criminal." She founded the "EMMA Association" to help grieving parents, offering support for those who do not receive psychological counseling and remain locked in years of grief.
Yet remarkable things are happening at the Marie Curie Hospital. Cirstoveanu is personally overseeing the survival of Baby Andrei, an 8-month-old Roma baby born to underage parents. His intestines are almost nonexistent.
The tiny infant who weighs about 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) with limbs that look like gnarled twigs was given only days to live. His bright eyes, alert gaze and lively personality have endeared him to all staff who comfort him in their arms as much as they can outside of his incubator.
Andrei can only have lifesaving surgery in the United States—and a fee of hundreds of thousands of dollars is proving prohibitive. Nurses are so fond of the bright boy that they are playing the state lottery in an attempt to raise funds for his surgery.
Even in this grim setting, there are signs that doctors are mobilizing in a bid to make things better.
Anca Mandache, a child heart surgeon, left her career in France to offer her services to the Marie Curie hospital, taking a salary one tenth of what she would have earned there. Others also are expressing an interest in working at the clinic
Cirstoveanu, who also flies sick babies to Germany and Austria, says he feels "ashamed" that he has to go to the lengths he does to save children, but talks with pride of the moment he sees the joy of relieved parents whose babies survive.
They are in awe of his dedication.
"Cirstoveanu is more than a hero—he is a god for us and the children," said Gheorghe Meliusoiu, Catalin's 28-year-old woodcutter father. "If there were more like him, many lives would be saved."
20 March 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—A hot air balloon floated over downtown Bucharest on Tuesday carrying a model wearing what is now regarded as the world's longest bridal train.
The 1.85-mile-long (nearly 3-kilometer) ivory train on the model's wedding gown billowed out over a main boulevard in Romania's capital.
The Guinness Book of World Records on Monday recognized the item on the silk and lace gown as the longest train, beating the previous record held by a Dutch designer.
But pedestrians didn't seem to make much of Tuesday's media event, which was organized by the artifact's creators: the Andree Salon fashion house and the organizers of this year's biannual Wedding Fair in Bucharest.
A few bystanders looked up at the balloon, but many others ignored it.
The train, which took 100 days to create, was crafted by a team of 10 seamstresses, said salon spokeswoman Lavinia Lascae. The lace was imported from France, while taffeta and other fabrics were purchased from Italy, costing a total of 24,000 lei ($7,364.48 or €5,580), she added.
Beating a Dutch designer to the record had an added dimension for Romanians, as many are still angry after the Netherlands opposed its entry into the European Union's visa-free travel zone. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently demanded that Romania and Bulgaria do more to reform their justice systems and combat corruption and organized crime before he would support integration.
"If the Netherlands does not allow us into Europe, we'll take them out of the world records book," said Alin Caraman, an organizer of the Wedding Fair.
The Romanian director Lucian Pintilie made his first film in 1965, the year Nicolae Ceausescu became general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. During the subsequent decades of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, which ended in 1989, Mr. Pintilie, like many independent-minded Eastern European artists, tried to work within the system and then went into exile, leaving for the West in 1973 and returning after Ceausescu was gone.
Of the films he was able to complete in Romania, “Reenactment” (1970) stands among the exemplary works of its region and time. Subtle, difficult and brave, it represents a powerful statement of artistic honesty in a culture of official lies and evasions.
“Reenactment” is included in a two-week retrospective that begins on Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art. This comprehensive program also offers American audiences a chance to sample Mr. Pintilie’s more recent films, among them “Niki and Flo,” a mordant almost-comedy from 2003 that represents a bridge—and also a battle—between the old Romania and the new. It will run for a week at MoMA, receiving a belated and welcome North American premiere.
The screenplay was written by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu, who came of age in the Ceausescu era and its aftermath and who would go on to collaborate on “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (directed by Mr. Puiu), the breakthrough film of the Romanian new wave. Mr. Pintilie is one of the few older Romanian directors active in the Communist period claimed as an influence by the skeptical realists of the younger generation, who mostly disdain the oblique, allegorical aesthetics and the compromised politics of their elders. “Niki and Flo” is a fascinating stylistic hybrid, its observant naturalism infused with a delicate, almost coy sense of the absurd.
The title characters are a pair of aging men linked—like Alan Arkin and Peter Falk in “The In-Laws”—by the marriage of their children. Niki (Victor Rebengiuc), a retired colonel in the Romanian Army, has a stoical demeanor but a way of carrying himself that suggests a reservoir of gentleness and sensitivity. He is also grieving, stricken when we first meet him in the spring of 2001, by the sudden death of his only son, Mihai (Marius Galea), and the impending departure of his daughter, Angela (Dorina Chiriac), for America with her husband, Eugen (Serban Pavlu).
Eugen’s father is Florian, known as Flo, whose aggressive, ridiculous embrace of modernity stands in comic, painful contrast to Niki’s impassive traditionalism. A know-it-all and a micromanager, a dabbler in fads who mistakes boorishness for flair, Flo wears a baseball cap emblazoned with the word Genius (in English) and presents Niki with a video of Eugen and Angela’s wedding labeled (in French) “un film de Florian Tufaru.”
Niki’s viewing of that oeuvre is a crucial moment in “Niki and Flo.” Flo’s amateurish, accidentally revealing pseudo-cinematic flourishes amplify the moods and themes suggested by Mr. Pintilie’s patient, classical way of filming and cutting. The wedding is a perfectly ordinary episode that is, therefore, a volatile blend of farcical and tragic elements, a wild party in which the latent tensions within the families and the subterranean contradictions of their society rise to the surface without being quite acknowledged.
“Niki and Flo” spends time with a variety of characters, including Eugen and Angela; their mothers, Poucha (the marvelous Coca Bloos) and Doina (Mihaela Caracas); and Mihai’s widow, Irina (Andreea Bibiri). Its center of gravity, however, is unquestionably Niki, whose suffering is all but invisible to everyone around him. His evident struggle to uphold an ideal of capable, selfless, patriotic manhood—an ideal no one else seems to care about or even recognize—is the axis of the film’s drama, and it turns into something larger, more complicated and more frightening than the quiet sorrow of an old man.
Like Mr. Pintilie’s “Reenactment,” “Niki and Flo” pivots, in ways I am reluctant to reveal, from calm, unstated tension to almost surreal violence. The shocks that arrive in the film’s final act may seem arbitrary, but they are also reminders that normalcy—whether in the vanished, shadowy world of Communism or in the bright, familiar domain of consumer capitalism—is always founded on hypocrisy and menaced by chaos.
Niki and Flo
Opens on Thursday in Manhattan.
Directed by Lucian Pintilie; written by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu. At the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, Museum of Modern Art. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Victor Rebengiuc (Niki Ardelean), Razvan Vasilescu (Florian Tufaru, known as Flo), Coca Bloos (Poucha Ardelean), Mihaela Caracas (Doina Tufaru), Serban Pavlu (Eugen Tufaru), Dorina Chiriac (Angela Tufaru), Marius Galea (Mihai Ardelean), Andreea Bibiri (Irina Ardelean) and Alexandru Bindea (Fratele Irinei).
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20 February 2012
WARSAW—For all that Poland has accomplished since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has long resisted fully coming to terms with its Communist past—the oppression, the spying, even the massacres. Society preferred to forget, to move on.
So it may come as a surprise that Poland and many of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe have decided the time is right to deal with the unfinished business. Suddenly there is a wave of accounting in the form of government actions and cultural explorations, some seeking closure, others payback.
A court in Poland last month found that the Communist leaders behind the imposition of martial law in December 1981 were part of a “criminal group.” Bulgaria’s president is trying to purge ambassadors who served as security agents. The Macedonian government is busy hunting for collaborators, and Hungary’s new Constitution allows legal action against former Communists.
On Sunday in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel nominated as the next president a former pastor and East German activist, Joachim Gauck, who turned the files of the Ministry for State Security—better known as the Stasi—into a permanent archive.
“In order to defend ourselves in the future against other totalitarian regimes, we have to understand how they worked in the past, like a vaccine,” said Lukasz Kaminski, the president of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance. Across Central and Eastern Europe, a consensus of silence appears to have ended, one that never muted all criticism and discussion but did muffle voices crying out for a long-awaited reckoning.
Reconciling with the past is an issue that has hovered over post-Communist Europe for decades. But today that experience has broader global resonance, serving as a point of discussion across the Arab world where popular revolts have cast off long-serving dictators, raising similarly uncomfortable questions about individual complicity in autocratic regimes.
Arab nations are forced to grapple with the same issues of guilt and responsibility that Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe are once again beginning to seriously mine. Time makes the past easier to confront, less threatening, but no less urgent to resolve. The experience here, however, suggests that it may be years, decades perhaps, before the Arab world can be expected to look inward.
The sudden turn to the past in Europe is not just in the realm of politics and justice. There have been trials and verdicts, but also dramas and documentaries, thrillers and histories, all seeking closure to a past that refuses to be forgotten.
In Poland, nearly one million people have filled theaters to watch Antoni Krauze’s “Black Thursday,” a film exploring an episode in 1970 when government troops gunned down dozens of protesters in Gdynia and other cities on Poland’s Baltic Coast.
It took Mr. Krauze four decades to make the film. First he was wary of Communist censors and then stymied by public apathy. The movie was a hit last year precisely because of the unsettling subject matter: unarmed protesters and innocent bystanders are shot in the streets or sadistically beaten in police stations.
“In the beginning of the ’90s, people thought it wasn’t right to go back to those times,” Mr. Krauze, 72, said over coffee recently in a bustling Warsaw shopping center.
Poland is wrestling with its past on multiple fronts. After years of legal action, the court that ruled on the Communist leaders from 1981, when martial law was imposed, gave just a two-year suspended sentence to the interior minister at the time, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Communist leader of Poland who declared martial law, was found medically unfit to stand trial last year.
In Bulgaria, the newly elected president promised to remove ambassadors and diplomats who worked with the Communist state security apparatus, even as it was recently revealed that 11 of the country’s 15 highest-ranking bishops were former agents; the president’s plan has run into opposition in the courts. In Macedonia, part of the former Yugoslavia, the constitutional court last month temporarily halted government plans to expand the search for former agents and collaborators.
In Latvia on Saturday, voters rejected a proposal to make Russian the country’s second official language, underscoring the difficulties in coming to terms with the Soviet heritage there. During the recent demonstrations in Romania, signs and chants by protestors in Bucharest equated the increasingly unpopular, and critics say ever more authoritarian, President Traian Basescu with the deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
And even in Albania, one of the poorest nations in Europe, the national museum on Monday opened a new pavilion focusing on the abuses of Communism under the dictator Enver Hoxha.
The resurfacing a generation later of these issues is not entirely without controversy, often driven by hard-line governments and prompting accusations of score-settling and political opportunism.
In Germany, domestic intelligence agents have been observing dozens of members of Parliament from the Left Party, which includes elements of the former East Germany’s governing Socialist Unity Party. “That they are seriously still doing this in the year 2012, that really floored me,” said Gregor Gysi, head of the Left Party parliamentary group and one of the politicians being watched. “They still think in the categories of the cold war.”
When Hungary’s new Constitution went into effect on Jan. 1, it expressly rejected the validity of the Communist Constitution while opening the door for future legal action. “We deny any statute of limitations for the inhuman crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens under the National Socialist and Communist dictatorships,” the Constitution says.
According to Istvan Rev, director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, the successor to the Communist Party returned to power too quickly in 1994. “They came back to power too soon, just four years after the changes, and didn’t feel the need to confront the past in a serious way,” Mr. Rev said.
In most cases these revolutions were not complete overthrows, but moderated transitions of power. The Communist authorities stepped aside, but with conditions.
In Poland the return of the post-Communists came even more quickly than in Hungary, with the Democratic Left Alliance winning in 1993, reinforcing cleavages in Polish society between those ready to move on and those who could not.
“I expected some kind of Nuremberg for Communism,” said Tadeusz Pluzanski, whose father was tortured by the Communist secret police. “There was no revolution,” he said, “just this transformation process.”
Mr. Pluzanski published a book in October about the experiences of his father and others with the provocative title “Beasts,” the cover marked by red splashes like bloodstains. To his surprise, the first two printings, 6,000 copies, quickly sold out and a third printing is on its way to bookstores.
“With dictatorship comes a dark heritage and after the dictatorship is gone; at first no one wants to deal with it,” said Antoni Dudek, a member of the board at the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland. “Usually it comes with the new generation that is ready to ask inconvenient questions.”
Zygmunt Miloszewski, 35, included a subplot about surviving elements of the secret police in his 2007 crime novel “Entanglement.” The book became a best seller and was made into a movie last year. “I have a feeling since this time wasn’t explained at all, the foundations of my country are fractured,” said Mr. Miloszewski in an interview, his youthful features accentuated by his scraggly beard and disheveled hair.
In both the novel and the film, fictional researchers at the Institute of National Remembrance play a role in unraveling the mystery. The law creating the actual institute was passed in 1998 and work began in 2000. Today the institute keeps the equivalent of nearly 12 miles of files in 11 branches and 7 smaller offices across Poland, with an annual budget of roughly $65 million.
The institute has hosted conferences and symposia and worked with teachers on lesson plans, as well as publishing more than 800 titles about the Nazi occupation and the Communist period. The institute also helped support Mr. Krauze’s film “Black Thursday.”
When Mr. Krauze began filming in Gdynia in 2010, he found that the support for the project ran deep in the local population, with volunteers spontaneously pitching in to shovel snow, local government officials clearing the way with permits and businesses waiving location fees. “You could clearly see people wanted this story told,” Mr. Krauze said.
When it came time for the film’s premiere last February, he said he was still unsure what to expect, with not only the Polish prime minister and the speaker of Parliament in attendance, but also the widow of one of the victims who played a central role in the film’s plot. As the credits rolled, Mr. Krauze received a standing ovation.
Joanna Berendt contributed reporting.
16 February 2012
BUCHAREST, Romania—More than 650 people have died during a record-breaking cold snap in Eastern Europe, authorities said Wednesday, as officials in the Czech Republic blamed two massive car crashes on blinding snow.
Since the end of January, the region has been pummeled by the deep freeze, which has brought the heaviest blizzards in recent memory. Tens of thousands have been trapped in often-freezing homes and villages by walls of snow and unpassable roads, and officials have struggled to reach out to the vulnerable with emergency food airlifts.
Authorities in Russia and Ukraine alone reported Wednesday that more than 300 people have died in the bitter cold.
About 100 damaged cars blocked a major highway in the Czech Republic connecting the capital, Prague, with the eastern part of the country and Slovakia. Seven people were injured in two separate accidents, authorities said, warning it could be hours before the mangled vehicles are cleared.
Some 40 cars crashed before midday Wednesday during a heavy snowstorm 188 miles (300 kilometers) east of Prague, injuring two people. Dozens of vehicles, including a bus, were involved in a separate crash southeast of Prague, which injured five, according to Czech public CT24 television.
Authorities in Russia said 205 people have died this year in the frigid cold, while Ukraine has had 112 cold fatalities and Poland had 107. Seven people have died in Romania in the past 24 hours, bringing the total there to 86 deaths. In Lithuania, there have been 23 deaths. Deaths were also reported in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia.
In hard-hit Romania, some 23,000 people remain isolated in 225 eastern communities where more than one week of heavy snow has blocked roads and wreaked havoc on the rail network. Residents were worried that their houses could collapse under the heavy snow as authorities struggled to bring them food, water, medicine and wood.
A flight instructor flew his homemade powered parachute—a motorized vehicle that flies at low altitude—making several 45 minute-trips to deliver bread and canned food to people who have been cut off for days.
A five-month-old girl with severe pneumonia was taken to a hospital early Wednesday by sled and an army vehicle after authorities struggled for six hours to reach her.
Romanian farmers—faced with up to 15 feet of snow in some areas this week—are concerned about their sheep, goats, horses and cows. One farmer said he dug his pigs out of the snow and brought them into his home.
10 February 2012
WHEN Dr. Raed Arafat resigned last month as under secretary of state at Romania’s Ministry of Health, thousands took to the streets across the country to demand his return. The demonstrations turned violent as protesters set fires and threw paving stones and the police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
That it was not the usual reaction, here or anywhere else, to the departure of a government official is a reflection on Dr. Arafat, a Palestinian by birth, who is no ordinary federal employee. He was one of the founders of the country’s widely lauded emergency-response system, and the reason for his departure from the ministry was as public as it was ugly.
When Dr. Arafat (no relation to the former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat) appeared on a television talk show in January to discuss government plans for a health care overhaul, President Traian Basescu telephoned the program and berated him on the air, accusing the doctor of lying when he had said the government wanted to destroy the emergency system he had spent most of his career building.
Shocked by the ensuing protests, the president backed down and Dr. Arafat agreed to return. “I’m married to emergency medicine,” said Dr. Arafat, 47, who lives alone.
While he was out of his office for only a week, the protests continued, and grew to reflect a broader discontent with wages and pensions, with employment prospects and corruption. This week the discontent claimed Prime Minister Emil Boc, who resigned for what he said was the stability of the country.
Shortly after the fall of Communism in Romania in 1990, Dr. Arafat traveled to Regensburg, Germany, to buy a used emergency vehicle with a defibrillator and resuscitation kit, purchased with the help of friends from the German Red Cross. The young Palestinian doctor drove the car, an Opel Kadett painted with white and orange stripes and capped with blue lights, back to Romania, where he was working on a specialty in anesthesiology.
The beginnings were humble, but the result was not.
The Mobile Emergency Service for Resuscitation and Extrication now has 170 first-responder teams, 12 training centers and 4 helicopters, with a fifth on the way this spring. It is widely viewed here as one of the only parts of a broken health system functioning at a top-notch level.
“At its best, the system is better than what we have, and at its worst it’s certainly still better than what exists in lots of the United States,” said Peter Gordon, an emergency physician at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., who worked over the course of nearly a decade with Dr. Arafat to help build the system.
“His attitude is, ‘We can do it better than anywhere in the world,’ ” Dr. Gordon said. “It’s, ‘Let’s not be as good as the Germans, as good as the French, let’s be even better.’ ”
THOUGH he became a Romanian citizen in 1998, the fact that he was an immigrant, working for an adopted country rather than his native land, added to the sense of selfless sacrifice. “Nobody is a prophet in their own house, in their own homeland,” Dr. Arafat said.
Bald, with his remaining hair clipped extremely short on the sides, Dr. Arafat is intense and assertive without being aggressive or overbearing. He gives the impression of someone you would want in the back of an ambulance if you had a heart attack. More often, his volunteer shifts are on one of his agency’s helicopters, where, he said, patients sometimes recognize him if they are conscious. “ ‘It’s Dr. Arafat,’ they say.”
As a boy growing up in the West Bank, Dr. Arafat had memorized the book “First Aid Without Panic” cover to cover, learning “every page, every picture by heart,” he said. Born in Damascus, Syria, and raised in Nablus, West Bank, he described his attitude as “medicine by any means.” At the age of 14 he not only rode with the fire department on emergency calls, but also began teaching the firefighters techniques he had learned from his well-thumbed first aid manual.
By 15 he had begun volunteering at the hospital in Nablus, where he was allowed to give tetanus shots and stitches under professional supervision. His neighbor was a surgeon and head of one of the hospitals, and he spent his school vacations helping out in the operating room.
Young Raed was also accepted by a university in the United States. If not for his parents’ intervention, his future would have turned out quite differently, in a country that could have used his talents but certainly did not need them as badly as Romania. His parents were afraid that if he studied in America, he would stay for good. They did not tell him about the acceptance letter.
Instead he left in 1981, barely 17 years old, for Romania. At the time, his parents were right. “If the regime hadn’t changed, I wouldn’t have stayed at all,” Dr. Arafat said. He studied first in Cluj and then pursued a specialty in anesthesia and critical care in Targu Mures, a city of around 150,000 in Transylvania.
In the autumn of 1989, one government after another collapsed in Eastern Europe. The historic year culminated in Romania with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife in December.
IT was shortly thereafter that Dr. Arafat made his trip to purchase the secondhand Opel Kadett. “I never thought that we would get to where we are now,” he said. “The initial idea was to create a single team of mobile intensive care based on models I have seen in France and Germany.”
At a time of upheaval throughout Eastern Europe, the young doctor worked tirelessly to set up a modern and effective emergency-medical system in a country where ambulances were barely more than taxis for the sick. His father had died and left him a small inheritance; Dr. Arafat lived off the money for the next eight years, from 1990 to 1998, as he worked as a volunteer.
And then this year, just as Dr. Arafat established operations in every district in Romania, the government announced plans to privatize the agency, part of an overhaul of the health care system. After years living under an austerity regimen meant to comply with the terms of an International Monetary Fund bailout and to put the country back on sound financial footing, Romanians drew the line at government proposals to tinker with Dr. Arafat’s emergency health service.
“It is not just about him, but it woke people up,” said Gabriel Deliu, 36, a former officer in the Romanian Army who took part in the protests, which continued for several days after Dr. Arafat agreed to take up his post again. “Otherwise people will get in an ambulance and they will say, ‘What is your account number? Do you have a credit card?’ ”
But the same qualities that made him a hero to the protesters, his political independence and dedication to medicine, meant that he had no interest in leading a political movement. “No way,” he insisted. “I said it. Never. No politics.” Dr. Arafat said he had a very good discussion with the prime minister at the time and the president (who said they had been misinformed about the emergency-response component of the proposed health care overhaul) before deciding to return to office, and noted that he had worked well with five different health ministers in two governments.
He seemed to be relieved to be back on the job. “It’s a passion,” Dr. Arafat said. “Sometimes you shouldn’t ask someone, ‘Why do you like this?’ You cannot ask a sports person, ‘Why do you like sports?’ and you cannot ask, ‘Why do you like emergency medicine?’ ”
Mihai Radu contributed reporting.
2 February 2012
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA – A passenger peeks out the icy window of a bus in Romania, where a late- winter cold front has closed schools, snarled traffic, and even frozen parts of the Black Sea. The big chill has blanketed Europe in arctic conditions, with temperatures plunging as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit—a 100-year record. Ships have been stranded in ice blocks on the Danube, while Rome saw a rare snowfall, its biggest in 26 years.
Eastern Europe has been hardest hit by the weeklong chill: in Serbia 11,000 villagers were trapped by heavy blizzards in the country’s remote mountains. Authorities scrambled to clear roads and airdrop food and medicine. Meanwhile in Ukraine, where the death toll from the cold hit 101 last Friday, doctors treated thousands of patients for frostbite and hypothermia. Not everyone was suffering from the snow, though; residents of Amsterdam said they hoped to speed skate on their frozen canals.
The wristwatch may now be an anachronism. Need the time? Check your cellphone.
But there are still plenty of people who cling to the comfort of slender hands pointing to numbers spaced around a dial under which an astonishingly intricate mechanism beats as delicately as a hummingbird’s heart.
For them, particularly those who need repairs on the vintage Cadillacs of the trade, like a Rolex or a Patek Philippe, there is Dimitrie Vicovanu’s meticulously arranged booth in Manhattan’s diamond district.
Mr. Vicovanu, 73, a courtly Old World gentleman who came to his craft late in life, not only repairs watches, but also restores them. He makes sure the dial face, the crystal, the case and the interior wheels, springs, screws, axles, pinions and rubies are replaced by original parts or, if they can no longer be obtained, are made by hand, replated or soldered to look virtually identical to the originals while keeping accurate time. A fine watch can have 400 parts, and repairing the innards is exacting.
“The stem of a watch has 12 dimensions, and if you get one wrong it won’t fit,” Mr. Vicovanu said in a Romanian-flavored English.
Itzhak Perlman and Bill Cosby have taken antique watches to Mr. Vicovanu, a specialized surgeon, in a manner of speaking. When the widow of one of the 27 people killed in a 1992 plane crash in Flushing Bay at La Guardia Airport gave him her husband’s waterlogged but beloved 50-year-old gold Omega, Mr. Vicovanu was able to get it ticking again.
Even other watch repairers, some from as far away as California, consult him, seeking either a hard-to-find part or simple advice. And when Sotheby’s New York wants to revive a 1930s gold Patek Philippe that has not run for decades, it calls Mr. Vicovanu.
“Some watchmakers are butchers,” said John Reardon, head of watches for Sotheby’s, “and make the watch worth less money.”
Sotheby’s auctions off over 600 watches a year, with some specimens valued at millions of dollars. “If we have a particularly challenging piece,” Mr. Reardon said, “Dimitrie is the person we consider. There’s a small but very enthusiastic subculture of collectors and clients who buy and sell watches for their enjoyment and who appreciate micromechanical artistry and genius. They require equally talented watchmakers to preserve their collections.”
The city, of course, has countless repairers, but only a few can actually bring an antique watch back to the way it looked and worked when it was new. Among Mr. Vicovanu’s trade secrets is a cache of 14,000 movements that he bought a decade ago from a jeweler whose Depression-era customers had traded in their watches to harvest the gold for cash. Another asset: he has an eagle’s eye for speck-size objects, which serves him even when a jeweler’s magnifying eyepiece does not.
“Nobody can work a full day using a lens,” he said. “You get a headache.”
Repairing watches became a hobby for Mr. Vicovanu in his teenage years in Romania, where his parents were both teachers. He was curious about how his grandfather’s inexpensive table clock worked and wondered if he could take it apart. While many youngsters have such impulses, this one was also able to put the clock back together. Later he repaired watches for his university classmates and professors, a skill that helped pay tuition.
But his early career was spent in archaeology as a restorer of artifacts—everything from 2,000-year-old clay pots to mother-of-pearl inlays—for a museum complex in Iasi, Romania. He learned the craft of antique-watch repair at the behest of the autocratic Communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu, which sent him to Lausanne, Switzerland, to learn it. He never returned to Romania, defecting in 1977 and eventually getting his daughter, Daniela, out. They immigrated to the United States in 1979, and his wife, Agurita, followed two years later. She died a year ago.
Mr. Vicovanu is not above changing a battery for a standard Longines. But most people search him out because repairs by a manufacturer are expensive and can take months. He charges $175 for a simple cleaning, while very complicated repairs that require dismantling a mechanism can cost as much as $2,000.
His street-floor booth on West 47th Street, amid others dealing in glittering diamond necklaces, bracelets and rings, also has vintage watches for sale, an end of the business, called Master of Time, that Daniela handles. Mr. Vicovanu does most of the actual repairs in a workshop in Queens. There, 20,000 parts are organized and labeled in special file cabinets with scores of small drawers.
In both places he keeps a set of tools for microscopic work—tiny files coated with diamond powder, screwdrivers with infinitesimally small heads, a miniature diamond saw—and palettes of oils of varying viscosities that he applies with a needle. To confirm that a watch is keeping good time, a machine performs the equivalent of an electrocardiogram, spitting out a paper line drawing.
“Any watch needs to be cleaned and oiled after four years because it won’t keep good time,” he said, adding that the oil becomes like a glue.
It is a treat for Mr. Vicovanu when he is asked to drop in at Sotheby’s to examine, say, an 1885 gold Cartier clock that no one can open (he discovered the key—a screw under some ornamental gold). But he also has his peeves. Watches, he lamented, are increasingly magnetized and sometimes ruined by airport X-ray machines. He himself wears a $400 Bulova Accutron from 1969 that is precise because it is not affected by gravity.
“I need to put the right time when I give back a watch,” he explained.
The display case in his booth has a few intriguing vintage specimens, like a Patek Philippe from 1917: it was designed for drivers, with the 12 o’clock position at what is usually the 3 o’clock position, easier to spot on a wrist turning a steering wheel. There is also an 18-karat 1934 Tiffany pocket watch that can be used in pitch dark because it rings out the hours and minutes with a gong. His most expensive piece is a platinum 1966 Patek Philippe worth $19,000.
“It’s an investment.” he said. “It will gain in value in time.”
And in his business, of course, time is of the essence.
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