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Romania, the land of no return

Known for corruption, orphans and Dracula, Romania wants to become a modern nation, but while its people keep leaving it doesn’t stand a chance. 

The hero of the story was called Viktor in print, though, whatever he is really called, “Viktor” can be ruled out. He drove a battered old mini-van from his house in Romania to Portugal: 4,000 kilometres in 50 hours including three hours’ sleep. Then a ten-hour stop and home. Then back again.

“He’s more than just a bus driver,” wrote Juan Moreno in the German magazine Der Spiegel, after making the trip with Viktor in 2015. “He’s also a shipper, money courier, messenger and smuggler rolled into one.” He carted cheap eastern European cigarettes, dodged toll roads, avoided the unbribable cops and paid off the bribable ones.

Operating along the jagged edges of the law, he embodied the shadowy realities of the modern EU. But Viktor also can be seen as embodying the EU’s “four freedoms”: of movement for goods, services, people and capital. And mostly he carried people, Romanian people. On one-way tickets.

When the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was quasi-judicially killed on Christmas Day 1989, the population of Romania was about 23.5 million. Officially it is now 19.5 million, a drop of almost one-fifth. But it is probably lower than that; some guesstimates say a million or two lower. A sluggish birth rate is one reason; the EU’s cherished free movement of people the more important one. Romania is almost exactly the same size as the UK; it is emptying far faster than the UK has been filling. Its people are everywhere else.

“If it weren’t for Romanians,” wrote Moreno, “slaughterhouse owners would be chest-deep in pig halves. Without them, real estate developers could forget about Germany’s glorious construction boom. The same goes for asparagus and potato harvests.” He told Viktor’s story with affection and empathy. He said something else that is more common: “There are countries in Europe with a bad reputation, there are those with a very bad reputation and then there is Romania.”

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Romania’s old ruling class, the boyars, moved westwards and became absentee landlords centuries ago, displaying an indifference to their serfs back home that made the Czarist nobility look like a convocation of saints. These upmarket itinerants were regarded as conniving chancers. “Where’s he from?” asked a character in a pre-war Rodney Ackland play.

“Romania.”

“That’s not a nationality, that’s a profession.”

The country itself was a byword for chaos, brutality and corruption. “Well, really! This might be Romania!” the Queen Mother reputedly exclaimed during the abdication crisis. Romania’s war was both unheroic and disastrous: it was a Nazi ally until that looked a bad idea, then ended up under Stalin. There was a flicker of optimism in 1965, when a young reform-minded leader took control of the Communist Party. His name was Nicolae Ceausescu.

“What’s Romania known for?” mused Dan Brett, a Romania specialist at University College London. “Corruption, orphans, Dracula and Ceausescu. It’s not a great list.” And yet, though the country is not just depopulated but dysfunctional and bottom of many EU league tables (including, according to Moreno, use of toothpaste), it has had surprising successes, which Brett enumerated.

“One: despite being extremely heterogeneous, it did not break up like Yugoslavia. Two: the eastern states that were the great democratic hopes – the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians – have all tipped back towards authoritarianism. That hasn’t yet happened in Romania. Three: Romania has elected an ethnic German as president; you’re not going to get an ethnic Turk elected as president of Bulgaria. Four: despite the rampant corruption, Romania has jailed politicians of all parties.” (The government is now trying to wriggle out of having its own people jailed.)

This is not a country in fear, like Hungary; the government, Social Democrat by name but not by nature, is more a sick joke than a nuisance, its main aim self-enrichment not dictatorship. Most of the anger is felt by the exiles, those left behind resort to occasional protests but more to shoulder-shrugging apathy. The prime minister Viorica Dancila is considered a cipher, in the pocket of the party’s notorious power broker Liviu Dragnea. The country is heir to many traditions, none of them involve honest governance.

The infrastructure is appalling: several sources say the European commissioner for regional policy Corina Cretu, who is Romanian, is desperate to hand over money to improve the roads and railways. But the government, which would have to pay a minor share, prefers to give state employers pay rises to buy their political loyalty: the public sector pays its employees much more than the private.

Romania also has the highest home ownership rates in the EU and possibly the world: around 95 per cent. (Some lists show Mauritius ahead.) The homes are cheap but rarely palatial: it is also supposed to have the most overcrowding. Mind you, all statistics here are suspect. Dan Nita, the mayor of Miroslava, a prosperous suburb of Iasi (pronounced Yash), told me that one house there had 70 official residents, all of them from neighbouring non-EU Moldova, none of them actually present but all desperate for EU passports.

This is a strange and fascinating place, completely sui generis, full of obscure ancient grievances. Romance language; Eastern Christianity, taken very seriously. “Think about Romania,” a government official said to me. “A people who had to survive three empires trying to eat them: Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian. Think about what that means for their language, their tradition, their religion. How do you get by in that situation? You become shifty. You become too smart by half.”

“So it’s a survival technique?” I said.

“Not one that can be built on to create a stable life in a prosperous climate. It’s going to take many generations.”

Yet many Romanians are not just smart. They are also charming, resourceful, 21st century-ready: sometimes streetwise, like Viktor, but sometimes more than that. Microsoft and other big tech firms pick up recruits straight from Romanian universities.

Bucharest is full of vigour and laughter, the buildings hugger-mugger: shiny hotels and peeling Communist blocks, embassies and strip joints, all mixed up. The living is cheap and some young people are full of optimism. Paul Andre Lungu has just returned from London to run a TV production company. “From the people I’ve met abroad about half would like to come back,” he said. You can get decent salaries in Bucharest and on €20,000 a year it’s pretty great.” Yes, things could be worse. And they have been: much, much worse.


Before the storm: looking towards the Palace of Parliament, weeks before Ceausescu’s execution

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Ceausescu and his wife Elena have been dead nearly 30 years, but their shadow still falls over Bucharest – literally. The Palace of the Parliament was planned in part as the home for their old age. In this case, palatial is an understatement.

Its actual frontage is not that much madder than the Communist norm, or even the Marriott hotel. It’s the bulk of the thing that’s so overwhelming. The guided tours are the number-one attraction on Bucharest’s feeble tourist itinerary. Maybe all the world’s great buildings are the work of monomaniacs, from St Paul’s to the Taj Mahal. But I soon got bored with this one. Like almost everything else in Bucharest, it isn’t beautiful – nor is it excitingly hideous. It was like being shown round some dreary banqueting centre, trying to decide which of the 1,100 rooms would be most suitable for the Rotary Club’s annual dinner-dance.

It was the timing of its construction (along with the estimated 3,000 deaths among the builders) that was so cruel. Ceausescu had become a vaguely heroic figure in the West because of his opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But while elsewhere in eastern Europe Communism died peacefully through a combination of sclerosis and dementia, in Romania there was a blazing Götterdämmerung.

Communism had rescued Romania from illiteracy. “Education was the great achievement,” says historian and broadcaster Tessa Dunlop. “You weren’t going to find freewheeling historians. But getting you through the 3 Rs, Communism did that.” And while the rest of the East Bloc tottered towards oblivion, Ceausescu kept having new ideas. Unfortunately, they were increasingly insane.

From his early days, convinced that Romania needed more people, he banned abortion and contraception, the rules brutally enforced. In 1971 he visited China and North Korea and fell in love with the crazed choreography of Pyongyang. In the early Eighties he decided the country’s top priority was to pay its debts. All resources were diverted to this and his building project. Food was exported, leaving the people starving. Ceausescu became simultaneously the Pope, Kim Il-Sung, Ramesses II and George Osborne on steroids.

Many of the unwanted children were placed in orphanages that, after the fall, became globally notorious. Dunlop was one of the young Britons who went there to help look after the abandoned children in the early Nineties. She fell in lasting love with both Romania and a Romanian.

I wondered whether the orphanages said something terrible about the country as a whole. “The Romanians are obsessed with babies,” she said. “But there were gynaecological exams to make sure they were trying to produce babies for the fatherland. It became a symbol of resistance to have an abortion. More than anything that interference at the heart of life hit them. And then there was no food. I don’t think one can begin to understand the impact of the combination of not having enough food or milk or heat to look after babies but still being forced to have them.”

What about the treatment in the orphanages? “You had nurses looking after 30 babies each. What can you do but be desensitised?”

It is hard to evaluate the extent of the lasting trauma. “We discuss that period with the students, but some of them really have no idea,” said Claudiu Tufis, associate professor of politics at the University of Bucharest. “Partly because it is never discussed at home, partly because it isn’t taught. In school, the history of Romania is mainly about memorising dates.” Meanwhile, Ceausescu came in 11th in a TV vote for the 100 greatest Romanians. Sad is the land so short of heroes.

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And yet the landscape is amazing. It has lately attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, who has fallen in love with the Transylvanian countryside. The Romanians are respectfully grateful: it can’t hurt the tourist trade. Outside observers are more dismissive.

“For Prince Charles it’s almost a fantasy land,” said Dan Brett. “Peasants living how he would want peasants to live, with horses and oxen, and isn’t that great?”

“There are pockets where people are living an almost pre-Renaissance life,” an old Romania hand told me. “People who walk long distances to market to sell a few apples. It’s like Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s an ethnographer’s paradise but it isn’t paradise for those that live there.”

Driving out of Iasi, it doesn’t take you long to find farmers driving horse-drawn carts and pretty cottages with ornate balconies and tin roofs – hot in summer, cold in winter. Heading towards Transylvania, you start to see medieval strip farming, which virtually disappeared from Britain long ago, as did villages without access to teachers and doctors. And here there are no young people – except perhaps children left behind with granny by their émigré parents. These might be living in new houses, funded by remittances, but that’s no way to build a country.

A few years back, there were three common types of emigration. There are now fewer graduates picking strawberries in the UK for a season or two to fund their own houses back home. But the top-flight graduates are still leaving Romania, usually for good. As are the country people, millions of them, off to eviscerate Western chickens or clean toilets, mostly in Spain and Italy.

“They are still devoted to their country,” says Lucian Dirdala, who teaches politics at Iasi University, “and they say they’ll come back. But that’s hard in practice. There’s a risk that we will become a sanatorium country, like Moldova. It’s not an inevitable process, but the damage has been done. We’ve lost a lot of energy and civic competence.”

When I began this series in 2016, I stood on the EU’s north-eastern border, where Estonia meets Russia, and wrote that Brexit seemed from there to be a crime against humanity. I still believe that. Being in the EU means a lot to the Estonians on many levels. Eleven countries later, near the south-eastern border, where the threat of invasion is far more remote, one sees the other side of the picture. Exit is not on the Romanian agenda either, but here the relationship is more transactional and cynical. Their membership is not about nation-building.

 In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt coined the phrase “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, from fear). I believe Brussels’ obsession with its own pastiche “four freedoms” – across a continent with huge disparities in living standards and political cultures – is endangering FDR’s far more important vision.

And that’s a crime against humanity, too. It stops Romania becoming a modern nation, and makes it a mere exporter of labour: a land perpetually dependent on remittances. The Viktors still feel like losers. 

Matthew Engel will be reporting next for the NS from Australia. “The Lost Continent” series resumes in the spring

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail