Optimism in short supply as Romania marks unification centenary

Optimism in short supply as Romania marks unification centenary

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 17, October, 2018

CELEBRATIONS to mark the unification of Romania, which occurred a century ago this December, are currently going ahead. I'm just back from a conference that examined the breakthrough for Romanian Unionists as well as the catastrophe which occurred nearly 25 years later when the Red Army swept into Romania and communist rule was imposed for almost the next half-a-century.

The conference was taking place way up north in the town of Sighet, which is right on the border with Ukraine. The venue was the Memorial Museum for the Victims of Communism and the Resistance, an imaginatively designed building that now attracts visitors from across the world. The building housing the exhibits is in fact the former prison of grim renown to which the cream of the inter-war Romanian political elite were condemned to eke-out their final years, dozens dying there.

They included Iuliu Maniu(1873-1953), the leader of the Romanian Unionists in 1918. He went on to be known for his probity in the often corrupt world of inter-war politics. He was revered by ordinary folk and he chose to remain attached to democracy as others were seduced by extremist trends. He was a firm ally of Britain, which felt unable to reciprocate his loyalty as harsh choices were made about the future of Eastern Europe in the mid-1940s. 

The cell where Maniu was kept is one of 87 exhibition rooms that portray the fate of different individuals, social groups, as well as the stages of the communist takeover and the dogged (and still little-known) resistance. The sobering displays stand out owing to the beauty and originality of the museum. The defining image of the place is the ‘Cortege of Sacrifice’, a group of sculptures in the prison courtyard designed by Aurel Vlad.

Open for 21 years, the museum is the brainchild of the well-known poet Ana Blandianawho worked tirelessly with her late husband Romulus Rusan to bring the idea alive by securing foreign backing and hiring a motivated team of helpers who have continually improved it over the years. 

There is a tasteful open air memorial in what used to be the poor people's cemetery on the edge of the town. Here the remains of Maniu and others were thrown into open graves, and concealed so that it has proved impossible to identify their final resting place.

Nearby the river Tsiza flows peacefully along to join the Danube in Hungary. Carts laden with corn meandered along in what has been a glorious autumn of steady sunshine. It is easy to forget that it was not only national patriots who came to grief in what today is a bustling and cheerful town but Sighet's large Jewish population. Nearly all of them were seized by fascists who had taken power in Hungary in 1944 and had occupied this part of north-west Romania. They were later murdered in Nazi death camps, one of the survivors being Elie Wiesel who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for his work in helping to understand and remember the Holocaust. 

The participants at the conference were unable to shut out the present-day.  Romanian politics intervened perhaps due to some echoes with the past. Over meals the referendum of 7 October, ostensibly meant to outlaw same-sex marriage in Romania, provoked some vivid discussion. Romanians have a more traditional view on many social issues than west Europeans but 80 per cent of the electorate stayed at home which meant that the 30 per cent turnout required was not achieved. With voting held over two days, many were convinced that they were pawns in a dubious political game. 

The referendum was cooked-upby the unofficial ruler of the country Liviu Dragnea. Due to having been recently found guilty of electoral fraud he is barred from holding the Premiership but he is speaker of the lower house of parliament. He joined up with a coalition of Christian interests who naively believed that they could cooperate with someone widely viewed as a ruthless mobster. He is appealing a jail sentence after being found guilty of a second charge, of corruption, which means that his suspended sentence could soon become operative. Nothing daunted, he is seeking to use his influence over the Constitutional Court to alter the composition of judges in his appeal hearing.

It is widely believed that if he had been able to mobilise the electorate usually loyal to the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and heir to the former ruling communist party, he would have declared his candidacy for the Presidential elections due next year. 

For him to secure the top job, it would be necessary to place the justice system under direct political control. A condition of Romania's 2007 entry to the EU was that justices strive to be independent and transparent. Dragnea is now seeking to uproot EU influence which, arguably, has been a modernising one on early 21st century Romania. 

The immediate aim will be to gut the anti-corruption wing of the prosecuting service, hamper investigations, dilute existing anti-corruption laws, and proclaim an amnesty (which naturally will cover Dragnea's own proven misdeeds). Remarkably, it is this Romania, (fast embracing the political standards of Belarus or Uzbekistan) which will hold the Presidency of the EU Council for six months from next January. 

Veteran democrat Mihai Sora, politically active at the age of 102 and the first minister of education after the fall of communism, warned that Romania was slipping back towards dictatorship. This concern was expressed on the day that the government announced an indefinite nationwide ban on demonstrations unless they enjoyed prior approval.

The Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila, is a stooge of Dragnea, and she left this week for a Middle-East tour. The butt of numerous jokesowing to her lack of education and inexperience, she was dwarfed by her first host, Turkey's implacable leader Tayip Recip Erdogan who is determined to expand his influence in Romania, dreaming of establishing a large Turkish Islamic enclave in the north of Romania's capital. 

Dragnea is blocking EU funds for the most developed parts of Romania, in particular the western cities of Cluj, Timisoara and Oradea. These funds are less easily filched and he has no interest in seeing the rise of go-ahead regions with higher political standards. He controls almost everything that moves in his own sleepy fiefdom of Teleorman county, on the banks of the Danube, and that's how he plans to manage what is the 6th largest country in the EU. 

Compared to Viktor Orban who is viewed as an ideological threat, EU leaders are muted in their criticism of Dragnea. Being driven through the plains of southern Hungary a fortnight ago, I saw tidy fields and villages with plenty of public works going on (too often a contrast with its Romanian neighbour).

Romania has a poorly-trained foreign affairs team and it usually has little of note to say in EU gatherings. But Dragnea could prove more awkward than the better-known Hungarian autocrat. He likely now sees EU membership as a mistake and would prefer a Middle eastern state like Turkey to have leverage over his country. (The first Prime Minister he proposed on winning the 2016 elections was a Syrian woman with links to the Assad regime). Far-fetched for some, it is not hard to imagine land colonisation schemes going ahead whereby cash-starved Romania has its coffers augmented by selling off fertile land to Turkey on long leases. 

Greater Romania was a beneficiary of the First World War allied victory a century ago. The hopes of its architects collapsed with the advance of Soviet power as far as Vienna in 1945. Communism and bad rulership since 1989 has left Romania under-developed with massive emigration (one-quarter of the labour force has left). Nature abhors a vacuum and Turkey under Erdogan would be no better overlord than Stalin if he seized his chance.

The evocative Museum at Sighet shows both the thirst for freedom in this part of Europe and how it can be so brutally eradicated. It is not on major tourist routes but anyone with a feel for Europe's political history is likely to find visiting it both an educational and moving experience. 

Tom Gallagher is the author of 'Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism', Hurst & Co., 2005 as well as ‘Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong', Manchester University Press, 2009. 

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