As the annual report on Romania, that I co-author with my friend Razvan Zaharia, comes fresh out of the press in volume 48, nos. 7-8 of the European Journal of Political Research, the official review of the European Consortium of Political Research, I realize its dry, academic tone misses the thrust of political debates in Bucharest. Indeed, many local journalists and political analysts have focused not on dispassionate analyses of governmental accountability, transparency and efficiency, but on more mundane topics like Elena Udrea’s penchant for knitting and pickling under the public eye and pirouetting in deep v-neck blouses, Elena Basescu’s trendy purses and boots assorted with colourful grammatical errors, Elena Ceausescu’s proverbial stinginess and malefic influence over her husband, the uncontested leader of Europe’s only sultanist-cum-totalitarian regime, or foxy Elena Lupescu’s bedroom politics of interwar years that brought exile and disgrace to a corrupt and self-interested monarch.
There have been many more Romanian women named after the famous Helen of Troy, for whom cities waged war, leaders betrayed, men killed, and wives despaired. Indeed, my sister the anthropologist is one of them, my grandmother was another, as was poetess Elena Vacarescu, exiled to Paris over a century ago, after a rather platonic love-affair with Crown Prince Ferdinand Hohenzolern-Sigmaringen. But the four Romanian Elene stand out, I’m told, for their unparalleled political influence on the fate of their poor little country. Commentators with silver tongues are convinced that these women’s unwelcome, behind-the-closed-doors, irresponsible, and plainly evil designs have inflicted irreparable damage to Romanian politics. If it were not for them, Romania might have fewer problems and the brave Romanian male politicians might be free from temptation.
Udrea spoiled the already embattled public image of incumbent President Traian Basescu, el lider maximo of the (barely) ruling Democratic-Liberal Party, by accepting a ministerial mega-portfolio combining two of Romania’s best-funded, but also most seriously challenged, domains: tourism and regional development. A “legally blonde” bomb-shell by choice, as she declared, Udrea was virtually unknown until late 2004, when newly-minted President Basescu brought her to Cotroceni (the old presidential palace in Bucharest) to serve as matron for his advisers. The choice was unexpected, both because Udrea lacked the experience and skills for such a leading position, and because her personal working style and un-orthodox looks alienated another adviser, respected writer, philosopher and commentator Andrei Plesu, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs. After a three-month-long uneasy cohabitation, in May 2005 Plesu stepped down and, as a result, his support for Basescu diminished significantly. That was the first sign that Udrea had Basescu’s full ear. It was not the last.
Born in 1976 in a small village in Buzau county not far from Bucharest, Udrea pursued law studies at one of the numerous private universities that mushroomed after 1989 but remained a rather discreet presence until she married wealthy businessman Dorin Cocos, whose friends have included both Social Democrat and Democrat-Liberal leaders. Cocos used to run the profitable parking-lot monopoly Dali in Bucharest. After a brief stint with the Social Democrat Party, Udrea became a member of the National Liberal Party in 2002, and a Bucharest city councillor representing the Justice and Truth Alliance (uniting the Liberals and the Democrats) in summer 2004. In February-November 2005, while still a Liberal Party member, she served as head of the Basescu’s Presidential Chancellery, a sure sign, for some, that for the president business interests took precedence over party allegiance. That stint helped her advance within Basescu’s party from a simple member to party executive secretary in 2006 in less than ten months, a performance unmatched by any of her more senior colleagues.
Two years later Udrea became a member of the Chamber of Deputies and a Minister of Tourism in the short-lived coalition government put together by the Democrat-Liberals and the Social Democrats. In September 2009 she was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry which recommended opening a criminal investigation into the way she used public money to fund media campaigns. As Udrea told reporters, the inquiry was nothing more than a political vendetta aimed to block Basescu’s re-election bid, a view embraced by the Democrat-Liberals and tacitly supported by Basescu. Indeed, in a touching gesture of solidarity with their embattled colleague the Democrat-Liberals refused to nominate representatives in the inquiry commission and to vote when Parliament decided the commission’s creation. After Basescu renewed his presidential mandate in December 2009, Udrea obtained an even fatter and more important ministerial portfolio, managing 3.7 billion Euros in future EU funds, while unable to shed away suspicions of corruption. Since her anointment as Minister of Tourism and Regional Development in December 2009, her photographs have regaled the pages of Der Welt, The EU Observer, The Sunday Times, and Corrierre della Sera, but also the less glamorous The News Bizarre.
Basescu, the President’s youngest daughter born in 1980, planted a nail in her father’s political coffin, some have cautioned, when she transitioned from a modelling career (an occupation that has become a must for every menstruating Romanian girl) to one as Romania’s representative in the European Parliament (together with other colourful figures like the rabid nationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a court sycophant for the Ceausescu family, and the uber-wealthy Gigi Becali, a former shepherd-turned-millionaire who now lives in a golden baroque mansion listening to the popular manele). While ambitious and courageous, the politically naive Basescu (also known as EBA) has been unable to convincingly fill the gap between the ever important political positions she has assumed and the public blunders she’s got a solid reputation for, fuelling criticism that she would have never gotten this far except for her father’s protection. Basescu half-heartedly questioned EBA’s political ambitions, but even if the President refrained from promoting his daughter, the traditional deference Romanians exhibit toward authority figures might have been enough to clear the way for EBA’s quick advancement. This deference might hide resentment on the part of the general public and the Democratic-Liberal Party rank and file. As one Romanian journalist noted, “any active involvement in politics of the president’s younger daughter brings to mind ill-fated memories, justified parallels and criticisms” (Fati 2009).
Basescu began as an intern for Monica Ridzi, a Democrat-Liberal member of the European Parliament and later Minister of Youth and Sports, who in 2009 was forced to resign after being investigated by a parliamentary inquiry committee for possible embezzlement on money spent by the ministry. In the 2009 elections for the European Parliament Basescu tried to run as a Democrat-Liberal candidate, but both the party and a handful of powerful intellectuals rejected her. Eventually she ran as an independent candidate, having no difficulty gathering the 20,000 signatures required to enter the race. The elections were poorly attended, partly because none of the candidates and their parties presented viable programs. During the campaign Basescu provoked controversy by supporting the legalization of marijuana, and journalists discovered that some Democratic-Liberal Party members had been instructed to vote for her. Thus, while she was an independent candidate, Basescu’s campaign was fully supported by the Democrat-Liberal Party machine. Not surprisingly, EBA returned to the party’s fold immediately after the poll.
These two living Elene have fierce historical counterparts. The ill-bred, ill-mannered and ill-tempered Ceausescu had political ambitions of galactic proportions, shadowing her husband throughout his 25-year rule as President of the Socialist Republic and First Secretary of the Communist Party. This Elena, the most illiterate of the four, also had a doctoral degree, a long list of ‘scientific’ publications, and membership in the Romanian Academy – all attesting to her insatiable political control and the infatigable zeal of unnamed collaborators who toiled for the projects she magnanimously signed. Her greatest moment, in a life that destroyed many hopes and betrayed many principles, was perhaps at the very end, when she asked to face the firing squad together with Nicolae, a touching moment of solidarity for the much-feared couple. As for Lupescu, King Carol II’s red-haired lover was cunning enough to make Carol fall in love with and renounce the throne for her; to seduce, conspire, destroy and take advantage of the others’ misery; and, above all, to benefit from her position as “official mistress” (Fati 2009). Even after she married Carol, Lupescu retained the mores and social disposition of a housewife.
Not unlike the Elene of old times, Elena Udrea and Elena Basescu lavish the public spot. Udrea has posed in her underware and for professional photoshoots, exhibiting her enormous wardrobe of tight suits, stilettos, skimpy bras, see-through blouses, mini-skirts, and deep cleavages. Udrea’s brunette counterpart and political protege, Basescu, has also been keen to show the paparazzi her glossy lips, high-heeled boots and enhanced bosom. One photograph shows her almost choking a poor horse she mounted on a grassy meadow. Both are known for their intellectually-challenged public statements, and both seem in dire need to be rescued – from themselves. Udrea has recently lamented that she cannot help the fact that she’s intelligent and sexy (she teaches in a shadowy Bucharest university and boasts five “scientific” works on her vitae), while Basescu’s faulty Romanian has made the front-pages of national dailies (placing her knowledge of Romanian grammar on the same footing as the proverbial Social Democrat leader Marian Vanghelie, exposed on national television for not knowing to decline the verb “to be”). The two Elene have been dubbed the “Barbie doll,” the “Paris Hilton of Bucharest,” or the “sexy Buzau girl” (Mutler 2009). Their appearance would matter little if the two had spelled out even the most modest political program, but their ideological and policy choices remain under-defined.
With an eye to establishing broad constituencies, Udrea and Basescu cater to both emancipated urban women and traditional rural housewives. The former prefer high heels, independence, educated sophistication, active night-life, local fame, and a successful career coupled with glamorous family life (the cute child and rich husband). For the latter, success is measured in terms of performing the rituals associated with a ‘good, steady wife’: pickling, knitting, cleaning, and scrubbing. The Christian Louboutin shoes, however, hardly match these preferences and efforts to portray themselves as ordinary, next-door girls, whose needs and tastes match those of the majority of the Romanian electorate, have had a distinct artificial flavor. In fall 2008, Udrea called television reporters to watch her knitting, pickling, mopping the floor, and affectionately kissing other people’s children (Dumba 2008). In January 2010 a series of professional photographs of Basescu appeared on Facebook, in an album suggestively titled “The Most Beautiful Woman in Romania.” One photo showed the president’s offspring on her knees collecting what looks like spilled suggar from the floor, in a designer’s dress and stilettos. Let’s hope both had been purchased on sale!
Judged by their performance to date as minister and Euro-deputy, respectively, Udrea and Basescu have little chances to make the Romanian political decision-making more meaningful and legitimate. As Traian Basescu will approach the end of his second presidential term, the Democratic-Liberal Party will face ever increasing struggles for leadership supremacy – unless the current head of state emulates the Putin model and continues to run the party, and the country, as head of government. While critical of the Social Democrats, the Democrat-Liberals have retained as much of the ossified organizational structures, recruitment procedures, irresponsible populism, ideological hollowness, and failure to strike a balance between national, regional and local concerns/interests as their rivals. That’s not really news, since the two parties originated in the National Salvation Front, heir to the Communist Party, and the Democrat-Liberals have provided safe heaven for politicians who crossed over from other parties, former communist officials and Securitate agents, powerful local barons, and businesspeople turned politicians (in short, the tainted politicians they criticize in relation to other political formations). If the Democratic-Liberal Party is to reform, change must affect not only protégés of Prime Minister Emil Boc like the unknown Honorius Prigoana, but also individuals like Udrea and EBA, close to President Basescu. Udrea because her husband’s firms have prospered during her ministerial terms, and Basescu jr. because her promotion is a clear sign of nepotism encouraging unnecessary deference. By pointing the finger to the oligarchs and the emerging dynasties of other political parties, the Democrat-Liberals will only miss the chance to be the first ones to engage in meaningful reforms. Change must start with them.
Bojan Panchevski. 2009. “Yes, Minister, You Have a Big Portfolio,” The Sunday Times, 27 December, available at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article6968446.ece.
Dumba, Elena. 2008. “Elena Udrea pune gogosari in otet pentru petrecerea din 30 noiembrie,” Gardianul, 6 October, available at http://www.gardianul.ro/Elena-Udrea-pune-gogosari-in-otet-pentru-petrecerea-din-30-noiembrie-s121820.html.
“Elena Udrea – Ex-Glamour Girl Now Manages EU Billions,” Der Welt, 3 January 2010, available at: http://www.bucharestherald.com/politics/34-politics/8526-der-welt-elena-udrea-ex-glamour-girl-now-manages-eu-billions.
“Elena Udrea Pictures – Romania Tourism Minister, Glamour Model, in EU Controversy,” The News Bizarre, December 2009, available at: http://newsbizarre.com/2009/12/elena-udrea-pictures-romanian-tourism.html.
Fati, Sabina. 2009. “Elenele (ne)faste ale Romaniei,” Romania libera, 12 March, available at: http://www.romanialibera.ro/a148497/elenele-ne-faste-ale-romaniei.html.
Mutler, Alison. 2009. “Romania President’s Flashy Daughter Seeks EU Seat,” Associated Press, 11 March, available at: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wirestory?id=7057938&page=1.
Pop, Valentina. 2009. “Controversial Minister to Oversee EU Funds in Romania,” EU Observer, 22 December, available at: http://euobserver.com/19/29194.
Serena, Natale Maria. 2009. “Romania, la bionda Elena e i fondi Ue,” Corrierre della Sera, 24 December, available at: http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2009/dicembre/24/Romania_bionda_Elena_fondi_Ue_co_9_091224011.shtml.