July 6, evening. I literally crawled to my hotel in Piata Rossetti after a hot day in dusty Baragan, and met face to face with three groups, each representing one of the main political options in today’s Romania. In front of Spitalul Coltea a small but dedicated group was playing opera to the delight of an enthusiastic but sweaty audience. Across the street, in front of Teatrul National and Universitatea Bucuresti, groups of retired and tired people, December 1989 “revolutionaries” and young women in skimpy skirts accompanied by young men spatting sunflower seeds were shouting, fist in the air, against President Traian Basescu. Nasty remarks were also made against my husband’s cousin, talk-show host Robert Turcescu, denounced as an uncritical servant of Basescu. This counter-demonstration was meant to intimidate a third group, gathered in Piata Victoriei, who showed support for the president and his embattled political allies, the Democrat-Liberals, with arguments ranging from vampire-repealing garlic garlands to complex explanations of the importance of rule of law in democracies.
As I slowly made my way through the crowd, I told myself that I was lucky to be able to meet, in my very short stay in Romania, the three main political groups dividing the country during this torrid July: those who were oblivious and indifferent to politics and who preferred to dedicate their time and effort to more worthy endeavours like listening to a high-pitched, poorly shaved Figaro; those who supported the political “right” represented by Traian Basescu and his Democrat-Liberals (PD-L), who had ruled the country from 2004 to April 2012 in increased isolation from the general public and the other political formations; and those who supported Basescu’s enemies, the “leftist” Social Liberal Union (USL) and the newly appointed government of Victor Ponta, an upstart politician young in looks but old in outlook.
During the time I spent in downtown Bucharest watching these groups and listening to them, I also saw how skin-deep their positions were, how they manipulated well-known symbols, and how little genuine dialogue they promoted. The opera show quickly degenerated into a heated vocal confrontation between the large-bellied, nervous Figaro and a blonde woman who constantly challenged him. Her interjections, which could not be heard by the audience, increasingly vexed the singer, who became irritated and abusive. As a result, he engaged in a long monologue that completely ignored the captive audience. Surely, opera does not necessarily make one more tolerant or wiser.
At Universitatea, the USL supporters had shamelessly confiscated the symbols of the December 1989 revolution, although the prime minister they supported represented the Social Democrats, heirs to the once hegemonic Romanian Communist Party, which tried to quash the revolution and at whose orders so many revolutionaries had been killed and wounded. Of course, I had to remind myself that the true revolutionaries of December 1989 were long dead and forgotten, and the “revolutionaries” of 2012 included former nomenklatura member Ion Iliescu as their chief representative. Through lies and deception, the former victimizer had claimed and obtained victim status, sidelining in the process other, more worthy anticommunist dissidents. What struck me when looking at the pro-USL crowd was the remarkable convergence of positions across generations – young and old people alike were supporting a mega-state that would give them handouts even in times of financial crisis.
At Piata Victoriei, we were told by a handful of young intellectuals that Basescu and his Democrat-Liberals had sacrificed themselves to save the country from Greece’s fate and had strengthened the rule of law against the ubiquitous Social Democrat oligarchy. While daring and vocal, none of these voices had any following within the party’s rank and file. Only weeks earlier, when some of today’s speakers had asked the Democrat-Liberals not to nominate tainted candidates for the 2012 local elections, the party’s real leaders, who today are nowhere to be seen, had slammed the proposal and supported the candidature for the Bucharest mayor’s office of Silviu Prigoana. To my mind, Prigoana easily qualified as an oligarch, as did other Democrat-Liberals like Elena Udrea and Adrian Videanu. Udrea, a vice-president of the Democrat-Liberal Party and a darling of the mass-media, was hiding and keeping silent. I was sure, however, that neither of today’s speakers would be listened to in the party, if the tide turned.
What none of these three groups proposed were concrete plans to move the country ahead. The opera lovers had no solutions because they saw no problem to begin with and believed they could continue to live their lives in times of political cholera. The PD-L had abandoned the political game in April, when they refused to nominate an alternate to the ephemeral Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, the second Romanian post-communist prime minister ever to lose seat as a result of a no-confidence motion. And the USL were too preoccupied with sharing the spoils of their interim government and infringing every constitutional principle in the book to notice that the country was in need of concrete solutions to its social and economic problems.