Interview with Andrzej Stankiewicz, in Polish Thursday, Dec 12 2013 

During the Warsaw conference I talked to Andrzej Stankiewicz. He published the interview today, in Polish, in the Tygodnik Powszechny journal, which contained a number of other articles on the conference and its topic, transitional justice in post-communist Europe. The interview, available here, is titled “My albo ono”. I trust Andrzej, since I cannot read or speak Polish.

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Other photos from the conference:

Lavinia Stan

Lavinia Stan

Lavinia Stan

Lavinia Stan

Lavinia Stan

Lavinia Stan

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Legal Frames of Memory Conference, Warsaw, November 2013 Monday, Nov 25 2013 

The Genealogies of Memory Project was kind enough to invite us to their November 2013 conference in Warsaw. The following is my talk, which builds on Lavinia Stan, “Civil Society and Post-Communist Transitional Justice in Romania,” in Transitional Justice and Civil Society in the Balkans, ed. by Olivera Simic and Zala Volcic (Australia: Springer, 2013), pp. 17-31.

 

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Civil Society and Post-Communist Transitional Justice: The Romanian Case

 

In 2003, David Backer lamented the “under-appreciated role of non-state actors” in transitional justice.[i] Ten years later, his observation still applies to research on Romania, which remains state-centered. My talk maps the groups that have impacted the country’s reckoning with the communist past, explains which programs they affected the most, and draws general conclusions about their contribution to transitional justice in post-communist settings.

1. Civil Society Groups Involved in Transitional Justice

Three categories of groups are relevant for our discussion. The first category includes nation-wide associations of former victims who support comprehensive transitional justice. The Association of Former Political Prisoners in Romania, created in 1990, gathers political prisoners and deportees. The smaller Association of Former Political Prisoners and Anti-communist Fighters represents communist-era political prisoners with ties to the inter-war fascist Iron Guard who were imprisoned, tortured or killed by the Securitate. The Association of Owners of Property Abusively Confiscated by the State, set up in 1999 in Bucharest, includes property owners seeking property restitution and fair compensation.[ii]

Other groups are present locally, in Craiova (the Association of Owners Abusively Deprived of Their Property, Former Deportees and Refugees), Rm. Valcea (the Association of Victims of the Bolshevik Communist System and Its Legacy), or Bucharest (the Association for Private Property Owners and the Community of Legitimate Owners and Descendants in Romania). The French Association for Defending Property Rights in Romania and the German Restitution in Romania represent owners living abroad.[iii] Add the Gheorghe Ursu Foundation, set up by relatives of an engineer murdered in 1986, the Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu Foundation, named after the leader of the Făgăraş anti-communist fighters, and the ICAR Foundation, which provides medical rehabilitation for victims.

Transitional justice has also been advocated by organizations uniting victims of the 1989 revolution, which remain preoccupied with finding the truth about those events, unveiling the involvement of post-communist leaders, and securing financial benefits for their members. The best known such group is the Association 21 December 1989, set up in 1990 in Bucharest.

This category further comprises religious communities that faced persecution, property confiscation, and surveillance at the hands of the communists. In the 1950s, many Orthodox were imprisoned. Afterwards, the Church was monitored by the Securitate, which recruited some of its priests as secret agents.[iv] In 1948, the state dismantled the Greek Catholic Church, imprisoned its bishops, and transferred its property to the Orthodox Church.

The second category includes intellectuals, who support lustration, truth telling and access to secret files, but generally reject efforts to unveil collaborators from among their members and parties close to them. While small and elitist in view, the Timişoara Society, the Civil Alliance, and the Group for Social Dialogue have proposed some of the most coherent remembrance programs advanced by the Romanian civil society.

The third category is inimical to transitional justice. It includes the tenants who occupied confiscated dwellings with the authorities’ permission before and after 1989. Some tenants were poor workers who moved to town to work in new industrial factories, but many others were privileged nomenklatura members renting dwellings from the state at low rents not reflecting their market value. The Association of Tenants Living in Nationalized Dwellings has branches throughout Romania. The Association of Tenants Who Acquired Ownership through Law 112/1995 represents tenants who bought the confiscated dwelling in which they lived.[v]

Tenants and secret agents were not the only ones to benefit from the communist infringement of other people’s rights. Since 2003, the Motherland and Honour Solidarity Foundation protects the interests of former Securitate officers and post-communist intelligence agents.[vi] Former communist decision-makers have been reluctant to create associations because they could face public condemnation as a result and after 1989 retained enough political clout to advance their personal interests through the existing parties. Communist perpetrators have gained a public voice as members of parties successor to the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League: the Social Democrats, the Democrats, and the Greater Romania Party.

2. Transitional Justice Methods

Let me now turn to the second point I want to make today, and outline the contribution of civil society to judicial and non-judicial transitional justice programs.

Lustration

            The civil society has promoted lustration without being able to convince political elites to implement it. In 1990, the Timişoara Society called for banning communist decision-makers from running in general elections. The Society has understood lustration as an accusation-based process. Almost all associations representing victims and intellectuals have shared this view.

            In 1993 senator Ticu Dumitrescu, leader of the Association of Former Political Prisoners, presented Parliament with a motion on secret agents that amounted to a lustration proposal.[vii] The motion had no effect,[viii] so Dumitrescu then asked public officials unveiled as former agents to renounce their posts. Parliament ultimately stripped that proposal of its lustration stipulations.[ix]

Inspired by Bulgarian efforts, in 2006 Romanian journalists launched a Clean Voices campaign to identify secret agents in mass media. The civil society then called on spies to unveil their ties to intelligence services, and convinced the Chamber of Deputies to organize a public debate on lustration in 2006. Representatives of ten groups – including the Timişoara Society, the Civic Alliance, and the Association of Former Political Prisoners – stated their position in that debate, but Parliament opted for confession-based lustration.[x]

Court trials

            Since 1989, civil society actors have called for the prosecution of former prison guards, Securitate officers, and party leaders, and collected information to indict communist criminals. Press campaigns, street protests, and roundtable talks have been used to promote trials. By 2012, the Association of Former Political Prisoners, the Ursu Foundation, and the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes submitted 27 complaints to military prosecutors against Securitate officers, heads of detention centers, and prison guards. No court trials ensued.[xi] Few perpetrators are alive today and the surviving ones are old, so their prosecution is improbable.

            The courts’ reluctance to recognize communist abuses as crimes against humanity, and the civil society’s support for a generic ‘Trial of Communism’, explain the scarcity of trials against communist perpetrators. Preference for an all-encompassing ‘Trial of Communism’ was first voiced in 1990 by the Civic Alliance, which asked for “a trial of the leftist ideology of communism.”[xii] The call had little legal value, since abstract concepts like ideology or regime cannot be put on trial. The preference for the ‘Trial of Communism’ as opposed to specific cases has stemmed from the civil society representatives’ lack of legal expertise.[xiii]

Access to secret files

Access to secret files was the brainchild of Dumitrescu, who convinced Parliament to legislate it by drawing support from the Association of Former Political Prisoners, the Group for Social Dialogue, and other victims’ groups. In 1997, the Senate restricted Dumitrescu’s original lustration proposal so that files were made public only if their contents did not endanger national security; the leadership of the file custodian (the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives) was no longer independent from the government; and the archives remained housed with the institutions that produced them and wanted to keep them under lock to cover their links to the dictatorship. These amendments enraged the civil society groups, which called on deputies to consider Dumitrescu’s original draft, as they believed that the amendments made it impossible for the truth about communism ever to be known. While ignored, the petition showed that civil society actors could come together in support of a transitional justice project, if they wanted.

The presidential history commission

            Undoubtedly, the civil society scored its greatest success in 2006, when it convinced President Traian Băsescu to create the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, the so-called Tismăneanu Commission. Weeks before Romania’s accession to the European Union on 1 January 2007, Băsescu condemned the communist regime in front of Parliament and on the basis of the Commission’s final report, which detailed the mechanisms of repression in communist Romania, the ties between the Securitate and the Communist Party, and the continuity between the Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceauşescu regimes.[xiv]

            The Commission was created in response to civil society calls to renew the political elite by legislating lustration. Under pressure from victims groups, Băsescu declared that he could not support lustration without first condemning the communist regime as criminal and repressive, since collaborators just obeyed an internationally recognized regime and the laws of that time. Only the exposure of the regime’s repressive character could lay down the moral ground for a blanket policy like lustration. To condemn communism, Băsescu needed a scientific report on the crimes written by experts. The presidential commission included representatives of the Association of Former Political Prisoners and the Group for Social Dialogue.

The citizen’s opinion tribunal

Frustrated with the judiciary’s unwillingness to organize a Nuremberg-type trial, in September 2006 civil society groups organized an opinion tribunal in Cluj-Napoca. The tribunal included nine former victims, one councillor each for the prosecution and the defense, and 150 audience members who acted as jurors. Charged with genocide and crimes against humanity (including premeditated murder, extermination, forced deportation, arrests, torture, disappearances, and ethnic and religious persecution), the communist regime was found guilty of all charges after the opinion tribunal discussed a summary of its human rights abuses.[xv]

The opinion tribunal had little echo inside and outside Romania, and was ignored by the general public, the political elite, and the press. The public was reluctant to support a ‘Trial of Communism’ that indirectly implicated the four million ordinary party members, and former victims argued that the post-communist state — the legal successor to the communist state that perpetrated the crimes — should acknowledge responsibility through its judiciary. But the courts have ignored these demands, pointing to the statute of limitations applicable to those cases.

Victims’ and intellectual groups challenged the legitimacy of the opinion tribunal, calling instead for a ‘Trial of Communism” in the courts of law. In 2003, the ICAR Foundation asked the government to acknowledge the “communist Holocaust,” apologize to victims, and admit that the Securitate was a political police.[xvi] President Iliescu and the Social Democrat government ignored the request. After the 2004 elections, ICAR convinced President Basescu of the power of an official apology addressed to victims and the Romanian society at large, and coming from the country’s top state dignitary. Băsescu agreed to deliver the apology, after the Commission documented the crimes. The apology, however, never came, being replaced by a condemnation.

Property restitution

            Since 1989, organizations of initial owners (most notably the Association of Owners of Property Abusively Confiscated by the State) have asked for the return of the property they lost or for fair compensation, when restitution in kind was not possible. They have opposed the tenants who rent confiscated dwellings from the state. All these groups have tried to influence public policy through street protests, open letters, and press campaigns.

In 2000, the Association of Tenants Living in Nationalized Dwellings convinced Parliament to accept as valid the contracts through which tenants bought nationalized dwellings from the state. As such, Law 10/2001 prohibited the return of homes bought by tenants in ‘good faith.’ The Association of Owners of Property Abusively Confiscated by the State warned that all tenants knew that the houses had been illegally confiscated, and addressed an open letter to Parliament, but its plea for property restitution remained unanswered.[xvii] The Association also monitors the activity of the Property Fund, set up in 2005 to provide compensation to owners, and the cases lodged by Romanian owners with the European Court for Human Rights.

Property restitution also extended to church property, including that transferred in 1948 from the Greek Catholics to the Orthodox Church.[xviii] Since 1989, the two churches have engaged in high-profile public campaigns for restitution (in the case of the Greek Catholics) or against it (in the case of the Orthodox). At the pressure of the Orthodox, in the early 1990s the government denied the Greek Catholics their right to seek justice through the courts. In turn, the Greek Catholics approached the European Court of Human Rights, which recognized the infringement of their rights and obliged the Romanian state to allow the courts to hear cases of Greek Catholic church restitution starting 2006. As it commands the loyalty of 86 percent of the population, the Orthodox Church remains an important civil society actor shaping the politics of the past.

Memorialization

            In the absence of a museum dedicated to the victims of communism, the Sighet Memorial remains Romania’s most significant memorialization project. Created in 1993 by the Civic Academy, the Memorial includes the Museum located in the Sighet prison and the International Center for the Study of Communism in Bucharest, which seek “to revise the country’s history falsified by the communist regime.”[xix] Besides oral history programs, the Memorial organizes summer schools for pre-university teachers and students, publishes a scholarly journal, and commemorates a Day of Memory, dedicated to those who suffered in communist prisons.

            Victims groups have also funded memorials. The Association of Former Political Prisoners erected hundreds of monuments, crosses, and commemorative plaques throughout Romania to mark the site of former political prisons or murders of anticommunist fighters, remember the struggle of anti-communist heroes, or celebrate the people’s opposition to the dictatorship. Given the reluctance of post-communist governments to honour victims and condemn perpetrators, these efforts to mark memory sites remain of utmost importance.[xx]

3. General Observations in Lieu of Conclusions

Let me now make some general observations about the role of civil society in transitional justice. Some apply to other countries as well; others are relevant only to Romania. For lack of time, I will just list these observations, without providing full demonstrations.

1. There is a wide diversity of groups interested in transitional justice, and not all of them support reckoning, a fact insufficiently recognized by scholars and practitioners. Inimical groups are formidable opponents when organized as institutional interest groups working within and having privileged ties to the government (like those gathering intelligence agents).

2. The need to address multiple abusive pasts creates competition within the civil society. The victims of the 1989 revolution, those of Ceausescu, and those of Gheorghiu-Dej’s “deep repression” have competed more than collaborated with each other. Their contradictory agendas have delegitimized transitional justice, instilled “memory fatigue” in the public, and provided arguments for governments to do as little as possible in coming to terms with the recent pasts.

3. In Romania, victims’ organizations have generally enjoyed strong leadership but faced crippling financial difficulties, even when anti-communist parties formed the government. Groups created around pre-communist leaders could draw on their expertise, but were disadvantaged by the leaders’ old age and health problems acquired in communist prisons. Lack of finances has partly been addressed by enthusiastic volunteer work.

4. Victims set up civil society groups earlier than perpetrators because perpetrators were represented in the first post-communist governments that blocked reckoning. It was only later, when public debates on the need to honour victims and identify perpetrators unfolded and anti-communist parties won elections, that civil society actors inimical to transitional justice appeared. The reproduction of communist elites gave perpetrators representation in state structures, and obliged victims to organize as part of the civil society. This “state perpetrators”/”non-state victims” dichotomy has remained almost unchanged since 1989.

5. Overall state actors have blocked and civil society actors have supported redress. Civil society groups have been listened to and their projects have been supported only when parties and governments have anticipated possible electoral gains. These groups were abandoned, ignored or even silenced when their demands for justice threatened the careers of powerful political gatekeepers, or the policy priorities, legitimacy and popularity of the ruling party.

6. Civil society groups have promoted mostly non-judicial, and often local, reckoning processes of limited impact. The wavering and self-interested position of the intellectuals and the dishonesty of civil society actors who hid their own former collaboration also explain why the Romanian reckoning has been politicized and delegitimized in the eyes of the public.[xxi]

The challenge facing the pro-transitional justice civil society groups in Romania is to find common ground, a common voice and a common platform to promote various methods, processes and practices of coming to terms with the past as new generations with no direct experience with the communist regime and its crimes come on the political stage. This implies more concerted action, a redesigned agenda and tool kit, and the political acumen needed to bring the public and the political elite behind the larger de-communization project.

Notes:


[i] David Backer, “Civil society and transitional justice: possibilities, patterns and prospects,” Journal of Human Rights 2(3) 2003: 297-313.

[ii] Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici din România, Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici şi Luptători Anticomunişti, and Asociaţia Proprietarilor Deposedaţi Abuziv de Stat.

[iii] Asociaţia Persoanelor Deposedate Abuziv, Foştilor Deportaţi Refugiaţi din România; Asociaţia pentru Proprietate Privată; Comunitatea Moştenitorilor şi Proprietarilor Legitimi din România; Asociaţia Victimelor Sistemului Comunist Bolşevic şi a Sechelelor Sale; Asociaţia Victimelor Magistraţilor din România; Asociaţia Franceză pentru Apărarea Drepturilor de Proprietate în România; and Interessenvertretung Restitution in Rumanien.

[iv] Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, “The Devil’s Confessors: Priests, Communists, Spies and Informers,” East European Politics and Societies, 19(4) 2005: 655-685, and Lucian Leuştean, Orthodoxy and the Cold War. Religion and Political Power in Romania, 1947–1965 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[v] Asociaţia Chiriaşilor din Casele Naţionalizate, and Asociaţia Proprietarilor pe Legea 112/1995. See Lavinia Stan, “The Roof over Our Head: Property Restitution in Romania,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 22(2) 2006: 180-205, and Daniela Benea, “Musceleni, la şedinţa pentru modificarea Legii Chiriaşilor,” Evenimentul Muscelean, 28 October 2008.

[vi] Fundaţia Solidaritatea Patrie şi Onoare. See Gabriel Andreescu, “Cazul Grigore Opriţa: a început vânătoarea zăpăciţilor şi a aiuriţilor,” Observator Cultural, no. 180 (August 2013).

[vii] Şedinţa Senatului din 25 martie 1992, Monitorul Oficial al României, partea a II-a (26 March 1992), p. 2.

[viii] Şedinţa Senatului din 3 februarie 1994, Monitorul Oficial al României, partea a II-a (4 February 1994), p. 4.

[ix] Lavinia Stan, “Access to Securitate Files: The Trials and Tribulations of a Romanian Law,” East European Politics and Societies, 16(1) 2000: 55-90.

[x] Lavinia Stan, “Witch-hunt or Moral Rebirth? Romanian Parliamentary Debates on Lustration,” East European Politics and Societies (April 2011).

[xi] Raluca Grosescu and Raluca Ursachi, Justiţia penală de tranziţie: De la Nurenberg la postcomunismul românesc (Iaşi: Edituta Polirom, 2009).

[xii] Domnita Ştefănescu, Cinci ani din istoria României. O cronologie a evenimentelor decembrie 1989-decembrie 1994 (Bucharest: Editura Maşina de Scris, 1995), p. 110

[xiii]Grosescu and Ursachi, Justitia penala de tranzitie, p. 182.

[xiv] Cosmina Tănăşoiu, “The Tismaneanu Report: Romania Revisits Its Past,” Problems of Post-Communism 54(4) 2007: 60-69, and Vladimir Tismăneanu, “Democracy and Memory: Romania Confronts Its Communist Past,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617 (2008): 166-180.

[xv] Curtea Penală de Condamnare Juridico-Morală a Crimelor Regimurilor Comuniste, Procesul Comunismului, October 2006, available at: http://redholocaust.org/procesul.html, accessed on 29 March 2011.

[xvi] The ‘Trial of Communism’ is “a duty to the victims who died with the hope that justice would be done and to those who survived and are still waiting for justice to be done,” “a necessary and expected acknowledgement of the state abuses of the past, and a sign of maturity for the Romanian democracy.” ICAR Foundation, Communism Trial, 2010, available at: http://www.icarfoundation.ro/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=29&Itemid=44, accessed on 1 September 2011.

[xvii] Damiana Oţoiu, “Negocier la (re)constitution de la propriete privee en Roumanie postsocialiste. (Nouveaux) acteurs, (anciennes) strategies,” Options Mediterraneennes, A92 (2009), p. 70.

[xviii] Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, Religion and Politics in Post-Communist Romania (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[xix] Monica Ciobanu, “Democracy and Education – Teaching History and Building a Democratic Future: Reflections From Post-Communist Romania,” Democracy and Education, 17(3) 2008, p. 60.

[xx] Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici din România, Album memorial. Monumente închinate jertfei, suferinţei şi luptei împotriva comunismului (Bucharest: Ziua, 2004).

[xxi] R. Grosescu, “The Role of the Civil Society and Anticommunist Political Actors in the Romanian Transitional Justice Partial Failure,” in Lustration and Consolidation of Democracy and the Rule of Law in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by V. Dvorakova and A. Milardovic (Zagreb: Political Science Research Center, 2007), p. 190.

A link to my Youtube talk is available here.

Lustration without lustrati – the philosopher who informed without being an informer Friday, Dec 21 2012 

A short notice in Romanian newspapers went almost unnoticed. Undeservingly. The National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS), the Romanian transitional justice institution, declared Andrei Marga “clean.” A philosopher by training, Marga served as Minister of Education in the Victor Ciorbea, Radu Vasile and Mugur Isarescu cabinets (1997-2000), during which time he implemented some reforms but not enough to rid the Romanian education system of its many endemic flaws. He then became known for unceremoniously faxing in his resignation as leader of the ‘historic’ Christian Democrat Peasant Party, months after that formation was literally obliterated by the 2000 parliamentary elections. After putting such an abrupt end to his political career, Marga returned to the University of Cluj, where he acted as its eminence grise. This year Marga served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Victor Ponta cabinet supported by the Social Democrats, heirs to the Communist Party that persecuted the Christian Democrats from 1945 to 1989. His ministerial stint was short (May to August) but memorable, leaving behind a mess that is still to be sorted out. Today he is president of the Romanian Cultural Institute, where he single-handedly and rapidly foiled all programs designed to promote Romanian culture abroad.

According to the so-called Ticu Law of December 1999, Romanian state dignitaries and presidents of public universities must undergo vetting procedures designed to uncover their former ties to the communist secret political police, the Securitate. Even before the Ticu Law came in effect, the Democratic Convention of Romania (which appointed the Ciorbea, Vasile and Isarescu cabinets) informally vetted their candidates for elected and nominated state positions. It is thus very likely that Marga was vetted several times by now, each time being declared fit to occupy public office and represent ordinary Romanians. It is, to my knowledge, the first time when the public is offered a reason for why Marga is “clean” of any former collaboration with the Securitate. He fulfils only one of the two conditions needed for somebody to be branded a securist – he spied on others (composing, writing down with his own hand, and signing information notes on other people), but he did not promise to become a Securitate agent (by signing a collaboration pledge, although he assumed the code name ‘Horia’). In the eyes of the CNSAS and the law, Marga is clean as long as the pledge is not discovered. But the fact remains that he did what all other secret informers did – provided information secretly and knowingly to the Securitate case officer, who then archived it in Marga’s secret file.

Meanwhile, Evenimentul Zilei published the CNSAS decision in the Marga case. It is available here – an interesting reading.

Elections prolong uneasy cohabitation, pitting popular vote against presidential will Monday, Dec 10 2012 

Partial results released by the Central Electoral Bureau show the landslide victory of the Social Liberal Union (USL), an electoral bloc gathering the tiny Conservative Party and two erstwhile rivals – the Social Democrat Party (PSD), heir to the Communist Party, and the ‘historic’ National Liberal Party (PNL), the communists’ former victim. The Social Liberals gained 60 percent of the popular vote for each chamber, as opposed to their rivals, the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which won 17 percent. The Alliance consists of the Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), which ruled the country in 2008-2012 with backing from President Traian Basescu, and several inconsequential satellites set up as tiny personal and interest parties. The partial results (available here) confirm the rise of the Popular Party of Dan Diaconescu (PPDD) as the third electoral winner with 14 percent of the vote. Besides 18 deputies representing ethnic minorities, the only other formation likely to enter parliament is the Democratic Union of Magyars, representing the 1.5 million strong Hungarian community, which barely passed the 5 percent electoral threshold. Voter turnout stood at some 40 percent.

The Romanian mixed PR system includes two stages. First, it allows a candidate to win a seat if she can gather a simple majority of the votes in her college. Second, in colleges where no candidate has majority, a vote redistribution system permits candidates to win seats based on their party’s strength. Candidates who rank second and even third in a college could enter parliament, if their party performed better than the party of the candidate who ranked first. In practice, the PR component strengthens the formation that gains most votes, provides for uneven representation (as the minimum required number of votes to win a seat differs widely across various colleges, ranging from 6,000 to over 20,000) and enlarges parliament with additional seats so that the overall seat distribution roughly matches vote distribution. The USL won all seats in 25 of the 43 colleges, but no ARD candidate pulled the majority needed to win a seat in the first stage (except the ARD candidate for diaspora, representing Romanians living abroad). Most tellingly, the ARD co-presidents (Vasile Blaga of the PDL, Mihai Razvan Ungureanu of the Civic Force Party, Aurelian Pavelescu of the National Christian Democrat Peasant Party, and Mihail Neamtu of the New Republic) mustered insufficient support, although all of them competed in colleges they considered the safest, and easiest wins, for them. Some ARD candidates will likely secure seats through redistribution.

The results largely mirrored the June local elections, and therefore should surprise no one. Several trends are worth noting. First, these parliamentary elections confirmed that the alternation in power effected by motion of non-confidence in April (when the former opposition USL formed the government and the former ruling PDL joined the opposition) is underpinned by a real shift in popular sentiment. Far from amounting to a putsch, a coup d’etat, or an illegitimate grab of power, the motion signaled that more Romanians support the Social Liberals than the Democrat Liberals. Second, the Social Liberals won by a landslide despite the grave charges of plagiarism brought against Social Democrat PM Victor Ponta in June, his failure to unseat President Basescu in July, his willingness to bend political rules and weaken key institutions, his lack of a sound strategy for governing the country since May, the generally weak Social Liberal electoral campaign, and the unrelenting criticism of the Ponta government mounted by European Union leaders and foreign governments. True, fewer Romanians came out to vote in December, than in the June local elections or the July referendum that decided Basescu’s fate, but there are few signs that the USL lost significant ground during the last few months. The Social Liberal win shows that the Romanian voters simply had other priorities – chief among them was the bashing of President Basescu, scapegoated for everything that went wrong in that country.

Third, the elections reduced the once powerful Democrat Liberals to a mere shadow of their former self, thus further isolating President Basescu in the political arena. While in 2008 they won 32 percent of the vote by running alone, in 2012 they barely polled half that support rate by participating in a multi-party alliance. In 2008 the PDL was supported by 2.2 million voters, but in June 2012 the ARD gathered only 1.4 million and in December a bare 1,2 million (opinion polls conducted in November suggested that the ARD would gather less than the PDL, but running separately was not possible once the electoral campaign started). This significant loss of ground stemmed from many factors, not least the party’s strong ties with the unpopular President Basescu, who was severely delegitimized by the July referendum in which over 7.4 million Romanians voted against him, the PDL’s association with satellite parties lacking legitimacy and credibility, its failure to present a coherent electoral message or a clear political agenda, unwillingness to field candidates in USL-dominated colleges, and frantic search for “safe colleges.” The PDL was further affected by its refusal to vet corrupt candidates, some of whom prosecutors placed under investigation for corrupt behavior after the party deemed them fit to run in elections, and to acknowledge the failures of Prime Minister Emil Boc (2008-2012), who became unpopular not so much for the austerity measures of 2010 as for the way he wasted public resources in times of economic restraint and left ordinary citizens to shoulder the austerity program while protecting the interests of party clients.

SAMSUNG

Fourth, the elections further propelled the anti-system PPDD to parliament, showing that for at least some voters neither the USL nor the ARD were credible alternatives, since their main parties have dominated post-communist politics since 1989. This personal party – created by Dan Diaconescu, a self-made media mogul who owns the country’s trashiest television station – gathers mostly politicians who either were expelled from or left other formations for personal reasons. PPDD candidates like the former PDL minister Monica Iacob Ridzi (under whose wing President Basescu’s youngest daughter Elena launched her spectacular political career) seek reelection in the hope that parliamentary immunity will protect them from being prosecuted. The PPDD seems poised to walk in the shoes of the once vocal and popular xenophobic Greater Romania Party, which secured parliamentary representation neither in 2008 nor in 2012, but occupied a strong and secure niche from 1990 to 2008. The tiny anti-system PPDD was set up in the shortest of time not long before the local elections, launched the most aberrant campaign promises (running the gamut from paying each Romanian 20,000 Euros to reincorporating the Republic of Moldova into Greater Romania), and ran simple campaign slogans (presenting Diaconescu as “the onion in cooked food,” a staple in many Romanian kitchens). If in June some 0.9 million Romanians voted for the PPDD, in December the party gained over 1 million votes, rapidly closing the gap with the ARD (for the Senate, the ARD garnered only 155,000 more votes).

afis_ceapa

For now, parties are waiting the redistribution, which will decide which ARD leaders gain a seat. But the ARD’s poor score already prompted some PDL leaders to resign, others to toll the bells for the “useless” and “stupid” Alliance, and still others to call for a lucid analysis of the PDL’s future plans. It will take much more for the PDL to be reborn politically. Regardless of which ARD leaders will save face by securing a seat through the back door of redistribution, these elections cemented an uneasy cohabitation between the center-right Democrat Liberal President Basescu and the left-wing Social Liberal parliamentary majority. Before the vote, Basescu threatened to refuse the nomination of Ponta as prime minister, invoking an interpretation of the Constitution unlikely to be accepted even by the evidently pro-Basescu Constitutional Court. On 27 November, Basescu claimed that the president alone can nominate the prime minister and he will not accept any party to make that decision, even when a formation secured a clear parliamentary majority. Days before the vote, Basescu again warned that the candidate for premiership must demonstrate a pro-EU and pro-NATO stance to gain his acceptance, conditions Ponta allegedly did not met. While journalists defended Basescu, his threat — which would provoke a constitutional crisis if ever translated into reality — is unlikely to block the USL’s bid to rule the country, bring the failing ARD to government, or win Basescu sympathy with Romanian voters or foreign governments. Basescu ignores the fact that no PDL leader seemingly has the guts to accept a premiership that effectively invalidates the popular vote. Whether Romanians really understand what the USL overwhelming majority means remains to be seen. Since May the alliance has provided plenty of evidence that it has no qualms in undermining the rule of law and no coherent governance program except for relentlessly criticizing President Basescu.

Note: Romanian newspapers revealed the donations collected by the main election contenders. The USL (PSD, PNL, PC, and UNPR) collected 15.5 million Lei, ARD (PDL, PFC and PNTCD) 7.7 million, and PPDD 4.1 million.

New Book: After Oppression. Transitional Justice in Latin America and Eastern Europe Monday, Nov 26 2012 

With a bit of delay, the United Nations University Press has published a new volume edited by Vesselin Popovski and Monica Serrano. Based on a research grant and a conference held at Oxford University in 2009, the volume examines transitional justice comparatively in Latin America and Eastern Europe and focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of accountability mechanisms. I authored the chapter on Romania, which looked at court trials, the Tismaneanu history commission, lustration, and access to secret files.

The volume is presented this way on the UNU Press website: “The decline of authoritarianism in Latin America and Eastern Europe marked the end of a dark chapter in the history of these societies. In both regions, transition to democracy was accompanied by distinct efforts to come to terms with the traumatic experiences of the past and to demand accountability from the oppressors. The impact of these efforts rippled far beyond national boundaries, expanding the frontiers of international justice, and yielding indelible lessons and inspiration.

As these societies crossed the uncharted waters of transition and liberalization, one difficult question remained: How to reconcile the need for democratic stability in the present and future with the imperative of truth and justice for the past? This was an unprecedented test: societies made their way forward often through trial and error; steps ahead were followed by steps back.

After Oppression aims to enquire into the effectiveness of various accountability mechanisms. Drawing comparisons from cases studies in Latin America and Eastern Europe, the book demonstrates that while there are many different paths to truth and justice, all depend on continued efforts in order to reach them. In many cases these efforts also create favourable conditions for the development of a resilient human rights culture. The experiences across regions show that democratic consolidation and accountability for past human rights violations are closely related, if independent, processes. This accessible book makes an important contribution towards better understanding those processes and the relationship between them.”

Hate during times of cholera – a brief recap of recent events in Romania Tuesday, Jul 31 2012 

Year 2012 brought unprecedented political instability in Romania, the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union. First, in January Romanians took to the streets to protest the removal of popular physician Raed Arafat, who founded an effective emergency response system in a country where few programs really work[1], but was publicly humiliated by President Traian Basescu, a sea captain with no medical training. Protests soon turned against the austerity measures imposed by the cabinet of Democrat Liberal Prime Minister Emil Boc in 2009-11, as a result of which thousands of public servants (including teachers) lost their jobs or saw their meager salaries slashed by 25 percent. The Constitutional Court nixed an earlier government proposal to cut pensions, so the cabinet added another contribution retired people had to make to the national budget. Austerity helped Romania to avoid Greece’s fate, but disproportionally affected ordinary citizens, not the powerful business lobbies close to the Democrat Liberals, who had ruled the country since 2008 under the leadership of Prime Minister Emil Boc, with the help of the Social Democrats until 2009 and then of the euphemistically titled National Union for the Progress of Romania. The anti-government protesters alluded to this when they chanted: “Sorry, we cannot produce as much as you steal!” (Ne scuzati, nu producem cat furati!)[2].

The global financial crisis was a time of prosperity for well-connected politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. The Accounts Court unveiled unprecedented waste in the local and central government during 2009 and 2010, at a time when politicians preached austerity, but practiced gluttony[3]. According to their asset declarations, Boc’s cabinet ministers became richer during their mandates[4]. Construction companies registered record profits from public tenders. Since joining the European Union, Romania has been unable to access structural funds, so its contribution to the EU purse has far exceeded its gains from it. The little money that was accessed had to be matched by impoverished local governments, a requirement that made a dire situation worse. According to the press, some of the accessed funds went to unnecessary destinations, including building swimming pools and skating rings in localities lacking basic water and sewage systems[5]. Well-connected firms were allowed to accumulate huge public debts, which the state Agency for Financial Administration could not recover because those firms declared bankruptcy[6]. The head of the Agency, Democrat Liberal Sorin Blejnar, was later indicted for his multiple crimes. Prime Minister Boc did little to curb waste of public money, to rid his cabinet of controversial ministers close to rich business groups, or to explain the origin of his collaborators’ wealth and his government’s decision to protect only some categories of the population.

In the face of the cabinet’s denial that protests were legitimate, the Democrat Liberals had to save themselves from their own government. The power struggle within the party — which pitted the discredited Boc faction (representing politicians close to President Basescu) against supporters of Vasile Blaga (a former Senate Speaker, Minister of Tourism and Regional Development, and Minister of Interior) — was settled in favor of Blaga. Boc, probably Romania’s weakest post-communist prime minister, had to resign together with his entire cabinet. It was hoped that the move, which signaled the Democrat Liberals’ willingness to take popular concerns to heart, will allow the party to reinvent itself before the November parliamentary elections by proposing another cabinet untainted by corruption allegations and association with the unpopular austerity measures. At Basescu’s proposal, on February 9 Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current head of the External Information Service, heir to the foreign espionage branch of the notorious Securitate, formed a new cabinet.

Hailed as a possible presidential candidate and successor to Basescu, the young and well educated Ungureanu could neither implement a coherent governance program to appease the impoverished masses nor bring together the increasingly divided and unsure-of-themselves Democrat Liberals. In a highly controversial move, Ungureanu disbursed as much as 170 million Euros to mayors from the prime minister’s special fund, although both he and Boc had insisted that state coffers were empty and therefore public servants’ wages could not return to 2009 levels. As 95 percent of the money went to Democrat Liberal mayors[7], the fund allocation was driven by party concerns not local needs. The move amounted to the unofficial start of the campaign for local elections in the summer and parliamentary elections in the fall. Instead of giving the Democrat Liberal Party an advantage over the opposition, the fund allocation led to a dramatic political reconfiguration when deputies and senators of the government crossed the floor to the opposition, in an effort to gain seniority in the parties most likely to win the upcoming parliamentary elections. Some of these political migrants (traseisti) had joined the government by abandoning the opposition sometime after 2008. Others were long-term Democrat Liberals dissatisfied with the intra-party fighting between Basescu’s and Blaga’s supporters.

Thus, by the time the opposition introduced a motion of no-confidence, the Ungureanu cabinet had lost the backing of a majority in parliament[8]. On April 27, Ungureanu was ousted after only 77 days of unremarkable premiership, when the motion passed with 235 votes for and nine against. The fall of his cabinet spread fear and apathy among the Democrat Liberals, who lost the desire to fight and propose another candidate for the post. As a consequence, President Basescu grudgingly agreed to validate the Social Liberal cabinet of Victor Ponta, without either one of them fully anticipating the ensuing political problems. For the first time, post-communist Romania faced cohabitation between a president and a government of different ideological colors. In a country with low social capital levels, and high levels of distrust among ordinary citizens and among politicians, cohabitation spelled disaster by translating into complete institutional deadlock and an open winner-takes-all battle.

In more ways than one, the Social Liberal Union is an odd and unlikely electoral alliance. Its main partner, the leftist Social Democrats, represents the conservative faction of the Salvation Front, which claimed victory in the 1989 revolution. That cri de liberte was disingenuous, since the Front was the main heir to the Communist Party it pretended to defeat. In all post-communist elections the Social Democrats gained the largest number of votes among individual parties. After briefly governing together with the Democrat Liberals in 2008-2009, the Social Democrats partnered with the Liberal Party, against which President Basescu waged an open battle in 2004-2008 although the Liberals supported his 2004 presidential bid. The Liberals have remained Romania’s only significant “historical” party, and played an important political role in pre-communist Romania, but their current political platform has few “liberal” dimensions. After being outlawed by the communists, the formation officially re-registered during the 1989 revolution, retaining parliamentary representation ever since. The Social Democrats and the Liberals are strongly divided by their ideological and policy preferences, but will stay united as long as they see Basescu and the Democrat Liberals as their common enemies.

The Ponta cabinet was supposed to serve as a caretaker government tasked with organizing the 2012 local and general elections. Its mandate (May-November 2012) was too short to adopt significant policies, so failure to enact meaningful reforms would have been brushed aside as unavoidable by a population eager for political change. Its Democrat Liberal predecessors were so unpopular that, by comparison, the Social Liberals could have won the people’s hearts by simply doing nothing. Judging from their actions, however, Ponta and his cabinet were keen to totally destroy the Democrat Liberals and Basescu, not govern the country. Paradoxically, they got involved in a political battle and spent a lot of effort for little political gain – the local elections of June 10 showed the clear handicap of the Democrat Liberals, while the unpopular Basescu was serving his second and last presidential mandate and had already declared his intention to withdraw from the political scene at the end of his mandate[9]. The situation got out of control when the Social Democrat Union decided to push their rivals off the cliff.

Two different events apparently radicalized Ponta and his Social Liberal allies and convinced them of Basescu’s Janus-faced strategy of publicly preaching cohabitation while covertly delegitimizing the new government. First, shortly after his investiture, Prime Minister Ponta was publicly denounced for plagiarism in his doctoral thesis, defended in 2003 at the Law Faculty of the University of Bucharest. Basescu and the Democrat Liberals called for Ponta’s resignation and tried to gain political capital from the incident, even sponsoring the publication of an anti-Ponta note in the international journal Nature[10]. It was odd that Ponta’s plagiarism was unveiled only after his nomination as prime minister. According to Romanian academics, many politicians have gained academic titles through unorthodox methods. Their names, although known, are publicly released only when their rivals could gain political capital from discrediting those who plagiarize. Basescu’s supporters insisted that a prime minister who stole words could very well steal something else, and that Ponta should follow the examples of German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Hungarian President Pal Schmitt and tender his resignation. However, average Romanians did not understand what plagiarism meant, and so they dismissed the charge as another worthless battle waged by Bucharest politicians, the more so since Ponta’s accusers remained oblivious to similar charges levied against Democrat Liberal nominees and the University of Bucharest adamantly rejected the need for a comprehensive review of its academically questionable doctoral program.

Second, on June 20 the judges condemned Social Democrat leader Adrian Nastase, a potential Social Democrat presidential candidate in 2014, to a two years prison term for embezzling funds. Nastase stands accused for corruption in numerous other cases that the courts are yet to hear. The flamboyant Nastase, who likes to hunt rare animals and to collect objects d’art, made a fortune while serving as prime minister from 2000 to 2004, when he also severely restricted the liberty of the press, cracked down on outspoken civil society members, and sponsored the selling of Romanian orphans for adoption by foreign couples. Nastase, the only post-communist head of government ever sentenced in Romania, resisted his arrest, and thus missed the chance to make a convincing case for good behavior that would reduce his prison term to eight months[11]. In a telenovela-like incident that is currently investigated by the courts, Nastase staged his suicide, wrote good-bye letters to his family, and then was taken out of his house on a stretcher with a Burberry scarf around his neck. The official story was that he shot himself, but missed, and the scarf was covering the wound. His arrest represented a serious blow for himself and his party.

We might never know when the decision to impeach President Basescu was taken, and by who. What is certain is that the Social Democrats made several strategic but legally untenable moves in this direction with dizzying speed. On July 1, the government decided to transfer the State Gazette (Monitorul Oficial) under its jurisdiction. Laws, decrees, decisions, and ordinances enter into force only after their publication in the gazette, whose timing the government could decide in its own advantage. On July 3, the Democrat Liberal Ombudsman Gheorghe Iancu was revoked for no legitimate reason. This public official could ask the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of governmental decisions such as those on the president’s impeachment. That same day, the Social Liberal parliamentary majority asked for the removal of the Democrat Liberal Speakers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, who were shortly afterwards replaced by two Social Liberal legislators. The Speakers play a key role in deciding the agenda of Parliament. On July 4, a governmental ordinance restricted the role of the Constitutional Court to examine governmental decisions, including the one on the Ombudsman[12]. The following day, the Social Liberals submitted to parliament a 20-page request to indict Basescu for undermining democracy, infringing the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, and creating tensions between the presidency and the government. None of these reasons amounted to the “grave infringement of the Constitution” stipulated by law, but the Constitutional Court validated the decision to impeach the president and to hold a referendum for the people to decide whether the president can return to Cotroceni. On July 6, parliament voted for the impeachment, after an earlier law declared the referendum valid if 50 percent plus one of all those who cast a vote take a stand against Basescu. Following international pressure, the validation criterion was changed – the referendum was to become valid only if 50 percent plus one of all registered voters participated in it.

The referendum of July 29 was inconclusive. Partial estimates suggested that 46.2 percent of all Romanian voters participated in the referendum. Of them, as many as 87.5 percent voted against the impeached president[13]. Basescu rushed to claim victory, insisting that the referendum was invalid and suggesting that his many supporters had yielded to his advice to boycott the vote. If the Constitutional Court approves the referendum results, then Basescu will return to the presidency as a much weakened president, against the wishes of 7.4 million Romanians who, on July 29, voted against him. That number exceeds the 5.2 million voters who chose Basescu over Social Democrat Mircea Geoana in the second round of the 2009 presidential elections and represents the highest number of Romanians who ever rallied against any politician since 1989[14]. In turn, Ponta also claimed victory and pointed to the very high percentage of voters who opposed Basescu, although voter turnout was insufficient for validation. The Social Liberals asked for voter turnout to be computed based on the 2011, not the 2002 census, as they expected the referendum participants to represent a higher percentage of the total number of registered voters. It is believed that Romania’s total population has decreased in the last decade. The request — which would have made sense if made before, not after, the vote –delays the confirmation of referendum results and calls for a change in the rules of the game that gives an unfair advantage to the government.

In short, Basescu is now in an untenable position. If not returning to Cotroceni, he and his Democrat Liberals lose the only power leverage they have in the face of an inimical electoral alliance that seems bent on establishing its control over the state machinery by disregarding procedure and the rule of law. This does not bode well for the fragile Romanian democracy, even if the Social Liberals might win a landslide parliamentary victory in November. If returning to Cotroceni, Basescu will give a lethal blow not only to his moribund Democrat Liberals but also to all newly created center-right formations that have gravitated around him during the referendum campaign. It is likely that the 7.4 million Romanians over whose heads Basescu returns to Cotroceni will unite against his allies in the November elections by giving their vote to the Social Liberals.

Notes:
[1] “Romania reinstates Raed Arafat after protests,” BBC News, 17 January 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16600965.
[2] Andreea Stefan, “Sloganul face stirea. In cat timp ajunge o pancarta pe ecranele TV,” DailyBusiness.ro, 20 January 2012, http://www.dailybusiness.ro/stiri-media-marketing/sloganul-face-stirea-in-cat-timp-ajunge-o-pancarta-pe-ecranele-tv-72945/.
[3] Romania Curtea de Conturi, Raport public pe anul 2009, January 2011, http://www.curteadeconturi.ro/sites/ccr/RO/Publicatii/Documente%20publice/Raport%20public%202009.pdf, and Raport public pe anul 2010, January 2012, http://www.curteadeconturi.ro/sites/ccr/RO/Publicatii/Documente%20publice/Raportul%20public%20pe%20anul%202010.pdf.
[4] For Minister of Tourism Elena Udrea, for example, the declarations are posted at http://www.cdep.ro/pls/parlam/structura.mp?idm=313&leg=2008&pag=5. For Udrea’s ties to President Basescu and her contribution to weakening the Democrat Liberals, see Andreea Pora, “Elena Udrea, colivareaza PDL,” Revista 22, 3 April 2012, http://www.revista22.ro/elena-udrea-colivareasa-pdl-14116.html.
[5] Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu criticized as wasteful the use of public funds and pledged to discontinue the construction of swimming pools in poor villages. “Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu: Nu suntem o ţară de înotători, nu am o mare apetenţă pentru piscine săpate în diferite localităţi,” Romania libera, 5 March 2012, http://www.romanialibera.ro/actualitate/politica/mihai-razvan-ungureanu-nu-suntem-o-tara-de-inotatori-nu-am-o-mare-apetenta-pentru-piscine-sapate-in-diferite-localitati-255970.html.
[6] See Raport de Audit incheiat la Agentia Nationala de Administrare Fiscala Auditul performantei privind colectarea impozitelor si taxelor cuvenite bugetului public pentru perioada 2007-2010, Bucharest, 2012, http://www.scribd.com/doc/99784108/Document-2012-05-29-12382955-0-Sinteza-Raport-Audit-Anaf-Colectare.
[7] Clara Volintiru, “The Institutionalization of the Romanian Political System,” paper presented at the International Congress of the Society for Romanian Studies, Sibiu, 2-4 July 2012.
[8] For the motion of no-confidence, see Motiunea de cenzura: “Opriti guvernul santajabil, Asa nu, niciodata,” 18 April 2012, http://www.cdep.ro/motiuni/2012/1468.pdf.
[9] Some 60.7 percent of Romanian voters participated in the local elections. Of the 41 mandates for County Council President, the Social Liberal Union gained 35, the Democrat Liberals and the Democrat Union of Magyars 2 each, whereas the Conservatives and the National Union for the Progress of Romania 1 each. Of the 41 mandates of mayors of county capitals, the Social Liberal Union gained 27 (of which 18 went to the Social Democrats), the Democrat Liberals 10. See Cristian Andrei and Sorina Ionasc, “Alegeri locale 2012, rezultate finale,” Gandul, 12 June 2012, http://www.gandul.info/politica/alegeri-locale-2012-rezultate-finale-noua-harta-politica-a-romaniei-cine-a-castigat-in-orasul-tau-9735306.
[10] Quirin Schiermeier, “Romanian prime minister accused of plagiarism,” Nature, 18 June 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/romanian-prime-minister-accused-of-plagiarism-1.10845.
[11] Alina Grigoras, “Dr. Bradisteanu, three police officers to face prosecution in Nastase case,” Nine O’Clock, 26 June 2012, http://www.nineoclock.ro/dr-bradisteanu-three-police-officers-to-face-prosecution-in-nastase-case/.
[12] Andrei Astefanesei and Sorin Ghica, “Curtea Constitutionala, blocata prin ‘abuz de putere’,” Adevarul, 4 July 2012, http://www.adevarul.ro/actualitate/eveniment/Curtea_Constitutionala-blocata_prin_-abuz_de_putere_0_730727340.html.
[13] Biroul Electoral Central, Comunicat privind rezultatele partiale ale referendumului national din data de 29 iulie 2012 pentru demiterea Presedintelui Romaniei, 30 July 2012, http://www.becreferendum2012.ro/DOCUMENTE%20BEC/Rezultate%20partiale/ora%2014.00.pdf, and Mihai Voinea and Andrei Astefanesei, “Traian Basescu, presedintele Nordului,” Adevarul, 30 July 2012, http://www.adevarul.ro/actualitate/eveniment/Traian_Basescu-presedintele_Nordului_0_746325670.html.
[14] Lavinia Stan and Razvan Zaharia, “Romania,” European Journal of Political Research, vol. 49, no. 7 (December 2010), pp. 1139-1153.

Hot Politics in Hot Bucharest Saturday, Jul 7 2012 

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.