Around a street café in central Bucharest a small girl loiters watchfully. She is eight or nine, unwashed, wearing a grubby pink top. It’s a smart café – the area is full of government and company offices. Some businesspeople get up to leave and hungrily she glides to their table, gathering two half-full bottles of Coca-Cola and then the little paper umbrella from a cocktail glass. Nobody minds her. She retreats to a nearby shop entrance to savour the Coke undisturbed, giving the cocktail stick a pensive twirl as she does so.
No capital city in the former Eastern Bloc was so disfigured by its Communist era as Bucharest, once known as ‘the Paris of the East’. Entire districts were demolished to make way for the former dictator Ceausescu’s unutterably bland ‘Palace of the People’, which was still unfinished at his execution in 1989. Yet architecture is the least of his disastrous legacy. He developed a ‘national Communism’, supposedly independent of Moscow, which combined inept economics with savage repression of the country’s intellectual life.
As before 1989, contradictions more latent in other East European countries are writ large here. Of the 12 countries now applying for European Union (EU) membership Romania is ranked 12th. Everybody still needs a visa to travel west, a requirement now dropped even for neighbouring Bulgaria. Some 41 per cent of the population lives below the poverty-line.
Meanwhile a cut-price yuppie class both has it and flaunts it. Mobile-phone connections rose by 70 per cent in the year 2000. For its income this class is largely reliant on Western corporations and/or organized crime.
Unpredictable feelings about the West surge back and forth, now in favour, now against. Young historians skilfully dismantle the old nationalist myths or speculate on the impact of cyberpunk. Meanwhile Vadim Tudor’s extreme nationalists amazed everyone by becoming the second-largest party at the 2000 elections. Only the ‘reformed’ Communist Party is able to defeat them.
Vested interests with too much to lose have hampered attempts to reform the economy since 1989. Even by Communist standards, Ceausescu’s weakness for giant industrial complexes, obsolete even before they were finished, was notorious. The largest steel mill in the country is still state-owned – it ‘employs’ 28,000 people and makes the kind of losses which this particular state can ill afford. But such privatizations as there have been, like that of Romtelecom or the car-maker Dacia, sold to Renault, have been dogged by allegations of fraud.
No revolution in 1989 was as brutal as the Romanian one. Those bloody December days are the last event here to have seriously registered in the West. For Romanians themselves, however, the Soviet years can already be fitted into an old pattern in which the country has been pulled three ways, violently, for centuries.
South towards the Balkans thanks to centuries of Ottoman rule, from which it emerged in the nineteenth century.
West towards what the people and their language owe to Latin origins. West also towards Austria-Hungary, especially in Transylvania, which for centuries was an integral part of that empire.
East towards Russia: Romania is Orthodox, and the Church remains popular. East, also, towards the Soviet past: the USSR not only made Ceausescu possible, it helped itself to a Romanian province in 1945 – the present-day Republic of Moldova.
The papal visit here in 1999 was the first by a Pope to an Orthodox country since the East/West schism in Christianity in 1054. This euphoric occasion might have registered more strongly in the West had its media been aware that it was part of an attempt to strike a new East-West balance. The attempt will be a delicate operation, requiring subtlety and a generous sense of purpose. Let us hope the EU can show at least as much of both as the Vatican.
Leader: President Ion Iliescu (Social Democrat / ‘Reformed Communist’).
Economy: GNP per capita $1,520 (Hungary $4,650, United States $30,600). 30% inflation (albeit down from 40% last year) and 11% unemployment have hit the poor hard. Strengthening demand for ‘labour-intensive goods’ (textiles, shoes) has made for 5% growth in GDP over the past year – but this comes after three years of recession.
Monetary unit: Leu.
Main exports: textiles, footwear, machinery, minerals.
People: 22.4 million. People per square kilometre 94 (Britain 238).
Health: Infant mortality 21 per 1,000 births (Hungary 9, Canada 6).
Environment: The Communist era has left a bitter environmental legacy: the Copsa Mica area, in the centre of the country, has one of the highest levels of industrial pollution in Europe.
Culture: 89% of the population is Romanian. The main minorities are Hungarian (9%) and the Romany (‘Gypsy’) people, who form 5-10% but are counted as Romanian by the census.
Religion: Orthodox (70%), Roman Catholic (3%), Uniate Catholic (3%), Protestant (6%), unaffiliated (18%).
Language: Romanian is the official language. Hungarian, Romany and German are also spoken.
Sources: UNESCO, European Forum, World Guide 2001/2002, State of the World’s Children 2001.
Never previously profiled
The Prime Minister since 2000, Adrian Nastase, son-in-law of a high-ranking Communist, remains popular with the West. At home the independent press is uneasy about his past - the Securitate (Communist-era secret police) files remain, controversially, the property of the modern-day secret police. Nastase has promised anti-corruption measures, further privatization, Romany rights, better treatment of street children and legalization of homosexuality. It's what the EU and the IMF want to hear. How much it means remains to be seen.