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In A Country Like Romania...

A few days ago I came across an older Observer article that attempted to recap the twenty years following the fall of Communism in Romania. It said that "it was impossible to have a revolution in Romania. So it had to be staged." The revolution was staged by the people who took power immediately afterwards, namely Ion Iliescu and the 'National Salvation Front' party, the predecessor to today's PSD (now one half of the PSD-PNL coalition called USL). This is the truth. But it makes a lot more sense when we look at the quote in its original form, as spoken by Iliescu himself, "In a country like Romania it was impossible to have a revolution. So it had to be staged."

This is what I want to focus on today. Ed Vulliamy, the Observer journalist who wrote that article in 2009, may not have realized the importance of the syntax in that particular sentence, but I do. It's not just semantics that the sentence started with, "in a country like Romania".

To understand what "a country like Romania" means, you have to get to the bottom of what Romania was and why it was impossible to have a revolution. The documentary, The King of Communism, will give you some of the insight you need, but if you're not convinced, you can also watch this video. There are a lot of similarities between North Korea and the pre-1989 Romania. It was indeed a stage for the great leader where all citizens had specific walk-on parts. It was Ceausescu's petty fiefdom and ordinary Romanians were his serfs.

In 1989 it all changed. Overnight. With communism collapsing all over Europe, some -but probably most - of Ceausescu's inner circle realized that it was time to get in on the capitalism parties they were throwing in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and neighbouring Bulgaria. The problem was that Ceausescu wasn't the kind of man who would sit at a round table discuss a peaceful transition the way they had done in Poland. He would have no intention of ceding power because that means he would be called to account for his crimes. That didn't suit him, but it suited his cronies even less. Imagine Ceausescu rotting in jail, writing his memoirs and implicating every single one of Romania's current politicians in the dirty work he had them do. That wouldn't do. That's why his eventual 'trial' lasted two minutes and why the death sentence was carried out immediately. They knew what they were doing, these Brutuses. It was nothing more than a politically motivated assassination, as history has now shown.

That was it, then. The director was gone and with him so was the script. Millions of Romanians were left without lines or stage direction. They were told that they were now free to write their own parts. And this is where the problems started -and continue to this day. This passage from the aforementioned article gives some additional background: "Before 1989, there were various factions within the communist system," [says Matei Paullin, an investment banker raised abroad but who returned after '89] "Now, after what I call a 'regicide' rather than a coup d'├ętat, let alone a revolution, those same factions exist in what appears to be a market system, but is in reality a rotten state which sold off such assets as the national bank and Petrom [the state oil company] and its substantial drilling interests for a fraction of their value, to companies from France, Austria and other countries, simply to protect their own political positions. The western powers and corporations happily and knowingly played along." 

What you had was the beginning of the Romanian Mafia in its current form.  It was/is comprised of people in privileged positions and who chose to use the authority of their respective office to enrich themselves and their associates. It was easy to do, and as we say in Romanian, 'firesc'. The closest English word to that is 'natural'. Naturally they preferred to plunder as much as they could from state-owned companies (all the companies in the country at the time) and to sell off what was left to foreign interests. I don't even think these were all acts of malice as much as they were displays of ignorance and sheer stupidity, perpetrated by people who didn't even have the kind of vision necessary to do anything else. Like looters, they took as much as they could and ran. 

How can any communist functionary who was brought up in a system that institutionalized every aspect of day to day life, possibly be expected to modernize companies that previously existed for the sake of maintaining a status quo on the means of production? Agreed, some of those state companies did better than others and had some real merit on their own, namely Petrom and the Galati steelworks. But the communist government had fabricated factory jobs for years on end. Who was going to decide what would work now in a free-market economy? Who was going to provide some solid business analysis to decide where government resources needed to be allocated? Even if the said factions at the time of the revolution had been well-intentioned, they would've been incapable of doing anything right. They were made up of people who'd become accustomed to playing a scripted role as stage actors. All that they were good at, was in manipulating the masses.

They were everything a good manager isn't. And good managers are needed in any country that embarks on the capitalist adventure. 

Millions and millions of other Romanians were in the same boat. They were now able to operate businesses and when they had to make decisions based on concepts foreign to communism like efficiency, profit, and networking, they were simply lost. Many still are. Stage drama analogy aside, a good manager is nothing if not a good decision maker. But making good decisions is not a school course. You can't get a PhD in Decision Making. And without a solid foundation in shouldering responsibility and making important decisions you can't run a business. What's more, you can't run a capitalist country. But that's where the manipulation comes in. 

These people, who were completely incompetent as leaders, knew how to push the right buttons. And when the buttons they were pushing were located in the brains of automatons to begin with, it really wasn't that hard. First, it was a piece of cake to unite the people against Ceausescu, especially when one of their beloved institutions, the army, joined their cause against the evil tyrant. Second, mock trial, real trial, or no trial, the important thing was to kill him, nobody would complain anyway. Done and done. Then it was time to have the leader do something heroic, since these were the types of acts expected of leaders, so Iliescu jumped out of a plane and landed on the stage where he gave some sort of freedom speech. Spectaculous! Next up was the people's ability to 'freely' elect this skydiving bandit, and they did! 

For the sake of argument though, let's say that the revolution was actually a series of spontaneous acts of rebellion by 'the people' against the tyrant Ceausescu. It would mean that the Romanians had become a people unwilling to take shit from their leaders. That they were ready to die for the cause of justice and freedom in their country, and that no leader would be allowed to trample on their freedom again. But only one month later, in January 1990, president Iliescu called the coal miners from the provinces to beat protesters in the streets of Bucharest as they displayed their displeasure with the communists still running the show. Until September 1991 there were four such 'mineriads'.Then eventually the Romanians gave up, and Iliescu won. The problem was, those protests had not been staged. 

It all sounds pretty depressing doesn't it? What hope is there in a country full of people who are unwilling to fight for the greater good preferring to aim only for a higher salary, a better car, or achieving their lifelong dream of building their own house? A land of people who demand to be micro-managed, who refuse to take on responsibility, and who are petrified at the prospect of making important decisions because they might fail. I was discussing the article that started all this with my girlfriend and that's just what she asked me, "don't you feel like it's so hopeless here, like you have to leave?" At first, overwhelmed by the wretchedness of it all, all I could say was "Yeah...yeah", but then I realized something very important. "No! That's not true," I said, quickly changing my mind, "All this, all this stuff that's happened since '89 is endemic of the communist mentality that these people can't shake. One day it'll be gone for good, along with the people who are still clinging to it now. So actually I'm hopeful." 

In a country like Romania, a revolution may need to be staged, but there is still plenty of room for hope.

Prislop Pass, Romania

*photo credit:


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