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Can Romania rediscover its self-belief? Seven years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Romania at last has a truly democratic government.

Emil Constantinescu's election to the Romanian presidency last November ended the seven years of stagnation that followed Nicolae Ceausescu's overthrow in 1989. The so-called revolution of 1989 had no teeth, because it failed to remove the communists from office. As a result, Romania has lagged at least seven years behind its neighbours--probably more, given the greater repression under Ceaucescu in comparison to the more restrained communism of his western neighbours.

The 1990s have seen most of these nations struggling to adjust their economies to the demands of the free market. The effects of this have yet to reach people's pockets: 1996's report from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development confirms an overall fall in the standard of living throughout the region. But at least the years of financial stringency have brought these countries' economies more into line with the international community's wishes--and thus opened the door to foreign investment.

By contrast, Romania's steps towards modernization, under Ion Iliescu, the recently ousted president, lacked urgency. Time will tell if his successor is able to reverse the cycle of apathy gripping Romania and whether he can get rid of the remaining bastions of communism. In the latter, at least, Constantinescu is likely to succeed. He has a parliamentary majority and, for the moment, the people's support. Unlike many politicians here he is not linked to the communists and his democratic credentials seem to be impregnable.

Romania needs foreign investment if it is to provide the standard of living its people deserve and have so long been denied. Constantinescu is brutally honest about economic inefficiency. His realism may prove more attractive to foreign investors than the old-fashioned reluctance to admit that there was anything really wrong.

None of this does justice to the magnitude of the upheaval facing Romanians. In every profession people are being asked to accept that their working practices will need to change. Many Romanians are hungry for improvement. Nonetheless foreign investment almost necessarily comes sheathed in criticism of the people it is meant to help. No one likes to be criticized and particularly not professionally.

Romanians do not feel that they are especially distinct from the rest of Europe--and in anything other than economic terms, they are not. There is an established literary tradition and a history of education. Books were available quite freely in the past and those on people's shelves are largely the same as at home in Britain. If there is a difference it is that in Romania they are more likely to have been read. Under Ceausescu there were only three hours of television a day, most of which was propaganda.

Romanians tend to define their culture in western European terms. Transylvania was part of the Austrian empire and Romania has strong links with France. Dacia, the state car factory, largely owes its origin to Renault. Romanian writers and artists fit into a western tradition.

Earlier this century writers like Tristzan Zara and Eugene Ionesco were part of the European literary avant-garde.

It is this discrepancy between their cultural and economic position that some Romanians find difficult to accept. Their history binds them to Europe and yet economically they are excluded from its heart. This is felt by some to be a betrayal.

Many Romanians respond to their country's difficulties by saying that things are terrible, but nothing can be done to change them. At the same time, many have a notion that they do have a role in defining their future--but hesitate to act on it. It is easy to categorize this as laziness--missing the point that for the last 50 years the concept of individuals taking control of their actions did not exist.

If Constantinescu achieves something great for Romania it will be to lay the ground for the rediscovery of self-belief. The process began with Iliescu's conservative economic reform, of which only a few Romanians were able to take advantage. It needs to extend more widely through the community.

In spite of widespread industrialization, Romanians retain a strong link with the land. Most farming takes place on small holdings, is labour intensive and relies on livestock for ploughing and transport. Some city families also have access to land--either their own or through family--on which they grow food and grapes. Grapes are like weeds, growing in the fields and twisting around the wooden frames which surround most houses. Many families own a couple of pigs. When they are slaughtered it is an occasion of some ceremony--and nothing is wasted.

Driving along roads awash with cattle and herdsmen, I was struck by the contradiction of a country which is both industrially developed and yet maintains a basically peasant rural population. Romania will find it difficult to balance these two worlds. Industrialization was achieved by communism, which is seen as a foreign imposition. The search for a contemporary identity has, by default, turned back to an idealized pre-communist and rural past, which is irrelevant to the working lives of most Romanians today.

Westerners are prone to cliche--and to patronizing--when they discuss Eastern Europe. We can talk rosily of the dignity of a people untouched by the ravages of communism, or of the triumph of the human over the state. But to talk of the east in such terms only increases our distance from it. It is only by living alongside Romanians that I have begun to understand the price people in this part of the world have paid, and are paying, for the years of communist domination.

Fraser Fyfe is working with Medical Support in Romania, teaching English to staff at Salaj District Hospital.
COPYRIGHT 1997 For A Change
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Author:Fyfe, Fraser
Publication:For A Change
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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