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Romania’s Fragile New Left


Romania is perhaps the last place to expect an independent Left to take root. Unlike in Poland or Hungary or Yugoslavia, a critical socialist movement didn’t emerge in response to the orthodox Communists in power. And the Social Democrats that crawled from the wreckage of the 1989 revolution – first as part of the National Salvation Front and then in their own Social Democratic Party – embraced a politically and economically conservative platform. They signal left, as the Romanian joke goes, but turn right.

But Romania’s New Left has begun to coalesce. A group of young intellectuals – academics, journalists, writers – launched CriticAtac a few years ago to discuss “banks, the health system, trade unions, state institutions and services, elections, public policies, the Church, urbanism and any other topics of major public interest” and to do so “without academicism, snobbery or preciousness.” The group’s irreverence is evident in its own self-description: “Our ideology is leftist, but we are not a sect and we don’t go around patting each other on our backs for the brilliant and concerted line of our ideas.”

I sat down with one of the coordinators, journalist and writer Costi Rogozanu, in Bucharest last May. At a café in the park across from the massive parliament building, he told me about his own political trajectory.

“I had a liberal approach,” he said of his school years. “Liberalism was the mark of progress. Every young guy wanted to be this way. We would talk all day long about rights. This was the only way back then in the mid-1990s. Then, when I was 23 and I finished the faculty at university, something changed. It was also because I entered the workforce. I was a journalist then. Every day I saw all the problems in society and started to develop a new approach. I moved to the left. So many things that happened in the 1990s I couldn’t explain with the liberal approach.”

The 1990s were not a particularly happy time for most Romanians. The country suffered a large drop in GDP, and unemployment rose sharply into the double digits. “The liberal story was of moving forward with free market and privatization,” Rogozanu explained. “But these things were catastrophes for 60 percent of the people. There was also a lack of transparency about what happened with these processes. This was enraging for young guys like me and my friends. We conducted some anti-mainstream strikes when we were at the college in Bucharest. All our professors were liberal. They all said that we had to suffer in order to get to the free market in a good, neo-liberal way.”

One beneficiary of the disenchantment with neo-liberalism was Romania’s far right. In 2000, the Romania Mare (Greater Romania) Party polled nearly 20 percent in the parliamentary elections, and its presidential candidate came in second.

The independent Left has been less robust. “We cannot have manifestations because we don’t have power of any kind,” Rogozanu lamented. “We’re just writers. We have some good people on the academic side, but they are not very powerful. We don’t have important jobs or big support from parties. This is our advantage. But it’s also our disadvantage when we want to create something big. We want to create something new, so this will take some more time.”

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell? Did you see it on television?

No, not on television. I heard it in a discussion between my parents, who’d been listening to Radio Free Europe. It didn’t mean anything to me. I was 11 or 12 years old. It didn’t matter. My parents were happy. They were workers, not intellectuals. My mother was a primary school teacher, and my father was a mechanic. It was good news for them because it was clearly anti-Ceausescu. But for my parents it was not an obvious sign, like for the intellectuals, that Ceausescu would fall.

Do you remember the revolution here in December?

Yes, of course. There was a Securitate family living on the first floor of our building while we were staying on the second floor. My father took in the daughter of the Securitate because she was crying for help. My father wanted to help because the people were looking for the Securitate. This was in the provincial town of Focşani in south Moldova. Anything could have happened. Even though my father hated the Securitate, he was willing to help.

Do you remember how things changed in school when you came back from vacation?

Yes, there were teachers who were very active in the FSN (National Salvation Front). For them, it was a very simple situation. They helped to bring down Ceausescu, so Ion Iliescu was a good guy. Then it was like before. There was a debate about uniforms. Everyone was talking about changing the uniforms. The students said that we would come to school without uniforms, but we didn’t have good clothes for school. I had some jeans because my father was able to get a pair from an Austrian care package. I was very proud of these white jeans. That was my new uniform.

Was there much change in what you were being taught?

No, nothing. Five or six of the teachers talked about politics. Nothing else changed. And after a year even those teachers cooled down. They saw what was happening. They were smart people. In Focşani, the factories closed. Already the drama began.

Did your father lose his job as well?

Yes. After two years. But he was in a good profession, so he could be hired in the private sector. But he had some unhappy experiences because everyone in the 1990s was looking for jobs. So, there was some drama in my family for a couple years while he was working for little money. After four or five years, he managed to find a good job in the agricultural sector in Focşani, repairing machines. He had this job until last year when he retired. He knew something that everyone didn’t — how to repair complicated machines. He was an exception because he was a skilled worker.

For unskilled workers it was very difficult to jobs?

Yes, for all our neighbors. It was a major problem in society. There were big factories in Focşani, with engineers and armies of workers. After three months, they didn’t know what to do.

When did you become involved in politics yourself?

It was when I was 17 or 18. I had a liberal approach. Liberalism was the mark of progress. Every young guy wanted to be this way. We would talk all day long about rights. This was the only way back then in the mid-1990s. Then, when I was 23 and I finished the faculty at university, something changed. It was also because I entered the workforce. I was a journalist then. Every day I saw all the problems in society and started to develop a new approach. I moved to the left. So many things that happened in the 1990s I couldn’t explain with the liberal approach.

Can you be more specific about the failures of the liberal approach?

The liberal story was of moving forward with free market and privatization. But these things were catastrophes for 60 percent of the people. There was also a lack of transparency about what happened with these processes. This was enraging for young guys like me and my friends. We conducted some anti-mainstream strikes when we were at the college in Bucharest. All our professors were liberal. They all said that we had to suffer in order to get to the free market in a good, neo-liberal way.

I discovered at 25 that I was not interested in my parent’s past. I practically accused them of lack of vision when they voted for Iliescu. But this was not the case. It was a very complicated story for them. They didn’t rate Iliescu very highly. But they knew that the other guys were worse. And that’s what happened when, in 1996-2000, the Right came to power. Iliescu returned to power after that, but it was with a neo-liberal face.

The Right has embraced neoliberalism, and the liberals have embraced neoliberalism. What other alternatives are there in Romania at the moment?

There are no alternatives. This is a very sad thing. But this is also a very good point to start. The Social Democrats are now in power, but they are very neoliberal in what they do. They say all day long that the Romanian state doesn’t have the capital, can’t make investments, can’t be Keynesian. But it’s not just that. They’ve been pushing privatization in education, in health: very bad policies. And the voters do not punish them like they should do. The last two prime ministers, even though they were from the Left and the Right, conducted the same policy. Okay, the IMF doesn’t allow for much flexibility. It’s a vicious circle.

A half hour ago I was talking with a leftwing parliamentary representative who was telling me that a strike would scare off investors. Every demand from the workers’ side is a no for investment. We’ve been saying this for 20 years, and this is what we get.

You said earlier that you didn’t think there was a Left here in Romania.

No, there isn’t. A Communist minister once said that they signal left, and then turn right. That was Iliescu’s doing. I kind of agree with that. There’s also the explanation of Ivan Szelenyi, that the technocrats from the Communist era came to power. That happened here too. This very small group was intellectually hegemonic in every sector — economic, political – and they had the same discourse even if the parties were different. It was all about privatization. After December 22, even the people who didn’t trust privatization asked for democracy. And democracy was free travel in Europe. When did this free travel in Europe happen? Seven years later. And if I want to work in Europe, I can finally do so next January.

But there’s CriticAtac.

Yes, I am one of the founding members.

How big and how influential do you think the organization is?

We are not so influential. But we are more influential than our membership indicates. We have a good discourse. We have good arguments, and people are starting to listen to us even if they don’t share the ideology. This is our main achievement: to promote our arguments and convince people who are not leftists or Marxists. During the crisis, in January last year for instance, we were communicating with the public. We put out some intellectual statements. We put together an anthology against the Tismaneanu report. Everyone read it and took our opinion seriously. It was an attack from outside the political arena, but it counts.

Have you organized demonstrations?

No. We were present at some — in January, for instance. But all we do are meetings for discussion. We cannot have manifestations because we don’t have power of any kind. We’re just writers. We have some good people on the academic side, but they are not very powerful. We don’t have important jobs or big support from parties. This is our advantage. But it’s also our disadvantage when we want to create something big. We want to create something new, so this will take some more time.

You sound like a Left version of the Group for Social Dialogue.

That’s not exactly true. All the people in that Group have some power. They are coming from powerful positions, like the editors of publications or the authors of widely read books – like Andrei Plesu. Iliescu took the power of the state. And the Group for Social Dialogue took all the power of the civic side, they even privatized publishing houses, associations, and so on. We, on the other hand, are coming from the bottom. We offer a critical discourse. But we can’t organize a big publication — we don’t have the money or the power.

Do you think that GSD still has power today?

No. They don’t have the kind of influence they had before. Instead, today, they have the influence of a party, like the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). Over the last five years, they’ve become a sector of the intellectual elite connected to the PDL. In the 1990s, they maintained an influential position. The people trusted them. Now it’s not the case. They supported an aggressive austerity program. This was their big risk. And they lost. I hope.

Do you see CriticAtac following a similar trajectory as Krytyka Polityczna in Poland?

Yes, but they’re much bigger and are supported by more determined people. We are not in this position. CriticAtac could fail tomorrow. It is very fragile here. If some members decide not to go any further, that would be it for us. We are in a vulnerable situation because we are not well organized Still, our message has circulated. Even the Social Democratic Party (PSD) cites us, so they’re reading us. Our discourse makes them take care of what they are saying, makes them remember that they are social democrats. We are small, supported by enthusiasts, but nothing else. We get a little financial support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, which is helping us write some articles and do some translations. That’s how we survive.

There are some Left groups elsewhere in Romania that could do very good work where they are. We met a week ago in Cluj from the four big cities — Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi, and Timisoara. There were 68 people very determined to do something in the feminist direction, the ecological direction, the Left direction. If such people want to do this work with lots of enthusiasm and no money, then we could have very good results.

The situation in the 2000s in Hungary was somewhat similar when the former Socialists and the liberals got together in a coalition. But this coalition largely discredited liberal ideology and prepared the ground for Fidesz to move to the right and take over that space. Are you concerned that a coalition of the Right and the Far Right could happen here in Romania?

Well, in economic views, the current government is already Far Right. In other matters, like racism and extremism, it’s in a state of latency because they haven’t had the need until now to use those weapons in the electoral battle. But it’s always possible. Many elites align with this regime against a French or a British economic threat. Sometimes the Right and the Far Right speak with a single voice: Romanian capitalists have to stand together against the big foreign capitalists. In this way, they’re trying to get something from the Romanian government.

On other side, it’s true that the Romanian government gave some big help to the big capitalists from the West. The Right’s solution is to become more nationalist. I hope that this will not be the case. We had a similar experience under Ceausescu when the crisis began to bite and nationalism became even stronger. We had flags everywhere. And now today, Romania has the biggest flag in the world. That was on the news yesterday – in a village 20 kilometers from Bucharest.

What was the purpose of that flag?

The prime minister was there and also the minister of defense. It was an initiative of a TV station owner and friend of the government.

What about the students here? In Hungary, the Student Network is pretty strong right now.

No, there’s nothing like that here. It’s a mystery. It could be that in our sociology courses, we don’t read Marx or Gramsci. But it’s a mystery why they’re not more organized. They’re focused on getting jobs after they graduate — and this is understandable. When you fight capitalism, you have to have your feet on the ground. But there’s a good movement in Cluj. In Bucharest, I don’t know what’s wrong with the students. We tried. CriticAtac held some conferences at the university that attracted 50, even 100 people. We had some big guest speakers. But after those events, everything returned to the way it was — unorganized. I hope it’s just a transitory phase. The students have seen higher education even more strongly linked to money than 10 years ago. When they get the final hit, they will organize, and we will support them.

Have any independent unions emerged here?

No. The public sector is unionized. But the private sector, where there are bigger problems, isn’t. They haven’t been able to syndicalize the private sector. All the control remains with the investors, with some exceptions. In the public sector, what can you do? You can fight, but… They tell you that you have a job, that’s the biggest thing. The union took some big hits in the last decade. They had their problems. But the state was fighting against them and managed to weaken them even more.

In terms of the political crisis last year – the conflict between president and prime minister — what is your interpretation of what happened?

First of all, the Western press — Financial Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — they were all writing crap. Everything they quoted was from the rightwing side. It was so obvious. I’m a big critic of the left, of the PSD, so you can’t say that I’m just Left and taking sides. It was just a small fight, not a big one. Traian Basescu and those in power were very good at maintaining relationships with very important people, those in the European Union. Now everything is cool. Victor Ponta manages to understand Basescu very well – they’re now doing the same politics! So, what has changed? Where is the big coup d’état? It was very democratic in one way, but it was very undemocratic for small people. When people enter into the equation, when the referendum took place, suddenly things were not so good. But when people stayed calm in their houses, it was smooth again.

The message from the people’s movement in January last year was clear: stop privatization and give us jobs. But nothing happened. Privatization accelerated. All those scandals with diesel fuel continued. They changed the power and then they changed the discourse. And they blamed everything on the EU.

When you look 20 years into the future, what do you think will happen – not only in Romania but in this region as a whole? Will Romaina still be an adjunct to the EU? Will certain countries be brought in as equal partners?

We’ll reach a crisis point, and then everything will change. We might have a bigger protest movement in Europe, organized at a much higher level than the indignados. I hope that happens, but it also might not happen. At the moment, the EU is the ideal minimum state. If you want to be a state, you have to be tax, so the EU has to tax. There are small steps you can take to address the fiscal problem. It’s doable.

Romania and Bulgaria will always stay at the bottom of the EU, the south at the next level, and the north at the top. I’m even more pessimistic now. I think the crisis point will come in two years, even next year, when Romania and Bulgarians will be able to work in the EU. What will the EU reaction be? Will it be a fascist reaction?

Do you think that next year when Romanians and Bulgarians can work in the EU, there will be a large outflow of people from the two countries?

No. The outflow already took place in the 1990s, at the beginning of the 2000s. But now, the most active workers have already left. Who else will go? The pensioners?

What about you?

I’m not like my father. He has a skill. But I write — in Romanian. The French people don’t want to read anything in Romanian. And I’m 35. I couldn’t requalify. And I’m not interested. I want to stay here and survive. That’s my best scenario.

You do commentaries for TV.

Yes, for TV. And I also write opinion pieces in the press.

How would you describe them? Apolitical?

No. I have the advantage of operating at a small level. I give my opinions, but I’m not connected to any politicians. I’m not that kind of journalist. I’ve seen the politicization of the TV station in 10 different directions. Now it’s an interesting situation. The station is insolvent, like so many other businesses in Romania. This insolvency is also a transitory period with no evident influence from the political side. We have journalists that offer one opinion in the first hour and then journalists who offer the opposite opinion in the next hour. This is a good thing. But I don’t know how long this will last.

Here in Romania, is it similar to Hungary and Italy with greater politicization of media, with more party ownership and greater media concentration?

In terms of party influence, when you talk about Antena 3 or B1, it’s obvious. When you talk about other smaller TV stations, investors take sides depending on their interests. I’ve worked for 10 years in the media. Two or three times I’ve been in conflict with the political views of my employers, but they let me do my work. It was clearly because I was not so important. That’s my advantage. LIke CriticAtac. We’re not that important. So, we’re pretty safe.

What do you think about Andrei Chiliman’s expulsion from the Liberal Party?

They misplayed their opposition in the party. They isolated themselves. At the party congress, they didn’t criticize the leadership. I was running after them to get a radical opinion against the leadership and they wouldn’t give it to me. Then, after the congress, they were suddenly dissidents. How was that? So, they managed to get the worst position: dissidents without being dissidents and then expulsion. The Liberal Party will be an important party 10 years from now. So, you have to know how to get power within the party and not get excluded. That’s the art of being a politician.

Chiliman is a local politician, a mayor of one part of Bucharest, the richest part, and he has some support. It’s good for him, but it’s not good for the party. The former party head Tăriceanu, for example, is still a political figure that could be used. But he also isolated himself. Why not criticize the party leader Crin Antonescu and try to take his power?

Chiliman says he doesn’t want to be head of the party or president. All he wants to be is mayor of Sector One.

Yes, that’s a nice job, mayor of Sector One, why not? It’s well paid, influential. But the localization of the political is a tragedy. Already 50 percent of mayoralties are in bankruptcy. Next winter, it will be a tragedy when we will have to pay 10-15 percent more for heating. It’s already a problem. But it will be worse, and there will be more bankruptcy at the local level — not in Sector One of Bucharest, but everywhere else.

It seems that interethnic tensions have improved considerably since I was here 20 years ago. And the ethnic Hungarian party UDMR seems to be a pretty smart party, working incrementally to achieve its goals.

First of all, my wife is Hungarian. So I am very subjective on this issue, but in a good way since I’m very cosmopolitan! I think the bad side of the UDMR is that they are always pushing this ethnic policy. Okay, they’re very smart politicians. They’re getting step by step what they want. But I do not want to see an ethnic fight. When the UDMR is not in power, they are irritating the majority that is in power. It might be smart politics, but it is also dangerous. None of the big parties has a significant membership from minorities. They are all in the UDMR. This is a tragedy.

These days, with the liberal conservative orientation, politics is all about autonomy. This is a big goal, autonomy. Okay, so tomorrow they give you autonomy. Then what do you next? That’s the important question. In the short term it’s smart politics. But in the long term, it will cause the same inter-ethnic disputes, and then we’ll have Romanian flags all over the place. My wife comes from a region, Satu Mare, with 40 percent Hungarian population. She’s very bored with this discussion. Her friends are enlightened but ideologically set. The corruption in Harghita and Covasna is very obvious and the fact that UDMR protects them is also very obvious. You can go into the mountains in Transylvania that don’t have any forests any more. This is the politics of the UDMR.

It doesn’t speak well of what autonomy can bring.

It’s like in my hometown where a politician has ruled the place for decades. He could be French, Hungarian: his politics would be the same. It’s all about “my guys.” And for the rest: goodbye. He already has a form of autonomy. And so does UDMR. So what are they crying about?

If you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Romania since that time until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?

4

Same period, same scale: your own personal life?

8

Looking into the near future, how do you evaluate the prospects for Romania on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

3.5.

 

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