The European Union may be going through a slump, depressed by the lingering economic downturn caused by tough austerity programs and poisoned by an increasingly vitriolic and nationalist atmosphere, but it’s worth remembering its benefits, and why it was formed in the first place. To the people of Eastern Europe, long under gloomy Communist rule and cut off from the outside world, the European Union represents all that they yearned for during those bleak years: democracy, free enterprise, decent infrastructure, art, culture, markets overflowing with fruits and vegetables, vibrant intellectual activity, and an optimistic outlook. It also captures some of the qualities Eastern Europeans look back on fondly: a sense of an international community that rejected shortsighted nationalism in favor of ideology and that gives its members a sense of belonging to a greater project.

Eastern Europe’s march westward is often overlooked in favor of Europe’s more pressing issues: salvaging a euro that more and more seems like a drag rather than a boon and the resurgence of a surly, antagonistic Russia. But it’s worth remembering, as it’s one of the bright spots in the story of the EU. This week I will take a look at one of Eastern Europe’s most frequently overlooked countries: Romania.

Romania is one of the oddballs in the eclectic collection of little nations that checker the map of Europe. It is composed of three large regions welded together through a common national identity: Transylvania, a wild, rugged, rural mountain region that makes up most of the country; Moldavia, a northeastern region bordering Moldova (not to confuse you or anything); and Wallachia, a flat, fertile southern region bordering the Danube, Europe’s longest river, and the Black Sea. It has a long if somewhat murky history, being colonized by Greeks and Romans in ancient times and invaded/settled/occupied/influenced by Huns, Goths, Pechenegs, Greeks (again), Cumans, Slavs, Bulgars, Avars, Hungarians, Romani (Gypsies), Germans and Mongols. The Greeks converted Romania to Orthodoxy and the Slavs heavily influenced Romanian culture, but it was the Romans and Hungarians who had the strongest influence over the nascent nation: Romanian is descended from Latin (and Romanians might be remnants of the Roman Empire), while Hungary ruled over Transylvania.

Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Romania mostly missed out on the waves of development and modernization that rocked Western Europe. It came under Osmanli (Turkish) rule in the 1400s and was governed by oppressive Greek aristocrats gloriously named Phanariots. It was barely influenced by Turkish culture, but still resented infidel rule; Transylvania was annexed by the Austrian Empire in the 1600s and governed by Hungarians. Feudalism persisted; most Romanians were poor peasants working tracts of land in remote countryside. Germans and Hungarians dominated the cities in Transylvania. Rulers in all parts focused more on war, geopolitics and squeezing their peasants than on benevolent governance. It’s all very medieval, but we’re talking about the 17 and 1800s here.

Moldavia & Wallachia gained their independence, made some modest progress under royal rule, and united with Transylvania after World War I. But the country remained mostly cut off from the rest of Europe. It avoided the turmoil of the Balkan Wars, although it was steeped in the fervent nationalism of the region. Far down the Danube from the central European center of power and without a real outlet to the sea (the Black Sea is fairly cut off from the Mediterranean), Romania remained a backwater with a very small educated elite and few road or rail connections out of the country.

The advent of Communism in the 1940s exacerbated this divide. Under the magnificently named Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and, after 1965, Nicolae Ceauşescu — whose very name has become a byword for Communist tyranny and delusion — Romania languished as a heavily polluted, fiercely inward-looking dictatorship. Peasants were forced onto collectivized farms with catastrophic results for productivity. Food and material shortages were commonplace. Electric power and running water were luxuries; even heat could only be cranked up to 10°. Typewriters were illegal. Industry was ramped up, but with few markets for its products. Food was increasingly exported northwards to countries that mattered more to the Soviet Union, the Communist Bloc’s ringleader. Perhaps inspired by a trip in 1971 to North Korea, Ceauşescu became far more megalomaniacal and bombastic than his colleagues in other Eastern European countries, building the world’s 2nd-largest building as a palace for himself, heavily encouraging his citizens to have more kids than they could afford, and paying off Romania’s foreign debt by beggaring his people. Romania was characterized by soot, unfeasible public works project like a canal to the Black Sea, and drab apartment blocks.

Romania was so cut off from the outside world, it barely heard about the upheavals that roiled and eventually broke the Communist Bloc in 1989. Revolt broke out anyway, probably aided by Party elites who were tired of Ceauşescu’s increasing dementia and narcissism. As a sign of how repressive the regime was, Ceauşescu was gunned down with his wife instead of being peacefully deposed as occurred elsewhere. That meant the Party elite could stay in power after rebranding themselves as the “National Salvation Front.” This worried a lot of foreigners, and sure enough, the new regime opened the economy only slowly and proved to be repressive as well: it responded to widespread protests against the 1990 elections by sicking a bunch of rowdy coal miners on them.

Romania’s performance in the ’90s was generally pretty lackluster. Officials (understandably) weren’t used to dealing with competitive elections and multiparty systems. The economy remained dominated by inefficient state-owned enterprises, and Romania still lacked viable markets for its exports. Until recently, the elite was the same crowd from the Communist era. Nationalist grandstanding continued. The judiciary and security services were still heavily politicized. The Romanian environment remained quite gross. Corruption was endemic; poverty and economic inequality were terrible by European standards.

Some commentators were gloomy about Romania’s prospects, predicting that it would become another corrupt pseudo-dictatorship estranged from the rest of Europe like Russia and its former Soviet republics. But so far they have been proven wrong. For Romania, like most of Eastern Europe, was hungry for wider recognition. Long repressed and ignored, Romanians were eager to be accepted as part of Europe. And that meant joining the EU.

Some scoffed and doubted it would happen. Romania’s too corrupt, too backward, too nationalist, too poor, they said. But they were wrong. After joining NATO in 2004, Romania joined the EU in 2007. At the time it came as a shock; it remains one of the EU’s easternmost territories. Was Romania really ready for it?

Romania’s elite wanted to join the EU so they could get their hands on those sweet, sweet euros for some badly needed development (at least, that’s what they said). The Romanian people wanted to join because in order to become part of the EU, countries must meet certain standards. They must be free-market democracies. They must guarantee freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and basic human rights. They must have rule of law and politically independent judiciaries. They must renounce war against other EU members. And they must restrict corruption.

This last one proved to be Romania’s biggest hurdle. The European Commission* agreed to let Romania join as long as it allowed a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to monitor its internal affairs and make sure it was cleaning up quickly enough. Ironically for such a proud and nationalist country, Romanians wanted to join the EU so foreigners could boss them around some more — though in a more productive way than before.

Romania has duly taken on the fight against corruption with relish. The National Anticorruption Directorate, founded in 2003, began life as an underdog battling deeply entrenched habits and some powerful businessmen and politicians. It has ballooned into one of Romania’s most formidable institutions. Last year 1,138 people were convicted by it, compared to 155 in 2006. Some of them are powerful, too — MPs**, Adrian Năstase (a former prime minister nailed for raising campaign funds with public money), Elena Udrea (a former tourism minister and presidential candidate charged with money laundering and influence peddling) and Iulian Hertanu (the prime minister’s own brother-in-law, who’s apparently been embezzling millions of euros). There are inevitable charges of political motivations — much like Xi Jinping’s corruption drive in China — and some say the cleanup has become a populist “mania,” but the country has at least proved that it is serious about safeguarding the rule of law and breaking up the aura of invincibility that clouds Romania’s elite.

Elsewhere this is also substantial progress. Romania has escaped the war and ethnic turmoil that blighted Yugoslavia in the ’90s. Longstanding resentment against the Hungarian minority still living deep in Transylvania has ebbed, partially thanks to their political party, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, freely contesting elections just like any other (it’s even part of the current governing coalition). Klaus Iohannis, the newly elected president, is German, and was voted in on a platform of pragmatic economic development and a pro-EU policy. There is little public sympathy for Russia or Vladimir Putin’s ideology.

Romania’s media is free and clamorous. Its youth are multilingual and underemployed, making Romania a prime destination for outsourcing for Western Europe. The government is liberalizing the economy (right now it’s focusing on the energy and telecom sectors), and the private sector is growing steadily. Despite a setback from the global economic collapse in 2008, Romania implemented a tough austerity program despite popular blowback and is now growing at a rate of about 3% a year. New oil finds in the Black Sea should secure Romania some energy independence from Russia. The poverty rate has dropped from 36% in 2000 to 4.4% in 2009. Shopping centers and good roads are springing up in formerly isolated towns. Romania’s even become a popular filming destination, and is developing its own critically acclaimed (if only modestly successful) film industry.

That being said, Romania remains a country in transition. Its infrastructure is way beneath European standards. Its roads are dangerous and it still has flimsy connections with neighboring countries — only 1 bridge across the Danube to Bulgaria, for example. It’s still the most rural EU country — 45% — and many of those villages remain pockets of rustic farm life, with horse-drawn carts as common as cars and electricity and piped water not guaranteed. EU regulations like pasteurizing cheese and fencing livestock are usually ignored. Although not as severe as some of its neighbors (like Bulgaria), Romania suffers from a long-term population decline; it has about 20 million people now compared to about 23 million when Ceauşescu fell. A brain drain of young underemployed professionals westward exacerbates the problem (and sometimes aggravates westerners with already straining welfare programs). Unemployment is climbing (although at 6.5%, it’s better than a lot of European countries).

Romania has a lot of work to do. Despite a good election record since 1991, trust in politicians and the political process is low. The fact that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism is still monitoring the country and issuing occasional report cards 8 years after EU accession is discouraging. Graft is still rampant; organized crime is still widespread; a nasty fight with Hungary over the Hungarian minority in Transylvania and continued discrimination against the Romani (Gypsies) keep the prospect of ethnic conflict alive. But all in all, its image is in need of some updating. Like Poland, Romania is proud of its heritage and the progress it has made in the quarter-century since Ceauşescu’s despotism, and craves more recognition from its European brethren. Considering Romania’s past as a rural backwater and a pit of Stalinist despair, it seems fair to say it deserves it.


The EU’s executive branch


Members of Parliament


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