what you get here

This is not a blog which opines on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Romania's stark realities - and what is to be done?

British insularity is such that, over the past century, there have been only a handful of academics with an interest in Romania. In the first two decades of the 20th century it was Robert Seton-Watson – whose contribution to the very existence of Czechoslovakia (as it then became) overshadowed the role he played in Romania’s development. Twenty years or so ago, Dennis Deletant and his wife were important for their contributions to our understanding of the Romanian language and of its infamous security systems. Since then Tom Gallagher has taken up the baton – although with a more aggressive stance toward his subject matter (which he has also adopted to his more recent focus on Scotland)
On a visit last week to Bucharest’s English bookshop, I noticed that Gallagher produced last year a new book about about Romania and its access to the EU. Amazon can generally offer cheaper versions – but my visit to its website gave me the astonishing price of 57 pounds. There was however a very extensive review by a former British Council Lecturer (Christopher Lawson) in Romania during the Communist era (1976-1978) who returned to Iasi at the end of 2003 and now works as a writer-editor. With his kind permission (15 October) I offer the following excerpt from his review - since it gives such a good overview of the country's recent development.
And what impression of the country might a tourist take away in 2010? Western sales engineers descend from planes and gather for breakfast in Romania's international hotels. Shiny high-rise buildings rise in city centres. Well-fed Romanian businessmen attend backslapping Rotary meetings and travel from the provinces by train to the capital in comfortable sleeping compartments, or in sleek new cars which clog the overcrowded roads. The wares on sale in the supermarkets compare with those they are used to in the West. Fresh fish from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is delivered daily to the French hypermarket chain Carrefour. Young people clad in the latest fashions patronize chic restaurants and cafes, leaving in glossy cars or on Kawasaki motorbikes. Top names come to give concerts in the capital. The nouveaux riches flock to the stadiums and concert halls. Ambitious students seeking their fortunes opt for business or law, and graduate with a good knowledge of English and the Internet. A ruthless win-lose attitude prevails in business.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of peasants live in grinding poverty, with no electricity or running water, while employees of the State, notably teachers and doctors, struggle from month to month. The same kleptocrats, generally Securitate officers who once informed on their fellow-citizens, inheritors of the Stalinist system which once prevailed, sabotage numerous projects to improve the villages. I live on the university hill in Romania's second city. Nearly every time I visit my rubbish dump, I meet poorer residents picking through plastic bottles and discarded clothes. Corruption holds sway, especially in justice, education, medicine and tenders for road construction.
Whatever a "normal" post-Communist country may be, Romania does not count as one, despite appearances to the contrary. Tom Gallagher tells us why.
His new book analyzes those 20 years, especially the more recent ones. Meticulously researched, written with the pace of a thriller, and in the final analysis endlessly depressing, Romania and the European Union confirms Gallagher's position in the front rank of historians of, and commentators on, post-Communist Romania.
The book, Gallagher's third on Romania, documents how old-guard, predatory kleptocrats have continued to enrich themselves, trousering millions, much of it cash from EU funds, while consistently blocking substantial reforms in key ministries. Meanwhile EU officials at all levels, alternatively complacent, deluded, indecisive or just plain feckless and lacking willpower, have, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, allowed Romania into the world's most successful economic and political grouping without having made these vitally necessary reforms. Brussels was deceived.
So-called European Social Democrat leaders share the blame. Many praised Romanian leaders whose corrupt behaviour shrieked to the skies. In particular, it is clear that the acceptance of the PSD, the former Communists, into the international centre-left family of the Socialist International was a catastrophic error.
The Romanian ex-Communist elite deployed the full panoply of Balkan wiles to outwit the European negotiators. They bestowed honorary doctorates on visiting or resident Eurocrats. Following ancient Phanariot tradition, they even provided bedmates for high-level EU representatives. They prevaricated, protected their own and pretended to implement reforms while preventing them from biting.
From the pages heroes, heroines and villains arise. The villains, all of whom are well-known, outnumber the heroes and heroines. Not a single corrupt politician has been successfully prosecuted or served a full custodial sentence. The EU's wish to have a number of heads on a plate, dripping with blood, has not been granted. Experts say the real progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime is measured not by the number of arrests, but by simple indicators: convictions by a court in a fair trial, the amount of dirty money confiscated, or the number of illegally acquired properties taken away. And such efforts have not yet been seen.
To all of which I can only – but very sadly – say "hear! Hear!” And it is particularly good to see the role of western agencies being properly emphasised. It does indeed take two to tango.
The question, hoever, to which I constantly return is what might a relevant reform strategy look like for kleptocracies such as this? For the past decade, in various papers available on my website (number 1 gathers it all together), I have been bemoaning the failure of Western agencies and programmes of Technical Assistance to recognise that the fashionable mantra about „good governance” their experts were peddling was sheer snake-oil in these conditions and countries. Grindle’s “Good Enough Governance Revisited”was one of the few papers which gave my stance any backing then. For some time I have been consumed by two simple questions a what and a where.
First – what approach should I advise genuine reformers in the machinery of government in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan or Romania (let alone middle eastern countries such as Jordan) to take? The public sector of course of each of these countries is at a particular stage – and each faces its own unique configuration of constraints and opportunities – so the approach has to start from that unique combination of forces. But what would the generic elements of the approach contain? Varous papers on my website paper contain some elements - not only the one I have already mentioned but also a couple of papers on Azerbaijan. But these were drafted some years ago (for very particular audiences)and do need some considerable revision to provide something more generalisable.
The second question is where do you find the reformers who are likely to have some staying power – both in positions of influence and as reformers? Sadly there does seem to be an „├»ron law of oligarchy” (as Robert Michels put it 100 years ago) - which quickly sucks the originality and commitment out of reformers. This then leads onto a third question. I was very struck in a thread of discussion about Tom Gallagher’s latest critique of Scottish national politics by someone’s comment that such criticism is unfair since all governments quickly succumb to global capitalism. This stance is a real challenge – Margaret Thatcher put it very simply – TINA – there is no alternative. So why should we bother voting or engaging in activism of any sort? Why not take Voltaire’s advice – and just cultivate our gardens? To answer that question, people like me have to identify - and properly disseminate - the examples of sustained, positive, social change.
I’ve just started to dip into two books which I hope will help me with this - Will Hutton’s latest book Them and Us – and David Dorlings Injustice. Clearly these authors are very good on critiques and explaining the mechanisms which sustain inequity and injustice. But do they address the third question? Nous y verrons!

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