Saturday, June 30, 2007

Three million Romanians live in poverty

Source: Radio Netherlands Worldwide

The Romanian capital of Bucharest isn't one of the poorest cities in the world. But considering the country joined the rich countries' club - the European Union - at the beginning of this year, poverty in the city is at a disproportionate level. And it's visible.

Showroom manager Mike Costache proudly shows us a 'Gran Turismo', the latest model by exclusive Italian car manufacturer Maserati. The price tag is upwards of 130,000 euros and this year he's already sold 15. "We're considering opening a new showroom in Kluj (a town in the north of Romania, ed.) because there's so much demand." Who are the customers? Mr Costache will say no more than "people in the financial sector". Judging by the stylish appearance of Dorobanti Street, where the showroom is located, there's plenty of trade at the luxury end of Romania's car market. This is where the new rich go to show off their affluence.

Painful transition
If you base your impression on this street, you might conclude that Romania is rapidly catching up with the standard of welfare in the rest of the European Union, the "rich countries' club" to which it has belonged since 1 January this year. After the fall of communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989, Romania experienced a painful transition from planned to free market economy. The relative security of an assured income disappeared and the traditional agricultural sector proved to be no longer viable, so a large section of the rural population in particular were plunged into deep poverty.

But since 2000, the country has been experiencing steady economic growth - at a rate of 7.7 percent in 2006. While GNP per capita was only 6800 dollars in 2000, six years later it has climbed to 9165 dollars. It's a leap forwards, but still a long way from the Western European average, and what's more, this is an average figure with extremes on either side. According to the World Bank, 15 per cent of the Romanian population still live below the poverty line. "A lot of people at the bottom end of society have lost out in the economic transition," warns Mariana Stanciu of the Romanian Research Institute for Quality of Life."We're seeing new phenomena: parents emigrate and leave their children behind. It's not clear how the children survive," she continues. "The elderly are also a concern. The poverty is visible, people beg, even if they have an income or a pension."

No social safety net
Romania is a country with no social safety net, as Vasile Vasin discovered. Due to a law that enables people to claim ownership of pre-war property, he lost his home. "A four-room apartment I bought 32 years ago." He is now expected to find a rented house, with no financial compensation. "On an income of 400 lei (about 125 euros) that's impossible" says 63-year-old Mr Vasin, who was a builder all his working life but now has to get by on disability benefit. He currently lives with his wife Greta and their dog in a 1985 Dacia Logan - a car that West Europeans would recognise as a Renault 12 - parked outside his former home.

A sign next to the car doesn't beg for money but simply draws attention to their plight. "Look there are no lights on, the new owner isn't even living there," says Greta Vasin. "But where are we supposed to go? Here at least we still get our post." There's a toilet in the café round the corner and they can take a shower at their family's house. But the family can't really come to their aid." They've got problems of their own and no room to take us in," says Mr Vasin. The couple have been living in the car since Christmas. But is it an option to spend the rest of your life in a car? "Ah, we haven't got so many years left," says Mr Vasin bitterly.

"In this situation it would be worth considering leaving the city," says Mariana Stanciu. "It's true that living standards in Bucharest are quite a bit higher than they are in the countryside, but life can still be harder in the city. In the countryside people at least have the chance to grow their own vegetables. That's why there are initiatives to move pensioners to the countryside. It's easier for them to survive there."

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