Thursday, July 31, 2008

Roma in Romania

By Daniel Jianu

Not that long ago, the president of Romania, Traian Basescu, as he was surviving a referendum to keep his job, managed to create a ruckus when he seized a mobile telephone being used by a reporter to record an interview with him. After the phone was returned to the reporter's television station, the recording revealed that Mr. Basescu had called the journalist a "stinking Gypsy".

The last census, in 2002, showed that Romania had a stable 'Gypsy" population of 535,140, though most scholars widely believe that this figure is inaccurate and most likely underestimates the actual numbers; unofficial estimates place the Roma population in Romania somewhere between 1.8-2.5 million, representing between 8 and 10 percent of the general population. If these numbers are accurate, Roma constitute the largest minority in Romania and Romania has the most Roma of any country in Europe.

In this light, Basescu comments can be interpreted as either politically naïve for ignoring the potential voting power of the sizable Roma minority or very shrewd and populist as catering to the jingoistic and discriminatory instincts of the general population. Either way, his comments were a sad display of the enduring power of stereotypes and myths affecting the life of Roma in Romania.

At a first glance this life can seem a miserable one for the perceived shiftless, jobless, largely illiterate men, and even worse for the women, generally married in their teens to other teens, who will bully, tyrannize, and most likely beat them. As for their children, they stay up so late watching television and hanging out on the street that they are usually too sleepy to go to school.

Of course some of these circumstances can be explained by their nomadism, now legally discouraged by most European governments including Romania, but which over the centuries can be attributed to their lack of educational traditions. Moreover, the nomadism of Roma restricted them to a mostly agrarian culture designed for seasonal pickers, small artisans, blacksmiths, basket-weavers, market sellers, and horse breeders, occupations that nowadays are not sufficient for their economic survival. It behooves us to understand that this mobility was the result of external pressures exercised by most countries that left Roma no real choice other than oppression or even death, and which forced their families into a way of life and livelihood suited to a pack and go existence.

All these long-endured sufferings do not seem to be enough. These days, their life in Romania is rife with new problems and difficulties in integrating into the main society. They constantly have to face issues such as abuse and even lack of political rights in Romania, child homelessness and institutionalisation, discrimination in housing, medical care, employment, and access to goods and services, exclusion of Roma children from schools and racial segregation of Roma children in schools.

History of Roma Slavery in Romania vs. Black Slavery in America

These issues are especially pertinent to the history of Roma in Romania.

Almost every country where Roma live today have Roma communities originating from Romanian territories. In some countries such groups make up 20% of the local Roma population.

At the same time, anti-Roma prejudice and discrimination has been a reliable and faithful constant in an otherwise tumultuous Romanian history. Since their first recorded presence on Romanian soil, Roma have been subjected to policies of oppression and have been violently discriminated against and humiliated by the majority population. Centuries of enslavement of the Roma on the territory of today's Romania were followed by persecution and deportations by the pro-Nazi Romanian government of Ion Antonescu during World War II, and still later by forced settlement and the confiscation of the possessions of Roma during communist rule. In the aftermath of the events of 1989, Romania has experienced a rise of intense anti-Roma sentiment and the explosion of brutal actions of collective violence, a racial hatred that bursted out in a wave of mob violence and police abuse against Roma.

Linguistic evidence shows that Roma originated in India and has endured centuries of disapproval and persecution throughout Europe, including decimation in the Holocaust and 500 years of slavery in the Romanian territories until abolition in 1856. Although Roma have experienced some form of slavery, especially as subjects of slave trading in England, Spain, Portugal and Russia, only Romania has the honor of being the only territory of Europe to have enslaved its Roma population to such extent and for such a long period of time.

Roma population left India probably around the 10th century. However, experts on their history cannot establish precisely when they settled down on Romanian territory. Although the evidence is scant, it seems that the first Roma arrived in Walachia as free people. At the beginning, they had loose and mutually beneficial working relationships with the feudal landlords and were able to find an economic niche based upon their skills in metal-forging, carpentry and entertaining. During those times, the economy of Wallachia was technologically backward and agriculturally centered, but as this economy started changing, it came to be dependent on the work of Roma. As the landlords felt the need to prevent the losing of their skills, Roma had started became associated with particular estates and by the early1300s were being included in parcels of property given by one owner to another and to the monasteries.

The first documented evidence of Roma slavery in Romania dates back to 1374, when Dan the 1st offered the Vodita monastery 40 Roma as slaves. Later in 1445, Prince Vlad of Walachia is believed to have kidnapped 12,000 Roma from Bulgaria and put them to slave labor. In 1471 17,000 Roma were transported into Moldavia for slave labor by Stephan the Great. The Code of Basil the Wolf of Moldavia, dated 1654, contained references to the treatment of slaves, including the death penalty in the case of the rape of a white woman by a Roma. By 1800 the laws become more stringent, and the Walachia Criminal code had new laws such as: "Gypsies are born slaves," "Anyone born of a mother who is a slave, is also a slave," "Any owner has the right to sell or give away his slaves," and "Any Gypsy without an owner is the property of the Prince."

Roma slaves offered the Romanian land owners cheap and skillful labor. As in America during the slavery of African Americans, the slaves came in different flavors. They were broadly divided into field slaves and house slaves. The house slaves, unlike in the States, were further divided into slaves of the Crown, mainly those of the noblemen, the court and the householders and into slaves of the Church. The field slaves were likewise divided into two groups, those of the boyars or land-barons, and those of the small landowners.

The slaves of the Crown had three principal occupations: gold washer, bear-trainer and spoon-maker. In addition, there were slaves known as laiesi who were allowed to move about the estates doing a variety of jobs, including those of musician, farrier, whitewasher, sieve-maker, blacksmith and copper-smith. Slaves of the Church were grooms, cooks and coachmen; among the house slaves were scopiti, males castrated so as not to present a threat to the noblewoman whom they served.

Field slaves lived in mud huts on the outskirts of the estates, seldom visited by their owners. They were not allowed to have musical instruments for their own amusement, and they were bought and sold in lots. Groups of slaves remained under the supervision of an overseer, who was sometimes brutally cruel; and although it was forbidden by law to kill a slave, this was not an infrequent occurrence. Slave owners employed all kinds of corporal punishments against Roma. They were beaten, flagged, whipped, their lips cut off, and often burned. They were also often traded as dowries between various noble estates and families.

House slaves were forbidden to speak Romani, and their descendants today have a variety of Romanian rather than Romani, as their mother tongue. Female house slaves were also provided to visitors for sexual entertainment; the half-white children of such unions automatically became slaves.

Just like the African American slaves, Roma slaves came in different colors and features, from the darkest skin to the lightest blond hair and blue eyes. Also like in America, sex was and still is a powerful sub context of the relationship between Roma and the Romanian people. There are numerous manifestations in the popular cultures of both Romania and US of the desire and attraction of white Romanian men toward Roma women and respectively of white Americans toward Black women. There is a common fantasy it seems about one's perceived racial inferior possessing an intense, otherworldly sensuality.

By the 19the Century, there was increasing pressure on the institution of slavery when calls for abolition of slavery from different quarters in the Romanian territories began to be heard. As much as we would like to imagine that the moral and humane arguments against slavery should have prevailed, economic reasons had probably a more lasting impact on the dismissal of slavery.

Economic and social changes were beginning to affect the principalities economies. The mechanization introduced as a result the Industrial Revolution, both in America and in south-eastern Europe, was making the ownership, care and feeding of slaves a liability rather than an asset. Movements calling for Abolition in the West were introduced into Romania by students returning from abroad. Moldavia and Wallachia were keen to be regarded as a part of the new Europe, and took France as its model; slavery was increasingly being seen as a barbaric and inhumane anachronism.

The smaller landowners, however, were not able to afford mechanization, and still relied on their slaves; they continued to strongly oppose abolition. In 1837, however, Governor Alexandru Ghica freed the slaves on the estates under his jurisdiction, and allowed them to speak Romani and practice their customs. This stimulated similar actions on the part of others: Mihai Sturdza freed his slaves in Moldavia in 1842, and in 1847 the Wallachian church did likewise. Complete legal freedom came in 1864, however, when Prince Ioan Couza, ruler of the now-united principalities, restored the Roma to the estates they had worked on, not as slaves but as free people. It is estimated that the number of slaves was about 600,000 at this time.

However, following abolition nothing was done to educate or reorient the freed slaves and bring them into society; instead, it was their former owners who were paid by the government for their loss.

Effects of slavery on the contemporary society

History of Roma slavery in Romania had a demoralizing and dehumanizing effect on the present day condition of Roma. Slavery was justified for a very long time in terms of racial superiority. In the US, Blacks were seen as an inferior and primitive race whose subjugation was an civilizational imperative. In Romania, the arguments tended to be even more corrosive and detrimental as they claimed that the Roma came as slaves from a pariah, inferior caste in southern India.

It is understandable, though not particularly admirable, that there should be deliberate lack of acknowledgment of this shameful period in the Romanian history. Prejudice against the Roma population exists today at all levels partly because of this lack of self-awareness and critical evaluation of the past. Without reconciliation with the past deeds and acceptance of this history, there is a very little chance for a successful integration of Roma into the mainstream Romanian society.

Although Romania has undertaken lately a number of steps in that direction, most notably by adopting an anti-discrimination ordinance and a government programme addressing Roma issues, at present the situation of Roma in Romania remains dire. Burdens on Roma and non-Roma alike, arising from centuries of slavery and unequal treatment of Roma, punctuated by episodes of violent persecution, have led to a situation difficult to resolve, in which society itself is corrupted by racism.

Romania presently as a Member State of the European Union requires strict adherence to the highest human rights standards, including but not limited to rights set down in the European Convention on Human Rights. Romania must protect, in law and in practice, the rights set down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and must use all appropriate means to achieve progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights without discrimination of any kind, taking particular care to ensure that no person suffers the anathema phenomenon of racial discrimination.

At the same time, the lack of integration is also partly explained by the legitimate tendency of the Roma community to seriously question the Romanian government's sincerity about alleviating the problems of the Roma. Integration means assimilation and a loss of their traditional language, culture and more importantly, identity. Issues such as dress, marriage at a young age, territorial jurisdiction are hotly debated and remain quite controversial.

Such fierce adherence to the ethnic identity seems to annoy parts of Romanian general population and to be blamed for the current circumstances of Roma life in Romania. The flip side of this ethnic identity coin is the potential ability of Roma people to get together politically and organize themselves so that they speak from a position of strength and gain tangible benefits that, when and if acquired, would lift them from their inferior positions in the Romanian society.

The same tendency to reject integration by African Americans in the States has taken the form of black nationalism in the late 60's. Similarities do not end here. Although Roma's drive for ethnic unity might have not coalesced yet into a viable intellectual or political movement, the germs of 'gypsy nationalism' or 'gypsy consciousness' are clearly starting to make themselves present in the national debate.

'Gypsy consciousness,' just like 'black nationalism' regarding Blacks in the States, refers to a set of ideas and social behaviors that can affirm the beauty of Roma and that can dispel the negative images of Roma that the long history of slavery and oppression have generated in the mainstream Romanian society. Moreover, 'gypsy nationalism' can be seen as a determination on the part of the Roma population to develop their own political, economic, and social institutions not to necessarily to separate from the Romanian society, but simply to move toward some form of independence from the discriminatory and racist overtones of the dominant Romanian population.

Problems which exist today are the result of a continuum of circumstances going back for centuries. Because of segregation and discrimination, many Roma are largely uneducated; they subsist on totally inadequate income when they are allowed to hold jobs, they are denied the privileges and rights of full political citizenship. They have also experienced all kind of forms of harassment, intimidation and racial motivated violence. Their entire existence can be perceived in terms of constant struggle to survive. Because of all these factors, the drive to make their voices heard and to challenge discriminatory laws and widespread negative media stereotyping through ethnic unity is an uttermost practical solution.

Romania: Consumer Finance

Oxford Business Group Latest Briefing

Domestic demand fed by consumer finance is keeping the economy's engine running at full speed. To what extent the country's appetite for consumption is sustainable in the medium term is being questioned.

According to a recent study by UniCredit Group, Romania is ranked second in Central Eastern Europe in terms of the share of consumer loans in gross domestic product (GDP). With the current level just under 15% of GDP, the consumer loan market is outranking more established financial markets such as Turkey, Czech Republic and Poland. Data published by the National Bank of Romania in April showed that the overall value of these loans had reached RL62.1bn (17.4bn euros), a 40% growth on the corresponding period in 2007.

Along with foreign direct investment, domestic demand is one of the main engines of the country's economic growth. Taking car sales as an example, around 150,000 new passenger cars have been registered during the first six months of the year. This is while rising inflation, fuel prices and a decreased demand in Spain and Italy has caused the European car market to contract by 7.9% on average. Steven Cornelis van Groningen, president and chief executive officer of Raiffeisen Bank, told OBG, "economic growth is fuelled by consumer spending, consumer confidence is high, wages are increasing and with a rate of unemployment nearing 0% in the Bucharest area, people are not worried about being unable to pay off their loans for now."

Thanks to its large market numbering 22m inhabitants - the second biggest in Central and south-eastern EU - and penetration levels still far below those in Western Europe, consumer finance in Romania is offering huge potential for the banking sector and "is likely to remain related to the strong demand for a higher living standard," according to Debora Revoltella, chief economist of UniCredit Group for Central Eastern Europe. Industry experts predict a growth of 15-20% annually, with volumes that could exceed 30bn euros by 2011.

This positive outlook, combined with stagnating demand for consumer loans in Western Europe, have turned consumer financing in Romania into a competitive business. Numerous banks in Romania's crowded financial sector (41 at present) are opening up branches and setting up various facilities to get a piece of the consumer finance pie.

One example of this is Belgium-based KBC Bank which set up a consumer finance business in April this year offering installment loans, cash loans and revolving credit cards. Other banks such as Raiffeisen Bank, Garanti Bank - the Romanian arm of Turkey's third largest bank - and UniCredit-Tiriac Bank - the domestic branch of the Unicredit Group - are focusing on attracting the retail segment through an extensive number of branches across the country.

The National Bank of Romania (BNR) has taken a cautious attitude towards these developments. In an attempt to cool down customer spending and control inflation - at 8.6% in June - it has consistently increased the key interest rate to the current level of 10%. Some industry experts predict a further rise peaking at 11% before gradually going down later this year.

Although opinions differ about its evolution in the long run, the current account deficit is causing concern for conservative analysts. Nicolaie Alexandru Chidesciuc, senior economist at ING Bank, told the local media that depreciation is likely to occur "due to the unsustainable level of the current account deficit as well as excessively lax fiscal and revenue policies." Earlier this month, BNR published statistics showing that the deficit had widened to 6.53bn euros during the first five months of the year compared to 5.88bn euros in the same period last year. Warnings from both the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to narrow the gap or risk currency instability remain unheeded. Both Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's have lowered their outlooks on Romania's credit rating based on the outlook of the deficit.

A third factor causing anguish for the central bank and some commercial banks is the high number of foreign-denominated loans which continue to be granted to Romanians. Although not used for consumer financing, the lion's share of mortgage financing consists of foreign credit which mainly come in euros and, to a lesser extent, Swiss Francs. They account for 55% of the total credits. Conservative analysts foresee that if the exchange rate is affected, either by depreciation of the Leu or appreciation of the foreign currency, Romanians earning their wages in the local currency will find themselves in need of savings to compensate for their increased loans.

Despite the central bank's active efforts to minimise these risks - mainly through obliging banks to maintain minimum reserve requirements - the dominant position of foreign-owned banks in Romania limits NBR's role in controlling the origin of the loans given. Commercial banks are aware of the risks and have implemented caps on foreign-dominated loans as well as keeping a close eye on their liquidity. Besides these preventative measures, some industry experts assert that consumers themselves should share the task of keeping credit under control by limiting their own spending.

Romania: Interministerial meeting on the measures taken by the Italian authorities in the public security field

The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs organized today, July 22nd 2008, an expert interministerial working meeting, within which a series of approaches regarding protection of rights of the Romanian citizens in Italy have been discussed in the context of the measures taken by the Italian authorities in the public security field.

The working group reviewed the stage of the issues the Romanian community in Italy, the census carried out in the nomadic camps in Italy, the bilateral Romanian-Italian agenda and, within the current context, the action proposals falling under the competence of the institutions represented within the working group, in order to ensure the observance of the rights of the Romanian citizens in Italy.

During the meeting, the recent proposal of the Italian Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, on the granting of Italian citizenship to all Roma minors born in Italy, who have no parents at present, has been also discussed.

Related to this proposal, the working group agreed that the Romanian authorities should request to the Italian authorities additional information in order to prevent any possibility of abuse in case such a measure is passed. To this purpose, the cooperation with the Italian authorities in the case of the children with Romanian citizenship or without identity documents but speakers of Romanian language or found without parents will be requested. In the dialogue with the Italian party, the authorities from Bucharest will propose concrete solutions for a correct identification of all the minors with Romanian citizenship and for their entrance in social reinsertion programs, managed by the relevant Romanian authorities. In this context, the focus will be especially on the rigorously application of the Inter-Governmental Agreement between Romania and Italy on the cooperation for protection of the Romanian not accompanied or in need in Italy minors, signed during the visit in Rome of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lazar Comanescu.

The Ministry of Education, Research and Youth will continue, during the study year 2007 - 2008, a project, initiated in the previous study year, for teaching a course of Romanian language, culture and civilization. The number of teachers was increased for Italy from five to 31, which thus would allow more children to benefit of this program. Last year, almost 400 children in Italy had access to these courses, and for the next study year it is estimated that there will be about five times more beneficiaries of these courses.

The Ministry of Labor, Family and Equal Opportunities grants consultancy to the Romanian citizens working in Italy, so that they could benefit from the provisions of the labor law of this country.

The Ministry of the Interior and the Administrative Reform will continue the cooperation with the Italian partners in order to ensure, on one side, the infractionality control, and on the other side, the observance of the fundamental rights of the Romanian citizens, as EU citizens, and the abstraction of any potential abuses in their regard. Currently, 17 Romanian policemen and three attaché of Interior Ministry cooperate with the Italian authorities in this purpose.

The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs, cooperating with the other institutions, will continue the dialogue with the Italian authorities and European institutions with respect to the measures on public order taken into consideration by the Government of Rome.

At the meeting there were present representatives of the Ministry of the Interior and Administrative Reform, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Labor, Family and Equal Opportunities, the Ministry of Education, Research and Youth, the Department for European Business, the National Authority for the Protection of Children Rights, the National Agency for the Roma population, the Agency for Governmental Strategies and the National Council Against Discrimination.

Romania Property Prices 'at Risk of Collapse'

30 July 2008
Higher interest rates and plans for restricting private borrowing are among the main factors that could lead to a crisis in Romania's real estate market, experts warn.

In a letter published on Wednesday by the local press, the Romanian Bankers' Association is asking country's central bank to impose less credit restrictions otherwise "home prices may collapse."

The central bank is to publish new regulations aiming to restrict private borrowing, which increased 63.4 percent over a twelve month period to June amid a lending boom.

On the other hand, analysts say the central bank will most probably maintain the current interest rate at around 10 percent, which is the highest in the European Union.

Sales of new apartments dropped by half in the first six months of this year, compared to the monthly average in 2007.

April and May saw the largest drops due to rumours about a real estate market crisis.

Romania government grants aid to flood victims

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The Romanian government on Tuesday put up 50 million lei ($22 million) to rebuild infrastructure damaged by recent floods and granted financial aid to affected villagers.

"We will ensure the population get the support they need so they can get over this situation," Interior Minister Cristian David told reporters after an emergency cabinet meeting.

Four people died in floods in the northeastern county of Maramures and two are still missing. Authorities said some of the region's 12,000 evacuees were now returning to their homes as floodwaters receded.

The floods also damaged 2,000 houses, 1,400 small bridges and 20,000 hectares of farmland.

David said the government would grant 4.8 million lei from state reserves for food and materials such as mattresses and sleeping bags. Families of those killed would receive 5,000 lei.

Villagers with partially destroyed houses will get aid of between 300 and 500 lei depending on the extent of the damage.

In Ukraine, Romania's northern neighbor, floods have killed 22 people, destroyed homes, farmland and roads and prompted the evacuation of 20,000 residents, officials said on Monday.

Romanian meteorologists are not predicting further torrential rains but warn that waters coming down from Ukraine could still cause damage.

Romania needs to avoid social tension-FinMin

BUCHAREST, July 29 (Reuters) - Romania should keeping aiming for fast economic growth to avoid social tensions and narrow a big wealth gap with most of the EU, despite the risk of overheating, Finance Minister Varujan Vosganian told Reuters.

Romania's per capita GDP is about a third of the European Union average and lags most of the bloc's other ex-communist members. But rapid growth driven by consumption has raised worries at the central bank about long-term stability.

Vosganian acknowledged in an interview these concerns but said Romania needed high growth to tackle poverty and catch up with Western living standards, although the budget deficit and inflation also had to be curbed.

"All of us are talking about overheating. Nobody has discovered another solution to reducing gaps than high levels of (GDP) increase," he said.

"It's easier to be poor outside the (European) Union than inside ... The pressures are very high because they (Romanians) need to compare themselves with neighbouring countries."
The IMF estimates per capita GDP in Romania, which joined the EU last year, will be about $12,300 this year on a purchasing power parity basis. This compares with about $19,800 in neighbouring Hungary and $25,700 in the Czech Republic.

Vosganian forecast Romania's economy would grow 7-8 percent this year, compared with 6 percent in 2007.

However, he also said he wanted to cut the government budget deficit next year to 2 percent of gross domestic product from the 2008 target ceiling of 2.3 percent, and to cap wage growth to protect the economy and keep inflation in check.

"We have to assume a higher level of (GDP) increase but at the same time we have to manage the budget deficit," he said. "You combine the necessity to meet inflation targets and at the same time to cover some structural deficits in education and health care ... It's a step towards consolidating the budget."

Vosganian said he expected annual inflation to fall to 4-5 percent by the end of next year from some 6 percent he forecasts for December 2008.

The decrease, he said, would be helped by this year's expected strong harvest and its impact on food prices, as well as statistical base effects and tighter wage policies in 2009.
"We want to increase (state) wages similar to the inflation rate ... (of) 4 percent," he said in the interview, which was conducted on Monday.

Romania's inflation has jumped to a two-year high of 8.6 percent in recent months, as strong domestic consumption added pressures to spiking global food and energy costs.

The EU's second-poorest member after Bulgaria, Romania has expanded sharply in recent years as companies and households borrowed cash to modernise and improve living standards.
But economists say fast growth is threatening long-term economic gains. It has bloated Romania's current account deficit and fanned rampant borrowing in foreign currencies which could damage the economy if the leu currency weakens sharply.

Vosganian said the government's recent decision to raise minimum wages from October, made only a few weeks after he had said high inflation made new increases unlikely, was an example of necessary compromise in economic policies.

"We need social peace because maybe if you don't have social peace you waste more resources," he said. Vosganian's Liberal Party faces a parliamentary election later this year, in which it may lose power to centrists or to the left-wing opposition.

In broader terms, Vosganian said Romania's next government should focus on raising spending on infrastructure to ensure continued inflows of foreign investment, which are needed to offset the outflow of cash for imports.

"The situation in infrastructure has become a trauma for Romanians ... We want to channel huge amounts of money for infrastructure, railways, roads, bridges," he said.

Some economists say foreign direct investment flows, which Vosganian estimates at a record 10 billion euros this year, could diminish due to global economic woes. This risk could be exacerbated, they say, if wages grow too fast and cheap labour costs no longer offset concerns about poor infrastructure.

Asked whether he agreed with the central bank's monetary tightening, which has raised interest rates by 300 basis points to 10 percent since October to fight inflation, he said:
"From the perspective of the finance ministry, of course we are interested in lower interest rates because it is stimulus for economic development."

"But it is the job of the central bank and we accept it because there is no love without sacrifice." (Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by David Stamp)

Bulgaria & Romania To Pay 25 Mln EUR Each for Reconstruction of Danube Bridge

Bulgaria and Romania will have to provide 25 mln EUR each for a thorough reconstruction of the Danube bridge between the towns of Rousse and Giurgiu.
This is the agreement reached by the Bulgarian minister of transport Peter Mutafchiev and his Romanian colleague Ludovic Orban during their meeting in Rousse, announced BNR.

Experts from the two countries will prepare proposals about the terms and the actions, which will approved on the next ministerial meeting in the Romanian town of Calafat in September.

Such reconstruction of the bridge has not been made since its establishment in 1954.

The two ministers agreed the experts to make proposal on reduction of the taxes for crossing the Danube bridge with the criteria being valid for other bridges which are to be built over the river.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Multinational training a boon for both sides

By Seth Robson, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, July 28, 2008

BABADAG TRAINING AREA, Romania — U.S. soldiers are wowing Romanian counterparts here with high-tech training gear that replays soldiers’ movement and actions on the battlefield.

Soldiers from four U.S. Army companies and the Romanian Army’s 3rd Company, 21st Mountain Infantry Battalion are near the end of a six-week training cycle at Romania’s Babadag Training Area.

The Vampire Observer Controller (OC) Team, which includes 23 U.S. trainers, oversees the exercise with the help of the latest American equipment.

One of the Vampire OCs, Capt. Kevin Poole, 32, of Chesterfield, Va., said the U.S. and Romanian troops use DISE — a laser training system that tracks soldiers’ movement with global positioning and records the direction of every laser beam they fire.

After each training mission soldiers’ performance is replayed on a big-screen television, Poole said.

"Training is 100 percent better using this system. In the past an OC might tell a platoon that they did something wrong and they might argue, but with DISE the proof is there on screen," he said.

The U.S. trainers have a supply of "simunition" — non-lethal ammunition that allows soldiers to shoot each other safely with the aid of protective gear during exercises.

One of the Romanian soldiers involved in the training, 1st Sgt. Ciprian Zah, 34, said the equipment that the Americans brought to Romania is a lot better than what his troops normally use. He also praised the urban combat skills taught by the Americans.

"It [the U.S. presence] is a very good thing for Romania from every perspective. We are really happy that they are here," he said, adding that Americans are calm soldiers.

"I never saw an angry American. It is very unlike Romanians," he said.

Babadag Training Area — an isolated flat area surrounded by farmland near the Black Sea coast — has been transformed into a mini-version of U.S. training areas in Germany.

It includes a mock town in a field of head-high thistles with about 20 plywood buildings and populated with role-players to simulate an Afghan village.

Poole said soldiers use the town to practice reacting to IEDs (improvised explosive devices), conducting raids, reacting to contact and setting up traffic control points.

Last Thursday, Romanian soldiers in four-wheeled armored personnel carriers carried out a mock raid on the village to detain a high-value target. But they had to deal with several U.S. Company B, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment soldiers role-playing as terrorists who engaged them with small arms.

After the raid one of the 1-4 soldiers, Spc. Seth Henderson, of Avon Park, Fla., said he was impressed by the Romanian troops, even though he "killed" several.

"With one section securing the south side of the town and the assault team cordoning off the other side they locked the place down so all they had to do was hit the target building, grab the target and get out. They did it quick and in the right way. I liked it," he said.

During some parts of the training Romanian and U.S. troops combine to form multinational platoons, Poole said.

That’s important because the 21st Mountain Infantry Battalion and the Company B soldiers are getting ready to work together in Zabul province, Afghanistan later this year.

One of the 1-4 soldiers in Romania, Spc. Brett Anderson, 21, of Fresno, Calif., said the field work with the Romanians is great training for the Afghan mission.

"We are put in a scenario and no have choice but to work together. That is kind of how real life is," he said.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Balkan blushes

Bulgaria, Romania and the EU

Jul 24th 2008 | SOFIA
From The Economist print edition

The European Union softens its criticisms of Bulgaria and Romania

BY THE polite standards of Brussels, it was quite tough. On July 23rd the European Commission issued critical reports on Bulgaria’s and Romania’s progress (or lack of it) in fighting corruption and spending European Union money. Yet after intense lobbying, the language was weaker than in the scalding drafts leaked earlier. And the commission dropped an explicit warning that Bulgaria was endangering its chances of joining the euro and the Schengen passport-free travel area.

Even so, the reports hit home, complaining of a “striking” absence of convincing results in Bulgaria’s anti-corruption fight, and of a “grave problem” over the “lack of accountability and transparency in public procurement” when spending EU funds. The commission announced severe sanctions, suspending aid worth as much as €486m ($770m). Without reform, the suspended sum will rise sharply by November.

Bulgaria’s prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, welcomed the softened language of his country’s report and promised an “action plan”. Outsiders treat all promises of improvement, along with such flourishes as the appointment of a well-regarded ex-ambassador, Meglena Plugchieva, to oversee the use of EU funds, with justified scepticism. Despite much shuffling of departments and expensively publicised initiatives, and what on paper look like the right laws and procedures, the glaring fact remains that Bulgaria’s efforts have shown almost no results in terms of convicting fraudsters or corrupt officials.

Indeed, public figures sometimes seem not just weak but malevolent. For example, the EU’s anti-fraud agency, OLAF, has accused high-ranking officials of being a “political umbrella” for gangs who have stolen millions of euros meant for Bulgaria’s backward and dirt-poor countryside. “Influential forces” in politics and the bureaucracy, suggested OLAF’s leaked letter, are “not interested” in punishing those linked to two notorious crime bosses.

Worries about Bulgaria and Romania, especially over their ability to administer nearly €38 billion promised by the EU up to 2013, are hardly new. In January it emerged that the man in charge of Bulgaria’s roads, Veselin Georgiev, had granted contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros to a company owned by his brother. The commission froze €144m for farming and road improvements, and Mr Georgiev resigned. So did the interior minister, Rumen Petkov, after reports that a drug gang had obtained secret internal documents from his ministry, and that illegal booze producers had traded money for favours from a senior crime-fighter. Mr Petkov is in charge of fund-raising for the Socialist (ex-communist) party, which heads the governing coalition and also won the presidential election in 2006.

Crime, corruption and a weak judicial system are overlapping problems. Not one of dozens of gangland killings since 2001 has been solved. The kidnapping of the president of a leading football club and, later, his wife within the past two months has highlighted the authorities’ seeming helplessness over organised crime.

What scandalises ordinary Bulgarians is that their country, the poorest in the EU, is missing a vital chance to modernise. Public services are dire—shown by a crisis this month in Sofia’s rubbish collection, which has left the streets piled with rotting piles of garbage. So foreign criticism, which in some countries might arouse defensiveness, is in fact welcomed. The EU’s popularity has rocketed, whereas the government’s negative rating is now as high as 73%. The country has lost, by some estimates, a quarter of its population since the early 1990s, shrinking from 10.5m then to as low as 7.5m now. That is a huge vote of no confidence by the public.

Parliament is another story. The government looks set to survive a no-confidence vote next week. A general election is due next summer, when a new centre-right party, headed by the mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borisov, is expected to do well. He attracts praise for his dynamism, though fastidious Bulgarians flinch at his background as an ex-wrestler, bodyguard and police chief: emblematic in their eyes of the political milieu that the country needs to dump.

In Romania, by contrast, politicians are relieved after escaping sanctions in a softly worded commission report on their anti-corruption and legal reform efforts. This too was watered down from the draft, itself weaker than some seasoned Romania-watchers had hoped. The commission bemoaned the lack of practical results but welcomed a “move in the right direction”. In Bulgaria, sadly, outsiders find it hard to see any movement at all.

If you wanted to discredit the EU, squandering taxpayers’ money in its most corrupt new members, Romania and Bulgaria, would be one way to go about it. Yet though Brussels is disappointed and even angry about the two countries’ performance since joining the club in January 2007, Eurocrats are not sure what to do. Sharp criticism and tough sanctions might merely demoralise those who are trying to make things better, as well as undermining the membership hopes of other Balkan countries. Despite everything, few believe that any of the new members would be better off out than in.

Romanian Democratic Liberals Are Ahead

(Angus Reid Global Monitor) - Romania’s Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) is the most popular political organization in the country, according to a poll by IMAS published in Evenimentul Zilei. 40 per cent of respondents would vote for the PD-L in the next legislative election.

The Social Democratic Party (PSD) is second with 26 per cent, followed by the National Liberal Party (PNL) with 18 per cent, the New Generation Party (PNG) with five per cent, the Hungarian Democratic Alliance of Romania (UDMR) also with five per cent, and the Party of Great Romania (PRM) with three per cent.

The Alliance for Justice and Truth (DA)—comprising the Democratic Party (PD) and the PNL—won the November 2004 parliamentary election, securing 132 seats in the 332-member Chamber of Deputies. DA candidate Trian Basescu won the presidential run-off in December 2004 with 51.23 per cent of the vote, defeating PSD contender Adrian Nastase. Basescu later appointed fellow alliance member Calin Popescu Tariceanu as prime minister.

In December 2006, several members of the PNL—including former prime minister Theodor Stolojan—assembled as the Liberal-Democrats (PLD) to protest the leadership of Tariceanu. In 2007, the governing alliance underwent major changes as Tariceanu dismissed the PD ministers and the coalition dissolved. Tariceanu assembled a minority administration comprising the PNL and the UDMR.

In January 2008, the PLD and the Democratic Party (PD) merged to form the PD-L. The organization joined the European People’s Party (EPP) and is led by Emil Boc, the elected mayor of Cluj-Napoca, the largest city in Transylvania.

On Jul. 21, PSD spokesman Cristian Diaconescu urged the government to pick a date for the next legislative election or face a "political crisis", saying, "The government is late with mapping out new electoral colleges. Any further delay will hinder the electoral process, that’s why it is important to have a clear date of the next general elections."

The next legislative election is tentatively scheduled for November 2008.

Polling Data

What party would you support in Romania’s next parliamentary election?

Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L)


Social Democratic Party (PSD)


National Liberal Party (PNL)


New Generation Party (PNG)


Hungarian Democratic Alliance of Romania (UDMR)


Party of Great Romania (PRM)


Source: IMAS / Evenimentul Zilei
Methodology: Interviews to 1,245 Romanian adults, conducted from Jun. 6 to Jun 19, 2008. Margin of error is 2.8 per cent.

Romania Parties Bicker over EU’s Graft Report

23 July 2008 Bucharest _ Romania’s government praised an EU report on the Balkan country’s fight against corruption, while opposition parties and analysts took a more critical approach. "The report is fair and balanced as it stresses that Romania has made progress in its fight against corruption," Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu said in a press statement.

On his part, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu said the government will continue the policy of "zero tolerance" against graft.

On Wednesday, the European Commission said in a report that Romania needs to step up efforts to combat high-level corruption, notably by its parliament and courts, where judges often used minor excuses to delay cases.

The report condemns parliament for delaying corruption inquiries involving the former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and other top officials.

It also calls on Romania not to adopt legal changes that would make it much harder for prosecutors to search the homes and wire-tap the phones of corruption suspects.

Opposition politicians had a different opinion on the report than that of the government.

"The findings of the report are unfair. There was no delay in parliament, on the contrary. There wasn't any lack of political will by deputies to fight graft," Nicolae Vacaroiu, the speaker of Romania's Upper Chamber, the Senate, said.

Vacaroiu is also a leader of opposition Social Democratic Party.

Experts say Romania still has a long way forward in its fight against corruption.

"The greatest liability in Romania is that the fight against corruption has become a political instrument in the power struggle among parties,” explained Victor Alistar, Executive Director of Transparency International Romania.

“This is why a national consensus on anti-corruption policies has failed and no high-level corruption case has been concluded so far. We believe that any new anti-corruption reform must be designed on a purely technical basis and backed by strong political will," he added.

Romania, together with Bulgaria, are the newest EU members having joined the bloc in 2007. They have been under stringent monitoring over concerns they will be unable to absorb millions of euros in EU funding amid fears of corruption and organised crime.

UN Court To Hear Romania-Ukraine Case On Black Sea Oil Area

THE HAGUE (AFP)--The U.N.'s highest court will convene in September to consider a dispute between Romania and Ukraine over hydrocarbon deposits in the Black Sea, a statement said Thursday.

Hearings will be held from Sept. 2 to 19 at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the tribunal said.

Romania instituted proceedings against its neighbor in September 2004 after six years of negotiations failed to resolve the issue.

The dispute concerns an area of 14,000 square kilometers, and plans by Kiev to create an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the small Serpents Island, where natural gas and oil deposits are thought to be concentrated.

Serpents Island, which is only 17-hectares, belonged to Romania until 1948, when it was ceded to the Soviet Union.

Without questioning Ukraine's ownership of the islet, Romanian authorities objected to Kiev's efforts to change its legal status by presenting it as an island enjoying "its own economic life" and thus a right to an EEZ.

Romania has described the island as a "rock with no source of water or vegetation".

The court's statement said the hearing concerned "the establishment of a single maritime boundary between the two states in the Black Sea, thereby delimiting the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zones appertaining to them".

The ICJ is the highest court of the United Nations, set up to rule on disputes between states. Cases can take years to reach conclusion.

AP: Romania to Allow Girls Under Age 15 to Have Abortions Up to 24 Weeks

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania's health ministry says it has proposed a law allowing under-15s to have an abortion at up to 24 weeks.

Current legislation does not allow for abortions beyond 14 weeks, except to save a woman's life and in the case of extraordinary circumstances. The circumstances are not specified in the law. The proposal comes after the highly publicized case of an 11-year-old rape and incest victim.

A government panel ruled she could have an abortion at 21 weeks as an exceptional case. However, there were protests from religious groups. She had the termination in Britain earlier this month. Romania's health ministry proposed the draft law earlier this week, and announced it Thursday. It is expected to be enacted on Aug. 21. In the meantime, public and medical debate will contribute to its final wording.

Romania says EU criticism to motivate reforms

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania pledged on Wednesday to step up the fight against corruption after the European Commission criticised the new member for poor progress in combating widespread abuse.

Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu said the special report from Brussels would "motivate" Romania to press ahead with reforms to clean up and improve the justice system.

"I assure European Commission representatives that we will accelerate measures ... We want every Romanian citizen to feel that justice is done correctly," Tariceanu said.

Though Romania has overhauled its justice system and its anti-corruption measures, observers say reforms are slow to produce results.

Brussels is concerned in particular with meagre progress in combating top-level abuse, saying parliament and judges often use minor excuses to delay cases.

A handful of investigations against senior politicians, including against former prime minister Adrian Nastase, are stalled by delays in courts and changes in legislation.

A Constitutional Court ruling that requires prosecutors to seek parliament's approval for checks on some politicians has effectively frozen some cases.

In June, a parliamentary committee recommended a request to probe Nastase, who denies the allegations, on bribery allegations be rejected. Parliament later failed to make a decision because too few deputies voted, causing further delays.

Observers blame the foot-dragging on too many Romanian politicians being entangled in powerful interest groups that oppose reforms while others simply protect their own practices.

Tariceanu said he would "appeal to all political parties to adopt constructive speech regarding (corruption) issues".

"The biggest enemy of justice is the politician who uses quarellsome speech. I invite all representatives of political forces to start a constructive dialogue to enable the continuation of progresses we made in the justice field."

Despite the criticism, Bucharest escaped sanctions which Brussels had levied on Bulgaria, Romania's southern neighbour.

Also on Wednesday, the European Commission suspended aid to Bulgaria worth hundreds of millions of euros (pounds) and barred two key payment agencies from receiving EU funds over corruption and mismanagement.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Romania, Bulgaria Risk Aid Cuts as Graft Crackdown Falls Short

By Adam Brown and Elizabeth Konstantinova

July 23 (Bloomberg) -- The European Union today will judge anti-corruption efforts by its newest and poorest members, Romania and Bulgaria. They're in for a scolding, putting them at risk of having aid payments cut.

A report by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, likely will say the Balkan nations -- rated the federation's most corrupt members by Transparency International -- have made strides, undertaking probes of Cabinet ministers, businessmen and lawmakers. But neither has managed to convict a senior politician.

``Catching the big fish has been the main issue, and it's a political one,'' said Victor Alistar, director of Transparency International Romania, in an interview.

In Romania, lawmakers still have the power to veto investigations of their colleagues. In Bulgaria, pre-trial procedures cause frequent court referrals back to prosecutors, delaying justice, the EU said in a preliminary report in February.

The commission allowed Romania and Bulgaria to join in January 2007 over objections from some EU lawmakers, who argued that the countries were too corrupt. Each has a per-capita gross domestic product that is a third of the EU average.

A year and a half later, the union may reconsider some the 43 billion euros ($68 billion) in aid the two countries stand to gain through 2013 -- 32 billion euros for Romania (population 22 million) and 11 billion euros for Bulgaria (population 8 million).

$400 Million Cut

The British Broadcasting Corp., citing an advance copy of the report due today, said on July 18 that the EU plans to cut Bulgaria's aid by $400 million unless it steps up efforts by November.

``It won't be a surprise that we will be criticized for organized crime and corruption in the high echelons of power,'' said Gergana Grancharova, Bulgaria's Minister of European Affairs, in an interview in Sofia yesterday. The ``report will become our bible for resolving future problems. We are talking about profound reforms spreading beyond the term of one government. There are powerful circles that resist change.''

The BBC said Romania faces ``strong criticism'' in the report but no sanctions. Romania's government said in an e-mail yesterday that EU officials had congratulated it for ``very good cooperation'' in cracking down on one category of graft: So far this year, suspected fraud related to EU aid funds have fallen to 0.7 percent of the total, down from 1.3 percent last year, the government said.

Justice `Failure'

``Not a single one of us is going to like this report,'' Romanian President Traian Basescu said in a speech in Bucharest on July 7. ``We promised to fix the deficiencies in the justice system within a year. Meetings between the Romanian government and representatives of Brussels are dominated by the failure of the justice system.''

Today's report comes 13 months after the union's first report on the two countries' performance

That report accused both of failing to tackle graft. The EU told Bulgaria to increase independence and transparency of its justice system and conduct ``professional, non-partisan investigations into allegations of high-level corruption.'' Romania was told to increase accountability of public officials and judges, probe allegations of high-level corruption and better fight graft in regional governments.

An interim EU report, in February, said the countries had failed to show ``convincing results.''

`More Detailed'

``This one will be a more detailed report and will go through each of the benchmarks,'' said Mark Gray, a European Commission spokesman, referring to areas of concern to the EU. ``We have more information to assess. Parts will be political and parts more technical.''

``We have serious problems and a lot of work to do,'' Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Plugchieva, told reporters in Sofia this month.

In Romania, prosecutors have accused 10 current and former ministers of corruption, including ex-premier Adrian Nastase and Labor Minister Paul Pacuraru. Six of the accused, including Justice Minister Tudor Chiuariu, resigned. Chiuariu was accused of benefiting from the cut-rate sale of public land to a private owner. He and the other officials deny wrongdoing.

Parliament hasn't yet decided whether to authorize an investigation of Chiuariu and the others.

No Training

Romania has ``to look at small and medium issues, but they don't have the managerial capacity, the level of expertise needed,'' said Transparency International's Alistar. ``No prosecutor has received updated professional training in Romania in the past year, and this shows.''

In Bulgaria, Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev replaced five ministers after EU investigators found irregularities in spending on several aid projects and froze payments.

Bulgarian companies misused EU farm aid worth 32 million euros, the EU's anti-fraud office said in a July 7 report. Violations ranged from falsified contract bids to selling used farm equipment as new, the report said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Brown in Bucharest at; Elizabeth Konstantinova in Sofia at

Bulgaria, Romania to unify gas networks

23 July 2008 | 05:59 | FOCUS News Agency

Sofia. The Pari Daily has announced Romania's Transgaz Medias and Bulgaria's Bulgargaz have started negotiations on the topic of unifying their gas distribution networks.

The project is part of the initiative of Hungary's MOL for connecting the gas distribution networks in the region.

Connecting the gas distribution systems of the two countries will require building an 8-km gas pipeline between Rousse and Giurgiu. Quantities transported are expected to reach 1.5 billion cu m per year, or 9% of Romania's national consumption.

Romania Probes 95 EU-Related Fraud Cases

22 July 2008
Bucharest _ Romania has started probes into 95 alleged misuses of EU funds, being the European country with highest number of cases in 2007, the anti-fraud watchdog OLAF says.

Most of the cases are related to sectors like agriculture, customs, pre-accession funds and structural funds, the report shows.

Romania's efforts to combat fraud of European Union funds is to be assessed in an European Commission report on justice reform, which is to be published on July 23. The EU body is to hail "Romania's efforts in the establishment and functioning of a national anti-fraud agency DLAF."

Some €80 million in EU funds is thought to have been lost in fraud in Romania during the last three years, with only 5 percent of the sums being recovered, according to DLAF statistics.

Romania to speed up pension hikes-labour minister

BUCHAREST, July 22 (Reuters) - Romania plans to bring forward a planned hike in state pensions from January to November, Labour Minister Paul Pacuraru said on Tuesday, in a move that could further inflame inflationary pressures. Analysts said additional spending could give a new push to consumer price growth, which reached a two-year high of 8.6 percent in March and was back at that level in June on the back of soaring food and energy costs.

The decision follows plans by Pacuraru's centrist government last year to nearly double pensions between 2008 and 2009 which had sparked criticism from rating agencies and some economists because of their potential impact on Romania's sizzling economy.

"There is a 100 percent chance that state pensions will be raised in November. We have a surplus in the pension budget in the first six months, which we expect to double by the end of the year," Pacuraru told TV station Realitatea TV.

He did not specify the size of the announced hike.

Average monthly pensions are just over 100 euros now, roughly one-third of Romanians' average net wages.

A consumer and corporate spending spree in Romania in recent years has bloated its current account deficit and added to inflationary pressures, raising concerns about long-term economic stability in the face of global financial woes.

The central bank, which has raised interest rates by 300 basis points to 10 percent in recent months, has called on the ruling centrists to keep wage policies in check and ensure that social spending does not replace cash needed for investment.

"(The pension hike) will have a quite significant impact on inflation," said Ionut Dumitru, head of research at Raiffeisen Bank in Bucharest.

"We estimate the deficit stemming from pension payments may reach up to 2 percent of GDP next year due to the latest rises, so we will see cuts in investment spending eventually," he said.
However, the ruling centrists face pressure to loosen their purse strings ahead of parliamentary elections due later this year, which could put them out of power.

Last week, the government proposed to raise minimum wages by 8 percent from October, arguing the inflationary impact will be offset by good harvest prospects, expected to make food cheaper.

The government ran a budget deficit of 0.4 percent of GDP in the first five months of this year, compared with a full-year target of 2.3 percent.

Guard delivers aid to Romania

By Jenn Rowell

Alabama and Romania are building a two-way street -- it's about 5,000 miles long.

An Alabama contingent recently returned from a weeklong visit to the former Communist Bloc nation, and four Romanian military doctors were in Alabama last week.

During the weeklong summer trip, the Alabama contingent visited Tulcea for the first time, a change from previous years when the contingent stayed in the capital area of Bucharest.

This time, Guardsmen and civilians didn't just exchange ideas. Guard members delivered supplies to an orphanage and participated in other humanitarian assistance.

Alabama medical personnel, military and civilian, administered 500 immunizations, 250 dental screenings, and 385 eye screenings. They distributed 2,000 toothbrushes along with toothpaste and dental floss and 2,000 bars of antibacterial soap donated mostly by U.S. Central Command.

Individuals and groups in the Montgomery area donated most of items they delivered to the orphanage. Several area groups are establishing programs to support the orphanage year-round.

Lt. Col. Judy Dailey of the Alabama Air National Guard, who visited the orphanage, was surprised when a simple gift not included with the main supplies caused an uproar.

"I walked in and had something in my hand and those kids, they just bombarded me," Dailey said. "And it was just construction paper. They were so excited. It just touched your heart."

The U.S. ambassador to Romania, Nicholas Taubman, recently identified the rural Tulcea region as a focal point for the partnership program.

He underscored that commitment by sending members of his staff to tour the region with the Alabama contingent, said Lt. Col. Dennis Butters, director of operations for military support for the Alabama National Guard.

But the visits aren't just humanitarian missions. The Guard handpicks subject matter experts to meet with their Romanian counterparts to exchange ideas and discuss things they have in common, Butters said.

Irene Collins, executive director of the state's Department of Senior Services, met with the woman responsible for senior services in the Tulcea region, and found that she was also responsible for programs for children, the mentally ill and disabled.

"How encouraging it is to see how they are working to improve the conditions of people they are trying to help," she said.

It was a work-oriented trip, but getting place to place sometimes took hours. Horse-drawn carts -- the main mode of transportation outside cities -- often slowed the group.

"It's not like traveling here in America by any means," Collins said. "You go into the city of Tulcea and that is a rather small little city ... but once you get outside of that and the main road, you're on dirt roads."

It's an experience Maj. Shannon Hancock didn't expect when she joined the Guard in 1989 -- the partnership program didn't exist then.

"When you think National Guard, you just think within your state," she said. "It opens a whole different world to you beyond our Alabama bubble."

Now she is the director of the program for the state and later this summer, she's moving to Romania to coordinate the program from that end.

While Alabama might be more modern and part of a superpower, Alabama participants said that doesn't mean there's nothing to learn from Romania.

"The exchange goes both ways," Hancock said.

Avian bird flu is one example. Romania has dealt with actual outbreaks, whereas Alabama simply runs preparation exercises, Hancock said. The Guard took public health officials on this trip to discuss how Romanian officials handled the event, from quarantines to road closures.

The distance between the two countries mean many cultural differences, but the Tulcea region is on the water and has many similarities to Alabama -- including mosquitoes.

"It's eerie how similar it is, even though it's two different countries," she said.

Recently, Hancock escorted four Romanian doctors through Alabama. They're at Fort Rucker learning about aeromedical evacuations and will be back in Montgomery this week. In September, a smaller Alabama contingent will travel to Romania.

Although many Alabama Guardsmen have served in war zones, others have never left the state. Guard officials said the partnership program increases international cooperation and understanding, but also increases opportunities.

"It opens up people's imagination more to what you can do with your life," Hancock said.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ROMANIA: Looking to Rome to Escape the Roma

By Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jul 22 (IPS) - A decision by Italian authorities to fingerprint nomads -- mostly Roma -- is supported by many Romanians, in spite of statements from Romanian officials condemning the measure as discriminatory.

According to Italian human rights organisation Opera Nomadi, approximately 160,000 Roma currently live in Italy. Most of them inhabit improvised camps on the outskirts of towns. Roughly 60,000 come from Romania, which has Europe's largest Roma community, numbering close to 2.5 million in a population of 22 million.

The Roma are believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.

Following several highly publicised reports of Roma, often from Romania, committing crimes in Italy, the Italian centre-right government declared a one-year state of emergency May 21 in relation to the settlements of nomad communities in the regions of Campania (capital Naples), Lombardia (Milan) and Lazio (Rome).

Ordinances accompanying the state of emergency allow the prefects of these regions to conduct identity screenings, involving fingerprinting, of all persons, even those not considered dangerous or suspected of crimes. Authorities in Naples and Milan have since declared their intention to fingerprint nomads, including minors, living in camps around the cities.

Italian authorities have further announced that all Italian citizens are to be fingerprinted for their national identification cards before 2010. But this has not convinced human rights groups that the fingerprinting of nomads now is not discriminatory. The Council of Europe, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Amnesty International, among others, have condemned the decision of Italian prefects.

Similarly, the European Parliament (EP) adopted last week a resolution "urging the Italian authorities to refrain from proceeding to the collection of fingerprints of Roma, including minors, as this would clearly constitute an act of discrimination based on race and ethnic origin, forbidden by the Art. 14th of the European convention on human rights, and furthermore an act of discrimination between EU citizens of Roma origin or nomads and those who are not and are not required to undergo such procedures."

"In the case of Italy, it is not so much the fingerprinting itself which is worrisome, but the fact that fingerprinting is being done on an ethnic basis," says Magor Csibi (Member of the European Parliament from the ALDE-Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) from Romania, one of the authors of the EP resolution text. "If we talk so much about social inclusion in all European policies, we cannot accept a campaign which stigmatises a whole segment of population. We cannot make generalisations on the basis of race or ethnicity. Additionally, fingerprinting children is even more worrisome and breaks all norms in European legislation.

"If Roma in Italy do not have identification documents, this is a proof of the inefficiency of Italian authorities," Csibi told IPS. "Nomads and nomad camps have existed in Italy for years, they did not just appear over the last couple of months. Those people must be documented, but they cannot be treated as a group of criminals."

Many Roma in Romania lack documentation and live in dire conditions, making Romanian authorities too responsible for the current situation. But the developments in Italy brought little discussion in Romania over the responsibility of this country for the discrimination of Roma.

Romanian authorities were quick to distance themselves from the Italian government, by condemning the fingerprinting. "For the Romanian government, observing human rights is a priority," said Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu. "We cannot accept that Romanian citizens are subject to discriminatory practices that do not respect human dignity."

Echoing the statements of Romanian politicians, several Romanian NGOs -- the Agency for Press Monitoring, Roma rights group Romani Criss and the Agency for Community Development -- together with private all news TV channel Realitatea TV, initiated a campaign expressing solidarity with the Roma in Italy by asking people to voluntarily submit their fingerprints on lists to be presented to the Italian authorities in protest.

Thousands of fingerprints were collected around the country. Public figures from the media and cultural scenes have expressed their support for the cause, and politicians such as Interior Minister Cristian David have submitted their fingerprints.

But the campaign sparked much controversy. Thousands of messages of protest against the campaign were sent to Realitatea TV, the main promoter of the initiative. Polls conducted by rival news channel Antena 3 and a couple of national dailies, each on samples of 500-1,000 interviewees, suggested that around 90 percent of respondents agreed with the fingerprinting and considered the campaign of the NGOs "hypocritical".

IPS reviewed close to 1,000 forum comments sent to Realitatea TV in response to the campaign. Just over 100 can be considered sympathetic to the campaign or neutral, while the majority denounced the initiative and the statements of Romanian leaders criticising the fingerprinting.

The majority wrote comments saying the Roma must be monitored through fingerprinting because they are "inclined to commit more crimes" and because "they damage Romania's reputation in Europe." Many others said they cannot understand why the fingerprinting causes so much outrage, since it is common to be fingerprinted in such situations as entering the United States or renewing one's residence permit in Italy.

"As honest Romanians working in Italy, we are tired of being mistaken for the gypsies, who are known for their crimes," read one comment, expressing the gist of similar entries. Over a million Romanians are currently living and working in Italy.

An online petition, signed so far by over 1,200 people, asks Romanian authorities to outlaw use of the name 'Roma', and replace it with 'tigan' (gypsy) or an older name used for the Roma, 'Dom', in order to avoid confusion between Roma and Romanians.

Reactions to the developments in Italy fall in line with sociological studies on the attitude of non-Roma Romanians towards the Roma. A study conducted at the end of 2006 by the Max Weber Foundation for Social Research and financed by the Romanian government shows that, when asked to choose among over 20 characteristics the ones which best match the Roma, 96 percent of the total of 1,170 interviewees said Roma are "thieves", 47.3 percent called them "dirty" and 37.1 percent "lazy". Characteristics with positive connotations, such as "civilised" or "intelligent", were attributed to Roma by less than 5 percent of those interviewed.

Having lived for centuries in the territory of Romania and elsewhere in Europe, the Roma seem to be far from being considered European citizens.

In spite of rhetoric, "Europe lacks a coherent strategy on Roma," says MEP Magor Csibi. "After pressures from the European Parliament, the European Commission is expected to present this fall the concrete elements of such a strategy. I cannot agree that Roma in Europe -- about 10 million people -- have to pay the price for our centuries-old incapacity to integrate them."