Friday, April 30, 2010

Romania should cut nuclear units stake-econmin

BUCHAREST, April 29 (Reuters) - Romania should lower its stake in two nuclear reactor projects at its power plant in Cernavoda to encourage private investors and make the sector more competitive, the economy minister said on Thursday.

The European Union state has a 51 percent stake in a deal to build two more reactors by around 2016 in a partnership with major power firms. The required investment is estimated at around 4 billion euros.

However analysts have said Romania, hit by a deep recession last year, would struggle to secure the funds without outside investment.

"The (official) decision has not been made yet, but I would like to lower Romania's stake in the third and fourth nuclear reactors ... to a minority one to raise competitiveness," Economy Minister Adriean Videanu told an energy seminar.

His comments reflect the centrist coalition government's new drive to attract investors to its cash-strapped power production sector by listing minority stakes and striking public-private partnerships to build new generation facilities. [ID:nLDE63K1JP].

Romania's private partners in building the two nuclear units are Belgium's Electrabel (LYOE.PA: Quote, Profile, Research), Italy's Enel (ENEI.MI:Quote, Profile, Research), Spain's Iberdrola (IBE.MC: Quote, Profile,Research), Czech CEZ (CEZPsp.PR: Quote, Profile, Research), a local unit of ArcelorMittal (ISPA.AS: Quote, Profile, Research) and Germany's RWE (RWEG.DE: Quote, Profile, Research).

Videanu also said that investor interest in building wind energy in Romania had leapt to unrealistic levels. Installation capacity demand totalled 23,000 mega watts, he said.

"Obviously, Romania will never be able to develop such a large capacity," Videanu said. "We will fully support the real investors but we will not encourage speculators ... looking to sell their wind projects to real investors."

The head of state-owned hydro power plant Hidroelectrica estimated Romania could see up to 2,000 megawatts of new generation over the next 3 to 5 years, in wind energy and gas- and hydro-fired plants.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Romania to Attract EU1 Billion in Investment, London Mayor Says

By Irina Savu

April 28 (Bloomberg) -- Romania will attract 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in infrastructure from an international group, Nick Anstee, the Lord Mayor of the City of London said, after he held meetings with investors in Bucharest.

“It’s coming from an international business, I suspect that will be just the beginning, there are others who are keen to invest,” Anstee said yesterday in an interview at the Romanian Finance Ministry, without giving more detail on the group’s name or the timeframe for the investment. “They are looking at the infrastructure, they are here and they are looking to commit significant sums of money, as a starting point in excess of 1 billion euros.”

International companies plan to benefit from the eastern European country’s skilled workforce and its geographical position near the Black Sea for their distribution operations, Anstee said. About 4,000 U.K. companies have already invested a total of 4.5 billion euros in Romania and “we want to continue that.”

Romania suffered its worst recession in at least 20 years, which wiped out gains made in 2008 when the economy grew 7.1 percent, the fastest pace in the European Union, spurred by a lending boom and increased foreign investment.

Foreign direct investment in the first two months in the country more than halved to 466 million euros, compared with 1.3 billion euros in the same period of last year, the Romanian central bank said on April 13. That compared with a record-high 9.5 billion euros in 2008 and 7.2 billion euros in 2007, when the country joined the EU, according to the bank.

Boston Review: Past Forward

MARCH/APRIL 2010


The Year That Changed the World
Michael Meyer, Scribner, $26 (cloth)

The Romanian Revolution of December 1989
Peter Siani-Davies, Cornell University Press, $24.95 (paper)

Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong
Tom Gallagher, Manchester University Press, $84.95 (cloth)
Paul Hockenos

The end of the Cold War produced so much ostensible consensus—on democracy, on free-market economics, on liberal values—that one is struck by how little consensus there is, even twenty years later, on how and why the Cold War actually met that abrupt end.

The explanations for communism’s spectacular collapse fall into three basic camps. First, there are the conservatives, such as U.S. Republicans and European Christian Democrats, who champion Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II as communism’s noble slayers. It was their unstinting anti-communism, and Reagan’s full-throttle arms race, that undermined and bankrupted the Soviet bloc. Another camp, which includes historians Tony Judt and Timothy Garton Ash, credits above all the defiant, opposition-minded dissidents who challenged communist regimes in the name of human rights. It was they who initiated the nonviolent movements that swept their jailers onto the dust heap of history. And then there are the Gorbachev fans, who argue that the father of glasnost and perestroika was the prime mover of the transformative events of 1989 and 1990.

With the twentieth anniversary of the peaceful revolutions of 1989 just passed, a deluge of new books attempts to shed light on the forces that ultimately uprooted the East bloc’s dictatorships. While this may appear to Americans as an academic exercise, in Central Europe today, the competing narratives of “how” and “why” and “who” starkly delineate political fronts and still supply powerful election-time fodder.

In The Year That Changed the World, U.S. journalist Michael Meyer offers a somewhat new take on the spark that ignited communism’s implosion. Meyer, Newsweek’s Central Europe correspondent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was on-the-spot at just about every twist and turn in this remarkable story: in East Berlin when the wall was breached, reporting from Bucharest as Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceauseşcu was executed, at Prague’s Wenceslas Square when Vaclav Havel delivered his famous 1990 New Year’s address. Meyer’s literary flourishes are eloquent, and his vivid, gripping account of these events, and many others he witnessed first-hand, is a pleasure to read. Meyer has also kept up with the enormous outpouring of scholarship since then and conducted more on his own. This book is not a simple recounting of journalistic glories.

Yet the most novel—and problematic—aspect of Meyer’s book is his thesis that the real heroes of 1989 (Meyer’s “untold story”) were a handful of mild-mannered Hungarian communists. According to Meyer, it was the likes of Hungary’s Harvard-educated prime minister Miklos Nemeth, and his sidekick, the reform-minded party activist Imre Pozsgay, who toppled communism in “one of the great subterfuges in the annals of diplomatic history.” This superlative is just one example of Meyer’s overstatements, which ultimately weaken his arguments even when they contain important kernels of truth.

Nemeth and Pozsgay, Meyer contends, were not real communists—though they had spent their entire lives rising through the party’s ranks—but rather dyed-in-the-wool democrats. Meyer walks into the office of one of their coterie in early 1989 to find him expounding on James Madison and the Federalist Papers, and “sounding every bit like a Hungarian Thomas Jefferson.” Anyway, it is supposedly their intention from day one to breach the Iron Curtain, fell the Berlin Wall, upend communist leaderships from the Baltic to the Balkans, and pave the way for liberal, free-market democracy. With a wink and a smile (and also “cunning and courage”) they go on to execute their intricate plan. Meyer shows that the West German government was in on it all along, coordinating from behind the scenes.

He interviews these dramatis personae two decades after their deeds and, lo and behold, they fess up to having plotted everything that came to be in 1989 and all that followed in its wake. Their story has been untold until now because these guys have neither the charisma nor egos of self-promoters such as Lech Walęsa—nor Meyer’s convincing prose. Indeed, this second-tier of Hungarian socialists that pushed its way to the front of the party in the late 1980s does deserve some of the credit for overturning the apple cart; more, certainly, than Hungary’s former dissidents will ever give them. But I see the intentions and modus operandi of Nemeth, Pozsgay, and their cohort very differently than does Meyer.

This younger Hungarian cadre inherited a system bankrupt both economically and in terms of popular legitimacy. The conditions and social consensus that had made Hungary “the cheeriest barracks in the east bloc” during the ’60s and ’70s had disintegrated completely. Hungary’s communist leadership was desperately in need of external financing to keep the country afloat and some kind of ploy to extend its lease on life. Nemeth and cabal saw a limited opening to pluralism and the West as the only means to achieve both aims. They did so in their own interests, to preserve their grip on power. And the West Germans paid cash: for every step in the right direction, the Hungarians received grants and loans. And, all along, the Hungarian comrades were being pushed vigorously by anti-communist circles that had growing support among ordinary Hungarians—a state of affairs that Meyer largely ignores.

The copious internal party minutes available in the Open Society Institute archives in Budapest confirm that the likes of Nemeth and Pozsgay were no Thomas Jeffersons, but rather nimble apparatchiks with their backs to the wall. Their ploy to maintain power by calling snap elections in late 1989 was foiled by the country’s true democrats, men such as the intellectual-dissidents Janos Kis, Miklos Tamas Gaspar, and Miklos Haraszti, who organized a popular referendum to postpone the election date so that newly formed parties could coordinate and campaign. When Hungarians voted in free and fair elections in March 1990, they bid an unceremonious farewell to Nemeth and Pozsgay. Perhaps the two deserved a little more gratitude than they got, but nothing like what Meyer accords them ex post facto.

The power of Romania’s new oligarchs may indicate that Ceauseşcu’s ouster was a putsch and nothing more, but there are good reasons to argue otherwise.

In Hungary today, this history is reflected in the country’s polarized political landscape, divided between the reformed socialist party, infused now with a younger generation, and an array of national populists whose anti-communism (in a country now without communists) is a first-order credential. The socialists cling to the mantle that Meyer and others, such as their own hagiographers in Hungary, accord them. This distances them from the worst of communism’s excesses while enabling them to profit from the nostalgia for a golden era that exists in the minds of some, mostly older, Hungarians. The nationalists, on the other hand, link communism (and thus today’s socialists) to a tradition of dictatorship that carried over seamlessly from wartime fascism to Soviet communism. As these two narratives loom larger, the voice of the liberal middle is squeezed out. In the upcoming national elections in April, the dissident-founded party, Alliance of Free Democrats, may be ejected from the parliament altogether for the first time since it entered in 1990. Sadly, this weak democratic stratum—the likes of Western-style social democrats, greens, left-liberals, and even genuine Christian democrats—is the reality across Central Europe, not just in Hungary.

• • •

Nowhere in post-communist East Central Europe is the narrative and nature of communism’s overthrow more closely bound with the political here-and-now than in Romania. This is the case, in part, because Romanians lag woefully behind their neighbors in coming to terms with the recent past, in particular that of Ceauseşcu’s notorious secret police, the Securitate.

Even among communist regimes, Ceauseşcu’s was uniquely dependent on its secret police. The absence of either a historical-truth commission or a thoroughgoing lustration process has obscured the Securitate’s role in communist Romania and enabled former agents and other former nomenclature to enter the media, the business world, academia, and democratic politics at the highest levels. Nothing in Romania, including EU integration, happens without the involvement of these powerful networks. These forces have been instrumental in blocking an effective vetting process that could begin to purge the government, civil service, and justice system of the communist-era cohort.

One prime example of their residual clout: only after ten years of obstruction were the Securitate files finally opened to the public, and since they were altered over the decade, a definitive exposure of misdeeds and outing of former agents in the public sphere has proved impossible. Leading independent intellectuals such as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi even contend that the country would be better off were the doctored archives simply destroyed. There is, in Romania, nothing like the extensive research teams in Hungary’s archives (or in the Stasi archives in Germany) that continue to illuminate the past and discredit revisionist claims, such as those of Hungary’s 1989-era socialists, that inevitably crop up.

The glaring deficiencies of Romania’s belated stab at processing the past have recently come under the spotlight with the high-profile case of Herta Mueller. Mueller, the 2009 Nobel laureate for literature, is a Romanian-born ethnic German who fled Romania in 1987. In a widely discussed 6,000-word exposé in the German weekly Die Zeit, Mueller reflected on the content of her personal Securitate files, which she received after a sixteen-year wait, and made the sensational claim that while in Romania she is still followed and monitored by either the new intelligence services or some privatized derivative of the Securitate. Stretches of as much as three years are missing from the emaciated file handed over to her. She asserts that her files were purged by the very elements that the opening of the archives was meant to expose and that the continuity of the Securitate is unbroken in Romania, an EU member since 2007. This is an exaggeration, since Romania is by no means the police state that it was in the 1980s. But her case illustrates how the ethos of the Ceauseşcu regime remains embedded in Romania’s power structures.

It is also thanks to lingering communist-era networks that a fog of misinformation still shrouds the events of the 1989 Christmas revolution itself. Wild rumors and conspiracy theories continue to swirl around Ceauseşcu’s execution, the street battles in which over a thousand people lost their lives, and the empowerment of a clique of second-tier communists. Was this a full-fledged revolution or just a palace coup? Romanians are still wondering. Had they been duped and then abused by Ceauseşcu’s aides posing as radical reformers? The legitimacy of the revolution and of Romania’s current democracy hinge on the answers to these questions. The power of the new oligarchs, and Herta Mueller’s experiences, seem to indicate that Ceauseşcu’s ouster was a putsch and nothing more.

But in The Romanian Revolution of December 1989, British historian Peter Siani-Davies argues otherwise, and I think rightly. Siani-Davies makes the case that the events of December 1989 do constitute a revolution, if one that contains the seeds of Romania’s reality today. He argues convincingly that there was mass mobilization across the country: a storming of the regime’s institutions at both the local and national levels and spontaneous takeovers of factories and other work places. The Romanian Communist Party (RCP) was deposed and banned, the highest authorities removed from office or shot. Even if second- and third-tier party members quickly filled those vacancies, the rise of this younger generation signified what Siani-Davies calls “a pronounced power shift.”

Such was the nature of Ceauseşcu’s stifling dictatorship that Romania had no Vaclav Havel or Lech Walęsa—nor a Nemeth or a Pozsgay, whatever their faults were. But this does not mean that the figures who emerged on television as the revolt’s leaders were mere “palace cronies,” as is often argued. Rather, men such as Ion Iliescu, the future president, were apparatchiks, many of whom had held high political office but were expelled from Ceauseşcu’s inner circle. (Iliescu was the director of a publishing house.) Siani-Davies argues:
From their unique insider-outsider position the new leaders were able to both place sufficient distance between themselves and the previous regime to permit their acceptance as legitimate political successors by most Romanians during the revolution, and to use their old roots within the Party to exert their authority over the remnants of the RCP regime once they took power.

The latter point is crucial: even though the Romanian government of the early 1990s left much of the old apparatus in place, it did not have those elements working against it.

Siani-Davies admits it is unclear whether the anti-Ceauseşcu protesters possessed an authentic revolutionary vision. Their common motive was to oust the tyrant from power. Beyond this, the coalition was divided between adherents of Romania’s interwar parties—basically national restorationists—and the communist reformers who envisioned a centralized democratic socialism. This dichotomy would define the political fronts—and Romania’s erratic democratic culture—for the next decade and beyond. But even so, according to Siani-Davies, there was a shared popular desire for moral renewal, for democratization, and Romania’s opening to the wider world.

Some political scientists argue that the deformities of Romania’s post-communist evolution make it unfit for EU membership.

With such strident competing viewpoints on the best path for the country’s future, there was little consensus on the redistribution of political power and economic resources. Post-communist Romania’s first elected governments (coalitions led by former communists until 1996) were pushed to undertake reforms they did not want. When land reform and privatization did happen, former regime loyalists were among the primary beneficiaries, expanding their power bases and bank accounts. In terms of democracy, Romania lagged behind its neighbors in Central Europe, but it avoided the fate of its southern neighbors in the Balkans, where war prevented the initiation of reforms for another decade.

Against this backdrop, political scientist Tom Gallagher, an acclaimed Romania expert at the University of Bradford, insists that the deformities of Romania’s post-communist evolution—that Siani-Davies traces back to the revolution and its aftermath—make Romania, for the time being, unfit for EU membership. His stark warnings went unheeded when Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and in Romania and the European Union he argues that the Union has paid a steep price, further empowering the cliental networks that control the country. In Romania, he argues, the Union’s illustrious soft power met its match: Romania has transformed the European Union for the worse, diluting its democratic consensus and mocking its norms. He maintains that “the EU’s legitimation of forces in Romania that only adopted the trappings of Western democracy could [lead to] the resurgence of soft forms of political authoritarianism.”

Many EU officials agreed at least partially with Gallagher that Romania had not met the Copenhagen criteria, required for membership. But Brussels’s strategy was to accept Romania together with Bulgaria, while continuing to monitor and mentor both countries in the rule of law. It was accepted that Romania still had progress to make in judicial reform, the elimination of corruption, and the struggle against organized crime. Romania, thought EU planners, could not be a tougher nut to crack than the likes of, say, Slovakia.

The result of this hubris, Gallagher argues, was superficial reforms—pseudo-Europeanization—that were reversed as soon as conditionality was lifted. The standards of the sacred acquis communautaire, the body of EU law, were unable to “make a dent on the problems of underdevelopment, maladministration, and post-communist misrule.” Gallagher claims the most serious gaffe on the part of the Union was to accept the mostly cosmetic changes to Romania’s judicial system. Satisfied with minimal reform, Europe gave Romania no incentive to continue vital work toward an independent judiciary. The Union’s emphasis on rapid privatization caused unemployment and emigration to soar, while enriching private fiefdoms that became more muscular than the public agencies designed to regulate them. This crony capitalism has opened a door to Russia’s oligarchs, who have drawn Romanian cartels into their orbit.

Gallagher’s argument is hard to refute, and he heaps on the evidence. But I wonder if it were really better to have Romania outside the Union, dwelling in that limbo between Russia and the West that has proved so treacherous for the likes of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Brussels does not lose all of its leverage when candidates become members. There are European funds and other sanctions that can be employed to bring stragglers into line. Furthermore, the examples of Romania and Bulgaria, and in the near future, Croatia, are inspiration to the countries of the southern Balkans whose people have begun to doubt whether there is a place for them among their fellow Europeans.

If Romania is to serve as inspiration, however, it must confront its past. As Gallagher and Siani-Davies show, Romania’s past is very much implicated in its present, and the influence of the communist era endures throughout the public sphere. The inability to furnish transparency undermines the credibility of public institutions and democracy in general. And Meyer’s book is a fine example of how the failure to scrutinize history accurately can lend legitimacy to those undeserving of it. The European Union requires no such historical scrutiny in order to gain admission to its privileged ranks, but if a genuine civic culture is to supplant the authoritarianism of the past, Romania and its neighbors to the southeast must take the task upon themselves.

Romania rallies behind Moldova EU bid

27 April 2010

www.eubusiness.com

(BUCHAREST) - East European neighbours Romania and Moldova on Tuesday set up a strategic partnership to boost Chisinau's bid to join the European Union, Romanian President Traian Basescu said.

"Romania and Moldova, two states with a common heritage, have a privileged relationship," Basescu told a joint press conference with acting Moldovan president Mihai Ghimpu, on a two-day visit to Bucharest.

"We have a unique chance to emphasise our value together, within the European Union," he said.

Both presidents agreed to deepen bilateral political, economical and cultural cooperation, with a detailed action plan to be signed shortly.

EU member Romania also signed a financial assistance agreement, providing a non-refundable 100-million-euro grant to Moldova for infrastructure and education projects.

Moldova is one of six eastern European countries within the EU's so-called Eastern Partnership which holds out the prospect of political association and economic integration with the EU.

It was part of Romania until 1940, when it was forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Ties soured last year after Moldova's former Communist government accused Romania of inciting riots following a disputed parliamentary election in April.

Romania denied stoking the unrest, which broke out after Moldova's liberal pro-European opposition accused the Communists of fraud.

The Communists lost a re-run of the election in July and a pro-EU government, headed by Ghimpu, has taken office although there remains stalemate over the identity of the next president.

Basescu travelled to Moldova in January in a bid to relaunch "special relationships" with Chisinau.

In a speech to Romania's parliament, Ghimpu thanked Bucharest for its "constant help" to his country.

Ghimpu said he regretted the "indifference" in ties under the Communist regime, and that his presence in the Romanian parliament, 20 years after Moldova adopted the colours of Romania's flag as its own, was "historic."

DPA: Romania provides 102 million euros aid to Moldova

Bucharest - Romania on Tuesday pledged its neighbour Moldova 102 million euros (135 million dollars) in development aid, chiefly for transportation and education infrastructure projects.The aid pledge was signed at the start of a two-day visit to Bucharest by visiting interim Moldovan President Mihai Ghimpu, who is also his country's speaker of parliament.

In talks, Ghimpu and his Romanian counterpart Traian Basescu stressed their aim to cooperate in helping Moldova enter closer ties with the European Union in a framework accord.Ghimpu, supported by a pro-West and reform-oriented governing coalition called the European Integration Alliance, is serving as president only in interim capacity because the last presidential election in Moldova failed to produce a majority outcome.

In Bucharest, Ghimpu stressed that he favoured a change to the constitution to simplify his country's presidential election system and threby contribute to more political stability.

Also on Tuesday, the two countries concluded agreements on protecting military secrets, on environmental protection, education, social security, and agriculture.In a speech to Romanian parliament, Ghimpu said he hoped the EU would help in achieving a solution to the Transnistria problem which has been simmering for almost 20 years. The Transnistria region, after breaking away from Moldova, is now controlled by Russia.

Romania takes aim at 'Europe 2020' strategy

Published: 27 April 2010



Romanian President Traian Basescu has criticised the European Commission's proposed ten-year economic strategy for lacking commitments to pursuing the EU's goal of bridging regional development gaps and promoting "unattainable" targets, such as allocating 3% of GDP to research and development. EurActiv Romania reports.

Background

The EU's new strategy for sustainable growth and jobs, called 'Europe 2020', comes in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.

The new strategy replaces the Lisbon Agenda, adopted in 2000, which largely failed to turn the EU into "the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010".

The new agenda puts innovation and green growth at the heart of its blueprint for competitiveness and proposes tighter monitoring of national reform programmes, one of the greatest weaknesses of the Lisbon Strategy.

The Commission blueprint identifies five targets, which member countries will be asked to translate into national targets reflecting their different starting points:

75% of the population aged 20-64 should be employed.
3% of EU GDP should be invested in R&D.
The '20/20/20' climate/energy targets should be met.

The share of early school leavers should be under 10% and at least 40% of the younger generation should have a degree or diploma. 20 million fewer people should be at risk of poverty.

"We are against the re-distribution of the cohesion funds for attaining the Europe 2020 strategy objectives," said Basescu, speaking at a conference in Brussels dedicated to the EU's draft ten-year economic strategy, called 'Europe 2020'.

The Romanian president spoke in critical terms about the strategy's predecessor, the Lisbon Agenda, which largely failed to meet its stated objective of turning the EU into "the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010".

He also criticised the non-compliance of eurozone countries with the Maastricht criteria for economic convergence and questioned whether Europe could be competitive in the future as it is bound by social commitments.

The EU's regional policy, Basescu said, is the "most important Community instrument" for successfully implementing Europe 2020.

"Without internal cohesion, [the EU] is not competitive; it does not count in global competition. Romania appeals for accelerating the process of reducing the gaps between the older and the newer members of the EU," he stated.

East European leaders have expressed disappointment that regional "cohesion" was not listed as a target in the Europe 2020 plan. But they appear to have recognised that there will be "practically no time to discuss that sufficiently" before the June summit, when the new strategy is expected to be adopted (EurActiv 25/03/10).

Basescu also expressed doubt about his country's ability to attain the strategy's objective of investing 3% of GDP in research and development.

"This is an objective that we cannot meet," he said, adding that on 3 May, Romania will consult the Commission on how to identify national objectives under the strategy's broad headline targets. The state, he said, will contribute to 1% of this target, while the private sector will be called upon to meet the remaining 2%.

He also indicated that even if Romania were able to mobilise 3% of its GDP for infrastructure, it would still be extremely difficult to effectively absorb those funds in his country and "obtain results".

Romania's investment in R&D currently amounts to 0.5% of GDP, he said.

Next Steps:

3 May: Romania to discuss national targets with Commission officials.
15-16 June: EU summit to agree on Europe 2020 targets.

Links:
European Union Commission: Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth

Monday, April 26, 2010

Romanian anti-corruption watchdog ‘stifled’

www.euractiv.com

A recent decision by the Constitutional Court in Romania to "castrate" the prerogative powers of an agency to fight corruption - put in place on the EU's insistence - is "a smallcoup d'Etat," the press in Bucharest reports today (23 April).

BACKGROUND

On 15 April, Romania's Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional the main prerogatives of the National Integrity Agency (ANI), triggering criticism from its leadership (EurActiv 19/04/10).

The Constitutional Court had been approached by a lawyer for Serban Bradisteanu, a former senator. The ANI had asked a Bucharest court to seize four million euros' worth of his property, upon accusations of corruption and embezzlement. Bradisteanu stands accused of taking a four-million euro bribe to help a pharmaceutical company receive a public procurement contract.

The court's decision will have an impact on the country's access to European funds as well as on Romania's plans to join the EU's passport-free travel zone, the Schengen area, ANI President Catalin Macovei warned.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained on judicial reform and the fight against corruption and – in Bulgaria’s case – the fight against organised crime. A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both Bulgaria and Romania, which issues reports every six months.

Both Bulgaria and Romania have stated their aim to become members of the borderless Schengen area in 2011. Such a decision, however, may be linked to the countries' performance under the CVM.

Yesterday (22 April), the Official Gazette in Bucharest published a Constitutional Court decision, adopted a week ago, which severely restricts the Romanian anti-corruption watchdog's ability to crack down on politicians.

The National Integrity Agency (ANI) is seen as Romania's main means of fulfilling the country's promise to the EU to come clean on corruption.

Some of the supreme judicial body's decisions appear to take a surprising turn. The income declarations and statements of financial interest of people holding public office will no longer be published as doing so would infringe their privacy, according to the Constitutional Court.

The only income declarations and statements of financial interest which will continue to be published online are those of parliamentarians, as the rules of both chambers of the Romanian parliament require that they be made publicly available. The Constitutional Court did not find the parliament's internal regulation unconstitutional, the press reports.

The Constitutional Court also declared verifications of politicians' personal wealth conducted by the National Integrity Agency as unconstitutional, as they "create the impression of parallel justice".

The ANI is no longer allowed to ask the courts to confiscate property should the owner prove unable to provide a satisfactory explanation of how it was amassed, as doing so would infringe on the presumption of innocence, the Constitutional Court stated.

Two thirds of constitutional judges investigated by ANI

The Adevarul daily called the Constitutional Court decision "a small coup d'Etat" and pointed out that seven out of nine constitutional judges were currently under investigation by the ANI.

For their part, the seven judges being investigated claimed they had never been informed about the ANI's proceedings against them. The Gandul daily wrote that the ANI had been "castrated" by the Constitutional Court.

Speaking in Brussels yesterday (22 April), where he met European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Romanian President Traian Basescu said his country was going to stick by its commitment to crack down on corruption.

Basescu: ANI was 'annihilated'

"Romania will stick to its obligations and will have a functional Integrity Agency, capable of reaching its objective of controlling the income of those in power and investigating the origin of their wealth," President Basescu said.

He said he would make sure that this happens despite the fact that "the ANI has been in practice annihilated by the Constitutional Court".

Commission President Barroso said Brussels was "worried" about the possible weakening of the ANI, which he said needed a stronger legal base to ensure its full independence and safeguard its investigative powers.

"We hope that Romania will honour its commitment. Romania gave us its commitment regarding that agency. [The agency] is not important for the Commission as such: it is important for the modernisaton of the Romanian system and Romanian society," Barroso said.

He said the agency, in a country where serious corruption problems had been identified or still exist, was a "priority".

Barroso also implied that he was speaking not only on behalf of the EU executive but of member states, who are worried about corruption in the Union's new members.

"We do not consider this as a problem for the Commission. We consider this as a problem for the guarantees which were given to the European Union," he said.

Romanian cops booted from Kosovo

PRISTINA, Kosovo, April 23 (UPI) -- Tobacco and alcohol smuggling by 16 Romanian police officers terminated their work in a European Union mission in Kosovo, officials said.

A bus carrying the officers was stopped in Macedonia Tuesday night while en route from Kosovo to Romania, BalkanInsight.com reported.

Authorities found 314 cartons of cigarettes stashed in the vehicle's trunk along with 35 gallons of whiskey, cognac, tequila and vodka, the report said.

The police officers were part of a law enforcement team in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo run by a European Union operation known as EULEX.

The policemen have been fined and will not return to duty in Kosovo.

Their professional standing in Romania wasn't reported.

Romania runs out of Aids drugs

www.guardian.co.uk

The lives of people with HIV in Romania are being put at risk as the country runs out of drugs to keep them alive, say NGOs, while the government appears to blame the recession

Activists have been afraid it would happen in the poorest countries of Asia or Africa. But it's happening in Europe instead. In Romania, HIV drugs are running out. People in the regions have been traveling to Bucharest to try to get their supplies, but the capital city's shelves are emptying and from this week, they will be turned away. As the Romanian Aids organisations put it, people with HIV are being sentenced to death.

Some people have had no drugs for over a month now. The reasons for the stock-outs are not entirely clear. Certainly Romania is hit by the recession, but, as an open letter from the EU HIV/Aids Civil Society Forum to the Romanian president, Traian Basescu, and his government said yesterday, other cash-hit European states have managed to keep the medicines available. It is a very serious situation for the 7,000 or so people with HIV in Romania. Antiretroviral drugs keep people alive and well, but those who start the drugs have to stay on the drugs, or the virus in their body will evolve into a drug-resistant strain. And then the drugs they were taking will not work any more. They will need other (more expensive) drugs instead. And for some, the Forum told the government in its letter, time is running out.

In particular those who as youngsters got infected in Romanian hospitals during their early childhood, between 1986 and 1992, are patients who received several drug regimens in the past, and some of them are already receiving their last treatment option. By interrupting their treatment, these people will be at great personal health risk, with the well-known public health implications on top.

The Forum - and the local NGOs - are urging the Romanian government to take steps to restore the drug supply. Money may be short, they say, but it is open to them to negotiate lower prices with the pharmaceutical industry, which they have not done. The letter also asks the government to call in the World Health Organisation for help and advice.

Depriving people of the drugs that will keep them alive is a clear breach, they say, of article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Two Romanian HIV/Aids NGOs, SENS POZITIV Association and ARAS - the Romanian Association Against AIDS, have set up a petition, here.

Ceausescu returns from grave in Romania documentary

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

BUCHAREST — Twenty years after his execution, and thanks to the magic of cinema, Nicolae Ceausescu has returned to discover how Romania has embraced capitalism with a passion. And he likes what he sees.

"Kapitalism: Our Improved Formula," which opened in Romanian theatres on Friday, is documentary Alexandru Solomon's take on the radical changes that have swept over the country since the collapse of communism in Europe.

To carry the narrative, he "resurrects" Ceausescu -- executed with his wife Elena against a brick wall on Christmas Day 1989 by a firing squad -- to see the changes that time has wrought.

Initially he is shocked to discover the capital Bucharest festooned with giant billboards for Coca-Cola and other Western brands, and the streets alive with glitzy casinos and luxury cars.

But he is please to see one-time members of his feared Securitate secret police reinvesting themselves as multi-millionaire tycoons, as powerful as ever, unashamedly living the good life.

In one of the poorest countries in the European Union, erstwhile apparatchiks run media empires, football clubs, oil refineries and construction groups -- assets they managed to snap up for a song.

Some now are under investigation for corruption, but by and large they are happy to be portrayed in their luxurious villas, yachts and private jets.

In the film, they talk openly about how fast they made their "first million" and how they negotiate profitable deals with a weak state.

"I did not make a film to criticize economic liberalism," said Solomon, 43, who has previously turned his camera on such subjects as Radio Free Europe ("Cold Waves") and road chaos in Bucharest ("Apocalypse on Wheels").

"I just wanted to show the strange form of our post-communist society, where we have neither a classic, Western form of capitalism nor a real democracy," he said.

What it does have, he said, is "a classic cocktail of power and money in Eastern Europe," with a capitalist society "still deeply rooted in its communist past."

Several Romanian filmgoers to the premiere of "Kapitalism" said they found it "fair but very depressing." One of them said: "It gives you the desire to emigrate."

Produced with financing from Belgian, French and Romanian sources, "Kapitalism" will be distributed abroad after its domestic release.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Romanian Teachers Strike Over IMF - Driven Pay Cuts

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian teachers staged a one-day general strike on Thursday to protest over pay cuts and mass layoffs in the public sector needed to keep spending within terms of an IMF-led rescue deal.

The government of Romania, the European Union's second poorest country, put a vital 20-billion-euro (18 billion pounds) International Monetary Fund aid deal back on course earlier this year by promising to cut spending, including axing tens of thousands of public sector jobs.

An IMF mission will be in Bucharest from April 27 to May 7 to review the aid package.

Education unions, which threaten to launch an indefinite strike from later this year, say 15,000 jobs are to be chopped from the sector, which is seen as inefficient and outdated.

"If our demands will not be met, we will hold a national strike for an unlimited period starting the first half of June," Marius Nistor of the Spiru Haret union told Reuters.

"The ones who believe they will get more money by going on strike are wrong," Prime Minister Emil Boc said. "The government holds on to its stance of rationalising public spending."

Public workers have said they plan a series of strikes, piling pressure on the four-month-old centrist government trying to claw its way out of recession with painful cuts.

But analysts warn mounting social unrest at times of painful recession could make Bucharest more prone to making concessions that may restrain any financial reforms.

The country's public sector employs 1.3 million workers, a third of all jobs. Its payroll swallows 9 percent of GDP and analysts say the cost is twice as high as it should be.

The IMF has revised a previous 2010 growth estimate for Romania of 1.3 percent to 0.8 percent. The economy contracted by 7.1 percent in 2009, one of the worst declines in the EU.

Romania is under pressure from lenders to carry out long delayed reforms regarded by analysts as critical to chances of convergence with fellow EU members.

(Reporting by Ioana Patran; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Romania to sell government energy stakes

By Chris Bryant in Vienna

Published: April 22 2010

Romania on Wednesday unveiled plans to sell several government-held stakes in key energy companies as it battles to boost investment in spite of severe budgetary constraints.

Adriean Videanu, economy minister, said in Bucharest that the government would raise “a very significant” sum by selling stakes in companies including oil group OMV Petrom and utilities Transgaz and Transelectrica.

“Money from the sale of these stakes will be used solely on investment in infrastructure,” the minister said, adding that the process could begin within nine months. The holdings will be divested via stock exchanges or a bidding process.

Romania approached the International Monetary Fund for a €20bn bail-out last year when external funding dried up and the government has since been forced to use part of the money to plug a hole in the state budget.

Under the IMF agreement Romania is obliged to cut public spending this year in order to lower the deficit from 7.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent.

But with tax revenues among the lowest in the European Union, there are few resources left to fund the kind of investments that would create jobs and help the economy recover from a deep recession.

“It’s very important that these [energy-sale] funds should be put towards investment in energy infrastructure and not towards pensions and salaries,” Lucian Anghel, chief economist at Banca Comerciala Romana, said.

The government is scrambling to find ways to finance projects without exacerbating the deficit, for example by developing public-private partnerships and making better use of European Union funds.

Mr Videanu said that state-controlled energy companies would invest Lei 8.3bn this year, an increase of about 65 per cent, which they would fund from their own resources.

Bucharest also plans to establish up to €3bn in public-private partnerships with international energy groups to finance infrastructure projects.

The state will keep at least an 8 per cent stake in Petrom, which was privatised in 2004 via the sale of a majority holding to Austria’s OMV; the government retained a 20.6 per cent stake.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Romania's gov't starts to change constitution

Associated Press
2010-04-21

Romania's government says it has started procedures to change the country's constitution, slashing the number of lawmakers by more than a third and abolishing one house of Parliament.

Prime minister Emil Boc said Wednesday the government adopted a draft proposing to cut the number of lawmakers from 471 to 300.

Boc says president Traian Basescu will send the draft to Parliament for debates and approval. The next general election is scheduled for 2012.

A referendum on the issue was held in November 2009 and an overwhelming majority voted to reduce the legislature. Critics say democracy could decline with only one house, and with fewer seats available candidates seeking nomination by parties could increasingly resort to bribes.

CEZ Installs 70 Wind Turbines in Romania, Awaits Grid Approval

April 21 (Bloomberg) -- CEZ AS, the Czech Republic’s biggest power producer, installed 70 wind turbines in Romania as part of a 1.1 billion-euro ($1.5 billion) wind-park project.

The turbines, which have an installed capacity of 175 megawatts, will start generating power as soon as Romania’s state-owned grid operatorTranselectrica SA agrees to connect them to the national network, CEZ’sRomanian unit said in a statement on its Web site.

The planned 600-megawatt wind farm, called Fantanele & Cogealac, is located in Romania’s southeastern Dobrogea region near the Black Sea and will be ready in 2011.

“The decision which lies with Transelectrica is extremely important, considering that just the first stage of the project, namely the Fantanele one, will bring a 347.5-megawatt wind installed capacity to the Romanian energy system,” CEZ Romania said in the statement.

The windy Dobrogea region has also attracted investment from Spain’sIberdrola SA, which won approval to build the world’s largest onshore wind-energy project in the country. Iberdrola plans 50 Romanian wind parks at a cost of at least $2 billion through 2017, according to analyst estimates.

To contact the reporter on this story: Irina Savu in Bucharest atisavu@bloomberg.net.

Romania to Sell Minority Stakes in Key Energy Companies

By Irina Savu

April 21 (Bloomberg) -- Romania plans to sell minority stakes in key energy companies, including OMV Petrom SA and utilities Transelectrica SA and Transgaz SA in nine months to fund infrastructure projects.

The government will raise “a very significant’’ sum through the sale of the stakes on international bourses and the Bucharest Stock Exchange and possibly through auctions, Economy Minister Adriean Videanu said at a press conference today in Bucharest.

“We’ll identify the most advantageous solution for the stake sales, we will list them or negotiate the sale through open bidding,’’ Videanu told reporters. “The money will only fund infrastructure projects.’’

Romania, which suffered its worst recession on record last year, is relying on a 20 billion-euro ($26.8 million) bailout package led by the International Monetary Fund to finance its budget deficit, as state revenue dwindled. It also turned to international markets this year for funds and raised 1 billion euros by selling euro-denominated bonds in March for the first time in since June 2008.

The administration, which owns 20.6 percent in Petrom, plans to retain at least 8 percent in the country’s biggest oil company, after selling a minority stake. It may also exercise a contract option to sell its minority stakes in the Romanian units of Enel SpA and E.ON AG to its majority owners, Videanu said.

Gas Share Sales

The eastern European country may sell shares for the first time in gas producer Romgaz SA, while keeping its majority holding in the company. Romgaz and Petrom each hold a 50 percent share of Romania’s total gas market.

Romania will also set up public-private partnerships with international investors, such as Enel, CEZ SA of the Czech Republic, Germany’s RWE AG, Gas de France and Tokyo- based Itochu Corp., worth as much as 3 billion euros ($4 billion) though next year to build or update infrastructure, Videanu said.

The partnerships may target a planned project to build and operate two liquefied gas terminals together with Azerbaijan and Georgia, the planned construction of the third and fourth nuclear reactors at Cernavoda near the Black Sea and a second nuclear power plant in the country.

Romanian energy companies plan to increase their investment by about 65 percent to a total of 8.3 billion lei ($2.7 billion) this year, Videanu also said. The companies have already secured these funds from their own revenue or by contracting loans.

To contact the reporter on this story: Irina Savu in Bucharest atisavu@bloomberg.net.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Romanian river polluted with heavy metals

BUCHAREST, Romania, April 20 (UPI) -- Waste from an abandoned gold mine in western Romania is leeching heavy metals into the Aries River, officials in Bucharest said.

The mine in Rosia Montana was closed 40 years ago but environmental officials are concerned concentrations of manganese, copper, zinc and iron are getting into the river, the Agerpress and Mediafax news agencies reported.

The river feeds into the Tisza River in eastern Hungary, the MTI news agency said.

The Romanian government had a contract with an environmental clean-up company to decontaminate a large reservoir using cyanide and acids, but the company walked away from the contract, the report said.

Last year, President Traian Basescu visited the site and described it as an "ecological bomb" waiting to go off, the agencies said.

AP: Court moves to close Romanian anti-corruption body

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA

Officials and democracy activists on Tuesday criticized a move by a Romanian court to close down a government agency that reviews the assets of public officials -- including the court's judges -- and recommends prosecution for wrongdoing.

Horia Georgescu, general secretary of the National Integrity Agency, said the move is a blow to democracy and to attempts to make Romania's politicians publicly accountable. Laura Stefan, an anti-corruption expert called the decision "shameful."

The Constitutional Court made a surprise ruling Friday that the agency was unconstitutional. The ruling came after it was revealed on the same day that the agency was investigating several of the court's judges for concealing information about their assets.

The court is due to publish the reasons for its ruling this week. The court began to study the issue unilaterally. Several politicians have launched public attacks against the agency.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said he planned to reverse the court's decision with an emergency decree that would allow the agency to continue to function.

The National Integrity Agency was set up in 2007 at the recommendation of the European Union to make Romanian public officials more accountable and crack down on endemic corruption. It has targeted politicians and officials in all parties.

Although the Romanian media has exposed alleged wrongdoing of public officials, prosecution has been very rare. Critics say the agency is inefficient and is mainly aimed at showing that Romania is concerned about corruption, rather than actually fighting graft.

Romania joined the EU in 2007 but its justice system, accused of corruption and political bias, is still monitored.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Romania Govt Wants to Depoliticise Public TV

BalkanInsight.com

The parties from the ruling coalition in Romania have started talks for taking all "necessary steps" in order to reduce the political influence over the state TV and radio broadcaster, according to the country's prime minister, Emil Boc.
"We want to depoliticize the public radio and television companies. Ensuring media freedom is one of the priorities of our government", said Emil Boc, who is also the leader of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party, PDL.

Boc said that PDL would not appoint representatives to the management councils of the public radio and television companies and "will try to find a mechanism to remove the political element from these companies and prevent political interference in the future."

On March 30, the Romanian parliament rejected the activity report of the country's public television, TVR. According to the law, this measure means the dismissal of the company's general manager, who was appointed by the main opposition party.

Ellaktor says Romanian motorway project cancelled

ATHENS, April 16 (Reuters) - Greece's biggest construction group, Ellaktor, said on Friday its contract to build a 2-billion-euro ($2.80 billion) highway in Romania was cancelled, citing disagreements with the Romanian government.

Under a contract signed in January, the firm would build and operate the Comarnic-Brasov motorway for 30 years in a joint venture with France's Vinci.

"The contract had to be terminated because the contractual terms, which are a common practice in such contracts in Europe, were not accepted by the Romanian state," Ellaktor said in a bourse filing.

"As a result neither the project's funding nor the implementation of the concession agreement was feasible."

At 1223 GMT, Ellaktor's stock was down 2.4 percent, underperforming the broader Greek market, which lost 0.7 percent.

Most analysts said the Romanian project's termination would hurt the firm's turnover in the medium term and heighten risks for backlog replenishment.

Ellaktor sits on a 3 billion euro project backlog and has said it would also team up with Vinci to bid for a major airport project on the island on Crete, the winner of which is expected to be announced by Oct. 19.

Greece's first recession in 13 years and a one-off tax on business narrowed construction profit margins last year. Toll revenues from an Athens ring road, which accounts for a large part of the group's profit are also expected to fall in 2010, for the first time in years, analysts said.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Saab offers cut price fighter jets to Romania

BUCHAREST (AFP) - Sweden is offering to sell Romania 24 new Gripen combat jets for the same price demanded by the United States for second-hand F-16s.

The offer matches the number of jets offered by the United States, but does not contain ammunition like the US offer.

Romania's Supreme Council announced in March its decision to buy 24 second-hand F-16 jets for 1.3 billion dollars, a purchase which is to be submitted to parliament for approval.

Jerry Lindbergh, a Swedish government official in charge of defence exports, gave details of the offer at a news conference in Bucharest.

He said Sweden could provide 24 new "fully NATO interoperable Gripen C/D fighters, including training, support, logistics and 100 percent offset for the amount of one billion euros (1.3 billion dollars)."

The money could be paid over 15 years with low interest rates.

Sweden's ambassador to Romania Mats Aberg said it was "Romania's sovereign right to choose the multirole jets it wanted", but to provide all information on the Swedish offer, he had sought a meeting with the parliament defence commission chairman.

Swedish group Saab said in March it was "surprised" by Romania's choice of second hand F-16 aircraft.

Bucharest is also considering buying 24 new F-16 jets and later 24 F-35 jets, the defence ministry said, stressing this was part of the Romanian-US "strategic partnership."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Crisis Affects More Romanian Companies

BalkanInsight.com

About 20,000 companies in Romania suspended their operations in the first quarter of this year, almost four times more than in the same period in 2009, according to data published on Wednesday by the National Companies Registry Office, ONRC.

The companies' decisions to put an end to their activities follows a move by the centre-right government to introduce a corporate lump sum tax. The government introduced the tax last May in a bid to tackle the grey
economy.

Furthermore, another 6,250 companies started insolvency proceedings in Q1 2010, up 27 per cent on the same interval a year earlier, ONRC added.

Romania entered into recession last year as the world economic crisis affected consumption and demand for Romanian goods abroad. Lending decreased significantly and forced the Balkan country to secure a €20 billion IMF-led loan in March.

AP: Israeli FM visits Romania

Israeli Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is visiting Romania to discuss security and economic relations with Romanian officials.

Lieberman has met Romanian counterpart Teodor Baconschi on Wednesday and has hailed the good relations between the countries.

Lieberman says that during the Soviet era Romania was the only state in Eastern Europe that did not sever diplomatic ties with Israel.

Romania used to have a large Jewish community before World War II. Lieberman says about 500,000 Jews from Romania live in Israel.

The Israeli foreign minister is expected to meet the Romania's president Traian Basescu during his three-day visit and visit the Holocaust Memorial and meet the Jewish community.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Romania March New Car Registrations Up 51% On Month

BUCHAREST -(Dow Jones)- Romanian new car registrations rose 51% to 4,027 vehicles in March, from 2,658 vehicles a month earlier, Interior Ministry data showed Tuesday, news agency Mediafax reports.

However, compared with March 2009, new car registrations were down 50%, the ministry's license and car registration division said.

Overall new auto registrations--including commercial vehicles, trailers and special purpose vehicles--reached 5,405 units in March, up 44% from the previous month.

Dacia, made locally by French Renault's unit Dacia Automobile, was again the best-traded brand on the local new cars market with 836 units in March, up from 534 units registered in February.

In 2009, new car registrations in Romania fell 59% on the year to 116,012 units.

AP: Foreign investment in Romania down

Direct foreign investment in Romania dropped sharply for the first two months of the year compared to 2009, the central bank reported Tuesday.

Foreign investment was worth euro466 million (US$633 million) for January and Februray compared to euro1.32 billion (US$1.79 billion) of direct foreign investment in 2009, the National Bank of Romania said.

Less money also came in from Romanians working abroad, the bank said. Some euro874 million (US$1.187 billion) of remittances entered Romania for the first two months of the year, compared to euro1.49 billion (US$2.02 billion) in the same period in 2009, said Adrian Vasilescu, an adviser to the governor of the National Bank of Romania.

Some 2 million Romanians work abroad, most in Spain and Italy which have been hit by the global downturn. Unemployment has risen to 8.36 percent in March with Romanians returning after work abroad has dried up. The International Monetary Fund says 1 million could be unemployed this year, up from the current 765,000.

A few years ago, Romania was one of Europe's fastest growing economies, with annual growth of 8 percent until it was hit by the global economic downturn. Last year it secured an IMF-led bailout loan worth euro20 billion after its economy shrunk 7.1 percent.

Real estate, banking and shopping malls which contributed to much of the business during the boom years are now struggling. The IMF said that Romania's economy would grow by about 1 percent this year, less than earlier predicted.

Opposition leader scorns dark arts of Romanian politics

The Irish Times

Wed, Apr 14, 2010

BUCHAREST LETTER: Does the no-nonsense Victor Ponta have the political nous to revive the struggling PSD asks DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

THESE ARE turbulent times for the Social Democrats, the party that dominated Romania’s politics for the first 15 years of its post-communist history.

Ousted in 2004, the party was poised for a return to power last December, when polls suggested its leader, Mircea Geoana, would beat incumbent Traian Basescu in a presidential election.

Not only did Geoana snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, however, but he proceeded to invite ridicule upon himself and his party by claiming that he had lost the ballot after being attacked with “negative energy” by a parapsychologist employed by the wily Basescu.

This occult assault wrecked his concentration during a televised debate, he complained, and was part of a strategy by his rival’s election team to harness the mystical “power of the purple flame” by wearing purple ties, socks and other accoutrements on certain important days.

Geoana is no naive simpleton – he was Romania’s foreign minister for four years after serving as ambassador to Washington – but his bizarre rant revealed not only the power of superstition in Romanian life, but the parlous state into which the Social Democrats have slipped.

Despite his humiliation, Geoana was expected to retain the leadership of the Social Democrats, or PSD, at its congress in February. Three witches who attended the gathering to banish the malevolent purple flame confidently predicted his victory.

In the event he lost to Victor Ponta (37), a man who by his own admission is “annoyingly young” to lead a party packed with big political beasts and haunted by the ghosts of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist Party, from whose ruins it rose after the 1989 revolution.

Geoana conceded this defeat graciously and without reference to witchcraft, and perhaps even with a sigh of relief that someone else would have the job of repairing the PSD and trying to rid it of a well-earned reputation for cronyism and corruption.

“Voting for me over the incumbent leader was a radical change, voting for a 37-year-old was a radical change, and choosing someone with a background as a prosecutor was a radical change,” says Ponta.

“The party needed hope, and perhaps it’s easier for a young person with an absolutely clean background to deliver that. These are bad times for the PSD – but also a great opportunity.”

Ponta’s youth, energy and ready laughter do bounce a little uneasily around the dowdy old Bucharest villa that is PSD headquarters.

An avid basketball player and the current champion co-driver in the Romanian rally championship, Ponta is certainly full of vigour. But many Romanians wonder whether he has the political nous to revive the PSD and survive its Byzantine power struggles.

A stream of disaffected MPs is drifting out of the party and into a new independent bloc that is open to co-operation with the centre-right government of Basescu’s allies.

The PSD’s dismal reputation as the party of graft has also dogged Ponta’s first weeks at the helm, with parliament voting to allow the arrest of a senator on corruption charges. Catalin Voicu of the PSD is now in jail awaiting trial for influence peddling and fraud, in a case that has also snared a supreme court judge and a pair of prominent businessmen.

“This was a chance for the new party leadership to prove that it was different,” says Ponta.

“Before, the PSD acted to protect its own people, but party experts told me that this was a serious case and should go before a judge. The PSD is not a shield for Mr Voicu – I suspended him from the party and he will have to face the accusations.”

The Voicu case has offered Romanians a distraction from the economic crisis that forced the country to seek a €20 billion loan from the EU and International Monetary Fund, in return for a pledge to implement deep and unpopular costcutting measures.

Faced with the constant danger of crippling strikes by redundancy-threatened workers, the government has done little to restructure an economy that grew rapidly thanks to a credit and property bubble before crashing heavily last year.

“The government is spending the international loan money to postpone the painful decisions that should have been taken. They are using anaesthetic on the patient but do not have the courage to perform surgery,” says Ponta, who wants to overhaul Romania’s tax system and empower its regions to spend billions of euro in EU aid that the cumbersome central government is not using.

Ponta is expected to run in the next presidential election, earmarked for 2014. If he loses, he will not blame “negative energy” or the “purple flame”.

“That was the most ridiculous way to accept defeat,” he says.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Saving the soul of Russia's exiled Lipovans

SARICHIOI, Romania (AFP) - Babushka Yuliana Mitry can still chant the words to dozens of the ancient songs the Lipovan people brought to Romania's Danube delta as they fled persecution in Russia nearly 300 years ago.

But as her ethnic Russian minority struggles to keep its customs and traditions alive in a globalised world, the 69-year-old grandmother fears the songs of the Lipovan could one day be lost for good.

Mitry's people left their historic homeland in around 1740, seeking refuge in a far-flung corner of the Danube delta, now a UNESCO world heritage site, where they lived through Ottoman domination and a communist dictatorship.

Also called "Old believers", they were facing persecution after refusing to accept the new rituals introduced to the Christian Orthodox Church by the then Russian patriarch, Nikon, according to historian Alexandr Varona.

Nestled between freshwater lakes and the reed-covered marshes, a few kilometres from the Black Sea, Sarichioi is home to one of the oldest Lipovan communities.

This is Romania, but the language heard on the village streets is Russian.

"Out of 3,867 inhabitants, only around 100 are ethnic Romanians," explains Vasile Dolghin, the local chairman of the Lipovan community.

Around Easter, three- or four-hour masses are celebrated according to the ancient Orthodox ritual, day and night.

Dressed in long skirts and bright, flowery headscarves, hundreds of women attend the services in a space separate from the men.

Based on the crowds thronging the two main churches, a casual observer could be fooled into thinking Lipovan traditions have never been livelier.

"But things have changed a lot. Most of the young people have gone to work in the city or abroad. Though they know Russian, they prefer to speak Romanian, it's easier," grandmother Mitry tells AFP.

Once a fishing village, Sarichioi now counts more construction workers.

"In the old days, wedding celebrations used to last two days. Now, they only last one. And we no longer have time to sing all the traditional wedding songs. They might be lost for ever," Mitry says.

Dolghin set up a folk choir, with Mitry one of the singers, in a bid to preserve the Lipovan musical heritage.

The isolation of the Danube delta, where some villages are reachable only by boat, helped Lipovans maintain their ancestral traditions until early last century. In northern Romania, they used to live in rural communities where they were in a majority, meaning they could speak Russian.

"For about 200 years, the Lipovan way of life remained more or less the same," says Miron Ignat, who represents Lipovans in the Romanian parliament.

But after World War II, the communists imposed urbanisation and collectivisation. Many Lipovans ended up in bigger towns, where they were in a minority. Speaking Russian became ever more difficult.

And religion, which constitutes the "core of Lipovan identity", was severely restricted.

Romania's Lipovan community officially counts around 38,000 people, in a country of 22 million, but their true number is most likely around 100,000 according to historians and church registers.

After the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1989, travelling and studying abroad became easier. That brought new challenges but also new opportunities.

"I left Sarichioi to study in Bucharest. I wanted to see something else," 28 year-old George Frol recalls.

"In the end, leaving allowed me to see that there are Lipovans all over this country but also abroad. The sense of being part of a larger community has grown. Also, on the Internet I managed to make friends in Russia," he adds.

Fluent in Russian and Romanian, Frol is now editor in chief of the Lipovan magazine Zorile, whose name means Dawn. He returns often to Sarichioi.

After 1989, the Lipovan community, together with other minorities, asked the Romanian government for children to allowed to study in their mother tongue.

Today some 1,800 primary and secondary school pupils are studying Russian as a first language, receiving on average four hours tuition of which one is devoted to Lipovan traditions.

After years of neglect, Russia too has started to support the Lipovans by sending them books, and organising summer camps.

But the Lipovans have no desire to "resettle" in Russia. "Our soul is Russian but our country is where we were born, where we grew up, that is to say Romania," Dolghin insists.

Keep ancient customs alive is even more of a challenge in cities but Olimpia and Vladimir Makarov, a young couple from Tulcea, which lies north of Sarichioi at the tip of the Danube delta, are determined to do so.

Their 10 year-old son, Andrei, learns Russian and religious songs at the local Lipovan church.

"I am optimistic for the future of our culture," says Olimpia, a nurse. "What my children will learn about the Church will always remain with them.""Our ancestors fled and suffered to keep their religion," adds her husband Vladimir, whose Slavic roots are visible from his blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. "After 300 years it is our moral duty not to let it fall into oblivion."

Europe's Roma say woes deepen amid economic crisis

By DANIEL WOOLLS (AP)


CORDOBA, Spain — For many of Europe's estimated 12 million Gypsies, daily life is getting even worse and tens of thousands of children face shocking discrimination by authorities who shunt them off into schools for the mentally disabled, activists said Friday.

At a two-day conference in Spain on the plight of Gypsies, also called Roma, EU officials pledged in a final statement to keep working to integrate Roma and make sure aid funds reach them effectively.

The conference took place during a week when 17 people were detained in Romania on suspicion of trafficking nearly 170 Roma children to Britain for begging and stealing, and an anti-Gypsy party in Hungary was poised to make major gains in elections Sunday.

One of the participants in the Spain conference, Violeta Naydenova, knows all about the challenges children face.

Growing up in a Gypsy settlement with open sewers in Bulgaria, Naydenova was supposed to go to a segregated school for Roma children.

But because of her daughter's fair skin, Naydenova's mother managed to sneak her and her brother into a regular Bulgarian school as a possible ticket out of the grinding poverty and discrimination affecting Europe's largest ethnic minority.

In the end, Naydenova's story is one of triumph: she went on to earn a journalism degree and work for a foundation run by philanthropist George Soros, helping young Roma.

Naydenova, however, is one of the lucky ones because many activists say the situation for Gypsies is getting worse. The reasons, they say, include inertia and institutionalized racism against these nomadic, generally dark-skinned people who trace their roots to India and are often associated with petty crime and begging.

Romania's foreign minister, for instance, made comments in February suggesting that criminality among Gypsies was a biological trait, although he later backtracked.

Europe's economic crisis is another problem for Roma. "They were never really improving but with the economic crisis coming around, socio-economic conditions are really worse," said David Mark, a 27-year-old Roma who works for the Roma Civil Alliance of Romania.

Roma can no longer travel as much to wealthy countries of western Europe like Italy and Spain because hard economic times there mean less work. Those who already tried their luck are being forced to return home because of what Mark called a "not very welcoming environment."

"Basically they left because of social exclusion and they are coming back because of social exclusion," he said.

Anti-Roma violence has been a serious and even increasing problem since 2008 in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy, according to the European Roma Rights Centre, based in Budapest. It reports 45 violent attacks and nine fatalities in Hungary in that same span.

And despite a series of ruling from the European Court of Human Rights since 2007, school segregation of Roma children is systemic in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, the group said.

As a child, Naydenova did not know Roma from Rome — her parents did not explain their ethnicity, and studiously avoided speaking to her in the Roma language so as to keep her from picking up the accent when spoke Bulgarian.

"Nobody told me what is Gypsy, what is Roma, why do we live separated from the others, what is wrong," said Naydenova, a vivacious and eloquent woman of 28.

She remembers vividly her first day of university classes in Budapest, joining classmates for coffee after their first lecture.

"The first subject that they started to speak was stinky Gypsies, how stinky they are, how bad they are, stealing, beggars, all these things," Naydenova said. "I thought they recognized me. I just wanted really the earth to swallow me."

For two more years, she hid her Roma identity from colleagues and teachers while studying her roots and finally embracing them. "My self-confidence grew. My pride as a Roma grew," she said.

The Roma conference was held in Cordoba in the southern Andalusia region, which is home to about half of Spain's 600,000 Gypsies. Most of Europe's Roma live in the east and the Balkans.

It brought together officials from the European Commission, EU governments and NGOs in a 16th-century palace with blooming orange trees giving off a sweet scent in the central courtyard.

But Katalin Barsony, a Hungarian Roma who works for an NGO called the Romedia Foundation, complained the speakers list at the conference illustrated another problem facing Roma: acute discrimination against women. Of 52 speakers who addressed the forum, only five were Roma women.

She said she is worried right-wing parties, which she said have baited fears of Roma, will do well in legislative elections due to be held Sunday in Hungary, and that across Europe politicians are making Gypsies pay for economic woes.

"They need to find scapegoats, and Roma are easily scapegoated," said Barsony, whose father is Jewish. "I have this beautiful double identity which allows me to understand the problems and history of Roma in an objective way, I hope."

Mark, of Romania, said the EU has provided funding and a framework for helping the Roma, but that as central governments are reluctant to act, perhaps the Roma themselves should exert more pressure at the local level.

"Roma also need to push," he said, "rather than just choose this way of 'OK, let's go away. Let's migrate. Let's find a better life somewhere else."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Romanian 'child thieves' crime ring smashed

(UKPA) – 14 hours ago

A Romanian crime ring suspected of smuggling child thieves into Britain has been smashed following a joint crackdown involving the Metropolitan Police.

About 300 police officers executed search warrants at 33 homes in Tandarei, south east Romania, on Thursday.

Police in Romania said 30 people were questioned on suspicion of taking 168 Roma or Gypsy children - aged between seven and 15 - to Britain for "criminal activities".

Pistols, hunting rifles and large sums of money were seized in the house searches and 17 people arrested.

More than 20 officers from the Metropolitan Police took part in the operation.

"The Romanian National Police Organised Crime Unit executed search warrants at 33 addresses in Tandarei, south east Romania," said a Metropolitan Police spokesman.

"The operation is being supported by Metropolitan Police officers from Operation Golf - an investigation into child trafficking."

Romania to Increase Troops in Afghanistan to 1, 800

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) -- President Traian Basescu says that Romania will increase its troop levels in Afghanistan to 1,800 from 1,073 by September.

Basescu says the extra troops will increase security for Romanian troops already in the country. He says the decision was made last month at a high-level defense meeting.

The Romanian leader spoke Thursday before traveling to Prague for a dinner hosted by President Barack Obama. Obama will be joined by leaders from 11 Central and Eastern European nations worried about Russia's post-communist influence.

Moscow has voiced concern about the prospects of a revamped U.S. missile project, including a planned facility in Romania.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Report: Romanian social aid blooming

BUCHAREST, Romania, April 7 (UPI) -- The number of Romanians using social aid has almost half of the population drawing money each month, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

The Adevarul newspaper report said some 9.5 million people, or roughly half of the population, are receiving welfare, unemployment, housing and central heating aid, or other supplemental benefits.

That equates to a national expense of $3.2 billion a year, the report said.

The newspaper said there are some 670,000 elder people and children with healthcare problems receiving federal assistance.

The report said heightened awareness of government benefits appeared to be a factor in the surge in recipients. Fewer than 80,000 Romanians were receiving one of more of the 50 social benefits in 1992, while the number rose to 670,000 last year, the report said.

AP: Saab AB, Eurofighter to skip Romanian defense expo

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA

Two European defense companies said Wednesday they will no longer attend a defense exhibition to protest a Romanian proposal to buy used U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to modernize the country's army.

Sweden's Saab AB said it was "surprised" by a decision made by the country's Supreme Defense Council last week to recommend to Parliament that Romania buy the secondhand jets. The company said it will no longer participate in the April 13-16 "Black Sea Defense and AeroSpace" trade fair in Bucharest due to the decision.

Eurofighter spokesman Marco Valerio also said Wednesday his company was canceling its participation to protest the recommendation.

Last week, Saab's Romanian marketing director company manager Richard Smith called the F-16s "someone else's junk." Smith said that Swedish company Saab had offered brand new Gripen fighters, with low interest, a generous nonpayment period and 100 percent offset.

He urged the defense ministry to send all offers to Parliament for lawmakers to be able to compare before they vote on whether to pass the proposal.

However, Defense Minister Gabriel Oprea defended the decision to replace MIG 21 Lancer planes with 24 secondhand F-16s, saying Romania needs good-quality planes as a member of NATO. The president's office said the country could not afford new planes. There was no immediate reaction to the cancelations.

Romanian Two-Month Energy Output Falls on Gas, Crude Production

By Irina Savu

April 7 (Bloomberg) -- Romanian energy production fell 3.8 percent in the first two months of this year compared with the same period a year earlier on a decline in natural-gas and crude oil output.

Energy generation dropped to 3.8 million metric tons of oil equivalent, the National Statistics Institute said today in an e-mailed statement. Energy imports rose 4 percent to 1.6 million tons, according to the Bucharest-based institute.

Natural-gas production shrank 6 percent to about 1.5 million tons of oil equivalent, while crude oil declined 6.7 percent to 667,900 tons, the institute said. Coal output declined 1.8 percent to 936,300 tons of oil equivalent, according to the institute.

Electricity use climbed 3.1 percent to 8.8 billion kilowatt-hours as western European demand for Romanian products prompted large power consumers such as carmaker Dacia SA to boost output, the institute said.

Industrial output rose 7.1 percent in January, after gaining 8.3 percent in December, the institute said last month. February industrial output data will be released tomorrow.

Romania raids net alleged eBay scammers

BY ANDREW PENMAN ON APRIL 7, 2010 11:50 AM IN ONLINE SCAMS

Romanian prosecutors say 34 people have been arrested in connection with eBay frauds worth 800,000 euro, about £700,000.

There's a video of the raids here.

The gang are thought to have used phishing scams to hijack genuine eBay accounts and then sell non-existent luxury goods like top of the range cars.

Victims came from Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

Ten houses were searched and in the Czech Republic, where simultaneous raids took place, and ten arrests were made.

Romanian authorities said that they had received help from FBI and US Secret Service officers.