Friday, October 29, 2010

Transylvania to tourists: There's more here than Dracula

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

SIGHISOARA, Romania — The disciples are already trickling into this medieval hilltop town in which Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula, may — or may not — have been born almost six centuries ago.

Gussied up in dark-lipped Drac face, the revelers will convene Sunday in a local 16th-century cellar for a vampire-themed dinner party featuring spicy beef and lots of red wine.

Sorry, it's sold out. Ditto for 2011.

"Halloween is very big here," says Ioan Lazare, owner of the Hotel Sighisoara, where the annual soiree takes place. "They dress up, hang out in the cemetery. They just like the novel and the movie so much, they want to see these places."

Meanwhile, 90 miles south in the heart of Transylvania, the proprietors of the 12th-century Bran Castle, where Vlad/Dracula may — or may not — have dropped in during jaunts through the region, are preparing for an all-night Halloween bash, with theme music, horror movies, neck-nibbling, the works!
 

The facts of Vlad the Impaler's life are a tad ambiguous. Not so the myth, spurred by Irishman Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, whose namesake character and setting he borrowed from the Carpathian plateaus in central Romania.

But as much as some Romanians would like to drive a wooden stake through the heart of that myth, it shows no signs of dying, no small thanks to current pop culture phenomena like the Twilight trilogy, and True Blood

In an attempt to communicate that there's more to this country than vampire legends, greedy dictators, neglected orphanages and even perky gymnasts, tourism officials are touting Romania's natural assets and cultural heritage bounty. Well-preserved medieval towns, painted monasteries and ancient Dacian ruins occupy a landscape that has yet to be overrun by mass tourism.

Indeed, the Transylvanian countryside retains a lost-in-time quality, revealing sights you don't find just anywhere.

A step back in time

In a Roma village, men with prodigious beards craft copper pots used to distill the potent plum brandy Tzuica, while Gypsy women in flowing skirts and headscarves tend the children. Along two-lane roads linking centuries-old villages, horses sporting puffs of bright red yarn, meant to ward off curses, pull wagons heaped with farm goods. Haystacks dot the fields. Market stalls are piled high with fresh cheeses made by the sellers from their own herds. Higher in the mountains, bears, lynx and wolves still prowl the fir forests.

Adventure travel is growing. And in the village of Saschiz, the non-profit foundation ADEPT organizes village-to-village hikes and arranges slow-food-themed outings such as truffle-hunting with dogs.

"Instead of a plate with Dracula teeth, you can buy a homemade basket of local jams," says ADEPT co-founder Cristi Gherghiceanu, a bit cryptically.

Still, it's tough to look a gift vampire in the mouth — fangs or no — given its mass appeal.

"The reality is that many Americans, when they think about Romania, think about Dracula," says Simion Alb, director of the Romanian National Tourist Office in New York.

You don't need to tell tour operator Eduard Popescu that. He's near Sighisoara (pronounced See ghee swahr' ah) when the first Dracula sign appears directing motorists to a namesake hotel.

"A lot of guys put the Dracula name out there. Americans see it and they'll go," he says. "Americans are crazy about (the legend). They'll see a sign for the Bank of Transylvania and say, 'Stop! We must take photo!' And in the next town they see another Bank of Transylvania and say, 'Eduard, stop! We must have picture!' "

Sighisoara is hallowed ground for Dracula devotees. Its lower town is a cheerful jumble of green, yellow, pink and blue 18th-century buildings that were spared communist-era gray wash. Its fortified upper town is remarkably well preserved, with a 14th-century city hall, guild towers, churches and a monastery.

A 2001 proposal to create a Dracula theme park nearby created such an uproar that the project was scuttled. But the controversy drew more visitors, says Hans Bruno Frohlich, the local Lutheran priest.

A house in the center of the citadel purports to be the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, though the priest says it's a 1600s-era structure, and Vlad had been dead more than a century by then. ("Not that a vampire worries about time," he quips.) It was a church-owned home for the aged when the communists seized it in 1948. After 1989, it went into private hands. Now the church is suing to get it back.

"If we win, the first thing we'll do is take away the marble plaque outside that says it's the house of Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Impaler's father)," Frohlich says. "Why should we have to sell doughnuts when we have the real stuff?"

Telling 'the real stories'

For now, however, the stone building houses a New Age-y coffee bar/gift shop/hookah lounge on the lower floors and a restaurant upstairs where the tomato soup is a big seller. Mark Tudose rents a prime spot out front, where he sells hand-carved wooden spoons that portray Romanian legends, none of which has to do with vampires.

"I think it's really clever to bring tourists in with the Dracula myth. But it's our duty to share real stories with tourists."

Serious vampire kitsch can be found near Bran Castle. The origins of the fortress, 15 miles from the city of Brasov, date to 1377, and it's plausible that Vlad the Impaler was here. Vlad is portrayed as a fierce and brave leader who was skilled in psychological warfare, but lacked a good PR guy. (The Impaler moniker comes from his penchant for skewering his enemies with 15-foot wooden stakes and displaying the bodies as a graphic warning. )

From the 1920s until the post-World War II communist takeover, the castle was a royal residence. Descendants living in the USA got it back in 2007. About 518,000 visitors traipsed through the 57-room castle last year. It's also the setting for private events, including a romantic dinner for two that starts at about $3,300. The owners are considering installing an apartment in one of the towers for overnight guests. Notes marketing director Alexandru Priscu, "It's not a friendly place to be at night. It's a 1300s castle built on a hill in the woods. It's drafty and squeaky."

Sibiu, a 13th-century town that is among the region's oldest, completes Transylvania's Dracula triangle. Its inviting historic heart is a mix of cobbled walkways and broad plazas ringed by red-tile-roofed Saxon-style dwellings. With 14 museums and a celebrated annual theater festival, Sibiu is more suited to culture vultures than vampire seekers. Vlad's son is buried inside the landmark Lutheran cathedral there. But Alb, the U.S.-based tourism director, is hopeful that even die-hard vampire tourists will find something more here and elsewhere in Romania.

"After 50 years of communism, some visitors expect a dark country with aloof people," he says. "But once they get here, they're surprised at the diversity and the friendliness of the people."

Still, he adds, "The Dracula legend is a big draw. It would be foolish not to let people imagine what they want."
and The Vampire Diaries on TV.

Romanian opposition announces further struggle against government

29. October 2010
Source: Tanjug

Opposition parties in Romania announce they will continue their struggle against present government, although their suggestion to vote non-confidence in Prime Minister Emil Boc did not receive sufficient number of votes in the Parliament.

Opposition parties in Romania announce they will continue their struggle against present government, although their suggestion to vote non-confidence in Prime Minister Emil Boc did not receive sufficient number of votes in the Parliament.

Leading opposition Social-democratic party head Victor Ponta stated they will continue struggling to take current government down, agencies report. Liberal party President Crin Antonescu stressed, that the fight is not over.

On Wednesday the opposing parties, which suggested to vote non-confidence in current government, gathered 218 votes out of total 470 parliament members in Romanian parliament.

Since the ruling Democratic-liberal party’s management introduced strict discipline among their parliament members and senators, the opposition’s plan to win over the votes of “dissidents” failed, because they were forbidden to vote.

The government is relieved, although they will keep facing many challenges from opposition and unions, which announce protests against strict saving policy, that hit hard the ones living of their monthly salaries.

Prime Minister Boc, however, points out that Romania has no choice: the government must conduct reforms in order to get the country out of current economic crisis. That is a pre-condition to obtain loans from International Monetary Fund and European financial institutions amounting EUR 20 million, to decrease the deficit in state budget and to overcome the suspense in county’s economic development.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Romania's Government Faces No-Confidence Vote

Associated Press

BUCHAREST—Romania's Parliament began debating a motion of no-confidence against the country's government on Wednesday as about 30,000 people gathered to protest wage cuts and austerity measures.

The opposition Social Democrats and Liberals said they filed the motion to oppose the centrist government's harsh measures during the economic crisis. They will need 236 votes to topple the government. The opposition parties have 212 votes but hope some lawmakers from the governing coalition will switch sides in the secret ballot. Victor Ponta, the leader of the Social Democrats, claimed on Tuesday they needed to persuade only four more lawmakers to oust the government.

About 30,000 protesters were marching through Bucharest toward the Parliament building, blocking traffic and shouting: "Down with the government."

The vote will take place as an International Monetary Fund mission is visiting Romania to review the country's ailing economy. Romania took a €20 billion ($27.7 billion) loan from the IMF, the European Union and the World Bank last year when its economy shrank by 7.1%.

In return, Romania pledged to cut spending and the government took harsh measures, slashing public sector wages by one-fourth and increasing sales tax from 19% to 24%.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said before Tuesday's debate that he understands people's discontent, but he said they "must understand that the government did what it had to limit the effects of the crisis and to pull the country out of recession."

Voronets Monastery: Romanian frescoes tell story of heaven and hell

By BY BARBARA ZARAGOZA

Stripes travel reader

Dracul awaits sinners at the bottom of a fiery river. Saint George spears a dragon. The beast of the apocalypse blows fire onto dignitaries. At the painted monasteries in northeastern Romania, frescoes tell dramatic stories of salvation and damnation that once were meant to educate Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the countryside.


Surrounded by stone-wall fortifications, the monasteries are scattered through the valleys within the Carpathian Mountains. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia began construction of the Orthodox churches in the 15th century. During his reign, he fought to strengthen his kingdom by pitting it against Hungary, Poland and the Ottoman empire — winning 46 out of 48 battles, many against the pagan Turks. To commemorate his victories, he purportedly built 44 churches, and after his death his successors built more, copying King Stephen’s architectural style.

Our first stop on a tour to see some of these churches was at Gura Humorului, a logging town with one main street lined with restaurants, a supermarket and five newly constructed Orthodox churches. Between 1945 and 1989, the communist government declared Romania an atheist state and turned many churches into community centers or storerooms. But since the 1990s, a resurgence of piety has led to massive church construction throughout the country, often funded by the government.

The painted monasteries, too, have revived their religious communities with nuns and monks dedicated to restoring the monasteries and their frescoes.

We hired a local driver, Daniil, who knows the country roads well and can manage through forests, shepherd villages and unpaved roads. Daniil lived in Italy for a year but returned because he missed the beauty of this region. He first took us to Gura Humorului’s Voronets Monastery, one of the best known of the painted monasteries. Inside, beautiful frescoes and nuns singing Gregorian chants set the atmosphere for Sunday Mass.

The monasteries are constructed in the shape of arcs or ships. Angels often line the top row directly beneath the wooden eaves, symbolizing their proximity to God. We wandered over to the exterior western wall where a Last Judgment scene depicts Dracul (the devil) sitting at the bottom of a crimson river, while a few angels along the banks poke sinners with long sticks.

The background color of these frescoes shines with Voronets blue. Daniil says that researchers have tried to find out where the artists obtained the mineral, lapis lazuli, for the paint, but the mystery remains unsolved. It can be found in faraway places, such as the Badakhshan mines of northeastern Afghanistan, but nowhere near Romania.

Daniil next drove us about 15 miles to the Moldovitsa Monastery, which was built in 1532 by King Stephen’s illegitimate son, Petru Rares. As at Voronets, the Last Judgment scene shows Dracul sitting in his fiery river, but this time a demon pulls a dignitary into the water by his beard.

Builders of these monasteries placed the Last Judgment scenes on the western walls. They often inserted the entrance door, and a nun told me the reason.

“A church,” she said, “is a heaven on earth. To get inside, one must first pass through judgment day.”

Daniil drove us through a windy mountain of pine trees and after five miles or so we spilled into a valley where the Suchevitsa Monastery is tucked inside a mammoth citadel. Along the front wall of the church, the Ladder of Virtue spreads against an emerald-green background. Here, men step up with their good deeds, while angels behind them pray for their success. But many men fall off the rungs and into an abyss.

The Movila family constructed this citadel, the last of the monasteries, at the end of the 1600s. Locals like to recount the story of the Movila Princess Elizabeth, who poisoned her husband, Simeon, in order to get her son on the throne. The Tomb Room of the church holds the remains of many Movila family members — except for Elizabeth, who died in the harem of a Turkish sultan after the Ottomans conquered the region. In the Suchevitsa museum, a silver orb still holds strands of Elizabeth’s brown hair.

Daniil took us to visit several more monasteries and a salt mine in the town of Cacica. The Habsburgs annexed this region in the late 1700s, shutting down the monasteries. They then hired fellow Catholic Poles, Czechs and Germans to build and work in the salt mine. Today, the Romanians have turned the underground space into a gymnasium replete with tennis courts and a dance hall.

Before he left us, Daniil suggested that we eat at the Select restaurant along the main street, a “milk bar” that still exists from communist times. It seemed a good time to ask him whether he resents the Habsburgs and communist rulers who suppressed the wonders of these painted churches.

Daniil said that those leaders were like the people in the frescoes — “Some days evil. Some days good” — a mix of the fires of hell and the wings of angels. And the people of Romania know how to handle that.

Barbara Zaragoza is a dependent spouse living on the naval base in Naples, Italy. Find her blog, “The Espresso Break,” about the food and nooks of Naples, at http://theespressobreak.blogspot.com.

Romanian govt likely to survive no-confidence vote

Tue, Oct 26 2010

* Opposition trying to topple government over austerity

* Debate starts 0800 GMT, vote could be several hours later

* Doubts remain over adherence to terms of IMF-led bailout

By Sam Cage

BUCHAREST, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Romania's centrist government looks likely to survive a no-confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday over its deep spending cuts and tax hike, needed to maintain a 20-billion-euro IMF-led bailout.

Investment is pouring back into central Europe, but Romania is struggling to attract funds because of its rocky politics and the vote comes at a bad time for the government as the International Monetary Fund is reviewing the aid deal.

"A political crisis is not the sort of thing that can help Romania," said Ionut Dumitru, chief economist at Raiffeisen Bank in Bucharest. "Most probably, nothing will happen tomorrow."

Prime Minister Emil Boc's loose coalition has only shaky control over parliament and is struggling to make tough austerity measures stick to narrow Romania's budget deficit and keep the aid money flowing.

It is the second no-confidence vote Boc's government has faced in just 10 months in office and shaky politics has hit asset prices in the European Union's second-poorest country.

Unions are hoping about 80,000 people will demonstrate against the government outside parliament during the debate, which starts at 0800 GMT, though numbers at previous protests have fallen well short of expectations.

The government has imposed strict discipline on its sometimes unruly deputies and those from allied groups, a development that has supported the leu currency this week EURRON=.

Coalition partners are under instructions not to cast votes, which effectively means backing the government because the onus is on the leftist opposition to gain a majority.

The Social Democrats and Liberals, the two main opposition parties, have 213 representatives in parliament and need another 23 votes to topple the government.

There is still a slim chance the government could lose the vote, which would leave the country politically rudderless for several weeks and cast serious doubts over the entire aid programme.

An IMF team is in Bucharest to review the bailout, which requires Romania to cut its budget deficit to 6.8 percent of gross domestic product this year from 7.2 percent in 2009, and discuss a possible new deal once this one expires in March.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Romania Meets IMF's Budget-Deficit Target as Revenues From Higher VAT Rise

Romania’s budget deficit widened in September from the previous month to 4.56 percent of gross domestic product, below the target set by the International Monetary Fund in the Balkan nation’s bailout-loan agreement.

The shortfall totaled 23.3 billion lei ($7.6 billion), compared with a target for a gap of 28.2 billion lei, according to an e-mailed statement from the Finance Ministry in Bucharest late yesterday. The deficit at the end of August was 20.9 billion lei, or 4.1 percent of GDP.

The country is counting on a 20 billion-euro ($28 billion) loan from a group of international lenders to stay afloat amid its worst recession on record. Lawmakers cut wages and increased a value-added tax as they try to meet an IMF-agreed deficit target of 6.8 percent of GDP for the year after posting a 7.2 percent gap in 2009.

Revenue rose 3.6 percent annually and 11.7 percent on the month after the government increased the VAT by 5 percentage points to 24 percent in July, the ministry said. Expenditures rose 1.5 percent on the year and 11.5 percent from August on increased unemployment costs and the payment of overdue debt to the health-care system.

Romania’s budget-deficit figures look “promising,” IMF Mission Chief to Romania Jeffrey Franks said on Oct.20. The Washington-based lender has reason to be “optimistic” for the remaining of the year, he said.

The IMF and government estimate GDP will contract as much as 1.9 percent this year, after shrinking a record 7.1 percent in 2009. There might be an adjustment of the economic forecasts, Franks said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andra Timu in Bucharest at atimu@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James M. Gomez in Prague atjagomez@bloomberg.net

Romanian coalition MPs to abstain in confidence vote

By Marius Zaharia

BUCHAREST, Oct 25 (Reuters) - All deputies from Romania's main ruling party and allied ethnic Hungarians will abstain from a no-confidence vote in the government, a senior politician said on Monday, improving its chances of surviving the motion.

For Wednesday's vote, called over austerity measures to comply with terms of an International Monetary Fund-led bailout, the government needs only to stop the opposition gathering a majority, meaning abstentions effectively count as support for Prime Minister Emil Boc.

"The coalition has decided, the Democrat-Liberal party has decided: the coalition's parliament members will not participate in the vote," said Gheorghe Flutur, vice president of the ruling Democrat-Liberal party.

The government hopes abstentions will help it maintain discipline over sometimes unruly coalition MPs, some of whom might otherwise be tempted to vote for the no-confidence motion in what is effectively an anonymous ballot.

The opposition has 213 representatives in parliament and would need another 23 votes for a majority to topple the government in the 470-seat parliament.

A group of independent parliamentarians will also probably abstain from the vote, their leader Liviu Campanu told Reuters.

It is far from good timing for Boc, with an IMF team in Bucharest to review the 20 billion euro ($28 billion) deal.

"Chances for the opposition to succeed are slimmer than they might have been in the past ... but popular dissent is quite high and it might still be a close call," said Elisabeth Gruie, emerging markets strategist at BNP Paribas in London.

"However, whether or not the government remains in place, people will still be focusing on the IMF meetings, what reforms will be enacted and on whether the central bank will manage the currency or not to support the economy."

PLUNGING SUPPORT

Investment has begun pouring back into central Europe. But Romania is struggling to attract funds because of its rocky politics.

Support for Boc's Democrat Liberal party has plunged to just 10 percent as public pay cuts and a hike in value added tax hike hit home and unions are organising demonstrations in Bucharest on the day of the vote.

Uncertainty over the government has hit the leu currency EURRON= and bonds, which the finance ministry is underselling because it generally refuses to meet investor demands for interest of more than 7 percent.

The leu and blue chip stocks .BETI rose on Monday on growing confidence the government would survive and the cost of insuring Romania's sovereign debt edged lower.

Analysts say defeat cou1d push the leu back towards the all-time lows of around 4.40 per euro it hit in June, and may push the finance ministry to abandon its 5-month-old bond yield cap as funding needs reach a peak next month. (Additional reporting by Ioana Patran; writing by Sam Cage; editing by Andrew Roche)

Monday, October 25, 2010

How not to run a country

http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches

Oct 22nd 2010

by V.P. | BUCHAREST


IT LOOKED like April Fool's Day. On Tuesday lawmakers from Romania's ruling Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), including ministers, voted to slash VAT on food and eliminate income tax on pensions worth less than €500. It seemed an odd thing to do, given that the government had raised VAT to its current level only a few months earlier, as part of a deal with the IMF.

Oops. It was an "error", said the finance minister. The MPs had actually thought they were voting to scrap the two proposals. The PDL is now hoping that the president will not sign the bill into law, and is fast-tracking a new draft to "correct" the mistake. The government may also adopt an "emergency ordinance" to fix the problem.

But this latest blunder fits into a weary tradition of dysfunctional policy-making in Romania, where laws often appear to be drafted minutes before parliamentary votes with little thought to long-term strategy or financial impact.

A review of the Romanian government's structures drafted by the World Bank and seen by The Economist speaks of a "prevalence of ad-hoc decision making" and slams the "frequent use" of emergency ordinances that override approved parliamentary laws. Despite plans announced five years ago to measure results against plans, nothing of the sort has taken place, the document reads. There is also no prioritising of policies and "laws are commonly approved without adequate funding."

The review issues a series of recommendations on how to improve national decision-making. Such proposals are nothing new, says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi from the Hertie School of governance in Berlin.

"In the last decade, Romania received a lot of advice, technical assistance and funding to improve its policy formulation and implementation capacity", she says. "Romania's quality of governance might not have induced the 2009-2010 crisis, but it does seem increasingly that it contributed to its severity and duration."

With the economy still in recession and a second IMF loan being negotiated in Bucharest, the latest blunder is fuelling calls for the government to step down. Emil Boc, the prime minister, and his team are bracing themselves for a test next Wednesday, when parliament will debate an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion that accuses the government of having "waged war" against its own people with its austerity measures, while "doing nothing to kickstart the economy."

Mr Boc is confident he will survive the vote, as he did, just, in June. Yet following acabinet reshuffle in early September, there is a tranche of disgruntled PDL members who, with non-affiliated MPs, could swing the balance this time.

Moscow Sends Mixed Signals On Transdniester Settlement

http://www.rferl.org
by Eugen Tomiuc

With its luxurious beaches, high-end villas, and celebrity visitors, the French resort of Deauville is a far cry from Moldova's grim separatist Transdniester region.

But it was in this swank resort on the Normandy coast where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev raised hopes that after years of gridlock a breakthrough might be possible in the decades-old conflict between Moldova's central government in Chisinau and its pro-Moscow breakaway region.

Medvedev made his comments following a summit meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on October 19.

"As soon as the necessary electoral procedures have taken place," Medvedev said, "I believe we have a good chance to restart the process and achieve results. Russia will support this.

"But I want to draw attention to the fact that the success of this depends not only on Russia but also on the position of Moldova itself. That is the main issue. It depends on the position of Transdniester and of Romania and on the position of the EU. Everyone must play their part."

Bargaining Chip

But while Medvedev's comments suggested that the perennially stalled Transdniester talks could get a boost, many analysts remain skeptical, saying the Kremlin is using the issue as a bargaining chip to curry favor with Brussels and win more influence over the European Union's decision-making process.

Medvedev's mention of Romania as a potential party in resolving the conflict raised eyebrows because Moscow has -- until now -- sought to freeze Bucharest out of the negotiating process entirely.

Two-thirds of Moldova's population are Romanian speakers. Prior to World War II, most of the country's current territory -- excluding Transdniester -- was part of Romania.

It was due to fears that Romanian speakers would push for a reunification with Bucharest that drove the predominantly Russian-speaking Transdniester region to break away from Moldova -- with Moscow's active assistance -- in 1990 -- sparking a short war that ended in 1992.

Invitation To Bucharest?

The current negotiating format, under which talks have been stalled for years, is known as 5+2 and includes Moldova, Transdniester, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States and the European Union are observers in the talks.

It is unclear whether Medvedev's comments were an invitation to Bucharest to join the talks. The Kremlin has not elaborated on the president's statement.

For its part, Romania reacted coolly to Medvedev’s pitch. The Foreign Ministry in Bucharest told RFE/RL in a written statement that Romania’s position is that the 5+2 negotiations format remains the only viable one for a solution and called for a formal resumption of the 5+2 talks “in the perspective of the OSCE summit in Astana.” The statement says that Romania is “involved in the 5+2 format” through its status as an EU member.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Armand Gosu, an adviser to Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi, elaborated, saying, "Romania has for some time offered its services to be included in the negotiations format considering that, as an EU and NATO member state located at the border of these two organizations and at a distance of only 120 kilometers from Transdniester, it has a legitimate interest in resolving the conflict. There are plans which have been worked out by Romanian institutions -- some of them are for implication in the negotiations, others are somehow more nuanced."

'Purely A Diversion'

Political analyst Vladimir Socor of the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation says he is skeptical that Medvedev's apparent overture to Romania was sincere.

"Medvedev's remark [about Romania] is purely a diversion," Socor says. "From his remark, we can understand that in the private talks in Deauville, and the discussions before Deauville, the Russians tried to blame Romania for the Transdniester impasse. It is in Russia's interest to introduce the Romanian factor in this equation in order to create confusion and find a pretext to justify its own intransigence. Let's not fall into the trap of talking too much about the Romanian factor."

OSCE-backed negotiations have repeatedly failed to bring a resolution to the conflict, with Transdniester refusing to cede its independence to Chisinau and insisting that the 1,200 or so Russian troops in the region stay on as a guarantee.

Moscow has consistently backed Transdniester economically, militarily, and politically, although it never recognized its independence, as it did with two other separatist regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- after the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008.

The inclusion of the EU and the United States as observers did little to push forward the stalled talks between Chisinau and Tiraspol. A rare three-way meeting between Medvedev, Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov, and Moldova’s Communist President Vladimir Voronin in March 2009 in Russia was little more than a photo op.

Less than one month after that meeting, Moldova was plunged into a prolonged political crisis, which appears set to continue at least until the country holds early elections in November.

Reliable Partner

The Transdniester issue resurfaced in June when Medvedev and Merkel met to discuss the formation of an EU-Russia Political and Security Committee. The proposed new body would include Russian and European foreign ministers, as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

In discussing the new committee, Germany called for joint EU-Russian action to end the Transdniester conflict and urged Moscow to withdraw its troops from the region. In exchange, Russia is seeking a greater voice in EU foreign policy decision making. Specifically, Moscow wants a voice in the EU's Political and Security Committee.

Analysts say Germany is pushing Russia on the Transdniester issue to prove to skeptical EU members -- particularly in former communist Eastern Europe -- that Moscow can be a reliable partner.

Socor of the Jamestown Foundation says that while the German initiative might eventually bear fruit with Transdniester, it could also ultimately be poisonous for the EU, which remains deeply divided over its Russia policy.

"This dynamic can lead to a positive result -- the salvation of Moldova -- but from the perspective of general [European] interests it can have a very toxic effect. This is the dilemma," Socor says. "So far, Russia has not come up with a position regarding the German proposal for several reasons, but first of all because the EU has not approved the German initiative. Maybe because this is a German initiative which attempts to implicate the EU, but without the EU's approval."

Position Remains Unchanged

Another reason for Russia’s stalling appears to be the upcoming early election in Moldova, where a pro-Western and pro-Romanian alliance (AEI) has been governing for the past 18 months but which has recently become increasingly divided.

Analysts say Moscow appears to have been successful in dividing the four parties that make up the coalition. Meanwhile, the staunchly pro-Russian Communist Party, which is currently in opposition, boasts a formidable infrastructure at the local level capable of turning out rural voters.

Meanwhile, despite appearances to the contrary, Socor says Moscow’s position on a Transdniester settlement -- and, crucially, on withdrawing its troops from the region -- remains virtually unchanged.

"Three months after the German proposal, Russia, in private discussions in Brussels, in talks with the EU representative for Moldova [Kalman Mizsei], and in bilateral contacts with the Americans, the Russian positions are the same," Socor says.

"First, a three-way agreement should be reached between Chisinau, Tiraspol, and Moscow on the status of Transdniester, which should be a federal one. Then the agreement should be put to approval in the 5+2 format. Russia also wants Transdniester to take part in domestic and foreign policy decision made by Moldova. Russia wants this principle to be retained, and it also wants Russian troops to stay as guarantors of a future political settlement. Therefore, three months after the German proposal, Russia's position remains the old one."

Radu Benea of RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report from Chisinau

Tapped phone calls put Romania media in tight spot

By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)

BUCHAREST — The publication this week of telephone conversations between a media mogul and several journalists in Romania has sparked a heated debate over media monopolies.

The tapped phone calls feature Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, owner of an influential media group including Realitatea television station, allegedly telling his subordinates what he expected from them.

"What I need today is an organization that carries out my orders.... You are not free, whoever is not happy with this can leave."

"Absolutely... This is what I'm going to tell the people when I go back" in the newsroom, one of the directors, Sergiu Toader, allegedly replied.

Transcripts of the conversations figure in Vantu's indictment for aiding a man sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud, with prosecutors claiming they reveal Vantu's character. His trial is due to start on November 8.

"These transcripts show the extent to which a media owner can impose his personal will, to the detriment of public interest," Ioana Avadani, head of the Centre for Independent Journalism, told AFP.

"They threaten the credibility of the media as a whole," she said, adding that prosecutors should have taken steps to "protect the privacy" of the journalists involved.

Opposition leaders have condemned the publication of the conversations, saying they were being used as an "instrument of blackmail aimed at discrediting President Traian Basescu's opponents".

According to the transcripts, Vantu's explicit goal was to drive Basescu from power as he blamed him for the charges he was facing.

A first attempt failed in 2007, when Basescu was impeached by parliament but returned to office after a referendum overturned the lawmakers' decision.

"The impeachment was the result of the alliances I built in parliament," Vantu allegedly said.

In the December 2009 presidential campaign, Vantu backed the opposition candidate Mircea Geoana, who narrowly lost to Basescu.

At the time, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had published a report blasting the "biased coverage" of the campaign by TV stations such as Realitatea TV and Antena, and their "aggressiveness towards the outgoing president".

Romanian best-selling writer Mircea Cartarescu professed in an editorial that journalists had turned into "shameful mercenaries", working for a "manipulative media group".

In an address earlier this month, US ambassador Mark Gitenstein said Romania needed "independent media, not simply independent of the state, but independent of powerful economic interests that use the media to manipulate the discourse".

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pope pushes for Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation in Romania

Pope Benedict XVI prodded the government of Romania to ensure equal justice for all religions, during an October 21 meeting with the nation’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Bogdan T?taru-Cazaban.
Eastern-rite Romanian Catholics and their Orthodox counterparts have been in disputes for years over the possession and use of church properties that were seized from Catholics by the Communist government and turned over to Orthodox parishes. The Romanian Catholic Church endured brutal persecution during the Stalinist era, and today Catholics continue to press for compensation for the churches that were confiscated.
Pope Benedict raised the issue indirectly, speaking first about Romania’s liberation from Communist rule. He remarked that "so many years passed under the yoke of a totalitarian ideology leave deep scars in people's mentality,” creating challenges for the government as it strives to establish a new democracy. The Pontiff said that the Romanian people must now resist the lure of materialism and other “false ideologies,” promoting the common good and “making good use of your freedom.” In that context, the Pope said that “injustices inherited from the past should be repaired without being afraid of doing justice.” He spoke more directly about Catholic-Orthodox conflicts, saying that a mixed commission set up in 1998 to mediate disputes about parish property “must be reactivated.”
Citing the advances that have been made in ecumenical affairs—particularly since the visit to Romania by Pope John Paul II-- the Holy Father said: “Commitment to dialogue in charity and truth must be strengthened and joint initiatives promoted.”

Romanian teacher on hunger strike over cuts

By Denisa Morariu, for CNN

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Cristiana Anghel has been on hunger strike for 59 days
Teacher is now in hospital under medical supervision
Cristiana says she will stop when doctors warn her she might lose her life
Romanian parliament cut salaries of public sector workers in June by 25 percent

(CNN) -- A Romanian teacher on hunger strike for 59 days lambasted officials in her country's government Thursday for ignoring her protest over drastic austerity cuts, accusing them of treating her as if she did not exist.

Cristiana Anghel has refused to eat since August 24 in protest at 25 percent salary cuts imposed on public servants. In common with many other countries across Europe, thousands of people have been protesting on the streets of Bucharest after the parliament passed the measures in June.

Ten days ago the 55-year-old, who is married with a grown-up daughter, was admitted to hospital in Bucharest and is now under continuous medical supervision.

"The moment I saw nobody cares about a law being broken, and most important, that nobody cares if a human being is on hunger strike, risking her health and life in the name of a principle, I decided I will stop only when I sensitize (the politicians) and make them respect the law," Anghel told CNN.

Cristiana said she was most angered by the "complete silence of politicians from the power structures."

"It is as if I didn't exist." she added.

Doctors have now put Cristiana, who lives in Caracal, in southern Romania, under perfusion of water and sugar, ensuring her brain and liver continue to work, but she maintains she is still on hunger strike.

She has refused to be given perfusions with amino acids that feed her body, and vowed to continue her protest. "I will not stop until the politicians understand that Romania is our country and we want it the way it should be."

She only drinks water, sometimes adding a few drops of orange juice, to get some vitamins. She has been close to death on three occasions when her heart almost stopped beating and she had renal failure.

But Cristiana maintains she does not want to commit suicide, and says her protest will end when doctors say they fear she will die. She does not want to repeat the gesture of her friend Maria Corcoveanu, a colleague at the same school who committed suicide last month because she feared she could not live on the reduced wage.

CNN attempted to contact officials from the Romanian education ministry, but officials declined to comment on the case.


Romania: Opposition blasts media leaks

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA

A former Romanian prime minister has condemned the publication of private phone conversations between journalists and a powerful media owner, who is facing trial for links to a man convicted of fraud.

The recorded transcripts of conversations between journalists and Sorin Ovdiu Vantu, owner of influential Realitatea TV station were leaked and published by the Romanian media this week.

The prosecutor's office said such conversations were recorded to "illustrate the character" of the accused. It did not say how they found their way into media's hands.

The television station is critical of the government. Vantu is charged with helping a man convicted of fraud and an investigation is underway. He says the case against him is politically motivated.

Calin Popescu Tariceanu -- who was prime minister from 2004 to 2008 -- said the publication of the conversations show that Romanian justice system is based on "Big Brother" principles. Tariceanu is now in opposition.

Press freedom in Romania has declined in the past year, a report from Reporters Without Borders said this week.

Post-Cannes blues for prize-winning Romanian director

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

BUCHAREST — When Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won the top award at the Cannes film festival in 2007, the same year Romania joined the European Union, the country's film future looked rosy.

The then 39-year-old Mungiu was part of a "New Wave" of Romanian moviemakers emerging forcefully on the internatonal stage. It was hoped their success would stir interest back home in viewing quality European and Asian films.

Yet three years after his Palme d'Or for "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days" -- hailed at the time as a "fairy tale" that could have real fall-out -- Mungiu feels "very disappointed and very tired".

As Romania battles a severe economic crisis, numerous arthouse cinemas have been shut down, transformed into police stations, concert halls, even shops.

And last year, American blockbusters drew more than 90 percent of Romanian moviegoers -- even though Romanian directors like Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu, Florin Serban or Marian Crisan keep scooping up awards at festivals from Berlin to Locarno.

"I am very disappointed when I see no change in the way films are distributed and shown in Romania," Mungiu told AFP this week.

He spoke at the "Cannes Movies in Bucharest", a festival he organized with Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director at the Cannes fest, to promote European and Asian art cinema -- as well as films by Romanian directors whom Fremaux called "extraordinarily talented" but have to fight to have their films shown at home.

"We need a network of movie theatres dedicated to European movies or more generally to art films," Mungiu insisted.

"The lack of such a network is a big problem," said Antoine Bagnaninchi, who distributes films by French director Jacques Audiard and Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, both award winners at Cannes and elsewhere.

Romania counts one of the smallest numbers of cinemas in all of Europe: 74 for 21.5 million inhabitants, or 182 screens. By comparison, France, with three times the residents, has 30 times the number of film screens.

Even neighboring Hungary, with half of Romania's population, has 415 screens, according to figures released by Europa Cinemas, the first film theatre network focusing on European films.

Multiplex cinemas have opened in the huge shoppping malls cropping up outside Romania's main cities but they mainly screen high-profile American productions.

Though industry insiders welcome the multiplex cinemas, they deplore the lack of diversity in film offerings, notably European talent .

"It's a pity since we feel there is an audience for European movies. But there is hardly any place to screen them," said Claude-Eric Poiroux, general director of a Romanian chain called Europa Cinemas.

With virtually no state support for art cinema, cinephile Daniela Bacanu manages to program domestic art films and documentaries from around the world at a center called the "New Cinema of the Romanian Director".

She said the center gets great feedback but conceded it's not easy ; she sometimes works as both programmer and technician. "You have to do a bit of everything because of the lack of funds," she said.

Some 25,000 people attended her screenings in the first nine months of 2010, a good performance in a country where only 5,28 million entries were registered in movie theatres in 2009 -- as compared, for example, to 200 million in France.

In the northern city of Cluj, a similar effort, the Transylvanian Film Festival set up from scratch by director Tudor Giurgiu, attracted 55,000 people to see art films.

Industry workers, including Mungiu, notably say Romania lacks organized support for the film industry. "To achieve something sustainable and progressive in Romania seems almost impossible. It is very sad," he charged.

State grants for film production and festivals are criticized for alleged lack of transparency. In addition, the state has transferred authority for dozens of movie theatres to local councils. But "almost none of the mayors took an interest in that," said Elena Incrostanu, director of RomaniaFilm, the structure once in charge of these theatres.

Earlier this year, the Culture Ministry offered to resume control of the remaining 26 art cinemas but the government has not yet ruled on the issue, said Incrostanu.

Mungiu, for one, wants such theatres to be required to show -- and promote -- a set number of European films .

"If you design a global support policy for the cinema, the results are strong in terms of creativity but also in terms of economic success," Fremaux stressed citing France's example.

The drawbacks, however, have not deterred Romanian directors, who for the third year running have taken part in a program in Bucharest secondary schools. The aim? To encourage a new generation of movie goers and directors to keep the future rosy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

AP: IMF mission in Romania to evaluate austerity plan

An International Monetary Fund mission arrived in Romania Wednesday to review the country's recession-mired economy and begin talks on a possible new loan agreement amid protests against wage cuts and austerity measures.

IMF mission chief Jeffrey Franks said an increase in the minimum wage, as requested by unions, should be evaluated to determine whether it would overburden the economy. The current monthly minimum wage is 600 lei (euro140, $192).

Romania took a euro20 billion ($27.72 billion) loan from the IMF, the European Union and the World Bank last year, when its economy shrank by 7.1 percent. Some of the money was used to pay pensions and wages.

In return for the loan, the government has to cut spending drastically to keep the deficit down.

In recent weeks, thousands of state workers have protested in Romania, demanding a hike in salaries after the government cut wages in the public sector by a quarter and hiked the sales tax from 19 percent to 24 percent to reduce the budget deficit from its current 6.8 percent of GDP.

The government faces a no-confidence vote in Parliament next week.

President Traian Basescu said he supports a new agreement with the IMF, but this time for a credit line and not for a loan.

Romanian MPs lower VAT 'by mistake'

Bucharest - Romania's parliament on Tuesday night unanimously voted to cut value-added sales tax (VAT) to 5% on basic food products, a move done "by mistake", according to the governing party.

Our "vote yesterday evening was a mistake," Mircea Toader, leader of the ruling Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), admitted during a press conference, explaining that PDL lawmakers got confused as more than 80 draft laws were put to vote.

Finance minister Gheorghe Ialomitianu himself voted in favour of the VAT cut even though it contradicts his government's stand on the issue, Mediafax news agency reported.

The bill adopted by the lower chamber was initiated by the opposition parties. It proposes to cut VAT from a current 24% to 5% on products like meat, bread, milk or sugar.

But this runs counter an agreement signed by the Romanian centre-right government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to curb a rising public deficit by raising VAT from 19% to 24%.

"We will make up for this mistake by initiating a draft cancelling yesterday's vote," Toader added.

An IMF mission arrived in Bucharest on Wednesday in order to assess the impact of an austerity package implemented by the government in the face of a severe economic crisis.

- AFP

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

MEPs voice outrage over Romania's media policy


waz.euobserver.com

DAN ALEXE

A controversial Romanian government doctrine describing the media as potentially detrimental to the nation's well-being is causing a growing stir in the European Parliament.

Romanian deputy Rovana Plumb wrote to the EU's justice commissioner Viviane Reding on Monday (18 October) asking her to condemn the Romanian government's abuse of the media, following a demarche by three leading MEPs.

In an unprecedented move, leaders of three of the most important groups in the European Parliament – Martin Schultz (Socialists and Democrats), Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Greens) – sent a joint letter last week to the speakers of the two chambers of the Romanian Parliament.

They asked for a rejection of a paragraph in the Romanian government's new 'National Defence Strategy' in which the press is described as a "weakness" for the country. According to the draft strategy, Romania faces a series of threats including press campaigns.

The new doctrine was announced before the summer break and triggered uproar among the country's media, which concentrated its indignation on President Traian Basescu. Mr Basescu is head of Romania's Supreme Defence Council (CSAT), which comprises the Prime Minister, the interior minister and the heads of the various intelligence services.

In their letter, the three leading MEPs reminded the Romanian Parliament that member states are obliged to adopt laws which do not conflict with the values and juridical norms of the European Union. Their letter also said that labelling the press a "weakness" for the country was: "not only an undemocratic gesture, but also an infringement of Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human rights, and of Article 6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union."

For members of the Romanian media, the majority of which have taken part in a long-running campaign against the current coalition conservative government, the new security doctrine smacks of censorship and brings back memories of the Ceausescu era. During that time, the press was fully subordinated to the state and any act of criticism was considered an attack against the foundations of the country. The country's media fear the new strategy could be construed as encouragement for overzealous behaviour among the secret services.

The strategy, which will have to be validated by parliament, states that anti-government press campaigns represent a threat to the country's stability and that they are on a par with corruption, organised crime and terrorism.

The CSAT specifically refers to the phenomenon of "press campaigns aimed at denigrating or spreading false information about the activity of state institutions" and identifies "pressure exerted by media groups on political decisions with the purpose of obtaining advantages from the state institutions." The text of the strategy can only be adopted or rejected in its entirety; no amendments can be introduced.

Relations between the Romanian press and the government in Bucharest have recently been deteriorating. The media have been very critical of the government's austerity measures, which include a 25 percent reduction of public sector salaries combined with a 15 percent cut in pensions.

Since his re-election in December 2009, following an electoral campaign that garnered overwhelming press opposition, Mr Basescu seems to have begun to totally divorce himself from the media. He consistently refuses to give interviews and has put an end to the practice of taking groups of journalists with him when he travels abroad.

Monday, October 18, 2010

AP: Communism leaves toxic legacy in Eastern Europe

BUCHAREST, Romania | Abandoned mines in Romania leach waters contaminated by heavy metals into rivers. A Hungarian chemical plant produces more than 100,000 tons of toxic substances a year. Soil in eastern Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-producing PCBs.

The flood of toxic sludge in Hungary is but one of the ecological horrors that lurk in Eastern Europe 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, serving as a reminder that the region is dotted with disasters waiting to happen.

Much of Eastern Europe is free of many of its worst environmental sins with the help of Western funds and conditions imposed on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in exchange for membership in the European Union.

Still, the sludge has focused attention on less-visible dangers that survived various cleanups in the region.

The caustic spill — Hungary's worst ecological disaster — also has raised questions about whether investors who took over Soviet-era factories from the state 20 years ago are at fault for not spending enough on safety.

Eight people died in the Oct. 4 deluge of red sludge from a 24-acre storage pool where a byproduct of aluminum production is kept.

Calls for greater cleanup efforts apply not only to Hungary, which considered itself ahead of most of the other former Soviet republics in fixing ecological harm, but also to neighbors such as Serbia that hope to join the 27-nation EU.

"The scary thing is we didn't know this existed and there could be other ones," said Andreas Beckmann, director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Danube-Carpathian program, alluding to the Hungarian spill. "How many other facilities and sites are there that could be a ticking time bomb?"

Environmentalists warn of other potential disasters from seven storage ponds about 60 miles northwest of Budapest that hold 12 million tons of sludge accumulated since 1945 — more than 10 times the amount that spilled this month.

"If the gates break there, much of Hungary's drinking water would be endangered," said WWF official Martin Geiger.

Other sites — like the Borsodchem plant in northeastern Hungary — pose similar risks to groundwater. That factory churns out 100,000 tons of the toxin PVC that contains dioxin, the same poison released into the air by a factory explosion in Seveso, Italy, 34 years ago that killed hundreds of animals and turned much of the town into a no-man's land.

Slovakia, Hungary's northern neighbor, has its own toxic problems, including a huge area in the east of the country that is still contaminated with PCBs from communist times.

Government officials in Bulgaria, alarmed by the Hungarian spill, have ordered safety checks of a dozen waste dams — huge reservoir walls that hold back often heavy-metal-laden waste that are prone to leaks or collapse.

In Bulgaria's most serious such accident, walls at a lead and copper processing factory in Zgorigrad broke in 1966, releasing a flood of sludge that killed 488 people and left much of the immediate area uninhabitable.

Activists said smaller leaks are not uncommon. Ecologist Daniel Popov said sludge from a storage pond containing waste from copper ore leaked into the Topolnitsa River in central Bulgaria last spring, killing fish.

The inspections are only for operational waste dams, prompting criticism from environmental activists.

Of particular concern, a WWF report says, is a dam near the town of Chiprovtsi in northwestern Bulgaria because it is directly on the Ogosta River, a major Danube tributary.

Hungary's sludge ponds are legacies of the Soviet era, when Moscow designated that country as the main producer of alumina, used in the manufacture of aluminum. Reservoirs full of heavy-metal-laced sludge are also threats elsewhere.

A huge storage pond full of corrosive sludge in Romania is part of the landscape of the gritty Danube port of Tulcea. WWF activists said leaks and airborne pollution from the site are responsible for fish and bird deaths nearby.

The Danube — Europe's second-longest waterway — appears to have escaped immediate harm from the recent Hungarian spill. The same kind of spill at the Tulcea plant would devastate a vast stretch of lakes and marshes at the Danube's entry into the Black Sea that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It hosts more than 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater species of fish.

Memories of an environmental disaster a decade ago in Romania have triggered emergency measures for Tulcea and other suspect sites. That was when a reservoir burst at a gold mine in the northwestern town of Baia Mare on Jan. 30, 2000, spilling cyanide-laden water into local rivers and killing tons of fish and other wildlife.

Romanian Environment Minister Laszlo Borbely said his country is accelerating cleanup plans for 1,000 contaminated sites.

"We must be very cautious now after what happened here in Baia Mare and now in Hungary," he said. Romania could access up to $138 million in EU funds to decontaminate polluted sites, he said.

Some of Eastern Europe's worst environmental horrors were in Romania — among them Copsa Mica, where TV images of black toxic soot from chimneys of a rubber-dye factory falling onto houses, fields, grazing sheep and townspeople shocked the world in 1989.

International outrage contributed to the plant's 1993 closure. But "historic pollution" with heavy metals from the 40 years that it operated continues to foul the air. Life expectancy in the area is nine years lower than the national average of 72.

The Danube is shared by seven countries, and it has been the victim of toxic spills even before Hungary's caustic red muck.

Among the worst incidents happened 11 years ago during NATO's bombing of Serbia, when warplanes targeted fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and an oil refinery in the town of Pancevo, near Belgrade, releasing mercury, dioxins and other deadly compounds into the river.

Foreign funding after the war allowed authorities to contain some of the leaks, but sporadic emissions of toxic gases continue to drive air pollution above accepted levels.

Also near Belgrade, an open pit in Obrenovac just 100 yards from the Sava — a Danube tributary — contains millions of tons of coal ash from the Nikola Tesla Coal Power Plant.

The air has unhealthy levels of carbon black, also known as lampblack, for as much as a third of the year. Sprinklers to prevent the ash from becoming airborne are of limited effectiveness on windy days.

Croatia lists nine locations where dangerous waste has been deposited for decades that still need to be cleaned, said Toni Vidan of the group Green Action.

In Vranjic near Split, a factory producing asbestos closed several years ago, but the waste — about 9,100 cubic yards of material mixed with asbestos — hasn't been completely cleaned up.

Two years ago, the presence of asbestos in Vranjic was three times greater than allowed. Even today, residents say particles of asbestos are in the air when the wind blows.

Roma missing out on vital European funds in Romania

waz.euobserver.com
MARTINA HERZOG

When EU social affairs commissioner Laszlo Andor went to Bucharest last week, he was in the mood for spending money. The Hungarian's job means that he can offer funds to benefit the poor and the unemployed, the excluded and uneducated.

The Roma are unfortunate enough to be well represented in each of these categories but the Romanian government has hardly tapped into the available money. For this reason, Mr Andor boarded a plane to Bucharest to discover why the funding source was not being tapped.

Street scene in Bucharest neighbourhood with high percentage of Roma inhabitants (Photo: Martina Herzog)

At the end of a two day conference and a string of political meetings, the exasperation of some of the people present in the Brussels delegation was palpable. The Romanian government is neither capable nor willing to 'absorb' the funds – to use the money for its intended purpose - and it is the Roma who will continue to bear the brunt of that failure.

Roma have been hit harder by poverty and exclusion in Romania than in the rest of Europe. Heavy industry all across Eastern Europe collapsed with the fall of the iron curtain at the end of the 1980s and left many poorly qualified Roma unemployed. They became "victims of the post-communist transition" as Mr Andor describes it.

Accompanying the Brussels entourage to schools in the outskirts of Bucharest, we received just an inkling of the situation on the ground, but a disturbing one nevertheless. One of the institutions presented to us was clearly a model project complete with potted flowers on polished floors and a sports ground full of by children practising gymnastics in cheery unison.

But there is another school, just a kilometre away, where horse carts and cars share dusty roads lined with deep ditches. Just seven percent of pupils at the first school are Roma compared to 96 percent at the second. With high illiteracy rates among the Roma population, these children do not receive the same parental help with their homework and many leave school early.

The two schools have been designated as partners in a project that might start next year, but local politicians and Roma activists are sceptical about it.

"If you don't prepare that well, you might do more harm than good," said Marian Mandache of Roma NGO Romani Criss. He hopes that intercultural activities such as sports and cinema visits will pave the way for cooperation, but in the worst-case scenario there will be no integration and more well-to-do parents will remove their children from school.

There are even worse forms of segregation than geographical distance. Mr Mandache described a school for disabled children in Sibiu county, which is almost exclusively attended by Roma. When these children are first sent to school at the age of seven, the course of a lifetime is already set for many of them; they simply do not catch up with others.

But there are beacons of hope even among the least privileged. Rebeca Florescu left school at 16, married soon after and had the first of two children just a year later. Twelve years on, she has received start-up funding from a trade union and runs her own cleaning business. She beamed with joy and pride as she told her story and yet, asked if she knew of other encouraging examples, she admitted: "Among my friends, I am the only one in a regular job."

No less committed but with an unmistakable trace of sarcasm, Valeriu Nicolae discussed his people's plight. With a successful private business career, he now invests in organising leisure activities and homework help for a group of students, as well as lobbying for Roma rights at the Romanian think-tank Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities.

Mr Nicolae is used to being seen as an exception. He said that those who become successful often deny their roots and that positive stories do not make it into the papers. Even politicians ready to do something for gypsies risk losing votes. "Being a Roma is like being gay," he said.

Romanian politicians prefer to take the easy route around the mess of social, economic and cultural problems that entangle the Roma, according to a delegate from the Andor mission. Standards in the Romanian administration are "incredibly low", with officials neither willing nor capable to apply for EU money despite offers to train them.

"I wouldn't be astonished if they lost billions - we let them join the EU too early," said an Andor aide.

€3.7 billion has been allotted to Romania until 2013 from the European Social Fund (ESF) alone. The country could receive even more funding rural development and agriculture initiatives but the government has not accessed the money. Less than 14 percent has been spent so far even though Romanian co-financing is at the minimum rate of 15 percent and European credits are readily available.

The EU Commission can only offer its help; it is up to Romanian politicians to act. Mr Andor stressed this point, admitting that the initial situation is not favourable, but in an attempt to grin and bear it he added: "Things can only get better."

NYT: Rescuing Young Women From Traffickers’ Hands

October 15, 2010
By SUZANNE DALEY


CONSTANTA, Romania

THE 15-year-old had been “trained” in prostitution in a nightclub in the southern Romanian city of Calarasi. Now, the sex traffickers were getting ready to sell her off to a Turkish brothel for $2,800.

Iana Matei, Romania’s leading advocate for the victims of trafficking, had made contact with the girl and offered to wait outside the nightclub in her car, ready to take the teenager away if she could get out on the street for a cigarette break. But the girl had tried to escape before, and had been beaten severely. Ms. Matei was not sure she would have the courage to try again.

Then she appeared, bolting for the car and scrambling into the back seat. The hitch came a few minutes later.

As Ms. Matei gunned the engine and raced down unfamiliar streets, worried that the traffickers would follow, she got totally lost.

“I kept shouting at her to tell me where to go,” Ms. Matei said. “And she was not being very helpful, and I was not being very nice to her. And finally, I stopped the car and looked back and the face I saw...

“I realized it was me who was being dumb. She was so scared, there was no way she could help me.”

For more than 10 years, Ms. Matei, a psychologist by training, has been pulling young women out of the hands of traffickers, sometimes by staging “kidnappings,” sometimes just by offering them a place to stay, heal and rebuild their lives.

Time has not dulled her indignation. Until a few years ago, Ms. Matei’s shelter here was the only one in Romania for victims of traffickers, though the country has been a center for the trade in young girls for decades. Too often, she said, Romanians see the young women as nothing more than prostitutes.

“They are victims,” she said recently. “They are too young to be anything else.”

Almost always from poor, abusive families, the girls are sometimes sold into the trade by their own parents. Some are lured to foreign countries with promises of jobs or marriage. But once out of the country, they are sold to gangs and locked up in brothels or forced to work the streets.

MS. Matei does little to disguise her disgust with legal systems around the world that fail to take trafficking seriously enough.

“When these guys get caught, they get what? Six years? Maybe. They destroy 300 lives and they get six years. You traffic drugs, you get 20 years. There is something not right.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ms. Matei was staying in a small hotel on the outskirts of Constanta, making sure that two young residents in her shelter in Pitesti, Romania, were available for their bit parts in a movie on trafficking being made by the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. Mr. Mungiu won critical acclaim three years ago for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a film about abortion in the waning days of Communism.

As she waited for the girls, Ms. Matei chain-smoked, occasionally darting off to tend the 3-year-old twins she adopted recently. The twins were born to a victim of trafficking, who abandoned them.

“Some people say to me that they are very lucky to have me,” Ms. Matei said, “but really, I am the lucky one. They are my joy.”

At 52, Ms. Matei seems to have the energy of a teenager, and is just as irreverent.

“They offer 10 days for ‘reintegration,’ ” she said of one of the Romanian government’s newer efforts to provide shelters for victims of trafficking. “That’s very nice, don’t you think? Ten days.”

Most of the young women who arrive at her shelter, where they can stay for up to a year, are in a terrible state, she said.

“They no longer feel normal, and even getting dressed is difficult,” she said. “They can’t choose their clothes. They want to know if they will fit in. They try on all sorts of things because they think it shows what has happened to them.” A few times traffickers have showed up at Ms. Matei’s shelter — a spare house in a residential neighborhood surrounded by a high fence — trying to get the girls back. Once, Ms. Matei said, she confronted them in the narrow street outside, using her car to block their vehicle.

“Afterwards, I wondered what they must have been thinking,” Ms. Matei said. “Here I was, short, blond, old and yelling my head off. I was very lucky the security showed up within a minute.”

MS. Matei started out life thinking she would be a graphic designer. She married, had a child and then divorced.

In 1990, as Romania was emerging from Communism, she participated in daily street protests. But one day when the police arrived, she dropped her handbag in the mayhem. When she called home the next morning, the police had been there already.

She decided to flee the country, walking alone along the banks of a river leading into the former Yugoslavia, making progress at night and sleeping during the day. She eventually arranged for her son to join her and was resettled in Australia. There, she earned a degree in psychology and worked with street children.

But in 1998, after bringing her son to Romania on a holiday, she decided to move back and began working with street children here. Soon, the police called asking a favor. Would she take three young prostitutes they had just rounded up to a doctor? Afterward, she was just supposed to release them.

“I was annoyed until I got there and saw these girls,” Ms. Matei said. “The mascara was running all over their faces. They had been crying so hard. Journalists had been there and made them pose. And they were minors. They were 14, 15 and 16. But no one cared.”

One of the girls was pregnant. All three would be in the hospital for two weeks. But afterward, Ms. Matei said, child welfare services would have nothing to do with them.

“Eventually, I got an apartment for them, and more girls kept coming,” she said. “That’s how it started.”

Over the years, she has cobbled together all sorts of financing, pleading with various embassies. Right now, the shelter is supported by an American ministry dedicated to combating human trafficking, Make Way Partners in Birmingham, Ala. But Ms. Matei would like to see it become self-sustaining. She has an idea for a hotel where the young women could get job training.

In the meantime, she makes do. More than 400 girls have stayed in the shelter, and most of them are still in touch, she said. All three of the teenagers at the police station are now married and have children.

Ms. Matei says she admires the girls for the strength it takes to pick up their lives. “When they are back in school and all the boys are offering them money for oral sex because they know, that’s not easy.”

Friday, October 15, 2010

Romania wage protest grows

Bucharest, Romania (CNN) -- Employees of the Romanian Work and Health Ministries and the Romanian Mail joined a protest by Finance Ministry employees Thursday, and unions said teachers and policemen may also join the action.

Some 200 finance ministry employees spontaneously began their protest Wednesday at noon, angry about wage cuts. They spent the night in the building's hallways and were still there Thursday, union leaders said.

The workers vowed not to stop protesting until they get their wage incentives back, union leaders said. They stopped work in the headquarters and branch offices across the country.

Finance Minister Gheorghe Ialomitianu, who returned to his office Wednesday evening after a government meeting, couldn't leave until late at night because protesters booed him every time he tried to get out of the office.

Ialomitianu eventually got out of the building with help of security forces, but protesters threw papers at him as he left.

The finance minister calls the protests illegal and says those who aren't at work won't be paid for the days they're off the job. He needed protection when he went to the ministry Thursday.

All work ministry employees in the capital, Bucharest, and around the country joined the finance ministry protests, said Ingrid Moldoveanu, general secretary of the National Public Employees Union.

They are protesting in front of their buildings across the country, angry about the revocation of wage incentives, Moldoveanu said.

The wage incentives had made up as much as 60 percent of the employees' total income before they were taken away in July. The incentive money had been a redistribution of funds that came from outside the government's budget, for example from uncovering tax evasion cases.

At the same time the incentives were revoked, the government cut public-sector salaries by 25 percent as an austerity measure.

Former Finance Minister Sebastian Vladescu was fired because he insisted on keeping the financial supplements for the ministry's employees.

The protest comes at a difficult time for the finance ministry, which is working on the budget law for next year and is preparing for an evaluation visit by the International Monetary Fund on October 22.

Romania closer to formal South Stream role

BUCHAREST, Romania, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Russian gas monopoly Gazprom signed a memorandum of intent to study the feasibility of the South Stream project in Romania, the company announced.

Moscow aims to diversify its natural gas transit options through the South Stream pipeline to Europe. Eighty percent of all Russia's for Europe runs through the Ukrainian gas transit system.

Alexei Miller, the chief executive at Gazprom, met with Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc and Economic Minister Ion Ariton to discuss bilateral energy affairs.

Miller, during his meetings in Bucharest, signed a memorandum of intent to prepare feasibility studies for South Stream in Romania, the Russian energy company said in a statement.

Gazprom and Romanian energy company Transgaz will sign an intergovernmental agreement of cooperation on South Stream in early 2011 "provided the results of these feasibility studies are positive."

Gazprom said Romania is already sending more than 440 billion cubic feet of natural gas to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Turkey and Greece.

South Stream would branch into two pipelines -- one to Greece and the other through the Balkans -- after it passes through the Turkish waters of the Black Sea.

Technical and economic studies for the pipeline are expected by 2011 and first gas is expected through the pipeline by 2015.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The unexpected rebirth of a Saxon village in Romania

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

VISCRI, Romania — It could have been the end of the centuries-old village of Viscri in the hills of Transylvania when almost all its inhabitants, Saxons of German origin, left in 1989 at the collapse of communism.

After all, how could such a small village survive in the poor and remote Romanian countryside?

But Romanians -- Roma Gypsies as well as non Roma -- have breathed new life into the picturesque village.

They moved into the abandoned houses and worked with the remaining Saxons to forge a new future based on cultural tourism, sustainable agriculture and a revival of ancient craftsmanship.

Last year more than 11,000 tourists from around the world came to see Viscri's pastel-coloured houses and its fortified church, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even Britain's Prince Charles has bought a house there.

"We are proud of the rebirth because after the departure of the Saxons, their traditional farm houses lay derelict," said Caroline Fernolend, one of the few members of the German minority who stayed behind.

"Then some Romanian Roma families who had been living outside the village in wooden houses moved in," Fernolend told AFP.

The Saxons had settled in Transylvania, the centre of today's Romania, in the 12th century at the request of a local king.

In January 1990 there were 300 living in Viscri. In December of the same year there were only 68.

Today the population is back up to 420, a large number of whom are Roma although many prefer not to be referred to as such because of the negative stereotypes associated with this community in Europe.

With the help of the Mihai Eminescu Trust set up with British support, the new inhabitants, "Romanian Roma and non Roma, learned how to restore and preserve this rich heritage," said Fernolend, vice president of the Trust.

They revived ancient crafts, such as making tiles, and rebuilt old Saxon buildings, restoring villages in work that will be on show in an exhibition opening at the Romanian embassy in Washington on Thursday (October 14).

Gheorghe Lascu, 47, never thought he would do the same work as his grandfather. But for three years now he has been making traditional bricks and tiles to renovate Saxon buildings.

"I am very proud of what we do," he said, watching over a fire warming the kiln in which his latest bricks and tiles were being "cooked".

Gheorghe and his wife Dorina mould every tile and brick themselves. They use clay from the neighbourhood, which English experts had tested and identified as the most suitable raw material.

"The idea was to help maintain traditional skills while providing a living for a family," said Colin Richards, head of a conservation and archeology unit in the Shropshire council in Britain and also a Trust expert who visits once a year to help the Lascu family.

Viscri's inhabitants were also encouraged to open bed-and-breakfasts to accommodate visitors drawn by its ancient way of life restored. Today there are 11 pensions run by local families.

"At the beginning, we started to rent only one room. Now we have three," said Maria Panait, who with her husband renovated a house in the centre of the village.

"We have a lot of tourists from abroad. They usually like traditional food and organic cheese from our sheep," she said.

The Panaits set up another project in which village women knit woollen socks, a venture that took a knock during the global economic crisis with orders, mostly from Germany, plummeting from 12,000 pairs to only 2,000 last year.

The Gabor brothers, Matei, 32, and Istvan, 28, also took up their grandfather's craft.

"He was a very skilled blacksmith who was called by the Saxons to work in Viscri. We learned a lot from him," Istvan said.

He and his brother make traditional locks, intricate hinges, horseshoes and even chandeliers.

"We here, we are proud to know that our iron works are used in the fortified Saxon church of Viscri," Istvan said.

He and his brother are among the very few inhabitants of Viscri who call themselves Roma.

"I am first and foremost a human being, like we all are here, but I am also proud to be a Roma," Istvan said.

Romania's Roma community is the biggest in Europe: the official census puts the number at 530,000 but pressure groups say it is as high as 2.5 million, with most Roma not declaring themselves as such fearing discrimination.

A French crackdown on Roma, which the French government has linked to crime, has highlighted problems afflicting the community including prejudice, poverty, housing segregation and education and labour market barriers.

The topic was the focus of a European Union conference in the Romanian capital this week that called for member states to do more to improve the situation of the Roma people.

For Istvan, the peaceful village of Viscri has shielded him from many of these worries.

"Here it does not matter if you are Romanian Roma, Hungarian, German or something else. We consider ourselves human beings first," he told AFP.

Romanian Leu May Drop to Three-Month Low on No-Confidence Parliament Vote

Romania’s leu may fall to the lowest level in more than three months as the government faces a no- confidence vote from political parties opposed to International Monetary Fund-backed austerity measures.

The currency may drop 2 percent against the euro in the next two to three weeks before the central bank acts to help avoid a repeat of the 4.2 percent decline that occurred in late June, according to London-based strategists at Morgan Stanley, UBS AG and Societe Generale SA.

“The potential dissolution of the government is the biggest risk” to the leu, said James Lord, an emerging-market strategist at Morgan Stanley. “The central bank would step in to protect the currency if it came under significant pressure.”

The opposition plans to call a no-confidence vote this month after the government decided to cut public-sector wages by 25 percent and raised value-added taxes. Unions are organizing a mass demonstration in Bucharest following similar protests that prompted the interior minister to quit in September.

The leu reached a record-low 4.4012 in June after the Constitutional Court rejected a planned cut in pensions. The government as a result raised the VAT to 24 percent to qualify for the next payment of a 20 billion-euro ($27.8 billion) IMF- led bailout.

Currency Recovery

The leu was trading at 4.278 against the euro yesterday in Bucharest. It has risen about 3 percent since the June decline as the IMF and the European Union agreed to disburse 2 billion euros. A government collapse may push it once again to between 4.3 to 4.35 per euro in the next two to three weeks, according to strategists at the three banks.

Romania is trying to prevent a weakening of its currency at a time when most of the world’s emerging-markets countries are concerned about containing their currencies’ gains. The JPMorgan Chase & Co. Emerging Markets Currency Index has risen 10 percent since May 25.

Brazil doubled a tax on foreigners’ investments in fixed- income securities and Thailand will remove a tax exemption for foreigners on income from domestic bonds. South Korea is planning an audit on currency swaps and options to check if banks are complying with restrictions on holdings.

‘Smooth Implementation’

Romanian policy makers will not allow the leu to go “much beyond” 4.35 against the euro, saidGaelle Blanchard, an emerging-market strategist at Societe Generale in London. “The key for the market is a smooth implementation of the IMF program.”

Boc is counting on a majority of 258 votes in the 471-seat Parliament. The Social Democrats and Liberals, who hold 213 seats, said they will try to persuade coalition lawmakers to back their plan. Boc survived a non-confidence vote by eight votes in June.

“We have seen other no-confidence votes on several occasions,” Koon Chow, an emerging-market strategist at Barclays Capital, said. “The leu should be stable in the short term because of the central bank’s interventions.”

The central bank, relying on 35.8 billion euros in international reserves, intervened in the first half to keep the leu “relatively stable” and prevent excessive volatility, Governor Mugur Isarescusaid on Oct. 5.

The bank doesn’t publicize its market interventions and the last known action took place in October two years ago. Isarescu declined to give the value of euro transactions carried out by the central bank.

Little Is Needed

“It doesn’t take much for the central bank to push the currency where they want it to be,” Morgan Stanley’s Lord said. “The central bank has no interest in allowing a major depreciation.”

Should Boc survive the second attempt, the leu may strengthen to 4.25 per euro by the end of this year and to 4.15 per euro at the end of 2011, said SocGen’s Blanchard. Letting the currency appreciate is also unwelcome because it may harm exports and jeopardize Romania’s recovery from the worst recession on record, she said.

The economy will probably decline as much as 1.9 percent this year after contracting 7.1 percent in 2009 as austerity measures choke demand. The IMF predicts Romania to grow as much as 2 percent next year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Irina Savu in Bucharest at isavu@bloomberg.net; Andra Timu in Bucharest at atimu@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James M. Gomez in Prague atjagomez@bloomberg.net

AP: Romanian Finance Ministry staff protest wage cuts

Hundreds of employees at Romania's Finance Ministry and at finance institutes around the country have staged a protest over wage cuts.

Romania was forced to implement austerity measures in exchange for billions in bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund last year, sparking frequent demonstrations.

The package includes slashing public sector wages by a quarter and raising sales tax. The government says the measures are necessary to keep the budget deficit under control during recession.

About 100 employees gathered at the Finance Ministry's entrance Wednesday shouting, "You thieves! We want our money back!"

Antena 3 TV reported finance employees also protested in other cities, including Constanta, Arad, Deva and Timisoara.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Communism left toxic legacy in Eastern Europe

By ALISON MUTLER and GEORGE JAHN (AP)

BUCHAREST, Romania — Abandoned mines in Romania leach waters contaminated by heavy metals into rivers. A Hungarian chemical plant produces more than 100,000 tons of toxic substances a year. Soil in eastern Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-producing PCBs.

The flood of toxic sludge in Hungary is but one of the ecological horrors that lurk in Eastern Europe 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, serving as a reminder that the region is dotted with disasters waiting to happen.

Much of Eastern Europe is free of many of its worst environmental sins with the help of Western funds and conditions imposed on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in exchange for membership in the European Union.

Still, the sludge has focused attention on less-visible dangers that survived various cleanups in the region.

The caustic spill — Hungary's worst ecological disaster — also has raised questions about whether investors who took over Soviet-era factories from the state 20 years ago are at fault for not spending enough on safety.

Eight people died in the Oct. 4 deluge of red sludge from a 10-hectare (24-acre) storage pool where a byproduct of aluminum production is kept.

Calls for greater cleanup efforts apply not only to Hungary, which considered itself ahead of most of the former Soviet bloc in fixing ecological harm, but also to neighbors like Serbia that hope to join the 27-nation bloc.

"The scary thing is we didn't know this existed and there could be other ones," says Andreas Beckmann, director of the World Wildlife Fund Danube-Carpathian program, alluding to the Hungarian spill. "How many other facilities and sites are there that could be a ticking time bomb?"

Environmentalists warn of other potential disasters from seven storage ponds about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Budapest that hold 12 million tons of sludge accumulated since 1945 — more than 10 times the amount that spilled this week.

"If the gates break there, much of Hungary's drinking water would be endangered," says WWF official Martin Geiger.

Other sites — like the Borsodchem plant in northeastern Hungary — pose similar risks to groundwater. That factory churns out 100,000 tons of the toxin PVC that contains dioxin, the same poison released into the air by a factory explosion in Seveso, Italy 34 years ago that killed hundreds of animals and turned much of the town into a no man's land.

Slovakia, Hungary's northern neighbor, has its own toxic problems, including a huge area in the east of the country that is still contaminated with PCBs from communist times.

Government officials in Bulgaria, alarmed by the Hungarian spill, have ordered safety checks of a dozen waste dams — huge reservoir walls that hold back often heavy metal-laden waste that are prone to leaks or collapse.

In Bulgaria's most serious such accident, walls at a lead and copper processing factory in Zgorigrad broke in 1966, releasing a flood of sludge that killed 488 people and left much of the immediate area uninhabitable.

Activists say smaller leaks are not uncommon. Ecologist Daniel Popov says sludge from a storage pond containing waste from copper ore leaked into the Topolnitsa River in central Bulgaria last spring, killing fish.

The inspections are only for operational waste dams, prompting criticism from environmental activists.

Of particular concern, a WWF report says, is a dam near the town of Chiprovtsi in northwestern Bulgaria because it is directly on the Ogosta River, a major Danube tributary.

Hungary's sludge ponds are a legacy of the Soviet era, when Moscow designated that country as the main producer of alumina, used in the manufacture of aluminum. Reservoirs full of heavy metal-laced sludge are also a threat elsewhere.

A huge storage pond full of corrosive sludge in Romania is part of the landscape of the gritty Danube port of Tulcea. WWF activists say leaks and airborne pollution from the site is responsible for fish and bird deaths nearby.

The Danube — Europe's second-longest waterway — appears to have escaped immediate harm from the recent Hungarian spill. The same kind of spill at the Tulcea plant would devastate a vast stretch of lakes and marshes at the Danube's entry into the Black Sea that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It hosts more than 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater species of fish.

Memories of an environmental disaster a decade ago in Romania have triggered emergency measures for Tulcea and other suspect sites. That's when a reservoir burst at a gold mine in the northwestern town of Baia Mare on Jan. 30, 2000, spilling cyanide-laden water into local rivers and killing tons of fish and other wildlife.

Romanian Environment Minister Laszlo Borbely said Friday his country is accelerating cleanup plans for 1,000 contaminated sites.

"We must be very cautious now after what happened here in Baia Mare and now in Hungary," he said. Romania could access up to 100 million euros ($138 million) in EU funds to decontaminate polluted sites, he said.

Some of Eastern Europe's worst environmental horrors were in Romania — among them Copsa Mica, where TV images of black toxic soot from chimneys of a rubber-dye factory falling onto houses, fields, grazing sheep and townspeople shocked the world in 1989.

International outrage contributed to the plant's 1993 closure. But "historic pollution" with heavy metals from the 40 years that it operated continues to foul the air. Life expectancy in the area is nine years lower than the national average of 72.

The Danube is shared by seven countries, and it has been the victim of toxic spills even before Hungary's caustic red muck.

Among the worst incidents came 11 years ago during NATO's bombing of Serbia, when warplanes targeted fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and an oil refinery in the town of Pancevo, near Belgrade, releasing mercury, dioxins and other deadly compounds into the river.

Foreign funding after the war allowed authorities to contain some of the leaks, but sporadic emissions of toxic gases continue to drive air pollution above accepted levels.

Also near Belgrade, an open pit in Obrenovac just 100 meters (yards) from the Sava — a Danube tributary — contains millions of tons of coal ash from the Nikola Tesla Coal Power Plant. The air has unhealthy levels of carbon black, also known as lampblack, for as much as a third of the year. Sprinklers to prevent the ash from becoming airborne are of limited effectiveness on windy days.

Croatia lists nine locations where dangerous waste has been deposited for decades that still need to be cleaned, said Toni Vidan of the group Green Action.

In Vranjic near Split, a factory producing asbestos closed several years ago, but the waste — about 7,000 cubic meters (9,100 cubic yards) of material mixed with asbestos — hasn't been completely cleaned up. Two years ago, the presence of asbestos in Vranjic was three times greater than allowed. Even today, residents say particles of asbestos are in the air when the wind blows.

Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic and Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report. Jahn reported from Vienna.