Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In Romania, turmoil fuels nostalgia for communism


By GEORGE JAHN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

BUCHAREST, Romania -- Tears run down Elena Bocanu's careworn cheeks as she lights a candle and places it on the grave, next to chrysanthemums left by another admirer.

The object of her devotion is Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator most Romanians associate with hunger, state paranoia, AIDS-ridden orphanages, and chronic power outages. Today, as the new EU member grapples with economic havoc and widening gaps between rich and poor, more people remember not the dysfunctional final years of Ceausescu's regime but an earlier time in which his state provided basics in exchange for obedience.

"You gave us homes, you gave us gas for heating," says Bocanu, a 72-year-old former cleaning lady who scrapes through on the equivalent of $70 a month.

"Now we are miserable, like dogs."

Such open expressions of admiration for Ceausescu are rare. But as economic hardships grow, polls show many Romanians are looking back fondly at the stability provided by the communist regime.

A September survey by the CSOP polling group showed about half of respondents - 49 percent in a poll with a 2.9 percent margin of error - said life under communism was better than it is now.

In contrast, a survey by the Romanian Institute for Marketing and Polling taken in 2005 amid optimism that EU membership was around the corner had 64 percent of participants believing the country was moving in the right direction under free-market democracy.

The nostalgia for the past is shared in neighboring Bulgaria, which joined the EU with Romania in 2007 and is also in deep economic trouble: a study conducted by the PEW Research Center over 2009 and 2010 showed only 52 percent approving the change to democracy compared to 76 percent in 1991, two years after communism's overthrow.

Romanian frustrations with democracy came dramatically to the fore last month when a man dove about 20 feet (7 meters) from a parliament balcony onto the packed assembly floor.

Adrian Sobaru's leap, broadcast around the world, was an act of protest against cuts to state payments for his autistic son. It struck a chord with many Romanians who saw in it a symbol of the injustices of post-communist society.

"It hurts that we have become mere numbers," Sobaru, a television engineer, told Antena TV shortly after release from the hospital for treatment of fractures to his face and other injuries.

Communist nostalgia is hard to discern in the more affluent parts of downtown Bucharest, where more than two decades of breakneck efforts to catch up with the West have made the capital hard to tell apart from the prosperous cities of the West.

Bucharest in the final Ceausescu years was the darkest capital of the Soviet bloc. A crumbling, fitfully lit metropolis, it was peopled by shivering masses queuing on potholed winter streets for rationed food and afraid to complain because of fears their neighbor was a police informer.

Today, neon pulsates over storefronts offering designer goods, delicacies, luxury vacations, exclusive real-estate and other pleasures. Restaurants run the gamut from kebab to quiche. Sleek German sedans - guaranteed head-turners just a few years ago - speed by unnoticed by throngs of shoppers.

In this part of town communism is a bad word.

"It was a prison," says Mihai Pop, an ornamental glass vendor. "In capitalism you are free to do what you want - make money if you want to, don't make money if you don't want to."

But even the most prosperous districts are dotted by dozens of unfinished building projects abandoned by bankrupt developers. And the small inner circle of prosperity is surrounded by areas of the city of 3 million that are little changed from the crumbling squalor of the Ceausescu era.

Protests that have gathered tens of thousands over the past months reflect the deep dissatisfaction with the country's economic crisis, which pushed Romania to the brink of bankruptcy two years ago.

An IMF-led bailout allowed the government to pay wages and pensions. But the strict conditions have led to unpopular belt-tightening: wages in the public sector were slashed; the sales tax was hiked to 24 percent, one of the EU's highest; heating subsidies and unemployment, maternity and disability benefits were cut.

The economy continues to shrink after a 7.1 percent plunge in 2009 although at a slower pace. In a nation with an average monthly income of euro325, most here can only roll their eyes at the Prada outfits and Louis Vuitton bags on display on the upscale Calea Victorie.

"This isn't capitalism, in capitalist countries you have a middle class," complains convenience store manager Maricela Popa. Society here, she says, is divided into a tiny minority of rich people and a vast impoverished underclass.

Popa, like others, remembers the days when most enjoyed a steady job, state housing, and government-subsidized holidays on the Black Sea coast.

"I regret the demise of communism - not for me but when I see how much my children and grandchildren struggle," says 68-year-old retired mechanic Simion Berar. "We had safe jobs and decent salaries under communism. We had enough to eat and we had yearly vacations with our children."

It's not the first resurgence of communist nostalgia.

A decade after communism's overthrow in 1989, 61 percent of those polled said their living standards were higher under Ceausescu. Back then though, Romania was going undergoing economic meltdown even worse than now - and more people were alive who remembered the communist good times.

A common thread in this country rife with conspiracy theories is suspicion that Romania's 1989 revolution was "stolen" - that the communists and Securitate secret police continue to rule, first by orchestrating the uprising against Ceausescu, then subverting it to take behind-the-scenes control.

"In 1990, I thought there would be real, fair competition that the best and the most hardworking people would succeed like in the American dream," says architect Valentina Lupan.

"When I realized that impostors, the former Securitate and thieves had become the richest people and run Romania, I lost hope, not for me, but for my children."

Government indecision compounds the yearning for a hero in a nation that has traditionally looked to larger-than-life leaders - be it the medieval Vlad, who battled the Turks, or Ceausescu, who defied the Kremlin in establishing a degree of autonomy within the Soviet bloc.

That yearning is reflected in the recent success of "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu," a largely sympathetic biopic that played to full audiences at a downtown cinema complex.

Valentin Ceausescu, the bookish son of the late strongman, insists he's not interested in politics - but points to a shift in the national mood.

"People have started coming up to me and saying, 'why aren't you running for president?'" he says.

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Associated Press writers Alison Mutler and Alina Wolfe-Murray in Bucharest and Vladimir Zhelyazkov in Sofia, Bulgaria contributed to this report.

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