Thursday, May 26, 2011

Der Spiegel: Leap of Desperation

The Protest that Shook Romania

By Barbara Supp in Bucharest

Last December, a Romanian man made headlines when he leapt off a seven-meter-high balcony in the parliament in Bucharest. Adrian Sobaru's protest against the country's austerity measures has made him a hero for some and sparked a debate over Romania's future. But what did his gesture really mean?

He got up at three in the morning, but without telling his wife why. He took out a white T-shirt and, with a dark marker, wrote on it: "You have gunned us down. You have killed our children's future. You can take away our money and our lives, but not our freedom."

He put on a shirt over the T-shirt and went to work. On this particular day, his job as a lighting technician with the state-owned television station took him to the parliament in Bucharest, as it often did. He waited on one of the balconies, 7 meters (23 feet) above the assembly hall, and when the prime minister had stepped up to the podium Adrian Sobaru, a slim, 42-year-old man, climbed onto the balcony railing, tore open his shirt, looked down at the government, and jumped.

"Like an airplane," says opposition politician Eugen Nicolaescu. "He spread out his arms as if he were trying to fly. He landed on a bench in the back."

"I can still see it happening in front of my eyes," says Finance Minister Gheorghe Ialomitianu. "It's hard to forget."

It happened on Dec. 23, 2010, in the last session at the end of a messy political year. Since then, political and business leaders in Romania, a financially ailing and relatively recent European Union member, have been arguing over the meaning of Sobaru's act. Everyone -- from politicians in the administration and the opposition, to union officials and business leaders -- has an opinion about it. Should it be interpreted as a strange aberration? Or as an act of revolt, a symbolic act of protest that will remain lodged in the collective memory and forcibly bring about political change?

'Tough but Necessary'

Finance Minister Ialomitianu, who has been in office since late 2008, receives us in the crescent-shaped Finance Ministry. He is wearing the sort of dark, understated pinstriped suit often seen in the world of high finance. He is looked after by a staff that has seen many finance ministers come and go.

On this day, Ialomitianu is speaking on behalf of a government that has already taken many of the steps that are still to come in Greece and Portugal: the center-right government of Emil Boc, which cut pay for government workers by 25 percent in 2010, slashed pensions and social benefits and raised the rate of value-added tax from 19 to 24 percent. These were "important decisions to secure economic and business stability," says the minister. "Some affect certain segments of society. This is tough, but necessary. There was no alternative. We had to do it."

Ialomitianu is referring to Romania's austerity program, the harshest in Europe.

It was implemented in a country that often attracts less attention than others, a country that is part of Europe, but not yet entirely. It is still not part of the Schengen zone or the euro zone, although it aims to become a member. It is also a low-wage country that experienced a boom for many years as an international production site, followed by a sharp crash during the financial crisis. Notorious for its shadow economy, tax evasion and illegal employment, Romania, together with Greece and Bulgaria, ranks among the most corrupt European countries in Transparency International's annual ratings. The country is deeply in debt -- with the EU, the World Bank and, most of all, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

When it issues its loans, the IMF has a habit of pressuring borrowing nations to impose austerity measures, privatize government-owned industry and clean up their national budgets. Sitting in his ministry, Ialomitianu stresses that he speaks on behalf of a government that makes its own decisions, and that the IMF or the European Commission are not the ones calling the shots in Bucharest. The government, he says, is responsible for the drastic austerity measures that drove Adrian Sobaru to jump from a balcony in the parliament building and drove protesters into the streets in the previous fall. The finance minister has already had to seek shelter in the safety of his office, fleeing from angry employees resentful over the cuts. He insists that he remains undaunted, however, and that the Romanian economy is making headway. Future governments, he adds, will be grateful for the current administration's decisions.

'A Terrible Moment'

Ialomitianu has a degree in finance from a university in Transylvania and has also studied in various European countries. He would like to see Romania fulfill the criteria to become part of the euro zone as quickly as possible, although 2015 is usually mentioned as the target year. He also hopes to attract more foreign investment to Romania, and his words suggest a willingness to accommodate the markets. He says: "Of course it's difficult for people. No one likes to see his income reduced." Ialomitianu clearly interpreted Sobaru's jump as an act of criticism.

The minister was there, and witnessed how reality suddenly burst into the protected realm of the parliament from the world outside. "It was a terrible moment. No government that makes decisions wants something like that to happen." The minister clears his throat, searching for the right words to convey both sympathy and outrage, and then he says: "I don't think this is the appropriate way to demonstrate one's dissatisfaction."

A few days before jumping from the balcony, Sobaru wrote a letter in red ink on lined paper. In the letter, which was never sent, he wrote: "You have sold the country and its people. Do you expect all of us to dig through the garbage? Romania is falling apart. We have been lied to and deceived, every day." He wrote that he loved his family more than his own life, and he wrote about his autistic son Calin, who needs special treatment that the family can no longer afford. "I'm tired," he wrote. "We have no dreams left."

"He was standing up here," says opposition politician Nicolaescu, as he looks down at the assembly hall from the balcony, "and he landed on that bench over there. The doctors came quickly."

The parliament meets in the former "People's House" built by former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, an extravagant structure that was not designed with small dimensions in mind. Seven meters is a long way to fall -- that is very clear when one looks down into the chamber.

When it happened, there was turmoil among the members of parliament. Some saw the blood, and some wept. The prime minister rushed from the podium to Sobaru's side. Paramedics carried the severely injured man through the hallways of the palace. The speaker of the senate cut the session short. Ironically, a vote of no confidence against the government had been on the agenda that day.

'Something Has to Change'Nicolaescu, a wiry man in his mid-40s, with gray hair and a suggestive look in his eyes, is the deputy chairman of the center-right National Liberal Party (PNL), which holds positions similar to those of the ruling conservative Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) but is nevertheless at odds with the PDL. Until October 2009, the two parties ruled the country jointly. "This man who jumped wanted to emphasize how poorly Romania is run. He wanted to make it clear that something has to change."

The PNL is fundamentally in favor of the harsh program of cost-cutting and belt-tightening, but Nicolaescu is opposed to the VAT increase and advocates reducing taxes. He would like to see the country's low flat tax of 16 percent on all personal and corporate income be reduced even further, so that Romania can compete with low-tax countries.

Although he studied economics, Nicolaescu was health minister for three years. He would prefer it if the austerity program were not being used to satisfy the IMF's conditions. Nicolaescu would rather see Romania clean up its finances on its own steam, and using its own tough approach.

His party has been out of power for the last one-and-a-half years. It is so determined to get back in power that it formed an alliance within the opposition with the Social Democrats, a party with which the PNL actually has far less in common than with the governing parties. No-confidence votes had been the opposition parties' joint approach. Another such vote was on the agenda on Dec. 23, 2010, but its prospects for success were slim.

"We did not vote on that day. We in the opposition left the assembly hall after the incident. We felt that this man's act was more than a no-confidence vote, more than just a vote. Everyone in Romania heard about it."

Of course Sobaru and his act were discussed within the party, says Nicolaescu, as he lowers his voice ominously. "He jumped as the prime minister was speaking. We have to take this seriously. Now, whenever we reach a decision, we always have to ask ourselves: What would this man say about it now?"

Disappointment with 1989

Outside a pockmarked apartment block in northwest Bucharest, the streets are lined with gaunt-looking trees and full of parked small cars, and there are no names next to the doorbells on the wall of the building. Madalina Sobaru welcomes SPIEGEL to the family apartment on the 11th floor, together with Calin, the autistic son, and his younger sister Alexia. Adrian Sobaru is also there. He survived his jump and walks with a slight limp today. A slim man with dark eyes, he greets his visitors with a smile. He is a quiet man.

He offers us chips, nuts, water, wine and soft drinks in the living room of the crowded three-room apartment he shares with his wife and children, his mother and his uncle. He mentions politely how honored he is to meet us, and he tries to drown out Calin, who is trying to collect and examine the visitors' mobile phones. Calin does not leave the room, but instead keeps repeating the same sentence in English. "I want to go to Germany," he whines. He is an awkward 15-year-old who knows things many don't know -- facts, words and numbers -- who loves his computer and would quickly eat up all the chips if he could.

Calin saw his father's jump on the Internet. Sobaru himself only watched half of the video -- the part in which he is airborne.

"I wanted to say something. That's why I was there." He says that it wasn't important who happened to be standing at the podium in the room below at that moment. Sobaru's message was directed at everyone, at all politicians and parties.

Sobaru is not a person who draws much attention to himself, or at least he wasn't until recently. The year 1989, he says, was a boost, a brief moment of incandescence, when the Ceausescu dictatorship came to an end. "Freedom" was the word of the day, and Adrian Sobaru, who was in his 20s at the time -- "just a child," as he says now -- took to the streets to be part of the revolution and the dawning of a new era. But, as it turned out, the revolution wasn't what he had imagined it to be. Instead, it was a time of gunshots, sirens and ambulances, a time of turmoil, when there was no plan, no direction and no logic, and a time of chaos and fragmentation, when nothing seemed to work. To Sobaru, it seemed like a play that had turned out badly. There were a few good moments, but eventually he went home disappointed.

Walking on Tiptoe

At the time, Sobaru worked as an electrician for a company that made lathes. After the fall of the Ceausescu regime, a television crew came to the factory, and Sobaru grasped the opportunity to make his next dream come true: to work in television. He met and married Madalina, a woman with laughing eyes, and then came Calin, the boy who repeatedly suffered from life-threatening illnesses and who constantly had to be saved. He was a boy who refused to speak and liked to walk on tiptoe.

A strict father, Sobaru forced his son to walk normally, on the soles of his feet. He knew that it was necessary. Calin, the awkward child, became the center of the family, a boy who loved his sister so much that he posed a danger to her at first. He learned to speak and tolerate closeness, but he also needed costly medications and therapy. The six-person family lives on 3,000 lei (about €740 or $1,050) a month, says Sobaru. The costs associated with Calin's condition would eat up half of the family's monthly budget by themselves, but that is simply not possible.

Sobaru has grown accustomed to buying the family's clothing in a second-hand store, which is humiliating but bearable. Until last year, Sobaru knew that for his family, as for so many other families he knows, the money was just enough to scrape by. But then there were more cutbacks.

The austerity measures started coming in rapid succession. "And with each new measure that they announced, they had smiles on their faces," Sobaru recalls. "Those smiles started to irritate me."

There were protests last year against a government that finds it fair to pass on the burden to those at the bottom, those who have little enough as it is. But Sobaru had the impression that many of the protesters were not taking the issue seriously enough, at least not as seriously as he took it.

A Neoliberal Laboratory"It's difficult," says Marius Petcu, a union leader whose job includes handling protests. "It's difficult in Romania. The people should protest because they believe there is something to protest about, not because a union leader tells them to protest."

There were not enough people on the streets last year, says Petcu. He is convinced that the Romanians should have shown greater dissatisfaction, without the violence that has occurred in Greece, but with more passion. What Romania lacks, he says, is "solidarity."

On a gray day in early spring, Petcu, the head of the country's largest federation of trade unions, is sitting in his Bucharest office wearing a conservative suit. The furnishings include a traditional carved wall cabinet and a television set with muted sound which is showing a Nutella commercial. Petcu believes that Sobaru's one-man protest act is an expression of a political development that could go horribly awry. Romania, he says, is becoming a laboratory of deregulation, a "source of inspiration" for neoliberals in Europe, for people eager to test the limits of how many more rights can be given to companies and how many can be taken away from workers.

Credibility Problem

The government's next project is called "flexibilization." In an internal report in May 2010, the IMF criticized the "inflexibility" of the Romanian labor market, "as compared with others in the region." In a declaration of intent, the government stated that it planned to create new conditions to achieve "flexibilization of working hours" and "lower hiring and firing costs through more flexible employment contracts." The government also outlined its goal of creating "greater wage flexibility" -- in other words, more short-term work contracts and lower pay. And this is precisely what it is doing today.

Petcu says that the government has no ideas other than cutbacks and flexibilization. Where are the real investments, he asks? What about urgently needed infrastructure projects? How is the government addressing demand, or consumption?

He isn't alone. Similar views are coming from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and from economic experts in the United States, Germany and Romania. They argue that the extreme austerity programs impede consumption and are not conducive to overcoming the crisis. But it is difficult to find a sympathetic ear for such opinions among the influential in Romania.

"We have many adversaries," says Petcu. "They accuse us of not being credible." As it happens, it is a justifiable criticism. Credibility is currently Petcu's biggest problem, given that he has been remanded in custody since the end of April on charges of having accepted €40,000 from a developer. The prosecution calls it bribery, while Petcu insists that the money was repayment for a loan. Either way, the affair doesn't exactly boost his credibility.

Months of Bad News

It's still cold in Bucharest, the spring doesn't seem to have arrived yet. And the news for Romania in the first months of 2011 hasn't been good so far.

Romania's budget deficit in 2010 was 200 million lei, or about twice as high as in 2008. The IMF has approved a large, new loan package. The organization anticipates 1.5 percent growth for 2011 and notes that the recession has just about been overcome in Romania. But the crisis has not, says the country's president.

Meanwhile, two PNL mayors and a senior official with the tax authority are on trial for corruption charges. A PDL labor minister was forced to resign after it was found that his family had profited enormously from EU subsidy funds. A former foreign minister who is now a member of the European Parliament for the Socialists, and who is suspected of corruption, was ejected from the Socialist parliamentary group in Strasbourg.

Other statistics are no more heartening. Six of the 20 poorest regions in Europe are in Romania. The shadow economy is responsible for an estimated 25 percent of the gross domestic product. In the first four months of this year, Romania had the highest inflation in the EU.

Lost His Sense of Smell

As well as his limp, Adrian Sobaru still has to do exercises to learn how to use his hand again. He has a titanium plate in his skull and has lost his sense of smell. His sense of taste isn't as good as it was and his close-range vision has also been affected. "I was lucky," he says -- he could have died or, "even worse," been paralyzed.

He is back at work at the television station, but he is no longer allowed to work in the parliament building. His life has changed dramatically, in peculiar ways. Everyone can watch his jump on the Internet. Some people call him a hero and invite him to protests. He shouted the word "Freedom!" before jumping, prompting an Internet magazine to award him a certificate of freedom. What does freedom mean to him? "I don't know what it is," he says.

For many Romanians, freedom means emigrating. That was the opinion of Sobaru's brother, who moved to Canada with his wife when he realized that their salaries were not enough to make ends meet at home in Romania. Sobaru says that he couldn't imagine emigrating, at least not until now.

His country has no money, but it also lacks ideas on how to distribute the burden fairly. What is missing, he feels, are goals and plans. The government is constantly changing, but Sobaru has the impression that nothing is improving, and sometimes he thinks that it doesn't matter who is running the country. He jumped from a balcony, an act that others have chosen to interpret as they see fit.

He talks about his children constantly. About Calin, whose subsidies for treatments have been slashed, making learning more difficult for him and dashing his hopes for the future. And about Alexia, who will one day be paying off Romania's debts with the IMF and other lenders.

Alexia is almost eight and is learning how to play chess and the violin. The parents want Calin to receive IT training so that he can be as self-sufficient as possible in the future. He has taught himself a few words of English on the computer, as evidenced by his constant repetition of the phrase "I want to go to Germany." Somehow he has hit upon the idea that everything is better in Germany.

'This Sort of Thing Happens Everywhere'

Outside, on a boulevard in the northern part of the city that leads to the airport, a man is sitting in a modern office building, with secretaries and aides. A model airplane from his own airline stands on his desk. He returned from Germany some time ago. One of Romania's richest men, he claims he doesn't even know how much he is worth. "I wouldn't know that unless I had sold everything," says Ion Tiriac, who has businesses in many industries, including aviation, travel, insurance and automobile leasing. Today the 72-year-old's beard is grayer and he looks thinner than in the days when he worked as tennis star Boris Becker's manager.

His German is rusty and has given way to a quaint version of English. Although his business ventures take him around the world on business, he still feels at home in Romania, a country that he says "was the superstar in Europe" for a time, with 7 to 9 percent growth -- until the crisis arrived. He too was affected by the crisis. "Three years ago, I was three times as rich as I am today," he says, but is quick to point out that he is in good shape. "I can eat three meals a day and afford the fuel for my plane, which for me is like the car I take to the office."

Tiriac, who now smokes slim, white cigarettes and keeps the tennis photos from his past on the wall behind him, knows "almost everyone" in politics and business, "because I'm old and I was an athlete," he says. He prefers to distance himself from politics. "Politicians are all the same. They argue and they fight with each other," he says. He doesn't seem to believe that the parliament holds any real power. "What exactly can a politician do to me?" he asks.

Tiriac says that he would expect the politicians "to really get the engine up and running again." But, he adds, it took politicians too long to react to the idea that the booming Romanian economy had crashed, so that the drastic measures, such as wage cuts, came too late. He would like to see lower ancillary wage costs, and he feels that the unions are too powerful. In his eyes, employment protection in its previous form had more than earned the adjective "socialist."

For the first hour of the interview, Tiriac is talkative and is even willing to chat about Boris Becker. He says he sees him occasionally, and that when Becker showed him his new baby, Tiriac told the former tennis star: "You have a beautiful wife, Boris. Let's hope the baby ends up looking like her, not you."

But the subject of Adrian Sobaru dampens his mood. He doesn't like the topic. "Lady," says Tiriac, "a guy jumps down into the parliament. Someone else gets run over by a car. Yet another kills himself because he's crazy, or for whatever reason. This sort of thing happens everywhere."

Sobaru Didn't Plan to Jump

Nothing particularly noteworthy happened on Dec. 22, the day before his jump, Sobaru says. But a lot was going on at the time. The news was forming a knot in his head, the news about government debt, even more government debt, yet another corrupt politician and even more money that was being taken away from those who needed it most, and then there was the smile on the face of the politicians.

It was nothing in particular, he says, just the feeling that things had become hopeless, "and that we are just numbers, that we keep on going like robots, and that we don't have the backbone to do anything about it." Those were his thoughts when he wrote his letter and got up and left the house at three in the morning without saying anything to his wife.

He wrote those sentences on his T-shirt, just in case his voice wouldn't be enough. He wanted to say something to the government and everyone else, and he did say something, up there on that balcony, but he has forgotten what it was. It was something about the future and children and bread, but he remembers that the last word was "freedom." And then, says Sobaru, there was nothing but adrenaline and his body shaking and loss of control. He knew that he had to rip open his shirt, but his fingers wouldn't cooperate.

He looked down, not at anyone in particular. His plan had been to shout his message and not to jump, but perhaps he realized, standing on that balcony, that the words were not enough or that his words weren't the right words. He doesn't remember how it all happened, doesn't remember the moment he threw himself into the air, or the moment he landed on a padded leather bench, which helped break his fall.

He does know that he survived, but he doesn't remember lying there in his own blood and saying, as he later found out, the word "freedom," over and over again.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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