Friday, May 31, 2013

Romania: Maramures is a rural fairytale

http://www.telegraph.co.uk
Sarah Shuckburgh travels through space and time to Maramures and an ancient Romanian way of life.


I wake to the sound of crowing, clanking and lowing. As chickens peck in the dust just beneath my window, a dozen cows are shuffling through the village, their bells a discordant jangle. At each house, another cow joins the throng. Like a dog-walker or childminder, one villager is taking his neighbours' cows off for a day's grazing.
This is the village of Hoteni in Maramures, one of the remotest corners of the European Union, where villagers have preserved a way of life which most of the continent cast off centuries ago. Too far from Bucharest for its identity to be crushed by Ceausescu, this isolated part of Romania has clung to its rural heritage and to its unspoilt pastures and forests. Visiting Maramures is an extraordinary experience, like walking into a fairy tale or stepping back into medieval Europe.
Hoteni sits among hillsides of poplar, beech and flowering ash. Beyond, lie snow-covered Carpathian peaks and spruce forests where bears and wolves still roam. Here, in the Land of Wood, traditional houses are made of timber, with steep shingled roofs, dovetail joints, wooden pegs and no nails. Gates are enormous, topped by a shingle roof, and with intricate woodcarvings of ropes, suns and wolves' teeth to protect the family from harm. Every household has its own well, neatly hoed rows of vegetables and colourful pots and pans dangling from a tree, a local custom which began as a practical way to store cooking utensils in a home with no cupboards.
I am staying in a traditional Maramures house. Although my hosts married decades ago, the wife's trousseau is prominently displayed – layers of hand-woven blankets and embroidered linen hang from the ceiling on wooden poles. Next to a ceramic stove, a bed is heaped with more blankets and cushions. Above the dining table, sacred icons are draped with white scarves.
Romanian villagers still use horse-drawn carts, coffin-shaped with rubber wheels. I watch as a husband and wife haul a wooden wagon into the road, harness their horse with a bridle hung with lucky red tassels, and then, perching on a plank balanced across the cart, bump off towards their field.
Following a stony track, I stroll to the neighbouring village of Breb. It is a magical walk, silent except for crickets chirruping, birds singing and hens clucking. Everywhere, wild flowers grow with irrepressible exuberance – a glorious, waist-high tangle, unchecked by chemical sprays, filling verges, meadows and orchards of plum, apple and morello cherry.
It is the haymaking season. In Maramures hay is still made by hand, cut with scythes, turned using home-made wooden pitchforks, draped over wooden railings to dry, and formed into lanky haystacks around timber posts. Whole families are at work – men scything with rhythmic swings, stopping to sharpen blades on a whetstone; women and children tossing hay. Several times, I have to step into the bank of cow-parsley and dog-roses as a cart passes, its sloping sides hidden by a tower of hay.
Breb is a maze of dirt tracks, with enormous carved gates leading to small wooden houses, two of them restored by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which the Prince of Wales supports. As I walk through tall buttercups into a farmyard, a woman in gathered skirt and headscarf is preparing food above an open fire. Chickens peck and tethered dogs leap towards me. A young girl looks up from the well where she is drawing water. Her sister is washing clothes in a shallow bowl. They speak a few words of French.
In an open-sided barn sits their grandfather, an old woodcarver, surrounded by half-completed headstones, babies' cribs, decorated spoons, cups and crucifixes – all made from interlocking pieces of wood, with no nails. Pointing to some tattered diplomas, he sighs that in the good old days of Ceausescu, the state valued traditional crafts and woodcarvers were well paid, but no longer.
In nearby Sârbi, a gushing stream has been ingeniously channelled to provide a water-powered thresher, a washing machine which tumbles clothes in a churning pool, and a thumping device in which heavy wooden beams pummel hot, wet sheep's wool into felt for coats, waistcoats and blankets. Several men, dressed in thick felt trousers, wide belts and tiny funnel-shaped hats with ribbons, are sitting by the watermill drinking plum brandy.
This isn't the threshing season or the felt-pummelling season, but it is the distilling season. At the village still, a woman works on her crochet while her plums are turned into brandy. Three men tend the fire, turn a handle to stop the mixture sticking, and, most importantly, sample the juice dripping into a bucket. For stronger, purer horinca, the distilling process will be repeated. Another man is carving tiny plum-wood ladders to fit inside bottles. When brandy is added, the swollen wood turns the alcohol golden, and adds a plummy flavour.
Religion is hugely important here. There are nearly 100 wooden churches in Maramures, eight of them Unesco World Heritage Sites. The village of Ieud, in the beautiful Iza valley, has a 14th-century church made of fir wood, with a traditional spindly, shingled spire. Inside, the wooden walls are decorated with 17th-century paintings, a mix of Byzantine and folk art with biblical quotations in Cyrillic script. At the altar, villagers are praying, crossing themselves repeatedly, touching icons and kissing the carpet beneath them.
Nearby is a charming folk museum – an old house crammed with handmade wooden implements. The custodian is a gold-toothed woman in traditional gathered skirt, white blouse and headscarf. She shows me how hemp is harvested, soaked in the river, beaten with wood, carded, spun, washed, and wound on to spools for weaving. A photograph of her wedding in the winter of 1972 shows bride and groom in bulky felt and sheepskin clothes, home-made outfits which are now in the museum.
Returning to Hoteni, I watch the cows plodding back from their grazing. In June, they will move to mountain pastures for the summer, with a cowherd to make each day's milk into soft white cheese, and to guard the cattle from bears and wolves. But this evening, each cow turns into its own yard, as the villagers sit chatting on benches outside their high wooden gates.
The next day is Sunday, a day of rest from haymaking. As I leave, the road fills with villagers, many in traditional costume, walking to church. Friendly voices call "Drum bun" – good journey. A young man waves to me as he polishes his shiny Chrysler. He tells me that he spent $4,000 shipping the car from the United States for just three weeks, to show his family. He hopes soon, as further proof of his success abroad, to be able to demolish his parents' old wooden house and carved gates, and replace them with plastic and concrete.
Many younger villagers are keen to escape what they feel is a backward rural life. Many older ones mourn the loss of collective farms and guaranteed wages. Twenty-three years after the overthrow of Ceausescu's regime, Romanians still have a corrupt, inefficient government. Health care, sanitation and education are chronically underfunded. Thousands of jobs vanished after the revolution, and the unemployed now eke out a subsistence living from strips of land, unable to sell produce because of exacting EU laws.
But despite poverty and physical hardship, this remarkable region has maintained qualities that have been lost forever elsewhere in Europe. Maramures was too remote to be invaded by the Romans, who gave Romania its name, and since antiquity it has proudly maintained its unique culture. I shall never forget my visit – the wild flowers and birdsong, haymaking and horses and carts, festivals and faith, woodcarving and other crafts, evoking a time when life was hard, but also calmer, simpler, slower, richer.

GETTING THERE

British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Bucharest from £196 return. Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Cluj-Napoca in Maramures, from £50 return.
PACKAGES
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098;theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can arrange an eight-day stay in Romania from £1,703 per person. The price includes a night in Bucharest at the Hotel Residence Domenii Plaza, a short flight to Baia Mare and private transfer to Hoteni, then a five-night stay at Popica’s Guesthouse with an English-speaking guide and private car and driver throughout. The final night is spent travelling first class on the overnight train from Baia Mare to Bucharest. The price also includes a return flight from Heathrow to Bucharest, most meals and private sightseeing.
THE INSIDE TRACK
  • The best time to travel is May to the end of October, especially spring and autumn.
  • If you are staying with a local family, you might like to give a small present – a British delicacy, say: chocolates, biscuits or something that the host can use or display in her kitchen. In Ceausescu’s time, the best presents were a good bar of soap or coffee, and these are still appreciated.
  •  Locals enjoy being photographed, and will hope to be sent the picture. Be sure to write down names and addresses and remember to post photographs when you get home.
  • Books to read when you’re there include William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania; and for less up-to-date accounts: Dervla Murphy’s Transylvania and Beyond; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water.
  • This is not the place to hire a car or to drive you own car. Roads are notoriously dangerous, directions are difficult, and maps are few.
  • Avoid taxis in Bucharest. A certain rip-off.
THINGS TO SEE IN MARAMURES
  • Go to a service in one of the beautiful wooden churches, to see locals in their Sunday best – many women wear traditional costumes of embroidered blouses and skirts and felt aprons. The Orthodox service lasts about two hours, but it isn’t rude to pop in for a few minutes. Your presence will be appreciated, and the congregation will feel proud and pleased that a Western traveller is interested in their traditions.
  •  Visit a peasant market to see the local trade in grain, chickens and pigs. The Thursday market at Ocna Sugatag was where William Blacker describes buying a scythe.
  •  Listen to live Maramures folk music, which is different from that in the rest of Romania.
  •  Pipas Museum near Sighetu Marmatiei. A fascinating private collection of icons, furniture, lace and textiles. You will need a guide who can translate.
  • The Ethnographic Museum in Cluj has an excellent collection of Transylvanian rural tools and artefacts.
  • The Merry Cemetery, in the village of Sapanta, has colourful headstones on which the deceased’s lives are painted in naive style.
  • The painted churches of Bucovina (a six-hour drive from Maramures) with 15th and 16th-century Byzantine frescoes. Not to be missed.
  • The Museum of Arrested Thought, in Sighetu Marmatiei near the border with Ukraine. In communist times, this was a prison where many dissidents died. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was born here, and the museum commemorates his life.
WHAT TO BRING HOME
Anything made of wood, such as spoons, a cross-shaped stamp for holy bread, plum brandy (horinca), handmade rugs, traditional hats, red tassels and bells for your horse’s reins, honey, painted eggs from Bucovina.
THE BEST HOTELS
In Maramures, the best places to stay are in private homes. If you don’t want to stay with local families, try the inexpensive three-star Hotel Marmatia (0040 372 721210; hotelmarmatia.ro; doubles from £44).
Hotel Victoria, Cluj £
There are no outstanding hotels in Cluj, but this three-star is the best, and very central. The traffic can be noisy, so ask for a room at the back, not on the street (264 597963; hotelvictoriacluj.ro; doubles from £40).
Hotel Opera, Bucharest £
This three-star is a good little budget choice in Brezoianu Street in the main “Sector 1” part of the city (213 124855; hotelopera.ro; doubles from £55).
Grand Hotel Continental, Bucharest £££
This five-star is one of the city’s standout hotels, in a good location on Victoriei Avenue (372 010300; grandhotelcontinental.ro; doubles from £94).

THE BEST RESTAURANTS

In Maramures, the best idea is to eat with local hosts in private houses. Your guide can fix lunches with different people in different villages: “restaurants” are few and far between, but in Sighetu Marmatiei try Casa Iurca (14 Dragos-Voda Street; 262 318882; casaiurca.ro), and Restaurant Roata (264 592022; restaurant-roata.ro) in Cluj.
You may have a meal or two to find in Bucharest, in which case try the traditional food in Terasa Doamnei (9, Str Doamnei; 213 146481;terasadoamnei.ro).

Romanian parliament approves lower turnout for referendums

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's parliament approved a law on Wednesday that lowers the turnout needed for any referendum to pass, a result that will make it easier for the ruling party to make planned changes to the constitution.

The ruling leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) wants to modify Romania's constitution by the end of this year, saying that it needs to be amended to better define the balance of power in the European Union member.

Insufficient voter turnout, persistently low in Romania and elsewhere in the EU, thwarted an attempt by the USL last year to impeach their political rival, center-right President Traian Basescu, on grounds he had broken the constitution.

The move alarmed the European Commission and investors at the time, but tensions have since eased and the USL is unlikely to attempt to impeach Basescu again, also because his term expires next year.

The new law approved by parliament, where the USL holds 70 percent of the seats, cuts the required turnout for a referendum to pass to a third of all voters, from the previous 50 percent.

Romania's opposition has said it will file a complaint to the country's constitutional court on the grounds that parliament did not have enough time to debate the law and that the vote was rushed through by its USL supporters.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

globalpost: Romania spikes Bechtel motorway deal

Romania cancelled a controversial deal with US giant Bechtel on the construction of a motorway plagued by problems since it was first signed in 2003, the government said Thursday.

Bucharest will pay Bechtel 37,2 million euros ($48.5 million) in compensation and reimburse debts worth 50 million euros ($65.2 million), the minister in charge of infrastructure projects Dan Sova said.

Romania had granted the 2.2-billion-euro ($2.8 billion) contract to the American company in 2003 without a tender, angering the European Commission.

The company was to build a 415-kilometre motorway between Brasov and Bors, near the Hungarian border.

But 10 years on, only 52 kilometres have been completed, while Bechtel has cashed in some 1.4 billion euros.

Romanian authorities had already cancelled part of the deal in 2011, when Bechtel was left with only two out of eight segments to continue work on.

The American company had several times brought works to a halt and laid off most of its local employees, accusing the government of failing to pay its debts.

Romania: TV chief detained on blackmail suspicion

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The manager of an influential private television group has been detained on suspicion of attempting to blackmail a company manager into signing a contract with the television station.

Prosecutors said Sorin Alexandrescu, general manager of the Antena TV Group, had threatened to go public with allegedly compromising facts about the person.

The Antena group reported the company was a cable provider with which it has been embroiled in a two-year dispute over prices. The stations are known for their opposition to President Traian Basescu.

Alexandrescu was detained late Thursday. Prosecutors called for a 29-day arrest warrant that would lead to formal charges and a trial.

In recent years, Romanian television stations have been hit by dwindling advertising budgets. Industry officials claim some stations attempt blackmail to get advertising.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Romania's lifting visas for Kosovo could lead to recognition, analysts say

27/05/2013
By lifting visa requirements for Kosovo citizens, Bucharest might be changing its position on Kosovo's independence, some say.

By Linda Karadaku for Southeast European Times in Pristina

The recent visa liberalisation for Kosovo citizens travelling to Romania could initiate the use of public diplomacy to change Bucharest's perception of Kosovo's independence, analysts said.

"The recognition from Romania would be a very positive step. Romania, Slovakia and Greece have shown in the last year a constructive and not-blocking position after the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia on Kosovo regional representation was reached," Fatmir Curri, a European Integration Programme co-ordinator at the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation, said.

One expert said that visits to Romania from Kosovo NGOs, businesses and cultural representatives can help change the perception of Kosovo in the country, and possibly lead to recognition.

"Any free movement creates new bridges of communication and recognition of the reality between the people," Curri said.

Artan Korenica, a Kosovo photographer, opened an exhibition of his work in Bucharest this year, titled "Don't look down at me." The show included 40 photos of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities from Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. The exhibition is on display at the National Museum of Bucharest until February.

Korenica told SETimes he found great support in Bucharest, starting from the managers of the Museum of the Romanian Peasants, the media and the Romanian citizens.

"We were very welcome. When we opened the exhibition, we also expressed our wish that Romania would recognise Kosovo, and there were no bad reactions," he said.

"Similarity in some traditions, common words of their language and ours, hospitability, made us feel home," Korenica added.

For artists like him, it is a relief to have the extra Romanian visas removed.

"You had to go, apply, have an invitation … Freedom of movement is important for everyone, even more for an artist and for the communication between the states and the people," Korenica said.

Any move towards recognition would encourage other countries towards recognition, but this is not expected to happen soon.

According to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lifting the visa does not mean recognition is around the corner.

"The way we report to Pristina's unilateral independence remains the same. But this position doesn't run counter to identifying a modus operandi by means of which we can contribute to enhancing EU's influence in the Western Balkans as a whole," the ministry said.

Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi said the recognition of Kosovo's passport is expected soon by other states that have not recognised the country's independence. Spain, Greece and Cyprus do not recognise Kosovo passports, although 150 states, plus China and Brazil consider it valid.

Selimi said that he expects that the five EU members that have not recognised Kosovo as a state will do it soon as a result of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.

Correspondent Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed this report.

BBC News: Romania village of Clinceni claims largest flag record

An estimated 200 people in the Romanian village of Clinceni have unfurled what the Guinness World Records say is the largest flag ever made.

The flag, measuring 349m (1,145ft) by 227m (744ft) and weighing five tonnes, was spread over seven acres of an airfield south of the capital, Bucharest.

It was broadcast live on national TV.

Work on the enormous red, yellow and blue tricolor began two months ago and took hundreds of hours to complete.

An estimated 44 miles (70km) of thread was needed.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta and other members of the Romanian government attended Monday's event, which was celebrated with an air show.

The previous record for the world's largest flag was held by Lebanon.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Romania: Communist palace draws celebs, kings

Ceausescu-era building a pillar of democracy

BY ALISON MUTLER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS MAY 23, 2013

BUCHAREST — More than two decades after communism collapsed, the Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan Stalinist symbol and the most concrete legacy of ex-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, has emerged as an unlikely pillar of Romania’s nascent democracy.

And while it remains one of the most controversial projects of Ceausescu’s 25-year rule — albeit one that has gradually found a place in the nation’s psyche — it’s also now a tourist attraction, visited by tens of thousands of Romanians and foreigners every year.

The palace, so big it can be seen from space, tentatively opened its doors in early-1990 when Romanians were still raw from the trauma of communism. Described by some as a giant Stalinist wedding cake, it’s the world’s second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon.

Parliament and the constitutional court are housed inside, along with the South-East European Law Enforcement Center, which fights crime, smuggling and fraud. Just days before Christmas, parliament members met inside to vote on a new government. But over time, the palace has become as much a magnet for glamorous events and celebrity photo ops as it is a site for government affairs.

Brides pose in front of the yellow-stoned facade while weddings, balls, movies and fashion shows and shoots take place inside. It’s hosted celebrities — Michael Jackson moonwalked in front of the building after a news conference, Colombian pop star Shakira sang outside in the pouring rain and actor Ethan Hawke attended a ball there to raise money for disadvantaged children.

Visiting politicians have included former U.S. president George W. Bush, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a speech to 16 European prime ministers there in October.

On his 90th birthday in October 2011, former King Michael attended his first parliament sitting there in six decades, calling on Romanians to continue to build democracy. British TV producers even drove cars in the palace’s underground tunnels to show how cavernous it was.

Construction on the grandiose project began in the early-1980s, when food rationing and power cuts were common. Some 9,000 homes were demolished, residents were given just days to vacate their homes, churches and synagogues were razed or moved and two mountains of marble were hacked down for the 84-metre-high palace to be built.

Ceausescu designed the palace to house the government and parliament after the devastating earthquake of 1977, when swaths of buildings crumbled in the capital and more than 1,500 people died.

A million Romanians, including thousands of soldiers, were enlisted to work around the clock on the construction, painstakingly carving huge oak, elm and cherry doors and sculpting giant crystal chandeliers for marble rooms almost as big as athletic fields.

Today’s tours sample only parts of the building and last just one to two hours. It would take a day to visit all the rooms and almost an hour just to walk around the perimeter.

The palace is perched atop a human-made hill at the end of a boulevard that is deliberately one metre wider than Paris’ famous Champs Élysées. Outside, European Union, NATO and Romanian flags flutter.


Valentina Lupan, one of 2,000 architects who worked on the project, says Ceausescu “was demented. Why did he want the biggest building? … dictators love architects. Trust me on this. They, the dictators, imagine themselves as architects of the new world.”

Tourists tend to rave about the sheer scale of the building rather than the architectural beauty.

“The inside is fabulous,” said Dean Edgar, a resident British businessman. “You have no idea the immense size of the rooms inside. There’s marble everywhere, ornate furnishing, ornate tapestry, truly an incredible building. I don’t think it’s particular pretty, but it’s big, it’s impressive.”

Romania gears up for more shale gas exploration -minister

By Ioana Patran

BUCHAREST, May 23 (Reuters) - Romania will soon launch tenders to expand shale gas exploration after Chevron took the lead this month as the government seeks to reduce dependence on costly imports, the energy minister said on Thursday.

"The mineral resources agency will launch tenders for shale exploration in the near term. New perimeters are set to be tendered soonish, but it is up to them (to set) the exact timing," Minister Constantin Nita said.

"It's normal that we would like to see more and more investors and companies joining the search for energy resources," he added.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that Romania and its neighbours Bulgaria and Hungary could between them have 538 billioncubic metres of gas, which would be enough to cover Romania's consumption for almost 40 years.

Earlier this month U.S. oil major Chevron said it planned to start exploration for shale gas in Romania.

It will conduct a 2D geophysical study near the Black Sea and drill exploratory wells further north in Vaslui county.

Shale gas faces local opposition due to environmental concerns around hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting water and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations to push out the gas. Thousands protested across Romania last month, asking the government to ban the drilling.

Romania's leftist government initially opposed shale gas when it took power in 2012 but has since became a supporter in view of the potential economic benefits from any major discovery.

Nita told an energy seminar earlier on Thursday that, depending on shalegas exploration findings, "Romania will decide whether or not to exploit them."

But he added his government "is seeking to find ways to reassess the energy mix in Romania".

Romania is not under so much pressure as its neighbours to find more gas, because it already has considerable conventional gas reserves and imports only about a quarter of the gas it uses.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Romania president appoints prosecutors picked by PM

(Reuters) - Romania's president appointed six chief prosecutors and deputies on Wednesday who had been handpicked by the prime minister, defying the European Union, which had called for a transparent application process.

The EU, which Romania joined in 2007, has already put its justice system under special monitoring and was critical last year over attempts by the ruling coalition to impeach President Traian Basescu.

It has been especially keen that prosecutors in one of the bloc's most corrupt states should not be political appointees, but analysts said the appointments had ended up the result of a compromise between Romania's fractious powerbrokers.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta chose the candidates for the prosecutor general's office, the anti-corruption department and the organised crime unit last month without applications or interviews.

The Commission has widely praised previous prosecutors' work, which has led to the conviction of several high level public officials including former prime minister Adrian Nastase.

But critics said some of the new appointees had political connections that would make it difficult for them to pursue the anti-corruption drive.

They have also expressed concerns that Tiberiu Nitu, the new head of Romania's prosecution office, is insufficiently prepared after Basescu initially rejected him late last year.

"I am convinced he can handle the position and that the judiciary will not collapse, nor will it be controlled politically," Basescu said. "Those who believe we could have delayed the appointments further ... are mistaken."

Meanwhile, the choice to appoint Brussels-praised former prosecutor-general Laura Codruta Kovesi to head the anti-corruption unit was criticised by a faction of Ponta's alliance.

At the time Ponta picked the team, an analyst said the nominations appeared to be aimed at easing tensions between and within political parties.

Ponta's coalition is loose alliance of liberals and leftists, who have long been at loggerheads with the rightist president, and the names would have had to have mostly satisfy the demands of all sides.

"The appointments are the result of a political consensus, which was needed for anything to get done," said Sergiu Miscoiu, an analyst with the CESPRI political think tank.

"The changes at the anti-corruption unit are such that could keep up the standards. The general prosecution appointments are the other side of the compromise, where there are ... some legitimate concerns over management abilities."

Under Romanian law, the president appoints chief prosecutors nominated by the justice minister. Ponta was acting as interim justice chief at the time of the nominations.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Romanian Economy Expanded More Than Estimated in First Quarter

Romania’s economy grew more than economists estimated in the first quarter of this year, probably boosted by an increase in industrial output and consumption.

Gross domestic product advanced 2.1 percent from a year earlier, compared with 1.1 percent in the fourth quarter, according to a flash estimate by the National Statistics Institute in Bucharest, released today by e-mail. That exceeds the 1 percent median estimate of 13 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. GDP rose a seasonally adjusted 1.4 percent from the first quarter of 2012 and 0.5 percent from the previous three months.

Romania, which is counting mainly on European Union demand for its goods, such as Renault SA (RNO)’s Dacia cars, to support exports and growth, avoided a recession in the fourth quarter of last year. GDP advanced a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent from the previous quarter as domestic consumption and industry offset a poor harvest and a 25 percent agricultural slump.

“Growth is expected to gradually improve this year, particularly when the agricultural crop enters the picture,” analysts at Barclays Plc, including Eldar Vakhitov and Vladimir Pantyushin, wrote in a note before the data were released. “We expect growth to rise to a 1.4 percent year on year, with further improvement likely in second half.”

Industrial production increased a seasonally adjusted 4.8 percent from a year earlier in the first quarter, the institute said yesterday. Retail sales increased 0.8 percent, while exports expanded 4.6 percent, according to data released this month.

The statistics institute will release a breakdown of first-quarter GDP on June 5, according to a calendar on its website.

-- With assistance from Irina Savu in Bucharest and Barbara Sladkowska in Warsaw. Editors: Balazs Penz, Andrew Langley

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Romania, Congolese refugee does as the Romanians do

BUCHAREST, Romania, May 10 (UNHCR) - Jean-Louis Kialoungou's love affair with Romania began before he even arrived here in the mid-1990s, and over the years the Congolese refugee has become more Romanian than most Romanians.

As Romania prepared for general elections last December, for example, he seemed more concerned than many voters about the fate of his adoptive country. "I asked my colleagues and friends: what do you think about the candidates? Most have no clue!" said Jean Louis, complaining in fluent Romanian about local apathy when it comes to politics.

"For how long are we Romanians going to be treated as inferior to other European nations? What have they got that we haven't?" he asked with a passion that belied not only his African roots but also the fact that, as a refugee, he has no right to vote. He says he is too busy to apply.

Jean-Louis came to Romania from the Republic of Congo 16 years ago, when he was 34. Now - as well as strong views on Romanian politics - he has a stable job, a family and a house, and he has retained the sparkle in his eye and youthful and energetic manner that have helped him overcome adversity.

"I live here, I have a child and I want to see changes for the better," said Jean-Louis, who in 1996 fled a country that was wracked by political turmoil and sliding toward a brief civil war, which erupted in 1997.

He landed at Bucharest airport in October 1996 with his Romanian girlfriend Daniela, whom he met in his homeland and would later marry. They had tickets to fly on to Paris, but planned to first spend a couple of months with Daniela's mother in Romania.

"I don't know what happened. I fell in love with this place and can't really explain it to this day," said Jean-Louis, who now lives in a house with a big garden in Chitila - a satellite town of Bucharest - together with his wife and their 14-year-old daughter, Letitzia.

He works at the BRD Bank in Bucharest, administering money transfers. At home he loves to spend time in his garden, where he cultivates vegetables and grows fruit trees and grapes.

The neighbours in Chitila all know Jean-Louis for being the only "black guy" in the neighbourhood and for his friendly manner; they have even introduced him to tzuica, a traditional home-made Romanian brandy.

"It was easy for me to integrate in Romanian society and I'm proud of that," said Jean-Louis. "When you go somewhere you are the one who has to adapt, you must fight to be accepted, not the other way around."

But a recent episode in central Bucharest, in which a workman shouted racist abuse as Jean-Louis walked past while speaking on his mobile phone, was a reminder that life is still not always easy in overwhelmingly white Romania.

"He thought I was scared of him because he was in a group, but I interrupted my call and stopped to asked him: 'Excuse me, sir. Have I bothered you in any way? Why would you address me that way? You are here doing your job and I'm on my way to mine'," Jean-Louis recalled.

Courage and a strong will have helped Jean-Louis make a home from home in Romania. He also believes that his education in French literature and communication studies in the Republic of Congo helps him relate well to other people.

"You also have to know what you want to do with your life," he noted, claiming that being a refugee in Romania was not necessarily harder than in other countries where there are more opportunities and work is better paid.

"People are good here and the country has potential," he said, "But there are moments, like [the racial abuse] yesterday for instance, when I really miss Africa."

The homesickness struck him while listening to Congolese music sent to him by a friend. "Yesterday, I felt like I was in Congo. If someone had said to me, come on, let's go back there, then I would have left just like that."

In the 21 years since Romania acceded to the UN Refugee Convention, more than 3,550 people have been granted international protection. While Romanian law protects refugees, many struggle to access their rights and rebuild a life in Romania. Last year, received some 2,500 asylum-seekers.

By Andreea Anca in Bucharest, Romania

Is Danube Romania's 'blue motorway' to prosperity?

Constanta, Romania (CNN) -- There was once a time when Romania's president Traian Basescu made a living steering huge oil tankers through the bustling waters of Constanta harbor on the country's western coast.

Now the ship captain-turned-statesman aims to navigate the Black Sea port towards a new age of prosperity -- as a strategic trading hub between East and Western Europe.

"Until December 1989, the Constanta harbor was mainly used to export the goods produced by the Romanian economy and to import raw materials," Basescu told CNN.
Crucial canal for landlocked countries

"(Today) it is more of a gate, first of all for Romania connecting (the country) with the world, and in same time it is a gate for central and Eastern Europe," he added.

Ensuring Constanta and the hinterland rail, road and canal services beyond the port fulfill their true potential, however, will prove a demanding logistical challenge.

The port currently operates at just 50% of its 100 million ton annual handling capacity.

Much of Romania's creaking inland freight infrastructure is in need of modernization, having been built and designed during the Soviet era.

The Romanian section of the Danube canal catered for 31 million tons of goods in 2012, a steady increase on previous years but still only a third of its full capacity.

Despite these less than fully productive figures, Basescu remains optimistic.

He says Constanta is the gateway at the end of a giant "blue motorway" stretching more than 1,500 miles from the North Sea port of Rotterdam via waterways in Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Serbia.

"From a strategic point of view, it's (of) extraordinary importance having such a harbor which is connected with all of Europe," Basescu said.

"It's the single harbor which is connected with Danube, with the Rhine-Main-Danube canal and with Rotterdam," he added.

This enthusiasm for Romania's maritime and logistical development is shared by the country's continental partners keen to facilitate the smooth passage of goods across Europe's frontiers and beyond.

But not all are as content as Basescu as to the progress currently being made in this endeavor.

The EU commissioner for regional development, Johannes Hahn, recently stated that the 14 countries (including Romania) involved in strengthening trade in the Danube region still had to "step up a gear" after making a promising start.

Basescu rejects such analysis as hypercritical, believing it is not fully representative of the commitment and progress his country has made towards improving its infrastructure since joining the EU in 2007.

"I don't know why the commissioner is so pessimistic," he said.

"We have already invested more than 300 million (euros) on the Danube using the European money for the period 2007-2013 and it will continue."
Basescu sees the benefits of increased trade these projects will likely bring as a key component of Romania's development strategy in the coming years.

The country remains one of the poorest in the European Union -- only Bulgaria has a lower GDP per head of population, according to Eurostat.

"It is vital not only for the EU, but for Romania," he said. "We have to develop the capacities for large vessels in Constanta harbor (but) there are a lot of other things to be done."

Ensuring the Danube is a solution to move goods and commodities through Romania to central Europe is "a key element for us in our development strategy," he added.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Analysis: From the fringe of Europe, Romania and Bulgaria seek EU acceptance

(Reuters) - Addressing an audience of dignitaries in Luxembourg in 2005, Bulgaria's then prime minister extolled the virtues of European Union membership, declaring his nation ready to take its place at the heart of the continent.

"Bulgaria is returning politically to the family of European nations to which it has always belonged," Simeon Saxe-Coburg announced as Bulgaria and Romania signed the documents that would bring them into the EU two years later, in 2007.

The rhetoric was full, matching the occasion, and heartfelt, with the memories of Soviet influence fresh in the minds of most Bulgarians and particularly Saxe-Coburg, the country's child tsar before the monarchy was overthrown in 1946.

But eight years on from that upbeat spring day in Luxembourg, and as a divided Bulgaria prepares for parliamentary elections on May 12, the gap between the one-time aspirations of EU membership and the everyday reality of belonging grows wider.

Rather than feeling pulled into the heart of Europe, Bulgaria and Romania find themselves on the edge of the debate, with questions frequently raised by their EU partners about their commitment to the rule of law and willingness to crack down on corruption, organized crime and illegal migration.

Membership has not delivered a one-way ticket to democratic stability, economic growth and greater opportunity for all. Diplomats from other member states often quietly question the wisdom of allowing them in.

"The European Union was seen as some sort of golden rainbow on the horizon," Amanda Paul, an east Europe expert at the European Policy Centre, a think tank, said of the image many Romanians and Bulgarians had in their minds before joining.

"As a whole I think both Romanian and Bulgaria have benefited from membership, but they still have significant democratic deficits," she said, explaining that if citizens wanted to understand the gap between expectation and reality, they should look first to home, not to Brussels.

"They should be more disappointed in their own leaders and politicians rather than in the EU institutions and what the EU has been able to do for them."

FROM AFAR

Whether living in their home countries on the southeastern periphery of Europe or working in Brussels, Romanians and Bulgarians increasingly have a sense of isolation.

While per capita incomes have risen steadily since joining the EU - by around 30 percent between 2006-2011 for both, according to IMF data - and opportunities to move and work across Europe have increased, there is still not a feeling of being fully integrated into the union of European states.

Romania and Bulgaria remain outside Schengen, the agreement that allows for the free movement of citizens across 26 European countries, and plans to join the euro currency are on hold for the immediate future.

When either country pops up for discussion in EU debates, it is all too often about whether they are meeting targets for bolstering their judicial systems or doing enough to combat smuggling and limit the influx of migrants from further east.

"We are second-class citizens of the union and we are being left out of major decisions taken in Brussels," said Ion Miciu, a 64-year-old engineer living in Bucharest.

"Our politicians are incompetent and have not fought in the last six years for Romania to have a more important voice."

At EU summits, the leaders of Romania and Bulgaria have just the same opportunity as any other head of state or government to speak up, and often do. But when it comes to decision-making, especially during the last three years of economic crisis, Sofia and Bucharest barely figure.

"You see two countries that have to spend quite a lot of negotiating capital and goodwill on key issues for them, like Schengen membership," said one EU diplomat familiar with dealing with both and who has seen the limits of their influence.

"While they are certainly working hard, it just gives them less room to maneuver."

Another hurdle they face is getting experienced staff to drive their diplomatic efforts. As the newest of the EU's 27 member states - at least until Croatia joins in July - it takes time to generate critical mass and influence in meetings, not just at the ambassadorial table, but across all levels of the bureaucracy and the myriad policy files diplomats handle.

"When it comes to major decisions, it's a big boy's game in being aggressive to steer the little circle that makes decisions," said another diplomat from an older European power.

By way of example, they pointed to negotiations earlier this year over the EU's 1 trillion euro long-term budget, a large portion of which is spent on development funds for poorer EU countries, making it critical for Romania and Bulgaria.

"When it comes to the budget, Romania and Bulgaria only got scraps," the diplomat said, lamenting their lack of influence.

For their part, officials from both countries said their voice was always present in EU discussions, and questioned why the two were being treated like second-class citizens when it came to Schengen, probably their biggest frustration.

"WILD WEST"

In Sunday's election in Bulgaria, the centre-right party lead by former prime minister Boiko Borisov is expected to come out on top, although it may not have sufficient votes to form a government on its own and has said it won't join a coalition.

That raises the prospect of further political uncertainty in the country, and raises doubts about its economic program too, both of which will muffle its voice in Brussels.

"We're effectively dealing with a Wild West country," said an EU official who handles east Europe, voicing doubts about Bulgaria's ability to enforce the law and live by democratic norms.

With a "what can you do?" shrug of the shoulders, the official said it wasn't possible to turn back history, that Romania and Bulgaria were members of the European Union. Other states had to accept that reality and make it work, however challenging it may be.

For Carmen Pop, the 32-year-old owner of a small Romanian restaurant in Brussels, EU membership is a double-edged sword. It has allowed her to work in the capital of Europe and send money home to her parents. But it is far from a perfect world.

"The advantages of the EU community are not for Romanians," she said with frustration. "You are part of the community but you can't work like other Europeans. We always carry the label of being Romanian or Bulgarian."

(Additional reporting by Ioana Patran in Bucharest and Justyna Pawlak and Luke Baker in Brussels; writing by Luke Baker; editing by Janet McBride)