Friday, June 21, 2013

BBC Magazine: Romania's orphans: Young adults leave horror behind

After Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, the world learned of the shocking conditions in which many children lived in the country's orphanages. More than 20 years later, those children are adults - and for some of them at least, life is far, far better than it was.

To arrive in Siret is to arrive at world's end.

The train from Bucharest - clatter-boom, clatter-boom, through the night - goes only as far as Suceava. An historic city mauled by the communists.

Immediately after the revolution of 1989 I travelled from here to Siret in an hard-to-find taxi.

Now Catalin - with his own car hire firm and a canary yellow cap - waits for me at the station, ostentatiously dusting down his Vauxhall Astra.

The drive, hurtling between cabbages and corn, horses with their carts and a pink sky that crashes into the Moldavian plains, is a reminder of how far you have come from the dusty fug of Bucharest's Gara de Nord.

"When I first walked into the large grey building at the heart of Siret, my immediate instinct was to walk straight back out again.

"Half-naked children leapt from every direction, clawing at my clothes, and there was an overpowering smell of urine and sweat that made me want to retch."

Siret was a quiet border town, spitting distance from the vast expanse of the USSR.

Change came abruptly in 1990, when its secret was exposed on an international stage. In a four-storey former Austrian army barracks, Romania hid its largest gulag for abandoned and disabled children, far away from the capital.

Communists did not cope well with imperfection.

In came the foreign do-gooders. The broken orphans cried and Siret's entrepreneurs sourced German beer for their prestigious newcomers.

Some charities lasted the course - others moved on with the rolling tide of news but amidst the global opprobrium Siret and many of its abandoned young stayed put.

They are adults now. Few were adopted - it turns out Westerners do not cope well with imperfection either.

Eventually the barracks was abandoned.

The 100-plus adults unable to live independently were moved to another austere stone building - smaller this time with wire-nettings and landings that overlooking a concrete court yard.

Dribs and drabs of foreign money have paid for new sheltered accommodation for the lucky few.

But more than 20 years after the revolution the most vulnerable adults still rock back and forth in a building that resembles a human hen coop.

When they saw us the young adults ran over, euphoric, anticipating attention, touching the camera, hugging me and the other visitors, keen for a small shard of love.

A reminder of what once was when the foreigners came to play.

Two decades on and the familiar smell of sweat and wet stone walls has not gone away, nor the disturbing noises of those unable to express themselves.

But there is a key difference between now and then.

He is called Tibi Rotaru - a man with his clear kind blue eyes and a crumpled shirt. He was there to meet me.

A local lad of just 17 when the first wave of foreigners came, Tibi was roped in as a translator.

The volunteers had found their first and most-important ally.

He went on to Bucharest then Germany and Holland to study psychology, before moving back to Siret and taking over responsibility for the orphans.

It is this unassuming man who has turned a small community once scarred by a legacy of child abuse into an oasis of tolerance.

The young adults now wander freely about the town, they sweep the church steps, cadge cigarettes and laugh with the locals.

You can spot the ones from the hospital, they are smaller than everyone else, even the able-bodied are hunched - despite their tender years they have haggard faces and their stumbling gait gives away the horror story that was their childhood.

Tibi shakes his head. "Their lives were stolen from them, and still they don't have what they need," he says.

Their lives were stolen from them, and still they don't have what they need”Tibi

His young adults, and make no mistake they are his - to watch him with them is to watch a father with an unruly loving brood - now have a bright shiny new home to move into.

The undignified rows of beds will at last be history.

"Of course," Tibi reminds us, "this building has been ready for over a year, sitting empty".

He knowingly points to the crow's feet in the corners of his eyes.

"I have travelled fortnightly to Bucharest in the hope of meeting a minister.

"A lot of funds have been spent on this project, but they couldn't find the money for a boiler."

He laughs: "How can I move the young people with no heating?"

But Tibi has the patience of a man born into a system he knows he must work with, not against.

Recently, Siret's young adults were told their new house would finally have heating and hot water.

In a town where the winter temperature drops -30C (-22F) Tibi has once again proved that dreams can come true - so long as you are prepared to wait 23 years.

Romania Picks CFR Marfa Sale Winner to Meet IMF Accord Pledge

Romania selected private railway operator Grup Feroviar Roman SA as the winner in the bidding for rail freight company CFR Marfa SA, meeting a deadline set under the country’s international bailout agreement.

Grup Feroviar Roman offered about 905 million lei ($264 million) for a 51 percent stake by today’s deadline agreed with the International Monetary Fund, Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu told reporters in Bucharest today. The bidder also offered to invest about 900 million lei in the unprofitable company, he said.

The sale of CFR Marfa is part of Romania’s 5 billion-euro ($6.6 billion) precautionary loan agreement with the European Union and the IMF, whose board of directors is scheduled to discuss the country’s progress on June 26. Romania is trying to complete its second accord by the end of June after asking for a three-month extension.

“We’ve completed the actions needed before the IMF board meeting and we’ve shown our commitment, so I’m optimistic about the results,” Prime Minister Victor Ponta said on Realitatea TV today. “We can talk about another agreement afterwards, if the European Commission agrees to it.”

The leu lost 0.4 percent to 4.5231 per euro by 7:27 p.m. in Bucharest, weakening for the third day. The benchmark BET stock index fell 0.9 percent to 5,327.66, its biggest decline this month.

Romania raised 315 million lei from the sale of a 15 percent stake in Transgaz SA in April and paid overdue debt to companies, one of the conditions to complete its agreement for the IMF loan, from which it hasn’t drawn any money so far.

To contact the reporter on this story: Irina Savu in Bucharest at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at

Thursday, June 20, 2013

AFP: Romania rail privatisation loses bidders

The privatisation of Romania's freight rail company, a key condition if the country is to renew its IMF credit line, was at risk of failing again Wednesday after just one bidder was left in the race.

The consortium formed by the Romanian firm TFG and Austrian investment fund Donau-Finanz pulled out of the tender for a 51-percent stake in CFR Marfa claiming it did not have enough time to conduct due diligence.

This follows the withdrawal on Monday of OmniTRAX, a US railway management group, and leaves only the Romanian transporter Grupul Feroviar Roman (GFR) in the race.

The sale of the heavily-indebted, loss-making carrier is one of the conditions set by the International Monetary Fund under its precautionary 3.5-billion-euro ($4.7-billion) credit line that expires at the end of this month.

A decision was expected on Thursday in the tender with a starting price of $230 million (172 million euros).

The Austrian-Romanian consortium said it had requested several times the tender be extended due to the complexity of the process.

"Reasonable deadlines are the only way to ensure equal treatment for investors," it said in a statement.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said Wednesday the procedure was valid and stressed that Romania had to conclude the deal before an IMF board meeting due on June 26.

Romania's government has indicated it wants to negotiate a new agreement with the IMF later this year, although no amount has yet been mentioned.

The tender for CFR Marfa was relaunched last month after a first attempt failed when the same three companies were judged by the transport ministry as not meeting conditions for the sale.

CFR Marfa employs 9,000 people. In 2011 it posted a net loss of 93 million lei (20.6 million euros) on sales of 1.1 billion lei.

Romania govt sets price range for Nuclearelectrica's July IPO

(Reuters) - Romania's leftist government has set a price range of 11.2-15 lei per share in the initial public offering of a 10 percent stake in state-owned nuclear power producer Nuclearelectrica, the energy ministry said on Wednesday.

Energy Minister Constantin Nita said earlier in the day that the cabinet aimed to get up to 350 million lei ($104.43 million) from the sale, but declined to give a price range. The listing is expected in early July.

It is the first IPO of a state-owned company since the 2007 listing of a minority stake in gas grid operator Transgaz and part of wider privatisation committments agreed under an aid deal led by the International Monetary Fund.

Romania owns a 90 percent stake in the firm, with investment fund Fondul Proprietatea holding the remaining 10 percent, which it valued at 147 million euros, or just under 5 percent of its net asset value.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

NYT: New Bridge Over Danube Helps Dissolve Old Enmities

Published: June 14, 2013

VIDIN, Bulgaria — The European Union hardly basks in popular favor these days. But in this isolated corner of the bloc’s poorest periphery, leaders and locals on Friday celebrated a tangible benefit of membership — a $340 million bridge spanning the Danube that should help strengthen trade and ties between two impoverished members, Romania and Bulgaria.

Despite much history and present poverty in common, these two Balkan nations had to be prodded into negotiating the construction of the bridge, which began in 2007. Both prime ministers and the European Union’s commissioner for regional policy, Johannes Hahn, attended the opening ceremony, where Plamen Oresharski, the head of Bulgaria’s new government, joked: “I am sorry that this bridge has such a long history. We heard that the Romans built faster.”

Romania, population roughly 22 million, and Bulgaria, about 7 million, share a 290-mile border along the Danube that, until Friday, had just one bridge connecting them.

Under Communism, neither country was rich, but the collapse of their state-run economies deepened the impoverishment on both sides of the river and hastened depopulation. Vidin, which in bygone Ottoman days was a thriving river port, shipping agricultural produce along the Danube, has suffered the worst depopulation in Bulgaria, losing 16 percent of its residents in 2012 alone.
Across the river, the Romanian town of Calafat, population 18,000, has fared little better. Its central pedestrian street, recently fitted with new paving stones, remains sleepy.

Yet it took until 2000 for European officials to coax the two very different Balkan nations into talking about the bridge, largely because they could not agree on a location for it.

Romanians speak a language they prize as descended from Latin roots; Bulgarians are Slavs and in Communist times were derided as being so close to Moscow as to be the virtual 16th republic of the Soviet Union. Each country adheres to its own Orthodox church, and for decades were simply disinterested in each other.

Their shared status in European development post-cold war has gradually brought them closer, as they have discovered more in common.

Both joined NATO in 2004, and the European Union in 2007. European Union officials have since criticized both nations, the bloc’s poorest members, for corruption and organized crime — some of which originated in the Vidin region in the 1990s, when criminals helped smuggle oil and other goods into neighboring Serbia, which was under United Nations sanctions for its role in the Balkan wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia.

“The illusions we created about what enemies the Romanians are and how different they are have disappeared into dust,” Gergo Gergov, the 35-year-old mayor of Vidin, said in an interview in the 15-story, Communist-era municipal building, by far Vidin’s tallest.

“We have stopped acting like we are locked up alone,” Mr. Gergov observed. “We have seen that there are other people around and have started to get to know them, to interact, trade, travel and work with each other.”

The bridge, he said, is “the biggest event in the modern history of the region.”

Vidin — which has a population of 63,000, down from 90,000 during the Communist era — could use the help. Its center, replete with decaying architecture from 19th-century glory days, offers some exotic sights for visitors who disembark every summer day from luxurious Danube cruise ships. A balmy river breeze spreads the sweet smell of linden through the city. But Vidin remains the poorest city and region in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member state with average monthly wages of 400 euros, or about $574.

The common market offered by European Union membership has catalyzed trade and business: trade between Bulgaria and Romania totaled 3.5 billion euros, or about $5 billion, in 2011, up from 900 million euros in 2005, about $1.09 billion at the time.

Ovidiu Cernatescu, 45, a Romanian from Craiova who started a metal construction business in Vidin two years ago and sells 90 percent of his product in Romania, is confident of further expansion and relishes the protection offered by European Union trade rules rather than capriciously applied local justice. “I’ve been waiting for the bridge like the coming of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Ten years ago, Mr. Cernatescu said, Romanians had heard only negative news about Bulgaria as a country where former Communists still held sway. Now, Romanians enjoy it as a cheaper, nice place to visit and trade, he said.

Bulgarian businesspeople in the region like Kostas Grivov, who employs 100 workers in two factories processing nuts and dried fruit, are expecting a short-term boom in tourism, shopping and investment.

Mr. Grivov, who is also Romania’s honorary consul in Vidin, said the bridge would halve his transport costs and greatly increase the speed and reliability of supplies and deliveries. The sole way to Romania had been an unreliable ferry that crosses only when it fills with cars.

In Calafat, the deputy mayor, Dorel Mituletu, sits in a restored late-19th century mansion that might be the envy of his Vidin counterparts. He welcomed the bridge, but said he feared merchants in his town would lose out to Vidin, where prices are 20 to 25 percent lower.

He also voiced concern about what he saw as difficult and complex procedures required to secure European Union financing for local projects — processes that have become stricter because of concerns about corruption and mismanagement.

“Romanians are not accustomed to begging,” he said. “Despite what the rest of Europe might think of us.”

Romania to buy second-hand F-16 fighter jets

(Reuters) - Romania's leftist government has approved a plan to buy second-hand F-16 fighter jets from Portugal to bring its air force up to NATO standards, it said on Wednesday.

The European Union member joined NATO in 2004 and has been Washington's military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in the process of phasing out its outdated Soviet-made MiG-21s.

The defence ministry will buy 12 jets from Portugal and pay a little over 600 million euros, including maintenance, in installments until 2017.

Romania shelved a multi-billion euro plan to buy fighter jets in 2009 as its economy plunged into deep recession and the global financial crisis forced it to resort to international aid.

Romania: Amnesty's new report labels treatment of Roma as 'total betrayal'

Posted: 18 June 2013

The Romanian authorities betray thousands of their citizens through broken promises and total disregard of their right to adequate housing, Amnesty International said in a new report published today on forced evictions in the country.

Pushed to the margins: Five stories of Roma forced evictions in Romania presents the experiences of people pushed out from their homes, out of their neighbourhoods and communities to the peripheries of their cities.

The report follows the journeys of five people from three Romanian cities after they have been forcibly evicted from their homes and their resistance to relocation. It exposes the profound impact on people’s lives of lost homes and livelihoods, disconnection from social circles, stigma, difficulties in accessing education or health care and the trauma of eviction itself.

Amnesty International’s expert on Romania, Barbora Černušáková, said:

“What we see in 21st century Romania is the deliberate expulsion from the society of vulnerable people who live below or on the poverty line and suffer from inadequate housing conditions. The current housing legislation in Romania falls far short of the international standards adopted by the Romanian government. In particular, it fails to ensure the right to adequate housing for all its citizens and to prohibit forced evictions.

“Legislative flaws allow local authorities to sweep away long-established Romani communities entirely and relocate them to inadequate housing, out of sight of the rest of the population, under the pretext of ‘inner-city regeneration’ and ‘development’. Such relocations often result in further marginalisation and poverty and go against the government’s policies to combat social exclusion of Roma and other vulnerable groups.”

Claudia Greta, now in her late twenties, lived in Coastei Street in the western Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca since she was nine – until 2010, when the city authorities forcibly evicted the entire neighbourhood. The residents were relocated to Pata Rât, an area on the outskirts of the city, known for its landfill and former chemical waste dump. A number of families were not provided with any alternative housing at all.

In Claudia’s case this meant that for five months she had to share the small room allocated to her family with her parents and brother’s family – all 11 of them – because they were left homeless.

Claudia said:

“They threw us close to garbage as if we are garbage as well… They [people in Cluj] don’t know … where and how we live; that we stay in one room, we wash ourselves here, we eat here, we do our homework here, we do everything here.”

Rodica was one of around 500 people who resisted eviction from Craica, a settlement in the north-western city of Baia Mare in 2012. The municipality forcibly evicted half of the settlement and demolished their homes, resettling them at the edge of the city into buildings belonging to a former metallurgical factory, CUPROM.

After the announcement of the upcoming demolitions in Craica, Rodica went to see the alternative housing in CUPROM for herself. She said:

“There were some iron wardrobes with a lot of jars… marked with a ‘danger’ sign. I opened [one] and my eyes and mouth were burning, I couldn't breathe. They were full of chemicals… That is why I [called it] the camp of death.”

Families relocated to CUPROM were given either one or two rooms with no heating and poor insulation. Sanitation facilities were shared among the residents of each floor. The buildings were not converted for residential purposes and one of them – a former chemical processing laboratory – still stored chemical substances.

Dusia has been evicted three times over the course of her life. The last time was in August 2012, when the local authorities in the north-eastern city of Piatra Neamț forcibly evicted some 500 Roma from housing units in Muncii Street – relocating them to inadequate ‘social housing’ in Vãleni 2, an isolated area about 7km away from the city centre, separated from it by a de-industrialized zone and a river. Now she has to walk about 1km along a muddy, unlit road to reach the nearest bus stop.

“If you were in our place,” Dusia asks, “[wouldn’t you want] at least electricity, a road, a bus and a grocery store to buy bread? Wouldn't you feel better to see a bit more light when you go outside [at night]? There are risks. The forest is close, there are bears, wolves.”

Barbora Černušáková added:

“The stories of Claudia, Rodica and Dusia – their insecurity, deprivation and hopelessness – are painfully familiar for many of the two million Roma in Romania.

“The actions, or in some cases the lack of action, of local authorities, and their broken promises are illustrative of the discrimination against the Roma and have resulted in segregation on a wide scale.”

Pata Rât in Cluj-Napoca is known as the Roma ghetto of the city. In 2012 the local authorities announced an intention to start relocating the inhabitants that had been moved there after a forced eviction. As of June 2013, there are still no detailed plans and people evicted from Coastei Street are still waiting for justice.

Catalin Chereches, the mayor of Baia Mare won the 2012 local election with the pledge to demolish Romani settlements in the city. Half of the biggest settlement of Craica was demolished and its residents were relocated to inadequate conditions. They, as well as those people who resisted the eviction, continue living in fear that they may leave their homes from one day to another.

In October 2001, the mayor of Piatra-Neamț announced his intention to create a Roma ghetto on a former chicken farm. Now, some 12 years later, the local authority “achieved” its aim and pushed all the poor Roma out of Piatra-Neamț, to the outskirts of the city.

Barbora Černušáková said:

“Such actions by local authorities are unlawful and unacceptable. They shatter people’s lives and render Roma-inclusion policies pointless. The Romanian government must act urgently to end these violations. It must bring its authority to bear on local officials to protect, respect and fulfil the housing rights of all people and put an end to forced evictions.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

New bridge between Bulgaria and Romania aimed at boosting growth in EU’s poorest region

By Associated Press

VIDIN, Bulgaria — A new bridge linking Bulgaria and Romania across the Danube River was opened Friday with hopes that it will spur growth in one of Europe’s poorest regions.

But skeptics argue that dilapidated infrastructure on both sides of the river will turn it into “a bridge to nowhere.”

The long-delayed bridge linking Vidin in Bulgaria with Calafat in Romania was opened at a ceremony attended by top politicians of the two countries and EU officials.

The 282 million euros ($375 million) project was backed by 106 million euros from the European Union, which both countries joined in 2007; the rest came from national financing and private investments. It is part of the Pan-European transport corridor IV, linking Dresden in Germany with the Aegean port city of Thessaloniki and Istanbul further east.

The cable-stayed, steel and concrete bridge has two traffic lanes in each direction, a railway line, two pedestrian paths and a bicycle track. Overall, the bridge is 3,598 meters (11,804 feet) long, with 1,791 meters over the river.

The only other bridge between the two Balkan countries, linking the cities of Ruse and Giurgiu, was completed in 1954.

In Vidin, local officials hope new businesses will open along the roads leading to the bridge, which is expected to be crossed annually by 100,000 vehicles.

New jobs are badly needed in this northwestern corner of Bulgaria, which together with southwestern Romania and northeastern Serbia compose one of the poorest and most depopulated regions in Europe.

Vidin has an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, almost double the Bulgarian average. The population has shrunk by 25 percent, to 48,000 people, in the last two decades as local factories closed, and many left to look for a job in the capital, Sofia, or abroad.

Vidin mayor Gergo Gergov hopes that the new bridge and other infrastructure projects in the region will help to break the isolation.

“So far businesses hesitated to use the river to develop relations with Europe, as ferryboat transportation was costly, and they looked mostly for local markets. Now this will change,” he said.

The project was started in the late 1990s, when local and European Union officials became convinced of the bridge’s necessity during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, when highways and bridges were destroyed by bombs, cutting off routes from the Balkans to western Europe.

While foreign engineers and construction workers have pumped money into the local economy, the locals don’t expect a windfall.

Borislav Markov, 57, moved four years ago to Spain with his family after he had lost his job as a construction worker. He returned briefly to his home town to see his sick mother.

“I have no big expectations for the future of the region. I don’t believe that this bridge will bring any dramatic change. The only thing is that people can now walk on the bridge to Calafat to look for some cheaper goods,” he said.

Vasil Iliev, who runs a small cafe in the city, says the result will be just more traffic.

“Few shops next to the bridge could profit from it, and most likely it would bring new clients for prostitutes and drug dealers,” he complained.

Civil groups in Vidin have appealed to the authorities to improve the roads that lead to the bridge, or else risk leaving it as a beautiful monument.

“If there is no appropriate infrastructure,” said Irena Alexandrova of the group I Love Vidin, “this will be a bridge to nowhere.”

Romania, EU launch works on world's most powerful laser


BUCHAREST — The European Union and Romania laid Friday the cornerstone of a research hub due to host the world's most powerful laser.

"The project is of particular importance not only for Romania and also for Europe as a whole.," European commissioner for regional policy Johannes Hahn told a press conference alongside Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

"Its cutting-edge technology will be used by researchers all over the world," he added.

Known as "Extreme Light Infrastructure - Nuclear Physics" (ELI-NP), it will serve as a pan-European laboratory and host a broad range of scientific disciplines including fundamental physics, new nuclear physics and astrophysics but also life sciences.

ELI-NP, the most important research project in the newer EU member states, will create jobs and "turn brain-drain into brain circulation" in the region, Hahn stressed.

"It is for the first time that structural funds will finance a basic research infrastructure project," he added, stressing that the EU earmarked 150 million euros ($199.9 million) for it.

Some 40 academic and research institutions from 13 EU countries are involved in the programme which includes two other pillars, in the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Romania stages Gay Pride as same-sex marriage ban looms


BUCHAREST — Some 400 people took to the streets of Bucharest for a Gay Pride parade on Saturday but a controversial amendment to the constitution banning same-sex marriage overshadowed the event.

"It is a sadder parade because of the amendment", Accept president Florin Buhuceanu told AFP, while lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists and sympathisers waved rainbow flags in downtown Bucharest.

Romanian lawmakers are discussing a constitutional amendment restricting the legal definition of marriage to a "union between a man and a woman".

The article was proposed by the dominant Orthodox Church and accepted by a parliamentary committee tasked with amending the 1991 constitution.

Centre-left Prime Minister Victor Ponta has called for a new vote in the committee, saying he does not see the need for a change to the current definition of marriage as "a union between spouses".

Ponta pointed to neighbouring Hungary, where a similar amendment by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government triggered sharp criticism from the European Commission, although he said he did not himself back same-sex marriage.

"The MPs' amendment is an attempt to ban the family life of LGBT couples, but it can also affect single-parent or extended families," Buhuceanu said.

"The controversy sparked by this article betrays the Romanian society's low level of tolerance to the LGBT minority and the need for public debates on this topic."

Rights group Amnesty International too voiced concern over the move, stressing that every person has the right to set up a family, "without discrimination as to sexual orientation or gender identity".

The chairman of Romania's Anti-Discrimination Council, Csaba Asztalos, said the amendment had "nothing to do with the wish to protect the family but only aims to signal that politicians share the voters' hatred of homosexuals."

"This amendment shows that fundamental human rights are not fundamental and are not for everyone", Ovidiu, a 30-year-old engineer who participated at the Saturday parade together with his wife and four children, told AFP.

Other participants held banners reading "Equal responsibilities, equal rights", "Love makes no discrimination" or "Love is not a crime".

Britain's ambassador to Romania Martin Harris, United States charge d'affaires Duane Butcher and regional chief of the International Organisation of la francophonie David Bongard took part in the parade.

Sexual minorities, members of the Roma community and people infected with HIV are the main victims of discrimination in Romania, opinion polls show.

A poll conducted in 2011 found that 73 percent of Romanians would not like to have a homosexual among their relatives and 45 percent among their work colleagues.

But Asztalos said Romanians were gradually becoming more tolerant.

Earlier Saturday, about 100 people took part in a "normality march" organised by a small extreme right party to protest against homosexuality.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Father Laiu fights to save rural Romania from fracking

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

BARLAD, Romania — As Orthodox priest Vasile Laiu gazes over the picturesque hills of eastern Romania, he prays they will be spared the shale gas wells and drilling rigs dotting some US landscapes.

For months the 50-year-old cleric has been one of the most outspoken opponents to plans by US energy giant Chevron to drill for shale gas in this rural and impoverished region.

Clad in his black cassock, Father Laiu has joined thousands of locals in street protests against a project he says "threatens man, nature and future generations".

Growing up in an oil-producing region, he is not an enemy of the energy industry, he insists.

But like many he opposes the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking".

It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.

Widely used in some US states such as Pennsylvania and Colorado, it has been banned in Vermont as well as in France and Bulgaria because of potential air and water pollution.

When the mayor of the eastern town of Barlad banned a rally against fracking last April, Laiu welcomed the protesters in his church.

"The Church does not interfere in politics but if the health or life of only one of my fellow men is put in danger, it is my duty as a priest to intervene," he told AFP in an interview.

Laiu, the top Orthodox priest in the Barlad region, has spent more than half of his life serving the villages. After the fall of communism in 1989 he watched his parishioners fight for jobs and farmers try to make ends meet in the new capitalist economy.

But since 2011, when Chevron obtained a 600,000-hectare (1.5 million-acre) concession to look for shale gas, the region has been caught in a new battle about its future.

Its promoters say shale gas extraction can create jobs, slash energy prices and provide a boost for the Barlad economy plagued by 10 percent unemployment, the highest rate in Romania.

Others dismiss the shale frenzy as a temporary fad that could cause lasting damage to the environment and public health. Thanks to the globalised world, the Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland" and testimonies from American families about health problems they believe are linked to shale gas drilling have reached this far-flung corner of Romania.

A 2012 study by Duke University in the US state of North Carolina showed that drinking water wells are at risk of contamination from fracking because of underground pathways.

Father Laiu's main fears are over water. The area suffers from droughts, and fracking needs enormous amounts of water -- up to 20,000 cubic metres (706,000 cubic feet) -- per well, according to industry figures.

The disposal of wastewater laced with corrosive salts, carcinogens and natural radioactive elements is another worry in an area where villagers grow their own fruit and vegetables and raise livestock.

"I have three children and I want them to grow up in a safe environment with clean water," said Alina Secriaru, a nurse from Barlad.

"Who will be willing to buy wheat, cheese or fruit" if millions of litres of toxic water are handled in the region?, Laiu asks.

Chevron spokeswoman Sally Jones stressed to AFP that it "operates at the highest standards in terms of safety and environmental protection".

The company "remains committed to being a responsible partner in Romania ... actively contributing to the local communities in which it operates", she added.

But Father Laiu says the villagers are being ignored: "Parishioners found prospecting equipment sinking pipes into fields without prior notice. Then they saw the walls crack" on their buildings, he said.

The priest's steadfast stance has impressed many.

"He stayed with us when politicians who were on our side last year abandoned us," said notary and anti-fracking campaigner Lulu Finaru.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta's centre-left coalition, including the Barlad mayor and local MPs, had initially slammed the previous government's decision to grant shale gas concessions.

Ponta, in power since May 2012, even put a moratorium on drilling.

But since that moratorium expired in December, the PM and rival President Traian Basescu have become leading European supporters of shale energy.

A US study estimated the joint reserves for Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary at around 538 billion cubic metres, possibly making it the biggest deposit in eastern Europe.

"Britain and Poland are looking to exploit shale gas. I do not think they would do something bad for the people," Barlad Mayor Constantin Constantinescu now argues.

But Laiu remains determined to make the voice of the locals heard.

"Years ago, my four-year old daughter died from a tumour. When I asked the doctor why, he answered: 'Only God knows, father. But we are too close to Chernobyl and that could be the cause'.

"I cannot remain indifferent when the environment is concerned. Life is more valuable than any money they offer us," Laiu said.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Romania: The World's First Dystopia

A dystopia is a nightmare vision of the future and there are two great books which have defined the genre: 1984 and Brave New World. Both books are brilliant but they were written in the 1930s when the world quivered under the shadow of totalitarianism. They are useful for understanding the twentieth century but outdated when it comes to our own troubled times.

Now we have an author, David Mitchell, who has projected the economics of today hundreds of years into the future. We also have a country - Romania - where offshore investors are planning a vast cyanide mining project that would fit nicely into Mr Mitchell's dystopia.

This is how David Mitchell describes the future in his breathtaking novel, Cloud Atlas:

"Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded, its food supplies riddled with rogue genes. The downstrata can't buy the drugs necessary to counter these privations. Melanoma and malaria belts advance northwards at forty kilometers per year. Those production zones of Africa and Indonesia that supply Consumer Zones' demands are sixty per cent uninhabitable. Plutocracy's legitimacy, its wealth, is drying up...Its only response is that strategy beloved by all bankrupt ideologues: denial."

It's not hard to see how today's multinationals could evolve into the monopolies described by Mitchell. The recent scandals regarding the non-taxpaying antics of companies like Starbucks, Google and Apple suggest that the main role of modern government is to represent big business. What this means in practice is that the interests of big business will always trump those of ordinary people or the environment.

The process can be seen most clearly in an emerging economy like Romania, a country that has been a modern capitalist economy for only 23 years. In Romania, which has been a member of the EU since 2007, you can see how companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds, Microsoft, VW, Nestle, Danone and South African Breweries (SAB) have easily swatted aside local competitors. Over 60% of soft drinks and bottled water in Romania are now sold by Coca Cola, the beer market is stitched up by SAB and the other multinationals and over 80% of food is now imported. Microsoft dominates the software market and by investing smartly in government and school relations they have managed to keep Linux based competitors, a far cheaper option, locked out. The EU back backs all this up by imposing standards that only the biggest companies can afford; for example, millions of Romanian peasant farmers are no longer allowed to sell their milk, even though it is far superior to anything in the supermarket.

But this kind of multinational-takes-over-new-market scenario is not new. We all know about it. What propels Romania into the category of "World's First Dystopia" is the massive cyanide mining project that could turn Transylvania, one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of Europe, into a dystopic wasteland. It is also a case study in how corporate PR and marketing can convince a population that the destruction of their ecosystem is in their own interest.

The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, an offshore investment fund, has promised Romanians thousands of jobs, billions in tax dollars and - the most audacious claim that could have come straight out of 1984 - environmental protection. The reality is that 3 villages and 4 mountains will be demolished and a massive reservoir for 214 million tons of cyanide waste will be built (cyanide is used to extract gold from ore). Never before has such a big cyanide mining project been attempted in Europe. Rivers and groundwater in the region, including the Danube, may be poisoned and only about 200 jobs will be created. The tax income from the estimated ₤20 million profit is unknown because the company's contract with the Romanian government is a state secret, and Romania's tax laws are riddled with loopholes.

The most extraordinary thing about the Rosia Montana project is that a local residents association has managed to block it for the last fifteen years. Using volunteer lawyers they have managed to stop the project in the local courts time and time again, and this shows that Romania's charity and legal sectors are not as corrupt and weak as many like to assume. The current Romanian government is now trying to subvert the naysayers by rewriting the Mining Law, allowing mining operations to seize whatever land they fancy.

But the investors will not give up. This is a test case for the international mining industry: their business model depends on poor and badly governed countries like Romania bending to their will and allowing free access to their mineral wealth. Defiance like this could encourage others to stand up to them, and this doesn't fit with the big mining companies' vision for our future.

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