Friday, January 31, 2014

Romanian orphans subjected to deprivation must now deal with dysfunction

By Tara Bahrampour,
Published: January 30 
The Washington Post

Izidor Ruckel’s devotion to the cause of Romania’s institutionalized children is driven in part by what he has seen happen to them. As a functioning adult who lives on his own, he is the rarity. He has kept in touch with many fellow orphans from Sighetu, and he has seen the ravages of the system play out in many who were rescued when he was — and in some who never got out.

This does not surprise experts who have worked with Romania’s orphans.

Izidor Ruckel spent more than a decade of his life growing up in a Romanian institution before appearing on an ABC "20/20" special and being adopted by a California family and brought to the U.S. Now in his thirties, Izidor is trying to begin a new chapter in his life.

“They were unusual kids,” said Jane Aronson, a physician and founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, who has studied orphanages around the world. “They were so punished that they were depressed. And many of them even had psychotic features, autistic-like behavior and had severe failure to thrive and were tiny.”

Cognitive ability and psychological well-being correlate directly with the amount of attention and nurturing children receive when they are young, according to recent research that includes studies of Romanian institutions.

Everything from brain size to intellectual prowess to the ability to form emotional bonds to staying focused on a job is improved when children receive attention, are held and read to, experts say.

Romania’s communist-era orphans got next to none of this. As a result, they suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychiatric illnesses and bipolar disorder, Aronson said.

They also had the most severe reactive attachment disorder she has seen anywhere. “It is a pathologic and psychiatric diagnosis where an individual person, a child in this case, would be unable to have affectional connection to an adult, to a parent, incapable of exchange of love.”

Some of these effects can be reversed if children leave an institution early enough, said Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital who, along with colleagues from the University of Maryland and Tulane University, is conducting a longitudinal study in Romania comparing children’s development in government-run orphanages to high-quality foster care.

Nelson’s new book on the topic, “Romania’s Abandoned Children,” due out this month, describes the stark disadvantages faced by institutionalized children, whose cognitive development is likely to be irreversibly stunted if they stay in orphanages past age 2.

“The brain is dependent on experience to develop normally,” he said. “What happens in situations of neglect, such as kids raised in institutions, is that the experiences are lacking. So the brain is sort of in a holding pattern saying, ‘Okay, so where’s the experience? Where’s the experience? Where’s the experience?’ And when the experience fails to occur, those circuits either fail to develop or they develop in an atypical fashion — and the result is, in a sense, the mis-wiring of circuits.”

“The big question is, what happens 10 or 20 or 30 years down the line,” he said. “The speculation would be you will progressively find yourself more and more disadvantaged or more and more handicapped.”

Nelson’s study found such stark differences between children in institutions and foster care that the Romanian government began its own foster care system and in 2005 passed a law prohibiting institutionalization of children younger than 2 .

But across the world, as international adoption has increasingly dried up, more children are remaining in orphanages for longer periods of time, according to a 2013 report by the New York-based Donaldson Adoption Institute.

Attachment has not come easily to the orphans of Sighetu. Of the dozen whose current whereabouts The Washington Post was able to trace, all remain single. Few live independently.

A close friend of Izidor’s, Cardos, never got out. On his last trip to Romania, Izidor tracked him down in an adult facility that was not much better than the orphanage, with the same stench of urine. Like Izidor, Cardos had a lame leg. He played the piano beautifully and had no mental handicaps. But he never learned to function outside an institution.

Among those who were taken in by Americans, the outcomes varied widely. Another friend of Izidor’s, Christina, attended community college for a time in San Diego, runs a marathon every year, and wants to be an athletics coach. Ana, the singer, has developmental issues and still lives with her adoptive family in Michigan. They have hired staff to help take care of her. Isabella, the other girl adopted by the Ruckels, now lives in a group home for disabled adults near their house and sees them regularly.

But some were too deeply damaged to fit in with adoptive families. “They were so violent, so traumatized, the family couldn’t even care for them,” Izidor says. Some families sent children to U.S. institutions or back to Romania when they were unable to handle them.

Izidor didn’t leave Sighetu until he was 11, but Nelson speculated that he may have been helped by some factor in his genetic makeup — or by the fact that he was 6 months old when he arrived at the orphanage.

“Somewhere at 6 or 7 months, kids start to form attachments, and even if it’s broken later it seems to help if there was an initial attachment,” Nelson said. “So it’s possible that those six months in a family served as a protective factor.”

Brad Horn contributed to this report.

Romanian ex-minister sent to prison for graft

Agence France-Presse
January 30, 2014

Romania's supreme court on Thursday upheld a five-year jail sentence against former Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu, the third former minister to be sent to prison on corruption charges in less than a month.

He is expected to begin his sentence within hours.

Fenechiu, 48, was found guilty of selling second-hand electrical equipment to a state company at the price of new equipment between 2002 and 2005. Prosecutors said the state lost 1.7 million euros ($2.3 million) in the deal.

The ex-minister has always insisted on his innocence.

Fenechiu is the third senior Romanian official to be sentenced to jail for corruption since the beginning of 2014, after former sports minister Monica Iacob Ridzi and ex-Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.

In a separate move, the owner of private rail company Grup Feroviar Roman (GFR) Gruia Stoica was detained for attempting to rig a tender for a contract for delivering large amounts of coal by rail.

Stoica is accused of promising a lawyer three million euros in exchange for crucial information on the bid submitted by the other bidder, the state-owned freight rail company CFR Marfa.

Stoica and Fenechiu were at the centre of another controversial deal in June, when the GFR was declared winner of a bid to privatise CFR Marfa, despite criticism from other bidders and from experts.

Fenechiu at the time said the sale of a 51-percent stake in CFR Marfa to Stoica's company would be a success but in October the government admitted the privatisation had failed.

Romania’s IMF Deal Status Unclear on Premier-President Dispute

By Andra Timu and Irina Savu 
January 30, 2014

Romania’s accord with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union is caught up in a dispute between President Traian Basescu and the government over a fuel tax and its status is unclear.

The government wants to keep its pledges to the international lenders and sell state assets to narrow the budget deficit, after the IMF board canceled discussion of the accord in December because of the political deadlock, Prime Minister Victor Ponta told reporters in Bucharest today.

“It remains to be seen whether the domestic legal procedure will be completed and if the President signs the documents,” Ponta said. “I haven’t found a correct term to define the current status of the accord,” Ponta said when asked whether the agreement is frozen or suspended.

The approval of the Washington-based board is needed to complete quarterly reviews of the 4 billion-euro ($5.4 billion) loan, equally split between the IMF and the EU, from which Romania hasn’t drawn any funds yet. The country considers the accord precautionary as it aims to shield itself against market shocks and help reduce debt financing costs.

The second-poorest EU state, which secured the third consecutive accord with the IMF and the EU since 2009, has been embroiled in a feud between Basescu and the government in the past two months over an additional 7 eurocent excise duty on fuel. The two officials may discuss the tax and the accord at the next meeting of the Supreme Defense Council on Feb. 2, Ponta said.

The current joint IMF, EU, World Bank review mission will end on Feb. 5 with a new so-called letter of intent with Romania’s commitments, Ponta said.

Basescu Refuses

Basescu refused to sign documents needed to complete the previous IMF review saying the tax, which had the lender’s endorsement, harms the economy and the citizens, while Ponta says the tax is needed to boost state revenue and narrow the budget gap. The government has drawn up this year’s budget under the IMF-EU guidance, targeting a deficit of 2.2 percent of economic output.

After agreeing to a three-month delay to April of the fuel tax to get Basescu to approve the 2014 budget, the only thing the government can do now, is to postpone imposing the tax on diesel fuel for another three months, Ponta said yesterday.

The leu strengthened 0.4 percent to the highest since Jan. 8 to 4.5107 per euro at 1:12 p.m. in Bucharest today. The yield on Romania’s 2024 dollar-denominated bonds rose 2 basis points, or 0.02 percentage point, to 5.09 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andra Timu in Bucharest at; Irina Savu in Bucharest at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at; James M. Gomez at

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Feud between president, PM threatens Romania's IMF aid deal

January 28, 2014
By Radu Marinas and Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's president and his arch rival the prime minister must reach a compromise by next week over a proposed fuel tax backed by the International Monetary Fund, to keep a 4 billion euro aid deal on track for the European Union's second poorest country.

The spat between Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta could harm five years of deficit-cutting and market-oriented reforms that Bucharest has implemented under aid packages since 2009.

The fuel tax would charge motorists an additional 7 euro cents ($0.10) per litre of fuel. Basescu refused to ratify the IMF's first review of Romania's aid deal last month, arguing the tax would stifle a fragile economic recovery. Both sides agreed to delay introducing the charge until April 1.

An IMF mission is in Romania until February 5 for talks on how Bucharest plans to plug a revenue gap triggered by the delay, and politicians and analysts believe an agreement will eventually be struck.

Failure to do so would raise serious questions over Romania's commitment to its aid deal - the third since a real estate and credit bubble burst in 2008. The country does not plan nor need to draw on the IMF funds, but the agreement is a credibility anchor for foreign investors.

"If Romanian politicians don't agree a truce, they risk alienating the IMF at a time when markets are very volatile," Dan Bucsa, an economist at UniCredit Bank in London. "Lacking the credibility guarantee offered by the IMF agreement, Romanian assets would come under more pressure."

Political squabbling has repeatedly hampered the country's development in the 24 years since the fall of communism, and the economy trails other emerging EU countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

Ponta's government "does hope the Fund will understand this deadlock is not because of us but because of the president who insists on scrapping the tax", said a senior ruling Social Democrat official who is close to Ponta's office.

"Delaying the tax enforcement again until June would be one of the options. This will probably be considered," said the official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.


The president does not have policymaking powers, but under Romanian legislation he mandates the government to negotiate international agreements, which gives him a large say.

Ionut Dumitru, chief economist at Raiffeisen Bank in Bucharest, said the government could reach an agreement with the IMF during its visit, as there was "enough room for manoeuvre inside this year's budget to plug the gap".

The government and the IMF negotiated a review of the aid deal in November, agreeing a 2014 budget plan that offered modest increases in state wages and pensions but also raised some taxes and enforced the new levy on fuels.

Politics may prevail in the end. Romania holds elections for the European parliament in May with Ponta's leftist-liberal alliance set to win most votes, and a presidential poll in November with Basescu not eligible to run after two consecutive terms in office.

At least one member of the opposition says it is possible the fuel tax may never be introduced.

"It is very hard to believe that the tax on fuels will be enforced in an election environment. So I would not rule out capitulations," said Adriana Saftoiu, Basescu's former adviser and now a member of the opposition Democrat Liberal Party.

Investors have often criticised unpredictable fiscal changes and tax hikes in the Black Sea country in the past.

"Benjamin Franklin, one of the U.S. Founding Fathers, said, 'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes'," the top U.S. American diplomat in Bucharest, Duane Butcher, told a financial conference last week.

"Companies operating in Romania have learned that nothing is certain about taxes here either."

Basescu, a former sea captain known for his outspoken and combative nature, called the tax a "useless burden". The three-month postponement would generate a modest loss to the budget of 600 million lei ($185 million) which could easily be covered by minor spending cuts, he said.

"I don't want to give the impression there's a dispute between myself and the IMF," Basescu told German investors last week at a meeting attended by IMF mission chief Andrea Schaechter, before reiterating his refusal to endorse the tax.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Romanian journalists challenge EU opinion on media freedom


BERLIN - The European Commission last week said Romanian media have made a “step forward,” but leading journalists disagree.

Media freedom is not something which Brussels normally looks at in its so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which tends to focus on judicial reforms and the fight against corruption.

But, given that judges and prosecutors in high-level cases, as well as their families, have faced co-ordinated press attacks, not to mention death threats, the issue was flagged up last year.

Last week, Mark Gray, a commission spokesman, said when presenting the latest CVM report: "We do feel that there is less pressure, there has been a reduction [of the attacks] and this is clearly a step forward. But again it's important to remain vigilant while ensuring that the important principle of media freedom is respected.”

The CVM paper itself notes that "examples [of abuse] continue,” especially on the eve of high-level verdicts.

It says: "This contrasts with practice in many other member states, where respect for the principle of separation of powers and judicial independence, whether through rules or conventions, limit the extent to which politicians comment on judicial decisions.”

But, like Gray, it says there is a “decrease" in the problem.

The EU comments sit alongside other opinions on Romania’s media landscape.

The Paris-based NGO, Reporters Without Borders, last year ranked it at number 42, behind Latvia, Botswana and Papua New Guinea.

The US-based NGO Freedom House described Romanian media as "partly free" and ranked it 86 in the world, on the same level as Burkina Faso and Mozambique.

Independent journalists in Bucharest have also indicated that the EU is painting a rosy picture.

Liviu Avram, a leading investigative reporter and deputy-editor-in-chief of the Adevarul newspaper, acknowledged that the verdicts themselves, which come after years of delays, are a “positive development” which shows that the media attacks are having less impact

But he told this website: "I was surprised by the EU commission's statements.”

He noted that whenever an important court verdict is due, such as the recent four-year jail sentence on former PM Adrian Nastase, media campaigns still try to discredit the decisions as being politically motivated.

"A large part of Romanian media is politically controlled by owners with clear interests," Avram said.

He added that journalists and media chiefs who carry out the attacks face few consequences, giving the profession a bad name.

“With journalism as a profession having a bad reputation [in Romania], there are fewer and fewer young people who even want to take up the job. The selection pool is becoming totally deplorable.”

For his part, Dan Tapalaga, the editor-in-chief of Romania's main online news site, HotNews, said the EU commission is flat out wrong.

“There was no step forward" on media freedom in 2013, he told EUobserver.

"We can say the atmosphere is even worse due to the electoral cycle,” he added, referring to the European Parliament and Romanian presidential elections later this year.

"Romanian media is dominated by tycoons, two of whom are politicians who support the ruling coalition: Sebastian Ghita and Dan Voiculescu," Tapalaga noted.

He said that Voiculescu - the owner of the most-watched TV news channel in Romania and a former senator - was himself sentenced to five years in jail for corruption and money laundering.

The final verdict on his appeal is expected in the next few weeks.

"He and other influential politicians are struggling to avoid justice, to keep their freedom and to preserve their power, influence and immunity. The opposition is weak, the media is under control and the whole democratic system of checks and balances has been distorted," Tapalaga explained.

He was one of seven journalists who were recently listed by Voiculescu media as "propagandists” due to their work on the rule of law.

"We initiated a protest against bad media practices, signed so far by some 600 journalists from all over the country. Pointing out the abusive behaviour of tycoons remains an effective tool [of raising awareness]," Tapalaga noted.

He is considering a lawsuit against the media baron to defend his reputation.

"The EU must understand that Romania is a distorted democracy, not a functional one. A few tycoons and a number of corrupt politicians hope to demolish a whole country in order to avoid justice," Tapalaga said.

Romania’s Carpatair to restructure under bankruptcy protection

Romanian regional carrier Carpatair has been given the legal go-ahead to restructure under bankruptcy protection.

The company blamed €30 million ($41 million) in legal damages it has been charged as a key reason for filing for insolvency. The legal disputes arose out of anticompetitive practice acusations leveled at Timisoara Airport, Carpatair’s home base, that are being investigated by the European Commission, local courts and authorities.

During the restructuring process, the company will be run by the current management team led by Nicolae Petrov, under the supervision of an appointed insolvency administrator.

Operations will continue, although the winter season schedule will be restricted to profitable flights only, according to local reports.

Carpatair was founded in 1999, by a group of Swiss businessmen who are the main shareholders. The carrier operates one Boeing 737-300, two Fokker 100s and one Fokker 100 for subsidiary Moldavian Airlines, based in Chisinau.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Small plane crash in Romania unleashes public ire

By Associated Press, Published: January 23

BUCHAREST, Romania — A small plane crash on a remote mountain wouldn’t normally be enough to anger an entire country or threaten the government. Romania, however, is dealing with just this scenario.

So far, four senior officials including the interior minister have resigned or been fired after all those onboard a medical flight initially survived Monday’s crash in thick fog. One of the pilots and a medical student later died of hypothermia among other causes after waiting for hours in deep snow to be saved.

I’ve searched wide and far for maps that can reveal and surprise and inform in ways that the daily headlines might not.

Romanians reacted with fury, taking to social media and talk shows to accuse the government of incompetence and complacency after it emerged the least injured of the survivors called emergency services six times.

It took 4 ½ hours for local villagers and a woodcutter to locate the plane in Transylvania after it lost altitude and crashed at 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level. But medical teams arrived hours later and were reportedly ill-equipped. The plane, carrying two pilots and five medical workers, was on its way to pick up a liver for a transplant.

“The government generally does nothing, and in this case they did nothing to locate the plane. A woodcutter had to find them,” aviation professor Nicolae Serban Tomescu said. “The rescue operation was like Swiss cheese. There were holes everywhere.”

But some officials have defended the government’s response to the crash, saying rescuers were working in difficult weather conditions and in darkness.

Nonetheless, public ire has reached a crescendo because many believe the government was unable to muster up-to-date equipment to rescue the crash victims, but is willing to invest its resources heavily on surveillance. Romania, a country of 19 million with no foreign enemies, has seven intelligence agencies, including the main domestic and foreign spying agencies. Democracy activists claim that those in power use intelligence to gain unfair advantages over opponents and dig up compromising data.

A political cartoon on the front page of Romanian daily Jurnalul National on Wednesday suggested the crash victims would have been found sooner if someone on the flight had been under surveillance. The caricature had two well-equipped secret agents joking, “How the hell can we locate the crashed airplane? Hmm, had there been a journalist, a deputy or a Senator on it, well . !!!”

There is also anger because the elite telecommunications agency — one of the seven intelligence agencies — invested 40 million euros in the country’s national emergency number, and the six calls one of the survivors made didn’t appear to be enough to get help there quickly enough.

The blowback has taken its toll on the government, which is vying to win a presidential election in November. Interior Minister Radu Stroe handed in his resignation to the prime minister Thursday to become the highest-ranking government official to leave his post in the scandal. The country’s air traffic control chief, the head of the emergency services and another senior Interior Ministry official have also lost their jobs.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta fired two of those officials and called for the resignations of others not under his authority. Addressing the national mood Thursday, he used his strongest language to date pointing to “serious errors in the rescue operation ... particularly the techniques used for identifying the wreckage.” He promised that in the future authorities would be “much more efficient.”

Ponta is also trying to save face because it was he who went on a talk show Monday evening to initially say all seven people on the flight had survived. Romanians had been glued to TV news bulletins, and the story was at first presented by the government as one with a happy ending.

“The pilot did everything he could to save their lives but the authorities were negligent,” said Iuliana Popescu, a security guard. “Why did it take them so many hours? Even if they got lost, they should have got their earlier. Nobody had to die.”

But former emergency services chief Ion Burlui, who resigned Wednesday, said authorities had done their job properly in difficult conditions, including deep snow, dense fog and darkness.

“Winter is not like summer and the mountain is not like the plains,” he said. “These people intervened ... risking their lives to save other people.”

The pilot who was killed, Adrian Iovan, had 30 years of experience and was well known in Romania as an aviation expert who went on TV whenever there was an accident. He died of hypothermia and from numerous fractures. Aurelia Ion, a 23-year-old volunteer medical student in her fifth year, died from hypothermia and multiple injuries. No official has said that their lives could have been saved if rescuers had arrived earlier, but many blame the slow response on their deaths.

Cristian Tudorica, a 36-year-old bank clerk, summed up the public mood.

“Those doctors were on the flight to save others,” he said. “It is right that the (interior) minister resigned. These people should not have died.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Commission issues positive monitoring report on Romania

The European Commission made public today (22 January) its monitoring reports on the progress of Bulgaria and Romania in reforming their deficient law-enforcement systems. The report on Romania appears to be much more positive than the one concerning its southern neighbour, with the EU executive noting “real commitment to reform”.

“Many people in the key judicial and integrity institutions have shown a real commitment to reform,” the Commission president said, adding that the report also shows a “not straightforward” progress and that “advances in one area can be negated by setbacks elsewhere”.

“I hope this report will clearly highlight what still needs to be done to pursue and consolidate reform and ensure a positive and sustainable trend," Barroso continued.

The Commission president diplomatically regretted the lack of commitment to enforce the rule of law, and added that “a political commitment to this approach, as well as concrete and practical measures in the short term, is the best way to bring the process forward”.

In the past, the Commission has been much more generous to Bulgaria, stressing in 2010 that it saw “political will” and a “strong momentum of reform”.

Asked by EurActiv to explain how the Commission made those political assessments about the presence or the lack of “political will”, European Commission spokesperson Mark Gray noted there was a discrepancy between the evaluation done five years after Bulgaria and Romania’s EU accession and the one that done more recently.

He added that the report cannot be seen as an assessment of the current government as it covers a period of 18-months, as three different cabinets have been in office in Bulgaria.

Regarding Romania, Gray stressed that the country had made progress in many areas and that the track record of the key judicial and integrity institutions had remained positive, “even in sometimes difficult circumstances”.

Gray alludes to an attempt of the Romanian parliament last December to amend the country’s criminal code, by introducing a so-called “super-immunity bill”, sheltering MPs from corruption charges. Although the attempt did not succeed, as it proved unconstitutional, it raised eyebrows in Brussels.

The spokesperson also said that necessary and long-awaited legislative changes have remained on track and the spirit of cooperation between judicial institutions and the Ministry of Justice was helping managerial issues to be tackled.

“In this sense, the situation is benefitting from the calmer political atmosphere since spring 2013”, Gray said.

However, the Romania report expresses concerns about judicial independence and the appointment of key figures in law-enforcing show a mixed picture, Gray said.

The next Commission reports will come in one year’s time.

Romania Plans to Stick to IMF-Agreed State Asset Sale Schedule

Bloomberg News

By Andra Timu
January 22, 2014

Romania will stick to deadlines agreed with the International Monetary Fund to sell state-owned stakes in utilities if conditions allow for successful sales, the head of the Energy Department’s asset-sale program said.

The Bucharest-based government is seeking to ready the sale of a majority stake in power generator Electrica SA by the end of June and a minority stake in hydro-power generator Hidroelectrica SA by July, Gabriel Dumitrascu told reporters in Bucharest today.

“We don’t intend to re-negotiate the agreed calendar for the sales because we want to meet our pledges,” Dumitrascu said. “The exact moment for starting the offers, though, will depend on the market conditions at that time and on what the sale managers advise us because we want to get the best results possible.”

The second-poorest European Union member has been selling minority stakes in state-owned companies to cover its budget deficit and ease the state’s influence on the economy. The plan is part of the government’s pledges to the IMF and the EU under a third consecutive bailout agreement.

A joint mission of the IMF and the EU, along with the World Bank, is reviewing Romania’s progress under the bailout accord. The deal remains frozen for now because President Traian Basescu refused to signed documents needed to complete a previous review because of a dispute with the government over a fuel tax. The mission will end on Feb. 5.
Selling Assets

Romania raised 1.7 billion lei ($509 million) by selling a minority in natural-gas producer Romgaz SA in November, the eastern European country’s biggest initial public offering. It also sold a minority stake in nuclear-power generator Nuclearelectrica SA and 15 percent stakes in Transgaz SA and Transelectrica SA as part of the 4 billion-euro ($5.4 billion) agreement with its international lenders.

The government is also planning to sell a minority in state-owned Complexul Energetic Oltenia SA, after “making the company more viable” by transferring two of its mines, Alunu and Berbesti, to a new company, according to Dumitrascu.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andra Timu in Bucharest at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at

Romania premier fires official over plane rescue

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) Responding to public anger over the delayed response to a plane crash, Romania's prime minister dismissed a senior Interior Ministry official Wednesday while the heads of the country's air traffic control and emergency services resigned.

It took hours for rescuers to locate the plane, which crashed on a mountain Monday, and two people died while waiting for medical assistance. Hypothermia was among the causes of death.

The small British plane, which was 35 years old, was transporting medics from Bucharest to western Romania to harvest organs for transplant when it came down. None of the doctors who were on board the flight has said, however, that the delay caused the two deaths.

Deep snow, dense fog and darkness hampered the search for the plane, which crashed at 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level, after it lost altitude in heavy fog on a remote mountain. Residents located the stricken plane 4 hours after it crashed, but medical teams arrived much later, provoking public anger.

Romania's private television stations have tapped into public anger since the crash, with some people calling authorities incompetent and demanding resignations. Officials have said that they didn't have up-to-date equipment, but there has been criticism that Radu Zamfir, the least injured of the survivors, called the emergency services six times.

The passengers were all medics and administered first aid to the pilot and the medical student who later died.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta said there were "inacceptable deficiencies" in the rescue operation. He fired an interior ministry state secretary and called for the air traffic control chief and the head of the elite communications service not under his authority to be removed. Air traffic control chief Aleodor Francu later resigned.

The head of the emergency services also resigned Wednesday after Ponta said the rescue operation was "unacceptably slow, nobody assumed authority and responsibility, and Monday's intervention was a failure."

All seven on board initially survived the landing. The 54-year-old pilot, with 16,000 flying hours, died from hypothermia and multiple injuries, according to an autopsy. A 23-year-old medical student on the plane died of hypothermia and breathing difficulties.

Gheorghe Trif who arrived first at the scene with two other villagers told Mediafax news agency that a mountain rescue team were the first officials to reach the stricken aircraft, but were poorly equipped and didn't have stretchers for the injured passengers most of whom had fractures.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Outsized Memories of Fallen Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu Lure Reporter

By Cnaan Liphshiz
Published January 21, 2014.

BUCHAREST — (JTA) — In December 1989, a childhood friend and neighbor from Haifa posed a riddle to me that she had heard from her Bucharest-born mother.

“What’s the fastest way to get a nine-foot crocodile?” Alegra asked me that year, when we were both 8 years old.

I suggested raiding a crocodile farm, but Alegra said that according to her mom, all we needed to do was catch a lizard and leave it overnight at Nicolae Ceausescu’s presidential palace.

”Presto, crocodile,” the little girl remarked.

The riddle was a political joke about rampant corruption under Romania’s communist dictator, whose lavish lifestyle ended that month in an execution and bloody revolution that served as the opening shot for the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. But in our childish minds, it was the recipe for the most awesome pet ever.

We never did find Ceausescu’s magical palace (the telephone company’s information desk operator proved uncooperative), but that quest left me expecting splendor when a taxi brought me, 25 years later, to an interview with Romanian President Traian Basescu at his office in Cotroceni Palace — Ceausescu’s former guesthouse.

Waiting to speak with the president ahead of his visit to Israel this week, I experienced another disillusionment. The entrance was a humble, green metal door leading to a frugal complex whose simple design betrayed its original function — a monastery. As for Basescu, his down-to-earth and friendly style was the antithesis of Ceausescu’s ways.

He spoke about his childhood friends in Israel (a doctor, an electrician and an actress who recently passed away) and I found myself telling him my own memories from that winter of 1989, when it seemed like the whole of Israel was glued to the television screen for news from Romania.

That’s not surprising considering that hundreds of protesters died in that historically significant revolution (and the fact that most Israelis had 1.5 channels to chose from). But for some 500,000 Romanian-speaking Israelis, including Alegra’s parents, the news was also personal. That personal connection, Basesecu said, is one of his main reasons for visiting Israel — home to the world’s second-largest Romanian-speaking diaspora, according to some estimates.

“In my visit, I want to show them [Israeli Romanian-speakers] that we stand by them,” Basescu said. “I find it especially moving that their Israeli-born children also speak Romanian.”

In Bucharest, Ceausescu’s name and shadow loom large this week — the revolution’s 25th anniversary — with constant reruns of footage from his ousting and execution. On Revolution Square, a heap of fresh wreaths stands shrouded in smoggy mist on the very spot where riots broke out on Dec. 21.

When I mention the tyrant’s name, Basescu chuckles and grimaces as if to say: “Here we go again.” He had served under Ceausescu as the Romanian merchant fleet’s chief envoy to Antwerp — a position that required high-security clearance and a nod from the dictator’s dreaded Securitate secret police. Basescu has said that his ties to Securitate were minimal and that he actually opposed the regime.

But he relaxes when he sees that my question is not about his history but rather the Ceausescu regime’s role in brokering peace between Israel and Arab leaders.

Ceausescu, in addition to being a corrupt despot, was also one of the Eastern Bloc’s most friendly leaders toward Israel. Steering his own course independent of Moscow’s anti-Israel line, Ceausescu helped facilitate the peace deal between Israel and Egypt and even hosted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Bucharest during a secret visit in 1977. Ceausescu gained Israeli leaders’ trust by making Romania the only Eastern Bloc country to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel after 1967. Last year was the 65th anniversary of continuous diplomatic relations between the two countries.

At the same time, Ceausescu cultivated strong pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab credentials. Under him, Romania pursued an intimate relationship and military cooperation with Arab regimes — relations that benefited the country’s burgeoning plastics and oil refining industries. Ceausescu was a strong supporter of recognizing the first Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988, when the PLO was still widely regarded as a terrorist entity. He also called Yasser Arafat a good friend.

To this day, Romania has strong ties both in the Arab world and with Israel, Basescu confirms. But he interrupts me to note that his country took “a step back” from its support for Palestinian unilateral actions — a reference to Romania’s abstention at the U.N. vote in 2011 on upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status. Romania, he said, also supports Israel’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state but at the same time advocates Israeli compromises on this and other issues.

As for resuming Ceausescu’s attempts to go down in history as a peacemaker, Basescu seems reluctant to pick up where Ceausescu left off.

Romania’s good relations with both parties make it a natural mediator, he hesitantly concurs, but it would act “only if we are asked. Otherwise, we wouldn’t like to interfere.”

Cnaan Liphshiz is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Europe.

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Probe into delayed plane crash response in Romania

AN INQUIRY will investigate why it took hours to find a plane that crashed full of survivors only to see two die later due to a delay of medical help.

The plane was transporting medics from Bucharest to western Romania to harvest organs for transplant when it came down at 1400 metres above sea level. All seven on board initially survived the landing, but sustained serious injuries.

Local forensic chief Gheorghe Vieru said the pilot Adrian Iovan died of hypothermia and trauma from multiple fractures. Iovan, 54, was a well-known pilot with 16,000 hours of flying experience.

Aurelia Ion, a 23-year-old fifth-year student who had volunteered to accompany the medics, died of hypothermia and breathing difficulties, Mr Vieru said.

Radu Zamfir, a doctor who was the least severely injured told reporters that the plane lost altitude and crashed into trees. He credited Iovan for saving the lives of those on board. "I saw the trees close, and that is all I remember.''

Officials said that the plane's occupants burned clothes to keep warm in the freezing conditions.

Local residents located the stricken plane after 4 hours but medical teams arrived hours later, reportedly due to authorities' failure to initially locate the small craft.

The delay has sparked criticism in Romania, with many saying that rescue services lacked basic modern equipment to search for the plane. Rescue efforts were also hampered by heavy snow and dense fog.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta ordered a report into the response to the emergency and was due to receive a preliminary report later Tuesday.

The five survivors, who suffered fractures, were hospitalised and are in stable condition.

Romania suspends hydropower projects in protected areas


Bucharest — Romania will suspend new hydropower projects in protected areas in a bid to preserve biodiversity, authorities and the conservationist group WWF said Tuesday.

The planned construction of thousands of small-scale hydropower stations across the Carpathian mountains in eastern Europe threatens hundreds of streams and rivers, the WWF has warned for years.

The building frenzy has been prompted by hefty government subsidies.

Around 20,000 Romanians have signed a petition over the last two months calling on the government to save mountain streams that are key to endangered species such as otters.

"We are not against investment in energy, but some streams have such an ecological value that we cannot destroy them for the sake of immediate profit," WWF director in Romania Magor Csibi told journalists.

Forests and Water Minister Lucia Varga promised that a joint commission would decide which natural areas should be free from hydropower plants to protect biodiversity.

These so-called "exclusion zones" should be established by May 31.

Small-scale hydroelectric production generally does not involve the construction of a dam. Instead, part of the flow is diverted through a pipe to a downstream turbine which generates the electricity.

In theory, this should not have a big impact on the environment.

But in many cases pipes have been installed in the bed of the stream and diverted water amounts to as much as 80 percent of the flow, posing lasting threats to biodiversity, environmentalists say.

AFP: Sweden criticises Romania for not using EU funds for Roma

Sweden said Tuesday it was "shocking" that Romania has failed to use billions of euros available to it in EU funding to integrate its indigent Roma minority.

"It is shocking that we allocate resources which the member states don't apply for," Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag told Swedish news agency TT.

"It is deeply worrisome that Romania for example doesn't apply for the EU-resources that exist to improve the Roma's situation."

The issue is a sensitive one in Sweden, as in many of the wealthier EU countries, where there is a perception that beggars in the streets hail from the ostracised Roma community.

Britain, for instance, has passed legislation restricting access to welfare benefits for new EU immigrants -- a move seen aimed at citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, both of which has EU migration curbs lifted this year.

According to the European Commission, Romania received 3.68 billion euros ($5 billion) from the European Social Fund between 2007 and 2013.

Some of that money was meant to go to integrating Roma into society -- an initiative other EU nations hope will remove incentive for Roma people to emigrate.

But Romania has difficulty absorbing the EU funds, and has used only 27 percent of them to date despite calls for it to be more ambitious.

Two members of Ullenhag's Liberal Party recently stirred debate in Sweden on the the topic with a tribune in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper under the title: "Let Romania Pay the Bill."

Nine out of 10 beggars in Sweden are Roma, Stockholm city councillor Lotta Edholm and European parliament candidate Erik Scheller contended.

"For Romania and others, the answer must be clear: you will have to pay to give your citizens a decent living. Be it through social protection available to all in their homeland or because we'll send you the bill," they wrote.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Romanian president: Israel must be recognized as Jewish state

January 20, 2014

BUCHAREST, Romania (JTA) — Romania supports in principle Israel’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state but encourages compromises on this and other issues, Romanian President Traian Basescu said.

Speaking to JTA at his presidential palace two days before an Israel visit that began Sunday, Basescu said that “if they [the Palestinians] want peace, they must follow the request of the Israeli people.”

Yet when asked whether Israel should condition progress in peace talks on Palestinian compliance, he said, “Well, all of us must be wise. Of course, compromises are needed because otherwise we won’t find the solution and here maybe [late Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon is an example.”

Basescu, whose second and final term in office will end this year, landed in Israel on Sunday for his second presidential visit there. He said his objectives for the visit were to consolidate progress in bilateral relations with Israel and relations with Romanian-speaking Israelis, who number approximately 500,000, according to the president.

Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as the Jewish state as a means of guaranteeing that an agreement on the partition of land would end all territorial claims.

Basescu compared the situation to Romania’s recognition of the Republic of Moldova as the homeland of the Moldavian people, despite the presence of a large contingent of Moldovans who consider themselves Romanians.

“Even in Europe, we fully support the idea that each person must assume his national belonging,” he said. “For example, in order to be more clear, we have the Republic of Moldova, which was part of Romania before World War II. But in Moldova, there are people who [consider] themselves as being Romanians as well as people who [consider] themselves as being Moldavian. We recognize the right of both to be what they want to be.

“The same situation [applies to] our relations with Israel and we’ll always support the idea that if the Israelis want to be declared as a Jewish state, they must be recognized [as such].”

He noted that Romania has “excellent relations with the Arab world, credible relations. Especially with the Palestinians.” He added that “a lot of Palestinians were educated here. We have a relation of trust with the Palestinians. And on my visit I will also visit the Palestinian Authority.”

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Romania is the only former Soviet country to have maintained diplomatic relations with Israel after 1967. Romania also recognized the 1988 first unilateral declaration of independence by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But Basescu said Romania “took a step back” from this position in 2011, when it abstained in a vote at the United Nations General Assembly on upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status.

Read more:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Romania's Medical Exodus

By Joshua Keating

At the beginning of this year, nine European countries lifted controls on labor immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, prompting some fears, particularly in Britain, about a flood of low-wage workers coming from two of the EU’s poorest countries. (As it happens, only a handful of workers from the two countries have arrived in Britain since the controls were lifted.) While low-wage workers have gotten most of the attention, James Fontanella-Khan of the Financial Times writes on a different aspect of the story—the dramatic exodus of Romanian doctors:

The brain drain of Romanian doctors going to richer EU countries is dramatic: over the past two years 30 per cent of resident doctors have left Romania, reducing the overall number of physicians from 20,000 in 2011 to 14,000 last year, according to official data. Since it joined the 28-member bloc five years ago about 14,000 doctors have quit Romania.

The article notes that the net starting salary for a doctor in Bucharest is about 350 euros per month, compared with as much as 3,000 euros in Britain or Germany.

“Brain drain” is a controversial topic. Poorer countries often argue that the outmigration of high-skilled workers deprives them of human capital, particular in medicine. On the other side, some economists—notably Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development—contend that there’s no demonstrable link between brain drain and medical outcomes and that emigration can actually spur the training of new specialists.

In Romania’s case, cash might not be the only factor driving doctors out of the country. A recent article in Britain’s Independent noted that “Romania’s doctors and nurses must contend with a system that is accused of rewarding bribery and nepotism as readily as merit”:

The medical profession is widely seen as corrupt. Patients often bribe their doctors. Some even insist on doing so, hoping to assure themselves of the best possible care. The venal doctor, often recorded in secret, has become a fixture of sting operations by tabloid papers and the TV news.

Whatever the impact this is having on Romania, the doctors are not always welcomed with open arms in their new homes. Romania's ambassador in London, Ion Jinga, recently told the Telegraph that he regularly receives complaints from the 2,000 Romanian doctors in the country about racist comments from their patients.

Romanian top court rejects MPs' 'super immunity' legislation

Agence France-Presse
January 15, 2014

Romania's Constitutional Court on Wednesday ruled that recent snap amendments to the penal code granting lawmakers immunity from graft charges violated the rule of law, following criticism from the US and European Union countries.

The country's lower-house Chamber of Deputies, where Prime Minister Victor Ponta's centre-left coalition holds a two-thirds majority, in December controversially adopted draft legislation exempting MPs and the president from corruption charges while in office.

But the Constitutional Court rejected the bill, saying in a statement that the proposed amendments "violate several articles of the constitution regarding the rule of law, the equality of rights and the state's obligation to observe the commitments made under international treaties".

The lawmakers' vote last month in favour of what the media dubbed "super immunity" sparked outrage in Romania, attracting criticism from rights groups, prosecutors and judges.

Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and France voiced concern over the vote, while the US embassy said the proposed changes were "a step away from transparency and rule of law".

The executive European Commission meanwhile warned that the amendments would be taken up in its next report on the rule of law in Romania.

The Balkan country, which joined the EU in 2007, is closely monitored by the European Commission over its efforts to step up the fight against corruption.

Several ministers and a former prime minister have been sent to prison on corruption charges in the past two years -- an unprecedented feat in Romania since the fall of communism in 1989 -- and experts say politicians have started to worry about this new-found efficiency.

The government said the amendments were introduced without any consultation with the justice ministry while Ponta was in South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Ponta has said that the amendments should be submitted to Brussels before being put to a new vote.

Romania's centre-right President Traian Basescu has vowed not to sign the bill into law.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

BBC News: The ballad of the Romanian shepherd

Shepherds have a special place in Romania's history and in its culture, and their lifestyle has not changed much in centuries - until now. Social media has turned at least one of them into a celebrity, writes Caroline Juler.

On a dank Monday evening some weeks ago, a Romanian shepherd called Ghita left home with his sheep. He wasn't in a lorry but on foot, accompanied by several angajati, or hired men, some shaggy dogs, and seven donkeys loaded with gear. Ghita was off on his autumn transhumance, heading north for his winter pastures. It would take him six weeks.

For a country whose defining myth revolves around shepherds, Romania isn't all that keen on its pastoralists. The Ballad of the Little Sheep (Miorita) tells of a herdsman who lets himself be murdered by two rival shepherds even though one of his lambs, who has miraculously acquired the power of speech, warns him in advance. Miorita is sometimes taken as a metaphor for Christianity, another way of showing Christ's courage in turning the other cheek. It's also said to mirror the experience of the Romanian people who have endured numerous invasions, occupations and humiliations without, it is claimed, ever losing their identity.

When Romanians were agitating for independence in the 19th Century, Transylvanian shepherds were seen as the rugged pioneers of the nationalist movement. Long before then, they had established shortcuts over the Carpathian Mountains to seasonal grazing in what is now Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and the Czech Republic. Having crossed from Hungarian and Habsburg lands into Ottoman Turkey and Russia, they returned home to their more isolated communities with information, ideas and ambitions fired by the world outside.

A shepherd's CV has to offer some crucial USPs: caringness, self-reliance and dedication. He - and it's almost always a he, although in real life women did the same job - is synonymous with the kindly ideals of Christianity and for that matter Islam - but for all that, he is a humble, often solitary, sometimes rootless figure.

During Communism, certain Romanian sheep farmers did rather well. People still talk about Mr B from Poiana Sibiului who asked Ceausescu's permission to buy a helicopter. Mr B's flocks were hefted over several mountains, and he argued that being able to fly would let him keep track of them more easily. His request was refused, but Poiana is famous for other reasons - many of its shepherds built luxurious mansions at a time when most people had to stand in queues to buy food and lit their homes with 40 watt bulbs. Inaccessible to big machinery, many mountain farms escaped collectivisation, and the men and women who commuted there from the less exclusive plains, spoke of "going to America".

Like farmers worldwide, Romanian flock masters enjoy a good grumble. But things have got tough for them since 1989. Once guaranteed, prices for wool have plummeted. Although there is an international market for Romanian lamb, and sheep's cheese sells well, "slow food" has not made enough of a difference to the shepherds who find it healthier - and cheaper - to walk their sheep to far away winter pastures rather than keep their animals inside.

With its origins in the Bronze Age, if not earlier, transhumance is a form of semi-nomadism. It sounds romantic but in the past, Romanian shepherds occasionally resorted to transporting their animals by train, something they could never afford to do now.

Romanian shepherds still look archaic. They wear a long sheepskin cloak called a cojoc or sarica. With the shaggy fleece on the outside, it's also their bed, so when shepherds call the cloak their house, they aren't joking. When they sleep at all, it's outside, in all weathers. The hired men earn between 200 or 300 euros a month. They also receive daily meals, work clothing, and a cigarette allowance. It's not an easy life but if you join them on the road, you'll soon learn about their salty sense of humour.

Say "shepherd" to a Romanian and the chances are he or she will pull a wry face and ask if you've heard of the controversial politician, philanthropist and football club owner who has been caught making dodgy land deals. But things may be changing. In August this year, a well-known phone company began an advertising campaign that highlighted real people doing real jobs. One of them was Ghita.

Dressed in his cojoc and rimless pot hat (another must-have piece of shepherding rig), sitting by a campfire and dancing with sheep, Ghita Ciobanul, or Ghita the Shepherd, has taken Romania by storm. Ten days after the phone company put him on Facebook, his page had clocked more than 200,000 likes. A month later, they had doubled.

In the past, Ghita has had to move his sheep illegally, during the night. Given the hazards of crossing Romania's rapidly urbanising, motorised countryside, it's the only way. Accidents and shootings have cost him scores of sheep and many dogs. Maybe this year, thanks to his new-found celebrity, Ghita will be luckier.

Reuters: U.S. data thefts turn spotlight on Romania

RAMNICU VALCEA, Romania — It's easy to tell which kids in this town have helped to make it a global center for criminal hacking and Internet scams.

They're the pupils who come to school wearing the best clothes and gold jewelry in a region of Romania where chickens are raised in yards and roads are full of potholes.

"In our high school, almost everyone in the 11th and 12th grade did it," said Alina, 22, who worked for a man who bilked Americans and others out of their money online by offering for sale products that did not exist.

Alina, who asked for anonymity out of fear that she would be exposed for criminal actions, said she didn't feel bad about it at the time.

"You rarely feel you're doing any harm when your victim is somewhere across the ocean," she said.

Cybercrime is in the news lately after Target admitted that a massive data hack may have compromised the personal information of as many as 110 million customers.

And Reuters reported Sunday that upscale retailer Neiman Marcus has also been the victim of a security breach of credit card customer information. Security firms said the thefts may have originated in Eastern Europe, where Romania has been a focal point of international cyber-fraud investigators for years now.

The FBI and U.S. Secret Service have been involved in numerous arrests of Romanians who target Americans. In response to the rise, in October the Council of Europe — a body that oversees cooperation between European countries — picked the Romanian capital of Bucharest for its latest cybercrime program office.

FBI instructors have trained nearly 600 Romanian investigators in combating cybercrime, according to the U.S. Embassy.

In announcing the creation of the new office, Romanian President Traian Basescu said he hoped repentant scammers might help police track down cybercriminals.

"Maybe we'll manage to bring our performing hackers to the good side of the barricade," he said.

Romania investigators say there were about 1,000 cases of cybercrime in 2012. Police in Ramnicu Valcea, a town of 120,000 people, say every year they arrest around 100 people on cybercrime charges.

Worldwide, individuals and businesses lose around $397 billion a year due to hacking, according to Europol.

Virgil Spiridon, the head of the Romanian National Police's Cybercrime Unit, say the cases take years to litigate because of the difficulty in catching sophisticated hackers. Basescu says his country cannot hope to end the enterprise because it doesn't have the resources to do it.

Police in Romania report that 80% of the cyber attacks originating from Romania target American citizens and companies. The U.S. Embassy in Bucharest has estimated that Romanian cybercriminals steal $1 billion every year by hacking American computers.

The scams tend to involve Americans who share financial and personal information with people they think are legitimate sellers of products. Common schemes include the selling of fake cars and computers or "skimming" — getting someone to reveal financial and password information that is used to fabricate an ATM card and drain a victim's bank account or rack up charges on a credit card.

"Credit card and internet fraud remain among the most common crimes affecting foreigners in Romania," the U.S. Embassy website warns travelers to Romania.

Among the latest:

• In May, the U.S. Justice Department extradited Romanian nationals Cristea Mircea, 30, Ion Pieptea, 36, and Nicolae Simion, 37, on charges of running a multimillion dollar cyber fraud scheme targeting customers of U.S.-based online marketplaces.

The trio ran ads on eBay, and for non-existent cars, boats and motorcycles priced between $10,000 and $45,000 and sent potential buyers fraudulent certificates of title and links to fake websites for dealerships that they claimed held the vehicles. Once a purchase was agreed upon, the victims were sent fake invoices from Amazon Payments, PayPal, or other online payment services.The men allegedly stole more than $2 million.

• In November 2012, prosecutors from the Romanian Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism arrested 16 people individuals suspected of being members of the credit card fraud ring that netted $25 million. Those arrested were accused of hacking into the computer systems of gas stations and grocery stores and installing computer applications that intercept credit card transaction data.

• In October, the directorate arrested members of a cybercrime gang accused of stealing information from 50,000 credit cards across 24 countries.

Romania's anti-hacking police force has risen from a handful of officers to 280 investigators in seven years. But the police might as well be fighting the tide, said Raoul Chiesa, a former Italian hacker who now is an information technology security consultant.

"In Romania, you have brilliant minds and excellent universities while, on the other hand, it's not easy to find a good job," he said.

"I saw the same issue in Bulgaria, for example, in China, in India. When you are a young guy, and some bad guy offers you money in order to do something that you know how to do and are able to do that brings a very low risk, it's not always that easy to say no."

Hacking has triggered a boomlet in Ramnicu Valcea, where the economy has otherwise been depressed for years.

Scammers drive fancy news cars on pothole-filled roads. They frequent a mall packed with expensive stores as well as the nightclubs and beauty centers that have sprouted up amid decaying communist-era factories and tall grey apartment blocks.

Alina said she was playing a video game in an Internet café when a man approached her and asked if she might translate an e-mail into English for him. The e-mail was part of a scam involving the fake sale of digital equipment.

The more she participated in the scams, the harder it was to stop. Once she earned $4,100 for a single job, she said, a fortune in a country where the annual per capita income is $13,000 a year.

Her family used the money for home improvements and school expenses after Alina confessed her hacking to her mother and quit the business, she said.

"I realized that I was much happier as a normal kid," she said.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Leslie Hawke helps Roma children get an education

BUCHAREST, ROMANIAThe Christian Science Monitor

Leslie Hawke was already middle-aged when she arrived in Romania for the first time. Thirteen years later she is still there, running a nongovernmental organization she cofounded and continuing the work that earned her an Outstanding Citizen Award from the United States Agency for International Development in 2005.

A former editor and publishing executive, and mother of actor Ethan Hawke, Ms. Hawke left everything she knew in New York City to join the Peace Corps, trading a Central Park West apartment and leisurely Sunday brunches for life in Romania.

"I joined ... to give myself time to think about what I ought to be doing, not really expecting to actually find it in the Peace Corps," she explains one recent afternoon while sitting in her office in the center of Bucharest, the capital. Around her, many of the young employees of OvidiuRo, the NGO she cofounded in 2004, are busily working. The walls are covered with photographs, most of them showing children from poverty-stricken communities that OvidiuRo serves.

"The communities we are working in are the neediest in Romania, and many organizations don't want to work there," says Hawke, whom many consider an elder stateswoman of the nonprofit scene in Romania.

Hawke arrived in 2000 and found a country still emerging from decades of communist rule that ended in a bloody 1989 revolution. Posted to the small city of Bacau, she wrote in her first letter home: "In the beginning we stayed in a vacant high school dormitory that looked like an abandoned orphanage, including iron-barred gates on each floor and eight narrow beds to a room."

It was a rude awakening, but Hawke quickly adapted. She became drawn to helping children she saw sitting alone or in pairs on the sidewalk, begging. After Hawke took one of the shoeless children to a support center, his mother berated her: Hawke had deprived the family of his income.

Hawke realized then she had found her calling. "Seeing those kids on streets, begging, was really painful for me," she says.

"Leslie came in, spotted a need, and was determined to make a difference – and she did," says Gabriela Achihai, the president of the Community Support Foundation of Bacau.

Hawke began talking with long-skirted women sitting on park benches half a block from where the women's children or siblings begged. The women told her similar stories: They wanted to work, but they had few skills, and nobody would hire them. It was hard for Roma, an ostracized ethnic group in Romania, to find jobs. (One woman said she'd applied for a job sweeping the streets but had been turned down even for that.) That's why the children were needed as breadwinners, they said.

Hawke and her colleagues began working with the impoverished mothers to help them develop job skills. At the same time, they started an education program for the children in a vacant public school dormitory.

While the program for the mothers was successful at getting them into the workforce, it was expensive and didn't "scale up" as readily as the children's education program, which Hawke says grew almost effortlessly.

In 2004, after finishing her time in the Peace Corps, Hawke stayed on in Romania. Along with her colleague, Maria Gheorghiu, she founded OvidiuRo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping severely impoverished children succeed in school. Hawke focuses on fundraising and advocacy, while Ms. Gheorghiu runs the on-the-ground operations.

But "it is impossible to separate the work Leslie and Maria do," says Marina Sturdza, a member of the Romanian royal family who sits on the boards of several NGOs. "Both of them have this ability to work with people in all levels of society."

OvidiuRo operates in rural communities where the poorest of the poor are ethnic Roma. "There are these pockets of poverty hidden behind apartment buildings or on the edge of towns," Hawke says. "There is little interaction between these Roma and the rest of Romanian society: Educated Roma don't like to admit their ethnicity for fear of what people will think."

Over the years the NGO has slowly grown and now supports more than 1,300 children in 20 high-risk communities, with plans to expand to 1,700 children soon. "OvidiuRo has become a crucial component of education reform in Romania," Ms. Sturdza says.

The emphasis today is almost entirely on preschool children, an age group Hawke believes is critical. "That is where you can make the most impact for the least investment," she says. OvidiuRo offers food coupons worth about $17 a month as an incentive for parents to send their children to preschool, and it funds other educational aids, vaccinations, and teacher training. It also gets parents actively involved.

The path hasn't been easy.

In the beginning, Hawke watched with alarm when older children they had helped to attend school eventually fell through the cracks, unable to keep up and chaffing at the discipline after living so long outside the system.

"But their younger siblings were doing much better, the ones that had started in the system early," Hawke explains. "Most illiterate parents don't read or talk much to their young children – and they haven't a clue that early formal education is important. That's why we give them an incentive. It gets their attention."

Today, more than 80 percent of the children in the program attend preschool daily, and 73 percent who have come through its program regularly attend primary school.

Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has few programs that continue OvidiuRo's work once the children are older. Hawke is prodding the government to extend the parental incentives across the country to all children living in poverty. It is slow work, she concedes, but she is optimistic that eventually the government will take over funding similar initiatives. "Our attendance rates prove that poor Roma parents do care about education," she says. "They just need some support.

"The most agonizing thing is that some of these children are very bright," she says. "Even in places like the Bronx [in New York City], a bright young kid born to drug-addicted parents has a chance of getting spotted. There are programs. But there is no [safety] net for these kids; they can't possibly get out of the cycle."

OvidiuRo's programs cost $600,000 a year. The NGO raises most of that money from within Romania, relying heavily on corporate sponsorships. But it also obtains support from individuals in the United States through The Alex Fund, a US nonprofit Hawke started in 2001.

In June, Hawke persuaded her son, Ethan, to host the Romanian première of his movie "Before Midnight" in Bucharest, with proceeds going to OvidiuRo. The event, attended by Richard Linklater, the movie's director, and Ethan, raised more than $90,000 for the organization.

"Ethan has helped, for sure, but you can only bring someone over so many times," Leslie Hawke says, with a laugh.

OvidiuRo's supporters say they're impressed both by Hawke and the lofty goals of her organization.

"Everywhere you go you have organizations supporting people or communities in need," says Friedrich Niemann, the former general manager of the Athenee Palace Hilton in Bucharest, one of OvidiuRo's earliest corporate sponsors. "But it is Leslie and the passion of the whole team that continues to impress me, and [that] is why I have continued to give money even after leaving Romania."

Last year Hawke remarried. For now her husband is working in the US. "He can't give up his job for at least a few more years, but after that he will join me," Hawke says.

She doesn't plan to leave Romania until at least 2020. "I wouldn't respect myself if I just quit in the middle. In 2020 I will have been here 20 years; that might be a good time to retire," she says with a smile.

• To learn more, visit
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Romanian teacher who demanded gifts is fired

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) Education authorities on Friday fired a teacher who was filmed aggressively demanding gifts from students in a case that has made headlines in Romania, where it is customary to give presents to teachers.

Education Minister Remus Pricopie endorsed the dismissal of Dana Blandu as a "correct decision" because it was illegal for a teacher to demand money as gifts. Her lawyer said she would fight her dismissal.

Police have interviewed Blandu and 20 parents this week. The principal at Bucharest School 10 was fired Thursday.

The case which became public in late December has touched a nerve with Romanians who feel obligated to offer gifts to people in authority to ensure good treatment. However, Blandu's approach shocked Romanians because she apparently blatantly and openly tapped into the fear that students' grades would suffer unless their parents paid up.

Ever since the communist era, students have traditionally offered teachers token gifts such as bunches of flowers or chocolates By law, larger gifts for teachers are organized through the parents' association.

However, in recent years, gift-giving to teachers has become more extravagant and competitive, especially at schools in well-heeled urban areas.

Blandu was filmed telling parents she was collecting money for Christmas gifts for security guards and cleaning staff at the school and mocked the traditional gift of "a packet of coffee and a bar of chocolate."

She called parents "sheep," ''potatoes" and "poor." She told one parent. "I really don't know whether you are just poor or uncouth," adding that parents should prepare for the next round of gift-giving at Easter.

When a parent who secretly recorded her complained, she retorted: "This is a school for snobs," and said that gift-giving was part of the "Romanian, Balkan state system."

US official: Romania should be “clean” ally for US

By Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania — A U.S. official has urged Romania to continue economic and democratic reforms, after lawmakers voted legislation which would make it more difficult to prosecute lawmakers and would make libel a criminal offense.

After the Dec. 9 vote, the U.S. called the draft legislation “a step away from transparency and rule-of-law” and “a discouraging sign for investors, which will negatively affect Romania’s economy.”
Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland reinforced that message Saturday after meeting Romanian officials. She said Washington wanted Romania to be the “strongest possible, cleanest possible, democratic ally a partner for the United States,” with a free media.

She urged Romanians to “insist on rule of law and insist on transparency and good governance.”

Parliament has since said it will reconsider the legislation.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Romania Cuts Benchmark Rate to Record Low as Inflation Slows

By Andra Timu and Irina Savu

Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) --Romania cut its benchmark interest rate to a record for a fifth meeting with inflation the slowest in almost two years and policy makers also moved to stimulate growth by cutting banks’ reserve requirement.

The Bucharest-based Banca Nationala a Romaniei lowered the rate to 3.75 percent from 4 percent, according to an e-mailed statement today, matching the estimate of 13 of 14 economists in a Bloomberg survey. One predicted unchanged borrowing costs. The bank also cut minimum reserve requirements for leu liabilities to 12 percent from 15 percent and for foreign-currency ones to 18 percent from 20 percent. Central bank Governor Mugur Isarescu will hold a briefing at 4 p.m.

Policy makers, who have lowered the benchmark rate by a 150 basis points since July 2013, seek to spur leu-denominated lending and accelerate growth. The central bank in November said there is “some room” for further cuts after the inflation rate fell to 1.8 percent, the lowest since May 2012.

“The inflation picture in Romania as well as the risk perception toward the country would clearly allow for additional rate cuts,” economists at Raiffeisen Bank (RBI) Romania SA, including Ionut Dumitru, wrote in a note before the decision.

The leu, last year’s second-best performer against the euro among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg, traded 0.1 percent stronger at 4.497 per euro at 2:01 p.m. in Bucharest.
Lending, Growth

Lending in Romania fell to 220 billion lei ($67 billion) in November, down 4.1 percent from a year earlier and 0.6 percent from October, according to central bank data. The economy grew 4.1 percent in the third quarter, the fastest in two years, helped by export growth and a bumper harvest.

The central bank is targeting 2014 price growth of 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent and sees year-end inflation at 3 percent after a drop to about 1 percent in the first quarter. The statistics institute will publish December inflation data Jan. 13, according to a calendar on its website.

“We think the central bank will continue to cut at its next meeting and then perhaps pause,” Daniel Hewitt, a London-based senior economist for emerging markets at Barclays Plc (BARC), said in a note before the decision. “More cuts are possible depending on global financial conditions.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Andra Timu in Bucharest at; Irina Savu in Bucharest at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at; James M. Gomez at

Romanians baptize horses on Orthodox holiday

Agence France-Presse 
January 6, 2014

Hundreds of horses in Romania received blessings on Monday in a baptismal tradition dating back centuries to mark the Orthodox holiday of the Epiphany.

In the rural countryside, people arrived on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons to parade their animals before the priest who sprinkled the horses with holy water.

"The baptism of the horses, which is a tradition dating back to old times in this village has its roots in the Holy Scripture," Orthodox priest Mihai Dobre told AFPTV in Pietrosani, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Bucharest.

"It's a joyful moment in our village, shared by the entire community."

The ritual, taking place in many villages to commemorate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, has remained a vivid part of culture in Romania, where farmers still use horses in their daily lives.

"The mare is the most important being in our households besides the family and our children," Alexandru Feraru, a local farmer, told AFPTV.

"Holy water does miracles. Our animals won't fall ill," he said.

The baptism ceremony in Pietrosani was followed by a horse race in the fields.

Romania and horses were also at the centre of a Europe-wide food scandal last year when Romanian authorities found horsemeat in products fraudulently labelled as beef.

Romania sends former PM Nastase back to jail for corruption

By Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's top court on Monday sentenced former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase to four years in jail for taking bribes, one of a handful of convictions in a poor country under pressure from the European Union to crack down on high level crime.

The sentence will send Nastase back to prison just months after he finished serving a previous term, also on corruption charges. The 63-year-old leftist politician has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said the cases against him were all politically motivated.

Nastase is the first premier to be put behind bars since the collapse of communism in 1989. His lawyer told a local TV station that the former leader had agreed to give himself up to the police. Nastase did not speak to the media after the verdict, but local media footage later showed him in a car with his son going to the police station.

The EU has repeatedly raised concerns about a failure to tackle high level graft in Romania and Bulgaria, the bloc's two poorest members which have been blocked from joining the passport-free Schengen zone over the issue since their entry.

Romania once again came under scrutiny late last year after its lower house of parliament voted to increase the immunity of MPs against graft charges. The bill drew criticism from some western embassies and the president.

Nastase's conviction will not be a game-changer in regard to Romania's entry into the Schengen zone, said Cristian Patrasconiu, a Bucharest-based political analyst.

"But it is a very positive development towards achieving this goal, as the judiciary is now perceived as stepping up its efforts to rein in high-level corruption," he said.

Nastase had been freed from prison in March 2013 after serving nine months of a two-year term for corruption. The court on Monday also gave his wife Dana a three-year suspended jail sentence for her complicity in taking bribes.

Nastase's case dates back to 2006 when prosecutors indicted him and his wife in a landmark probe, charging Nastase with taking bribes worth 630,000 euros (£523,989.51).

Nastase was accused of using his position in 2002-2004 to obtain gifts from an official at a government building works watchdog in return for helping that woman keep her job.

Together with his wife, Nastase was also accused of ordering officials to violate customs regulations in order to bring construction materials and household goods from China to furnish his houses in Bucharest and a holiday retreat.

Prime minister in 2000-2004 and a mentor to the current premier Victor Ponta of the ruling Social Democrats, Nastase shot himself in a suicide attempt in June 2012 when police came to take him away to start his first sentence. He was not seriously injured.

The European Union, which Romania joined in 2007, has its justice system under special monitoring and has repeatedly urged it to get tough on officials suspected of abuse.

(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Matthias Williams)

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Economist: The gates are open

EU migration
The gates are open

Rich EU countries fret about social-benefits tourism after the lifting of restrictions on the free movement of workers from Romania and Bulgaria on January 1stJan 4th 2014 | LONDON and SOFIA | From the print edition

“WHEN British people come—in thousands—to our Black Sea, to our resorts, and behave like cave men, drink and fight, we don’t say anything… We are going to be much better behaved when we go to Britain. We are not going for fun, we are going for work, for a decent living,” says Petar Dobrev, who has been employed in several Black Sea resorts as a concierge in the past 12 years. Mr Dobrev is planning to move away from Bulgaria before next summer, to Britain or another European Union country. He says employers in his home country exploit people and pay them much less than they deserve.

Mr Dobrev is hoping for fair pay in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and six other EU countries that fully opened their labour markets to workers from Bulgaria and Romania when transitional controls expired on January 1st. He is not sure where he will go, maybe London, because the city “has many good hotels and they always need people”. And he is determined to work hard to make a living for himself and for the family he wants to start.

The 31-year-old Bulgarian is representative of the typical migrant from Romania and Bulgaria: he is young, eager to work and frustrated with the slow pace of reform and development in his home country. Yet he is unlikely to receive the warm welcome he hopes for. The public, politicians and the press in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, France and Austria, have spent the months leading up to the dismantling of transitional controls fretting about how many Bulgarians and Romanians will come, whether they will take away low-skill jobs, how their access to social benefits can be restricted and whether begging and sleeping rough will shoot up, in particular in big or industrial cities such as London, Rotterdam, Berlin, Duisburg and Dortmund.

Is Europe facing another big migratory wave from east to west? Ion Jinga, Romania’s ambassador in Britain, does not think so. The last one (the Poles coming to Britain in the aftermath of their country’s EU accession in 2004) happened when only three big countries (Britain, Ireland and Sweden) opened their labour markets and the British economy was booming. Moreover, the population of Romania and Bulgaria combined is only three-quarters the size of Poland’s 39m. And Romania is not doing badly: economic growth has picked up, rising to 4.1% in the latest quarter, and wages are increasing fast. The unemployment rate is below 5% nationally and only 2% in Bucharest, the capital (see chart).

Of Romania’s 7m strong active labour force, around 1.1m have a secure job in the state sector, which they will hesitate to give up. Some 3m have already left in the wake of Romania joining the EU in 2007: about 1m went to Italy, another million to Spain, half a million to France, up to 400,000 to Germany and 120,000 to Britain. They worked in a “self-employed” capacity (40% of the workforce building London’s Olympic Stadium were self-employed Romanians) or as seasonal or low-skill workers. Some were exploited, as they did not have the same legal protection as nationals; others didn’t pay tax. Neither abuse is as likely now that they can be legally employed.

None of the rich EU governments wants to make firm predictions about how many Bulgarians and Romanians will migrate—they are worried about being wrong. Germany’s IAB, a research institute, predicts that 100,000 to 180,000 will go to Germany this year. “This cannot be called poverty migration,” insists Herbert Brücker of the IAB. Only 7.4% of Romanians and Bulgarians in Germany are unemployed, a bit lower than the national average of 7.7%, and considerably lower than the average of 14.7% among the general immigrant population. Up to 65% work and pay taxes. Although the share of Bulgarians and Romanians, who receive means-tested benefits, is at 10% slightly higher than the 7.5% of the native population, they are net contributors to the pay-as-you-go pensions system. Thanks mainly to favourable demography, the average immigrant contributes around €2,000 ($2,760) annually to the welfare state and the contribution of Romanians and Bulgarians is estimated to be even higher, says Mr Brücker.

Germans do have some reason to be concerned, however. More than a third of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Germany are unskilled (compared with 11% of the general population) so they crowd native Germans out of low-skill jobs. Another justified worry is that those who neither work nor receive social benefits—many of them Roma—tend to settle in Duisburg, Dortmund, Berlin and a few other big cities. This creates tensions as they mainly live off the black market, begging and petty crime and live in slum-like conditions on the cities’ outskirts. The IAB proposes compensatory payments by the federal government to help the worst-affected municipalities.

Politicians woke up very late to the public’s worries. Britain’s prime minister came out at the end of November with proposals on restricting the access to social benefits for new immigrants. Germany’s coalition agreement in late November contained measures on how to curb poverty migration. “Germany is Britain’s strongest ally in the EU migration debate,” says Mats Persson of Open Europe, a think thank. Hans-Peter Friedrich, the interior minister of Germany’s previous government, even suggested talks outside of the EU framework with Britain, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands on how social-benefit tourism might be curbed, because he was so unhappy about the Commission’s insistence that the EU law on freedom of movement cannot be changed.

“It is very difficult to just come here and get benefits,” says Jonathan Portes of Britain’s National Institute for Economic and Social Research. Restrictions on benefits have been in place since 2004 and the new proposed restrictions mainly reinforce what is already on the books. Britain is however alone among rich EU countries to have a universalist welfare system—all the others are more contribution-based. It therefore has the strongest case for reviewing access to benefits.

Will tightening benefits rules do the trick? For the first time, EU citizens are conflating anti-EU sentiments with anti-immigration feelings. Mixed with an increasing distrust of politicians and a debate on the welfare state, this creates a “perfect storm”, says Mr Persson. Europe’s best hope is that by the end of 2014 not much will have changed. A manageable number of Romanians and Bulgarians will have migrated westward and most of them will be young and in work. Isolated crimes, benefits fraud and trouble with rough sleepers will no doubt sometimes spill over into the headlines. But, by and large, the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians will work as well (or as badly, depending on your point of view) as previous openings to new EU members from the east.

From the print edition: Europe