Friday, February 28, 2014

Romanian prosecutors say face rising political pressure

(Reuters) - Romania's chief anti-corruption prosecutor said on Thursday her team saw an sharp increase in political pressure to drop cases while they were investigating high-ranking officials last year, adding this could be a measure of her department's success.

There has been growing concern about respect for the rule of law in Romania, one of the European Union's poorest and most corrupt states, whose parliament tried to pass a law last year shielding lawmakers from graft investigations.

Top-level convictions such as that of leftist former prime minister Adrian Nastase drew accusations from ruling officials that prosecutors and judges were acting on orders from center-right political leaders. The European Commission and United States urged Romanian politicians last year to stop pressuring the judiciary.

"2013 was the year when public pressure on prosecutors registered a strongly ascending path," Laura Codruta Kovesi told a conference to present her department's 2013 results.

"It is encouraging that this prompted an unprecedented reaction from civil society and international observers."

Romania ranks behind only Greece and Bulgaria in terms of corruption in the 28-nation EU, according to Transparency International, and the European Commission has its justice system under special monitoring.

More than 1,000 people were convicted on corruption charges last year in the country, a 41 percent annual rise.

People sent to trial included six ministers and parliamentarians, five county council heads, 34 mayors and deputy mayors, as well as judges, lawyers and managers of state-owned firms.

"Although we have been accused many times of instrumenting cases based on political orders, court rulings have proved they (the cases) were based on solid evidence and not made-up crimes," Kovesi said.

"Recent attacks and regular outside pressures on the judiciary ... are in fact a measure of its success."

Parliament approved a bill in December to protect lawmakers from corruption investigations linked to public office. Although the country's top court overturned the legislation, it will still return to parliament for further debate.

Earlier this week prosecutors said they would launch criminal investigations against formerfinance minister Daniel Chitoiu and another ex-minister on separate suspicions of abuse of power.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Romania's Prime Minister Ponta gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Buchares

By Matthias Williams and Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Ministers from Romania's Liberals resigned from the government on Wednesday, a day after the party quit the ruling coalition in a break-up that will trigger a confidence vote and has changed the dynamics of a presidential election in November.

The rupture has left the rump of Prime Minister Victor Ponta's Social Democrat-led alliance with a slender majority in parliament, which will likely prompt him to ask an ethnic Hungarian party to join the government to shore up his support.

The government is expected to win the confidence vote, which will likely happen on March 4. Analysts also say there is scant chance the split will trigger early an parliamentary election, which is not due until 2016.

But a reduced majority could make it harder for the government to push through reforms, including cleaning up inefficient state companies, agreed with the International Monetary Fund in a 4 billion euro aid deal.

Like other emerging markets, Romanian assets have been hit by jitters about U.S. monetary stimulus winding down, as well the political upheavals in Ukraine and Romania's own domestic political instability.

But this is a time when the European Union's second poorest state should be capitalizing on an economic rebound that has seen growth surge to 5.2 percent in the last quarter, pushed up by a stellar harvest in 2013 and a recovery in exports.

"... the point is that the country is again moving into the political volatility of the past years, which was exactly what the current government aimed to stop," said Simon Quijano-Evans, the head of emerging market research at Commerzbank.

"... any shortfalls on the political side will just lead to increased headaches for foreign investors," he added.


The Liberal leaders announced the split - triggered by a series of rows in recent weeks with their Social Democrat partners - after crisis talks late on Tuesday.

The coalition bickering had bordered on the farcical, with the leaders of Romania's two biggest parties accusing each other of not answering each other's phone calls and text messages.

Seven ministers resigned from the coalition, prompting Ponta announce interim replacements, including for the Health, Labour and Transport ministries. Ponta will keep the Finance Ministry portfolio, which he took over in February, on a temporary basis.

"We thought political risk was very high - but a collapse of the government last night was still somewhat of a shock," said a note by Nomura Global Markets Research on Wednesday.

"We do not believe the short to medium-run bullish macroeconomic story will be altered by this move and that the budget ... can remain on track," it said. "The larger concern is a slow to necessary structural reform that will be much more difficult in the heated electoral environment of this year."

Free from his obligations to the Liberals, Ponta is now able to put up his own candidate - or himself - for the presidential election in November, when his rival Traian Basescu will step down after two terms in office. Previously the coalition had planned to put up a Liberal candidate.

Under Romanian law, the president has a largely ceremonial role. But Basescu wields influence at key moments, as he has the power to veto the winning party's choice of prime minister after an election. He also has a big say in how Romania negotiates international agreements.

Ponta has repeatedly clashed with the Basescu over a series of policy proposals, most recently a new fuel tax that is a central element of Romania's IMF deal.

In an attempt to soothe investors after the news of the split, Basescu on Wednesday publicly threw his weight behind the latest IMF deal review despite his objections over the fuel tax and another policy to help low income borrowers.

Without the Liberals, Ponta may be tempted to implement a longstanding Social Democrat policy goal to scrap Romania's 16 percent flat tax, said Bucharest-based political analyst Cristian Patrasconiu. But he would have to convince investors, and the IMF, that he could do so without blowing a hole in the country's finances.

The leu was down roughly 0.2 percent on the day, trading at 4.5130 per euro.

(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor and Luiza Ilie; Editing by Alison Williams)

Romanian prosecutors seek graft probe against ex-minister

BUCHAREST, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors want to start a criminal investigation against former liberal minister Cristian David on allegations of abuse of power and falsifying documents, they said on Wednesday.

David's criminal probe comes one day after prosecutors requested permission to investigate former finance minister Daniel Chitoiu as the European Union state cracks down on high-level graft.

Romania ranks behind only Greece and Bulgaria in terms of corruption in the 28-nation EU, according to Transparency International, and the European Commission has its justice system under special monitoring.

Prosecutors said David falsified his mandatory wealth statement to account for 60,000 euros stemming from unknown sources, writing it down as a personal loan his mother has returned to him.

"Evidence shows David ... did not have a legal document to account for the sum of 60,000 euros he needed to mention in his wealth statement," prosecutors said in a statement.

David denied any wrongdoing.

He resigned his post as minister in charge of the diaspora on Wednesday, one day after his party quit the ruling coalition following a row with their Social Democrat partners.

David has been a senator and interior minister in a previous cabinet. He said on Wednesday he had resigned his membership with the Liberals so as to not damage the party's image.

Data from prosecutors showed 10 Romanian officials were convicted last year, including five deputies, one senator and two ministers. Eight other officials were subject to criminal investigations, including one current deputy prime minister. (Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Romania's ruling coalition could rupture as elections loom

By Radu Marinas and Matthias Williams

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's feuding coalition government could split in a matter of days, a break-up that might disrupt five years of economic reform backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The Liberal party, the second largest member of Prime Minister Victor Ponta's ruling alliance, was set to meet for crisis talks on Tuesday evening to decide whether to pull their ministers out of the government. That could shortly be followed by a formal split from Ponta's leftist Social Democrats.

The meeting was the culmination of a series of rows between Romania's two biggest parties, mainly over ministerial appointments, as they jockey for position before European elections in May and a presidential election in November.

The infighting comes at a time when Romania should be capitalizing on an economic rebound that has seen growth jump to 5.2 percent in the last quarter, buoyed by a bumper harvest in 2013 and a rise in exports to a recovering Europe.

A weakened or unstable government could hamper policymaking in the European Union's second poorest member state. High on the agenda for Romania is to speed up a process of selling off or restructuring inefficient state companies, as part of a 4 billion euro ($5.49 billion) aid deal with the IMF.

"I see the danger of populism in this particular election year is enormous and the risk to the IMF deal seems big," said Cristian Patrasconiu, a Bucharest-based political analyst.

"The government committed to the restructuring of inefficient state firms including in the railway sector this year, with layoffs on the cards," Patrasconiu said. "I don't see the new government enforcing any pay cuts or pursuing any redundancies ahead of European and presidential elections."


Political squabbles have often hampered Romania's progress in the 25 years since it threw off Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and its economy trails other emerging EU countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

Ponta's own alliance was formed after it brought down a center-right coalition government in a confidence vote in May 2012. That government had imposed unpopular austerity measures to help Romania recover from a deep recession.

While Ponta's coalition commands a more than two-thirds majority in parliament, in recent weeks its rule has been overshadowed by a series of bust-ups.

Most recently, Ponta has blocked the appointment of a charismatic Transylvanian mayor as a new deputy prime minister. Earlier this month, a disagreement over a policy proposal to reschedule the bank debts of low-income borrowers prompted the Liberal party to sack its own finance minister.

The increased risk of a split in the government helped push Central European assets down on Tuesday, although movements were slight compared with last week's swings on the crisis in Ukraine. Mihai Tantaru, an economist at ING bank, says a formal coalition breakup could push the Romanian leu towards year lows of around 4.55 to the euro.

If the coalition fractures, Ponta would probably be able to cobble together another alliance and still command a majority in parliament, albeit with reduced numbers.

Doing so could strengthen his hand in some ways, as it would unshackle him from an agreement under which the Liberals put forward their nominee as the coalition's presidential candidate.

Ponta, who has seen his own policies repeatedly pushed back by his arch-rival, the outgoing president Traian Basescu, would be free to put forward his own choice for president.

"It's a safer bet for Ponta, if he can push it through, to have his own president," said Otilia Dhand, a vice president at Teneo Intelligence.

But going it alone could ultimately put the brakes on the Romanian government's push to liberalize its economy - a drive seen as vital if it is to catch up with its European peers.

Romania has pledged to stick to an IMF-agreed June 30 deadline to list a 15 percent stake in hydropower producer Hidroelectrica and also in coal-fired Oltenia, which operates lignite-fired power plants, in October.

It is also due sell a 51 percent stake in state-controlled power distributor Electrica in an initial public offering in June.

"At least the sale of a majority stake in Electrica is highly unlikely, as we know the (Social Democrats) won't like to embark alone on any large privatization drive," said a Bucharest-based economist of an international bank.

"This situation does note bode well in terms of credibility," the economist said.

($1 = 0.7285 euros)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Romania Nears Coalition Breakup as Liberals Consider Next Move

Bloomberg News
By Andra Timu
February 24, 2014

Romania’s governing coalition is on the brink of breaking up as the Liberal Party, a junior member, may quit amid a row over personnel changes.

The Liberals are meeting today to decide whether to recall the party’s ministers from the alliance that won a two-thirds majority in December 2012 elections. While Prime Minister Victor Ponta would still be able to count on two smaller parties to pass laws without them, he called that majority “fragile.”

Economic expansion of 5.2 percent in the fourth quarter was among the fastest in the European Union, beating forecasts. Bickering between the two largest parties over a proposed cabinet shuffle led to a deepening political crisis as they jostle for position before presidential elections in November.

“The current tensions serve as a reminder that Romanian politics is notoriously volatile, and continue to cast a cloud over investors’ decisions and the broader economic outlook,” William Jackson, emerging-markets economist at Capital Economics Ltd, said by e-mail. “Although growth in Romania last year was faster than most expected, the economy remains fragile.”

The leu was little changed at 4.512 per euro at 7 p.m. in Bucharest yesterday. It has lost 1 percent this year, the ninth-worst performance among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The yield on the government’s dollar bonds maturing in 2024 fell 3 basis points, or 0.03 percentage point, to 4.69 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Coalition Fallout

The ruling coalition won the 2012 election amid public anger over austerity measures imposed by President Traian Basescu. Three weeks ago, Ponta and Liberal leader Crin Antonescu started bickering over a plan to change the government’s structure, with the Liberals seeking to replace four ministers and a deputy premier.

If the Liberals withdraw from the government, Ponta will appoint interim replacements while continuing talks to search for a solution to maintain the current coalition, he told reporters in Bucharest yesterday.

A new government may be in place by March 8, when a current 45-day interim mandate for the interior minister expires, Ponta said, adding that his Social Democrats will meet on March 3 to asses the political development and make “the needed decisions.”

Ponta may also seek the support of a minorities party and the ethnic Hungarian alliance for his cabinet.

Once allies, Ponta and Antonescu, selected as the coalition’s presidential candidate, are accusing each other of having separate plans for the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Ponta said he thinks Antonescu wants to run for the presidency by opposing the government to boost his chances, while Antonescu said the Social Democrats, Romania’s biggest party, plan to push their own candidate, without giving any names.

Antonescu is leading in presidential polls with about 26 percent of the vote, according to an Avangarde poll of 1,500 people in January. Ponta would get 22 percent if he decided to run. The survey has a margin of error 2.5 percentage points.

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

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

Monday, February 24, 2014

Massive logging leaves deep scars in Eastern Europe

By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)

Bucharest — With its steep, forested mountains set against blue skies, Romania's central Pojarna Valley once looked like a postcard landscape but illegal logging has turned the site into an ugly scar.

"The guys who did this used excavators. They even destroyed the young trees," said Gheorghe Ridichie, an official at Romania's forestry ministry, pointing to thousands of stumps poking out of the valley's now-barren slopes.

Last year, authorities rallied to halt rampant deforestation in the Balkan state.

But the draft law, setting stricter controls and heavier penalties for offenders, still awaits a vote in the lower house of parliament after making it through the upper house.

Official figures show that in 2012, illegal logging in Romania -- some of it in lush, century-old forests -- had doubled over five years.

"If this goes on, there will be no wood left for the economy and no forests to walk in," Minister Delegate for water and forests Lucia Varga told AFP.

"Over the past 20 years, some 80 million cubic metres of wood were illegally cut, causing five billion euros ($6.8 million) in damage," she said.

And "the worst part is that the pace of illegal logging is twice that of reforestation and regeneration."

Similar problems exist in other east European states, notably Bosnia and Bulgaria.

But some conversationists fear efforts to change matters may be too little too late.

Both officials and conservationists blame the surge on several factors, including alleged collusion between local authorities and offenders, corruption in post-communist states, loopholes in legislation and an insufficient number of forest guards.

The draft bill has angered forest owners and wood processors who fear it will create additional costs and legal roadblocks.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, suspect some local authorities are part of the "mafia" that controls the trade.

"The illegally cut wood is often accompanied by seemingly legal documents that are actually issued by dummy companies," Catalin Tobescu, president of Nostra Silva forest owners' association, told AFP.

"When the authorities eventually decide to check on these companies, it is too late, they no longer exist and their managers are gone."

- ' Irreversible impact' -

In a robust sector with high demand, wood processing companies do not always check the origin of the raw material.

Romania's own market is estimated at four billion euros a year, dominated by the 400-year-old Austrian firm Schweighofer which moved into the country a decade ago.

Schweighofer's plans to open a fifth plant in Romania have annoyed conservationists and local woodworkers who say it will have an "irreversible impact" on forests here.

But Schweighofer spokeswoman Theresa Willmann disputes this.

The new site involved "a reorganization of the market", she said, and would create 650 jobs in the sawmill and an additional 2,000 indirectly.

"The total forest fund in Romania will not be affected by the logs Schweighofer needs," she told AFP in an email.

In a region that hosts Europe's largest old-growth forests outside Russia -- and one that is home to 8,000 brown bears, 4,000 wolves and 3,000 lynx -- Romania is not the only state threatened by deforestation.

In Bosnia, whose rich, 43 percent woodland is greater than the European average of 32 percent, conservationists estimate that hundreds of thousands of trees are felled illegally every year.

Mersudin Avidbegovic, the head of a Sarajevo-based association of forestry experts, said it was unclear "if this is to blame on poverty or on a mafia".

"But the main reason is the absence of steps to fight illegal logging," he said.

Likewise in Bulgaria, "illegal logging is an extremely serious problem," Neli Doncheva, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) programme coordinator, told AFP.

But authorities have passed a new penal code to try to end the scourge. Not only can companies breaking the law lose their permits and incur fines of up to $7,000 (5,000 euros), but offenders can get up to five years in jail.

In Romania, the draft bill sets fines up to 3,000 euros and the state has undertaken an active reforestation effort to plant one million hectares by 2030.

But Dorina Danciu of Greenpeace remains skeptical.

"Even if we start planting trees now, it will take dozens of years for the scars left by illegal logging to heal," he said.

Friday, February 21, 2014

In Bucharest, a Jewish theater struggles to cheat death once more

By Cnaan Liphshiz
February 20, 2014

BUCHAREST, Romania (JTA) — When secret police opened fire on protesters near her home, Maia Morgenstern headed for the Jewish State Theater.

It was 1989 and Morgenstern, then 27, and a few of her friends took refuge in the theater as protesters outside clashed with forces loyal to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Hundreds died in two weeks of chaos that culminated with Ceausescu’s execution and the end of decades of communist tyranny.

For Morgenstern and her friends, the theater was a natural destination amid the chaos. Between the bunker-like walls of its 19th-century building, Romanian Jews have historically found a rare space in which they could come together as a community even during their country’s bloodiest periods.

“It was my second home,” said Morgenstern, who became the institution’s manager in 2012. “We went there because it offered us a sense of safety.”

Throughout Romania’s tumultuous 20th-century history, the Jewish State Theater remained open and Jewish, providing the capital’s Jewish community an island of sanity and a sense of continuity through difficult times.

More recently, the theater has become a cultural bridge, attracting large non-Jewish crowds to its Yiddish-language performances, an unlikely development made possible by simultaneous translation technologies and Morgenstern’s star status. As an actress, Morgenstern has appeared in dozens of Romanian films and television shows and, in 2004, came to the attention of English-speaking audiences when she portrayed Mary in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

But the institution’s future was plunged into uncertainty last month after a snowstorm destroyed parts of its dilapidated roof and interrupted performances for the first time in decades. The theater is now mounting a campaign to repair the structure and ensure the institution’s survival. Earlier this month, a cast of 20 performed the comedy “Mazl Tov and Justice for All” on the street in front of the theater to raise awareness about its plight.

“This show is meant to be a warning to public opinion but also for the authorities,” said a statement announcing the show. “Do not let a theater with a unique tradition and identity disappear from Europe’s cultural landscape because of carelessness.”

The Bucharest city council has promised to repair the theater. Legally, it is required to do so, as the building is registered as a national monument. But Morgenstern is skeptical. She says the council had made repeated promises to upgrade the building before the accident, but nothing happened.

Complicating matters is that the building was neglected for so long that merely repairing the roof won’t suffice. Morgenstern points to deep cracks that crisscross the ceiling, pillars and beams. The cost of fixing it all is estimated at several million dollars.

“The building is so rundown that a renovation won’t do,” Morgenstern said. “It needs restoration, not renovation.”

On Jan. 25, about 80 square yards of the theater’s roof caved in under snow, producing a cascade of moisture that destroyed the building’s old wood floor. The theater suspended shows, which had been running every other day.

Before the roof collapse, the theater had a mostly non-Jewish cast who performed 70 percent of their shows in Yiddish before a predominantly non-Jewish crowd. Attendance jumped over the past year from 50 audience members a week to roughly 500. Staff say this was made possible by Morgenstern’s outreach to non-Jews and her celebrity status.

Romanian leaders had long visited the theater on Jewish holidays as a gesture of closeness to the Jewish community. But Morgenstern wanted ordinary Romanians to come. She enlisted support from friends in the entertainment industry and launched a public relations campaign that helped raise the theater’s profile among non-Jewish patrons.

Morgenstern also drew non-Jewish acting students to the theater, helping them hone their craft at a private acting academy. Some students began performing at the theater and are now part of the rescue campaign, giving interviews to local and international media.

“I think it would be a tragedy for all Romanians if this place is lost,” said Irina Varius, an 18-year-old, non-Jewish acting student who rehearses at the theater every day.

During the Holocaust, the theater’s importance grew for Bucharest’s Jews because it was the only Jewish cultural institution left standing. It was also the only venue open to dozens of Jewish actors, among them some of the greatest names in Romanian theater. Artists like playwright Moni Ghelerter and director Alexanderu Finti had been barred from working elsewhere because of racist laws passed under Romanian leader Ion Antonescu. About half a million Romanian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but Bucharest’s 100,000 Jews were never deported or harmed.

“Throughout the Holocaust era, Jewish theater professionals continued to work at the Jewish theater, turning the theater into a pillar of civil society for Jews,” according to Liviu Rotman, a Jewish historian at the National University for Political Science.

The theater was originally established in the city of Iasi and is among Europe’s earliest Yiddish-language institutions, according to Rotman. The theater’s current building in Bucharest served as a Jewish community center until 1941, when it became the home of the Jewish theater, later renamed the Jewish State Theater.

For the moment, rehearsals for planned shows continue in rooms unaffected by the roof collapse. The result is a soundtrack that combines rejuvenation with decay as the sounds of wind and water gushing in through the roof mix with the young voices of actors trying to wrap their tongues around Yiddish songs they barely understand and may never get to perform. Theater leaders hope the shows might still be staged at temporary venues.

“Like the Jewish people, the theater must remain practicing — even in exile,” says Andrei Munteanu, the theater’s Moldova-born director.

Under Ceausescu, the building was condemned as part of his plan to modernize Bucharest. Shortly before his ouster, he sent bulldozers to destroy other monumental buildings around the theater, including a synagogue and an Orthodox church.

Rotman believes Ceuasescu planned to demolish the theater but didn’t get to it in time. But to Morgenstern, the theater’s survival 25 years ago means it can cheat death once more.

“During the revolution, we came here amid heaps of earth and craters all around,” she recalled. “The theater towered above the ruins like a sole survivor of a bombardment. It’s got one more narrow escape in it yet.”

Read more:

Romanian doctors tempted abroad by a better life

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Romania

"There are several reasons one might stay in Romania," says medical student Andreea Rosca sweetly, over a ginger beer in a Bucharest bar. "You love your country, you have family, friends. Maybe you dream about changing the system. I personally do not believe it will happen."

In the past seven years, 10,000 doctors and nurses have left Romania, according to estimates from a doctors' organisation.

Most of those who leave are young, at the start of their careers. They cannot live on the 250 euros (£205; $340) monthly starting salary, they say, and unlike older doctors are insufficiently experienced to set up a private practice, parallel to their work in state hospitals.

A specialist can earn 1,200 euros a month from the state, and at least double that in private practice.

"I do not feel the moral obligation to stay here, considering that nobody is doing anything for us to stay”

So Andreea, 27, plans to pack her bags as soon as she graduates from the Medical University in Bucharest this summer, and to try her luck finding a medical career in France or Switzerland.

"I do not feel the moral obligation to stay here, considering that nobody is doing anything for us to stay and to have a decent life."

'Too poor'

More than half her class plan to leave Romania, she says: for Germany, the Nordic countries, France or the UK.

"Thirty per cent of the Romanian population does not pay health insurance, because they are too poor," explains Dr Cristian Posea, medical director of the Cantacuzeno hospital in Bucharest.

"Yet they are still entitled to state medical care."

He is proud of the equipment at his hospital, and of the rearguard action he and others fight to persuade doctors and nurses to stay.

"The maintenance of the equipment is problematic though," he admits.

In the intensive therapy ward for premature births, I count five babies in incubators in the care of a single nurse.

In hospitals in western Europe, the ratio is closer to one nurse for two babies, Dr Marian Martin explains. For the healthy babies, there is just one nurse for 14 babies.

"It is difficult, but this is the situation."

At 37, with a family of her own, she still lives with her parents.

'Bad management'

In a waiting room in another building, pregnant women sit quietly watching the door. Inside, Dr Ilonka Gussi rests on a bed, a little weary. A specialist in difficult pregnancies, she has worked 80 hours in the past week, half in this hospital, half in her private practice.

"Many hospitals only provide accommodation and staff, while patients are expected to arrive with their own medication. The hospital is just an intermediary," she says.
She feels the main problem is more about bad management than lack of resources. Hospital chiefs are often appointed in Romania on the grounds of political loyalty, she says, rather than professional ability.

In a cafe down the road from the hospital, Costin Minoiu opens his laptop to show me the latest job offers from abroad, mediated by his organisation Careers in White.

There are jobs for nurses in Britain for £12-14 an hour, for doctors in Ireland for 50,000 euros a year, and one for a specialist in Denmark for an annual salary of 83,000 euros - numbers which would make any Romanian doctor's eyes water. I ask why anyone stays.

"Some people don't want to relocate their family; some are just in love with eastern Europe and want to stay and make a difference here - there are a lot of doctors like that."

He has no qualms about helping medical staff leave Romania.

"In an ideal world, they would work abroad a few years, gain useful experience, then come back. But it doesn't often happen like that."


On a Saturday morning in the mainly Hungarian-speaking town of Sfantu Gheorghe in central Romania, hospital manager Robert Nagy takes me to the casualty ward.

He checks the figures: 3,300 people came to casualty in the first 40 days of the year, he says.

The hospital serves the whole of Covasna county. Dr Alexandru Mundru says he stays simply because he likes his job: "I used to work in the insurance system - but I missed the daily practice of being a doctor."

This morning he's the only doctor on duty, serving two waiting rooms full of patients. The shortage of doctors is particularly acute in three fields: casualty, anaesthetics, and surgery.

In intensive care on the third floor, the sound of elderly people groaning into oxygen masks punctuates my conversation with Dr Emese Jakab.

"Most of the young doctors would like to stay, but they have no choice but to leave, mostly for Germany," she says.

An important part of Robert Nagy's job is to tour the country, trying to recruit medical staff before they either leave or are snapped up by other hospitals. To help him, the town council offers free accommodation for 5 years for doctors who move to the town.

"But the biggest problem is still to come," he says. "Replacing the doctors who retire."

The European Parliament elections in Romania will highlight the deep divisions within the country’s political system
The European Parliament elections in Romania will be held alongside a constitutional referendum, and ahead of Presidential elections in November. Clara Volintiru writes that while the elections will serve as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Presidential elections later in the year, they will potentially have wider significance for Romanian democracy. She argues that given the fragile governing coalition and continuous transformations of political parties within Romania, the results are likely to have a substantial impact on the country’s governing and electoral dynamics.
Politicians in Romania have found themselves in an increasingly perplexing situation, in which some of them are even unable to tell the press what party they belong to. While this situation might be due to their personal lack of political commitment, it is equally a result of the ever-changing political climate during the past year. Alliances form, and then become obsolete in a matter of months. New parties rise with the same political leaders as before, and throughout all this rotation of roles the position of the electorate becomes harder and harder to monitor.
Far from being an event of marginal electoral significance, the 2014 elections for the European Parliament in Romania are likely to be one of the most important political events in recent years. The stakes in this electoral cycle go beyond representation in the European Parliament; they will serve as a test of electoral strength for the highly contentious presidential elections, scheduled in the second half of this year. As such, based on the electoral results in May, significant shifts in the political coalitions are likely to occur.
There are two sets of issues at the heart of these European Parliament elections: policy issues and national political issues. In a somewhat unfortunate manner, the national political issues are likely to take centre stage, diverting attention away from more poignant, stringent, and significant policy issues. Against this backdrop, opinion polls reveal that 67 per cent of the population are disillusioned with the political process in Romania.
In terms of policy expectations, according to a recent poll, the main issues concerning the Romanian population are financial problems, such as low incomes, high prices (28 per cent of respondents identify this as an important issue) and unemployment (17 per cent), corruption (14 per cent), the quality of health care (11 per cent), infrastructure (7 per cent) and issues regarding agricultural activity (4 per cent). Beyond these specific worries, there are wider concerns about the state of democracy and rule of law.
In the run up to political contests the lines between the political sphere and the judicial one have at times been blurred. As such, a general climate of distrust and instability has gradually spread across the country. This will culminate in the double voting for European Parliament elections and a national referendum on the new draft of the Romanian Constitution. Therefore, like the Czech Republic and Italy, Romania will have a two-day election period for the European Parliament. The new Constitution is likely to pass the referendum, but it remains to be seen to what degree it will improve the framework of Romanian democracy.
The electoral contest for the 32 Members of the European Parliament in Romania is expected to bring deeper political issues to the fore. Under a general climate of political instability, the elections will continue to act as shifting tectonic plates for Romanian democracy. A precarious equilibrium has been sustained since 2012, with a coalition government encompassing a wide political spectrum, the Social Liberal Union (USL). This coalition includes Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (PSD), the main representative of the right, the National Liberal Party (PNL), the Conservative Party (PC), and the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR). However in the coming European elections they will stand on separate lists, suggesting that it is unlikely the governing coalition will stay united until the presidential elections in autumn this year.
For the European Parliament elections, the PSD will run in an alliance – the Social Democratic Union (USD) – with the UNPR and the PC, which is actually a reunion of a previous composition of the Social Democratic Party. Another important aspect to be considered is the evolution of a newly formed political party, the Popular Movement Party (PMP), where most of the former government elites of the Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) have regrouped. It is widely considered to serve as a strategic move by the incumbent president Traian Băsescu. Whether or not the PMP will manage to gain seats in the European Parliament, it is still likely to decrease the margins of the PD-L, effectively splitting the opposition.
The latest polls suggest that the USD has the support of 42 per cent of the electorate. Of the other major parties, the PNL sits at 20 per cent, while the PD-L has 18 per cent. Although other parties currently don’t meet the Romanian electoral threshold of 5 per cent, a lot could change in the following months. The Table below shows party support, based on a recent CSOP poll.
Table: Party support in Romania (February 2014)
Source: INSCOP, February 2014. Seat predictions from Pollwatch2014.
These percentages suggest in the case of the Social Democrats an increase in the number of existing MEPs for the following Parliament. While it is unlikely that the European Parliament’s overall balance of power will change substantially, the parliamentary group of the Social Democrats (S&D) will benefit from this increased representation in Romania.
Beyond the final results, the divisive background of the elections presents two wider risks. Firstly, there is a serious governance deficit, with all political parties heavily preoccupied with their electoral and organisational survival. While the economic indicators tend to show a somewhat effective administration, if institutional processes carry on in this manner they might cause more grievances.
Secondly, the disenchantment and confusion of the population towards the political class will make the representation function of the coming elections largely invalid. Whoever will take office in the European Parliament, or in national positions, is unlikely to be held accountable by voters. As such, a larger discussion on the quality and process of democracy is necessary, in a time of frequent elections.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Clara Volintiru  LSE GovernmentClara Volintiru has a PhD in Political Economy, and is currently a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Government Department, LSE. She holds an MSc in Comparative Politics, from the LSE, and an MBA from CNAM, Paris. Currently, she is associate analyst for PRIAD. Her research is focused on political parties in new democracies, informal politics and institutionalism—topics covered in various articles and books.

AFP: Romania government threatened by coalition tensions

Disagreements within Romania's ruling coalition threatened to bring down the government on Wednesday after one of its key figures demanded that Prime Minister Victor Ponta appoint a new deputy.

Coalition members are angry at a delay in appointing Klaus Iohannis, currently mayor of the Transylvanian town of Sibiu, as deputy prime minister.

Senate leader Crin Antonescu, a joint president of the ruling Social Liberal Union (SLU) coalition, threatened to bring down Ponta's government if Iohannis is not appointed by Monday.

If the prime minister fails to do so, "we will immediately demand his resignation," said Antonescu.

Iohannis' nomination was made two weeks ago as part of a reshuffle announced by Antonescu.

But Ponta has failed to confirm the appointments, saying that the post of deputy prime minister does not currently exist.

The quarrel between the two leading members of the coalition comes nine months before a presidential election.

Although Antonescu has already been selected as the sole candidate for the SLU, there is growing pressure within Ponta's Social Democratic Party to nominate its own candidate.

The SLU won Romania's last legislative election with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Romanian Roma face prejudice -- from the president on down

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

Bucharest — Like many teenagers, Cristi gets extra help outside school in favourite subjects. But unlike most, the Bucharest boy panics at the thought of his tutor leaving the room, even for a moment.

"When I go to my neighbour to take extra English lessons, I am afraid to be left alone because you know that people say Roma steal," said the 13-year-old, an ordinary boy who likes English, mathematics and, of course, football.

"Me, I don't, but I am afraid that something will disappear and I would be falsely accused."

Like Cristi, many Romanian Roma struggle daily against "prejudiced and heavily stereotypical rhetoric" used by politicians, the media and society in general, the head of the country's anti-discrimination council, Csaba Asztalos, told AFP.

A rise in anti-Roma attitudes elsewhere in Europe has underscored the problem.

And in Romania -- where Roma were treated as slaves until 1856 -- looking down at the minority starts right at the top.

In an unprecedented move last week, the state anti-discrimination council slapped President Traian Basescu with a $180 (131-euro) fine for anti-Roma remarks, after giving him two earlier warnings .

Basescu had publicly alleged, during a 2010 visit to Slovenia, that Roma do not want to work and that "many nomadic Roma traditionally live from what they steal."

Roma rights group Romani Criss praised the sanction but warned that Basescu was not an isolated case.

"Many other politicians, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta and former Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu, promote racism by describing Roma as offenders and anti-social," it said.

- 'I do not feel protected' -

"I do not recognise myself at all in the way politicians describe us," complained Loredana Dumitru, a 24-year-old Roma journalist working for a national TV channel.

"I do not feel protected in a country where many people in the street despise me because of my ethnic background and where politicians, who are supposed to guarantee my security in society, are doing the same," she told AFP.

Romania has the largest Roma minority in Europe, estimated at about two million people by rights groups. On Thursday, many will mark the abolition of Roma slavery 158 years ago.

But the vast majority do not declare themselves as ethnic Roma for fear of discrimination. Only 620,000 Roma openly stated their ethnicity in the 2011 official census.

Romania is the European Union's second poorest member state and its Roma are among the poorest of the poor, with 35 percent of Roma children living below the poverty line.

High-profile members of the community have spoken out about the trauma of discrimination, including Alina Serban, a London-based actress and playwright.

"From a grandmother telling her grandchild, 'If you do not behave I will give you to the gypsies', to politicians using stereotypes about Roma, all of them affected me and gave me complexes," she said.

Asztalos of the anti-discrimination watchdog likewise stressed the "devastating effects the negative rhetoric has on Roma children".

Like Cristi, many "live in constant fear of the widespread prejudice against their minority," he said.

Some Roma have gone into politics themselves to fight for change, such as 30-year-old Petre Florin Manole, a history graduate who joined the Social Democratic party, the largest in Romania's parliament.

With a group of colleagues, he started a league to foster better understanding but readily concedes they have a long way to go.

Romanian "politicians in theory should be an example," he told AFP, "but we should not forget they come from this very society where the majority is prejudiced against the Roma."

The challenge is how to affect change.

For Manole, EU integration and action by the anti-discrimination council is helping raise awareness among politicians.

Asztalos, meanwhile, also looks to the grass roots.

"Society should address economic and social problems rather than link everything to ethnicity," he said.

Romania's peasants: standing in the way of foreign investors making a lot of money

Luke Dale-Harris
Wednesday 19 February 2014

Amid the hysteria surrounding Romanian immigration at the beginning of this year, something crucial was forgotten: borders open both ways. As the English tabloids were throwing a tantrum about the impending "Romanian invasion", the would-be-intruders were preparing for an invasion of their own: 1 January 2014 marked the day when Romania's honeymoon period as a new EU member came to an end and, under EU law, the country was obliged to open up its land market to foreign investors.

As a country with almost 5 million peasant farmers – a quarter of the population – this was a matter of serious concern. The peasant farming economy has long been eroding under the open-market policies pushed by the European Union and the Romanian state. Squeezed out of the market by the agri-investment giants who take the bulk of the EU's common agricultural policy subsidies, small farmers are facing a difficult choice: sell up and move west to look for work, or hold tight and navigate a life of increasing rural poverty.

But this isn't really new. Over the past decade, almost 1 million hectares of Romania's land have been bought up by foreign companies, using legal loopholes left open by the state. As part of Romania's transition from communism to a modern, neoliberal economy, the movement of peasants off the land has been billed by the government as an inevitability, a hitch on the road to becoming a prosperous, western economy. Eventually, the government insists, everything will level out: the old will die off and the young will move away. This, as Achim Irimescu, the former secretary of state for agriculture, puts it, is "the natural solution" to Romania's peasant problem.

Yet this isn't social policy but market mechanics, the amalgamation of Romania into a global economy that is driven solely by the accumulation of wealth and facilitated by politics. Peasants are an obstacle to this because they are not great wealth producers, yet they are the owners, collectively, of a resource that is worth a lot to investors – land, and everything that lies below and sits upon it. The antipathy towards peasants is motivated purely because they are standing in the way of a few people making a lot of money.

There are echoes here of the changes to enclosure laws that began in Britain in the 16th century. Before this time, the English landscape looked similar to the way much of Romania still looks today. Peasants grazed their animals on common land and grew crops on open strips, accompanied by the wildlife now so absent from most of England, from glow worms through to corncrakes. The enclosure acts, pushed through parliament by the well connected landowning rich, allowed landowners to appropriate public land for private benefit. In doing so, they created a landless working class who lived as labourers, uprooted and flexible. Farming became more profitable but many were deprived of their living.

In England, the enclosure process lasted over three centuries; in Romania, the same is happening over the course of three decades. The communal, state-owned lands on which, up until few years ago, 90% of farmers grazed their livestock, have all but disappeared, rented off at cheap rates by the authorities to foreign companies.

Meanwhile, the rural population is growing. Each year more than 100,000 people move back to the countryside from Romania's cities, where prices are rising but jobs are scarce and poorly paid. On the farm, says Dumitru Sandu, an expert in immigration at the University of Bucharest, "people can at least feed themselves. But mostly they don't last long. The young move west on temporary labour contracts, bringing money back home to subsidise their families."

It is no coincidence, then, that 1 January 2014 was a double-edged sword, marking the opening of western borders to Romanian immigrants as well as those of Romania to western investors. Indeed, such a trade off was a fundamental of Romania's accession to the EU.

Yet we cannot direct all blame towards Brussels. Those same countries which are most resistant to immigration are often the most ardent proponents of the free market which has created this situation and the same countries that are profiting out of the opening up of their eastern European neighbours.

Meanwhile, Bucharest knows exactly what it is doing. Poland and Hungary faced the same situation, yet both countries implemented laws that to an extent increase the security of their country's landowners. Their reasons may have been populist and nationalist, but the results of the laws are a stand against the hegemonic policy of the EU and a relative safeguard to their peasants. The Romanian government has no such plan; here the land policy lies directly in line with that of the EU, a policy which can make Romania's powerful very rich, very quickly.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Bloomberg News East European Recovery Gathers Speed as Romanian GDP Surges 5.2%

By Agnes Lovasz
February 14, 2014

Eastern Europe’s economic growth picked up pace last quarter as a recovery strengthened in the euro area, which buys the bulk of the region’s locally made goods, and consumers spent more.

Romania’s expansion beat forecasts by the biggest margin as gross domestic product jumped 5.2 percent compared with the 2.8 percent predicted in a Bloomberg survey. On average, GDP growth in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia quickened to 2.5 percent, the fastest expansion in 18 months, from 1.8 percent in the third quarter, according to London-based researcher Capital Economics Ltd.

Growth “will strengthen further this year,” William Jackson, emerging-markets economist at Capital, said today by e-mail. “We expect a gradual improvement in the euro zone, which should support the region’s export-led industrial sector. Meanwhile, domestic demand should continue to strengthen on the back of improvements in labor markets, looser credit conditions and an easing of fiscal austerity.”

Eastern Europe was the worst affected of all emerging markets by the global financial turmoil that began after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s demise because of banking and trade links with the continent’s crisis-stricken west. It’s these connections that are aiding the recovery now as unprecedented monetary-policy steps have lifted the euro region out of a record recession, kickstarting growth.

Leu Outperforms

The better-than-estimated performance prompted Capital to raise its GDP-growth forecasts for the Czech Republic and Hungary, both to 2.5 percent from 2 percent previously, and for Romania by 1 percentage point to 3 percent.

The Romanian leu is the third-best performer against the euro and the dollar in the last month among 24 developing-nation currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The Czech koruna and the Polish zloty are both in the top 10 for that period.

“Romania was the clear outperformer,” Mihai Patrulescu, a Bucharest-based economist at UniCredit Tiriac Bank SA, said today by e-mail.

The pace of growth in the European Union’s second-poorest member was the quickest since 2008 on higher orders for cars produced in the country by Renault SA (RNO) and Ford Motor Co.

Even so, maintaining the pace of expansion through domestic demand would require stimulus, Eugen Sinca a Bucharest-based economist at Erste Group Bank AG, said by e-mail.

‘Demand Gap’

“Growth was supported by an exceptional harvest and strong export growth,” Sinca said. “A repeat of this pattern in 2014 is hard to imagine and household consumption should accelerate more for sustainable economic growth.”

Tentative consumer confidence stretches across eastern Europe, according to Romanian Budget Minister Liviu Voinea, who said in a Feb. 11 post on the Financial Times’ website that the region is suffering from a “demand gap” because of crisis-triggered austerity measures. He encouraged economic policy makers to find ways to stimulate consumer spending.

“Emerging economies in the EU are facing a familiar set of problems; very low, even negative core inflation and a declining or negative current account balance,” Voinea said. “Even those countries which have very limited fiscal room for demand support should complement their fiscal consolidation packages with creative, inexpensive solutions to stimulate aggregate demand.”

Seven-Year High

Hungarian GDP rose 2.7 percent from a year earlier in the fourth quarter, more than the 2.5 percent median forecast in a Bloomberg survey. That’s the most in seven years, buoyed by an increase in car output.

Economic growth may exceed the government’s 2 percent forecast this year, helped by an improving international backdrop, strong exports and an increase in domestic consumption, Economy Minister Mihaly Varga told reporters in Budapest today.

Poland’s economy also accelerated for a third quarter, though less quickly than economists estimated, the only east European country among six that reported GDP today to trail forecasts.

The central bank’s relaxed monetary policy may help GDP grow at more than twice last year’s 1.6 percent in 2014, according to Cezary Chrapek, an economist at Citigroup Inc.’s Polish unit.

The Czech economy expanded at the fastest pace in more than six years in the fourth quarter after the central bank intervened to weaken the koruna, with GDP rising 1.6 percent from the previous three months after advancing 0.2 percent between July and September. The country’s two-week-old cabinet is seeking to increase spending to further help the rebound.

Bulgaria’s economy expanded 1 percent from the previous year, beating a 0.8 percent estimate in a Bloomberg survey.

Whether the recovery is going to last hinges on western Europe’s growth prospects, according to Matteo Napolitano, director of Fitch Ratings’ sovereign group in London.

“We shouldn’t forget that these countries have very strong commercial and financial links so their fortunes are tied to the euro zone,” he said last week in an interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Agnes Lovasz in London at

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

A not-so exemplar president: the latest feats of Traian Basescu
by Dula Bardha

It is universally accepted that a president of a republic symbolises the unity of a nation. Whether president of a presidential or parliamentary republic, he or she is the president of all citizens of his country.

It is also universally accepted that the president of a republic represents the official state policy and whatever he or she says is official!

Therefore, it goes without saying that the president’s “wrong” actions can provoke severe criticism from offended parties, both national and foreign.

The president of Romania does not seem to care about this.

Over the past few weeks, Traian Basescu has “scored” not one but two foul shots! One was national and the other international.

At home, Basescu offended Romanian citizens who are of Roma descent with some rather sniffy and calumnious declarations. Abroad, he reinforced pro-Russian propaganda of the Gagauz leadership in the latest (and illegally declared) referendum for independence in Gagauzia, Moldova.

Even though the first instance occurred several years ago, a Romanian court has only now rendered a ruling - finding Basescu guilty of insulting Roma.

As reported in the local media last week, the Romanian Commission for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) fined Basescu 600 lei (about €130) for his statement that “there are very few nomad Roma wanting to work; many of them traditionally live on what they pilfer”. He had made the controversial statement at a press conference in Slovenia in 2010.

His statement enraged his Roma citizens - the citizens of the country he, as the president, represents.

Back home Basescu tried to avoid any further action under his country’s anti-discrimination law. His lawyers argued that he could not be punished for statements made abroad! At first, the CNCD had refused to hear the case against Basescu on the grounds that it was outside its jurisdiction. A ruling by the Bucharest Court of Appeal and a decision of the Supreme Court of Romania, however, forced the CNCD to rule on merits.

Roma activists welcomed the CNCD’s decision to fine the president. “This is an important and symbolic act of justice. We hope that this decision will cause other people to stop the discrimination against Roma,” Marian Mandache of Amnesty Romani Crisis was quoted as saying by the local media.

Anyhow, the president has never liked Roma. It was not the first time he insulted them. In May 2007, he called a reporter who tried to photograph him and his wife while shopping a “stinking Gypsy”.

Official statistics put the number of Roma living in Romania at about 620,000, but the actual number is believed to be at least twice as high.

Last year, Romanian citizens of Roma descent were the target of discriminatory actions in France and in other European Union countries. In the far-right terminology, any and every Romanian is considered a Roma. Since January when Romanian and Bulgarian citizens secured the right of free movement in the EU, many racists and xenophobes have been quick to equate Romanians with Roma.

Statements like the one made by Basescu in Slovenia are nothing but arrows in the quiver of xenophobes and, in this case, anti-Romanian philology.

Meanwhile, Basescu has made an even more dangerous statement that can have tremendous international consequences.

On the eve of an ambiguous referendum organised by local authorities in the autonomous region of Gagauzia in Moldova where voters were asked to decide on their right for independence (something that is backed by Russia), Basescu scored his second foul shot.

The Gagauz leadership said that Moldova’s rapprochement to the EU could put the country at risk of being swallowed up by Romania. The Gagauz, a people of Turkic origin, feel strange among the Romanian-speaking Moldovan nationals. From their point of view, the Moldovan government has done little to ease this concern and to defend the integrity of Moldovan territory now and in the future.

Only Moscow-backed media and politicians insist on the legitimacy of the Gagauz’ leadership concerns. But it wasn’t only them. Basescu has also declared on several occasions that Moldova is a target in Romanian politics.

On November 27, for instance, Basescu said: “I am convinced that if there will be a unionist movement in Moldova, Romania will say ‘yes’ without hesitation”.

On New Year’s Eve, he said: “The year 2014 must be the one to say honestly and openly that Moldova is Romanian land”.

And finally, on January 7, Basescu made headlines with yet another statement. Speaking on Romanian television, he said: “In Romania, there has to start an internal debate about whether Romanians agree or not with the union with the Republic of Moldova, a debate that doesn’t have to concern the politicians in Moldova. Why? In the event a turn of Moldova towards the Eurasian Union is predictable, Romania has the obligation to offer Moldova the possibility to continue its European course through a union with Romania (…) Romania has to offer this alternative”.

Is Basescu obsessed with Moldova? Probably. On another occasion, for instance, he had said that when he retires from office he will dedicate the rest of his life to Romania-Moldova unity!

Are these kind, noble and patriotic views? Probably not. Most likely they are a danger for the stability in the region.

Basescu’s statements should mobilise an EU reaction. His statements are a threat to the integrity of a state which believes in and trusts the EU and its future course within EU institutions.

Basescu’s statements are also an insult to all European citizens. It is a shame that a president of a European country uses such scornful and defamatory terms against some of these citizens.

In election year, Romania debates giving human rights to dolphins

CONSTANTA, Romania (Reuters) - Armed with an iPad and a letter of support from an Oscar-winning film director, Remus Cernea is pushing a cause that he acknowledges few of his fellow Romanian lawmakers care about: giving dolphins the same rights as humans.

The 39-year-old activist politician introduced a bill in parliament last week that would recognize the marine mammals as "non-human persons", on account of their highly developed intelligence, personalities and behavior patterns.

The bill, which will be debated in the Romanian upper house in the coming weeks, would make humans and dolphins equal before the law. Dolphin killers would be given the same sentences as murderers of human beings. The bill would also ban the use of dolphins in live entertainment shows.

The aim of the bill is to help protect Romania's indigenous dolphins in the Black Sea, Cernea said. It would also add the country's voice to a global movement against dolphin killings.

To back his cause, Cernea has received a letter of support from American filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, famed for a 2009 documentary, The Cove, about dolphin hunting in Japan.

But gathering domestic support may be tough in a year when Romania goes to the polls twice, first in the European elections in May and later to vote for a new president. Animal rights will have to find space alongside issues such as corruption and raising living standards and public services in the European Union's second poorest country.

"At this moment, I have no support," Cernea told Reuters during a visit to the city of Constanta on the Black Sea coast.

"This law asks you to make a huge step, philosophically speaking, to understand and to accept that somehow there is another species which is quite similar as we are," he added.


Cernea, who sports a pony tail and beard and wore a dolphin t-shirt during an interview on Friday, split from Romania's Green Party to be an independent MP last year.

His constituency, Constanta, is on a strip of coastline where dolphins get entangled in fishing nets and are found dead in their dozens. The city is also home to the only two dolphins in Romania kept in captivity, both bought from China in 2010.

On Friday at Constanta's dolphinarium, to the sound of blaring music, the dolphins practiced tricks in a green indoor pool, such as balancing balls on their noses and prodding them through hoops. Each trick was rewarded with fish from a bucket.

Cernea likened the pool to a prison - a view that brought a sharp rebuke from the dolphinarium's scientific director, Nicolae Papadopol, during a discussion with Reuters.

Romania had good enough laws to protects its dolphins without Cernea's bill, Papadopol said, adding that the dolphin trick shows had been a source of Romanian pride.

"Romanians have something good (here), and you are coming with this initiative to destroy it," Papadopol said.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Roma on the rubbish dump: British religious leaders call on Romanian mayor to reverse forced evictions

As ruler of Romania's dynamic second city, Emil Boc has little call to spend time on the sprawling chemical waste dump on the edge of his town.

A desolate, filthy spot above Cluj, it is not a place to attract the attention of ambitious politicians like Mr Boc - a former prime minister, who some say could be aiming for the presidency this year.

But if he did ever venture to visit the Roma community that has been forcibly rehoused there - thought to be the only such "rubbish dump ghetto" in Europe - Florin Stancu knows exactly what he would say to him.

"I would speak to him in Biblical terms," said Mr Stancu, 40. "I would tell him that we are all created the same, from Adam and Eve. We shouldn't be discriminated against.

"If he wanted to exterminate us by bringing us here, then he may as well have put us on a train and taken us to a camp."

Mr Stancu's family is one of 76 who were evicted from their homes in the centre and relocated to one-room structures on the Pata Rat dump. There are no roads, so the mud is pervasive - but there is only one communal shower block for 356 people, and initially no toilets in the homes. Children complain of breathing problems; arriving at school, they are forced to stand outside and wash the mud off their clothes, leading to inevitable taunts.

Mr Boc's government says their previous homes needed to be bulldozed to make space for a park and a Church, and that the only land available to rehouse them was the dump. He says their race had nothing to do with the decision, which was made while he was prime minister and his now-disgraced right-hand man, Sorin Apostu, was in charge of the city of 300,000.

But since the evictions three years ago, there are no Roma communities left in the centre of this pretty university city.

Human rights campaigners call for Mr Boc to allow the Roma to return. And, unbeknown to Mr Stancu, they are now hoping to appeal to the Christian conscience of this deeply-religious politician.

Senior religious leaders from across the UK - among them the Archbishop of Wales, the Bishops of Manchester and Salisbury and the Rabbi of Westminster - have joined forces to plead with Mr Boc to end the segregation.

"As a man of faith yourself, we urge you to realise the lack of humanity in these actions and take steps to rebuild relationships with the Roma community in your city," they said in an open letter, organised by Amnesty International and sent to Mr Boc.

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, also tabled a question in the House of Lords. He was told by Baroness Warsi's office that the British embassy was closely monitoring the situation, and had raised the issue with the government during a visit to Cluj on February 11.

"The Church is one of those institutions that can usefully speak up about this," said Arun Kataria, spokesman for the Bishop.

"He felt very strongly about the issue and thought it was right to draw attention to it."

For centuries the Roma people, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, have been society's scapegoats. The Nazis sent 1.5 million to concentration camps; last month a French MP was fined €3,000 (£2,500) for suggesting Hitler did not kill enough.

Romania has the second-largest number of people who describe their ethnicity as Roma, after Turkey, which has 2.75 million. And forced evictions have taken place across the country - in Baia Mare, Piatra Neamt and, in September, in Eforie South.

Bulgaria has the largest proportion - 10pc of their population are ethically Roma - and an estimated 200,000 live in Britain.

In Western Europe, Spain has the largest number, with up to 750,000 Roma residents.

But among Western nations it is France which has pursued the most active policy and controversial policy of evictions.

The country has faced mounting criticism over its treatment of the Roma minority, having evicted a record 19,380 members of the community from camps in 2013.

"We've always been society's rubbish," said Mr Stancu, who every summer works in Italy as a construction manager. "The difference is that here we actually live on the dump."

Last month, in unprecedented legal victory, a Romanian court ruled that every person who was forcibly evicted from Coastei Street should receive €2,000 compensation and be provided with adequate housing.

Mr Boc's government is appealing.

And inside the town hall, Oana Buzatu, spokesperson for Mr Boc, has little time for accusations that the government is racist.

"We are far more tolerant than you guys," she said. "The children get free buses to school. Before they were living in slums anyway.

"When they were moved to Pata Rat, it wasn't that the land was bad and no one wanted to live there. It was just the only available area."

Mrs Buzatu said that the government, with its €257m annual budget, spends a third on social projects, and was looking for solutions to the housing shortage. She said several families moved from Pata Rat into council houses each year.

"We don't see the Roma as a separate problem. They're just people who need our help."

Even Rotherham Council is involved - having signed partnership agreements with the town, they have sent delegations to advise on how to include Roma in the workforce.

"We have similar experience of employability issues, given our mining and steel communities," said Simeon Leach, economic development manager for the council, in Cluj last month. "Getting people into work is a massive step, and I really do think they are trying. But social inclusion is never easy to achieve."

Back in Pata Rat, snow is falling heavily, and children trudge up the slopes of the dump to sledge back down.

With the lights of Cluj twinkling in the distance, it is almost picturesque.

"It is very beautiful here - like that scene in American Beauty with plastic bags blowing on the breeze," said Petru Fechete, 30, who lives on the dump. "Only times the bags by a thousand and add the stench," he said with a laugh.

"Before I was proud to live in the centre; I dressed smartly and held my head up high," he said in fluent English, having lived in London for three months.

"But now I feel ashamed. I go for job interviews, and everything is fine until I have to give my address - then I'm told there is no job. We used to be part of society - now we are out here like savages."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Romanian president fined for saying Roma steal

By Associated Press
February 10

BUCHAREST, Romania — An agency has fined Romania’s president 600 lei ($185) for saying Roma avoid work and make a living by stealing.

The National Council for Combatting Discrimination first declined to take the case because President Traian Basescu had made his comments out of the country, during a 2010 news conference in Slovenia.

But the Supreme Court ordered the autonomous body under the control of Parliament to take the case, and on Monday it fined Basescu for having said “very few of them (Roma) want to work” and “traditionally many of them live off stealing.” He did not immediately react to the ruling.

Romania officially has 620,000 Roma, also known as Gypsies, but the number is believed to be far higher because many do not declare their ethnicity to avoid widespread discrimination.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Romanians Reject Euro Loans After Hungary Disaster: Mortgages

By Irina Savu and Andra Timu 
February 03, 2014

Romania, using record-low interest rates to rebuild a housing market devastated by the economic crisis, is forcing homebuyers like Vlad Popescu to abandon cheap euro-denominated mortgages in the name of financial stability.

In October, the government changed the terms of a four-year-old program for euro loans to only cover credit in the Romanian currency, the leu. In the following months, banks, led by Erste Group (EBS) Bank AG’s Banca Comerciala Romana SA and BRD-Groupe Societe Generale SA, accelerated leu mortgage lending. It grew at a record annual pace of 90 percent in December.

Romania is providing $4.2 billion in loan guarantees to first-time homebuyers such as Popescu. The government is betting that borrowers in the European Union’s second-poorest country will accept higher payments in exchange for local currency loans that won’t jump in cost if the leu plunges against the euro. In Popescu’s case, it’s working.

“I got used to the idea,” said Popescu, who initially sought a loan in euros for his two-bedroom, 295,000-lei ($88,000) Bucharest apartment before taking a leu-or-nothing offer for a government guarantee. “My monthly payments went up by 300 lei, but they’re fixed now and I don’t expect any significant changes in the next few years.”
Hungarian Troubles

The changes come after hundreds of thousands of homebuyers in neighboring Hungary took out Swiss-franc loans, only to be hurt by a slump in their own currency. The forint has depreciated by about 75 percent since 2008, when most of the loans were issued.

The plan guarantees 50 percent of the value of mortgages worth as much as 75,000 euros, with a 5 percent down payment. That reduces the risks for banks, allowing them to make cheaper loans. On Jan. 8, the Romanian central bank lowered its benchmark interest rate to a record 3.75 percent, the latest in a string of cuts that began in July 2013. It is expected to trim the rate again tomorrow to 3.5 percent, according to 12 of 18 economists in a Bloomberg survey.

The revised government program is intended to protect leu-earning home buyers against exchange-rate swings, such as when the leu plunged 12 percent against the euro at the end of 2008, driving up euro-denominated loan payments.

The guarantees -- $602 million for this year alone -- are also designed to counteract a squeeze from western lenders that have cut back euro funding to their Romanian operations before the release of EU-wide stress-test results in November.
Limiting Loans

Romania has lagged behind Poland and neighboring Hungary in limiting foreign-currency loans. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban effectively banned such debt in 2010, while Poland allows it only for borrowers whose incomes are based in foreign currencies.

After coming to power in 2010, Orban effectively banned foreign-currency mortgages. It was part of a series of measures aimed at phasing out such loans and helping hundreds of thousands of Hungarians whose repayments of predominantly Swiss-franc denominated loans ballooned in the aftermath of the global financial the crisis.

In 2011, he forced banks to swallow $1.7 billion in losses on the early repayment of some mortgages at below-market exchange rates, expanded a program allowing debtors to temporarily repay their mortgages at fixed exchange rates and pledged to take further steps to eliminate all such loans.

About 100,000 Romanian borrowers took part in the government’s initial four-year program, with the state guaranteeing loans amounting to about 4 billion euros ($5.5 billion).
Jagged Skyline

That’s good news for developers struggling to recover from a real estate collapse that left the Bucharest skyline marked by half-finished office buildings and idle cranes. On the city’s outskirts, hundreds of buildings and houses stand empty along unpaved roads.

“This program is the best idea the state has had in years,” Alexandru Tiron, a construction engineer, told Bloomberg. “It will be extended. If not, the construction market will plunge again and take the entire economy with it.”

Bad loans in Romania stood at 22 percent of all lending at the end of November, the sixth-worst ratio in the world in 2012, according to World Bank data. That has left credit scarce.

The state-guaranteed loans are the exception. With a default rate of 0.1 percent, they now account for 90 percent of new mortgages, according to Alpha Bank Romania SA Chief Executive Officer Sergiu Oprescu.
‘Good Start’

“The program had a pretty good start, but lately it has received a very strong boost from the central bank’s rate cuts,” he said in an interview in Bucharest. “It totally eliminates the foreign-exchange risk.”

The average leu mortgage rate fell to 6.11 percent at the end of last year, less than half of 2009’s record-high of 14.76 percent, central bank data show. In comparison, euro mortgage rates averaged 5.87 percent, down from 9.17 percent at the end of 2008.

Now local developers are rebuilding after a two-year recession starting in 2009 that torpedoed projects backed by international companies such as Charlemagne Capital Ltd. (CCAP) and Asmita SA.

The 120 million-euro Asmita Gardens project in Bucharest, Romania’s biggest private residential investment, failed in 2011. A few streets away, developer Tiron sold out his third apartment building in six months at about 800 euros per square meter. That’s 24 percent less than today’s prices at Asmita’s project, built before the crisis.
‘Extraordinary Demand’

“There’s an extraordinary demand for cheaper, smaller apartments,” Andreea Comsa, managing director of real estate broker Premier Estate SA said in an interview in Bucharest. “Local developers are buying land and building tailor-fit houses for the program. They sell very quickly.”

The average apartment price in Romania plunged to 898 euros per square meter at the end of 2013 from more than 2,000 euros in 2008, an index from property listings website and consultancy shows. Still, the government’s First Home program may be keeping prices artificially high, according to Andrei Radulescu, an analyst at Romanian brokerage SSIF Broker SA told Bloomberg.

“The program prevented a possible natural adjustment of the market that would have brought home prices closer to their fair value,” he said. “Without it, I think the banking sector would also have adjusted more quickly.”

The government is pledging to continue its First Home program “for as long as the market needs it,” according to the Finance Ministry. After its initial euro-based plan lured 14 lenders, the revamped program is attracting more.
ING Joins

ING Romania Chairman Misu Negritoiu said his bank applied to join this year and wants to tap as much as 50 million lei in state guarantees.

Half of all lending at BCR, Romania’s biggest bank by assets, is from First Home loans, with a portfolio now at about 5 billion lei, retail manager Andrew Gerber said.

“I see a huge amount of potential,” Gerber said in an interview from his office in downtown Bucharest. “It’s the right place to be if we want to build a sustainable mortgage market.”

Popescu, meanwhile, is looking forward to moving into his new 85-square-meter (915-square-foot) home in Titan, a neighborhood in the east of the capital that got its name from a cement factory. Before then, though, he plans to spend the last of his savings on a trip to Paris with his girlfriend.

“It was either that or a new couch,” he said.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at; Balazs Penz at; Rob Urban in New York at

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Romania Central Bank Said to Intervene in Market to Prop Up Leu

By Andra Timu and Irina Savu 
January 31, 2014

Romania’s central bank sold euros to shield the leu from a selloff roiling emerging markets, according to two currency traders in Bucharest.

The central bank sold between 600 million euros and 1 billion euros in the past three days, said the traders, who asked not to be identified in line with their respective banks’ policies. The leu strengthened 0.3 percent to 4.5020 per euro at 6:10 p.m. in Bucharest, the highest since Jan. 7 on a closing basis. Today’s advance brought the appreciation to 1.1 percent in the last four days and is the third-best among the 24 emerging-market currencies monitored by Bloomberg.

The leu climbed 0.7 percent against the euro this week, compared with declines seen in the Hungarian forint, the Czech koruna and the Polish zloty, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Emerging-market currencies slumped this month as a report showed China’s economy slowed and the U.S. Federal Reserve moved ahead with a planned reduction in its record monetary stimulus.

“The central bank is trying to limit the spill over from the emerging-market storm,” Vlad Muscalu, an economist at ING Bank Romania SA, said in an e-mailed response to Bloomberg questions.

The Romanian economy grew 4.1 percent in the third quarter, the fastest in two years, helped by a growth in exports and a bumper harvest season. The central bank “is counting on the country’s solid fundamentals and the relatively high economic growth,” Muscalu said.

Romania’s central bank has a managed-float policy for the leu. The bank’s spokesperson Mugur Stet declined to comment on market interventions, in line with the regulator’s policy.

The Fed reduced this week the pace of its bond buying in a second straight meeting. It reduced the monetary stimulus by $10 billion to $65 billion a month.

The Romanian central bank, which is scheduled to hold it’s next rate setting meeting on Feb. 4, cut its key rate to a record 3.75 percent on Jan. 8. It unexpectedly lowered the minimum reserve requirements for leu liabilities to 12 percent from 15 percent and for foreign-currency ones to 18 percent from 20 percent.

On the same day, Governor Mugur Isarescu said “I don’t see any imminent danger of a significant depreciation.”

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

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