Monday, June 30, 2014

What happened to the protest movements in Romania and Bulgaria?

Claudia Ciobanu
27 June 2014
http://m.aljazeera.com/

Protest movements in Bulgaria and Romania have taken different paths to address similar issues.


On June 14, thousands of Bulgarians marked the one-year anniversary of the start of their anti-government protest. In 2013, under the banner Ostavka or resignation, Bulgarians took to the streets for months in a row, calling for a new government.

The government they wanted to bring down was representing an unholy alliance made up of the Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Liberties, a party that supposedly represents the country's Turkish population, with the tacit approval of the far-right, inherently anti-Turkish, Ataka. The trigger for the public outrage was the appointment of a young media mogul as head of the national security agency.

What brought the Bulgarians to the streets was an overpowering anger at a political class perceived to be corrupt to the bone, serving the interests of oligarchs and mafia groups, and ignoring the needs of the people.

During the winter of 2013, poor Bulgarians had protested against unbearably high electricity bills, and a couple of people set themselves on fire in separate incidents across the country, in acts of protest and desperation.

Romania's nationwide mobilisation began on September 1, and was sparked by a draft law that was meant to give extraordinary powers to a Canadian corporation wanting to build Europe's biggest gold mine in the village of Rosia Montana in the country's west. The legislative proposal gave the state the right to expropriate land in the name of "national interest" at the request of the company and ordered authorities to reissue automatically with any permits overruled by national courts.

The project's social and environmental costs far exceeded its benefits, and yet politicians across party lines and all mainstream media had been promoting it for 15 years, which to people, was a sure sign of corruption.

Rosia Montana became the symbol of everything that was wrong in the country. Romanians identified with the Rosia Montana's villagers who had been for years harassed by the state and foreign companies which wanted to destroy their environment in order to make profits.

Innocence lost

In the post-Occupy global context, the Romanian and Bulgarian stories are not new. We have seen the same storyline repeating in many places over the past years: People coming together to take on the corrupted nexus between politics and business which sidelines the needs and the will of the people.

As in other places, Romanians and Bulgarians came out in the streets to express their anger, and in the process stumbled upon a sense of collective empowerment they had thought lost or nonexistent. It was both the outrage at government mismanagement and the ecstasy of coming together for the first time that fuelled such intensive protests.

That Romanians and Bulgarians shared an agenda with Americans, Greeks, Spaniards, Turks, Brazilians and others is not surprising. Whatever political systems we nominally live in, power is often sold to capital and citizens are excluded from politics.

What is peculiar in the Eastern European case is that these protests marked the end of popular trust in the post-socialist transition and the Western dream. A quarter-century ago, communist systems in these countries collapsed and a transition to liberalism and the market economy began. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union, the ultimate goal of all post-1989 political projects in these countries. We thought we had it figured out.

Yet in 25 years, it slowly became clear that the Western dream had its demons too. Common goods were sacrificed in the name of a future prosperity that came to only a few, while many remained destitute and marginalised.

While some of those protesting corruption and dysfunctional politics were still seeing them as effects of a communist heritage (in Bulgaria specifically, this message was actively pushed by the centre-right opposition among the protesters), many were ready to admit that they were victims of the new system as well.

Diverging paths

Romanians and Bulgarians tend to see their societies as passive. Decades of authoritarian regimes during which opposition was brutally stifled meant that a tradition of protest was missing. Civic engagement did not really pick up after 1989, partly because of this history, and partly because people were busy chasing new opportunities, or perhaps because we had managed to persuade ourselves we were inactive by nature.

Over the course of 2013, both Romanians and Bulgarians broke with that tradition with gusto.

Beyond the commonalities described until now, the evolution of the protest movements differed in the two countries.

In a way, Romanians were lucky. The trigger for their protests was a cause that proved less divisive. Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum had promoted the gold mine, and organisers of the protests were very careful to distance the movement from any party.

The Bulgarian pretext for mobilisation - the call for the resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski - backfired in the end. In the beginning of the summer of 2013, it seemed that everyone was in the streets united by this call. Yet after a while, the protests took on a more specific political colour.

Voices blaming "communists" (the Socialist Party was the offspring of the former Bulgarian Communist Party) for all of society's ills became very vocal. Getting rid of "red trash" and making Bulgaria truly European emerged as the core message. This was the rhetoric of the centre-right parties in opposition. Many stopped participating, feeling unrepresented, and weary of being used in electoral games.

The Bulgarian government, battered and bruised, has nevertheless held on to power. Early elections for this autumn were recently announced, meaning that Oresharski had to resign this summer - but this would have been too late for the protesters to see it as a direct result of their intervention. The thousands celebrating the anniversary in mid-June still called for an immediate resignation, indicative of how much some of the Bulgarians wanted a symbolic victory.

In Romania, circumstances were very different. After a few weeks of protests, Romanians were already getting signals from parliamentarians that the controversial draft project might not pass. A 15-year-old campaign to save Rosia Montana had prepared solid evidence against the project which popular mobilisation brought to the surface. MPs were now afraid to push the law. This sense of victory proved empowering.

Thus the Romanian protest gave birth immediately to a loose civic movement that is active until today. Winning Rosia Montana boosted people's confidence and they were ready for more. Good guidance from a core of experienced activists helped Uniti Salvam, a Facebook page coordinating the protests, turn into a real community. They had regular meetings and took on new themes, such as fighting fracking, promoting electoral reform, and saving parks.

Bulgarians, on the other hand, have been much more divided and polarised since fall 2013.

What is unique to Bulgaria though, is that as the protests were winding down last year, an occupation of Sofia university was organised in October, explicitly to challenge the direction of Bulgaria's post-socialist transition. The students' actions enjoyed broad sympathy, from Sofia intelligentsia to people from the countryside. The political activation of students could bear fruit in the future.

The Bulgarian and Romanian protests were in a sense a visceral criticism of the transition. In the Bulgarian case, there was a clear political critique voiced by some of the protesters. On the other hand, the Romanian network has been working on spreading progressive politics. At the moment the main challenge they face is linking individual issues (the treat of fracking in Pungesti, for example) to their systemic causes (dysfunctional capitalism, corruption, etc).

Still, a momentous shift has happened in both countries. Citizens have moved back into the public space and politicians are no longer operating in a civic vacuum. Romanians and Bulgarians are readier than ever to ask questions and demand answers from politicians, even if they have to do it in the streets. Figuring out a long-term strategy for real and lasting change is a challenge, and one which they share with many around the world.

Claudia Ciobanu is a freelance reporter based in Warsaw, who contributes to Inter Press Service (ipsnews.net) and OpenDemocracy (opendemocracy.net), among other media.

What's the state of play in Romania? Sibiu theatre festival report

Romanian playwrights are taking an unflinchingly look at their country with targets matching those of their British counterparts

Andrew Haydon
theguardian.com
Friday 27 June 2014

The work staged this month at an international theatre festival in Sibiu, the former capital of Transylvania, proved a fascinating counterpoint to Nigel Farage's recent remarks about having Romanians for neighbours. One of the country's leading directors and writers, Gianina Cărbunariu, was represented by her documentary drama about Securitate persecution, Tipografic Majuscul, and a new fast-paced satire,Solitaritate. The latter showed just how angry Romanians themselves can be in attacking their own country – and how each target of the play (crooked politicians taking more than their fair share from the national purse, middle-class couples ill-treating their maids, populist politicians cashing in on racist sentiments) all had British parallels. If you altered a few local references, you could put this on at the National as a state-of-England play (and I sort of hope someone does).

Dreaming Romania, a student piece also being shown as part of the main festival – the lack of a distinction between an international director and a student company felt truly revolutionary – offered a similarly angry critique of everything from the futility of protesting to the anarchy of social service provision. Although, performed without surtitles, the most exciting thing for the non-Romanian speaker was the semi-improvised, almost chaotic way the performers jostled for attention and talked over one another in a way that doesn't happen enough in theatre.

By contrast, the piece I saw by Radu Afrim, Hai Iu Iu Nu Hey You You, was a joyous, sexy, subversive, feminist celebration of Romania's best-known folk singer, Maria Tănase (1913-63). Essentially a staged gig of power electronics and folk-inflected techno covers of her songs, it still managed to feel like a more powerful, immediate theatrical statement than the new production of Oedipus by Romania's Silviu Purcărete, which premiered at the festival.

The theatre programme in Sibiu is dizzyingly packed and diverse. There is also an astonishing – and free – literary programme running alongside the festival, featuring interviews with the show's directors and critics, and offering screenings, readings and retrospectives; Neil La Bute was there doing writing workshops.

Of the work I managed to get to see the first was the one piece already familiar to British audiences, Purcărete's Faust, which garnered rave reviews when it was shown at the 2009 Edinburgh festival. Faust plays every year here, as Sibiu is its home town.

Alongside the Romanian work were new and not so new pieces by highly regarded international directors including the Poles Krystian Lupa (doing Thomas Bernhard) and Jan Klata (doing Strindberg), the Russian Lev Dodin (doing Schiller), and the up-and-coming German director Bastian Kraft (doing Molière). And, much though I've loved other work by many of them, it was these big guns of directors' theatre who ended up leaving me cold in each case.

Instead, the real discoveries of the festival were the Czech companyHanda Gote and the brilliant half-Serb, half-Croatian director, born in Bosnia, Oliver Frljic, here directing a Slovenian company in a piece about the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Handa Gote's show, Clouds, is a terrific lo-fi aesthetic in which the performer, Veronika Švábová, simply tells us about her grandparents and great-grandparents. They, variously, founded the Czech communist party, were imprisoned in concentration camps, became high-ups in the secret police and were shot as traitors, which makes for a more exciting family album than most, and yet it's lightly worn and beautifully executed.

Then there's Oliver Frljic and Mladinsko Theatre's Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland, which is a choppy series of sketches, songs and dances about the role that Slovenia played during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It's one of the most perfect examples of theatrical alchemy I've ever seen, and its powerful, cumulative effect has the audience leaving the theatre shell-shocked, elated, angry, sad, and needing to spend some time alone.

Alongside works seen at the festival, some of the best street performers and musicians from around Europe are brought in to perform around the town; this year there was an unmissable crack team of Belgian saxophonists, among others. As a result, even citizens uninterested in the latest developments in European regietheater or the Romanian avant garde could enjoy walking the streets in the late evening to the sounds of brilliantly played jazz or big-band music.

The Romanian work on display suggested a country with a capacity for looking inwardly to fight its own problems and outwardly to embrace the world. Sibiu, with its clear civic and cultural pride in the festival, felt like pretty much the best neighbourhood imaginable.

Read more about the Sibiu international theatre festival

The man in the yellow van: Mircea Diaconu, the accidental MEP

by Dan Alexe
http://www.neurope.eu

Romania (the country of origin of the founders of the Dadaist, pre-Surrealist movement) is famous for having sent, in the previous EU legislature, extremely exotic figures to the European Parliament, such as: the rabid caricature of a far-right ultranationalist politician (Corneliu Vadim Tudor); a dyslexic daughter of president Basescu, a former botoxed model (Elena B.); a millionaire, but inarticulate, shepherd, now in jail for fraud (Gigi Becali); or a corrupt, nominally Socialist, MEP who refused to resign from the European Parliament even when caught red-handed in a “cash-for-amendments” affair (Adrian Severin).

Now, Romania has, among its 32 MEPs, Mircea Diaconu, one of those Eastern European actors whose fame is based on an amorphous popular consensus incomprehensible for outsiders. But Diaconu’s status is uncertain, for it is contested by the anti-corruption bodies from his own country, who have asked the still-to-reunite EU Parliament to scrap his mandate, given that the well-known actor became an MEP while being declared incompatible.

Diaconu was a moderately popular second-rate actor in Communist times. At the time, his baby face was bringing something candid and naive to the roles he interpreted. He acted in small roles, cops, taxi drivers, until Nae Caranfil’s successful movie Filantropica, in 2002.

In Romania, hubris means that the public person afflicted by it thinks he or she is not concerned by common rules. So it happened that, while acting as head of the prestigious Nottara theatre in Bucharest, Diaconu was forced to resign after having hired his own wife as stage director, although she was merely an actress, with no directing experience. He himself headed the examining commission and awarded her the maximum mark of 10. He was then also a senator for the National Liberal Party, and, for a short while, culture minister. Of course, it didn’t bother him to be simultaneously senator and director of the very theatre Nottara that would come under his own jurisdiction as culture minister.

When forced to resign, he took this as a huge injustice and a personal affront. He then decided to run for the European Parliament, but when he was declared incompatible and stopped from running in the EU elections, he quickly set up a friendly network of signature-gatherers, mostly among pensioners, the elderly from the suburbs and the countryside. Pensioners are a redoubtable force in Romania. He gathered the necessary 100,000 signature in order to become an independent candidate, and in the elections he got 6,81% of the national vote, more than the party of the Hungarian minority (UDMR), or the right-oriented PMP party backed by outgoing president Basescu. In order to win over the compassion of the population, he criss-crossed the country in an old yellow minivan, talking personally to people. He played the victim as unconvincingly for outsider as he did on screen. But it worked: Romanian pensioners don’t make any distinction between life and cinema.

He insisted very much on his car being old and rundown, and promised that he would drive it all the way to Brussels, were he to win. “Poor Diaconu” was the catchword... “They don’t allow him to run.”

“They” in Romania, as in most post-Communist Eastern Europe, are maleficent, foreign-controlled entities, who manipulate from the shadows

For the time being, the National Agency for Integrity went to court in Bucharest in order to contest Diaconu’s European mandate. Meanwhile, he Joined the ALDE group of the European Liberals, while his former Romanian ALDE colleagues left the Liberal in order to join the EPP…

Surrealist Romanian politics is coming to town… in a yellow, ostensibly run-down van.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

WSJ: China’s ICBC to Finance Romanian Nuclear Project

BUCHAREST–Romanian Vice-Premier Liviu Dragnea said on Monday that the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China 601398.SH +0.29% has agreed to finance the construction of two additional reactors at the country’s nuclear power plant in Cernavoda.

“The bank’s president presented the management’s decision to financially support the energy projects Romania and China agreed upon, namely the construction of the third and fourth reactors in Cernavoda, as well as other investment projects currently in advance negotiations,” Dragnea told reporters after a meeting with Jiang Jianqing, the chief executive of ICBC, which is the world’s largest bank.

Dragnea said the Chinese bank is considering opening a local subsidiary in Romania.

“Given the value of the projects to be financed, which could exceed €10 billion [$13.6 billion], the bank is analyzing the possibility to open a unit in Romania,” he told reporters. “They already have a subsidiary in Poland.”

Romania’s nuclear power project in Cernavoda, valued at more than €6 billion, was initially scheduled to kick off in 2010, but was shelved due to lack of funds after four of the initial six investors withdrew, citing economic and market uncertainties.

The country’s remaining two partners, Italian utility Enel ENEL.MI -3.38% andArcelorMittal MT +0.66% Romania, withdrew from the project in late 2013.

Cernavoda operates two reactors generating 700 megawatts power each and covers around 20% of Romania’s electricity production. The two new reactors are expected to double the plant’s capacity.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Transylvania's wolves face uncertain future

http://www.dw.de/

Romania is believed to have the largest wolf population in Europe, but a culture of fear surrounding the predators may put their future at risk. Conservationists are calling for the wolves to be better protected.

For the shepherds on the hills of Mures County in Romania, where dark, dense forests wrap around areas of open grazing land, the thought of wolves is never far away.

Makeshift warning bells hang off trees, clattering in the wind. Huge dogs, some of them hybrid wolves themselves, prowl around flocks of sheep to keep them safe.

But the wolves come anyway. All across Romania's mountainous regions, shepherds move with their flocks across the land. Almost every one of them has a story to tell about wolves taking their sheep.

"Year after year after year, wolves attack my sheep and lambs," says Bogdan Antonescu, a shepherd who has worked on these hills for more than two decades. "They hide in that thistle patch there and when I pass by they attack and take a sheep. It's as easy as that."

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

The great forests of Romania are home to large carnivores that long ago disappeared from most of Europe. Alongside the wolves, bears and lynx live in large numbers. But while the other carnivores are a source of great pride for many Romanians, wolves remain a largely hated animal, conjuring images of savagery and cunning in the public imagination.

In a puppet theater in the Transylvanian city of Cluj Napoca, a folk tale called "The Goat with Three Kids" has been playing to children for decades. Adapted from a Grimm Brothers story, the play is about three young goats who are tricked by a wolf who wants to get into their house. When the mother returns, she finds blood smeared on the walls and the decapitated heads of her two eldest children on the window sill. Only the youngest survives.

Grazing sheep, and even the dogs guarding them, are often killed by wolves roaming the hills in Transylvania

Ibolya Varga directs, and performs in, the show. For her, the wolf has all the characteristics of a classic dramatic villain.

"The wolf is a demonic image that corrupts, destroys innocence and makes victims of the small ones," she says. "He feels the smell of blood and flesh. He goes on high rocks and howls at the moon. All of this makes us think of him like of a demon."

Romanian media take a similar approach. Stories of the grisliest wolf attacks are splashed all over local and national newspapers, with headlines like "The 50kg beast who terrified a village, took six lambs and was as big as a man."

But this culture of fear has a very real impact on the country's wolves and plays an undeniable role in deciding whether they are to live or to die.

A population at risk?

Romania is believed to have the largest population of wolves in Europe. Most live in the dense forests that span the Carpathian Mountains, where, aside from hunters and foresters, few humans venture.

Here, according to government figures, lives one of the highest densities of wolves on earth. But many conservationists believe the reality is very different to that promoted by the government.

Attila Kecskes works with the Romanian wildlife organization Milvus Group. He has been tracking wolves in Transylvania for years, trying to disentangle the facts from the fiction.

"Nobody knows the status of the wolf population," he says. "Because there is no relevant and credible national data, nobody knows if the population is growing, is stable or is decreasing."

The bears and wolves in Romania's forests are also illegally targeted by poachers

The problem, says Kecskes, is that the population is monitored by private hunting associations. Since the industry was privatized 10 years ago, almost a thousand of these businesses have sprung up, each responsible for monitoring an area of about 40 square kilometers (about 15 square miles), and killing wolves deemed dangerous to local livestock.

But Kecskes says this method doesn't work because each association monitors an area that is smaller than the range a wolf pack covers. So the animals are passing in and out of different hunting association territories.

"Because the hunters don't talk to each other, it's very probable that the same wolf pack is counted more than once, in more places," he says.

Kecskes and Milvus Group are conducting their own study in a protected area beneath the foothills of the Transylvanian Carpathian Mountains. The results show a stark contrast to the hunters' figures.

"We realized that in this area the number of wolves is between 20 and 30. The official number of wolves estimated by hunters was 150," says Kecskes.

The hunters' estimates are passed on to the State Institute for Forestry and Management, which then arrives at a final figure for Romania's wolf population. Last year, the number they reported was about 2,500 wolves for the whole country.

Hundreds of kilometers east, conservationists report a similar disparity between official figures and reality.

Wolves from Romania's forests stare out from the display of large carnivores in Sfantu Gheorghe's Museum of Hunting Trophies

Fair game

Hunters from all over Europe come to Romania to shoot the same animals that the wolves prey on; deer, wild boar and chamois. Yet almost no one comes to shoot the wolf. So, for hunters, the logic is clear: The more wolves they report, the more they are permitted to cull.

Yet officials insist hunters are not endangering Romania's wolf population. Ovidiu Ionescu is head of large carnivore management with the Institute for Forestry and Management. He is responsible for drawing up the wolf hunting quotas for each area.

"Definitely hunting is not the problem for the large carnivores. We hunt between 250-300 wolves per year, it is about 10 percent of the population and the wolf can easily recover up to 35 percent of the population, so the effect is more psychological than biological."

But the authorities here have their own interests in the hunting industry. Ovidiu Ionescu himself is president of the Brasov hunting association. For years, he has faced campaigns from conservationists over the lack of transparency in his wolf counting system.

The problem comes with the hunting quota for wolves. Hunters are permitted to cull up to 30 percent of the population. Even when this quota isn't filled, independent specialists believe many wolf deaths are never reported. If the population reports are exaggerated and the wolf shootings are under-reported, the wolf population may plummet without anyone even noticing.

We rarely see them, but wolves are a central part of Romania's forest ecosystems. By keeping down the numbers of ungulates such as deer and wild boar, they allow the new trees and vegetation to grow. This in turn provides habitats for birds and other animals.

But here in Transylvania, if hobby hunters continue to call the shots, wolves could well exit the scene altogether.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Romania to try ex-prison chief for crimes against humanity

Agence France-Presse
June 18, 2014

Romania is to try a former Communist-era prison chief for crimes against humanity after dozens of political detainees were beaten and starved on his watch, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Alexandru Visinescu, 88, was the commander of the Ramnicu Sarat prison in eastern Romania between 1956 and 1963, when Communist repression against dissidents reached its peak.

The prosecutor's office said inmates died under Visinescu's charge after being subjected to "physical and mental torture" and deprived of food and medical care.

The prosecution has identified 138 people who were detained in the prison under Visinescu, including intellectuals, members of the clergy and politicians.

More than 600,000 people were sentenced and jailed in Romania for political reasons between 1945 and 1989.

Romania's Constitutional Court ruled at the end of last year that murder is not subject to the statute of limitation, opening the way for the prosecution of Communist-era crimes.

Former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were convicted of genocide in 1989 in a makeshift trial. They were executed on December 25, 1989.

However, very few former Communist leaders and commanders have been prosecuted in Romania since the return to democracy in 1989.

The start date for Visinescu's trial has not yet been set.

Bloomberg News Romania May Cut Employers’ Social Payments Over IMF Objections

By Edith Balazs 
June 18, 2014

Romania’s government approved a draft bill cutting social contributions paid by employers to help create jobs, over the objection of international lenders.

The cabinet plans to cut social contributions by 5 percentage points beginning on Oct. 1, according to a statement from the Finance Ministry. The bill needs the approval of parliament, where the coalition government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta has a majority. The International Monetary Fund warned in April said Romania must refrain from cutting taxes or increasing spending as fiscal rigor is “critical.”

Romania is on its third consecutive IMF program since the global financial crisis rocked the country in 2009 and is looking to wean itself off the Washington-based lender’s assistance. The country has brought its budget deficit to within the EU’s limit of 3 percent of economic output and is now planning to sell stakes in state-owned companies to cut the shortfall to 2.2 percent of gross domestic product.

The leu was little changed at 4.398 per euro by 5:18 p.m. in Bucharest, recovering from its weakest level in three weeks yesterday. The benchmark BET stock index gained 0.4 percent to 6,767.28, snapping two days of decline.

The estimated budget impact of cutting the levy is 4.8 billion lei ($1.5 billion) per year and will lower this year’s budget revenue by an estimated 850 million lei, according to the Finance Ministry.

Higher-than-expected revenue from real-estate taxes will compensate for this year’s budget shortfall resulting from the cut in social contributions, the ministry said. The government is planning various measures, including more efficient tax collection and stricter anti-corruption regulations, to offset the impact next year, according to the statement.

The IMF postponed the completion of its review of Romania’s support package until November to give the government time to decide on fiscal measures, Ponta said in an interview on June 12. The review will be completed after the cabinet drafts its 2015 budget following a Nov. 2 presidential election, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Edith Balazs in Budapest at ebalazs1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at jagomez@bloomberg.net

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Romania's ruling party revives nationalism ahead of presidential election

BY MICHAEL BIRD AND STEFAN CANDEA

BUCHAREST - Romania’s governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) looks set to base its presidential election campaign on conservative nationalism that mixes religious devotion and home security.

Anti-Semitism for commuters: An electronic book dispenser on Bucharest's Underground train platform selling Hitler’s Bible - justification for the Holocaust ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (Photo: Michael Bird)

The party won the European elections in May, getting 38 percent of the vote on a campaign based around the slogan: “We will send people to Brussels who are proud of being Romanians – who will defend Romania.”

This nationalistic “defence” against an unidentified assailant was at the heart of a campaign which looks set to frame prime minister Victor Ponta’s pitch for the presidency in the November poll.

In his victory speech after the European elections, Ponta said his party would continue to focus on what he called the traditional values of Romania: “the army, church and family”.

“And we must protect these values,” he said.

He added that the core of the campaign for the presidential elections will be the party slogan: “Proud to be Romanians.”

Although politicians' rhetoric is not always taken as a serious indication of policy direction, this shows a hardening of religious nationalist doctrine in Romania.

This is in stark contrast to the social democracy face that the party shows towards the European Union.

For example, this month the ministry of education and the Romanian Orthodox church signed an accord giving the church the power to sack religion teachers in schools – a move seen by civil society as an “alarm signal” about the interference of the church in state matters.

The PSD has its roots in the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), which pursued a nationalistic, anti-minority and anti-semitic policy after 1946, especially in the last two decades of the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu.

One political scientist who has researched the political elite in Romania and who wished to stay anonymous, argues that the PSD is captive to the same electorate the Communist party created – a poor and uneducated rank and file.

“The PSD is responsible for the stagnation of Romania,” he says. “It took over the structures and mentalities of the former PCR and there is no authentic reform to free the country from this state.”

In its electoral campaign, the PSD used folk motifs and photos of the statues of Romanian independence fighters, such as Mihai Viteazul, the first unifier of the Romanian principalities in 1600.

Vintila Mihailescu, a leading Romanian cultural anthropologist, argues that nationalistic props are an important electoral resource for all parties.

But he adds: “The PSD electorate understands this language more easily, so there is a certain continuity [from the communist period].”

The communist party always invoked a defence against an external threat, such as fascists or Hungarians, and transformed historical figures who battled for Romanian self-determination into icons.

Mihailescu believes this is an electioneering strategy targeting a specific demographic, and does not represent a coherent move to return to using communist rhetoric. Nor, he said, is the PSD likely to make future xenophobic threats.

Nevertheless aspects of this language were revived recently in a personal attack by prime minister Ponta.

The head of government refused to give literary critic and PEN writers' club member, Mircea Mihaies, a national order of faithful service award.

Ponta said the 60-year-old writer was “an old fascist – we no longer believed neo-Nazis are in Europe, yet they exist in Romania”.

Ponta did not back up his claim with any evidence.

Mihaies said he was “disgusted by this slur”.

“Ponta has merely resumed the communists' rhetoric of the 1940s and 1950s, when their propaganda labelled any political opponent as ‘fascist’,” he told EUobserver.

“I am a liberal, and my views are in favour of pluralism, truth, diversity, democracy. For years, I have been a target of vicious attack from the far-right. To call me ‘an old fascist’ and a ‘neo-Nazi’ shows that Mr Ponta has serious problems with political concepts.”
History of anti-semitic behaviour

The irony is that Ponta’s own party has a recent history of anti-semitic behaviour, which has received international condemnation.

In December 2013, the PSD proposed that 71-year old lawyer Lucian Bolcas become a judge in the constitutional court, the highest court in Romania.

Bolcas is a former MP and vice-president of the nationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM), who later joined the PSD in 2010.

The PRM has made anti-semitic statements and has repeatedly called for the political rehabilitation of Romanian fascist leader and Hitler ally Marshall Ion Antonescu.

Bolcas has denied being anti-semitic, but he has lobbied against the removal of a statue of Antonescu from a Bucharest cemetery.

“Bolcas was for many years the number two in a heavily chauvinistic and anti-semitic party,” says Radu Ioanid, director of the international archival programme at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “He was on the record defending the glorification of war criminal Ion Antonescu.”

Under international pressure, Bolcas withdrew from the appointment as judge.

In June 2009, the social democratic Mayor of Constanta Radu Mazare dressed as a Nazi Wehrmacht officer at a party in the Black Sea resort of Mamaia.

He goose-stepped onto the main stage, while his son walked timidly at his side, dressed in the clothes of a Nazi stormtrooper.

Mazare said he was inspired by the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie in which the Nazi army attempts to kill Hitler.

“I wanted to dress as a Wehrmacht general, because I have always liked the uniform and I admire the rigorous organisation of the German army,” he said.

His position was defended by the then minister delegate for parliamentary relations (now prime minister) Victor Ponta.

“Mr Mazare is an adult and has the right to dress how he wants in his free time,” Ponta said, adding – in an attempt at a joke – “he has not come to party [meetings] dressed in Nazi clothes”.

In 2012, Mazare was re-elected mayor with 65 percent of the vote.

That same year his PSD colleague Senator Dan Sova denied aspects of the holocaust in a bungled attempt to absolve Romania’s responsibility for slaughtering Jews in the 1940s.

Quoting Romanian ’historians’, he told The Money Channel TV station that on “the territory of Romania no Jew suffered and that is due to Antonescu”.

He stated that Romanian soldiers “did not participate” in a pogrom on Jews in the northeastern city of Iasi in 1941, which saw 13,000 Jews killed.

However documents show Antonescu ordered his military commander to “cleanse” the city of Jews – and police and soldiers were involved in the mass-murder.

The PSD later dispatched Sova to the USA to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. He then refuted his comments and pleaded ignorance of the subject.

“It is clear that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial do exist in Romania,” says Ioanid. “Sova’s declarations denying Romanian responsibility in the pogrom of Iasi were totally unacceptable. It is however fair to state that he expressed his regrets about this statement repeatedly and publicly.”

Ponta then appointed Sova as government relations minister.

A sentiment of anti-Semitism is still present among many Romanians.

According to the National Centre for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) in 2013, half of Romanians would not accept a Jew as a relative and 35 percent would not accept a Jew to live in Romania.

But a shocking statistic reveals that one in three Romanians would not even allow a Jew to visit Romania.

Most of this is born of a knowledge gap and a lingering sentiment from the past.

“Anti-Semitism was a powerful force in the decades leading up to the Holocaust [in Romania],” says Ioanid. “It was central in government policy during the war, and was reinforced in a different form under communism.”

A telling episode last year shows how much there is still to go to root out anti-Semitism.

Public television station TVR3 in December aired a singing ensemble Dor Transilvan reciting an anti-semitic carol.

The lyrics, which were sung by children, went as follows: “A beautiful boy was born/ his name was Jesus Christ/ everyone bowed to him/ only the Yids were pretending to pray/ the cursed Yid/ God should not put up with him/ not in heaven, not on earth/ only in the chimney, only as smoke/ that’s where he belongs/ the smoke billowing on the road.”

The presenter then thanked Dor Transilvan for the carol.

Jewish groups and the US Embassy in Bucharest reacted furiously, with America’s state representative calling it “an unacceptable display of anti-Semitism that must be condemned in the strongest, most unequivocal terms”.

A TVR spokesperson at first claimed it was not responsible, passing the blame to the organisers of the concert. It later called the decision to select the song “uninspired”.

The channel ended up with a €11,000 fine from the national audiovisual council.
Situation not yet critical

Nevertheless anti-semitic actions and rhetoric have not yet translated into public policy.

Romania’s Jewish population, which now only numbers a few thousand – down from 728,000 on the territories of Greater Romania in 1930 – is not targeted in any policies.

In January 2013, Romanian president Traian Basescu in an interview with Kol Israel radio station said that Romanians are not anti-semites.

But he did concede there are few “sporadic declarations, some from political figures” which are not a reflection of reality.

In 2016 Romania intends to take up the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which should help consolidate a more progressive position on the issue.

“In Romania today the Government seems on a path to combat, rather than encourage, manifestations of antisemitism in the society,” adds Ioanid.

At an official level, Romania has recognised its role in the Holocaust, and this is now taught in schools.

Nevertheless, ignorance is also widespread.

Last year, according to CNCD, 30 percent of Romanians didn’t know what the Holocaust was. And of the remaining 70 percent, almost half do not believe it happened in Romania.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Romania to cut labour tax despite IMF reluctance

Romania will reduce labour taxes despite the reservations of International Monetary Fund auditors who fear the step will increase the public deficit, Prime Minister Victor Ponta said Thursday.

"Next week, the government will submit to parliament a draft law cutting the labour tax by five percentage points" from the current 45 percent, Ponta told a press conference.

The cut will be effective starting October 1.

"We have the means to set off the negative impact on public revenues... without raising other taxes," he added.

The Social-Democrat Prime Minister said the step would deprive the public budget of 850 million lei ($261 million, 193 million euros) in revenue in the fourth quarter.

As journalists asked if the IMF had okayed the cut, Ponta said: "No."

A joint IMF-EU mission, in Bucharest for talks with Romanian officials since June 2, has not yet reacted to the announcement.

Ponta stressed the deal with the IMF was "on track", adding that auditors would be back in Romania in November to talk about the 2015 draft budget.

Romania has long planned to reduce social security contributions from 45 percent, which is one of the highest rates in the European Union, hoping this will spur job creation.

But the IMF insists that any such cut would have to be offset by either trimming public expenses or finding additional revenues.

Romania has pledged to bring the public deficit down to 2.2 percent in 2014, from 2.5 percent last year.

The government has ruled out any pension or wage cut, saying that a newly-introduced tax on "special constructions" such as oil wells, hydroelectric plants and electricity poles will make up for the loss in revenues.

In 2010 the wages of public workers were slashed by 25 percent and the value-added sales tax was raised by five percentage points to curb an exploding public deficit.

Last year, Romania concluded a deal with the IMF and the EU on a 4.0-billion-euro ($5.5 billion) precautionary credit line, which the government intends to tap only in the case of a crisis.

It was the third accord signed with international lenders since 2009, when Romania obtained a 20-billion-euro bailout package in exchange for austerity measures.

The IMF expects Romania's economy to grow by 2.2 percent in 2014, one of the highest rates in eastern Europe.

In 2013, the Balkan country's economy expanded by 3.5 percent.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bloomberg News: East Europe Leaders Urge EU Unity to Counter Russia

The leaders of Romania and Slovakia, two former communist NATO members that border Ukraine, called for the European Union to unite in the face of resurgent Russian expansionism.

The 28-member bloc must come together to send Russia a clear message after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in an interview yesterday. Slovak President-elect Andrej Kiska in a separate interview said the EU’s ability to confront Russia with a united stance is being undermined by a narrow-minded pursuit of business interests by some member states.

The unrest in Ukraine is sending shockwaves across eastern Europe, a region that broke free of Soviet influence 25 years ago. For Romania, the events in Crimea across the Black Sea make the crisis “more intense” than for countries in other parts of the continent, Ponta said.

“Russia has been for centuries -- in different names, Russia, Soviet Union, it doesn’t matter -- but it has been a great power and a great power must have a clear answer from Europe that this is the red line,” Ponta said in Bucharest yesterday. “Nobody wants confrontation, but there must be a red line which can’t be crossed.”

Romania, which hosts a U.S. military base, has already boosted defense spending and is working with the Pentagon to develop missile defense, Ponta said. The EU also needs to present a unified energy policy to counterbalance Russia’s position as an oil and gas exporter, he said.
‘Egoistic Approach’

Debate over further penalties against Russia is splitting the EU, which relies on Russia for 30 percent of its natural gas. Tension between Russia and Ukraine, which flared into the biggest standoff since the Cold War, has led the U.S. and the EU impose asset freezes and travel bans on 98 people and 20 companies. They stopped short of broader curbs on investment and trade that may also damage their own economies.

“We see division in the EU, which some say is based on pragmatism, but I would call it a bit of an egoistic approach of individual countries,” Kiska said in a June 11 interview in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. “The European Union’s position has been weakened by its approach to Russia. European values are based on democracy, not oligarchy, and we need to preserve this.”

Slovakia, a member of the euro area and a key transit link for Russian gas to Europe, was too slow to react to the escalating crisis in Ukraine, according to Kiska, 51, a businessman-turned-philanthropist who will be sworn in as president on June 15 after winning a ballot in March.
Military Boost

Eastern Europe’s former communist countries are also divided over plans to boost the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military presence on their soil. While Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sought and received reinforcements from the alliance and Poland is advocating more U.S. troop deployments, the Slovak and the Czech prime ministers last week rejected allowing foreign soldiers on their territories.

The U.S. will bolster its military presence in Europe through a $1 billion initiative, President Barack Obama said June 3, unveiling a program that is in direct response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Ponta didn’t say whether Romania would welcome the deployment of NATO troops in addition to the more than 1,000 soldiers serving at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base on the country’s Black Sea coast.
‘Very Close’

“We have important military facilities and we have increased our military expenses,” Ponta said. “The idea is that prosperity, economic development and the rule of law cannot be” guaranteed “when there is always a danger very close.”

Kiska said Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million wedged between Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, needs to have “an honest, open debate” about its military budget as it’s among NATO members whose defense spending is below the minimum limit required by the alliance.

In Slovakia, “nobody is really afraid that something can happen to us even as we watch fighting in a neighboring country,” Kiska said. “Our attitude is that we have big allies, who will protect us if anything happens. But, sometimes we forget that if we are getting something, we should also be giving something back.”

Europe can’t accept Crimea’s annexation by Russia as a fact and must not abandon former Soviet republics including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova -- which is “the most important one for Romania,” Ponta said.
Moldova, which shares its language and history with Romania, plans to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU this month. The 28-nation bloc needs to help the country of 3.6 million wean itself off Russian energy, Ponta said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andra Timu in Bucharest at atimu@bloomberg.net; Andrea Dudik in Prague at adudik@bloomberg.net; Peter Laca in Prague at placa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net James M. Gomez

Romania Budget Planning Delays IMF Review, Ponta Says

By Andra Timu
Jun 12, 2014


The International Monetary Fund has postponed the completion of its review of Romania’s support package until November to give the government time to decide on fiscal measures, Prime Minister Victor Ponta said.

While the program remains “on track” and funds are accessible for Romania, the review will be completed after the cabinet drafts its 2015 budget following a Nov. 2 presidential election, Ponta said today in an interview in Bucharest. The government in the meantime is working to devise budget measures to offset the effect of a planned cut in employers’ social contributions, he said.

Romania, on its third consecutive IMF program since the global financial crisis rocked the country in 2009, is looking to wean itself off the Washington-based lender’s assistance as it works toward a goal of adopting the euro in 2019.Economic growth of 3.8 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, the European Union’s fastest pace, is allowing the government to encourage investment with a tax cut, Ponta said.

“This year is a safe year, because we will keep the budget-deficit target,” he said. “But then, in 2015, Romania has an obligation to continue decreasing the deficit and here we must keep working on the concrete measures.”

The leu decreased 0.1 percent to 4.3925 per euro as of 9:04 p.m. in Bucharest. The benchmark BET stock index gained 2 percent to 6,911.63, the highest in six years.
No Deal

The second-poorest of the EU’s 28 members stopped drawing IMF funds in 2011 and won’t seek a new deal with the lender after the current accord ends next year, Ponta said. It plans to rely on the European Commission’s supervision and regulations to maintain fiscal rigor and meet budgetary targets, he said.

The government plans to cut social contributions paid by employers by 5 percentage points from Oct. 1, even if the IMF doesn’t agree, Ponta told reporters in Bucharest after the interview.

The IMF predicts Romania’s economy will grow 2.8 percent this year. While the current account deficit has “remained low” and fiscal imbalances have improved, there is still work to be done, the IMF said in an e-mailed statement today.

“Teams have had constructive discussions with the Romanian authorities on how to ensure further progress and have reached agreement on important policies,” the IMF said in an e-mailed statement. “Some issues remain outstanding,” and talks with the government will continue, the IMF said.

Romania wants to raise at least 1.95 billion lei ($600 million) from the sale of a majority stake in power distributor Electrica SA in Bucharest and London in the country’s biggest initial public offering, starting June 16.
Share Offerings

Depending on the Electrica offering’s success, the government is also considering the sale in 2015 of further shares in state-controlled companies including Transelectrica SA, Romgaz SA and Transgaz SA, according to Ponta, who said the government may be left with stakes of less than 50 percent in some -- though keeping a holding of more than one third in each.

“The government’s idea, which was also agreed on by the IMF, is to take the already successfully listed companies, especially in the energy industry, and continue the process of having more private capital.” Ponta said. “The first step would be to go down to 51 percent.”

Transelectrica shares gained 1 percent today and Romgaz advanced 0.3 percent in Bucharest.
Royalties Law

Romania also plans to approve a new law on royalties in the first half of next year, Ponta said, adding that he doesn’t foresee a “significant” increase in oil and natural gas taxes as he wants country to remain “more attractive than others” in attracting energy investments.

The country, which imports about 10 percent of its gas from Russia, is counting on discoveries in theBlack Sea to provide its energy independence by 2019.

Romania must also adopt a new mining law to allow the development of projects that meet “highest environmental standards,” Ponta said.

Lawmakers rejected a law that would have allowed Gabriel Resources (GBU) to open a gold mine in the village of Rosia Montana because of protests against the use of cyanide during the mining process. The new law will allow all qualifying projects to proceed, Ponta said.

“Unfortunately, a very economic subject has been turned into a very political one and every time the politics gets too much involved into the economy, it must be a failure,” Ponta said. “I’m a big supporter of all environmental standards, but this doesn’t mean we have to block all the projects.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Andra Timu in Bucharest at atimu@bloomberg.net; Balazs Penz in Budapest at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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

‘Guccifer’ Indicted in U.S. for Id Theft, Cyberstalking

By Sophia Pearson and Andrew Zajac
June 12, 2014

A Romanian hacker known as Guccifer was indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. for breaking into the e-mail of a family member of two presidents and, according to a person familiar with the matter, was the one who revealed that former President George W. Bush was a painter.

Marcel Lazar Lehel was charged with wire fraud, unauthorized access, aggravated identity theft and cyberstalking for allegedly hacking into the e-mail and social media accounts of several high-profile victims, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney in Richmond, Virginia. The paintings by Bush circulated widely on the Internet after the hack included self-portraits of the former president in the shower and bath.

The U.S. indictment doesn’t name Guccifer’s victims. Victim 1 is identified only as a family member of two former U.S. presidents and the owner of an AOL e-mail account. Lazar allegedly accessed that account without authorization in December 2012 and January 2013, obtaining medical information, photographs and a contact list with home addresses and telephone numbers.

The hacked material included information about Bush’s painting hobby, according to the person familiar with the investigation who asked not to be identified because details of the inquiry haven’t been made public.

Lehel was sentenced to four years in prison last week in Romania for having hacked the accounts of various high-profile people including the country’s head of the secret service, the Guardian reported on June 10.

Guccifer allegedly used the e-mail account of a sanitation engineer to distribute information from Victim 1’s e-mail, according to the indictment. Multiple media organizations published portions of the confidential information in February 2013.

The case is U.S. v. Marcel Lehel Lazar, 14-cr-00213, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Richmond).
To contact the reporters on this story: Sophia Pearson in federal court in Philadelphia at

spearson3@bloomberg.net; Andrew Zajac in Washington at azajac@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net Joe Schneider

Romania must enhance economic competitiveness before joining Eurozone: central bank governor

BUCHAREST, June 12 (Xinhua) -- Romania could not switch over to the European single currency before securing its competitiveness of national economy, National Bank Governor Mugur Isarescu said Thursday.

Romania is fulfilling most of the nominal convergence criteria for joining the Eurozone, but "we had ahead of us a long and hard way of some years to bridge the real convergence gap," said Isarescu at a Euromoney conference on regional finance and investment for South-Eastern Europe held in Bucharest.

"Romania is currently fulfilling three of the four nominal criteria: a stable fiscal position, long-term interest convergence and stable exchange rates," said the central bank governor.

Yet, there are still many things to be done to bridge the gap separating Romania from the Eurozone member states in terms of economic competitiveness and real convergence criteria, particularly those related to the per capita income, warned the governor.

"A very wide gap in real convergence can complicate business, management decisions in the absence of independent monetary policy," said Isarescu.

"Nominal criteria cannot be supported without competitiveness, financial stability and a solid fiscal balance," stressed Isarescu.

The governor mentioned that EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe are closer than ever before to fulfilling the nominal criteria, but even the most advanced of them in terms of real convergence gave up on an accession schedule after the crisis and adopted a wait-and-see position.

According to a convergence report published early June by the European Commission, Romania is failing to fulfill two of five nominal convergence criteria to switch over to the euro, namely inflation and exchange rates, but it is fulfilling the criteria related to the Government deficit, public debt and long-term interest.

The Romanian government set January 1, 2019 as the target date for switching over to the European single currency, as it was announced early May by Minister Delegate for Budget Liviu Voinea.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Roma people to have their own virtual currency

BUCHAREST, June 11 (Xinhua) -- The self-styled King of Roma Everywhere Dorin Cioaba Wednesday stated in Sibiu, central Romania, that Roma in 37 countries will have their own virtual currency, the "lov," that will, at first, be equivalent to one euro.

"We will start off with one lov to one euro parity and we'll see after that if it will increase or decrease," Dorin Cioaba told the official Agerpres news agency in an interview.

The most expensive coin for the Roma around the world will remain, however, the gold dinar in the Roma women's carcanet. A gold dinar is bought in Romania for about 500 euro, according to Dorin Cioaba, who lives in the central Romanian town of Sibiu.

Recently, in Sibiu, at the extraordinary congress of the International Roma Union (IRU), King Cioaba was elected President of the Roma. He has the right to convoke the Roma Government, led by a prime minister in Macedonia, and the Roma Parliament, led by a president from the Republic of Moldova.

"We have launched a virtual currency for the future. The IRU has moved to a different course, that of international recognition. If we have a new government, we must have a new coin," he explained.

Cioaba said that the new virtual currency will enter circulation after the Roma will be granted recognition as a "stateless nation."

The "lov" is derived from "lovele," which means "money" in the Roma language.

Romania is said to have the biggest Roma populations in Europe. According to the 2011 census, they number some 621,500 people or 3.3 percent of the total population, being the second-largest ethnic minority in Romania after the Hungarians.

Yet, the unofficial number of Roma people in Romania is said to be as much as 2,000,000, as documenting Romania's Roma population remains difficult, many Roma people do not declare their ethnicity in the census and do not have an identity card or birth certificate.

Romania Plans to Raise $589 Million From Electrica Sale

By Andra Timu Jun 11, 2014 

Romania wants to raise at least 1.95 billion lei ($600 million) from the sale of a majority stake in power distributor Electrica SA in Bucharest and London in the country’s biggest initial public offering.

The Bucharest-based government set a price range of between 11 lei and 13.5 lei for each share, while interested investors can subscribe to the sale between June 16 and June 26, Energy Minister Razvan Nicolescu said in Bucharest today.

“I am convinced that it will be a successful share sale and that the private capital we are attracting will be used by the company to fund the much-needed energy infrastructure investments,” Prime Minister Victor Ponta said before the government meeting.

The second-poorest European Union member has been selling stakes in state-owned companies to cover its budget deficit and ease the government’s influence in the economy. The plan is part of Romania’s pledge to the EU and the International Monetary Fund, which has approved a third consecutive loan accord for Romania since 2009 to shield the Balkan country from market turbulence.

The former communist country raised 1.7 billion lei by selling a minority stake in natural-gas producer Romgaz SA in November, its biggest initial public offering so far.

“Once successfully completed, the Electrica sale will be the biggest share offering in Romania’s history,” Nicolescu told reporters.

London GDRs

Romania will offer about 177 million new Electrica shares in Bucharest and via global depository receipts in London, according to a May 30 regulatory statement. Eighty-five percent of the sold shares are designated to institutional investors, according to Nicolescu. The remaining tranche can be subscribed by retail investors and may be increased depending on the interest, he said.

The state, which now fully owns the power distributor, will cut its stake in the company to about 48.8 percent after the sale.

The government is targeting total demand for the Electrica stake at as much as $1 billion, including an over-subscription, according to a draft law posted on the Energy Ministry’s website.

Romania also sold minority stakes in nuclear-power generator Nuclearelectrica SA and Transgaz SA last year and grid operator Transelectrica SA in 2012.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz atbpenz@bloomberg.net James M. Gomez

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Romanian patients sue government for access to new drugs

Agence France-Presse
May 30, 2014

An organisation representing patients suffering from cancer and other chronic diseases is suing the Romanian government demanding access to newer and more efficient therapies, the NGO and a court told AFP on Friday.

"Six years have passed since the list of drugs reimbursed by social security was last updated", Cezar Irimia, president of the Alliance for Chronically Ill Patients, told AFP, calling the government's failure to renew the list a violation of a patient's "right to live".

Following repeated unfulfilled promises by several administrations to update the list, the Alliance launched legal proceedings on Wednesday against the government, the health ministry and the department for social security asking for an "emergency" update, a spokeswoman for the Bucharest Appeal Court confirmed.

Irimia said the NGO had also lodged a complaint with the European Commission claiming that the delay in approving new drugs violates an EU directive stipulating that authorities must either reject or introduce a new medicine on the list of reimbursed drugs within a maximum of 180 days.

"There are so many young patients for whom there is no alternative, the new generation of drugs alone can save their lives," Irimia said.

"No one is held responsible in Romania for the deaths that could have been avoided if drugs were available."

Some 1,000 patients are currently in need of new drugs therapies that are currently unavailable to them, he added.

Failing to update the catalogue of reimbursed drugs is just one of the problems affecting Romania's health system, alongside insufficient funds, corruption, and the exodus of doctors and nurses in search of better paid jobs, experts say.

Romania's center-right presidential hopeful quits race

May 31, 2014

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's center-right candidate on Saturday withdrew his bid to run in a presidential election in November as the opposition struggles to forge an alliance after a clear win of the ruling leftists in European elections.

Crin Antonescu resigned as Liberal party leader on Monday, after the party's poor showing in the European ballot

He had been seen as a politician who could have mounted a credible challenge to leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who may run for the presidency himself, or to Ponta's chosen candidate.


"I'm aware about the urgency of unification efforts of the right which must take concrete steps towards finding a candidate," Antonescu told a news briefing. "I announce my intention not to run for president."

Antonescu said a consensus candidate from the center-right must be designated no later than July 15.

Ponta's Social Democrat government easily defeated a no-confidence vote by the Liberals on Monday, hours after taking about 38 percent of votes in Sunday's European election.

Its former ally, the Liberal Party, which split from the government in February and is now the main opposition, trailed in second place with 15 percent.

Overall, the opposition parties garnered a meager 33 percent in the vote, leaving them struggling to find a joint presidential candidate.

Gaining control of the presidency would cement Ponta's dominance in Romanian politics. The incumbent two-term president, Traian Basescu, has been Ponta's arch rival and the two have clashed repeatedly over policy and frequently trade barbs in public.

NYT: Britain’s New Immigrants, From Romania and Bulgaria, Face Hostilities

LONDON — Three days after Andrei Opincaru, a 29-year-old Romanian, arrived in Britain this year, police officers saw him smoking a cigarette on the street. They stopped, searched and questioned him about having marijuana.

“I asked them: ‘What are you doing? You cannot do this to me. You’re treating me like a criminal,’ ” he recounted. The officers, he said, laughed and went away. “To them it was just a joke,” he said.

Mr. Opincaru came to Britain in hopes of landing a good job by taking advantage of newly extended employment rights for workers from Romania and Bulgaria, which were among the latest entrants to the European Union. But Mr. Opincaru, like other newcomers, was surprised by how little his European citizenship did to shield him from an intense political backlash against the employment measure.

The tension became more apparent last month when Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, expressed discomfort at the idea of having Romanian neighbors, suggesting there was a high level of criminality among Romanians in Britain. “This is not to say for a moment that all or even most Romanian people living in the U.K. are criminals,” he said. “But it is to say that any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”

In an interview with LBC Radio, Mr. Farage, whose wife is German, was pressed on whether he would feel uncomfortable with German neighbors. “I think you know the difference,” he replied. “We want an immigration policy that is not just based on controlling not just quantity but quality.” The independence party, known for an anti-immigration stance, won about a quarter of the vote in last month’s election for European Parliament members.

Mr. Opincaru, who found a job in construction, shares an apartment with four Italians and two Portuguese who also came to London for work. But he and other Romanians say they are made to feel like second-class citizens, more so than the migrants from affluent countries in Western Europe, despite having equal legal rights. One bank refused to let him open an account, he said, though he provided all the required documents and had secured a job and a national insurance number — the equivalent of a Social Security number.

Being a Romanian in Britain is “very, very difficult,” Mr. Opincaru said. “They’re not treating us like other citizens from Europe,” he added. “Wherever you go and they hear you’re Romanian, they change the music.”

When the European Union extended full employment rights to Romania and Bulgaria this year, allowing workers there free movement throughout Europe, nationalist politicians warned there would be a flood of desperate immigrants who would take jobs from native workers. Headlines predicted a surge in crime and cheating on benefits. One Conservative politician, Philippa Roe, said the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians would escalate problems like begging.

In November, the government froze loans and other financial support for thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian students as a “precautionary measure.”

But the figures published last month did not reflect an influx of migrants from the two countries. The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain from January to March of this year dropped to 140,000 from 144,000 in the previous quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. That compared with 1.7 million migrants from the rest of the European Union working in Britain, it said.

And not everyone has been unwelcoming. The Muswell Hill Baptist Church in London has set up a charitable organization to help Romanian migrants. “We should respond to them as European citizens, not per nationality,” said Martin Stone, who leads the program. “We should grow up and not lower ourselves to petty nationalism. We know where finger-pointing has led to in the past.

Part of the antipathy today stems from previous decisions to allow unfettered immigration from Poland and seven other Eastern European countries immediately after they joined the European Union in 2004.

The number of native Poles in Britain has grown tenfold since, and today they are the second largest immigrant population, just behind Indians and ahead of Pakistanis, who have colonial links to Britain.

This year, the government tightened rules for migrants seeking benefits. Migrants may not seek jobless benefits for three months after their arrival, and they must show weekly earnings of at least $255 before they can apply for child care, unemployment, housing or health care benefits.

Romanians and Bulgarians interviewed in Britain acknowledged that the benefit system was subject to abuse and said the rules could be stricter. But they said the government and public response to their arrival had been disproportionate.

About 101,000 Romanians and 57,000 Bulgarians were living in Britain in 2012, according to the latest annual residency data from the Office for National Statistics. They gained the right to visa-free travel in 2007 when both countries joined the European Union, but they required work permits until the beginning of this year. They were significantly fewer than Britain’s Asian population, and fewer than the French, Irish, Italian, and even German and American populations.

Around 23,000 Romanians and Bulgarians arrived in Britain in 2013, a threefold increase from the previous year, according to the statistics office. They were among the 201,000 immigrants from the European Union over all, it said. About 134,000 British citizens left the country during the same period.

The number of Romanians applying for a national insurance number more than doubled, to 47,000, in 2013 compared with the previous year, according to the latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions. About 18,000 Bulgarians registered. In contrast, about 102,000 Poles applied.

Despite the tension, Romanians and Bulgarians said they were eager to make the move to Britain. And one recruiting firm said the workers were much needed in Britain to meet labor demands.

Companies posted 36,285 job offers in Britain in the first quarter of the year, according to Tjobs, a recruiting company that places Romanian workers across Europe. Andreas Cser, the company’s president, said British companies were having particular difficulty filling jobs in the construction and infrastructure sectors.

Eugen Smintina, 39, found a job with an electrical company. “I would like to say to all English people that I come here as a Romanian citizen in your country because I have work,” he said. “Not because of alcohol, drugs or stealing other people’s jobs.”

Andreea Corsei, 28, who has a law degree from Romania and arrived in London this year to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal law, dreams of setting up a law firm with her husband, Daniel, who is also studying law. Romanians in Britain face “walls that are higher to climb” but also the opportunity “to prove what you can do,” she said.

Romania PM says will reappoint central bank governor in June

(Reuters) - Romania's ruling leftist coalition will endorse central bank Governor Mugur Isarescu for a new mandate in June, a few months before his term expires, Prime Minister Victor Ponta was quoted as saying on Monday by state news agency Agerpres.

The European Union state's central bank is run by an administration board of nine members, appointed by parliament for 5-year terms that can be renewed.

"We will appoint the central bank's new board during the month of June, because their mandates expire in September, I think, but we can appoint them from June," Ponta told reporters, adding his party will back Isarescu for a new term, as he was "categorically" viable for the position. (Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Matthias Williams)

Romanian health care tycoon falls to death

By Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania — A Romanian tycoon whose pharmacy chain is at the center of a corruption investigation died Tuesday after falling from his house, a medical clinic said.

The Polisano clinic said 58-year-old Ilie Vonica, one of Romania’s richest men, died in his hometown of Sibiu. A police spokeswoman said authorities were investigating the cause.

News agencies cited investigators as saying Vonica killed himself and left a five-page letter explaining his decision to end his life, which he said was connected to the probe.

Vonica’s Reteta pharmacy chain is at the center of a corruption probe involving 1,100 fake prescriptions issued between 2008 and 2010. Prosecutors say the scam cost the state 3.5 million euros.

Nine people including doctors and Vonica’s wife Ioana, who ran the chain, were arrested last month. They are being investigated on charges of illegally receiving money from the national insurance agency over bogus cancer-drug prescriptions. A court rejected the wife’s appeal to be freed from arrest on Monday.

Vonica, a doctor who specialized as a gynecologist, began his health care business with his wife in 1993 after the anti-communist revolution, when private health care took off. It now employs 2,000 people.

Reports say Vonica was worth 95 million euros last year.

Romania, wary of Russia, seeks embrace of West

BUCHAREST, Romania — For Romania, if there is an upside to Russia's recent land-grab in neighboring Ukraine, it is this: It has earned Romania the attention of the Americans that leaders here have long felt was lacking.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is traveling to Romania this week as part of a parade of high-level U.S. visits intended to remind the Eastern European nation — and the Russians — that the West is not sleeping while President Vladimir Putin attempts to expand the Russian sphere of influence.

Russia is not a direct threat to Romanian territory, yet conversations here are fraught with concern about Russian expansion, in part because it was only 25 years ago that Romania overthrew Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Soviet- backed communist dictator. Romanians are convinced that Putin's territorial appetites are not sated, and that Moldova, a neighbor with much closer historic ties to Romania is the next target.

Ioan Mircea Pascu, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, told a conference hosted by the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest last week that Russia's incursion into Ukraine was not without costs to Moscow.

"The cost to Russia is a reinvigorated NATO," Pascu noted, adding that NATO forces have stepped up military activities in Romania, so "the military presence of NATO got closer to Russia." In addition, Pascu argued, in the wake of the Crimea annexation, "Russia is more isolated than before and Mr. Putin is more compromised than before."

However, Pascu noted, Crimea shows a pattern of behavior that remains of concern. "Russia moves decisively and grabs the pieces," and the West responds with sanctions and condemnations. The West then "feels relieved" when Russia steps back from its aggressive posture toward other nations in the region. A kind of peace is restored, but "Russia retains the prizes," which include Crimea and the energy-rich and strategically important waters surrounding it.

Iulian Chifu, foreign policy counselor to the Romanian president, said the result has been a transformation of Romania's Eastern border from a "civilized border" — conceived as a "partnership of peace" between Russia and the Western world — to "a strong border, an enforced border... a border from the containment period. On one side we are going to have one world and on the other side you are going to have the other one. This reality — hopefully it will happen on the borders of Ukraine — means that everything that is behind these borders should move eventually to NATO and the EU."

And Romania could be on the front lines of that border.

The Russian deputy prime minister visited the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestria last month. The visit raised concerns that Russia intends to deploy the same strategy there it has used in Ukraine: fan a pro-Russian separatist movement to destabilize the country ahead of the November election in Moldova that will become an East vs. West referendum.

"We have seen increased activity of the intelligence forces of the Russia Federation in the Republic of Moldova," Vladimir Filat, a former Moldovan prime minister, told The Daily Beast last month. The goal, he said, appears to be "destabilization in order to 'prepare' for the elections in autumn."

The European Union has already been reaching out to Moldova in hopes of wooing the nation toward a Western alliance. Later this month, Moldova will enter a free trade agreement with the European Union and the EU has extended visa-free travel benefits to Moldovan citizens as well as providing more than $40 million in direct aid this year.

Together, Moldova and Ukraine make up the entire northern and eastern land borders of Romania.

Meeting with Vice President Biden in May, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta emphasized his country's concern about Moldova.

"We have talked quite a lot about the Moldovan state," Ponta said. "Every time we have the opportunity to meet, I keep telling Mr. Vice President how important Moldova is for Romania, how important it is to support the United States, the European Union for this pro-European and pro-Romanian development of the Moldovan Republic. And I want to thank for the support that the Washington administration is providing in an explicit manner."

Ponta said Romania is working to boost its own energy production so that "Romania can ensure for itself and for the Moldovan Republic an energy independence that is even more important in the current crisis conditions." Throughout the region, Russia has been using its energy dominance as a club to force poorer nations into concessions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has engaged in a sustained campaign of reassurance of Romania, to emphasize Western commitments there. As an official member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Romania is covered by the joint defense provisions of that treaty that guarantee that the entire alliance will rise to the defense of any member. During his May visit, Biden expressly reconfirmed the US commitment to Romania's defense.

Earlier this year, the U.S. began operating an air base in Romania as the primary transit hub for military operations in Afghanistan, replacing a transit center in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the Pentagon plans to open a missile defense installation in Romania later this year, and U.S. military exercises and naval visits have increased since the Ukrainian crisis erupted.

On Tuesday, President Obama announced he is seeking a $1 billion package from Congress to maintain and expand these efforts across Eastern Europe, including Romania and Moldova.

There remain challenges on both sides: Romania has for many years failed to meet its NATO requirement of spending 2% of GDP on national defense, though the government now promises to do so by 2016. And the U.S has failed to appoint a new ambassador to Romania, leaving that post vacant for more than a year.

"One of the great embarrassments here is that it has been 19 months without a US ambassador and Romanians want to know 'Do we matter to you?'" said Larry Watts, an associate professor at the National School and an author of several books of Romanian history.

Mark Gitenstein, the last U.S. ambassador, said Romania will be critical to U.S. interests moving forward.

Romania is "the most trustworthy ally in that region right now," he said, both as "a bulkhead against any further (Russian) expansion" and as "the anchor in southeast Europe for NATO."

Romania's gold mine project on hold after parliament rejects bill

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST, June 3 (Reuters) - Romania's lower house of parliament rejected a bill on Tuesday that would have allowed Canada's Gabriel Resources to proceed with plans to set up Europe's biggest open-cast gold mine, putting the project on hold indefinitely.

The bill, which was initially approved by the leftist government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, drew thousands of anti-mine protesters into the streets across the European Union country last year, prompting the senate to strike it down.

The lower house had the final say, and data it published on Tuesday showed deputies rejected the draft law with 302 votes against and one in favour.

Romania is one of Europe's poorest countries but it is comparatively rich in natural resources, including gas, coal and gold. Tuesday's vote has kicked into the long grass a project the government has said is vital to reviving an ailing mining sector in a Romanian region in dire need of jobs and investment.

Gabriel has been waiting for more than 15 years for approval to use cyanide to mine about 314 tonnes of gold and 1,500 tonnes of silver in the small town of Rosia Montana. The local unit of Gabriel Resources declined to comment on Tuesday.

The project aimed to create four gold quarries over the mine's lifespan on four mountain peaks.

OPPOSITION

The mine has drawn fierce opposition from civil rights and environmental groups which argue it would destroy ancient Roman mine galleries and villages, and could lead to an ecological disaster. Neighbouring Hungary also opposed it.

The company has given assurances that it would use the most advanced safeguards to prevent damage to the environment. But the sight of a nearby tailings pond that is the product of a decades-old industrial project, has been used by protesters to highlight fears about the potential fallout of the gold mine.

State-owned copper miner Cupru Min started that pond in the 1970s under the communist regime when it poured toxic chemicals that result from copper extraction into the village of Geamana, not far from Rosia Montana in Alba county.

As for Gabriel's project, the Romanian parliament also rejected changes to general mining legislation that would have made it easier for the gold mine to start late last year.

One of the company's certificates was revoked in court this year after a local environmental group challenged it. Separately, the country's environment minister was quoted as saying in May his ministry will finance new studies because of uncertainties over the proposed tailings pond.

Parliament's rejection of Tuesday's bill puts the project on hold for now, though it could theoretically be revived if a new bill were brought forward at a later stage. That is unlikely to happen any time soon, with the government gearing up to fight a presidential election in November.

Earlier this year, Gabriel laid off about 80 percent of the workers at its Romanian subsidiary, or nearly 400 people. On a Reuters visit in April, the town's historical centre where the company's offices are located looked deserted, with several pro-mining banners fluttering in the wind.

Gabriel has estimated Romania, which holds a minority stake in the project, would get $5.2 billion in taxes, royalties, services and jobs, or roughly three quarters of overall benefits from the project. That estimate has been challenged by protesters and NGOs who oppose the project. (Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Matthias Williams and Susan Thomas)