Monday, December 22, 2014

Nicolae Ceausescu and Romania's Christmas revolution

Twenty five years ago this week the people of Romania got a very welcome Christmas present. After a token trial, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad at a secret military location.

The Communist dictator’s fall was astonishingly swift. Only four days before he had been standing on a balcony overlooking Palace Square in Bucharest telling a huge crowd how lucky they were to have him. The appearance was supposed to quell the unrest in the western city of Timisoara; people were protesting at years of scarcity and oppression overseen by the megalomaniacal couple. It didn’t work. The audience listened in silence.

Then the unimaginable happened. They began booing and jeering and chanting “Timisoara! Timisoara!” The look of disbelief on Ceausescu’s face as he flapped his hands in a hopeless attempt to quiet them was one of the defining moments in the collapse of European communism. The cynical officials and military commanders who shored up the regime recognised an unstoppable force when they saw one. Apart from some diehards of the Securitate secret police, everyone knew the couple were finished. The end was squalid and badly done. But the revolution was magnificent.

I was there as one of the Telegraph team covering the uprising. It was an exhilarating time. “Vox Populi! — Vox Dei!” said the slogans painted on walls above pools of guttering candles, marking the places where protesters had been shot down by the Securitate.

It seemed to be only the truth. The people had spoken and evil had been put to flight. The iniquities of Ceausescu’s 24-year reign were soon revealed to the world. Eager locals showed us the orphanages where emaciated children were chained to iron bedsteads, crammed into rooms reeking of faeces and urine.

Even children with parents lived miserable lives. Romania’s child mortality rate was the highest in Europe, a result of the leader’s obsessive austerity programme to wipe out foreign debt. Much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production was exported.

There were shortages of food, medicines and fuel. Travel in and out of the country was strictly controlled. Criticism was ruthlessly repressed and the people suffered in silence. Now and again a dissident voice was heard from inside the party, but most of the ruling elite colluded with the cult of personality the mousey couple built up via rigidly controlled state media,

Ceausescu was a perfect example of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting effects of power. He had started out as an apparent reformer who impressed the West with his willingness to stand up to Moscow. By the end he had awarded himself the titles of “Conducator” (Leader) and “Genius of the Carpathians”. His monstrous vanity was demonstrated in projects like the People’s Palace, a vast, shoddy edifice built to rival the great monuments of Europe.

Despite their imperial pretensions the former cobbler and his consort lived fairly modestly. One snowy day the rebels gave us a tour of their Bucharest residence. It was a bourgeois villa, with John Lewis style fittings, more Solihull than Schönbrunn. The revolutionaries seemed to think it unimaginably luxurious. By their standards, it was. The day before a university professor with an international reputation invited me to his apartment. It had four small rooms, furnished with a few sticks of cheap furniture. He proudly brought out a prized possession, a dusty bottle of Johnnie Walker purchased on a rare officially sanctioned trip abroad. We sat in the freezing parlour and toasted the Ceausescus’ demise.

For a few heady months Romania revelled in its freedom. Bucharest was filled with rallies and marches and new political parties sprang up overnight. We journalists were accosted by ordinary people who wanted to taste the unknown experience of talking openly to a foreigner. Most had never seen one until now.

The revolution seemed a fitting end to the annus mirabilis that was 1989 — a year when, one by one, the communist bastions of Eastern and Central Europe crumbled and fell. When the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signalled his unwillingness to offer military support to Eastern bloc satellites, the collapse was quick and surprisingly bloodless. First Poland, then Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia fell out of Moscow’s orbit. For decades that world had been in the grip of a Cold War which, if it hotted up, could bring nuclear annihilation. Now it seemed to be standing on the brink of a new era of progress. Ideological enmity was vanishing. Henceforth everyone would go forward under the banners of democracy, enlightened capitalism and respect for human rights.

Of course it didn’t quite work out like that. In Romania, the overthrow of Ceausescu soon began to look less like a revolution and more like a palace coup. The organisers reinvented themselves as the National Salvation Front, which won elections five months later. The new rulers were mostly former communists and members of the old regime in new, democratic clothing. When, in June 1990, students rose up to protest they were beaten up by miners brought in by the authorities on special trains from the Jiu valley.

But there was no going back to the old days. Former communists or not, successive governments looked West not East, applying for membership of the EU in 1993 — and joining in 2007. Freedom and capitalism did not bring instant prosperity. During the Nineties millions of Romanians moved abroad to America and western Europe. The millennium brought a surge in the country’s fortunes. For a few years it enjoyed impressive growth rates and was briefly the “tiger” of Eastern European economies. But the recession hit hard. Huge borrowing to counter a 2009 budget deficit, and a housing bubble that burst, made it the IMF’s biggest debtor for a while. It has also been plagued by corruption and political feuding.

Today, the events of the revolution seem to belong to a distant past. The anniversary has been a subdued affair and official commemorations will be confined to a few concerts and small rallies in University Square, the scene of some of the crucial demonstrations. Romania’s 20 million people are more interested in the present.

They have recently voted in a new president. In November, Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of the western town of Sibiu, beat Victor Ponta, the prime minister, a skilful political infighter, in a surprise victory. Iohannis, a liberal from the country’s ethnic German population, won by a comfortable margin on a high turnout, helped by the votes of the Romanian diaspora. At the swearing-in ceremony yesterday he promised a crackdown on corruption and a strengthening of the rule of law. The office carries the necessary powers for him to deliver — notably the appointment of the senior judiciary.

Above all, the president is the public face of the nation. It seemed to many in Romania that 25 years after the revolution, the country was at last getting a leader who represented the ideals that the men and women who took to streets to brave the Securitate snipers were demanding.

The depressing aftermath of the Arab Spring has made us sceptical about popular uprisings. The Romanian story and the examples of modern Eastern and Central Europe are a reminder that, given the right cultural and political underpinnings, they can have reasonably happy endings.

Forbes: Now Romania Sets Its Sights On Becoming Tech Start-up Capital Of Europe

It has the highest number of technology workers per capita, close to 64,000 specialist IT workers, and counts Avangate and UberVu among its most recent exit successes.

These factors, combined with an enviable tax regime; as low as 0% for IT workers, have conspired to help create one of Europe’s hottest start-up scenes; Romania.

Now the country’s tech hub is drawing serious international attention, and according to one Romanian entrepreneur, Florin Cornianu, CEO and co-founder of123ContactForm, within two years it will be seen as a true rival to London as the hotbed of European talent.

“In Romania, people are used to starting with nothing and growing something from that. We’ve had no government initiatives to help us set up our businesses,” he says. “But now number of elements are coming together, including recently exited entrepreneurs becoming angel investors and VCs to help other founders grow their companies.”

What is emerging is a strong culture of programming, innovation and incubation. A number of highly rated universities in cities such as Bucharest, Timisoara, Cluj, Iasi, and Constanta provide a regular source of talented people and drive tech innovation.

“We have also seen an influx of major corporations which inspire, partner with and buy from start-ups, and also offer a safety net for entrepreneurs with paid employment opportunities,” said Cornianu.

The Romanian start-up ecosystem now boasts numerous incubators, co-working spaces and dedicated events to help emerging entrepreneurs. The largest dedicated tech conference in Eastern Europe, HowToWeb5, is held in Bucharest.

However, Cornianu insists that the Romanian start-up scene has always had a global outlook. It had to, he says, in order to succeed.

“It makes business founders resilient, teaches entrepreneurs not to rely on handouts or support, and encourages greater achievement,” he says. “We are now seeing an increasing number of successful businesses growing out of this environment.”

123ContactForm, which enables people in any location to build any kind of web form with no programming knowledge, is a case in point. Bootstrapped in 2008, it has experienced 100% year-on-year growth since its formation and added close to 200,000 new customers in 2014 alone.

Half of its paying users come from the US, which represents around 40% of its overall users. The UK is home to 5% of its free users and 6.5% of its paying members.

“It is possible to be successful without large investment, but it does take hard work,” he says. “The most important thing is to build and scale the right team – and to keep an international outlook. At first, it might have been a disadvantage for us to be from Romania, but now it is an advantage as we expand our great team.”

Other Romanian tech trailblazers include which offers a mobile application for finding information and promoting special events, and this year launched in Brazil., launched earlier this year, is an automated checkout solution that allows consumers to buy any product from any retailer on any mobile app or website. In August it secured a $2.7 million seed round from some high profile investors, including Khosla Ventures and Green Visor Capital. and are also making progress in overseas markets, while one to watch is VisionBot, a pick and place robotic machine designed by a maker for makers to place surface-mount devices (SMDs) onto printed circuit boards (PCBs), affordably.

It promises to solve one of the biggest challenges for electrical engineers, makers, hackers, and hobbyists; the huge costs of turning their electronic prototype into an industrial product. Visionbot creates a manufacturing line for turning prototypes into industrial products that are in medium-quantity.

London’s Silicon Roundabout may have had the lion’s share of attention as a tech capital, but as it becomes increasingly saturated, other European locations are vying to offer the start-up appeal that even Silicon Roundabout can’t match, the tech capital of Europe could soon be much further east than East London, says Cornianu.

“The future is definitely bright for the Romanian start-up scene,” he said. “The number of people involved in start-ups is growing every year, more and more kids are showing an interest, and of course we’re creating more successes. The more of those we have, the better our chances of taking on London, Berlin, and yes, even Silicon Valley.”

Romania parliament approves 2015 budget with IMF deficit target

(Reuters) - Romania's parliament approved a deficit-cutting 2015 budget bill on Sunday, sticking to a fiscal shortfall target agreed with the International Monetary Fund.

Benefiting from continuous IMF-led supervision since 2009, after a real estate bubble burst, European Union member Romania has gradually cut its deficit and implemented reforms to restore the trust of investors after a recession.

Under the current deal which expires next year, Bucharest targets a deficit of 1.8 percent of national output, excluding defence spending, against a planned 2.2 percent for this year.

As a NATO member bordering Ukraine and wary of Russian intentions in its tiny neighbour Moldova, Romania will ask Brussels for its defence spending to be exempted from calculating deficit targets.

The leftist government has pledged to increase its defence spending next year, which is expected to add another 0.3 percentage points to the fiscal deficit.

The budget, which also forecasts economic growth of 2.5 percent, plans to hike the minimum wage in two stages to 1,050 lei per month from 900 lei currently.

State pensions will rise by 5 percent, as will the wages of teachers and health and social security workers.

The Fiscal Council, an independent fiscal watchdog set up under the IMF deals, said the government has overestimated budget revenues by a calculated 2.35 billion lei (411 million pounds), or 0.3 percent of gross domestic product, raising doubt the deficit target can be met.

The opposition Liberal Party, which voted against the budget, said it may challenge the bill at the Constitutional Court.

Romanian parliament swears in former mayor as country’s new president

Romania’s parliament swore in a former mayor as the country’s new president following an election he called a triumph for democracy, 25 years after communism ended.

Pro-western Klaus Iohannis, 55, promises a different style from combative outgoing leader, Traian Basescu, who leaves office on Sunday, having served a maximum 10 years.

Iohannis also vowed to fight corruption and build “a powerful nation”, as he took an oath Sunday before parliament, then headed to the presidential palace to formally take over from Basescu.

“Mentalities must be changed,” he told lawmakers and dignitaries. “I want a Romania where there is no place for putting on a show” in politics.

He surprisingly defeated prime minister Victor Ponta in the 16 November runoff, tapping into anger from thousands of overseas voters who were unable to vote in the first round. Iohannis received hundreds of thousands of votes from Romanians who work abroad, calling it a triumph for democracy.

His victory sent a feelgood factor through the nation of 19 million and he notched up almost 1.3m likes on Facebook.

Atypical for Romanian politics, the slow-speaking ethnic German mayor of Sibiu refuses to participate in bitter personal attacks. He promises good relations with the US, the European Union and particularly Germany.

Basescu was credited with a commitment to the anti-corruption fight and has a strong pro-US stance. The US will open a missile defense base in southern Romania, which has angered Russia.

Romania was suspected of hosting a CIA secret prison which it has denied. On Saturday, Basescu declined to comment on the most recent reports, saying Romanian prosecutors were investigating.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Romania 'to clear up' allegations over CIA prisons

Bucharest (AFP) - Romania is "ready to clear up" allegations that the country hosted secret CIA detention centres, the foreign ministry said Tuesday -- though it stressed that Bucharest had "no proof" such prisons existed.
Romanian authorities were "fully available to clear up the allegations" that Bucharest colluded with the CIA on the transfer of terrorist suspects to CIA "black sites" established for the purposes of torture, the ministry said.
The ministry emphasised in a statement that the central European country was not named in the summary of last week's bombshell US Senate report on the CIA's mistreatment of Al-Qaeda suspects.
In fact, however, the summary redacted the names of all foreign countries that hosted the CIA "black sites" used to intern 119 people who were captured.
But previous news reports identified the countries which had the sites as Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Thailand and Afghanistan.
The Romanian foreign ministry said an investigation had been launched with a view to finding "a solution" to the issue that "respects the principles of the rule of law and human rights".
The public prosecutor's office told AFP a probe had been launched following a complaint from Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the suspects named in the US Senate report as a torture victim.
The prosecutors gave no further details.
Al-Nashiri's name features in the Senate report alongside with those of three other suspected al-Qaeda members held at Guantanamo Bay, whom the report said had been tortured.
The 49-year-old Saudi is accused of masterminding the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 in which 17 American sailors were killed.
In May 2012, he filed a criminal complaint in Romania, claiming he had been secretly detained in the country between 2003 and 2006.
He has also taken a case at the European Court for Human Rights.
Romania has never admitted to hosting secret CIA prisons.
Its foreign ministry reiterated Tuesday that Bucharest possessed "no proof of the existence of CIA detention centres in Romania or the use of Romanian airports for the transport or detention of prisoners suspected of terrorist acts".
A former head of Romania's intelligence service, Ioan Talpes, said Saturday the CIA may have kept detainees in a "transit" centre in Romania but that Bucharest was unaware of the activities conducted at the site.
Mediafax agency said Talpes had been questioned by prosecutors in 2013 in connection with al-Nashiri's case.

U.S. torture report puts Romania's role under scrutiny

(Reuters) - The lawyer for a man tortured by the CIA said Romania's authorities should acknowledge the role they played after a U.S. Senate report pointed to Romania as the site of the secret CIA jail where the man was interrogated.

The report did not name countries that hosted CIA jails, but it gave details of prisoners being transferred to and from "detention center BLACK" which matched air traffic records of CIA-chartered planes passing through Romanian airports between 2003 and 2005. Some of these records were independently reviewed by Reuters while others were cited in court documents.

According to the Senate report, the CIA gave the government that hosted the secret jail at least $1 million to thank it for supporting the agency's detention program. The report cited the un-named CIA officer in charge of the jail telling his superiors that, despite harsh interrogation techniques, the intelligence produced was often useless.

Ioan Talpes, who was national security adviser for Romania's president from 2000 to 2004, told Reuters Romania had allowed U.S. intelligence to operate a facility in Romania, but Romanian officials were unaware people were detained there and did not receive money in exchange for hosting any jail.

Of the facility used by the CIA, he said "it was clearly established by the Romanian side that Romanians do not participate in this, and so it was agreed with the Americans."

"We even did not know what would be there. In such situations it is better not to interfere.. We facilitated, we put at their disposal materials they had been asking for, but not with Romanian participation."

The office of Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta sent questions from Reuters about the report to the foreign ministry. In a statement, the ministry said the Senate report released to the public contained no references to Romania and Romanian authorities had no evidence showing there were CIA detention centers in Romania.

Nevertheless, the ministry said authorities were cooperating with a judicial investigation inside Romania into allegations about a CIA jail in the country.

“The competent authorities are taking all necessary steps to solve this case, with full respect of the principles of the rule of law and human rights,” the statement said.

President Traian Basescu did not respond to written questions. The Romanian foreign intelligence service said it had no information to show CIA detention centers existed on Romanian territory.

Ion Iliescu, who was president from 2000 to 2004, told Reuters, when asked about a CIA facility: "I did not know many things. And I don't know anything about this matter."

The CIA declined comment.

Amrit Singh, a lawyer for Saudi national Adb al-Rahim al-Nashiri said the Senate report confirmed her client's allegations that he was tortured in a CIA jail in Romania and that Romanian authorities failed to protect his rights.

The Senate report contains details of al-Nashiri's treatment that come direct from the CIA's own files, information not previously available. The report says he was tortured by the CIA, without saying where.

Now in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, he has applied to the European Court of Human Rights for a judgment against Romania, arguing it allowed his secret detention and torture, and later failed to investigate properly. The court has agreed to hear the case but has not delivered a judgment. A spokeswoman for the court declined to comment on questions relating to the Senate report.

"It is incumbent on the Romanian authorities to acknowledge the truth," said Singh, who works for the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative. "The truth is that there was a secret CIA prison on their territory."

She said Romania had a legal obligation to prevent secret detention or torture, and there were enough reports of CIA abuses in the international media at the time to give Romania grounds to believe this might happen.


The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Romania is a signatory, says states have an obligation to ensure those in their jurisdiction are protected from torture or extra-judicial detention.

The Senate report has shone an uncomfortable light on some European Union states which hosted the jails. Poland and Lithuania also hosted CIA detention sites, according to former Polish officials and Lithuanian lawmakers.

In Romania's case, the report says detainees first arrived in autumn 2003. That coincides with a Sept. 22, 2003 flight to Romania which, according to the al-Nashiri application to the European court of Human Rights, was chartered by the CIA to bring detainees to the Romanian detention site.

The Senate report also says the site was wound down in autumn 2005. That coincides with extracts from air traffic control flight data, reviewed by Reuters, for flights into and out of Romania.

Aircraft making those flights can be traced back, via invoices, flight plans and court documents also reviewed by Reuters, to companies contracted by the CIA to transport detainees between foreign detention sites. Many of those documents were first uncovered by Reprieve, a campaign group whose research on CIA flights has been cited by the European parliament.


In 2002, the CIA was looking for new places to interrogate suspects. It told its local station chief to draft a "wishlist" of assistance it could give the government in the country where it was planning to locate "detention site BLACK" to express its appreciation, the report said.

"CIA Headquarters provided the Station with $[]million more than was requested for the purposes of the subsidy," the report said, blacking out the amount of money and the name of the country. It went on: "CIA detainees were transferred to DETENTION SITE BLACK in Country [] in the fall of 2003."

Talpes, the former national security adviser, said Romania might have received money from U.S. intelligence for providing specific help, but that it was "nonsense" they could have been paid to allow a CIA jail of which they were ignorant.

By the time many of the detainees reached the site, they had been in detention for years, been interrogated hundreds of times and had no more information to give up, the report said.

It said many of the detainees the CIA designated as "high-value" were held at the site, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He is at Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial on charges of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities.

The CIA officer in charge of the site complained to headquarters that he was being sent interrogators who were ill-trained. A few of them were incompetent, the report quoted the officer in charge as saying.

"The result, quite naturally, is the production of mediocre or, I dare say, useless intelligence," the report cited the officer, who was not identified by name, as saying in an April 15, 2005 email.

On Nov. 2 the same year, the Washington Post newspaper published an article saying the CIA was running jails in eastern Europe, without naming the countries.

"After publication of the Washington Post article, Country [] demanded the closure of DETENTION SITE BLACK within hours," the report said, with the name of the country blacked out. "The CIA transferred the remaining CIA detainees out of the facility shortly thereafter."

(Additional reporting by Matthias Williams in Bucharest and Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Janet McBride)

AP:Romanian PM gives up contested 'doctor' title

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — Romania's prime minister has given up the title of "doctor," more than two years after he was accused of plagiarism in writing his doctoral thesis.

Victor Ponta did not directly admit to lifting substantial portions in his 2004 thesis, but wrote to the rector of the University of Bucharest on Tuesday saying he should have renounced the title "long ago when the first accusations came out."

In 2012, Ponta was accused of plagiarizing the work of two Romanian scholars in his 432-page thesis on the International Criminal Court.

Ponta acknowledged not giving the proper attribution but said the accusations were politically orchestrated.

He said he would study for a new doctorate after his political career has ended, "respecting the standards and requirements of that time."

Read more here:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

AP WAS THERE: Romania's Revolution in 1989

Associated Press

EDITOR'S NOTE: Twenty-five years ago the people rose up against Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, executed him and set the country on a path to democracy. One of the near victims of the revolt that toppled Ceausescu and communism in Romania was AP correspondent John Daniszewski ? now a senior managing editor at the news agency ? who, on Dec. 23, 1989, was shot three times while covering the momentous events in the western city of Timisoara. On this anniversary, the AP is making again available Daniszewski's first-hand account filed from his hospital bed in Belgrade, Serbia, that describes the hellish situation in Romania and his brush with death. It was first published on Dec. 26, 1989.


AP Correspondent Shot 3 Times in Early Throes of Romanian Revolt

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) ? The uprising against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave rise to fierce resistance by his secret police, turning Romania into a land of fear, suspicion and retribution. I became a victim of that chaos Saturday night.

I was shot three times, narrowly escaping death. One bullet grazed my skull, and two more lodged in my left arm.

Thanks to some dedicated doctors in District Hospital No. 1 in Timisoara, and the friendly intervention of Yugoslav diplomats in the city, I survived and was evacuated within two days to Yugoslavia's capital Belgrade.

It is hard to describe the mood of pure panic and paranoia that pervaded Timisoara, a petrochemical center in western Romania with about 350,000 inhabitants.

The events that led to Ceausescu's fall began a week before Christmas. Demonstrations to prevent a Protestant minister from being evicted swelled into anti-government protests. Unarmed civilians were gunned down by state security troops, the dreaded Securitate, in the main square.

No Westerner has been able to verify the number of fatalities, but doctors with whom I spoke said more than 4,000 died. After the slaughter, the bodies were gathered in trucks and taken to a mass grave at the city cemetery.

The blood that flowed that day on the square sparked a popular thirst for revenge.

Residents responded with a general strike, and the army declared itself with the people and against Ceausescu.

After state TV in Bucharest fell to the opposition Friday, the borders opened for the first time in four days to Western journalists.

I flew to Belgrade from Warsaw late Friday, rented a car at the airport, and started driving to Romania's border.

Just before entering Romania, I met a Yugoslav journalist, Ljuba Pajic, who was to be my companion in the days that followed.

Although I arrived at the border with no visa, the slightly drunken border guards wearing armbands in the national colors of red, blue and yellow let me in with little formality.

"American? You are with us," one guard whispered out of earshot of his superior.

On the two-hour drive to Timisoara, we were repeatedly stopped by groups of peasants waving the Romanian flag ? with the Communist emblem cut out of it.

"Ceausescu kaput! Ceausescu finite!" they shouted to the foreigners.

But once entering Timisoara, tension replaced jubilation. A siren wailed and young people on the street talked fearfully of an air raid.

Ceausescu's forces were going to bomb the city, they claimed.

So, with car lights off, fearing the bombs that never fell and avoiding the black silhouettes of tanks at many street corners, we began to look for the main hotel, where I thought we would find other journalists.

Ljuba and I ended up at the Hotel Timisoara, near the Opera Square.

Inside the darkened lobby, we were frisked by nervous young people carrying knives, clubs and sharpened sticks.

A young woman who spoke English gave me an account of the massacre:

Children peacefully praying the previous Sunday, Dec. 17, were mowed down by automatic weapons, she said. When their mothers ran to them, they too were shot.

It was also in the lobby, less than an hour after arriving in town, that I met my first casualty.

French photographer Jean Langevant hobbled in holding his buddy's arm, a bullet hole in his leg.

He was bleeding badly, but the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire growing nearer outside made everyone reluctant to go for help.

Finally, a "machina" ? a car ? rolled up to the front door and Langevant was bundled inside. Ljuba and I decided to follow in our car.

Headlights still off, we raced through the deserted streets, afraid to stop. We screeched into the courtyard of District Hospital No. 2.

The photographer was taken to the operating room and we spent the night huddled in the doctors' lounge.

The hospital, like the other buildings in Timisoara at night, was kept in eerie darkness whenever possible.

"They shoot at the light," one physician said, drawing a curtain closed when the flicker of a television set dimly lighted the lounge.

Doctors said they had been working with a constant stream of shooting victims since Dec. 17. They too were afraid, cowering on the floor when the noise of gunfire came too close. Red tracers arched over the hospital roof.

It was a hairy night, but at last, by midmorning Saturday, the shooting had died down enough to go outside.

Saturday we spent trying to locate an outside phone line to tell the story.

In the evening, I returned to Hotel Timisoara, where we talked to the leader of the pro-democracy forces, headquartered there.

Their chief was an automotive engineer, a tall and dignified young man dressed in a black beret and trenchcoat who spoke some French.

The hotel was again in total blackness and he led us through the empty restaurant to a small cafe off the kitchen, where he pushed together two tables and fed us a Romanian feast ? sliced sausages and salty cheese, washed down with grapefruit soda. A Romanian soldier with a Soviet sub-machine gun and several rebels looked on politely.

I asked them what kind of country they wanted. Democracy and free elections was the reply. And the Ceausescus? Killing was too good for them, the group agreed. Maybe torture.

After a short drive around downtown, where the fighting had been the heaviest, all appeared quiet. I made one outside phone call and left the building.

Outside, the scene had suddenly changed. Gunfire erupted very close by as soon as we left. Retreating to the car, we backed away in the opposite direction. Two Italian journalists who had left the consulate with us followed in another car.

What followed was a nightmare of running with nowhere to hide. Every turn in the strange city seemed to lead to another firefight. We tried to make our way back to the hotel, going in ever wider circles because of the fighting.

Finally, luck ran out. Driving into an intersection, somebody flashed a light on us and shouted in Romanian.

Before we could answer or get out of the car, I saw the flash of a gun and realized in an instant they were shooting at us.

Immediately, I felt something slam into my arm and what felt like warm water being poured on my head. My own blood.

For what seemed like an eternity, we screamed that we were journalists.

The men who came out of a bunker to us ? some in uniform, some in civilian clothes ? screamed at us and dragged us to them.

We were roughed up. One man came at me with a knife but stopped just before stabbing me. A soldier kept a gun aimed at my head. I thought they were going to kill us.

My companion, Ljuba, was not hit by the gunfire, but he was beaten. They took our money.

Of the Italians, one was badly wounded in the chest, and the other unhurt.

Finally, to my relief, two ambulances arrived. The Italian photographer, Pasquale Modita, went first. Then me.

The ride to the hospital was mercifully brief, and for my second night in Romania, I was once again under the physicians' protection.

The bullets had gone into my upper left arm, a few inches from my heart. The other one cut a gash in my scalp, but did not penetrate my skull.

"You were very, very lucky," my favorite doctor told me. Time and again, the doctor said after my first operation to explore the wound in my arm: "Someone as lucky as you will live a long time."

For the two nights and a day that I convalesced in the hospital, battle raged outside my window between the Romanian army and small, ruthless commando units loyal to Ceausescu.

I worried that the Securitate would win and murder us all.

But Christmas Day, about 36 hours after being shot, ambulances arranged by the Yugoslav government and the AP took me and Zzeljko Ssajan, a wounded reporter from Zagreb television, to Belgrade.

I was never so happy to cross a border.

Communism to Capitalism: Romania Sees Huge Changes

Romania has changed dramatically in the 25 years since the people rose up against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, executed him and began the slow transformation to a market economy and democracy.

Here are five ways that daily life has changed:


Under communism, typewriters could not be bought in the shops, because the regime was fearful of people distributing anti-government manifestos. Those who had typewriters had to register them with the police every year and explain why they needed them.
Today even young children have smart phones and tablets and people enjoy high-speed Internet. One thing that has gone backward? Modern keyboards do not have diacritics and many don't bother to install the software to use the cedillas and accents that Romanian uses, a source of lament for language purists.


Ceausescu rationed everything from bread to meat and gasoline. The few people who had cars could only get 20 liters (5.3 gallons) a month, often with waits at the pump of up to 48 hours. Private car use was banned altogether in the winter in the 1980s as Ceausescu squeezed people even further to pay off the country's foreign debt.
Today in Bucharest, where more than a tenth of the Romanian population lives, it can take two hours to cross the city when traffic is bad and cars clog the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk in the road. Affluent families often have several cars, with SUVS being a favorite even though Bucharest has no hills or rough terrain. Some SUVS cost as much as an apartment.


Romanians famously tuned into Serbian, Bulgarian, Hungarian or even Russian television as their own state TV station was so lousy. Two hours of TV, much of that dull "news" about the first couple. In the 1980s, even "Dallas" was taken off the small screen after Ceausescu deemed its values too decadent.
Today, viewers can pick from the national TV broadcaster's five channels and more than a dozen cable television stations offering a round-the-clock staple of news, religion, pop music, reality TV and sport for a small fee. There's huge choice ? but the quality is still questionable.


After a visit to North Korea in 1971, Ceausescu was inspired to build big in Bucharest. He constructed the first "shopping malls" which the population wryly dubbed "hunger circuses" as food was so scarce.
Capitalism has brought a myriad of modern Western-style malls, some inside the malls of old. They are so popular that there is now a name for those who spend too much time in one: a "mallist" or "mallista."


Under communism, religion was not banned, but churchgoing was discouraged for Communist Party members and the Securitate secret police. More than a dozen churches were razed or moved in Bucharest for Ceausescu's giant House of the People (also inspired by his trip to Pyongyang).
Religion has flourished since then and the number of churches and other houses of worship has grown from 12,000 to 20,000 today, according to Emil Moise, director of Solidarity for Freedom of Conscience, a non-governmental organization that advocates a separation of church and state.

New information on the end of the Ceausescu era

Even 25 years after Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in an uprising, it's not clear who was involved in his toppling. Hungarian author Arpad Szöczi has a look at new information.

In 1989, communist dictatorships in Eastern and Central Europe collapsed one after the other. But one ruler appeared to have provided for eternity: Romania's leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

In the early 1970s, he turned Romania inside out, North Korean-style. All key party and state positions were filled by family members or loyal comrades close to the leader. His wife Elena was deputy prime minister, his son Nicu destined to inherit the "throne." The dreaded Securitate secret police seemed to be almighty. Romania had become frozen into a giant panopticon.

The only way Romanians could get information about what was really going on in their country and neighboring communist countries was by listening to foreign radio and watching foreign TV broadcasts. Officially banned, people still tuned in to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC and DW. Increasingly, hosts on these broadcasters' Romanian language programs would read letters written by desperate Romanians and smuggled to the West across the hermetically sealed border under adventurous circumstances, often by foreign journalists.

An uprising turns political

Laszlo Tökes, a Reformed Church minister from Timisoara in western Romania, was one of the few who dared raise their voices against Ceausescu's politics. A member of the Hungarian minority in Romania, the pastor used his sermons to criticize an urban planning program known as "systematization" in particular. Ceausescu planned to tear down about 7,000 villages in order to create huge agricultural centers where people would be crowded into housing blocks, practically destroying the villages' material and cultural foundations.

Tökes soon recognized that the project would threaten the Hungarian minority's very existence, so he openly opposed it from the pulpit. He voiced dissatisfaction in a clandestine interview with two Canadian reporters, broadcast by a Hungarian TV station in the summer of 1989.

The interview caused a stir among Romania's party leaders. The historically charged relationship between the two neighboring states Hungary and Romania was beyond tense. Ceausescu imagined a conspiracy initiated by Budapest and ordered Tökes banned from Timisoara to a small village. On December 15, hundreds of people gathered in front of the pastor's house to protect him from the Securitate's grasp. The open solidarity spread across the entire city and led to a nationwide uprising against the dictator. "A revolt motivated by religion turned political, a Hungarian incident became Romanian," says Radu Preda, who heads Romania's Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICMER).

Seven rockets aimed at Hungary

Arpad Szöczi, a Hungarian-Canadian journalist and author, organized the interview with Tökes. In his book 'Timisoara - The Real Story Behind the Romanian Revolution,' Szöczi describes what happened back then. Initially published in English and Hungarian, the third printing is in Romanian and will be released this month. The book is bound to provoke controversial debate in Romania.

After many years of research in the archives of the Hungarian and Romanian intelligence services, the author found explosive information that was never made public: Ceausescu is said to have told the armed forces in western Romania to train rockets on Hungary so they could hit back in case of an intervention by the neighboring country.

A Hungarian secret agent made a note of the rocket information, and it was confirmed by then Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, says Szöczi, who currently lives in Berlin and has been reporting on the events as a TV reporter for DW. According to intelligence reports, Romania bought seven Chinese-built rockets via Arab go-betweens and aimed them at Hungary's Paks nuclear power plant.

Nemeth, Hungary's Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990, was a key figure in the country's political change that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Back then, there was concern that destroying the nuclear power plant could result in an even greater disaster than in Chernobyl in 1986, he told Szöczi. Nemeth said he discussed the possibility of removing Ceausescu with the Polish leadership and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbatchev. He also said he got in touch with Victor Stanculescu, a Romanian general who played a key role in Ceausescu's downfall.

Hungarian agents in Romania

Nemeth confirmed more of the author's research. The Hungarian secret service is said to have sent several dozen agents to Romania in 1989 - some of them for pastor Tökes' protection.

So far, however, Szöczi has not found any corroborating information in the Securitate's archives. The Romanian secret service's operation against Tökes was so secret that few notes were taken. "There's not a word about the November 2, 1989, attack against Tökes by four masked men armed with knives we can assume were Romanian agents," Szöczi says.

Arpad Szöczi presents his book in Romanian on December 19 in Timisoara, the city where the bloody uprising against the communist dictatorship began 25 years ago. The Securitate shot dozens of people there alone; more than 1,000 died nationwide. On December 22, 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled Bucharest in a helicopter. They were captured that same day and tried, convicted and shot by a firing squad on December 25 of the same year.

Romanian parliament approves new Ponta cabinet

Bucharest (AFP) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta's revamped government sailed through a vote of confidence in parliament Monday on a promise of continued economic growth and improved social programmes.

A total of 377 lawmakers voted in favour of Ponta's reshuffled left-wing cabinet, to 134 against.

"I want 2016 to be the fifth consecutive year of economic growth, based on a social model that is not associated with suffering and austerity," Ponta said in a speech to both houses of parliament.

Romania's Social Democratic premier of the past two-and-a-half years also pledged to step up the fight against tax evasion and make better use of European Union funding.

Ponta replaced some of his ministers on Sunday, a month after his surprise defeat in presidential elections.

Several members of the ruling party and its coalition partners were given ministries previously held by technocrats.

The economy ministry went to Social Democratic lawmaker Mihai Tudose.

Budget Minister Darius Valcov's remit was expanded to include finance.

There were no changes to the foreign or defense portfolios.

Ponta had been the frontrunner to succeed outgoing president Traian Basescu but was defeated in the run-off by Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German former mayor who campaigned on an anti-graft platform.

Iohannis, a conservative, takes office on Sunday.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Slate: What’s It Like to Be Gay in Romania?

“Back in the 1990s, it was dangerous to even go to the pub,” Andreea Nastasa said, of queer life in Bucharest, Romania. While one or two venues were known to be gay-friendly, or at least places where queer people congregated, the authorities posed a problem. “We were all afraid of the police. If we saw them in their uniforms, we would just disappear.”

That’s because before 2001, queer Romanians’ public and private life was shaped by Article 200 of the country’s penal code. One of a number of socially conservative reforms introduced by Nicolae Ceaușescu in the late 1960s, Article 200 made “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. In 1996, the section was revised to prohibit only acts “committed in public or producing a public scandal.”

“You couldn’t hold hands on the street,” Nastasa said. She explained that gays and lesbians hanging out together used to designate a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” of the opposite sex so that they could pair off if the police came. “The police would ask us certain questions to be sure if we knew or were intimate with each other,” she said. This stopped after the full repeal of Article 200 in 2001 “because the police couldn’t just ask us for identification if we were together in a group of girls.”

Nastasa is the administrative director for ACCEPT, the first NGO to defend and promote the rights of LGBTQ Romanians. At the group’s offices in Bucharest, I met with Nastasa, along with Daniela Prisacariu, the programs officer, and Teodora Ion-Rotaru, the programs assistant, to discuss the legal status of LGBTQ people in Romania, as well as their everyday lived experience.

“The causes for [Article 200’s] repeal were multiple,” Ion-Rotaru explained. “Romania wanted to join the European Union, and the rights of minorities had to be protected” according to the Copenhagen Criteria for membership. Romania’s relations with the West and pressure to introduce anti-discrimination legislation came into play. “There was also the efforts of ACCEPT”—founded in 1994—“which advocated heavily for its abolishment.”

“During the 1990s, political parties did not discuss LGBTQ rights,” Ion-Rotaru continued. Nowadays, “politically there is a consensus within the mainstream parties that people should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. But that is where the conversation stops. Most mainstream politicians, even in informal discussions, will say something like, ‘Romania isn’t culturally prepared to accept same-sex civil partnerships.’ ”

Indeed, same-sex marriage or civil unions are not on the horizon. Klaus Iohannis, the president-elect of Romania, said during the recent election campaign that “nobody should be persecuted because they belong to a different group or they are different,” but he prefaced that remark by reiterating his commitment to the traditional family. The last time the Romanian parliament voted on same-sex marriage, the proposal was defeated handsomely, and in 2009, the civil code was rewritten to explicitly define marriage as being of one man and one woman.

Not to be discounted is the creeping influence of voices on the far right, including that of Iulian Capsali, a Romanian Orthodox priest who also trained as a lawyer, who presented himself during the European elections in May as “the candidate of the Romanian family,” opposed to abortion and “homosexual culture.” These voices are being amplified due to the work of external forces, Ion-Rotaru told me. “Russia, our neighbor, is exercising political pressure,” as are churches. “American pro-life organizations are also providing funding and spreading ideas in Eastern Europe.”

In a survey conducted in April 2013 by Romania’s National Council for Combating Discrimination, 31 percent of Romanians said they would not feel at all comfortable around a gay person; 54 percent said they would never have a meal with a gay person; and 48 percent said they would be very disturbed if they found out that a family member was gay. “LGBTQ people are the second-most discriminated-against group in Romanian society, after people living with HIV and AIDS,” Ion-Rotaru said. “Eighty percent of Romanians would not vote for someone who is LGBTQ.”

How can these social attitudes be explained? “Religion is a very important aspect of being Romanian,” Prisacariu said. In the 2011 census, 81 percent of Romanians self-identified as Romanian Orthodox, with a further 11 percent saying they belong to another Christian denomination. Organizations within the church have been “getting better” at advocating against the rights of LGBTQ people, “changing their discourse and finding ways of achieving things through legislation.” Today, the Romanian Orthodox Church “is the most trusted institution in Romania,” Ion-Rotaru said.

Instruction in the Romanian Orthodox faith is part of the education system from the first grade, and until recently it was a compulsory part of the curriculum. (That class is now something children must opt into rather than ask to be excused from, as used to be the case.) What’s more, most Romanians don’t have access to decent information about sexual orientation and gender identity due to a lack of adequate sexual education in schools. “We have sex education, but it is usually about abstinence and abortion” and is taught by people who aren’t qualified, Prisacariu said.

The social climate, along with the demographics of a society where around half the population still lives in rural areas, mean there is problem with LGBTQ visibility: Few Romanians are willing to come out. At least in Bucharest, where there has been an annual Pride parade since 2005, there is something of a gay life. The city initially refused to authorize GayFest, telling organizers that it could not guarantee participants’ safety because soccer games were taking place at the same time. It took intervention by the federal government for the city to allow it.

“There are gay venues”—which are often expensive, since the gay community is a captive market—“but if you are in a group, nowadays in the central area [of Bucharest] you can go anywhere,” Nastasa said. “Of course you can go anywhere,” Prisacariu added, “but you cannot be open. If I kiss my partner, even in a venue that is really gay-friendly, it’s not that someone is going to hit me in the head. But there will be the usual guys who stare at you and make weird remarks, as if you’re some sort of extraordinary thing.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Twenty-five years after Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, Romanians seek a ‘revolution reborn’

Romania’s elite remained in power after the communist dictator was executed. Hopes for change now centre on a new president

Emma Graham-Harrison
The Observer, Sunday 7 December 2014

Until 22 December 1989, Bucharest’s stolid Central Committee building had been an impenetrable seat of communist power for decades. Then, on that day, hundreds of ordinary Romanians armed only with stones and courage surged past troops and stormed inside.

There could be no clearer sign that the regime’s grip on its cold, hungry, deprived people had been broken. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena raced for a helicopter waiting on the roof, as bewildered as they were scared. His 25-year control of the country had been complete and paranoid. Children who presented flowers at official events had to spend days in quarantine first, portraits that only showed one of his ears were banned, and dissidents were jailed or worse.

As communist governments collapsed across Europe, Ceausescu looked set to ride out the wave of longing and discontent, fuelled by clandestine reports on change elsewhere, until a standoff with a dissident priest in western Romania triggered his downfall.

On 17 December troops fired on crowds that had gathered to stop pastor Laszlo Tokes being evicted from his home. Dozens were killed and news of the brutality whipped through Romania, sparking protests in other cities. Within a week Ceausescu had vanished from Bucharest and from power, his departure stunning a country that for so long had bent to his will. His reappearance in TV news reports three days later, as an executed convict, was almost as shocking.

“I thought, ‘Dear God, to kill someone on Christmas day!’ It doesn’t matter how bad they are, this should be a celebration of life,” said dissident poet Ana Blandiana, who spent years under surveillance. The image of Romania’s communist despot reduced to a crumpled, bloody corpse was beamed across the world, apparently a triumphant declaration of all-out revolution. A new era had begun.

Fast forward 25 years and the verdict on what happened next is, at best, mixed. Many argue that the execution of the Ceausescus was a false dawn. The show trial was organised by fellow communists, who twisted a popular uprising into little more than a palace coup and held on firmly to the levers of power.

“I am certain now that revolutions are conceived by idealists, enacted by fighters and taken advantage of by opportunists,” said Dumitru Mazilu, a dissident communist official jailed by Ceausescu for smuggling a human rights report to the UN.

Prominent at the start of the revolution, he called for senior communists to be blocked from office in Romania, but was sidelined after asking the man who went on to become president: “Who are you and what have you been doing the last five years?”

That man, Ion Iliescu, and other former communists ran the government for years and still sit in parliament. Former members of the security forces and their families have got rich from privatisation and there has been no justice for the regime’s former victims.

Romania was one of Europe’s few former Soviet bloc countries that did not pass a “lustration” law to ban senior communists from holding office in the new government.

“In the beginning it was real, the blockades, the people crushed by tanks,” said Romulus Rusan, director of the Memorial for the Victims of Communism and the Resistance and husband of Blandiana. “But there were two types of people in the revolution, those shouting ‘Down with communism’, and those only shouting ‘Down with Ceausescu’. It was the second group who created the new political order after 1989.”

Even today no Romanian other than the Ceausescus has been found guilty of even the smallest role in the communist party’s half-century reign of terror and misery.

“We have lived all these years with the illusion of liberty,” said Christina Dan, 30, a civil servant. “They were not our leaders, they were communists who the day after the revolution were not communists.” Dan braved sleet to join a national day parade this month, carrying a sign saying “Romanians are beautiful” for other visitors to hold and photograph. “We started this project to show we have beautiful people about, to trust each other. Because from the last revolution, there was a bad experience,” Dan said.

She is one of dozens of young Romanians roused to anger and political action over the last two years in what veterans like Rusan hope will be a “revolution reborn”.

On 22 December, 25 years after the “revolution”, Romania will swear in a new president. Supporters believe he can finally deliver the profound changes promised a quarter of a century ago. Klaus Iohannis is a political outsider who stunned the country by winning an election many voters assumed was all but delivered to his rival, prime minister Victor Ponta.

A former teacher and provincial mayor from an ethnic minority group, his second-round victory was due in part to Romanians abroad, who queued for hours at embassies but were still blocked from voting by arcane and apparently obstructive rules. Some of the enraged diaspora flew home to vote but, more importantly, their plight fired up thousands at home to take to the streets.

“Down with Ponta! Down with communism!” read banners at protests, even though Ponta, at 42, is too young to have held office in the communist government. But protesters see him as part of a regime that protected and promoted the old ruling class.

“With those who got rich, you see a network of connections into the communist elite and the security service,” said Laura Stefan, an expert on justice and corruption at a Bucharest thinktank, The Expert Forum. “In Romania there was no attempt to hold anyone to account for many years. We have a saying: ‘The head that looks down won’t be cut off’.”

The Ceausescus’ killing showcased a disregard for the rule of law that continued for many years. When change came, in part under pressure from the European Union, it was focused on tackling corruption in the post-communist era. “If there are so many victims yet to find justice, there is no rule of law,” says General Dan Voinea, prosecutor at the Ceausescus’ trial, who later forged an unexpected career seeking justice for more than 1,000 people killed in the “revolution”.

He is unrepentant about his role in what he insists was rough but real justice for a dictator with blood on his hands, and managed to secure the convictions of a handful of leaders for ordering troops to fire on protesters and other crimes during the revolution.

As time passes, victims and perpetrators of crimes dating to the 1950s are dying. The hopes of those who wanted to see someone pay for the death of a parent, the torture of a spouse or other mistreatment were raised when the European court in Strasbourg ruled that there was no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.

But the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile, which is meant to be spearheading efforts to hold historical abusers to account, has not got far. A list of nearly 170 potential targets for prosecution, published in 2007, has so far produced no convictions. A single trial finally began this autumn, but is proceeding at a glacial pace. “Nobody was ever convicted,” says the institute head, Cosmin Budeanca. “A few cases are open in front of prosecutors, but we need political will for something to happen.”

A political appointee himself, critics say Budeanca is happy to drag his feet. He insists he is boxed in by lack of resources and intransigence from government officials unenthusiastic about revisiting the past. “Politicians’ resumés start from the 1990s, because what came before was not comfortable to present to the population,” he says.

There are no prosecutors who specialise in crimes against humanity, he says, and there is a staff of only 36 to fight the bureaucracy. The justice ministry archives are out of bounds and interior ministry and former security service archives restricted.

“It’s never too late for the truth to come out,” analyst Stefan insists. “Failure to deal with the recent past has a lot of relevance for how we are as a society today.”

One aspect is a growing nostalgia for Ceausescu’s rule, including among Romanians who were spared rationing, propaganda and political controls. More than a third of teenagers born and raised after 1989 think life was better under communism than it is today, a 2011 survey by the Soros foundation found. A quarter of them never had a single class on the era at school.

“Romanian society and, most of all, the young generation is forgetting about the evils of communism,” research co-ordinator Ovidiu Voicu told a Romanian newspaper when the research was published. “It is from this point that we begin the debate on including the history of communism in the education system, and try to find an answer to the question of how to avoid repeating past mistakes.”

The deprivations included government-controlled neighbourhood central heating systems that kept whole blocks of flats at less than 10 degrees during frigid winters, and queues for food at department stores that started around 2am, even though people had no idea what they were waiting to buy.

“I always feel I have to have a fridge full of food, my wife and I argue about it. I think it’s because ours was always empty when I was a child,” said Budeanca. For years, Stefan gagged at the thought of shrimps, because of the crackers they were fed as children, made in North Korea from the ground-up shells of crustaceans.

“Communism’s great victory was the creation of a people without a memory,” warns a plaque at the memorial institute set up by Blandiana and Rusan. That grim achievement still apparently haunts the country, long after communism was banished.

But the protesters who helped to propel Iohannis to power on the back of his promises of change say they will not allow another revolution to be stolen.

“They roused five million people to vote,” said George Epurescu, a physics lecturer and president of protest group Romania Without Them. “That is a dangerous weapon, because they got their votes but have also awakened these people.”

Romania Bets on Own Gas, New Pipeline as South Stream Scrapped

Romania plans to build a new pipeline to transport future gas output from the Black Sea after projects preparing alternative transportation routes, Nabucco and South Stream, where scraped.

The country, which has the lowest reliance on Russian gas among eastern European Union members, wants to invest about 230 million euros ($283 million) to link the coast in the east with its existing gas grid, Energy Minister Razvan Nicolescu said in a phone interview today. The government will seek to tap EU funds to cover part of the cost of the construction, which will start in 2017, Nicolescu said.

The Balkan nation is betting on new gas discoveries in the Black Sea, following exploration by Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM) and OMV Petrom SA, to secure energy independence by 2020. OMV AG (OMV), Petrom’s majority owner, made a preliminary gas accumulation estimate in 2012 for the Neptun block ranging from 1.5 trillion cubic feet to 3 trillion cubic feet (42 billion cubic meters to 84 billion cubic meters).

“The most important project is bringing the off-shore gas to the shore,” Nicolescu said. “We’ll build a pipeline from Dobrogea, on the Black Sea coast, to the southern village of Podisor, where it will connect to existing pipelines.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this month cancellation of the $45 billion South Stream pipeline, which was designed to link Russia directly with the EU through the Black Sea.

Romania supported the EU-backed Nabucco, which was intended bring Azeri gas to Europe and was frozen after it failed to find supply sources. The country wasn’t involved in South Stream.

Petrom and Exxon are currently drilling a third well in the Black Sea as they seek to test the commercial viability and estimate the block’s potential resources. Should production start, the two companies will have to invest in transporting the gas from the sea to the shore, Nicolescu said. It’ll be the grid operator Transgaz SA’s responsibility to secure the transportation onward, according to the minister.

“The results of drilling two more wells will be very important for an accurate appraisal of how big the resources in the Neptun block are,” Nicolescu said.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at Peter Laca, Elizabeth Konstantinova

Palace of the damned dictator: On the trail of Ceausescu in Bucharest

(CNN) -- In late 1989 the carefully constructed edifice of communism in Eastern Europe started crumbling in a wave of popular upheavals with a speed that took everyone by surprise.

Nowhere was this process bolder and bloodier that in the final act of the revolutionary domino: the downfall of Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator who ran his country for the benefit of himself and his family like a feudal master.

Today, the country is still trying to cope with a legacy that defiled the face of Bucharest, bankrupted the state and traumatized generations of Romanians.

For some, one way of overcoming their psychological damage is to tell their story to tourists.

It's now possible to join a tour in Bucharest that awakens the memories from a despised era to recount the story of the last days of Romanian communism.

Monument to megalomania

The tour starts at the grandiose Parliamentary Palace, a permanent reminder of the communist leader's megalomania.

Irene, 30, a chic parliamentary aide, gives us the figures and numbers.

The building, she says, is the world's third largest by volume after the Aztec pyramid of Teotihuacan and the Cape Canaveral rocket assembly hangar.

It uses 220,000 square meters of carpet, 3,500 tons of crystal and one million cubic meters of marble.

The carpet in the main Union Hall alone weighs 1.5 tons.

How did this monster come to be?

Irene tells us how Ceausescu took advantage of a 1977 earthquake to raze most of the lower city center of Bucharest, flattening a hill and changing the course of the Dambovita river.

Forty thousand people were forcibly displaced.

"Everything within an area of four square miles was rebuilt from scratch to match the style of the People's Palace. A stadium, several hospitals and two dozen churches or synagogues were demolished," says Irene.

"Only three historic Orthodox churches were saved by moving them, foundations and all, behind large apartment blocks so that they would remain invisible and not spoil his view."

Perfect echo

Construction involved 700 architects and 20,000 building workers doing three shifts a day, plus 5,000 army personnel, 1.5 million factory workers and an army of so-called volunteers.

The palace's Union Hall features two large spiral staircases that descend to the main entrance to allow Ceausescu and his wife Elena to make grand, synchronized entrances.

"He was short and touchy about his height", says Irene, "so he had the staircases rebuilt twice in order to match his step."

Irene claps her hands. The sound travels crisply.

"Every chamber has a perfect echo, because when Ceausescu wanted something, he clapped. And he wanted everyone to know he'd clapped."

Ceausescu never got to see the building finished.

By the time of the revolution, in December 1989, the building was only two-thirds complete. The incoming administration didn't know what to do with it, but the Romanian economy was so entangled with the palace that it had to be finished.

The building was completed in 1994 and, since 1996, it has housed the Romanian Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

The ground floor is home to a modern art museum.

Nevertheless, the building, which costs a dizzying $6 million a year to run, is still 70% empty.

After one hour of walking up and down its corridors, I had still only seen less than 10% of it.

Night of terror

After this grand-scale folly, the simple, modernist design of the old Communist Party headquarters, now the Interior Ministry, looks mundane, banal even.

It stands in front of what is now dubbed Revolution Square, where the protesting crowds gathered in December 1989, intent on bringing down the regime.

My friend Gabriel has brought me here to remember that night.

"I was just 17," says Gabriel, trying to sound neutral, but in his voice the underlying emotion is easily discernible.

"I felt a change in the air. So on December 21, 1989, I came here with my friends. We stood here for hours, sometimes silent, sometimes shouting slogans against the regime. Then someone started shooting at the crowd."

He looks up to the balcony.

"The guy standing next to me just fell without a sound. He was shot in the head. I thought, my God, that could be me! But I stayed. Everyone encouraged each other and we did not go home."

Gabriel looks at me and guesses my thoughts.

"I do not consider myself a hero", he says. "I was just a curious boy."

Revolution Square is now adorned with the Pyramid Of Victory. It depicts "a tall needle pricking the cloud of communism."

On the south side there is a Memory Wall with 1,058 names of innocent Romanians who were killed during the rebellion.

Gabriel still doesn't the name of the guy shot next to him.

"But I know he's one of them", he says.

Next day, Ceausescu left the besieged Communist party HQ by helicopter.

After the army turned against him, he was arrested in Targoviste and, after a short court martial, executed along with his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.

Images of their dead bodies ghoulishly beamed around the world.

An empty grave

They were buried in a hurry at Ghencea cemetery in southwestern Bucharest, their graves unmarked, although everybody knew where they were.

Gabriel shows me the original plots, now empty -- no one wants to reuse them.

In 2010, Valentin, their only surviving child, received permission to have his parents' remains exhumed and reburied together under a modest tombstone.

"So what happened to the Ceausescu's villa?" I ask Gabriel.

"I'll take you there", he says and drives me to north Bucharest, where green parks, tree-lined avenues and high walls illustrate the affluence of the residents.

Gabriel stops on the one side of a dual carriageway and points at a building on the far side."That's it", he says with an ironic smile.

I read the sign: "Embassy of Kuwait."

I cross the road and try to take a picture. There are two armed guards outside the embassy.

"No Photos," shouts one. I show him my press card. While he looks at it, I try to steal a few quick snaps.

"No, no, no," shouts the second guard running towards me. I smile, shrug and scamper across the carriageway to Gabriel who has been watching the scene with alarm.

"You don't argue with police", he says, as he speeds off, shaking his index finger at me.

Ceausescu and communism may have gone, but their impact in people's minds will take some time to heal.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Romania Delays Energy Royalties Increase as Cabinet Plans Talks

Bloomberg News
By Andra Timu, December 03, 2014

Romania delayed raising taxes for extracting its mineral resources to 2016 as the government seeks to discuss the plan with energy companies that will be affected by the change.

The cabinet in Bucharest extended the current system of royalties throughout next year, Budget Minister Darius Valcov said today. It will hold talks with companies including OMV Petrom SA and Romgaz SA to decide on tax changes without jeopardizing their investment plans, Prime Minister Victor Ponta said.

“Romania must have a modern, European system of royalties, but we can’t approve it overnight,” Ponta said in a televised speech.

The country plans to increase royalties from current 3 percent to 13.5 percent of mineral resources produced and bring the fees closer to those in other European Union countries to boost state revenue and fund investments. It’s betting on new gas discoveries in the Black Sea, following exploration by Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM:US)and Petrom, to secure energy independence by 2020, according to Energy Minister Razvan Nicolescu.

Taxes should have different levels for oil and gas production from on-shore and off-shore fields, depending on the level of investments needed for exploitation, Ponta said in June.

The current system of royalties expires at the end of this year, according to existing legislation, and it will be extended via an emergency government decree, Valcov said.

Romanian PM loses second ally after election defeat

By Radu-Sorin Marinas

December 2, 2014

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta lost a second ally on Tuesday when a small party led by a media tycoon withdrew its parliamentary support, days after another party quit his ruling coalition, making further exits seem possible.

Ponta lost a presidential election to ethnic German mayor Klaus Iohannis in November. Growing doubts since then over the stability of his government could complicate efforts to spur economic growth in Romania and implement reforms mandated in an aid agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

IMF officials are in Bucharest for talks about the 2015 budget.

The exit of the People's Party-Dan Diaconescu (PPDD), which said they were ignored by the prime minister and his government, leaves Ponta with a reduced majority of 58 percent of seats in parliament, from 65 percent before the election.

An ethnic Hungarian party quit the ruling coalition on Thursday, saying it "understood the message from the voters in the presidential elections."

Ponta came to power as the European Union's youngest prime minister two years ago and Romania has gradually emerged from a painful recession on his watch.

But last month the premier suffered a shock defeat by Iohannis in the presidential election, despite having beaten Iohannis comfortably in the first round.

Ponta said he would not resign and that his coalition was stable. But after his victory, Iohannis told Reuters in an interview it was possible Romania would witness a power shift in 2015 that could result in a majority for his opposition National Liberal Party and ultimately a change in government.

He also predicted that lawmakers would start abandoning Ponta's coalition in the coming weeks and months.

A parliamentary election is due in late 2016.

The PPDD was not formally part of the ruling alliance but had signed a protocol agreement to back Ponta in parliament.

"We decided today to renounce the cooperation protocol signed with the PSD government," PPDD deputy Liliana Ciobanu told Reuters. "The government and the prime minister simply ignore us, they don't talk to us."

The government has a similar protocol deal with a group of 17 lawmakers representing different ethnic minorities. One of them, Gheorghe Firczak, told Reuters on Tuesday that the bloc had decided to continue its support.

However, Ponta's position as leader of the leftist Social Democrat (PSD) party and as prime minister could also be challenged from within his own ranks. The party will hold a special congress early next year.

His defeat also set off a bout of public squabbling in the ruling party, as three senior members were expelled and another, a close ally of Ponta, resigned.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Forgotten Children: What Romania Can Tell Us About Institutional Care

Foreign Affairs

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), the first-ever randomized trial of foster care for young children with a history of institutionalization, began in 2000. This was about ten years after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu, general secretary of the Romanian communist party. During his tenure,Ceaușescu had been convinced that the way to build a powerful economy was to increase the number of available workers for production. To that end, he instituted a number of pronatalist policies designed to increase the population of the country. These included banning abortion, outlawing contraception, and imposing a tax on families with fewer than five children.

As a result of these policies, there was a dramatic increase in the birth rate. But many poor families were forced to have more children than they could afford. As an alternative to raising children in families, the government encouraged families to place children they could not afford to care for in large, state-run institutions. Faced with widespread poverty and limited economic opportunities, many families abandoned their children at birth or soon thereafter. As a result, over the course of several decades, abandonment became an acceptable choice for tens of thousands of families, creating one of the largest per capita systems of child-rearing institutions in history. By December of 1989, when Ceaușescu was overthrown and executed, there were more than 170,000 children living in various state-run institutions in Romania.

For more than ten years after the Romanian Revolution, the rate of child abandonment remained as high as it was during the Ceaușescu era. As a result, large state-run institutions continued to operate until early in the twenty-first century, when pressure from the European Union, combined with the release of initial findings from the BEIP, led to two major changes. The first was legislation that forbade the institutionalization of children under two years of age (unless they were severely handicapped) and the second was systematic efforts to close many of these institutions in favor of either family reunification, government foster care, or placement in smaller, more family-like group centers.

To be sure, Romania’s system of institutional care for orphaned or abandoned children was not unique nor a new phenomenon. Historically, institutions for abandoned infants appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages, but they came into prominence in the nineteenth century in Western Europe in response to urbanization, war, and diseases. Today, institutional rearing is common in many parts of the world, including Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East, and, increasingly, in Africa. Orphanages were common in the United States through the first half of the twentieth century. And, with armed conflicts around the globe and disease epidemics in Africa (first HIV, and now Ebola), millions of children are being left without families.

And that is why a close look at Ceaușescu's legacy in Romania is warranted. Young people who spent their childhoods in institutions are now left to fend for themselves, often homeless and on drugs. The evidence that placement early in life into institutions has a negative impact on brain and behavioral development is now overwhelmingly clear. Policymakers in other countries are faced with a similar challenge: Institutional rearing is shown to be harmful, but few countries have enough resources to develop alternative family placements. Caring for orphaned, abandoned, and maltreated children remains a global challenge.


The network of childcare institutions in Romania was overseen by different arms of the government. In general, state-appointed physicians directed these facilities.Those born in the countryside were often brought directly to the institution. Infants born at maternity hospitals in cities were abandoned there. After spending up to several months in a maternity hospital, these infants were transferred to institutions for young children known as leagane (cradles), where they were cared for in groups of 12 to 15 by caregivers working rotating shifts. The caregivers had little education or experience in childcare. Given the demands of tending to large numbers of very young and needy children, many caregivers either remained detached, with limited emotional investment in the children they cared for, or alternatively, they selected one or two favorites and spent a disproportionate ammount of time with them. And the state-employed physicians who directed the institutions were not well trained in child development, and although they were pleased to have jobs, were often neither equipped nor motivated to foster healthy child development.

Around the age of three, children were evaluated through an ideological prism called “defectology.” Based on a Soviet idea of child development, the goal was to identify children early in life who, officials believed, were unlikely to become productive citizens. By identifying defects early, the thinking went, the state could cheaply warehouse defective children—on the grounds that they were unlikely to recover—and spend its resources on others who had more potential.

Thus, during the Ceaușescu era, institutions conducted neuropsychiatric examinations that classified children as either “normal,” having a “curable deficiency,” or being “irrecuperable.” If normal, the child was sent to a casi di copi(children’s home) that was roughly equivalent to a group home. There, the children had some private space and attended public school, but lacked warm and responsive caregiving. Those with curable deficiencies were sent to gradinite (special education kindergarten) for preschool. If the child had an identifiable handicap and was designated irrecuperable—which sometimes happened even with treatable conditions—the child was sent to set of institutions that included camin spitale andinstitutule neuropsihiatrice (both long-term facilities for the handicapped). These were dreadful places where children’s heads were often shaved, they were dressed in tattered clothing, and their activities were limited. Hygiene was sub-standard too, and in at least some institutions, there were frequent occurrences of physical and sexual abuse (by both peers and staff). Profoundly handicapped children were often left to lie in their own waste and there were instances in which children were tied to their cribs to prevent them from injuring themselves. In the 1980s, many children were administered plasma for vaguely defined “health reasons.” Some of the plasma became infected with HIV, leading to widespread infections among the children and a mortality rate approaching 50 percent in some institutional settings. Indeed, it is believed that, at one point, Romania had one of the highest rate of pediatric HIV infection in the world.

All of these horrors came to light with the collapse of the Ceaușescu regime. Reports on the tragic conditions of institutionalized children were picked up by the Western media and broadcast around the world. With the best of intentions, thousands of families from Western Europe and North America adopted many of these children, assuming that, if they were provided with good homes, they would recover to lead healthy, normal lives. However, some of these families quickly realized that these children were suffering from serious developmental delays and had problems forming relationships with others, profoundly diminished intellectual functioning, and various psychiatric disorders. Moreover, these problems did not always disappear with time in their new home. Children demonstrating lasting issues despite being removed from the institutions and placed into enhanced caregiving environments raised the possibility that there was a sensitive period during which exposure to profound neglect might have significant and long-lasting consequences for brain development. Further, it added urgency to removing children from institutions and placing them into families as soon as possible in order to limit long-term harm.


The notion of sensitive developmental periods was brought to the American public’s attention in 1997, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted a conference on early brain development. Shortly after the conference, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation began to fund a research network focused on early experience and brain development. The mandate of this group (which included the authors of this paper) was to understand how early experience “gets under the skin” and influences the course of brain development. Eventually, the group conducted a range of studies on the effects of experiences on brain development, but one study in particular became focused specifically on children experiencing profound neglect from early life.

After an initial visit to Romania in 1998, we received an invitation from the government to design a study to test the efficacy of foster or family care as an alternative to institutional care. The work began by identifying a cohort of 136 very young children considered to be relatively healthy and not suffering from any obvious genetic or neurological disorder. These children were extensively assessed while living in institutions, with particular attention paid to their intellectual, social, emotional, and brain development. After this baseline assessment was performed, half of these children were randomly assigned to a high-quality foster care program that our group created, maintained, and financed. The other half were randomly assigned to care-as-usual—continued institutional care. We also recruited a comparison group of children who had never spent time in an institution and lived with their biological families in the greater Bucharest community. These three groups of children have been extensively studied for the past 14 years.

The ethics of randomly assigning children to foster care and care-as-usual were carefully and extensively discussed by members of the research network. The first ethical challenge was whether random assignment to the two arms of the study was justifiable. In the end, we believed that it was. We were comparing two interventions for abandoned children in a country that had historically employed one approach (institutional rearing) and which was considering policy changes to support an alternative approach (foster care). At the time, many child protection professionals in Romania were deeply skeptical about foster care because some of them believed that adults who would take children unrelated to them into their homes could not be trusted. In addition, there were economic incentives within national and local government agencies that favored maintaining the status quo. Because random assignment provides the most incontrovertible proof of intervention efficacy, because there had never been a randomized controlled trial of foster care versus institutional care anywhere, because Romania invited the study to inform the policy question, and because we believed that results of the study would be useful to other countries using institutions to care for orphaned, abandoned, and maltreated children, we concluded that our design was ethically justified.

To ensure that the vulnerable children we studied were fully protected, we agreed on several other principles. First, we did not interfere with the possible placement of children in either group—child protection authorities determined if children were adopted, returned to biological parents, or placed in government foster care (which later became available). All of these placements were available to children in both groups so that, when our support for the foster families ended once the children reached 54 months of age, more than half of the care-as-usual group was no longer living in institutions. Second, we used procedures and methods that posed no more than minimal risk and are routinely used throughout the world with infants and toddlers being raised in their own families. Third, the study was and continues to be reviewed by multiple oversight agencies, including the scientific ethics review boards of the investigators’ universities, by an ethics committee at the University of Bucharest, and by a data safety monitoring board in Romania.

We collected baseline data before the children were placed with foster parents or assigned to care-as-usual. This allowed us to compare institutionalized children to typical Romanian children living in families. The differences were large on virtually every measure we examined: growth, cognition and language, brain functioning, social relatedness, and competence. For example, whereas the children being reared in families had average IQs of 100, those reared in institutions had IQs clustered in the 60s and 70s (more than two standard deviations below the mean).

The children were randomly assigned to foster care or care-as-usual at, on average, 22 months of age (children ranged from 7 to 33 months). We performed follow-up examinations of the children at 30, 42, and 54 months, and then again at 8 and 12 years (we have just embarked on a follow up exam for when the children turn 16). We found that those placed in foster care had higher IQs than children assigned to care-as-usual; over the first 4.5 years of the project, we also observed a sensitive period for IQ—children placed in foster care before 24 months had markedly higher IQs at 54 months than those placed after 24 months. By ages 8 and 12, we continued to observe an intervention effect in IQ for children placed into foster care homes, but the timing of the experience, the sensitive period found earlier, was no longer there. This suggests that for a complex measure such as IQ, subsequent life experiences may override the importance of the early years. On the other hand, we found a sensitive period for EEG activity, a proxy for brain development, which was evident when children were 8 and 12 years of age. Children removed from institutions before 24 months of age had EEG activity that was similar to typically developing community children, while those randomized to care-as-usual had delayed patterns of brain activity.

The top and bottom halves display the effects of the age of placement on IQ and EEG, respectively. Regarding EEG, each of the four displays is a view of the head from the top. The colors represent the amount of the brain’s electrical activity. It is clear from the two images to the far left that the brain activity of children in the care-as-usual group and those placed in foster care after two years is identical; similarly, the two images on the far right indicate that the amount of brain activity is identical among children who had never been institutionalized and those placed in foster care before age two.

A similar pattern was shown for attachment (an assessment of the quality of the relationship a child has with his or her caregiver). Not only was attachment quality higher among children placed in foster care, it improved the most among children placed in foster care before 24 months of age. Furthermore, we determined that the quality of attachment was crucial in determining subsequent psychiatric difficulties. Children who were able to form healthy attachments were significantly protected against developing later adverse symptoms, particularly anxiety.

It is worth noting that there were some areas in which we did not see better outcomes among children in our foster care intervention. For example, at 54 months of age, the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among children who had ever been institutionalized was seven-fold higher than among those who had never been institutionalized. There were no differences, however, in the rates among foster care children and care-as-usual children. In addition, children placed in foster care differed little from those assigned to care-as-usual in the broad domain of executive functions—higher cognitive functions like cognitive flexibility and impulse control at 8 years of age, although some differences emerged at age 12.

As these children grew older, we sought to determine whether differences in brain development could explain the behavioral differences we had observed. When the children were 8–10 years of age, they underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. From these data, we found that children who had ever been institutionalized had a dramatic reduction in the size of their brain and in the integrity of the nerve fibers that connect different regions of the brain. The children in foster care showed fewer differences in the integrity of these fibers compared to never-institutionalized children. Finally, some of the differences in brain anatomy explained the EEG differences we initially found, as well as some of the problem behaviors we observed, such as hyperactivity and deficits in attention. Thus, children who experienced greater thinning of the cortex (that is, they had lost more neurons and connections among neurons) were more likely to have attentional impairment and hyperactivity (symptoms of ADHD).


The findings from BEIP are important in several respects. First, they suggest that children who experience profound early neglect exhibit a wide range of developmental delays and disorders, which are reflected in structural and functional abnormalities in their brains. Second, in many of the areas we studied (EEG, attachment, language), we observed a sharp inflection point—a sensitive period—such that children placed in foster care before a certain age (in most cases, 15–24 months) had much better outcomes than those placed in foster care after that age. Third, there were a few areas in which foster care did not come with any observable benefits. We attribute at least some of this to the relatively late placement into foster care many of our children experienced; had we been able to place them in the first few months of their lives, we might have observed more substantial developmental gains.

Romania’s story has unique features, but our findings have important implications for millions of children currently living in institutions around the world. For example, children who experience a dramatic reduction in IQ and an increase in emotional and behavioral problems due to being reared in institutions from their earliest years, are less likely to complete high school and develop skilled positions in the workforce, achieve economic independence, enjoy lasting intimate relationships with others, or contribute meaningfully to society.

There are currently millions of children living in institutions around the globe. Many are there because of poverty, war, and disease. A public health problem of this magnitude requires a thoughtful and comprehensive response. Indeed, UNICEF has for many years attempted to address this issue. But there are no easy solutions. For example, in areas with widespread poverty or war-torn regions, there are few adults to foster orphans; in countries where a moratorium has been placed on international adoption (for example, Russia), orphaned or abandoned children may often be relegated to institutional care, since in these same countries, foster care is limited.

Even in the United States, where nearly half a million children are in foster care, the struggle to provide high-quality, trauma-informed, and developmentally appropriate foster care is an aspirational goal, despite increasing evidence that this can substantially reduce the harmful effects of adverse experiences.

This study—along with a number of others like it—has raised the alarm about the deleterious effects of children experiencing early adversity. If policymakers do not heed the warning, they risk looking the other way as millions of children around the world see their life-long potential erode.