Adam Burakowski, Mariusz Stan, The Country Full of Sadness, the Country Full of Humour. History of Romania after 1989, Institute of Political Studies – Polish Academy of Sciences, TRIO Publishing House, Warsaw 2012.
The phenomenon of post-communist transformation has been neither properly explored nor discussed enough in international specialist literature. The events came ahead of theories and scenarios; yet again. Characteristically enough, due to serious challenges spurred by the process, some countries undergoing transformation withdrew to their comfort zones, trying to deal with difficulties on their own and not counting on their neighbors. The Visegrád Group is an example which proves that, from the international perspective, in the last two decades, after the system changed, we saw more individual rather than collective efforts.
In this context, publishing a study trying to sort out this turbulent period in one country—or even a region—should be welcomed with satisfaction and it deserves due attention. This holds true in the case of this publication on Romania prepared by two young—born in 1977 and 1982 respectively—Polish and Romanian researchers. Additionally, in the case of the slightly older Adam Burakowski, this is yet another serious undertaking on record about Romania. Previously he published on his own a work on Nicolae Ceauşescu’s authoritarian rule.
A key aspect of the present work, which should be emphasized straight away, is also the fact that the publication is based mostly on Romanian sources and this language, generally, is rarely known outside the borders of Romania. Had it not been for this asset the book would have a different character and would be of less importance.
What do the authors in this unique position want to tell us? It must be underlined that they don’t aspire to be political historians and they don’t reach for meta-theories and neither do they create or present their own theories. Instead, they are trying to be accurate and, with the patience of Job, present and describe events over the twenty years in Romania following 1989. The authors clearly do their best to avoid far-reaching judgments and generalizations. They seem to stick to the approach saying that facts should speak for themselves; and they did manage to collect quite a number of them. Owing to this method reading the work of Burakowski and Stan can be difficult at times. But the insights they provide are really considerable.
So what do we learn? Most of all, that the history of Romania in the last twenty years was indeed stormy and peaceful periods were rare. Right after the fall of Ceauşescu’s dictatorship the country was shaken by the so-called Mineriads— in total there were six of them—when, at the instigation of various politicians, miners protested in big cities, including the capital city of Bucharest, which sometimes ended in devastation of streets and houses and occasionally resulted in casualties. By the same token, Romania not only stood out because of the brutal reactions of the regime— unfortunately there is no answer in the book as to who stood behind the ”trial” of the dictatorial pair and their subsequent execution by firing squad, it may be that we will never know it—but also because of the process of ending communism. The reason is that apart from the miners’ protests so characteristic of this country the specificity of its post-communist reality has also the name of previously omnipotent secret services Securitate. The very sound of the name still causes shivers. In other words, the reality of the past kept haunting the country in the period of transformation. To some obviously lesser extent, you can still feel it today.
The astute and conscientious authors presented us with Romanian political history in recent years, with references to the economy, as well as a sketch of Romanian diplomacy. The descriptions of elections—and these include presidential, parliamentary and even local ones— seem to be too detailed even, but all in all their main point of interest is visible in the studied material and these are Romanian elites during the period of transformation.
There is absolutely no doubt that the emerging picture is rather dreadful even if it is at times amusing or grotesque. This corresponds well with the title of the volume: A Country Full of Sadness, a Country Full of Humor. These were not only post-communist elites who disgraced themselves during the presidencies of Ion Iliescu (1989–1996 and 2000–2004) but also those from the right-liberal wing represented by Emil Constantinescu. What’s worse, it was not any better—or was it?—under the presidency of his successor Traian Basescu, who in 2007 was even suspended for some time, but later returned to office after a national referendum. The same Basescu—as we all know—managed to be elected for a second term. This however came under typically Romanian circumstances, with the other candidate Mircea Geoana first declaring victory, even though in fact he lost. Later, this deprived him not only of prestige but also of the leadership of his party.
The authors put it in the following way: “The merciless political fight which grew less and less comprehensible for a plain citizen gave the impression of chaos and anarchy overwhelming the country. Continuous TV, radio and press discussions which frequently turned into shouting matches led to a general deterioration of the image of the political class. Previously, people considered the main vice of the right their quarrelsomeness and being far from reality and accused the left of being entangled in corruption. After the presidential “marathon” [in 2007–B.G.] it turned out however, that at least some of the centre-right politicians were involved in various connections, whereas the left can be also fragmented and argumentative.”
The quality of elites is one of the decisive factors shaping the post-communist world. This is a conclusion you can draw from the publication. Unfortunately, in the case of Romania, a country in which under the previous system each rebellion or dissident activity was brutally quashed, these poorly prepared elites could hardly manage in the new reality. This reality presented them with enormous challenges, difficult tasks and different funding opportunities, as compared with the previous coarse period. Therefore, most of the Romanian post-communist elites, irrespective of their bloodline, were only rarely driven by state and overarching national interests. Normally, they were guided by mundane calculation and interests like cars, office or position.
Consequently, apart from the elites, another character of the book is omnipresent corruption. At the same time, the authors mention a phenomenon, confirmed by public opinion polls, of a sort of yearning for the old days, even from the Ceauşescu period. As much as 61% of the respondents, especially from the older generation, declared in 2010 that communism was a legitimate ideology, with only 32% of the surveyed expressing negative attitude in this respect. In other words, people are questioning the current political and economic reality in the country.
The authors interpreted those outcomes in the following way: “A stable workplace, descent remuneration, confidence for the future and life opportunities—the Romanians care for these much more than for their influence or lack of influence on the way their country is ruled.” But you might ask if this is really characteristic only of Romania. Just think about the experiences of post-communist transformation in other states in the region. This is yet another piece of evidence to prove the thesis that even though each post-communist state struggled with transformation on their own, they still faced similar—though not identical—problems, with respect not only to their nature but also to their scale or intensity. After all, you could compare Securitate to the East-German powerful Stasi. Romanians were not lucky enough to have their second Western “big brother” and had to cope on their own. And as you can conclude from this volume they did not really do a particularly good job.
Except for one area where the situation was different: diplomacy. And this must be underlined. It’s owing to their own resoluteness that in 2004 Romania joined NATO and three years later—with some more twists and turns on the way—the European Union. Hence, the country moved west and, even though this was far from painless, continued modernizing. In the end you end up with an essentially positive picture even if at times you find some bitterness and disappointment. Those are manifested by numerous Romanian immigrants leaving the country in recent years, heading particularly for Italy and Spain. Some people preferred to choose the more difficult option of economic migration rather than stay to reform and modernize their homeland. But in fact, they contributed considerably to its transformation through the money they send their relatives whom they left behind.
All these insights can be found in this interesting and trailblazing work by Burakowski and Stan which contains a penetrating description of the turbulent post-communist transformation in one of the countries from the former block. You can only regret that we still have no analyses of others. This volume actually only proves that every rule has its exceptions. Finally, we should thank the authors for the selection of interesting illustrations in the book, as well as specialized information embedded in the text which was related to other issues not in the centre of interest. They include specific information on various Romanian and neighboring regions like Transylvania, Banat, Bukovina, Wallachia, Dobruja and Moldavia, and the role of youth, religion and pop culture in contemporary society. They considerably enrich the book bringing even more vividness into the presented contents.
Share this on social media
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.