- - Thursday, August 30, 2012

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — An ongoing battle between the prime minister and the president amid a tanking economy has left many Romanians longing for a return to communism because they think the democratic and free-market reforms of the past two decades have failed.

They view communism as a system that guaranteed stability and safety, said Lucian Boia, author of the book “History and Myth in the Romanian Consciousness.”

“Today, Romania has become unpredictable. Those who care more about safety than about freedom end up looking back nostalgically,” he said.

More than 53 percent of Romanians last month told the Public Affairs polling agency that they would prefer to live once again under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The dictator, who terrorized Romanians for 24 years, was toppled and executed with his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day in 1989.

Two years ago, the polling firm found that 44 percent of Romanians favored a restoration of the communist regime.

The increasing disenchantment with democracy and market capitalism follows years of economic and political turmoil.

After Ceausescu’s demise, a democratic government led by Ion Iliescu of the Social Democratic Party took control in the 1990s. But Mr. Iliescu tarnished his image as a reformer after imposing heavy-handed policies, such as summoning miners from the countryside to crush opposition protests.

From 2000 to 2004, the government of Adrian Nastase, Mr. Iliescu’s socialist disciple, ushered in a period of suffocating political corruption. Nastase was sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges this summer.

Impeachment mess

President Traian Basescu, elected in 2004 and also known for his authoritarian manner, was nearly ousted in 2007 and again in July after Prime Minister Victor Ponta made a power grab that involved removing both speakers of parliament, weakening the power of the judiciary and impeaching the president.

Mr. Basescu survived an impeachment referendum July 29 because of a quirky election law that required an absolute majority of all eligible voters to cast ballots to remove a president. Although 87.5 percent of Romanians who voted in the referendum wanted Mr. Basescu impeached, the percentage of those who voted fell short of the threshold required for removing him.

In the four decades prior to the 1989 revolution that toppled Ceausescu, the communist regime guaranteed citizens a job and a home.

But the centrally planned economy with its industrial plants geared for export to the Eastern bloc and its collectivized farms spread all over the country defied economic logic. Many of them were crWeated to employ as many people as possible rather than to create competitive products.

Once capitalism was ushered in at the end of 1989, the industrial mammoths of Ceausescu’s era collapsed quickly, leaving more than 1 million people jobless.

After recovering slightly, Romania underwent several years of steady growth in the mid-2000s before its economy collapsed in 2009.

The country received a substantial loan from the International Monetary Fund, which in turn has imposed harsh economic austerity measures that include public-sector wage cuts of 25 percent and taxes on pensions for the first time.

Culture of corruption

Ioan Ivascu, 59, a computer scientist in Bucharest, is one of those who remembers the past and says the situation is far worse today.

“Now, young people have no idea what will happen with them after they finish school,” he said. “We never had such problems. We had a future perspective. We knew from the first year what we would do.”

With the fall of communism, a free-market economy offered opportunities to create wealth, but it also spawned a culture of capitalist corruption.

“Everyone tried to recover the lost time, to fend for themselves and make a fortune at the expense of others, who remained in poverty,” said Mr. Boia, whose book deals with how Romanians view the history of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Analysts say that across the former Soviet bloc, corruption of a new order took hold. It was not the petty exchange of gifts and bribes to access goods and services that were not freely available under the communist regime. The new graft began with newly formed political parties doling out public contracts in exchange for campaign funding.

“People feel that economic growth and transformation benefited only a few — those who are close to the decision-making circles,” said Miklos Marschall, deputy director of Transparency International.

“The elites – with a few exceptions – were too short-sighted, were busy in power struggles, and some key reforms have not been introduced. Some privatizations [of state-owned enterprises] have been done in a corrupt manner, not openly and not based on competition.”

The corruption has contributed to a sharp divide between rich and poor, visible everywhere, especially on the country roads where luxury cars encounter old horse-drawn carriages.

New glass buildings rise next to half-collapsed houses. The capital, Bucharest, boasts dozens of high-end designer stores, although the country’s gross domestic product per capita is $12,600 annually.

Backlash at EU

Many were enthusiastic when Romania joined the European Union in 2007, but recent EU criticism of Romania, especially over the messy impeachment referendum, has created a backlash.

Protesters in Bucharest can be seen holding signs telling the EU, “Remember, this is not your country.”

Confidence in the European Union decreased sharply in 2011, with just 46 percent of Romanians expressing trust in the 27-nation alliance. That is a drop of 14 percentage points from the previous year, according to a Eurobarometer poll.

Some analysts say these political and economic ups and downs are caused by growing pains that Romania will overcome.

In the meantime, the political and economical instability are causing the country’s communist past to seem particularly attractive.

“It’s most visible among two groups: the very old, who remember the positive aspects of Romanian communism, and the very young, born after the fall of the regime and who don’t have a very clear picture of it,” said Ruxandra Ivan, a political science lecturer at the University of Bucharest.

Cristina Dan, 27, an archivist in Bucharest, likened the sentiment to a failed love affair.

“Nostalgia for the past is like when you break up with a girlfriend that you fought with all the time. You date another woman after, and the relationship is even worse,” she said. “In that situation, it’s normal to be nostalgic for that first girlfriend.”

Even if they are disappointed by democracy, Ms. Dan said, Romanians need to work together to build a better future.

She runs a project in which she asks passers-by to complete a sentence: “Romanians are ” One person recently answered: “undecided.”

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