- - Wednesday, October 7, 2015


For nearly a century, East-Central Europe has been a perennially unsettled region. Pragmatic deals cut after World War I, with more following World War II, have kept the area in an unending state of flux. Social, political and economic stability are far from being realized, a quarter-century after the end of Soviet occupation.

Great power wheeling and dealing saw boundaries changed and nations created for political rather than socio-ethnic reasons. Much as in the Levant, where thoughtlessly quick decisions saw the birth of Iraq among other disasters, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into being out of thin diplomatic air.

Today, Romania is the sole problematic survivor of the three. Only Hungary and Poland have managed to establish themselves as important and relatively stable factors on the Eastern European scene.

There are, of course, several other problem areas in Europe: Italy, Portugal and Spain are in prolonged doldrums and the Greek disaster remains the continent’s greatest economic and political conundrum.

So, why the national malaise? Many analysts, this observer included, believe the following issues are key:

• Tightly regulated, highly taxed countries provide for little if any freedom of economic movement.

• Different ethnic groups often resist mixing and effectively integrating with other elements of the society, effectively isolating themselves from the mainstream.

• Poorly communicated and understood political systems, often foreign-imposed, can allow the few well-informed to dominate the many ill-informed.

• The ever-present, ever-growing specter of corruption dissuades otherwise qualified citizens from participating in what they deem a rigged political process.

The above factors exist at different levels throughout much of the world, English-speaking countries included. But they are more critically present in countries recently freed from autocratic grips.

Romania was for many years an unfortunate example of governance gone wrong. After Romanians threw off the 24-year communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, the European Union, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and numerous Western Hemisphere and Asian nations rushed to recognize the newly free nation.

Unfortunately, the constitutionally designed democratic republic was inefficient, bureaucratic and increasingly restrictive, owing to numerous ancien regime holdovers. Bucharest’s once-promising version of the velvet revolutions that toppled communism’s iron rule became an example of how not to develop a thriving economy. Official unemployment stands at 7 percent, in part owing to some 2 million Romanians — 10 percent of the population — having left the country to seek work. Nearly a quarter of the youth are unemployed.

Former Soviet satellites of Poland, neighboring Hungary and the Czech Republic have all fared better politically, economically and socially until the last several years, during which the Romanian government has significantly encouraged economic growth. Consider the vibrantly beautiful region of Transylvania. Formerly an important part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, most of Transylvania was ceded to Romania in 1920, with a 57 percent Romanian, 25 percent Hungarian and 10 percent German population. Today, Romanian migration has increased its segment to 75 percent while Hungarians number 20 percent and the German community is less than 1 percent.

Transylvania is particularly lovely during the lush, green summer. The people are accommodating and friendly to a visitor. The energetic Hungarian minority is in a protracted state of limbo, however, as few seem satisfied with a condition in which the government provides demonstrably better services to the majority. Indeed, Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital, Budapest, is a popular commercial and leisure destination for Romanians of all stripes.

Political issues aside, in the Carpathian mountains of eastern Transylvania, the traveler encounters numerous country homes, most of them owned for hundreds of years by the same families. A 125-acre estate, Zabola (zabola.com), is one of many properties owned for generations by the Mikes family.

In 1995 Countess Katalin Mikes and her husband sued to reclaim long-confiscated properties from the state, successfully regaining them in 1997. The good news for visitors is that Zabola opened its doors for guests in 2007. With more government interference than support, business has developed steadily under the entrepreneurial guidance of Alexander Roy Chowdhury, the countess’ younger son. By year end, 2015 guest rooms will number 30, sharply up from the current 12.

As do Gernyeszeg (gernyerzeg.com), home for centuries of the aristocratic Teleki family and several other converted aristocratic homes, Zabola offers visitors discrete elegance, naturally beautiful streams and forests, friendly service and fine cuisine amid peace and quiet.

Romania has yet to realize its tourism potential. Transylvania can be the bellwether for major growth, thus adding significantly to the country’s dynamic industrial and mining sectors. Moreover, liberalizing remaining bureaucratic restrictions can make a significant, positive difference.

John R. Thomson is a business development consultant and analyst, specializing in developing economies.

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