EU Accession: the End of (Political) Transition for Romania?

Political Changes in Romania from 1989 to 2006

, by Doru Frantescu

EU Accession: the End of (Political) Transition for Romania?

For the past seventeen years, every Christmas in Romania has been associated with the celebration of yet another year passed since the 1989 Revolution. Apart from the shows dedicated to the religious significance of this time of the year, all TV broadcasting has been related to the events that led to the fall of communism in Romania. However, the perspective of Romania’s EU accession on January 1st sheds a stronger light over the discussion related to the political evolution of this Eastern country.

Political elites

Who are the politicians that guided Romania from one political block to another? Has the Romanian political class been joined by population in this socio-political adventure from communism to democracy and free market?

One common opinion among ordinary Romanians is that the “old elite” is still at the forefront of political and economical structures and that the generations change that will bring to power the youth that was educated after the fall of communism is yet to come. The truth is that this change is more a slow transition rather than a sudden break with the past. When in 1989 a known political annalist, Silviu Brucan, argued that it will take Romania 20 years to become a real democratic society, few people believed him. In the heat of the moment we thought that we could adopt Western values overnight.

Even if led by what the Western media called “the former communists”, Romania did well in the early ‘90s. Bucharest intensified relations with Western democracies, joined the Council of Europe in 1993 and became an associated state to the EU in 1995. However, within the country the situation was different as the new leading party, the Social-Democrats, was trying to acquire a monopoly over politics and economy. In a dramatic shift, the co-aliased democratic opposition dominated by the Christian-democrats gained power in 1996 and everybody thought the end of transition was close. But that was far from happening.

The new government showed incapacity due to lack of experience and it wasn’t long until it became divided among different groups, losing the support of the people. Even worse, much of the civil society who had previously supported the coalition was now compromised along with it. As a result,

Samuel Huntington’s theory, stating that a former communist country experiences a double alternation to power until stable democracy is reached, was confirmed.

In 2000, a reformed Social-Democratic Party regained power, bringing political stability and guiding Romania towards NATO and EU. But along with these successes, old customs like attempts of censorship of the press and predominance of the executive branch over legislative and judicial became once again common practice.

The road taken by Romanians in 1989...

Role of the civil society

As a reaction to this, the civil society gained more and more visibility, with the support of European, but particularly American funding. By this time, the post-communist elites were beginning to take shape. A handful of non-governmental organizations led by young people, who have had the chance of studying abroad, started pressuring the government more and more in the quest for a transparent decision-making process based on public debate. The NGOs were beginning to have both the know-how and the instruments to monitor and expose the behavior of the political class. The main accusations for the ruling party were the encouragement of structural corruption and the slow rate of economic reforms.

In 2004 the Romanian society was once again divided in two, with most of the civil society and the center-right alliance opposing the ruling social-democrats. The media followed the same pattern to the extent that an American correspondent reported that before and during the electoral campaign if one watched only TV and another person read only printed press, they would have had the impression that they were living in different countries, as televisions were praising the government while newspapers were doing the opposite, according to the personal relations and interests of their owners.

Current developments

Following a tight race, the center-right alliance came to power and started another wave of reforms, such as introducing flat tax for income and restructuring the judicial system. Now, two years later, at the brink of EU entrance, this political alliance is suffering from the loss of majority in the Parliament, as the divisions between its components brought the government at the edge of falling.

…brought them to European family in 2007.

All in all, as far as one can tell from the political experience of post-1989 Romania, there were few periods when the country experienced both economic growth and political stability. The population is not yet ready to support one single party that would bring about radical reforms in the economy, reducing the welfare and encouraging the business environment. Sometimes too high social benefits have to be paid to the victims of transition. That is to those unemployed and particularly to those who have been encouraged to take an (early) retirement plan, since the businesses they were involved in became obsolete due to the transition to market economy. Consequently, the elderly in particular have little interest in supporting change.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Romanians welcome EU accession, hoping that this will stimulate both economic efficiency and political stability at the same time, accelerating the end of the transfer of power from the old to the new, better adapted political elites.

Further reading:

* Theft of a Nation. Romania since Communism. by Lucian N. Leustean; source: Blackwell Synergy: Nations and Nationalism

* Thematic Archive: Romanian Politics; source:Central Europe Review

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