Pictures of the Day

31 December 2013
The Telegraph

Dancers from Romania's northeastern region of Moldova perform the bear dance, a ritual for good luck in the New Year, during a traditional parade in Comanesti, 300 km (186 miles) northeast of Bucharest. Picture: REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

Pictures of the Day

30 December 2013
New York Times

Dancers from Romania’s northeastern region near Moldova performed the traditional bear dance, a new year's ritual for good luck, during a parade in Comanesti, about 200 miles northeast of Bucharest. In pre-Christian rural traditions, dancers would go house to house in villages while singing and dancing to ward off evil. Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Immigration Fears Spark Political Firestorm In UK

27 December 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

LONDON (AP)—They're portrayed as pickpockets who will steal British jobs. There are predictions they will beg, the unruly young ones will stir up riots, and some will even try to sell babies.

For months, Britain's tabloids have repeatedly warned of the horrors they believe will ensue after Jan. 1, when work restrictions will be lifted across the European Union for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria—two of the trading bloc's newest members. Those changes, the papers claim, will unleash a mass exodus of the poor and unemployed from the two eastern European countries to Britain.

"In January, the only thing left will be the goat," a Daily Mail headline proclaimed, referring to a remote Romanian village where, the paper claimed, everyone was preparing to move to Britain for the higher wages and generous welfare benefits.

"We're importing a crime wave from Romania and Bulgaria," another headline declared, quoting a Conservative lawmaker who told Parliament that most pickpockets on British streets hail from Romania.

The alarming stories about a possible Romanian and Bulgarian influx, and a government scramble to tighten welfare rules, are part of the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter debate about Britain's immigration policies and its uneasy relationship with the EU. Right-wing politicians have won over voters by arguing that foreigners, particularly eastern Europeans, are flooding Britain's job market with cheap labor and exploiting the country's benefits system.

The upstart UK Independence Party, known as UKIP, has seized on the anti-immigration mood to undermine support for the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron. In response, Cameron has recently stepped up his rhetoric on immigration and rushed to impose curbs on the ability of new migrants to claim state benefits.

He also angered fellow EU leaders when he challenged the established concept that there should be a free movement of workers throughout the economic bloc, arguing that it should be amended to stop mass migrations from poorer to richer member states.

"The politicians are doing it for popularity," said Father Silviu Petre Pufulete, a priest at a Romanian Orthodox Church in London. "It's been unfair to the Romanians and it's just been blown out of all proportion."

How big exactly is the potential problem?

Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and more than 100,000 migrants from the two countries already work in Britain, albeit under work restrictions that limit their access to jobs and state benefits like health care.

The work restrictions use quotas to limit the number of low-skilled Romanians and Bulgarians who can take jobs in Britain and requires them to obtain a "worker authorization document" before taking a position. Those who work without proper papers, and employers who hire them, face fines and prosecution.

Those restrictions—similar to those in place in several other EU countries—will be lifted Jan. 1, giving Romanians and Bulgarians the same rights as other EU nationals to live and seek work freely across Europe.

Britain is bound by EU regulations to let the migrants work, and is powerless to extend the restrictions. That feeds frustration among those who feel Britain has given too much power to bureaucrats in Brussels. The turbulence comes as Cameron has promised a nationwide referendum on Britain's continued membership in the EU if his party wins the next general election in 2015.

The relaxation of work rules has become a hot button issue in Britain, but has not provoked similar passions in Germany, France and other European countries, despite occasional tensions over the large number of migrants and complaints that the new arrivals are linked to a rise in street crime in major cities like Paris.

Nobody knows how many Romanians and Bulgarians will actually come to Britain, and the government has refused to provide an official estimate. But many Britons believe that the migrants will choose Britain over other EU members because it is seen to be a generous welfare state.

"The biggest issue is that some see Britain as a soft touch," said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at the University of Leeds. "They assume people will want to come here because they'll get an easy ride here."

Much of the anxiety can be blamed on the British experience in 2004, when Poland and other former communist countries joined the EU. Officials had mistakenly estimated that several thousand would come, but more than 1 million Poles moved to Britain.

Arguments that the influx of Polish workers has helped Britain's economy have not calmed worries of a second wave of eastern invasion, especially now that the British economy is much weaker than it was a decade ago.

"It's the fear of it rather than reality," said Simon Usherwood, a specialist in European politics at the University of Surrey. He said studies reveal that most EU migrants tend to be young, healthy and employed.

The Center for Economics and Business Research said this week that continued immigration is one factor that will help Britain eclipse Germany as the biggest economy in Europe by 2030.

That hasn't stopped British media from focusing on the poverty and unemployment in parts of Romania and Bulgaria. A favorite topic is the impoverishment of the Roma, or Gypsies, a minority that has endured centuries of discrimination in Europe. Roma are scattered across Europe, with the largest population in Romania.

Tabloid stories have accused the Roma already living in Britain of a wide range of things, from trying to sell babies to eating cats.

Police statistics suggest that Romanians in the U.K. do not constitute a major crime threat, though social tensions have occasionally flared. In June, British police evicted dozens of homeless Romanians who had set up a makeshift camp in a former soccer field in London. That and similar incidents prompted police to travel to Romania, in part to try to discourage locals there from moving to the U.K. without guaranteed work.

UK Independence Party leaders say this tactic will surely fail.

"The only real solution is and has always been to take back control of our borders by leaving the EU," says UKIP Deputy Leader Paul Nutall on the party's website.

Its "common sense" video states that qualified migrants are welcome but that "foolish" EU rules allow "anyone from the entire region of 500 million people to walk right in to work, or not to work, to claim health care and housing." It warns that Britain's 2.5 million unemployed will have their chances of finding work undercut by new arrivals willing to work for low wages.

The impact of the rule changes won't be clear for several months, but in the end Cameron may have the most to lose. In appeasing hardline Euro-skeptics among his Conservatives and trying to win back UKIP supporters, he has upset relations with the EU.

"He's annoying his European partners, and he's also annoying the rank and file in his party because he's not tough enough," said Usherwood. "He's trying to make everyone happy, but in the process making nobody happy."

As European Barriers Fall, Bulgarians Feel West’s Tug

A Barrier to Emigration Falls for Bulgarians: On the first day of 2014, labor restrictions will end for Bulgarians and Romanians in nine European Union member states. Boryana Katsarova for The New York Times

See Slide Show

26 December 2013
New York Times
by Danny Hakim

SOFIA, Bulgaria—Ervin Ivanov, a fourth-year medical student, is sure he’ll leave Bulgaria, and he is sure that most of his classmates will too

“Probably most of them are thinking of working in other countries, working in European countries, but not in Bulgaria, definitely,” Mr. Ivanov, 22, said while standing in the hallway of a Soviet-era medical school here.

Even though he is debt-free because the state subsidizes much of the cost of education, he dreams of practicing in Switzerland or Germany because those countries offer far higher pay and more advanced and specialized medical systems.

“I think of myself as European,” said Mr. Ivanov, an aspiring oncologist.

On the first day of 2014, nine European Union states, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain, will lift labor restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians. But already, skilled and even many unskilled laborers have found many ways to work in those countries. A look at income data shows why Bulgarians and Romanians might continue to seek greener pastures.

The wealthiest one-fifth of society in Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, have a lower median income than the poorest one-fifth of society in Britain, France, Germany or other wealthy European states, according to a review of income data obtained from Eurostat, the statistics office.

Obviously, this does not necessarily mean that being poor in Britain, France or Germany is better than being in the top income bracket in Bulgaria or Romania: The cost of living is vastly lower in Sofia than in London.

But the lure of higher pay cannot be ignored when barriers come down, particularly as Bulgaria’s unemployment has increased sharply over the last half-decade. After bottoming out around 6 percent at the end of 2008, it has steadily risen to 13.2 percent in October.

Interviews in December with residents of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, revealed widespread frustrations with the succession of governments, corruption and the country’s inability to shake off its Soviet roots. It has also been unable to lift itself from being Europe’s poorest nation. (Bulgaria’s output, per capita, is last among the European Union’s 28 states, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.)

A common joke here goes like this: “There are two ways out of Bulgaria’s problems: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2,” referring to the two terminals at Sofia’s airport.

Despite that, many said they wanted to stay home, in part because joining the European Union brought a measure of hope. Some mentioned the unrest in Ukraine as a cautionary tale.

Polina Naydenova, 24, who is studying international law, said she wanted to stay where she had “my friends, my family and my life.” She hopes she will “somehow have the chance to change things constructively” in her native country. Another law student, Petar Kyosev, 24, said he hoped to move to Amsterdam, but also would eventually return. “I’m trying to do my best to stay here, but my country is not doing its best to make me stay,” he said.

Liliya Vlaeva, 26, an economics student, said she would stay. “The living standard here in Bulgaria is not so high as in Great Britain, in London for example,” she said. “The salaries for young people are enough, in my opinion, to live well—not as rich people, but to live O.K.”

But she said many of her classmates who study abroad opt not to return. “I know about 10 or 15 people from the last year that did this, in different countries,” she said. “They are people who are not coming back, but it is a personal decision.”

Bulgaria also has a large and often impoverished minority of Roma, or Gypsies. “I don’t see any hope in the coming 20 years; the only way is working abroad,” said Minko Angelov, 57, a Rom who was laid off at a local Coca-Cola bottler, speaking outside a state employment center. Since he speaks only Bulgarian and Russian, he is reluctant to travel through Europe. “The language is a big problem,” he said.

The pending rule change has set off alarm particularly in Britain, which was flooded with Polish immigrants over the last decade. The circumstances are not entirely parallel. In 2004, Britain threw open its borders to the Poles and also altered its work rules to make it easier to get employment. This time, nine countries are easing their work rules simultaneously because of European rules, but their borders have already been open to visiting Bulgarians and Romanians.

Projections range widely, suggesting nobody really knows what will happen after the rules change. On one extreme is a recent claim by the right-wing Democracy Institute, based in Washington and London, which predicted at least 385,000 new migrants from Bulgaria and Romania would come to Britain over the next five years, though the group kept its methodology secret. By contrast, the Bulgarian and Romanian governments have said there will be no perceptible change in emigration.

Bulgarian officials argue that there have been ways for workers to find jobs in Europe already. “I don’t think January 1 is a very bad day in which we’ll have thousands and thousands of people leaving Bulgaria. This will not happen,” said Petar Chobanov, Bulgaria’s finance minister.

“If someone wants to leave, they already left,” he said.

Daniel Kalinov, executive director of a private employment agency in Sofia that helps people find work abroad, agreed. He said most of the people who sought access to the labor market, even unskilled workers, could find ways through the red tape of the existing system. And the number of applications he has received ahead of the rule change has not increased. “It’s not going to be buses coming in, pouring over and congesting the country,” he said of Britain.

Unconvinced, the British government recently made it harder for immigrants to receive state benefits. “By addressing the factors that drive up immigration, we are doing everything within our power to discourage immigration from the European Union,” Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said in a statement.

Perhaps most worrisome for Bulgaria is the brain drain of its doctors. “They simply go, and this is very, very bad news,” said Dr. Marin Marinov, the head of the Medical University of Sofia’s medicine department. He said past surveys showed about two-thirds of the school’s graduates planned to leave the country.

“You educate these people for six years, you invest money, invest intellectual potential, you invest everything you have to teach them and to make them good doctors,” he said, “and they disappear afterward.”

Finding frustrated people in this city is not hard. Daily demonstrations have been taking place since the current Socialist-led government made an abortive attempt at appointing a loyalist media mogul as security minister this past summer. Among the protesters outside the Parliament building on a chilly December morning were two 19-year-olds, Emil Nikolov and Teodora Shalvardjieva. They wore hoodies; he blue, she pink. He also had a small yellow button with a black fist on it. She held a megaphone at her side.

“I could’ve gone to France to study, but I decided to stay here,” Ms. Shalvardjieva said. “If it doesn’t change eventually, maybe one day I’m going to be forced to go somewhere else.”

“We have no future here. We cannot have a nice job here in this country,” Mr. Nikolov said. “This is why all the young people from Bulgaria go.”

Milen Enchev contributed research from Sofia, Bulgaria

Romania’s Overlooked New Wave

18 December 2013
New York Times
by Larry Rohter

When it comes to the Oscar for best foreign-language film, Romania is a country that can’t get no respect. The Romanian “new wave” is one of the most significant developments in world cinema over the last decade, and Romanian films regularly walk away with top prizes at festivals like Cannes and Berlin. But no Romanian film has ever been nominated for an Oscar, and only one, Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills,” released last year, has even been shortlisted.

This time out, the Romanians have submitted “Child’s Pose,” a drama directed by Calin Peter Netzer that won the Golden Bear, the top prize, at the Berlin Film Festival in February. To be more specific, it is an intense psychological drama: after Barbu, a man in his 30s, has a car accident that kills a child, his mother, Cornelia, uses all of her many social and political connections to try to get the state bureaucracy to drop the manslaughter charges—and to reassert her control over her son’s life.

As played by the esteemed Romanian actress Luminita Gheorghiu, who has appeared in prize-winning Romanian films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” as well as Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown,” Cordelia is an utterly amoral harridan. It’s a juicy role, one that, though Mr. Netzer was not familiar with the reference when asked, recalls the Joan Crawford of “Mommie Dearest,” smothering her children by trying to mold them into what she wants them to be.

Mr. Netzer, 38, wrote the script for “Child’s Pose,” his third feature, with Razvan Radulescu, co-writer of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Mr. Netzer’s previous film, “Medal of Honor,” also looked at interactions with the government bureaucracy, though from an absurdist viewpoint and without the “pathological” element that pervades his new film, as he explained in an interview last month. Here are excerpts.

Q. Is your film based in some fashion on a real situation?

A. In a way, yes. It’s based on the relationship between me and my mother and the co-writer and his mother.

Q. Wow. That’s not at all the answer I was expecting. I was thinking more along the lines of a court case that may have been in the news in Romania.

A. We were inspired by the news because accidents like this do happen in Romania. So we put it together with this pathological mother-son story. It’s like a catharsis, therapeutic if you will.

Q. It’s interesting to see this film working on at least two different levels, familial and also the larger society. How did you and Razvan decide on that approach?

A. We decided on the social thing, the corruption, because we needed some extraordinary thing to happen to speed up the relationship. Because the film is taking place over five or six days, that was the point. But the mother-and-son relationship, that’s the main story, the main interest for us.

Q. Bureaucracy is so often a theme in Romanian films, almost a trademark. Why is that?

A. More even than a trademark, it’s an obsession. It’s the experience of the country. You face these things and they are getting into you. These are things you want to bring out. It’s like therapy, you have to pull it out of yourself, to escape from these things.

Q. Was the story written with specific actors in mind?

A. Yes, Luminita was in my head when we wrote the script. But once we finished and went to production and casting, I was looking for someone else. Because Luminita is a very well known actress, and I tried to discover somebody else, maybe a fresher face. But after a few weeks of casting, I realized that she was far and away the best option.

Q. What made her the logical choice?

A. She’s a little bit a Cornelia in her life. But she is a very good actress, she is very professional. She was afraid of this story, since it is about a high-society lady, and she didn’t know about this milieu because she always played people from other classes. She was afraid of that, and also that I wanted to change her looks a lot. She was fine about that in the beginning, but then she was afraid and didn’t want to play the role anymore. It was a big fight. But I ended up taking her to a place to have some Botox put in her lips.

Q. What do you mean when you say she’s a bit like Cornelia?

A. She’s bossy and domineering.

Q. Does that mean the shoot was difficult?

A. There was a tension between us. For example, she greeted me in a way before and during the shooting like Cornelia was treating Barbu. That’s how deep she was going into the character. Of course I had to play Barbu because I couldn’t spoil her game.

Q. How do you feel about this label of the Romanian new wave. Are you comfortable with it? Or is it something that was invented by critics?

A. I think there is a wave. It really started with Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Then Cristian Mungiu changes his point of view on cinema, because his first film, “Occident,” was something else, and he approached cinema in a different way after that. And Corneliu Porumboiu ["12:08 East of Bucharest"] as well. So I think there is both a movement and a leader, in Puiu.

Q. And when people ask you to explain how it happened in your country and not elsewhere, what do you say?

A. That’s a question I can’t answer. Of course I think there is a talented generation, that’s for sure. But I think the most important thing is that in our films we are trying to be as honest as we can. And also, there is competition between us, and I think it’s healthy.

Q. This is your first experience competing for an Oscar. Have any colleagues given you advice?

A. Not really. There has never been a Romanian nominee until now.

Q. Why should that be the case? Romanian films win prizes everywhere else. Is there some kind of disconnect with Hollywood?

A. Probably. The Academy members are looking for films that are closer not to mainstream, but something lighter. Our films are very dark, and I don’t know whether most Academy members care whether you win a Golden Bear or not. You have to make a little campaign, and have something they know. For example, “The Hunt” has Mads Mikkelsen, and that’s something for them. Plus we get no support, and you have to have some money. Other countries get money from the government to promote it, and we’re not getting that, that’s a problem.

Europe’s Hottest Car: The No-Frills Dacia

The Dacia Duster at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. Uli Deck/European Pressphoto Agency

17 December 2013
New York Times
by David Jolly

PARIS—The hottest car in Europe this year is not a BMW, a Benz or a Bentley. It is Renault’s low-cost brand, Dacia, born in Romania.

Dacia’s sales through November are up 21.1 percent from a year ago, to more than 260,000 vehicles, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association report released Tuesday, well ahead of equal second-place finishers Mazda and Jaguar, each with 15.6 percent gains. Not bad for a brand that only reappeared in 2004.

With unemployment in the euro zone above 12 percent and economic uncertainty high, Dacia has found a foothold with prices as low as 7,700 euros, or about $10,600, taxes included, for its no-frills Logan sedan.

For someone used to driving a Mercedes or a BMW, a Dacia would be “awful,” Jens Schattner, an analyst with Macquarie in Frankfurt, said. “But if you just need to get from Point A to Point B, it’s simple, reliable technology, and you get a three-year warranty. It’s all you need.”

Dacia is one of the bright spots in the European market, which has undergone a wrenching contraction since the financial crisis. Auto sales rose slightly in November in Europe for the third straight month, according to auto registration data released on Tuesday by the association, but they are still headed for another year of declines. Sales were down 2.7 percent for the first 11 months of the year in the European Union compared with the same period in 2012.

Dacia’s success, and the continuing strength of the luxury segment, reflect a bifurcated sector in which the extremes are doing well while much of the market in the middle stagnates. The brand has also been a boost to Renault’s bottom line as competitors have struggled with the downturn in Europe.

Renault bought Dacia in 1999, a rusting artifact of the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, who had started the Romanian car company in the 1960s with a stripped-down old Renault 12 design that the dictator declared was “good enough for the idiots.”

Louis Schweitzer, Renault’s former chairman and chief executive, recognized that mass-market cars made for the developed world could not be sold profitably in Europe’s emerging markets, so he sought to make Dacia a place to build a new car platform, called the M-zero (or M0), that would be economical, reliable and cost just €5,000.

While he did not meet his price target, his gamble paid off when Dacia successfully debuted in 2004, targeting buyers in Eastern Europe and Turkey. To the industry’s surprise, it also caught on in Western Europe, especially after the financial crisis hit: Dacia’s European sales nearly doubled in 2009 from 2008 to more than 214,000 cars. Today it boasts a full range of pickup trucks, SUVs, and station wagons. Its newest model, the Dacia Duster crossover, starts at €11,900.

“Anyone can say we took advantage of the crisis,” said Arnaud Deboeuf, the Renault executive who oversees the company’s entry-level segment around the world. “But there’s been a change in buying attitudes in Europe; people don’t want to spend so much money on a car now.”

Mr. Deboeuf said the experience gained by developing a low-cost car from scratch had been hugely beneficial. “You can’t offer a car to your customers at an aggressive price if you don’t put pressure on your engineers, on sales, marketing, to control and reduce costs,” he said.

Dacia spends little on marketing, and distribution costs are relatively small, because the cars are sold through existing Renault dealers. And there is no discounting.

A big part of keeping costs down is the fact that none of the Dacia models that are sold in Western Europe are made there. Renault’s investment in the decrepit business transformed the company and created thousands of new jobs in Romania. But even Romania may be getting too expensive for Renault to hold the line. In April, the company warned the 10,000 workers at its factory in Pitesti, about 70 miles northwest of Bucharest, that it would move some jobs to Morocco if they did not moderate their wage demands.

Carlos da Silva, an analyst at IHS Automotive, said that a key reason for Dacia’s success in Western Europe was that it had created a new class of customers, people who would previously “have bought a five-year-old car, but now they can get a new car for the same price.”

Carlos da Silva, an analyst at IHS Automotive, said that a key reason for Dacia’s success in Western Europe was that it had created a new class of customers, people who would previously “have bought a five-year-old car, but now they can get a new car for the same price.”

Renault has been careful to keep the brands separate in Europe, he noted, as Dacia’s image is not as prestigious as the parent company’s. The danger now, he said, is that Dacia sales could eventually begin to cannibalize sales of Renault’s own lower-end vehicles, eating into profit margins. “It’s a tricky equation,” he said.

While Dacia has been a boon for Renault in Europe, the M-zero platform on which it is based has been even bigger in non-European markets including Brazil and India, where the cars are sold under the Renault brand. That helped Renault last year to record more than half of its car sales outside of Europe for the first time. Mr. Deboeuf said that there were no plans to enter the United States and Chinese markets, but that Renault is aiming to introduce Renault-brand M-zero cars next in Indonesia.

Mr. Schattner said Dacia now “has a monopoly” on the entry-level market in Europe, and will likely hold it for at least three to five years, because its rivals have not decided how to respond.

Though the Dacia brand’s reliability ratings are mixed, it performs modestly well in safety tests carried out by the European New Car Assessment Program, a consortium of governments and consumer groups.

Mr. Schattner estimated that Renault’s margin on profit before interest and taxes, a key metric of profitability, was around 8 percent across the M-zero cars worldwide. In terms of profitability, he said, that puts them “in good company, on a par with the German premium carmakers.”

That has not escaped the attention of rivals. Executives of Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest carmaker, have said that plans for a low-cost VW brand would be revealed within the next year, assuming such a car could be produced profitably and to the company’s standards.

Dave Wright, who lives in Preston, about 30 miles north of Manchester, England, said that he bought a Dacia Duster for 12,995 pounds, or about $21,200, plus Ł495 for the metallic paint option, earlier this year because he was attracted by its “tried and trusted technology with no frills or superfluous gadgets.”

The first one he ordered had a steering problem and, after some frustrating encounters with customer service, was replaced by the dealer. “All is good after three months,” he said.

“So long as this vehicle remains reliable,” Mr. Wright said, “I look forward to future Dacia models. I like the Dacia ethos, it fits in with my own mind-set. It’s simple no-nonsense value for money. A niche the big manufactures have failed to fill.”

Jake Cigainero contributed reporting

Wikipedia 15 December 2013

On this day...
1467 – Troops under Stephen III of Moldavia defeated the forces of Matthias Corvinus of Hungary in present-day Baia, Romania.

Romania: Blood Links with Writers and Royals

Bran Castle was at one time the summer residence of Queen Marie, the wife of the then Romanian King Ferdinand I and one of the granddaughters of our own Queen Victoria

11 December 2013
The Telegraph
by Adrian Bridge

The British connection with Romania goes back a long way. Prince Charles, no less, has claimed a distant kinship with Vlad Tepes—the 15th-century ruler of Wallachia, who had a penchant for impaling his foes on wooden stakes and provided the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictional character, Count Dracula.

There is a more recent blood link, too. Bran Castle, in which the count allegedly developed his vampirelike predilections, was at one time the summer residence of Queen Marie, the wife of the then Romanian King Ferdinand I and one of the granddaughters of our own Queen Victoria.

The current heir to the throne is clearly also drawn to Romania. “You could say I have a stake in the country,” he once quipped.

Prince Charles made his first trip to Transylvania in the late 1990s and was “totally overwhelmed by its unique beauty and its extraordinarily rich heritage”. Other visitors have been similarly blown away by the scenery—a mix of flower-filled meadows, virgin forests in which it is still possible to see bears in the wild, and the rugged Carpathian Mountains.

Then there are the gothic treasures bequeathed by the “Saxon Germans” who were originally invited to come and defend the region against incursions from the east—in particular the cities of Brasov, Sighisoara, and Sibiu (a European City of Culture in 2007).

In a very British way, the Prince has invested in property in Transylvania: two stylish dwellings which have been painstakingly renovated and which, when not in royal use, are open to visitors.

During a stay at his property in Zalanpatak last year, I bumped into two travellers who declared it “almost perfect. We feel we have died and woken up in heaven.”

While it is undoubtedly the jewel in Romania’s crown, Transylvania is not the only place to which curious British visitors might be drawn. Here are a few others:


The Bucharest bequeathed by Nicolae Ceausescu is never going to win any beauty contests, but there is something genuinely awesome about the Palace of the Parliament (after the Pentagon, the second largest political building in the world) and the surrounding boulevards. And while the city is unlikely to regain the “Paris of the Balkans” status it enjoyed between the two world wars, it is beginning to recapture some of its outdoor coffee culture charm.


Another rural idyll, in the far north of the country. Best known for its magnificent wooden churches.

Transfagarasan Highway

The extraordinary 60-mile stretch of tarmac through the Fagaras mountains is full of twists and turns and eccentric loops that make it look as though it has been constructed as part of a Scalextric set. Another Ceausescu creation, it was described by Jeremy Clarkson as “the best road in the world”.

Danube Delta

The end point of one of Europe’s greatest rivers—a mass of waterways and islands—has a genuinely other-wordly charm. It is home to otters, minks, boars and frogs—and a vast array of bird life.

Vama Veche

The stretch of coastline around the village of Vama Veche near the border with Bulgaria may have lost some of the laid-back hippie-nudie charm it had in communist times, but it is still a fun place to lounge and party on the beach—and hugely preferable to the brasher Black Sea resorts to the north

More on Romania:
    To the Source of the Danube
    Prince Charles of Transylvania
    Romania: A Rural Fairytale

A Disciplined Contrarian Who Decorates Bodies

A blackened oak body decoration with silvered brass couplings, from the ‘‘Sur—Faces’’ collection. Catalin Olteanu

9 December 2013
New York Times
by Palko Karasz

LONDON—Carla Szabo is a born-and-bred urbanite. A native of Oradea, in western Romania, she attended university in Bucharest and has lived ever since in the capital, which at first sight can resemble a concrete maze.

Yet much of her work focuses on nature. In her current collection, “Articula,” spheres of walnut linked with beads of fossilized carbon are fashioned into structures resembling the joints of insects and crustaceans.

“I like the world of animals. Clearly, I feel familiar with it,” Ms. Szabo, a designer and entrepreneur, said recently by telephone from Bucharest. “Ever since my childhood, I’ve been interested by the earth and all of its creatures.”

When she was invited to accessorize a friend’s fashion collection a decade ago, she came up with small buttons shaped like insects, butterflies and snails. Shown at one of the city’s earliest craft fairs, those were the first objects that helped steer her career in interior design toward conceptual jewelry.

Ms. Szabo calls her works “objects of body decoration” rather than jewelry, a term that, to her, is already loaded with meaning. Her objects are not limited to jewelry in its usual sense: they can decorate the body, a table or even a wall. “I conceived them for the pleasure of illustrating a concept. That’s it,” she said.

Her work is subtle and puts the wearer before the jewelry. One pendant design in the “Articula” collection hides or reveals its diamond, at the owner’s choice.

But Bucharest has little time or space for such niceties. After enduring decades of shortages under Nicolae Ceausescu’s isolationist regime, Romanians embraced consumerism almost instantly after 1989. The collapse of Communism brought liberty, democracy, capitalism—and the mass-produced goods that people had been longing for.

Shiny malls have mushroomed, with the same offerings that can be found in shop windows across Europe. Fashion brands are dominant, squeezing independent, home-grown design into an intermittent, quasi-underground existence, showing up at occasional fairs and tiny showrooms dispersed about the city.

Still, Ms. Szabo says the independent design market has gained some ground during the past decade. She has enjoyed growing promotion for her work and some support, including from the state. Two of her collections were shown at Berlin Fashion Week to critical acclaim.

While many young artists have left for more promising opportunities abroad, Ms. Szabo has stayed put and says she has no plans to leave.

“In my mind, there is no alternative,” she said. “I find it a nice thing to build in the desert.”

A natural contrarian, Ms. Szabo finds subjects for her pieces in unlikely places.

A shelter for abused horses on the outskirts of Bucharest, for example, inspired her 2012 collection, “I AM.”

The collection juxtaposed heavy and spectacular necklaces with delicate bracelets and rings. Horses, in gold or silver-plated brass, jumped an invisible obstacle on earrings and pendants. One of the centerpieces showed a horse’s profile, carved in colored resin on gold-plated brass, mounted on a braid of horsehair ending in two long tassels that reached down to the waist.

Fine, almost translucent, pieces in the collection spoke to the sense of interior beauty and the discovery of self, she said—another theme that is central to her work.

A part of the support structure that helps to keep Romanian design alive is “Autor,” a twice-yearly fair that shows work by contemporary jewelers, including Ms. Szabo.

The fair recently celebrated its 10th edition in five years. But Dan Piersinaru, its creator and organizer, was barely elated.

“There is no design market in Romania, in the real sense of the term,” he wrote in an email. “What is happening now is the beginning, with all its challenges and beautiful energy.”

“Consumer culture rises and falls depending on what is on offer,” he added. “If you provide quality and ethical things, the culture goes in that direction. If you provide something weak and fake, people get used to it quickly and easily.”

Mr. Piersinaru, who has known Ms. Szabo and her work for years, says he is still surprised by her constant search for new techniques and solutions.

“She has been one of the first designers here to have, perhaps instinctively, a strategy and an image,” he said.

The daughter of an architect, Ms. Szabo grew up among technical drawings, and has a disciplined approach to design. Her workshop, in an old townhouse that she shares with a fellow designer, has a flawless display of tools and materials.

“Talent without discipline is like a good cheese in dog skin,” she said, using a graphic popular expression.

Producing two collections a year that display a relentless drive for innovation, Ms. Szabo is one of a handful of pioneering independent designers in Romania. It is a sometimes lonely business, without a broad market base, and she has had to be enterprising to survive.

To finance her small workshop and showroom, she creates mass promotional objects for companies, and uses the profit from that parallel business to finance her jewelry collections.

“If you ask me what I’ve wanted to do until now in my life, I’d say, to express myself as a person, as a feeling,” she said. “I simply wanted to make beautiful things, this is all I’ve wanted. And I’ve done it.”

Today, she is working on a new concept that should require less financing. Unlike her past collections, the next one will be offered online, featuring about a dozen basic minimalist designs.

The pieces will be customizable around “an invisible, or barely visible object, that underlines your personality,” she said.

Chisinau Recognizes Romanian As Official Language

5 December 2013
Radio Free Europe

Moldova has endorsed Romanian as its language.

The country's Constitutional Court has ruled that the "Moldovan" language will be replaced by Romanian as the former Soviet republic's official tongue.

Moldova's 1991 Declaration of Independence stated that Romanian was the new country's language, but the Constitution of 1994 changed that to "Moldovan."

Constitutional Court Chairman Alexandru Tanase ruled on December 5 that the Declaration of Independence takes precedence over the Constitution.

Moldova's communist opposition has criticized the decision.

Moldova was part of Romania until 1940, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, which renamed the region's language "Moldovan."

Romanian President Traian Basescu called the Constitutional Court's ruling "an act of justice."

The decision comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid a short visit to Moldova.

Last week Moldova's pro-European government initialed an Association Agreement with the European Union.

On December 1, for the first time, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti attended Romania's National Day festivities marking the country's unification in 1918.

Kerry Vows to Help Moldova Hew to the West

Secretary of State John Kerry toured a winery in Chisinau, Moldova, on Wednesday. Pool photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

4 December 2013
New York Times
by Michael R. Gordon

CHISINAU, Moldova—In a lightning visit to Moldova, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged American support on Wednesday to help this former Soviet republic develop closer political and economic ties with the European Union.

During his three-and-a-half-hour visit, Mr. Kerry did not announce a significant new aid package.

But his presence—the first by a secretary of state since 1992—and the possibility of future American assistance provided a measure of encouragement for a Moldovan government that is trying to maintain public support for its outreach to the West as it prepares to face the voters next year.

“The U.S. is still the world leader,” Prime Minister Iurie Leanca said in an interview.

“To have the U.S. secretary of state, to have his focus on the developments here,” he added, “is something extremely important for us.”

A small landlocked nation of 3.6 million, Moldova is situated on the fault line between the European Union and nations like Ukraine whose leadership still looks toward Moscow on sensitive decisions involving relations with the West.

Last month, Moldova signed a pact affirming its intent to complete a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

Moldova’s look West had not escaped the attention of the Kremlin. Russia has already shown its dissatisfaction by banning the import of Moldovan wine, Moldova’s major export, a move Moscow justified on the grounds that the wine contained impurities but that most observers saw as politically motivated. More ominously, the deputy prime minister of Russia has delivered thinly veiled threats that Russia might stop supplying Moldova with natural gas, no small matter for a nation that is almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies.

Mr. Kerry, who has sought to cooperate with Russia on Syria and Iran, avoided criticism Wednesday of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed pressure on Moldova and its policy of encouraging Ukraine to distance itself from the European Union.

Instead, Mr. Kerry asserted that economic development in the two countries would be good for Russia as well as the nations’ populations.

“The United States believes deeply that European integration is the best road for both security and prosperity in Moldova,” Mr. Kerry said during a tour of the Cricova winery near Chisinau, the capital.

“To the people of the Ukraine we say the same thing—you too deserve the opportunity to choose your own future,” Mr. Kerry added in a pointed criticism of the abrupt decision by the Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, to spurn concluding political and trade accords with the European Union.

To drive home the point, Mr. Kerry skipped a long anticipated visit to Kiev he was to make following a NATO meeting he attended in Brussels to meet with officials here.

Moldova’s desire to lessen its energy dependence on Russia, and the possibility of an American and European Union effort to foster economic development in Moldova, a nation with the smallest economy in Europe, were among the topics of Mr. Kerry’s talks here, officials said.

Mr. Leanca said that he had asked Mr. Kerry to consider extending the free-trade arrangements that the United States is now negotiating with European Union to Moldova now that it is moving to complete its own free-trade agreement with the union.

“Having a free-trade area with the E.U.,” Mr. Leanca said, “hopefully should bring more investment.”

Responding to the Russian ban on Moldovan wine, the European Union has lifted limits on the tariff-free import of Moldovan wine. Mr. Kerry said Wednesday that the Obama administration would sponsor a Moldovan trade mission so it could develop a market for its wine in the United States.

To guard against Moscow’s use of trade as a political weapon, Moldova has begun to build a pipeline to receive gas from Romania. But it will take several years before Moldova can meet a significant amount of its energy needs, electricity as well as gas, from Romania.

Mr. Leanca also received assurances in Kiev last month that Moldova would be able to obtain natural gas from Ukraine if Russia cut off its supply. But some observers wonder if the Ukrainian president’s recent shift toward Moscow would undermine this understanding.

Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who met on Wednesday with Mr. Kerry in Brussels, made no mention of the secretary of state’s Moldova trip.

But Mr. Lavrov defended Ukraine’s “sovereign right” to back away from signing political and economic pacts with the European Union, blamed protesters in Kiev for “aggressive actions” and criticized NATO for passing a resolution that condemned the Ukrainian authorities for using “excessive force.”

“I hope that Ukrainian politicians will be able to bring the situation into a peaceful vein,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We encourage everybody not to interfere.”

Classically Structured in Bucharest

Vintage Style in Bucharest: The old center of Bucharest, Romania, highlights vintage style and nonconformity in local fashion. Victor Placinta, an architect, said his wardrobe is inspired by British style.

Watch Video on Article Website

4 December 2013
New York Times
by Jonah M. Kessel and Joanna Nikas

Recently, Victor Placinta was strolling in the old center of Bucharest, Romania, an area known for its historic architecture, and, in more modern times, as a cultural hub where coffee-guzzling intellectuals gather. Wearing a tailored green blazer, a pinstriped shirt, a yellow tie and cuffed jeans, he described his style to an interviewer as classic.

“The neighborhood tends to be a vintage area, whether you look at clubs, pubs or people’s clothing,” said Mr. Placinta, who draws style inspiration from the old-time feel of the city’s center. “I tend toward vintage clothes.”

Mr. Placinta, an architect, has noticed how the neighborhood inspires people to dress differently than other areas in the city. “Nonconformity: I think it’s the only area in Bucharest where we find this,” he said. “It’s the only one that highlights both architecture and fashion.”

“I always know what to wear in the morning,” he said. “It’s never difficult to pick my clothes.”

His favorite piece? A polka-dot pocket square. “It’s a gift from my father and I feel good wearing it.”

Wikipedia 1 December 2013

On this day...
Great Union Day in Romania (1918)

Beloved Romanian Writer Back On Bookshelves

28 November 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

November 28, 2013 6:58 AM BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—He is one of Romania's greatest writers, but his work couldn't be found in bookstores. Now, they are finally getting their place back on the shelf.

Virtually unknown outside Romania, novelist Mihail Sadoveanu is renowned in his home country for classics such as "The Hatchet" and "The Jderi Brothers," tales of ordinary folk beset by hardships and dramatic circumstances, read by Romanians for the more than 50 years since his hey-day in the 1960s.

But the works have been largely out-of-print and unavailable for the last two years following a long and complicated custody battle, complete with accusations of piracy and price-gouging. Critics have accused the copyright holder, Dan Herford, of taking the works hostage.

Herford's father was married to Sadoveanu's granddaughter and he administered the rights until his death in 2006. But Romania's copyright institute claimed it should have the rights and sued Smaranda Herford after her husband died. Dan Herford helped her battle the complicated case and after a five-year legal battle, Romania's High Court finally found in her favor. In 2011, she handed Herford the copyright.

The pan flute musician and teacher refused to allow publishing houses to print the writer's works, claiming they had pirated them in the ensuing years in disrespectful, cheap-looking copies. So people have purchased his works from second-hand bookshops, and students required to read the book borrowed their parents' dog-eared paperbacks and even illegally downloaded copies of "The Hatchet" from the Internet.

But this week, Sadoveanu's books began to reappear in shops. Herford, who lives in the Netherlands, has set up his own publishing house, which will exclusively print the books until they enter the public domain, 70 years after Sadoveanu's death.

Herford is unapologetic about the wait, insisting he had no choice.

"I was forced to resort to this radical solution because of the pirating," Herford said. He declined to name publishing houses he believed illegally published Sadoveanu, saying the lawsuit had settled the issue. He is considering licensing the books for electronic sale as soon as technical issues are resolved.

Sadoveanu has been criticized for his support for the Soviet Union and high-ranking positions he had in the communist apparatus. Though he is mandatory reading at school, his emphasis on justice and responsibility and lack of humor can be heavy-going.

Tania Florescu, 13, read "The Hatchet" this year said Monday she found it tough, but ultimately enjoyable. "He should be published by every publishing house."

At the Ion Creanga book store, a sales assistant opened a fresh box filled with copies of "The Hatchet" and recalled having to tell customers it wasn't available.

"I'm happy that we're finally able to sell Sadoveanu's books," Zaharina Petre said. "He is part of our legacy."

Wikipedia 27 November 2013

On this day...
1940 – The Iron Guard killed over 60 political detainees at a penitentiary near Bucharest and followed up with several high-profile assassinations, including that of former Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Iorga (pictured).

New Romanian Cinema

27 November 2013
New York Times

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Romanian Film Initiative are presenting the 8th edition of the film series “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema.” The series runs Nov. 29-Dec. 3. This year’s festival opens with the period film “Closer to the Moon,” featuring Vera Farmiga (pictured), about a group that robbed Romania’s National Bank and made it look like a film shoot. Credit: Ithaca Films/Romanian Film Initiative

The festival will include a retrospective of the work of Corneliu Porumboiu, including his film about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, “12:08 East of Bucharest” (pictured). Credit: 42KM Film/Romanian Film Initiative

Luminita Gheorghiu in Călin Peter Netzers “Child’s Pose,” the Romanian selection for the Oscar for best foreign language film that deals with a mother going to great lengths to protect her son. Credit: Cos Aelenei

From left, Sergiu Costache, Adrian Titieni and Gheorghe Ifrim in Adrian Sitaru’s ensemble film “Domestic.” Credit: 4 Proof Film/Romanian Film Initiative

“Three Exercises of Interpretation,” from Cristi Puiu, is a trilogy that looks at a group of friends in conversation. Credit: Mandragora/Romanian Film Initiative

Why Russian Wine Ban is Putting Pressure on Moldova

21 November 2013
BBC News
by Tessa Dunlop

The Republic of Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, almost entirely dependent on its agricultural produce, with wine accounting for over 25% of agricultural exports.

Small wonder a recent Russian embargo on imports of Moldovan wine, the second in under 10 years, has left the country reeling.

It was as a member of the former USSR that Moldova was encouraged to specialise in wine making—for decades it provided most of the Soviet Union's wine and Russia remains its biggest export market at 28%.

Moldova's Agricultural Minister Vasile Bumacov explained that Moscow cited a trace of plastic contamination found in several barrels of devin, the Moldovan version of cognac, as the reason for the ban.

He said: "In our devin was a 0.16 trace but in the water in Russia they are allowed 0.2, in the EU 0.3. We had less than in the mineral water."

If Moldova's wines are safer than European bottled water, it begs the question, what really lies at the heart of the Russian ban? Many suspect it is more about politics.

The European Union is currently expanding its reach east. Closer relations with Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia are all on the cards at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius this month.

The tension between Russia and Europe is palpable in tiny Moldova, with the Russian trade embargo suggesting the former mother country is irritated by the EU's expansionism.

However politicians in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, are reluctant to blame political motivations for the current ban.

When pressed on the subject, Mr Bumacov chose his words carefully. He said: "In our discussions with Moscow I was assured that this has nothing to do with politics, so what can I say?"

"We appreciate the Russian market but when we negotiate agreements with the EU, they say, 'OK guys, we tell you to open your markets for the EU products, but we will come with finance to support improvement and modernisation.'"

If you look closely, pockets of European money are now in evidence across Moldova. Sixty kilometres out of Chisinau in the small rural commune of Farladeni local councillor Ion Gangan is delighted to show a Western audience his glossy EU-funded plans for a new covered market.

"Soon we will have EU standards and conditions for our products and a new school is going to be built too," he said.

But it is in the same modest market—selling bric-a-brac, pork, and cheese—that the tug of Russia can be tangibly felt.

Farladeni is on the eastern Moldovan border, and many vendors have travelled in from separatist Trans-Dniester.

Trans-Dniester is the product of a bloody civil war in the early 1990s after the Republic of Moldova declared independence from the disintegrating USSR.

Unlike Moldova to which it still officially belongs, Trans-Dniester is very much in the pocket of Russia. It is subsidised by Moscow and Russian is the first language.

Many vendors clearly preferred the motherland to the EU. One woman clutched my hand and then her heart and explained she depended on the pensions supplements from Moscow. Her story was a common one.

The EU has its work cut out if it's serious about countering Russian influence in this region.

Moldova's Communist Party also supports a pro-Russia line and views the Eurasian Union between Russia and former Soviet countries such as Belarus and Kazakhstan as a preferable option to closer EU relations.

Mr Gangan's Moldovan constituents had mixed opinions about a European future. They conceded life was tough with a punitive "internal" border, guarded on the eastern side by soldiers from Russia and Trans-Dniester. Unlike neighbouring Trans-Dniester they don't get financial support from Moscow.

However, despite the pro-EU noises of their political leaders in Chisinau, for many Russia's proximity and power are too great to ignore.

In Farladeni, I met Aurelia who is one of the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who spend most of their year working illegally in Russia.

Due to her Romanian heritage, Aurelia considers herself a European—Moldova was part of Greater Romania between the two world wars—but unlike some 300,000 Moldovans she doesn't have a Romanian passport and therefore cannot work in the EU.

It is easier to catch a train to Moscow where she can earn seven times more than at home in Moldova. But her tears suggest the process is not easy and Russia has recently made a point of sending many Moldovans home.

Back in Chisinau the imposing white structure and tinted windows of the Russian embassy—the largest in the capital—speaks volumes about the imbalance of power between Moldova and its giant neighbour.

Russia's ambassador Farit Mukhametshin didn't mince his words when it came to underlining Moldova's dependency on Russia.

"About half a million Moldovan immigrants are working in Russia," he said.

"Yearly they send about $2bn back home, which is one third of Moldova's [gross domestic product]. We therefore inform and we tell the Moldovan authorities that when they choose a European path, there will be changes and so they should be aware and prepare for some future adjustments."

It's not difficult to read between the lines—Moldova can flirt with the EU but it needs to remember who the main power is in this part of the world.

Moldova's agricultural minister is unlikely to forget. When challenged over Moldova's tolerance of Russian bullying he replied: "I would like to ask you to look at a map of the world and see Russia and see Moldova and I think you would not ask me this question anymore."

But while Mr Bumacov, like his country, has little control over what happens with Russia. He was keen to point out the embargo may have backfired.

"This Russian wine ban has helped promote our wine elsewhere—it has helped us find new markets in Europe," he said.

Several wine producers made similar comments—their tone remarkably upbeat given they have just lost 28% of their market.

But then they are used to Russia controlling affairs from the east. The difference now is that the EU is emerging as a counter-balance in the West.

Art Matters | A Medieval Romanian City With Major Art Talent

An opening at the Paintbrush Factory, a central hub of the Cluj art scene. Frank Herfort

See more images on the article website

12 November 2013
New York Times
Culture by Zeke Turner

Lacking a famous art school, government support or even a location most people can point to on a map, the small medieval city of Cluj, Romania, has become an unlikely breeding ground for the next generation of art stars.

Two years ago, the painter Adrian Ghenie was in his friend’s studio, having a coffee with some former classmates—all Romanian artists and gallerists in their mid-to-late 30s—when it sunk in: they had made it.

“I realized that Mircea was having a show in Salzburg, and Cipri, right next to him, was going to show at Tate,” Ghenie recalls of his friends Mircea Cantor and Ciprian Muresan. “We’re having shows at MOMA San Francisco. And Plan B”—the gallery Ghenie started with the artist-turned-dealer Mihai Pop in Cluj in 2005—“was going to Basel. I realized I don’t have to go out to Paris or London to find out what’s going on in art, because we are it right now. And we were still in Cluj having coffee like normal people!”

In the last decade, Cluj-Napoca, better known as Cluj, an Eastern European university town of about 325,000 permanent residents, has become an unexpected art world hothouse, its homegrown talent pool earning rapturous praise on the international stage. Ghenie is represented in New York by the powerful Pace gallery, and his work has caught the eye of major collectors, including the Christie’s owner François Pinault. At two separate Sotheby’s auctions in the last year, his sales tripled and then doubled their respective estimates.

While Ghenie and Victor Man are the best known of the group, success has come to each in his own right, as if lightning struck multiple limbs of the same tree. It was the Italian critic and Flash Art founder Giancarlo Politi who in 2007 first called them the Cluj School, in the manner of Dresden and Leipzig. Already known abroad for his 2005 video “Deeparture,” depicting a wolf and a deer left alone in a Parisian white-cube gallery, Cantor won the Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2011, which came with a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou last fall. Muresan, too, first gained wide notice for a video: “Choose,” showing his young son mixing Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the same glass. The work landed him a place in the 2009 New Museum show “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” as one of the world’s 50 top artists under 33. Last year, he had a show with the Polish artist Anna Molska at the Tate Modern in London.

“I found it somehow miraculous,” Ghenie, 36, adds of the group’s success, coming from a state with paltry, temperamental support for the arts and a university with no reputation abroad. “This thing happened in such a short time from that place, which had little tradition. There was a month when if you opened Artforum, every three pages was an ad with a Romanian—and from really big places like MOMA or Tate to smaller, private galleries.”

“Nobody bet on such a successful artist from this small scene—maybe one, but not five,” Muresan, 36, agrees. “This is weird.”

Why this flowering? Well, the best explanation is the artists’ work and, perhaps, their work ethic, a trait they often attribute to cultural cross-pollination from the Germans and Hungarians who settled in the area years ago. Romania is still recovering from decades of isolationist and brutal rule under Nicolae Ceausescu, and this fall the country’s justice system began the first trial in decades of one of its own for abuses during the Communist era.

Twenty five years after Ceausescu’s lightning-quick trial and execution on Christmas Day, when most of the artists were in grade school, they retain a special brand of pragmatism, cynicism and dark wit. Their output—somber, intellectual, haunted by history and laced with gallows humor—reveals the psyche of a country sentenced to grapple with its past for decades to come. Ghenie’s thickly worked canvases depicting what look like melting faces have drawn comparisons to the work of Francis Bacon, but his titles making reference to pie fights lend the works a layer of slapstick. Muresan’s video of dog puppets evokes the human potential for brutality. The Romanian critic and curator Mihnea Mircan, 37, summed up their generation as “allergic to utopia.”

In this spirit, they navigate success in a post-Communist environment, where for decades most any achievement required working with the regime. “I trust myself better than I trust others,” Serban Savu, 35, says, explaining the self-reliance he and his colleagues have developed. “Nobody helped us to construct the art scene.”

It’s mid-August, and Savu is piloting his black Volvo sedan through Manastur, the area where he grew up. Originally intended as a Le Corbusier-inspired modernist project, the green space between the blocks was filled in with additional units as Ceausescu shunted Romania onto an industrialist track and crowded peasants into towns and cities. Savu’s social realist-style paintings, which have drawn comparisons to Jean-François Millet, Edward Hopper and Pieter Bruegel, offer gentle, complex depictions of Romanians generations on—agrarian families uncoupled from their homes and still uncomfortable with the transition decades later.

“It’s our generation’s task to start building,” says Mara Ratiu, 35, a senior lecturer and vice rector at the University of Art and Design of Cluj-Napoca, where many of the Cluj set studied. “I’m doing this at my university with my colleagues. Mihai is doing that in his gallery program.” She’s just returned from the Venice Biennale and is sitting in Cluj’s Museum Square, a cobblestone plaza in the old city.

“I hate sometimes living in Romania,” she admits. “It’s crazy to live here because you have to deal with so many difficult things. On the other hand, what’s very fascinating is this pioneering work, the idea of building something.” With its centuries of history and culture, Cluj is fertile ground.

But in 2005, when Ghenie and Pop decided to start Plan B, Romania’s second largest city seemed more like a place they couldn’t escape. Ghenie had just returned penniless from living in Vienna and Catania, Sicily, where he had begun doubting his ambition to be an artist. Ghenie’s brother introduced him to a friend, a stockbroker who had recently purchased a big house in Cluj with empty walls and offered him a tidy sum to help start an art collection.

Meanwhile Pop, who was running an exhibition space at the university as a graduate student, was frustrated with interference from the administration. The two found a space in the city center with damaged parquet floors and called it Plan B. Then they used the money to mount a Victor Man show.

It may have started as a fallback plan, but Plan B quickly became the catalyst for a new scene. Juerg Judin from the gallery Haunch of Venison in Zürich flew in to see Ghenie’s first solo show on the advice of the British curator Jane Neal. When Judin arrived at the airport in Cluj, Savu and Ghenie showed up late to pick him up in a red Soviet-made 1982 Lada. The work, however, impressed him, and on returning to Zürich, he mounted a show in 2006 called “Cluj Connection,” curated by Neal, presenting works by Cantor, Ghenie, Man, Muresan and Savu, among others, as a group for the first time. Ghenie’s paintings sold out, and Judin added him to the gallery’s roster.

In 2007, Plan B was the only Eastern European gallery with a booth at the Armory Show in New York, and Pop took the reins of Romania’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Plan B opened a second exhibition space in Berlin shortly thereafter.

After it lost the white-cube space in Cluj, Plan B joined with the nonprofit gallery Sabot in 2009 to renovate an old paintbrush factory in the light industrial district close to the city’s center. They envisioned a complex of performance spaces and studios. “It’s a factory, and I really feel that I am coming here as a worker,” says Daria Dumitrescu, 36, the gallerist running Sabot. When the Paintbrush Factory opened in October 2009, more than 1,000 locals from Cluj turned out to see what the artists and gallerists there were up to.

Cluj’s artists tend to share a pessimistic streak, and as a result, they seem primed for their moment in the spotlight to elapse, but seven years after the original Cluj coming-out in Zürich, the city continues to draw interest. At the end of 2012, Cluj was included in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show “Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art.” Until January, Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris is showing artists from Cluj as part of the show “Romanian Scenes,” and the Arken Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen just concluded a show called “Hotspot Cluj—New Romanian Art.” Phaidon included Cluj in a new book published in September, “Art Cities of the Future,” alongside the likes of Săo Paulo and Istanbul, metropolises 30 and 40 times its size.

It’s a frantic pace, and the gallerist Pop, 39, can’t help wondering how long Cluj will hold onto its stars. Cantor has long worked out of Paris, for instance, and Ghenie is spending more time at his studio in Berlin. Pop is also preparing for the moment when the art world’s eyes shift to the next big thing. “The shows about Cluj, I find them O.K., but I know quite soon they will be gone,” he says, sitting on a bench at the botanical garden on one of the hills overlooking the city. “The people who are organizing these shows, they like to map territories,” he adds. “And when they already know who’s good, who’s not, they go further to map another territory and another territory.”

“In our case in the East, it’s important to constitute something,” Pop continues. “From the very beginning the idea was that if we open Plan B, it will be a long-term project. In the West, everyone is always asking you ‘What’s your next project? And what comes next? Next, next!’ There’s no next. Next is to sustain yesterday’s project.”

Wikipedia 12 November 2013

On this day...
1330 – Led by voivode Basarab I, Wallachian forces defeated the Hungarian army in an ambush at the Battle of Posada.

Romanians Fete 92nd Birthday of Former King

Romania's former King Michael waves during a ceremony celebrating both his 92nd birthday, which fell on October 25, and his name day at Elisabeta Palace in Bucharest, November 8, 2013.      Credit: Reuters/Bogdan Cristel

8 November 2013
by Ioana Patran

(Reuters)—Hundreds of Romanians feted former King Michael's 92nd birthday on Friday and streamed into his palace in the capital Bucharest to pay respects to the monarch who was forced to abdicate by Soviet-backed communists more than six decades ago.

Some 1,500 people chanted his name as Michael waved from a balcony of the white Elisabeta Palace - built at the end of a leafy avenue in the 1930s, blending Moorish and other styles.

The former monarch, who was accompanied by his daughter, Princess Margareta, and his nephew, Prince Nicolae, opened the palace to the public to celebrate the occasion.

Restoration of the monarchy is not an issue in the European Union's second-poorest state, but Romanians respect Michael as they grow increasingly disillusioned with the country's political class which they link with poverty and corruption.

"Our political leaders are not role models, but the royal family is," said 29-year-old marketing specialist Ioana Patrascoiu, who took a day off from work to see the former king.

"King Michael worked hard to support his family after he was exiled and people look up to him because he deserves their respect, not just because of his royal blood."

Born in 1921 in the Peles castle in the Carpathian Mountains, the former king is a descendant of the German Hohenzollern dynasty and a cousin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

Michael played a major part in changing Romania's fate in World War Two, participating in a 1944 coup against fascist wartime leader Marshal Ion Antonescu, after which Romania broke with Nazi Germany and switched to the Allied side.

After communism fell in 1989, politicians fearing Michael's influence blocked his first few attempted visits after decades of exile in Switzerland, Britain and the United States.

He finally returned to Romania in 1992 and regained citizenship in 1997. He made various appeals for monarchy restoration in the early 1990s, but then-President Ion Iliescu, a former communist, responded by deporting him on several occasions.

(Reporting by Ioana Patran; Editing by Luiza Ilie, Michael Roddy and Pravin Char)

Romanian Film Enters a New Era

Love Building is the most successful independent film ever released in Romania

2 November 2013
BBC News
by Alison Frank

Child's Pose - The Golden Bear-winning Romanian drama is released in UK cinemas this weekend. While it was the winner at the Berlin film festival Alison Frank found a wealth of Romanian films were riding high at the recent Warsaw film festival. Is this the start of a new era for Romanian film?

The Romanian New Wave was declared several years ago, as The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) triumphed at international film festivals, opening doors to subsequent Romanian films such as California Dreamin' and Tales from the Golden Age.

All waves eventually break, but those who sounded the end of Romania's may have spoken too soon.

At the recent Warsaw Film Festival Romania tied with Poland for the largest number of films in competition with four, coming just behind the Czech Republic.

While none of the five Czech films won any awards, Romania secured one prize and a statement of appreciation.

Romania's dominance in Warsaw was more than a matter of quantity. Romanian debuts such as Love Building and Little Spartan demonstrated originality where other first-time directors offered a pale imitation of cinema's masters.

Against a background of films filled with cruel individuals and empty violence, the Romanian directors' better-developed characters, playful sense of humour and thought-through conclusions were refreshing.

The Romanian films had their share of death, illness, loneliness and betrayal, but offered closure as they typically found a witty, sometimes absurd way to deal with life's imperfections, compromises and disappointments.

Broad Appeal

Romanian comedy Love Building got a standing ovation at its first Warsaw festival screening but also received special praise from the critics' jury.

First-time feature director Iulia Rugina has been surprised at the broad appeal of her low-budget comedy, which had a successful Romanian box office run before making its international premiere in Warsaw.

"Love Building was very well received in Romania by the audience. That was important because it is rare. There is a very big group of population who refuses to go watch Romanian films and makes a statement about this," Rugina explains.

As to critical favour, Rugina says: "I know it is not often that audience-friendly films are critically acclaimed. And the other way round. That is why to have both is unexpected."

Love Building is the story of three relationship therapists who set up a week-long couples' retreat in the countryside. Yet most of the comedy comes from the therapists' own, much bigger, relationship issues.

If there's one problem with Love Building, it's that there are too many characters: it's hard for audiences to keep track of some 14 couples, and even harder for an 85-minute film to give all of them sufficient screen time.

But the film's very existence depends on its crowded cast list. Every year, professional actors Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Papdopol and Dorian Boguta (who play the film's therapists) run a summer acting school, which normally ends with the making of a short film.

Last year, Iulia Rugina suggested that they try to make a full-length film instead. Where filmmakers normally decide on the script first and select their cast second, here the process was reversed.

Faced with a large group of mainly non-professional actors, Rugina had to come up with a story set in countryside with enough roles for all the students.

One of the most common questions from audiences is why there are two lesbian couples in the film, but no gay couples: it's because more women than men took part in the acting school that year, Rugina explains.

The most successful Romanian film in Warsaw was The Japanese Dog, directed by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu. It won the 1-2 Competition for directors making their first or second feature.

The film revolves around an elderly man who lost his wife, home, and most of his belongings in a flood, and is estranged from his only son who moved abroad years ago.

Unexpectedly, his son comes to visit with his Japanese wife and seven-year-old son. Grandfather and grandson immediately bond over photo albums and a toy - the robotic Japanese dog of the film's title.

There is little dramatic tension, and the dog feels like a bit of a gimmick, but the film nonetheless offers a beautiful and sensitive portrait of the Romanian countryside, of cross-cultural and cross-generational bonding, and directs attention towards the increasingly common and devastating problem of flooding.

Bizarre Hybrid

While The Japanese Dog was to some degree typical festival fare, Little Spartan was a film that many critics were at a loss to describe. Sure enough, it is a bizarre hybrid of a film in every respect.

Billed as a mockumentary, Little Spartan is the result of a collaboration between first-time feature director Dragos Iuga and Gabriel Dita, an engineer who suffers from a lack of growth hormone receptor in the pituitary gland.

Making use of interviews, mobile phone footage, surveillance cameras, home videos and even fantasy, Iuga shot the film over the course of 17 years, exploring various aspects of the life of Dita, nicknamed Little Spartan.

Endlessly surprising and full of eclectic elements, the film might be dismissed as just another pseudo-documentary, albeit an odd one, if it weren't for the vein of the fantastic snaking through the film.

This is a daring addition and sure enough, the fantasy element in Little Spartan knocks it off balance, yet such is its whimsy and magic, it is hard not to be charmed.

In his uncle's workshop, Dita and his brother as children look on while the carpenter makes whimsical wooden lamps that mysteriously power themselves. While it did not win any awards, Little Spartan was aptly placed in the festival's Free Spirit category for its uninhibited and experimental approach.

The Romanian New Wave in its early days was marked by social realism and a clear-eyed approach to both its Communist past and its neo-liberal future. According to this definition, The Japanese Dog fits most clearly into the New Wave lineage, while Love Building corresponds partially as a satire of the new aspirational middle classes.

But could the more eclectic approach of Little Spartan and the popularity of Love Building's comedy mark a new stage in the evolution of Romanian cinema? Iulia Rugina thinks so.

"The Romanian New Wave is still high up, but I am not able to predict what will happen next...there might be an alternative type of films coming out - a lighter type of cinema, more glossy, more audience-friendly, a little distant from the Romanian realism that international festivals have got used to."

International audiences came to know Romania's cinema through stark realism; the coming years may be marked by a more popular, but no less fresh and innovative Romanian New Wave, embraced both at home and abroad.

UK audiences will get a chance to experience a selection of these films at the 10th Romanian Film Festival in London that starts 28 November. The festival is entitled Turning the Page, indicating how the films on show look forward beyond the New Wave in terms of content, social analysis and storytelling.

"The windows have been thrown open! We're turning the page!" is the festival's tagline.

The Week in Pictures: 1 November 2013

1 November 2013
The Telegraph

A tree is silhouetted by the setting sun outside Bucharest, Romania. Romania is enjoying a hotter than usual weather for the month of October with temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit                      Picture: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Anca Petrescu

1 November 2013
The Telegraph

Anca Petrescu was the architect who designed the People's Palace - Nicolae Ceausescu’s monstrous monument to totalitarian kitsch

Anca Petrescu, who has died following a road accident aged 64, was an architect known as the “Albert Speer of Communism”, responsible for the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu’s “Palace of the People” in Bucharest—the world’s greatest monument to totalitarian kitsch.

Ceausescu conceived the idea of building the palace in 1977, when an earthquake struck Bucharest leaving more than 1,500 dead and large areas devastated. He saw the disaster as an opportunity to build a new “civic centre”, and in the summer of 1977 two competitions were launched—one for the overall master plan; the other for the “House of the People”, as the Palace was then called, to house Ceausescu and his entourage, along with key government departments.

Anca Petrescu, a junior employee at the state design institute, had only just qualified as an architect, so at first she did not enter the competition. But because Ceausescu took so long to decide what he wanted it was still going in 1981, by which time she had finished second in one of the aborted heats and had met the dictator. “He was a good listener, a very patient man,” she recalled. “He wasn’t a vampire!”

Although Anca Petrescu failed to make the final shortlist in 1981, she refused to give in and, resigning her job, she spent three months building a scale model of her design—bombastic, ornate and smothered in gilt. She then wrote Ceausescu a letter saying that she would like to present it to him. At first she was fobbed off, but her persistence paid off, and in the end her model was presented alongside those of the other finalists.

 Legend has it that Ceausescu walked into the room and was bowled over by the glitzy interloper—but there were also rumours that he may have taken a shine to its creator. In February 1982, at the age of 32, Anca Petrescu was appointed chief architect of a project whose raison d’ętre, in Ceausescu’s tautological phrase, was to be “a grandiose edifice that reflects the epoch of the time”.

The construction, which began in June 1984, was a project akin to the pyramids. During the five years leading up to Ceaucescu’s execution one million Romanians, including military conscripts, political prisoners and a team of 700 architects, worked round the clock to put it up, painstakingly carving huge oak, elm and cherry doors and sculpting giant crystal chandeliers for marble rooms almost as big as athletics fields. Even nuns were forced to work, weaving acres of carpets and embroidering gold-threaded curtains. There were never fewer than 20,000 workers on site at any one time; deaths were common.

The project had a huge impact on the Romanian capital. Three historic districts in the centre of Bucharest—four square miles of the city—were demolished, along with 27 churches and synagogues. Around 40,000 people were given only two days to leave their homes, and some had no alternative but to leave behind their possessions for the bulldozers.

 Elsewhere, two mountains were hacked down for the one million cubic metres of white and pink Transylvanian marble required, while entire forests were destroyed for panelling, floors, furniture and doors (Ceausescu insisted that all materials used should be native to the motherland). The cascading chandeliers alone accounted for 3,500 tonnes of crystal; the largest, measuring nine metres in diameter and weighing five tonnes, had 1,000 light bulbs.

By the time the palace was completed, it could burn more electricity in three hours than all of Bucharest’s two million inhabitants consumed in 24. Between 1984 and 1989, while the Romanian people were struggling to survive with limited heating and meagre rations, the building consumed 30 per cent of Romania’s national budget.

Ceausescu took a close interest in its construction, terrifying the workforce with impromptu visits to the site and frequent changes of mind which resulted in the building featuring a mishmash of styles. Anca Petrescu recalled how, on one visit, he claimed to notice that some carved flowers decorating columns inside the building were not equal: “I never noticed that,” she recalled. “I was exhausted and the others were petrified... We all swore that it was OK.” But he ordered someone to climb a ladder and measure them, and determined that one flower was one centimetre shorter than the others. The columns had to be made all over again.

 The tyrant visited the palace for the last time in November 1989, to witness the first completed room—a month before he and his hated wife Elena were executed on live television by firing squad.

The end of communism brought work to a halt as Romania’s new leaders pondered what to do with the building. Suddenly Anca Petrescu found herself being treated as a pariah, and in 1990 a group of architects led a campaign to see her stand trial for misuse of national assets; she was even accused of genocide. She denied all charges, and the cases against her fell apart. But she was ostracised from her profession, received death threats and her house was set on fire. Later that year she left for Paris (at the invitation of President Mitterrand, she claimed), where she won commissions to build hotels for Club Med.

In the early 1990s the debate over the future of the unfinished palace, now open to the public, became heated. Some wanted it demolished; others suggested it could be turned into a museum of communism, a Dracula theme park, or even the biggest casino in Europe. Meanwhile, looters set to work, removing bags of cement, marble, doors, and furniture.

Four years after Ceausescu’s execution the government decided to act. They rebaptised it the “Parliament Palace” and, in 1994, resumed work. In subsequent years an international conference centre was opened inside; the lower and upper houses of parliament moved in, along with a new museum of contemporary art, the Romanian Constitutional Court and the South-east European Law Enforcement Centre.

Although one travel book described the palace as “one of the world’s worst eyesores”, over time public aversion waned. Indeed, many Romanians began to claim that they liked the building; and even those who did not took pride in the exquisite workmanship involved.

In 2002, when the decision was taken to add a Reichstag-style glass cupola in the centre of the building, Anca Petrescu was brought back in from the cold and asked to supervise the job.

At 84 metres in height, 270m long, 245m wide, and stretching 92m underground, with 13 floors, 7,000 rooms, three kilometres of passages and a total floor area of 450,000 square metres, the “People’s Palace” occupies seven times the cubic volume of the Palace of Versailles, and is the second-largest public administration building on earth after the Pentagon. But it still has problems: among other things, Ceausescu vetoed the installation of air conditioning, fearing chemical attacks through the ventilation system, while the monstrous staircases, cut to fit the dictator’s tiny feet, are notoriously difficult to walk up and down.

The daughter of a surgeon, Mira Anca Victoria Marculet Petrescu was born on March 20 1949, a year after the communists came to power in Romania. She was brought up in Sighisoara, a Transylvanian fortress town north-west of Bucharest. After graduating in 1973 from the Ion Mincu Institute of Architecture in Bucharest, she joined the state design institute.

After her return to Romania Anca Petrescu became involved in politics, and in 2004 entered parliament on the lists of Romania’s opposition nationalist Greater Romania Party. The following year she stood for election as mayor of Bucharest but won less than four per cent of the vote.

When interviewed about her role in building the People’s Palace, Anca Petrescu tended to lapse into evasive, Soviet-style doublespeak, cutting off interviewers brusquely if they enquired about her relationship with Ceausescu. When asked by one western journalist how she justified the suffering Romanians went through as a result of her work, she retorted: “That is a question originating from someone who can only understand a system based on profit as motivation.” Her favourite novels, she revealed, were the “sick works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, because they fit my soul”.

Anca Petrescu, born March 20 1949, died October 30 2013

The House of the People
The House of the People - The End in Marble

Anca Petrescu Obituary

Anca Petrescu (Associated Press/Vadim Ghirda)

31 October 2013
New York Times
by Alison Mutler, Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Anca Petrescu, the chief architect of Bucharest's "Palace of the People," a massive government structure that has been described as a huge Stalinist wedding cake, died Wednesday. She was 64.

Petrescu, who had been in a coma after a September car accident, died in Floreasca Hospital in the Romanian capital, hospital spokesman Dr. Bogdan Oprita said. Her landmark Bucharest palace is the world's second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon. It spans 350,000 square meters (3.77 million square feet) and is perhaps the most visible legacy of Romania's late dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Appointed the building's chief architect in 1978, Petrescu worked at the still-unfinished palace until her accident. She told The Associated Press in an interview last year that Buckingham Palace in London and the Palace of Versailles outside Paris were her artistic inspirations for the building, not North Korean architecture as was widely reported.

Petrescu recalled Ceausescu, who was tried and executed Dec. 25, 1989, and never got to use the palace, as being obsessed with detail and constantly inspecting the site. She said that were he alive to see what had become of the palace, which even hosts weddings and balls today, he "would make the sign of the cross"—as in he'd be horrified.

After communism ended, Petrescu was criticized for her role in creating the grandiose building, on which 1 million Romanians worked round the clock. Some 9,000 homes were demolished, churches and synagogues were razed or moved, and two mountains of marble were hacked down for the 84-meter (275-foot)-high palace to be built.

But Romanians have come to appreciate the palace; its tenants include the Parliament, the Constitutional Court and the Southeast European Law Enforcement Center, which fights crime, smuggling and fraud. Ceausescu had intended for it to house the presidency along with other government units.

The late pop star Michael Jackson moonwalked in front of the palace, and former U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have made speeches there.

Romanian Farmers Choose Subsistence Over Shale Gas

A general view of Pungesti village, where U.S. energy major Chevron plans to search for shale gas, 340 km (211 miles) northeast of Bucharest October 19, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Bogdan Cristel

27 October 2013
by Luiza Ilie

PUNGESTI, Romania (Reuters) - The small hilly town of Pungesti in eastern Romania could be sitting on vast reserves of shale gas and U.S. energy major Chevron wants to find it.

But the people of Pungesti want nothing to do with it.

Though most of them live off subsistence farming, social aid and cash from relatives working abroad, they would rather stay poor than run what they say is the risk of ruining their environment.

Villagers have set up camp outside the empty lot where Chevron aims to install its first exploratory well, blocking access and forcing the company to announce last week it was suspending work.

"Our kitchens are filled with homemade jams and preserves, sacks of nuts, crates of honey and cheese, all produced by us," said Doina Dediu, 47, a local and one of the protesters.

"We are not even that poor," she said. "Maybe we don't have money, but we have clean water and we are healthy and we just want to be left alone."

The decision to stop work at Pungesti - which was to have been Romania's first shale gas exploration well - matters because of the message it may send about how welcome shale gas is in eastern Europe.

Large parts of wealthier western Europe have shunned shale gas exploration because of fears about possible water pollution and seismic activity from the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" process used to release it.

The industry says the risks can be avoided.

While Britain decided this year to support shale gas exploration, France has a total ban citing ecological concerns and Germany is reviewing its position on shale.

In poorer, ex-Communist parts of the continent the need to bring in tax revenues, cheaper fuel supplies and jobs has shown signs of trumping the concerns, but to what extent is not yet clear.


Chevron, which has all the necessary permits for the exploration well at Pungesti, says it adheres to the highest safety standards.

The exploration phase would last around five years and not involve fracking, the process whereby large amounts of water mixed with chemicals is forced into rock formations under high pressure to crack them apart and release natural gas.

Company executives met Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Monday while he was making a scheduled visit to Washington.

"Emphasis was placed on continuing activities responsibly and safely for the environment, while at the same time giving communities the chance to have a conversation grounded in scientific data," Chevron said in a statement.

Asked to comment on local concerns, the company said it tests groundwater before and after drilling to make sure it is not affected, carries out geological seismic surveys and keeps the community informed at every stage.

In a detailed statement, it pointed to the widespread use of fracking in the United States and elsewhere and said it "is a proven technology that has been used safely for more than 60 years".

But it is struggling to convince the people of Pungesti.

Three public meetings held over the summer with Chevron and environment agency officials turned into shouting matches. Deputy mayor Vasile Voina says he believes people "were not sufficiently informed".

Sprawled along a bumpy road, the town of 3,420 people is made of eight villages with narrow houses behind short, chipped picket fences, fat orange pumpkins dotting small plots of land and apples drying in the sun behind window panes. It does not have central heating or a mains water supply.

Even in this remote town, 340 km (210 miles) northeast of the Romanian capital Bucharest, the global debate about the impact of "fracking" has permeated.

Several people said they had gone on YouTube to watch excerpts of the 2010 U.S. documentary "Gasland," which purported to show the environmental damage caused by shale gas production.

The energy industry disputes allegations made in the film, but it, and other sources, including activists and local clergy, have influenced opinion in Pungesti.

People say heavy equipment will ruin their roads. They fear fracking will cause earthquakes and pollute their water, risking their health, their cattle and their vegetable gardens.

"If they put wells they will destroy farming," said Andrei Popescu, 22.

Prime minister Ponta has spoken of potential shale benefits, especially for a poor area like Vaslui county, which includes Pungesti. It receives heavy subsidies from the state.

"Without investment, we can't pay wages and pensions. Projects can be improved ... but we cannot block investment," Ponta has said. He toppled a previous government in May 2012 partially on an anti-shale message but his government has since thrown his support behind the project.

Chevron said studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ground Water Protection Council had confirmed no direct link between hydraulic fracturing operations and groundwater contamination.

It says direct benefits include jobs and payments to contractors and suppliers and, during the production phase, taxes and royalties.

Some local people say they doubt the project would generate many jobs, or that they are qualified for them. If there is to be progress and investment, they say they would prefer a vegetable processing plant, abattoir or wind energy park.

"They could do anything else, why settle on underground gas," said Daniel Ciobanu, a 40-year-old farmer.


For all the concerns in Pungesti, many people in eastern Europe welcome shale gas. Governments in Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Ukraine are all keen to encourage exploration, although in Bulgaria it is banned.

In Poland, the industry's biggest shale gas hope in mainland Europe, exploration drilling is underway on several concessions. The country, with a history of conflict with Moscow, sees shale gas as a way of reducing dependence on Russian gas imports.

Yet even in Poland, some local people, backed by environmental campaigners, have staged protests. At one of Chevron's Polish shale gas concessions, near the village of Zurawlow, local people occupied a work site when contractors started trying to erect a fence.

Around 800 locals, neighbors, activists and the clergy gathered for a protest next to Chevron's concession in Pungesti last week. In sunny but icy weather, they carried banners that read Stop Chevron, Resist and God is with us.

Clad in his black habit, Father Vasile Laiu, an Orthodox priest from the nearby city of Barlad and one of the most outspoken local opponents of fracking, asked people to kneel, then led them in prayer.

Up to 50 villagers that have been taking turns staging a round-the-clock vigil, blocking access to the lot, said they were preparing for a long haul. They have pitched tents and dug a lavatory pit.

"Can we live without water?" one of them asked the crowd on a microphone. The air carried faint smells of incense.

"No," the demonstrators replied.

"Can we live without Chevron?"


(Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov in London and Tsvetelia Tslova in Sofia; editing by Christian Lowe and Philippa Fletcher)

Where the Hunt for Mamaliga Ends
A Restaurant in Brooklyn Offers the Food and Feeling of Moldova

A Touch of the Old Country: Moldova, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, is the first restaurant specializing in Moldovan cuisine in New York City. Photograph by Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Note: Moldova takes up the bulk of the historical region called Bessarabia, which was taken from Romania after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1940.

25 October 2013
New York Times
by Andrew Cotto

In the heart of old Brooklyn, on a prosaic stretch of Coney Island Boulevard that runs through Midwood, among auto body shops and fast-food joints and commerce catering to Orthodox Jews, you will find what looks like a village house in the old country, with a forest in back and a quaint monastery in the distance.

To many Americans, such a presence may evoke Romania or Poland or some other Eastern European location. Those from the tiny Republic of Moldova would know better. It is a restaurant, succinctly named Moldova; it is the only one dedicated to Moldovan cuisine in New York, and one of only a few outside the Moldovan homeland itself.

Moldova, nestled between Romania and Ukraine, is a landlocked state in the northeast Balkans. It is a picturesque, largely rural nation once known as the garden of the Soviet Union. It also is considered the poorest country in Europe and has one of the highest emigration rates in the world, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Of the tens of thousands of Moldovans who have arrived in the United States since then, relatively few have ended up in New York. One immigration organization estimates that there are around 5,000 Moldovans in the city; Radu Panfil is one.

Mr. Panfil, 35, immigrated from Moldova in 2005, leaving his cellphone store in Chisinau, the capital city, for better opportunities in America. He began working in various New York restaurants—first as a waiter, then as a manager—and a dream developed. While there is a sense of community among expatriate Moldovans in Brooklyn, there was no authentically Moldovan place for them to gather. Thus the restaurant Moldova was born.

“From the beginning,” Mr. Panfil said, “it was set that it is going to be the place where people from our country get together, to feel that they are at home, not to forget the customs and traditions from our country—and the smell of hot mamaliga.”

With the help of many fellow Moldovans, Mr. Panfil opened Moldova in July 2012. As you enter from the busy avenue, the convivial feel of the old country is immediate. Inside the “casa mare”—a Moldovan concept roughly translated as “big room”—are plaster walls of wedding-cake white juxtaposed with dark floors and roof beams; intricate rugs hang alongside indigenous artifacts and curios. The waiters and waitresses wear traditional hand-stitched shirts; jaunty folk music pipes through the sound system. On holidays and during banquet events, musicians perform in the elaborate back room, canopied by lush vegetation to resemble a Moldovan forest. A 240-square-foot mural of the country’s famous monastery, Tipova, covers the back wall.

The menu at Moldova is a tribute to Balkan staples: hearty soups, smoked and fresh fish, grilled and braised meat, stuffed cabbages. Cornmeal appears often, most treasured in the side dish known as, yes, mamaliga, a distinctly Eastern European take on polenta, served alongside grilled house-made sausages, peas and onions.

The restaurant has drawn local Eastern Europeans, culture hawks and curious foodies from Brooklyn and beyond, and, naturally, fellow Moldovans.

Galina Frunz, 25, left Moldova in 2008 but still misses her homeland. While spending time in Coney Island, she saw a sign for the Moldova restaurant. “I got so excited,” Ms. Frunz recalled. “I had told my friends all about our culture and cuisine, and this was a chance for them to see for themselves. Me and all of my friends fell in love with this place.”

Intent to capitalize on what seems a potent desire for Moldovans to eat mamaliga among their compatriots, Mr. Panfil opened a sister restaurant last August in Philadelphia, where there is a large expatriate and Eastern European population. Not to mention a majority of Americans unfamiliar with the tiny Republic of Moldova.

“Who knows,” Mr. Panfil said, “maybe I’m not going to stop here. In U.S.A. there are many beautiful cities, and Moldovan culture has definitely a lot of things to show.”

Halloween in Romania

24 October 2013
Radio Romania International
by Daniel Onea

A popular holiday in the West, Halloween has also been enthusiastically embraced by Romanians in recent years.

For a few years now, Halloween has also been celebrated on October 31st in Romania. This fact has caused changes in how tourism agencies handle business, adapting to the new circumstances. They included in their offers haunted houses, bonfires, period balls, and traditional dance shows. Clubs in the big cities, such as Cluj, Brasov, Sibiu and Bucharest have already put up posters for special events, mostly involving vampires.

This year, the celebration is on a Thursday, and so the events extend to the weekend, on November 1 and 2. One excellent place to visit is Bragadiru Palace in Bucharest. This beautiful building, erected in 1905 based on the designs of the Austrian architect Anton Shuckerl, hosts a dinner with the Addams family. You are invited into the WonderUnderWorld hall, where you can party until dawn among graves, skeletons and spider webs. Outside in the palace garden there is an exhibition of costumes, where professionals stand ready to paint your face in patterns typical of this holiday.

You find the best Halloween celebrations in the heart of Transylvania, at Dracula’s castle, according to the organisers of the first edition of the Horror and Fantasy Film Festival, as Anca Gradinaru, a journalist and film critic explains: “Dracula is a hugely popular brand, of which Romanians have not managed to take advantage properly. In addition, there are very few horror and fantasy festivals in Romania, considering how dedicated and enthusiastic the audience is. We thought it would be a brilliant idea to have such a festival in Dracula’s castle, it has tremendous potential.”

Initially designed to last three days, the event now stretches over five. It is a big festival, with over 40 films, Anca Gradinaru says:

“It starts on 30 October, with Crypt animation live, animated horror, and a live band. It continues with a Halloween party and screenings of classic films as well as new productions and Romanian and foreign short films, a silent movie with a new soundtrack, and a lot of theme parties. We also hold an event in Bran castle, where we show the first Dracula film ever made, Nosferatu, followed by a Halloween party. We try to blend film, entertainment and music. We have two parties, one right on Halloween, with the Aria Urbana band, and another in the cellar of horror, a place especially created for the festival. We’ll make it really scary, but attractive at the same time. On Saturday we have another party at Bran. We have a tent set up there, which will also serve a lot of different foods.  We encourage people to come in costume. We will also have competitions for best character, best vampire, and best zombie, alongside all kinds of other competitions with prizes.”

Brasov is usually teeming with tourists this time of the year. They come in all year long, but Halloween is especially popular. According to Anca Gradinaru, they come thanks to Dracula’s popularity:

“Hotels offer special packages for this festival, even though this is the first edition. We hope that more and more people will hear about this festival, banking on a well-known brand name, but also on the fact that we have a great variety of offers from the very first edition. Even a tourist who is not a horror film fan has lots of things to do. There is enough time to visit the area, which is magnificent, and is getting more and more popular. If we go abroad and mention Transylvania, it’s hard to meet someone who doesn’t wish to visit. It’s a magical land, and if people come to the festival, they can travel during the day and then catch a film at night, then join a party and get to know people. Around this time at Bran we promote tourism and socialising, which seems to me the perfect combination.”

David Jalea, a programme coordinator with a tourist agency in Brasov, has an alternative proposal:

“Around Halloween we have two special packages, two tours, one is four days, and the other is seven days. Foreign tourists especially are invited to come and discover Romania, both its cultural and historical sites, and its natural sites. Of course, during this time we offer them a lot of information about Vlad the Impaler, both history and legend. The highlight is the Halloween party. We believe that Transylvania is the ideal place to spend Halloween, especially in a medieval castle. Therefore we offer them a party in Corvinus Castle in Hunedoara, built in the 14th century. This is a private party exclusively for the members of the group. It has a medieval atmosphere, with knights, dances, light and fire shows, and a medieval dinner, just like the knights of yore used to have. Both tours include trips to Bucharest, Curtea de Arges, the castle in Poenari, the city of Sibiu, the fortifications of Sighisoara and Brasov, Bran Castle and Snagov monastery. These are the highlights of the tour.”

Wearing a Halloween costume is not obligatory, but recommended. There will be prizes for the best costumes. And, because this year’s party is in the third edition, we asked David Jalea about the feedback he got from the participants in previous years:

“Most of the people who visited us and used our services left with a great impression of Romania, were delighted with Romania’s tourist and cultural potential, and said their impression changed radically compared to what they expected before they got here. They loved the historical sites, the fact that we showed them the castles, the painted monasteries in Bukovina, cities such as Cluj, Sibiu, the Danube Delta, the Carpathian Mountains, local traditions and cuisine. During Halloween we have guests from the US, Canada, the UK, places where this holiday is traditional, but we also get tourists from Germany, Spain and South America.”

Prince George Will Get Romanian Meadow For Baptism

22 October 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Babies often receive flowers at their christening.

But Britain's Prince George will receive a wildflower meadow in the Transylvanian hills, a friend of his grandfather Prince Charles said Tuesday.

"If we sent flowers they would wilt, so this is a symbolic gift," Count Tibor Kalnoky told The Associated Press.

"Wild flowers are fragile like newborn babies. This gift will protect this area and contribute to raising public awareness so that rare flowers can be protected," said Kalnoky, a conservationist and a friend of Charles, who looks after the prince's property in Transylvania.
Kalnoky was a guest at the wedding of young George's parents, Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Charles is enamored with the rural life in Romania and visits the country every year.

Russia Putting a Strong Arm on Neighbors

Moldova is caught between moving toward integration with the European Union or back into the Russian economic sphere. James Hill for The New York Times

22 October 2013
New York Times
by David M. Herszenhorn

CHISINAU, Moldova—It was not enough for Dmitri O. Rogozin, a deputy prime minister of Russia, to warn darkly that it would be “a grave mistake” for Moldova to seek closer ties with Europe.

Mr. Rogozin, wrapping up a visit here last month, let fly a threat about the coming winter in this impoverished former Soviet republic, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas for heat. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.

The squeeze was just beginning. Next, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, in a rare personal appearance here, denounced Western Europe, “where religion is simply disappearing.” And three days later, the sharpest blow: Russian officials, citing vague health concerns, banned Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports.

The bullying, which the Kremlin denies, is not directed at Moldova alone. Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats, bluntly telling smaller neighbors that they would be better off joining Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The frantic push to retain influence, with its echoes of cold war jousting, reflects the still-palpable fury among Russian officials over NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere and a desire to halt a similar, eastward extension of European economic power. The heavy-handed tactics have wreaked economic chaos throughout the region in recent months.

In August, Russia suddenly stopped all Ukrainian imports at the border for stepped-up customs inspections. It lifted the restrictions after a week, but a senior economic aide to President Vladimir V. Putin said that they could become permanent if Ukraine, as expected, signs agreements with the European Union at the conference next month—a step that the aide, Sergei Glazyev, said would be “suicidal.”

In September, Armenia, which is heavily dependent on Russia for security reasons, simply capitulated. After a meeting with Mr. Putin in Moscow, President Serzh Sargsyan abruptly declared that Armenia would join the Kremlin’s customs union, scrapping years of work toward agreements under the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program.

Mr. Sargsyan’s unexpected move shocked many Armenians and set off a protest in Yerevan, the capital, by several thousand people who noted that their country does not share a common border with any of the customs union members. It also startled the Europeans, who began scrambling to prevent further defections.

This month, Russia took aim at Lithuania, which has already joined the European Union and whose capital, Vilnius, is the site of next month’s conference. Russia briefly stiffened customs inspections on Lithuanian goods, and has banned milk and other dairy imports.

Nowhere, however, is the pressure more intense than here in Moldova, a tiny, landlocked nation of 3.6 million people wedged between Romania and Ukraine that is by far the poorest country on the Continent, with annual economic output of about $3,500 per person—less than half that of Albania.

In addition to the ban on Moldovan wine, there have been rumors that tens of thousands of Moldovans who work in Russia would be expelled in an immigration crackdown, cutting off a financial lifeline for many families. There are also fears of a ban on apples or other produce, which would be devastating if imposed during harvest season.

Rather than intimidating leaders of the country’s fragile coalition government, however, Russia’s tactics have only cemented their resolve to complete the political and free trade agreements with the European Union.

“The signing of these agreements is the only chance that Moldova has in order to develop itself as a European country and in the European spirit,” President Nicolae Timofti said in an interview.

Mr. Timofti said it was clear that the ban on wine imports was about politics and Russia’s increasingly unrealistic goal of reuniting the former Soviet republics in an economic alliance through the customs union.

“We realize Russia has geopolitical interests in this area but there is also a saying here—‘You cannot enter the same river twice,’ ” the president said. “It is impossible to recreate the union that used to exist. However, Russia does take action to keep its influence over this region.”

In interviews, Mr. Timofti and other government officials said the Russian approach was backfiring, both politically and economically, leading businesses to reduce their reliance on the Russian market.

When Russia imposed a similar ban on Moldovan wine in 2006, officials said, exports to Russia accounted for more than 70 percent of the industry. Today, it is less than 30 percent, and several winery executives said they had ceased doing business with Russia entirely.

“We stopped working with the Russian market in 2009,” said Andrei Sirbu, whose family owns the Asconi Winery in Puhoi, a village 20 miles southeast of Chisinau (pronounced KISH-e-now). “It’s a very attractive market when you look at the sales opportunities, the size of it. Just in Moscow, you can do so much business, but when you put the politics into it, that’s the problem—the political risk.”

“To be honest, it’s all politics,” Mr. Sirbu added. “Why should we suffer because of politicians?”

Moldova’s official response has been to request clarification of Russia’s concerns about the wine so that they can be addressed quickly, and to ask that any new technical requirements be specified in writing.

European leaders have condemned Russia’s efforts and undertaken countermeasures, like lifting limits in the current trade rules on tariff-free imports of Moldovan wine.

“We will keep telling our friends in Moscow, it is unacceptable that our partners are being subject to any kind of pressure,” Stefan Fule, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy, said at a recent news conference here with Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.

Mr. Fule said that the agreement under consideration “has clear benefits not only to our neighbors, Moldova, but to our neighbors’ neighbors.”

Despite being the only former Soviet republic where Communists regained power, controlling Parliament and ruling the country from 2001 to 2009, Moldova has long set its sights westward, so much so that in 2004, it renamed its foreign office the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration.

For parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, Moldova was part of Romania, and its language is virtually identical to Romanian. Early this month, Mr. Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister, posted a Twitter message suggesting that Romania had a secret plan to annex Moldova, after supporting Moldova’s integration into Europe.

Some Moldovan officials have also accused Russia of fomenting unrest in the country by inflaming the dispute with Trans-Dniester, a breakaway territory that has declared independence and where about a thousand Russian troops remain stationed, and also by financing political groups aiming to topple the ruling coalition.

The Communist Party, which still has the single largest bloc in Parliament and currently opposes the political and trade pacts with Europe, this month began demanding early elections in an effort to dislodge the current government. On Tuesday, Parliament for the second time in two weeks rejected a vote of “no confidence” in the government proposed by the Communists.

The government nearly fell apart earlier this year after a bizarre series of events that began last December when a businessman was accidentally killed on a hunting trip involving some of the country’s top officials. Vlad Filat, then the prime minister, was ousted in the ensuing controversy.

The current prime minister, Mr. Leanca, said that while the government was pursuing overhauls, including anticorruption measures and an overhaul of the judicial system, in hopes of eventually joining the European Union, the outcome was not yet certain. “There are still threats, and it comes from the fact that we have not reached yet the irreversibility of our development, of our future path,” Mr. Leanca said.

In an interview, he described Moldova as at a crossroads. “We could go one way, which would mean embracing democratic values and on those values to build a viable society, and a functioning society with a prosperous economy,” he said. “Or we can stay forever in this gray area, where there is no rule of law, where people do not have confidence in their future and therefore they leave the country.”

Iulian Groza, a deputy foreign minister, said that focusing on Europe, a market of 500 million people, was an obvious choice—and one that Moldova made long ago—and that Russia should accept Moldova’s policy decisions. “We want to be treated by our bigger partners, if not equally, at least with respect,” he said.

President Timofti said he believed that Moldova would join the European Union, and even predicted good relations with Russia in the future. “Perhaps at some point in the future, Russia itself will become a member of the European Union,” he said. “And we will be together again.”

Bucharest Dog Cull Plan

13 October 2013
BBC News
by Petru Clej

It is almost impossible to walk the streets of Bucharest for more than five minutes and not encounter a stray dog.

According to official estimates there are 65,000 of them—one for every 30 residents of the Romanian capital.

But this situation is about to change, if the government gets its way. Or, if a growing number of alarmed international protesters get theirs, it will not.

The government wants the dogs rounded up and, if not claimed within two weeks, put down.

While this proposal has plenty of support in Romania, protests have rapidly spread around the world, with critics deploring the impending "massacre".

There have been demonstrations outside Romanian embassies in some European capitals, and celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Pamela Anderson have made forceful representations against the law.

This outside interference has incensed supporters of the law, who say "animal lovers"—used partly as a term of abuse—are distorting the truth by, in some cases, disseminating pictures showing cruelty against stray dogs taken in other countries, while claiming to originate from Romania.

Stray dogs are nothing new for Bucharest or for Romania in general but the canine population has grown, especially since former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered in the 1980s the demolition of vast areas of houses in Bucharest and other cities, and their replacement with concrete blocks of flats, forcing the owners to abandon their dogs.

Child's Death

Attacks are frequent: in the first eight months of 2013, almost 10,000 people in Bucharest were treated for dog bites by the Matei Bals Institute for Infectious Diseases.

In some cases, stray dogs have killed people. One of the most infamous incidents resulted in the death of a Japanese tourist in Bucharest in 2006.

But the incident which led to an explosion of popular anger was the mauling to death of a four-year-old boy, Ionut Anghel, by a pack of stray dogs on a private plot in northern Bucharest, on 2 September.

"It took this tragedy to wake me up to the fact that there are dogs on the streets," says Nadine Apostolescu, a well-known singer and dog owner herself, who is the public face of the campaign to remove stray dogs.

"Now, after 20 years when nothing was done, I took to the streets as a mother and a citizen to protest against this situation."

Demonstrations followed and parliament quickly adopted a bill, dormant for more than three years, which provides for the destruction of captured stray dogs by "humane methods" as a last resort, after 14 working days.

It also introduces mandatory registration for dogs and harsher penalties for owners who abandon their animals.

But critics complain that, besides potentially triggering a massacre of stray dogs, the law will not solve the problem in the long term, as it does not tackle the issue of uncontrolled breeding.

"The likelihood is that only tame strays will be captured, as the authorities lack the resources to capture the most aggressive ones, which will continue to breed and the problem will only get worse," says Ovidiu Rosu, a vet with the animal charity Vier Pfoten (Four Paws).

He also points out that lots of Romanians are in the habit of feeding stray dogs, which is likely to encourage their continued survival.

Lethal Injection

On both sides of the argument there is a consensus that stray dogs have no place on the streets.

Dog-lovers want a sterilisation programme instead, and more investment in dog shelters and adoption. These ideas have had only limited success in the past.

Language has become a key point of contention. Opponents object to the law's reference to "euthanasia", saying most stray dogs are healthy animals and this is not an act of mercy killing, but a "massacre".

Supporters liken the packs of stray dogs to a "plague of wild animals".

Opinion polls suggest supporters outnumber the opponents—by as much as 70% to 30%.

Bucharest's mayor, Sorin Oprescu, has promised that 80% of stray dogs will be removed within a year—half of these, apparently, by adoption.

He refused to elaborate on what method would be used to kill those dogs which are not adopted. A lethal injection seems most likely.

Whatever the outcome, in the end the question still lingers: if Romania has been unable to control its stray dog population for the past 20 years—be it through lack of political will or through corrupt diversion of funding—what is the guarantee that it will manage to do so in future, once the anger generated by the tragic death of an infant mauled by stray dogs starts to subside?

Roşia Montană – Between Gold, and Fools’ Gold:
Just Where Is the Common Sense In It All?

9 October 2013
Romania Insider
by Stuart Meikle

Guest writer Stuart Meikle looks at the Rosia Montana gold mining issue from a different angle: what to do with all the gold, and why move mountains to fill a small room with the projected 300 tonnes of the shiny metal? And why not focus instead on Romania’s real gold, its farmland?

The other day I found myself asking whether we, as a human race, really need another 300 tonnes or so of gold. After all, gold is so useful that a third of what we have managed to extract from this Planet of ours is still stashed away, sight unseen, in various storerooms around the world.

To add some context, since sometime before the Romans started digging for gold in the Apuseni Mountains, we, the human race that is, have accumulated a little over 170,000 tonnes of gold. Of this, nearly 90,000 tonnes have been utilised solely for decorative purpose. To what extent mankind has benefited from this use of gold is debatable, but I guess without it we would have found something else to tickle our collective fancy. Another third (nearly 60,000 tonnes) of our extracted gold is held in public and private ‘reserves’. I am not exactly sure what we are keeping it in ‘reserve’ for; maybe it will someday become really useful but until then it will just lie idly around doing absolutely nothing all.

So please, can someone tell me why we really need another 300 tonnes or so of this yellow stuff?

It appears that one part of the human race can see the sense in deploying vast amounts of our collective tangible resources in moving a near full handful of mountains so as to extract some more shiny metal that, let us face it, will be just parked, sight unseen in various dark underground vaults. Hence, Rosia Montana is about consuming vast amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels and, if I am to believe the ‘no’ campaigners, playing around with the environmental welfare of the immediate location and, potentially, a significantly wider region. And all this will be for 300 tonnes of gold (although let us not forget the silver).

Or if one wishes to put it another way, we, the human race that is, will use a substantial part of our very finite resources to extract 300 tonnes of gold by creating one gargantuan hole in the ground only to place it in another very much smaller one. Is this an illustration of how much the human race has progressed?

Certainly some will argue that gold has a real value; as a store of wealth. It is a store that is based on the confidence of a significant part of the human race that it does have a value (mainly when worn or otherwise used for adornment) and some of that value relates to its scarcity. Extracting another 300 tonnes or so will be an extremely expensive operation and this can be ‘justified’ by the current price (I use the term ‘price’ and not ‘value’) of gold. But who is to say that the price will not fall as the global economic situation improves; and it has fallen nearly 25 percent in the last 12 months alone. Will the economics (using its old-fashioned, externality-ignoring definition) really add up over the mine’s projected lifespan? Will it, if we return to the gold prices that were around at the turn of the Millennium (only about 20 percent of their 2012 peak)?

The proponents of the Rosia Montana project will state something like; “since 2000 gold prices have risen by 12 percent per year and the price will to continue to rise over the long-term.” But this sounds remarkably like the straight-line price projections that we were seeing for the property market in the mid-noughties: “the only way is up.” But who is not to say that prices may not fall back towards where they were a dozen years ago? It is a possibility. Hence, is now even the right time to start mining? Even the economic rational appears tenuous as economic “success” does appear to be rather too dependent on the timing of the mining operations coinciding with a continuation of the current global economic crisis or the emergence of yet further troubles that send investors scurrying for the perceived safe haven that is gold? It is thought-provoking to suggest that a positive investment outcome for Rosia Montana relies on the negative.

An interesting footnote to this issue is created by asking just how big a hole (sorry, I mean vault) are we going to need to store this extracted gold. Now, as we all know, gold is pretty heavy matter so 300 tonnes only takes up a little over 15 cubic metres of space. I guess we should be grateful for small mercies; having moved a near full handful of mountains to get at the shiny stuff we will only need to dig another very little hole to put it in. To visual just how big this new hole has to be just take an average room 2.5 metres tall with a footprint of six square metres and fill it with gold. Still struggling? Well, that is the average bathroom.

So to finish on a positive note, I will add that for all the negatives highlighted by the ‘no’ campaign, it will be possible to reduce the project’s environmental impact in one way. It is because any one single local village family should be able to offer sufficient (fifteen cubic metres) cellar space for storing the extracted gold. And if they do, one would anticipate that they would be more than adequately compensated for giving up their pickle-storage. But then again, you cannot eat the gold (well, a rational person would not).

And the thought of food does remind me to mention a phrase that I so often hear these days, “farmland is the new gold”; it is to the extent that it is a scarce resource but there the similarity largely ends. Farmland is a productive asset and its real, long-term value is within the food it can produce for a globally-expanding population. And farmland is something that Romania does have in abundance relative to its population size; if only it could improve the governance of agriculture and the management of its farming so as to properly utilise its land in a productive and sustainable manner. Food, not gold, is where Romania’s future lies.

But ultimately, in all of this, the one term that one is left to ponder is ‘fools’ gold’ and whether, as real as the mined metal may be, is ‘fools’ gold’ not the most apt way to describe the gold within Rosia Montana?

A Lost City: Photos of Bucharest's Past

4 October 2013
BBC News
by Tessa Dunlop

Andrei Pandele was a young architect when he began photographing his home country, Romania, in the 1970s. His camera captured a period of huge change under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. For some, his stunning photos are now a painful reminder of a time of destruction, and a life lost.

"It's cool! I really like it." Born in the year of the 1989 Revolution, Paul is one of a new generation of Romanians—multilingual, well-educated and ambitious for his country.

He is understandably proud of the giant House of the People, once Ceausescu's palace. After all, it's now home to Romania's fledgling democracy and only trumped in size by the Pentagon building in the US.

We are hovering in one of its many airless, pointlessly large halls, waiting for a conference on sustainable tourism to finish in the never-ending room next door.

I don't share Paul's sentiments. The vast slabs of marble feel suffocating—we may as well be stuck in the centre of an outsized wedding cake.

Photographer Andrei Pandele is emphatic: "The Palace? Ha! It is a wall in the way of the people. A dam, even."

We have met in a tea shop in the old Jewish quarter of Bucharest. There are photographs from his collection on every wall.

They're exceptional images rarely caught on camera, but then Andrei is an exceptional man—tall, dignified and handsome at 65.

It is thanks to his fearless vision that Ceausescu's relentless attack on Bucharest can be seen stage by stage—as if peeling away the layers of an onion.

"I was an architect," he explains. "I could find plans [and] approximate what they would destroy. Not exactly, no-one knew that. They were wild, totally out of control."

Seven square kilometres of the city centre were destroyed to make way for the Palace of the People. Andrei wanted to take some pictures before old Bucharest disappeared altogether.

I've been coming to Romania for 20 years but I have never seen images like these.

A city caught in its very own Armageddon. Andrei preserved a Bucharest that no longer exists—the exquisite glass-covered market, the archways, cobbled streets, the vine-clad villas, the city once called the "little Paris of the East".

But in many of the pictures the mighty onslaught has already begun—innumerable cranes chewing their way through people's lives, the facade of the crazy palace looming up over the threatened cityscape. And then, in some others, there's just snow or dust and the desert of demolition.

Not a verbose man, in front of his pictures, Andrei becomes almost chatty.

"After two years of photographing the architectural destruction I decided that it was very bad, but it was even worse that they were ruining the lives of 22 million people. So I began to take pictures of everyday life. I think they are much more striking."

The next series of photographs showing everyday life under Ceausescu is like a haunting silent movie. We see desolate streets when there was no petrol, queues for food that never came, trams straddled by desperate commuters, useless cars buried under snow and a wedding party picking their way through the streets. No-one is smiling.

I can't decide which is more astonishing—the photographs or the photographer? How did he get away with taking pictures which so openly "denigrated the socialist reality", a crime that carried a six-year prison sentence in communist Romania?

Andrei explains that he was a part-time sports photographer, so he had a state-sanctioned excuse to carry a camera.

And he tells me I must understand the strange psychology of the state policemen: "Tessa, they are very aggressive with those who are afraid, but much less aggressive with people who are not at all afraid. I was confident. Don't hide if you don't want to get caught."

Andrei's brazen behaviour captured a vital slice of Romania's painful past.

Yet it took a full 18 years before he could show his photographs to an astonished Romanian public.

The people in power did not want to be reminded of what they had got so wrong. He had to wait.

Andrei shrugs: "I have seen women over 40 exploding in tears in front of my photographs, because they saw their life had been destroyed, but they realised it 20 years too late. And a lot of teenagers laughed neurotically—because they recognised something in the pictures that their parents had told them, but they had never seen for themselves."

My young friend Paul represents the generation that escaped that hell.

He's silenced by Andrei—his experience, his audacity, his pictures.

Later, as we walk back through the centre of Bucharest, taking in its schizophrenic appearance with fresh eyes, Paul quietly concedes: "It is a pity Ceausescu had to build the palace complex right in the middle of the old city."

In Trial, Romania Warily Revisits a Brutal Past

Ramnicu Sarat prison, which is 95 miles northeast of Bucharest, was reserved for political offenders.
More Photos »

29 September 2013
New York Times
by Andrew Higgins

BUCHAREST, Romania—Remembered as a brutal sadist by inmates who managed to survive the prisons he once ran, Alexandru Visinescu bubbles with violent fury. “Get away from my door, or do you want me to get a stick and beat you?” the 88-year-old former prison commander screamed recently when a reporter called at his fourth floor apartment in the center of this capital city.

Like other onetime servants of the old Communist government, Mr. Visinescu—now a frail retiree with a hunched back—does not like being disturbed. Until recently, he was not. He was left alone with a generous pension and a comfortable apartment, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of his fit, youthful self in uniform. He passed his time with leisurely strolls in a nearby park.

His peace ended in early September, when prosecutors in Bucharest announced that Mr. Visinescu would be put on trial over his role in Communist-era abuses, the first case of its kind since Romania toppled and executed the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

The case has opened a flood of news media coverage here and raised hopes, however tentative, among victims and their advocates that Romania may finally be following most of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe in shaking off a national amnesia about its brutal past and re-examining a culture of impunity that has fed rampant corruption and constrained the country’s progress despite its entry into the European Union in 2007.

In the eyes of many here, the downfall and execution of Mr. Ceausescu merely removed the leader of the old Communist Bloc’s most intrusive dictatorship, leaving the system beneath largely intact. That continuity between the Communist and post-Communist elites helps explain why resistance to a serious reckoning with past crimes has been particularly strong in Romania, where there is still widespread nostalgia for the Communist era.

“We are coming from very deep and dirty waters,” said Laura Stefan of the Expert Forum, a Bucharest group that campaigns to strengthen the rule of law. “Corruption has a big link to the fact that we haven’t talked about our past,” she said. She welcomed the prosecution of Mr. Visinescu as an encouraging sign, noting that “to even think that these people are guilty and should pay is very new.”

A former work camp commander, Ion Ficior, is also under investigation and may face charges.

Still, Ms. Stefan doubts that the authorities are “really serious” about putting Mr. Visinescu and others in jail. “I am not optimistic at all,” she said.

Fueling those doubts is the fact that Mr. Visinescu has been charged with genocide, which usually applies only to efforts to liquidate, in part or entirely, a religious or ethnic group, not to political repression. And the crimes he is said to have committed stretch back more than half a century, predating the Ceausescu dictatorship, which lasted from 1965 to 1989 and remains a far more politically delicate period because so many members of Romania’s Communist establishment under Ceausescu maintained positions of power even after the fall of the old regime.

The difficulty of making a genocide charge stand up in a Romanian court—and then against any legal challenge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France—has raised concerns among those who have long pushed for justice that the case could prove to be yet another false start in the country’s fitful efforts to come to terms with its past.

“They have charged him with genocide just so they can close this file without a result,” said Dan Voinea, a Romanian criminology professor who served as the prosecutor in the hasty Dec. 25, 1989, show trial of Mr. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.

Romania’s political and economic elites, Mr. Voinea said, are still dominated by former Communists, their relatives and allies “who want to make sure that the crimes of Communism are never unveiled and never prosecuted in a serious way.”

Indeed, critics of the government say the prosecution of Mr. Visinescu was undertaken only because the prosecutor received a detailed file from the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, a semi-government body in Bucharest that researches cold cases.

Romania under Mr. Ceausescu was the most authoritarian, Stalinist government in Eastern Europe, a paranoid nightmare in which one in 30 people worked as informers for the ruthless security agency, the Securitate. Mr. Ceausescu’s repression of dissent was so complete that Romanians were forbidden to own typewriters without a police permit.

The General Prosecutor’s office in Bucharest, headed by a former soldier who took part in the shooting of protesters, or so-called terrorists, during the 1989 uprising against Mr. Ceausescu, declined to discuss Mr. Visinescu’s case. It has not explained why it chose to prosecute him with genocide, a crime that will be very hard to prove but may offer a way around a statute of limitations on lesser offenses.

Still, for many here, Mr. Visinescu’s prosecution is significant for bringing a measure of accountability for the first time to a penal system that, according to researchers at the institute in Bucharest, not only subjected prisoners to physical and psychological abuse but, at times, also sought the extermination of the government’s opponents.

That was especially the case at Ramnicu Sarat prison, 95 miles northeast of Bucharest, which was reserved for political offenders singled out for harsh treatment. Mr. Visinescu commanded the prison from 1956 until 1963.

“Evil now has a face in Romania,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu, a University of Maryland professor who headed a 2006 commission set up by the Romanian government to examine Communist-era crimes in general. “It is one thing to have abstract evil, but the public needs to see an individual.”

Aurora Dumitrescu, who was arrested in 1951 at the age of 16 and sent to a women’s prison run by Mr. Visinescu in the town of Mislea, remembers him as “a beast.” She said he delighted in sending inmates to the “black chamber,” a dank, windowless concrete room used for beatings and psychological torture. “For him we were all just animals,” she said.

For his part, Mr. Visinescu, who is accused of direct involvement in six deaths, told the Romanian news media that he could not be held responsible for decisions made by superiors.

Insisting that he had “never killed anything, including a chicken,” Mr. Visinescu told Romanian television that he had merely been carrying out prison rules dictated by the General Directorate of Penitentiaries.

“Yes, people died,” he said. “But people died in other places, too. They died here, there and everywhere. The food and other conditions were all in accordance with the program. If I hadn’t followed the program I would have been thrown out. Then what would I have done?”

Even some of his victims have some sympathy for his argument and wonder why only a relatively minor figure from so long ago is being pursued.

“The chiefs are much more guilty than he is—it was the system,” said Valentin Cristea, 83, the only living survivor among the political prisoners sent to Ramnicu Sarat prison.

Mr. Cristea, a retired electrical engineer who once designed listening devices for Romania’s Interior Ministry, was first jailed in 1956, accused of belonging to a tiny anti-Communist group headed by his aunt and her husband. He spent six years in various jails, including Ramnicu Sarat.

Mr. Cristea said he was never beaten by Mr. Visinescu but, while held in isolation like all other inmates, heard the screams of prisoners who fell victim to the commander’s violent rages. While insisting he has no thirst for revenge, Mr. Cristea says he thinks it is important that the actions of Mr. Visinescu and his chiefs be remembered.

“There should be big photographs of these people in every town so that people can know they existed and remember those terrible times,” he said.

Far from that, with the exception of people directly implicated in the killing of unarmed civilians during the murky 1989 uprising, including the defense minister at the time, no significant figures in the organs of Communist power have been put on trial. Efforts to bar former officials from office have all come to nothing.

When Mr. Tismaneanu’s commission reported in 2006 that more than two million people were killed or persecuted by Communist authorities, President Traian Basescu endorsed the findings and said it was time to judge past crimes so as to lift “the burden of an uncured illness.”

Members of Parliament booed and jeered as he spoke. No prosecutions followed.

“They changed the name of the system and its outward features, but its nature remained the same,” said Anca Cernea, who runs a foundation dedicated to the rule of law and the memory of political prisoners. “The people who are ruling now all come from this system, so they don’t want to punish its crimes. They all say let’s forget and move on.”

Mr. Visinescu, she added, “is definitely a monster, but he is not the only one. They have thrown him to the lions to save themselves. He committed crimes but not genocide.”

George Calin contributed reporting.

Ghosts of the Communist Past

19 September 2013
Radio Romania International

Almost 25 years after the demise of communism in Romania, new evidence begins to surface with respect to Communist-era torturers.

“I swear an oath to the party that raised and educated me to relentlessly and mercilessly fight and strike the enemies of our hard-working people”. Such was the written commitment signed by Ion Ficior, now aged 85, the former head of the notorious death camp in Periprava, an isolated spot in the Danube Delta. Ficior led the compound in the 1945-1989 period and now faces charges of genocide brought by the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER), which has taken the matter to court.

According to the investigation carried out by the Institute, between 1958 and 1963 Ion Ficor introduced and coordinated a repressive, abusive, cruel and arbitrary detention system targeting political inmates at Periprava camp. The methods employed would vary, from depriving prisoners of food and medication to tortures that today may seem hard to conceive. According to estimates, as much as 103 “counter-revolutionaries”, as the opponents of the communist regime were known at the time, were subjected to harsh treatment.

Ion Ficior is the second name on a list of 35 communist-era torturers that the Institute has chosen to make public. Further revelations show that torturers were even rewarded with substantial pensions after the demise of communism. These pensions would go as high as 1,200 euros, tantamount to what an acting minister earns today.

Aware of the absurdity of the situation, the Government in Bucharest is now belatedly trying to impose a law forcing former torturers to compensate their own victims. Romania officially condemned the communist rule and all its related atrocities in 2006, 17 years after the anti-communist revolution of 1989.

However, during all this time no victim of the inhumane treatment ever received financial compensation from the state. What’s more, the official condemnation of communism in Romania brought about no reparative laws, such as a Lustration Law, aimed at restraining or even preventing communist-era torturers from holding public office in Romania. Such a law was never adopted, while those responsible for the bloody events of 1989 that led to the demise of communism were never brought to justice. It is a sad reality therefore that 23 years on, Romania, now a member of the European Union and NATO, is still haunted by its communist past.

Pictures of the Day

5 September 2013
New York Times

In Bucharest, Romania, a woman watched as riot police officers prepared to confront demonstrators protesting government support for a Canadian mining company’s plans to mine gold and silver in Rosia Montana, Transylvania.. Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press

Romania Opens Museum On Dictator's Final Moments

3 September 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

TARGOVISTE, Romania (AP) — More than 20 years after Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were convicted of genocide and executed in Romania, the country opened a museum about the last two days of their lives during the country's pro-democracy uprising.

The museum is located in a military building where the trial and executions took place in Targoviste, a town 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Bucharest.

Ceausescu had ruled Romania for nearly 25 years with an iron fist. Museum visitors will be able to see metal plates that he and his wife ate on, the beds where they slept, and a tiny improvised courtroom where they faced a hastily conducted trial before a special military tribunal. The place where they were fatally shot on Christmas Day, 1989, at 2:45 p.m. also is showcased.

On Tuesday, Gen. Andrei Kemenci, the former commander of the garrison located in the building, took journalists on a tour of the museum. He said Ceausescu was dissatisfied that he was only given brown bread and sweets to eat there. Kemenci also said the leader asked for a change of clothes and to borrow money to spend at a military canteen.

In 1989, Romanian forces shot and killed about 1,100 people conducting anti-communist demonstrations, most of them unarmed.

On Dec. 22, the Ceausescus fled Bucharest in a helicopter after they were booed by a crowd and hours after Defense Minister Vasile Milea apparently committed suicide. Abandoned by the helicopter pilot and most of the leader's aides, the Ceausescus then hitchhiked and ended up in Targoviste, where they were arrested by police.

On Dec. 24 provisional leaders who took over after the Ceausescus fled Bucharest decided the couple would stand trial the next day.

The trial lasted just two hours during which the defendants said they did not recognize the legitimacy of the court and called former aides attending the trial "traitors." Both were convicted and immediately executed in the building's courtyard.

The museum will open to the public later this month, with tickets costing 7 lei ($2.10).

Thousands Rally in Romania Against Gold Mine

A student holds up a sign during a demonstration against the opening of the Rosia Montana open cast gold mine in Bucharest (RADU SIGHETI. REUTERS / September 1, 2013)

1 September 2013
Chicago Tribune

BUCHAREST (Reuters)—Thousands of Romanians across the country rallied late on Sunday to protest against the leftist government's support for a plan to open Europe's biggest open-cast gold mine in the small Carpathian town of Rosia Montana.

The project, which aims to use cyanide to mine 314 tonnes of gold and 1,500 tonnes of silver, has drawn fierce opposition from civic rights groups and environmentalists, who say it would destroy ancient Roman gold mines and villages.

It is led by Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, majority-owned by Canada's Gabriel Resources Ltd with the Romanian government holding roughly 20 percent.

The project has been valued at $7.5 billion based on a 2007 study that used an average price of $900 per ounce of gold, with Romania estimated to get about 75 percent of the benefits in taxes, royalties, dividends and jobs.

Gold currently trades around $1,390 per ounce.

Earlier this week the government approved a draft law enabling Gabriel to open the mine after securing a bigger stake in the project, which has been awaiting a green light for 14 years. Parliament is expected to vote on the law this month.

In the capital Bucharest, up to 3,000 protesters marched towards the government headquarters from University Square, the scene of violent anti-austerity protests early last year that toppled a previous government.

Protesters held aloft banners saying "United for Rosia Montana" and "Our children don't want cyanide". Protesters also gathered in the northwestern Romanian city of Cluj. A separate rally against shale gas exploration, drew another 2,000 people onto the streets in the eastern town of Barlad.

"This protest can get people together," said Ioana Paun, 28, who joined the protest in Bucharest. "From what I am hearing around me, this is only the beginning."

Prime Minister Victor Ponta strongly opposed the project before he took power in May last year yet voted for the draft law enabling the mine, only to tell a local television station that he would vote against the project in parliament.

Most Rosia Montana residents hope the project will bring jobs and money to their impoverished town, which suffered when a state-owned gold mine closed in 2006. Only a small number of the town's of 2,800 residents refuse to sell their property to make way for the mine.

The company proposes carving open four quarries over the mine's lifespan, work that would destroy four mountain tops and wipe out three outlying villages of the 16 that make up Rosia Montana municipality, while preserving the town's historical center.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Radu Sigheti; editing by David Evans)

Insolvent Town Exposes Gulf Between EU Dreams and Reality

Apartment blocks are seen in Aninoasa, 330 km (202 miles) west of Bucharest July 31, 2013. If joining the European Union was supposed to lift Romania out of poverty, in Aninoasa, a town of 4,800 people in the mountainous Jiu Valley region, it has yet to work. Six years after Romania's accession to the EU, not only is Aninoasa still poor—it has also become the first town in Romania to file for insolvency. Picture taken July 31, 2013.

1 September 2013
by Luiza Ilie

ANINOASA, Romania | Sun Sep 1, 2013 10:09am EDT

(Reuters)—On an abandoned storefront, an old poster advertises one of the few career opportunities available in this Romanian town: naked webcam models wanted for Internet chatrooms.

If joining the European Union was supposed to lift Romania out of poverty, it has yet to work in Aninoasa, a town of 4,800 people in the mountainous central region of Jiu Valley.

Six years after Romania's accession to the EU, not only is Aninoasa still poor - it has also become the first town in Romania to file for insolvency.

Town officials took out a bank loan to fund investment projects, they could not repay it, they fell behind on paying other bills and over the years they got themselves so deep in debt they could not carry on.

"Our mayor likes to joke there are only two major towns in insolvency in the world, Detroit and us," said deputy mayor Adrian Albescu, brought in last year after the previous administration lost the election. "For the past year we have done nothing else but pay debts."

Aninoasa's experience raises a question: did the European Union make a mistake when, six years ago, it admitted Romania, a country with living standards and levels of governance well below the average for the bloc?

It's not just about Romania. Bulgaria joined at the same time and is still saddled with corruption and poverty, Croatia joined in July bringing problems of organised crime and the legacy of war in the 1990s, and EU candidates such as such as Albania and Macedonia have even deeper troubles.

In Romania's case the calculation was that pressure from Brussels, coupled with EU development cash, would help the country catch up. In many ways it has: Romania's economic output has almost doubled since 2006.

But in other respects, the lessons learned with Romania, as well as neighboring Bulgaria, could make the EU much more skeptical the next time it contemplates bringing in new members.

When enlargement is next on its agenda, the European Commission will view the experience with Romanian local administrations as a "negative example," said Sergiu Miscoiu of think tank CESPRI.


One of the biggest difficulties for Romania is that, while billions of euros worth of EU funds are on offer, it often fails to qualify for the money because it cannot convince Brussels it will spend it honestly and efficiently.

In Aninoasa, former mayor Ilie Botgros held the office for 20 years until he was defeated in an election last year.

During that time the town's economy declined, a process which accelerated in 2006 when the government shut down the coal mine that was the town's sole employer.

As income from local taxes fell, the town hall's revenue shrank and officials now have only 4.2 million lei ($1.25 million) per year to cover staff wages, public utility bills and much-needed projects to improve infrastructure.

Many of the roads in the town are surfaced with gravel, some neighborhoods are not connected to the sewage system or gas supply, and there are hundred-year-old buildings which have no central heating against freezing winter temperatures and are in dire need of repair.

The town currently has only two projects with European funding: one is a sewage scheme, the other a move to renovate Aninoasa's cultural centre, which should include a gym, a library and meeting hall.

Botgros went instead to the bank. In 2006 he took out a loan worth 3 million lei ($893,600) from Romania's top lender BCR, owned by Austrian Erste Bank. He said he used the money to pay off previous investments, including work on a bridge and a gas pipeline in the north of town.

But the debt was stacking up. By now, Aninoasa has debts worth a total of roughly 6 million lei. The town owes money to 70 service providers. Public lighting was cut off for months last year because of unpaid bills.

The town could have carried on getting deeper into debt, but this year Romania tightened up its rules on municipal finances.

It started enforcing a law that requires local governments to file for insolvency if they are 120 days or more behind with repayments and their debt exceeds 50 percent of revenue. Aninoasa filed for insolvency in June. A court-appointed administrator is working on a plan to tackle debts.

The new mayor has filed a criminal complaint against Botgros over his management of town finances, and prosecutors have launched an inquiry, but it is too soon to tell whether any charges will be made. Botgros denies any wrongdoing.

"Do you really think that after 20 years in office I went crazy or started stealing money or something," said Botgros, who is now a local council member and plans to run for mayor in the next election. "I say I did what was needed for the community."


Aninoasa is probably not the last town that will file for insolvency. A study from the independent Institute for Public Policy showed hundreds of towns cannot cover their running costs, let alone invest in basic infrastructure. Poor tax collection and one of the EU's highest inflation rates do not help.

As with Aninoasa, EU money is available in theory, but in practice a highly segmented local administration is too weak to be able to use the funds effectively.

Romania ranks 116 out of 144 states in an index of institutional strength, according to the World Economic Forum's competitiveness report.

The EU has set aside 20 billion euros in non-refundable development money for Romania to build roads, sewage systems and central heating facilities in its impoverished regions during 2007-2013, aimed primarily at local authorities.

The country has so far secured only a fifth.

Roughly one in two mayors that have tapped funds were penalized later for various irregularities. The European Commission briefly blocked funds last year.

"There is reluctance to talk about European funds given that it is not simple to tap them, it is not simple to implement projects," said Elena Iorga of the Institute for Public Policy.

A lack of competence is, in some cases, compounded by cronyism and corruption—adding to the EU's reasons for not allocating cash.

The National Integrity Agency, an anti-corruption watchdog, has ruled that 193 mayors, deputy mayors and councilors had conflicts of interest, falsified statements or had wealth they could not account for since the middle of last year.

A study by the agency of 2,856 local councilors from all political parties showed almost half of them or their spouses owned private service providers, several of which had been awarded public contracts. ($1 = 3.3572 Romanian lei)

(Editing by Christian Lowe and Ruth Pitchford)

Romania Gold Project at Rosia Montana Back on Track

Rosia Montana lies on top of one of Europe's largest gold deposits

28 August 2013
BBC News

A Canadian mining firm has welcomed a new Romanian government push to let it develop a controversial gold mine.

The Rosia Montana Project in Transylvania, northern Romania, has been held up for more than a decade by a row over its environmental impact.

An open-cast gold mine was established in the communist era, but now Canada's Gabriel Resources Ltd wants to expand and modernise the site.

The mine would cut into mountain peaks and involve heavy use of toxic cyanide.

A statement from Gabriel Resources, sent to the BBC, praised new draft legislation on the Rosia Montana Project, approved by the Romanian government on Tuesday.

The Romanian parliament will consider the bill next month.

"If adopted by the Romanian parliament... this legislation will set the framework to significantly accelerate the development of Europe's largest gold mine at Rosia Montana and other mining projects in Romania," Gabriel Resources said.

The company's CEO Jonathan Henry said the government's move "represents a significant milestone for all stakeholders".

"We are extremely encouraged by this major step towards progression of the permitting process and consider it to be a clear sign of endorsement by the government for investment into Romania."

Revenue for state

The company controls Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), which would develop the mine. But the Romanian state's stake in the project would rise to 25% from a current 20%.

The royalty rate for the Romanian state would also rise from the current 4% to 6%.

Gabriel Resources says RMGC would "undertake to preserve cultural heritage, ensure environmental protection and eliminate historical pollution".

The company says the project "will create an average of 2,300 jobs in the construction phase and 900 in the operational phase".

A local opposition group—the Rosia Montana Cultural Foundation—has support from some international non-governmental organisations and other activists, who have so far stalled the project on environmental grounds.

They fear that the mine expansion would ruin a picturesque area and wreck ancient Roman mining galleries.

The company admits that large sections of the ancient mines would be destroyed, along with the peaks of four local mountains.

Rosia Montana and Romania's Decade-Long 'Gold War'
Romania's Gold Stays in the Hills
Wikipedia: Roşia Montană

Black Ribbon Day: An International Day of Remembrance

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) talks with Adolf Hitler (left) on his arrival to Berlin after signing the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

25 August 2013
Radio Free Europe

Black Ribbon Day, also called the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, originated in the 1980s.

Central and Eastern European refugees then living in Canada organized a series of peaceful protests on both sides of the Iron Curtain to draw attention to the rampant human rights abuses perpetrated by authorities across the Soviet bloc.

They chose August 23, the anniversary of the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to hold the annual rallies.

On August 23, 1989, about 2 million people formed a human chain spanning more than 600 kilometers across the Baltic republics.

Known as the Baltic Way, this protest is seen as a defining moment in the Baltic states' battle for independence from the Soviet Union.

As the Soviet bloc crumbled in 1991, Black Ribbon Day demonstrations were held in as many as 56 cities around the world.

Today, Black Ribbon Day commemorates both victims of Stalinism and Nazism and, more generally, all those who died, suffered, or perished under authoritarian regimes.

In 2008, the European Parliament became the first entity to formally designate August 23 as a day of remembrance for victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Canada followed suit in 2009 and Georgia, in the Caucasus, one year later.

Although Black Ribbon Day is not officially marked in Ukraine, the body representing Crimean Tatars in the country, the Mejlis, adopted the annual commemoration in 2011.

Crimean Tatars were among the many ethnic groups deported under Josef Stalin during World War II for allegedly collaborating with Nazi Germany.

The U.S. Congress is currently studying a resolution introduced last month to adopt August 23 as a day of remembrance for those who perished under Stalinism and Nazism.

Black ribbons are seen as a universal symbol of remembrance and have been widely used to mourn tragedies.

Black ribbons, for instance, are worn to honor U.S. military personnel made prisoner of war or listed as missing in action.

They have been used to commemorate a wide range of disasters, from the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States to the 1997 death of Princess Diana in Britain or the plane crash over Russia that killed then-Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 95 others in April 2010.

More recently, they were handed to runners at the 2013 London Marathon to express solidarity with victims of the earlier marathon bombings in Boston, which killed three spectators and one police officer and wounded more than 260 others.

Black ribbons are also worn to raise awareness of health issues such as melanoma, eating disorders, and narcolepsy, as well as to protest against torture.

Wikipedia: European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism
Wikipedia: Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

Gypsy King Pushed For Girls' Education

The funeral procession of self-appointed Roma king Florin Cioaba passes downtown Sibiu Reuters/Radu Sigheti

23 August 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

August 23, 2013 9:12 AM SIBIU, Romania (AP) — The King of the Gypsies arranged an opulent wedding for his 12-year-old daughter, ordering a dozen suckling pigs and buying her a lacy gown from Italy. When she stormed out, bridesmaids in tow, the furious outcry forced Romania to stop ignoring child marriage and pushed him to take a public change of heart.

Florin Cioaba, a member of the family that has led the country's embattled minority since the 19th century, went on to become a leader who helped smooth relations with mainstream Romania and modernize Roma traditions, while still preserving his community's separate culture.

Hundreds of Roma turned out for a funeral in his Transylvanian hometown of Sibiu to remember him on Friday. A banner emblazoned with his crowned visage was draped across an apartment building. Stonemasons have been carving his tomb in black marble for the last week.

Cioaba died of a heart attack Sunday at age 58 while on vacation in Turkey. Mourners were carrying his coffin—partially lidded with glass and rumored to be air-conditioned—along a seven-kilometer (four-mile) route through the city.

"He cared very much about his Roma community and he helped it a lot. He integrated it into Romanian society; he sent the members of the community to school," relative Ion Rudaru said.

But the road was bumpy. In 2003, as his 12-year-old daughter was preparing for marriage, the family openly talked about how Ana Maria would stop going to school once she was married. That may have been why she fled the church in front of 400 astonished guests—many of them members of the media invited to experience Roma culture.

She tearfully returned a few minutes later and was duly married off. The ensuing uproar over the wedding became a pivotal moment for Cioaba. The couple was separated after the ceremony and did not live together. Cioaba later pushed for education for Roma girls and began preaching that they should not be married until they were 16, aligning Roma tradition with Romanian law.

The move earned him a reputation as a leader who cooperated with officials.

Ciprian Necula, a sociologist who studies Roma, described Cioaba as a down-to-earth, moderate leader and a mediator who used his pulpit as a Pentecostal pastor to deliver many of his messages, including urging Roma not to beg on the streets and demanding more rights for the minority.

"When I greeted him "I kiss your hand, Your Majesty," he replied, "Stop that nonsense!" Necula said Friday.

Cioaba was strongly influenced in his policies by his wife, Marica, whom he married when they were both 14 and with whom he had four children, Necula said.

Before the funeral, his elder son Dorin was crowned "the international king of Roma," while his younger son Daniel was crowned "the king of Romanian Roma," succeeding him as the heads of Europe's largest Roma community.

Roma started arriving from India in the 14th century and there are an estimated 8 million in Europe, with the largest population in Romania. There are officially some 620,000 Roma in Romania, but many do not declare their ethnicity due to widespread discrimination. Roma leaders say there are between one and three million Roma in the country.

Cioaba took over the mantle in 1997 from his father Ion Cioaba, who was deported during the Holocaust to the Soviet Union.

In 2010, he set up a court to mediate disputes in the Roma community with a council of 20 members. While he preserved Roma customs, he sought to keep them in line with Romania's move toward the EU, which it joined in 2007. He counted among his friends, President Traian Basescu, who this week took a helicopter to Sibiu to lay a wreath at Cioaba's coffin.

However, Cioaba could be critical of European leaders, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy whom he denounced for repatriating Romanian Roma from France.

Romanian Roma use a separate language, which borrows heavily from Romanian, and women traditionally dress in brightly colored long pleated skirts with headscarves, braids with gold jewelry. In eastern Europe, the former communist bloc where the Roma are concentrated, many schools are tacitly segregated, and hate crimes are commonplace.

What's Behind Romania's Church Building Spree?

21 August 2013
National Public Radio
by Andrei Codrescu

Commentator Andrei Codrescu notes the complicity of the Romanian Catholic Church in both World War II and Communist-era wrongs. Now the church is given big new construction projects to politically connected contractors.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

In Romania, new churches are popping up at the rate of 10 a month. That's one every three days, according to a BBC report. It also includes a vast cathedral under construction in the capital city, Bucharest.

This building boom is taking place in one of Europe's poorest countries, and it has Romanian-born commentator Andrei Codrescu wondering what's really going on.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: Romania's phony tumble from communism to something called first, democracy, then original democracy, then just plain old Balkan morass, looks like it has finally found its form by adding churchness to the mix. Romanian Orthodox churches and priests are perfect exemplars of their country's past. In the fascist era before the Second World War, the priests were enthusiastic boosters of dictators and haters of all minorities, especially Jews and gypsies. In the communist era, a good many priests became willing collaborators of Securitate, the dreaded secret police, by reporting what they heard at confession.

Far from being the honorable opposition to communism that was the Catholic church in Poland, the Romanian church served its temporal masters with eagerness. Religion that Karl Marx called the opium of the people did its best here to live up to its name. After the revolution of 1989, the church started campaigning for a national cathedral intended to rival Nicolae Ceausescu's grandiose House of the People, the grand kitsch palace that bankrupted Romania in the 1980s.

Among the charges leveled against that dictator was his architectural megalomania that demolished old neighborhoods of Bucharest to make room for monuments to his power. Opposition to that project came from intellectuals who hoped that Romania's joining the European Union would bring with it a sense of proportion. As it turns out, joining the EU did not bring with it either architectural taste or a substantial change in living standards.

Instead, a growing mass of newly impoverished people turned to the church for miracles and comfort. Opinion polls showed that the church and the army were the most trusted institutions of post-communist Romania. So here come the monuments again and the parades. But these are not the old days. There are new opportunities: building contracts to be awarded, politicians to reward. The Orthodox Church gives the masses what they crave: churches on every block and renewed sermons about the grandeur of the nation, liberally sprinkled with good old anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment and, for something extra, a dash of anti-European, anti-enlightenment propaganda. It's the unbeatable formula of post-communism: high-grade opium.


CORNISH: Andrei Codrescu wrote "The Hole in the Flag," about the mysterious events of December 1989 in Romania.

The Hole in the Flag - A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution

Pictures of the Day

9 August 2013
New York Times

People fished on a lake near Bucharest, Romania. Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Romania's Top Court Examines Communist Guard Case

9 August 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's top court will examine the case of a former commander of a communist prison who is accused of aggravated murder in the deaths of six political prisoners.

The High Court of Cassation and Justice said Friday it will take on the case because of its legal complexity and also because more than 50 years have lapsed since the deaths at the notorious Ramnicu Sarat communist prison. Under Romanian law, there is no time limit on prosecuting serious crimes.

From 1956 to 1963, Alexandru Visinescu ran Ramnicu Sarat where pre-communist political leaders and intellectual elite were incarcerated.

The institute investigating communist crimes last week called for Visinescu, 87, to be prosecuted for the deaths. It said prisoners died from beatings, hunger, a lack of medical treatment and exposure to cold. It will hand a total of 35 files of former commanders to prosecutors.

Romanians were shocked after Visinescu publicly cursed a cameraman and lunged at journalists several times who were seeking reaction to the accusations against him.

The plight of the former prison guards and their thousands of victims has turned into a national debate in Romania with many questioning why former prison guards have not only not faced trial even though communism ended 23 years ago, but also receive the highest pensions in Romania.

President Traian Basescu this weekend said it was never too late for justice and said Visinescu should be handed over to the justice system. Visinescu says he was only following orders and doing his job.

More than 500,000 Romanians were incarcerated for opposition to the communist regime and one-fifth died.

Romania threw off communism during the 1989 revolution, but former communists and former Securitate secret police agents continued to wield influence in politics, business and the media, effectively protecting figures like Visinescu.

Romania's Costly Passion for Building Churches

6 August 2013
BBC News
by Tessa Dunlop

Romania is in the middle of a church-building boom, with some 10 new places of worship completed every month, and one vast cathedral slowly taking shape. But some Romanians take issue with the expense, in one of Europe's poorest countries—and particularly the use of funds from the public purse.

To travel across the north of Romania from Suceava to Maramures is to be bamboozled by exquisite religious eye candy.

Everywhere you look there are churches—big, small, medieval, brand new, tin-roofed, wooden, painted—each has its own appeal.

What is particularly striking as you bump along the potholed roads that link them, are their sheer numbers. Since the 1989 revolution the Orthodox Church has been going great guns in Romania.

The vast majority of the population—nearly 90%—are Orthodox, and in the wake of Ceausescu's downfall the Church has capitalised on its pre-eminent position in the country, building new churches at a rate of one every three days, including an enormous cathedral currently under construction in the centre of Bucharest.

On completion, the plan is that the Cathedral for the People's Salvation will be the tallest religious building in south-eastern Europe and tower over its immediate neighbour—ex-Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's enormous Palace of the People.

Romania is undoubtedly a very spiritual country, with religious rituals, icons and celebrations forming the fabric of many people's lives—on the Saints' Day of Constantin and Elena in Maramures I witnessed the congregation spill out of two local churches on to the surrounding hillside.

However questions are increasingly being asked about the funding of the new cathedral and the Orthodox Church more generally, much of which comes from the cash-strapped state.

A leading critic is the flamboyant Member of Parliament and head of the Green Party, Remus Cernea. "In Romania we have a big problem between church and state," he says. "My view is that if the church wants to build something it's OK until the money for the building of this church is the money of the people, of the state—public funds."

Recipient of an IMF bailout in 2009 and one of the poorest countries in the EU, Romania gives millions of euros to the Orthodox Church every year.

From central government funds the church receives more than 100 million euros for priests' salaries, and many more millions for the construction and renovation of church buildings.

Funds also flow in from local councils, city mayors, state companies and the parishioners themselves—though I found no-one who could confirm exactly how much money the Orthodox Church receives each year in total.

Remus, who is proposing a bill to change the way the church is funded, believes the close financial relationship between church and state is part of a bigger problem.

"In many cases politicians give public funds to churches and in exchange the priests support them in electoral campaigns. Often you see the construction companies who build the churches owned by people who are very close to the politicians. So it's a kind of circle of money," he says.

Both the current growth of the church in Romania and the Orthodox hierarchy's close relationship with the political classes are partly explained by the punitive effects of Ceausescu's extreme regime when dozens of historic churches were destroyed and many Orthodox leaders collaborated with the communists in order to survive.

"Many people were simply forced out of religion during communist times, so in a sense it was natural to return," says Liviu Andreescu, a scholar of church-state relations.

The church is restored, while a statue of Lenin is trampled underfoot (Mogosoaia Palace, 2009)

The collaboration between many church leaders and the communists helped perpetuate "the strong sense of co-operation between church and state that we see today, with many religious activities funded by the state", he argues.

Romania's Minister of Religious Affairs, Victor Opaschi, concedes that there is a close working relationship between the church and politicians during electoral campaigns, and that this is "not a good thing".

But he says there are outstanding historic problems. "The communists took from the church and it lost nearly all its property," he says. "Now the state is trying to compensate for this by giving back a small proportion of what it has taken."

Priests also receive money from their congregations, often entering parishioners' houses to ask for donations.

When Orthodox priest Casian Pandelica refused a bishop's request to raise 50,000 euros for church refurbishment from his 800-strong parish in the village of Reviga, a stand-off ensued, culminating in an aggressive dawn police raid that he believes was instigated by the church hierarchy.

Expelled from the Orthodox Church but supported by his local community, he now holds services in a makeshift chapel.

Inevitably perhaps, Pandelica is deeply suspicious of the church's financial motivations, says it does little good work in the community and even suspects church leaders of corruption.

In remote Moldavia, famous for its exquisite painted monasteries, I met the only member of the Orthodox hierarchy who would speak to me, Archbishop Pimen.

An old man with wise blue eyes and a twinkly smile Pimen is renowned throughout Romania for his spirituality.

He admits that "not all priests give as much as they should" but denies that the church does too little work in the community. "If all the money used for new churches was given to poor people would it cover their needs?" he asks. "We have an absolute need for new churches and they are being built for very little money."

However, as the Patriarch asks for yet more money for the new cathedral, increasing numbers believe that the cost of church construction is too high.

Nearly all the young people I spoke to, especially in the capital Bucharest were not regular churchgoers, and felt the money would be better spent elsewhere.

But for the time being, the scene in Maramures on the Saints' Day of Constantin and Elena is a reminder that the Orthodox religion in Romania remains a vital component of many people's lives. Its pre-eminent position in society is undeniable.

Parishioner Elena, who was celebrating her name day in traditional costume, invited me back to her modest family home where icons hung in every corner.

"We're a religious people—we're a people who believe," she says. "We don't lose our traditions and our habits. That is how it is here."

Raiders Of 'Hitler's Gas Station' Reunite In Ohio

31 July 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

CINCINNATI (AP) — All these years later, some surviving veterans still think the raid on "Hitler's gas station" was a great plan. However, not all worked out as expected, and the result was a fierce World War II battle marked by bravery and sacrifice.

The 70th anniversary Ploesti Raid reunion this week at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force commemorates an Aug. 1, 1943, assault by waves of B-24 bombers on oil refineries in Romania that provided much of the fuel for the Nazi war machine. Five Medals of Honor were among the many awards given for what U.S. military histories call the most decorated action of the war.

U.S. commanders "emphasized the importance of completing the mission; in their estimate, it would shorten the war in Europe by six months," Dale Hulsey, 91, of Fort Worth, Texas, recalled Wednesday, after reunion participants viewed a restored B-24 at the museum near Dayton.

"They tried to knock the thing out in one mission, but everything went wrong," said Bob Rans, a Chicago native who lives near Tampa at age 92, with vivid memories of being bathed in gasoline as a wall of flame roared toward him.

The raid inflicted heavy but not devastating damage, and nearly a third of the 177 planes and their 1,726 men failed to make it back to their bases more than 1,000 miles away in North Africa.

The Allies had tried bombing the oil fields before from high levels; Operation Tidal Wave was to be a surprise assault by a flying armada coming in under radar and methodically knocking out assigned targets. But navigational problems disrupted plans, and defenders on the ground were ready for them.

Sweeping in just above cornstalks—"we were so close to the ground it was like driving at high speed in an automobile," Hulsey said—the bombers were met with a barrage of firepower. Hulsey, a radio operator, remembers a continuous line of bright flashes from gunfire on the ground. Rans said anti-aircraft guns mounted on rail cars provided mobile defense against the bombers.

An auxiliary fuel tank near Rans was hit, showering him with gasoline. Fire engulfing his plane, he parachuted out. He was captured, treated in a hospital for burns, then put in a prison camp. Hulsey said his plane knocked out its target and was headed home when shot down by fighter planes. The crew was found and protected by Yugoslav resistance fighters until a British rescue operation got them out nearly a year later.

Rans and Hulsey were among 11 raid veterans at the reunion, with nearly 100 family members and friends. Air Force history enthusiasts Mark Copeland of Lakeville, Minn., and Blaine Duxbury of Indianapolis helped organize it. Copeland said after a 60th anniversary reunion in Salt Lake City, there was interest in coming together again for what likely will be the last reunion. About 70 of the mission participants are still alive, he said.

Scott Stewart came from Lincoln, Neb., to pay tribute to the mission his late father, Carroll Stewart, wrote about in a 1962 book co-authored with James Dugan. Stewart said his father spent years chronicling the stories of veterans of the battle, including Germans and Romanians.

Rans said the reunion, which will include a public memorial service Thursday, brought back memories, some tears and a sense of pride for the veterans about their place in military annals.

"When you stop to think about it, you were part of an action that nobody else could ever be in again, the most highly decorated action of the war," Rans said. "History is history."

Operation Tidal Wave
Wikipedia: Operation Tidal Wave

High Honor for a Gypsy Virtuoso

Nicolae Feraru, who has been announced as a winner of a prestigious NEA National Heritage Fellowship, plays the cimbalom at his northwest side home. Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune

16 July 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Howard Reich

To observe that Nicolae Feraru has an intense relationship with his instrument, the Eastern European cimbalom, would be an understatement.

"The first love for me is not my wife, it is this instrument," says Feraru, 63, sitting before his beloved cimbalom, which is similar to a hammer dulcimer, with "sticks" or mallets used to strike strings.

"I (tell) my wife: 'You are my wife, but, actually, this instrument is my wife. Because everywhere I traveled around the world, I took this instrument like it's my heart."

Feraru may be exaggerating a bit for effect, but there's no question that he has devoted his life to the cimbalom and has suffered greatly for his art. As a child in Romania, he routinely heard the cimbalom referred to as "a garbage instrument" because of its deep association with Gypsies. The increasingly harsh discrimination that he and his Gypsy family suffered prompted him to seek political asylum in the United States in the late 1980s.

Despite his travails, however, Feraru long ago emerged as one of the world's great cimbalom virtuosos, which helps explain why last month he was named a winner of his adopted country's highest honor for folk arts, the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship. The award, which will be presented in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, comes with $25,000, though that doesn't seem to be its greatest appeal to Feraru.

"It's a lot of money–I never got $25,000 in my life," says Feraru, in his Chicago apartment. "But even if they not give me money, to give me lifetime honor is something fantastic, because they (are saying) it makes no difference between you, (an) American, and me, a gypsy from Romania.

"They say everyone is the same."

That was not the case in Romania, where throughout Feraru's years there–and long before–Gypsies had been regarded as an underclass or worse, he says. Even so, he was determined to take up an instrument that practically epitomizes Gypsy culture and gives voice to its vast repertoire of songs.

This music courses through Feraru's bloodline, his grandfather and father having been esteemed players, as well. But they knew the rigors involved in playing the cimbalom, and Feraru's father urged the boy not to heed its call.

"He would play three days, three nights on a (single) wedding, he must go seven, eight miles, walking and playing on the street," says Feraru, his father playing a smaller-sized cimbalom that hung around the neck for such roving engagements.

"When he come home, he was almost dead. He said, 'You not learn this.'"

But Feraru was seduced by the haunting tintinnabulation of the instrument, its sound ethereal and mysterious, its practitioners' mallets moving so quickly as to disappear in a blur. Moreover, like a piano, the cimbalom easily can accommodate a broad range of music, "classical, cafe, jazz, folk, all of it," says Feraru.

After begging for lessons that his father gave him starting at age 6, Feraru at 15 began studying cimbalom with one of Romania's eminent players, Mitica Marinescu-Ciuciu. By 18, Feraru was a pro, thriving in restaurants and theaters and eventually touring the world.

Romania Takes Step Toward Punishing Gulag Guards

11 July 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Guards slammed doors on prisoners' fingers, beat them on the soles of their feet and burned them with cigarettes. They served rotten meat and forced inmates to eat excrement as punishment. In extremes of heat and cold, they made their victims haul crushing loads until they collapsed.

After decades of denial, chilling details are emerging about the torment guards inflicted upon political prisoners in Romanian communist-era gulags, as part of a first small step toward holding them to account. The names of 35 guards—now in their 80s or 90s—are to be handed to authorities starting next week for possible prosecution by a government institution tasked with investigating communist-era crimes, The Associated Press has learned.

The perpetrators of communist-era crimes have long been shielded by Romania's establishment, whose ranks are filled with members of the former Securitate secret police. But the movement to expose Romanian gulag guards has a powerful champion in the Liberal Party, which is now part of the governing coalition. Members of the party were targeted by the Communists in their crackdown on all perceived dissent after it came to power in 1946.

Of Romania's 617,000 political prisoners, 120,000 died in the gulags. The inmates included politicians, priests, peasants, writers, diplomats and children as young as 11. Most survivors died before seeing any chance of justice.

Those still alive—about 2,800 in all—now see a glimmer of hope as the Institute for Investigating the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian Exile begins probing allegations against the 35 guards on the list, as well as other communist-era crimes.

The institute was founded by Liberal Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu in 2006. It's only since the party returned to government as a junior coalition partner last year that the institute has begun probing crimes committed in the 1950s and '60s—the darkest period of Romanian communism—aided by a Liberal-led interior ministry that has provided names and addresses. Like other former Warsaw Pact countries, Romania got rid of its top level communists during the 1989 revolution, but less than a handful were punished after former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed.

The institute's executive director says that has to change.

"Those who produced so much suffering and terror have to pay and even if they are 80 and 90," said Andrei Muraru. "They are not absolved of responsibility."

In the gulags, inmates frequently starved to death; many also died from lack of medical care. Punishments included eating excrement, long stretches of solitary confinement and carrying heavy weights to the point of collapse.

"It would be good for the ones who are alive to go on trial, so history will mark them down as criminals," said Caius Mutiu, 79, a former detainee who testified to the institute.

Mutiu spent eight years in five prisons for taking part in a protest supporting the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. He said that a guard once threatened to shoot him after he collapsed from hard labor. He spent two weeks in isolation, sleeping on a damp, concrete floor. The diet was cabbage, potatoes and barley soup.

"I counted 14 grains of barley, it was basically hot water," he recalls. He saw people die of starvation. "Their bodies swelled up before they died."

Former detainee Emilian Mihailescu, an architect, said a Romanian diplomat in his cell died when a boil on his neck became infected. "Medicine didn't really exist," he said.

One of the Romanian prison guards who will be publicly named this month is Ion Ficior, dubbed by inmates "a human beast."

"Ficior beat us every day with a wooden stick," said former prisoner Ianos Mokar, adding that the guard terrorized inmates by "jumping over us on his white mare."

In an interview with the AP, an unrepentant Ficior denied he had beaten anyone. The 85-year-old said he tried to ensure that inmates got full rations by ordering kitchen workers to get the most out of potatoes by peeling as thinly as possible.

He claims all the political prisoners under his command at the Periprava labor camp were militiamen known as Legionnaires who supported the Nazis during World War II. Historians say most prisoners were simply people who had fallen afoul of the Communist regime.

They "deserved to stay in prison to feel what their crimes were like," Ficior said. "Crimes against innocent people shot in the streets—that's what the Legionnaires did with the Jews."

He said the responsibility for the political prison system lay with Romania's Communist leaders. "The great blame lies with those who gave the orders," he said. "They are to blame."

Marius Oprea, the first head of the institute, says Romania has been reluctant to deal with its past because so many members of the old guard have remained in power since 1989.

"Do you think Romania's leaders want to punish their parents?" he told AP. "The Communist Party may no longer exist, but we still have Communists. The Securitate may be dead, but we still have former Securitate agents."

A Fairy Tale in Transylvania

The Borca family, from Breb, applied the finishing touches to one of the 40 haystacks they make each summer.      Rena Effendi/National Geographic

28 June 2013
New York Times
by Kerri MacDonald

When Rena Effendi went to Transylvania to photograph hay for National Geographic, she envisioned a fairy tale, someplace almost medieval. But when she arrived in the Gyimes valley, she was disappointed. The scenery had been spoiled, she thought, by modern architecture.

“I was greedy,” Ms. Effendi said. “I wanted to find the real, bucolic, medieval type of scenery, and I couldn’t find it there.”

So she consulted an expert.

“I Googled two words: ‘Transylvania’ and ‘hay,’ ” she said this week in a phone interview from her Cairo home.

Among the first results was Maramures, a Romanian-speaking region where one can find distilleries and mills more than 500 years old. Ms. Effendi, 36, sought advice from Kathleen McLaughlin, a photographer who had previously been there.

When Ms. Effendi arrived, she fell in love with the “Romanian Transylvanian fairy tale” she discovered.

“I found villages where almost all women know how to do embroidery and almost every man knows how to build a house from scratch,” she said.

She stayed with a family of musicians in Hoteni, a village of about 800 people. She slept in a wooden house set in a meadow and ate simple meals prepared with fresh produce from an orchard and a small vegetable garden. During two trips, Ms. Effendi spent about two months in the fields, photographing the hay-making process, which begins around 5 a.m. on dry summer days.

“People spend the day in the field,” she said. “They take their food, they take naps. You see these women climbing on top of the haystack in special trousers so the wind doesn’t blow up their skirts.”

Life moves slowly in the villages of Maramures, all of which are nestled alongside streams. It revolves around hay, which is used to feed the cows that produce the milk that ends up on the table. During hay season, the farmers work by hand, moving at a frantic pace. One couple, Gheorghe and Anuta Borca, told Ms. Effendi their honeymoon had been cut short by hay. “They had to start working straight after the wedding,” she said. (They hadn’t gone far, honeymooning in their village.)

One of Ms. Effendi’s pictures shows three generations of the Borca family at work (Slide 8). “For them, it’s a way a life,” she said.

Ms. Effendi asked one family why they kept doing what they do, when they could simply go to a market. “They said, ‘Well, what are we going to do with all this land, then?’ ” she recalled. ” ‘It’s just going to sit there?’ ”

A farmer in Breb told Adam Nicolson, writing for the July 2013 issue of National Geographic, that houses there had cost six haystacks in Communist times.

“Hay is gold,” Ms. Effendi said.

It is also an art: “You can even guess who the owner is by the shape of a haystack,” she said. “They have their individual styles and forms.”

But, while Maramures still has the look of a fairy tale, it is on the verge of vanishing.

“You see it in the clothes people wear,” Ms. Effendi said. “You see small signs of this beautiful agrarian culture fading away.” It shows in the architecture—old people live in old homes, while many young families live in cement houses with bathrooms and television. More and more young people are enchanted by European cities.

“Transylvania is not yet a fossil,” Mr. Nicolson wrote in the magazine. “It is still alive—just—if in need of life support. But it represents one of the great questions for the future: Can the modern world sustain beauty it hasn’t created itself?”

Ms. Effendi didn’t want to use the juxtaposition of old and new to tell the story of Maramures, though. “I wanted to pay homage to the fairy tale,” she said. “I wanted to show the purity of the landscape and the people living there.”

She recalled a day she spent with a shepherd, who took her to the tent in the mountains where he spent most of his time, grazing sheep. In the past, women had left him because he was always away. But without a wife, he couldn’t have a family to help him support a flock of his own.

“You know what?” he told Ms. Effendi. “If you ask me, ‘What would you choose today, women or sheep?’ I’d still choose sheep.’ ”

One woman she photographed, Maria, 23, was pregnant and working in the field when they met (Slide 7). She spoke more English than most villagers and told Ms. Effendi that she and her husband had spent a year in France, where he worked in construction. But she missed their home in the fields, which was made of cement and had a bathroom, and they returned.

In Maramures, Maria told Ms. Effendi, she has room for activity of the mind. People in France were preoccupied with the daily distractions of urban life, and they didn’t have any room left for “beautiful thoughts.”

Ms. Effendi cannot see herself adopting the Transylvanian lifestyle. “But escaping into that world for some periods of time is wonderful,” she said. “It’s replenishing.”

Follow @rena_effendi, @kerrimac and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook.

See more photos at the original article's website

Beware of the Spells: Magic Takes Over on Sânziene,
Romania’s Midsummer Night Celebration

Photo Source:

21 June 2013
Romania Insider
by Mariana Ganea

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in nights; Four nights will quickly dream away the time; And then the moon, like to a silver bow new bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”
― William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The summer has come and we’re getting closer and closer to the midsummer night. When I think about the midsummer I remember the Nordic pagan traditions which celebrate the summer solstice and the fascination on the folk tales. But, when I fall into the magic of the midsummer night, I often remember what Shakespeare wrote in his romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
Night and silence! Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear.
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid.
And here the maiden, sleeping sound
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw
All the power this charm doth owe.
When thou wakest, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid.
So awake when I am gone,
For I must now to Oberon.”

But, beyond all these I think about a very similar celebration in the Romanian tradition – the Sânziene night, on June 24.

The Sânziene is the Romanian folklore name for gentle fairies, and at the same time, the singular of the word Sânziana, is the name of a flower, but also a girl’s name. What is very interesting as etymology is the fact as the word is stands from San which is the common abbreviation of Saint and Zana as the usually word for fairies. Another potential interpretation of the word is the Latin Sancta Diana, the Roman goddess of hunt and moon, the guardian angel of virgins and women and which was annually celebrated in the Roman Empire region, Dacia.

Sânziene rituals have been known for ages on the present Romanian territory implying that beautiful maidens in the white traditional dresses who pick Sânziene flowers (Lady’s bedstraw, Yellow bedstraw, Galium verum) all day long on the eve of this celebration and make floral crowns. After the nightfall, the maidens wearing the braided floral crowns meet with their lovers and dance in the midnight around the bonfire. According to the folk tradition, then they throw the floral crowns over the houses and wherever they fall, it means that someone will die in that house. However, if the crown made of flowers stays on the roof of the house, then good harvest and wealth will be bestowed upon the owners. As with other bonfire celebrations, jumping over the embers after the bonfire is not raging anymore is done to purify the person and also to bring health.

Another folk belief is that during the Sânziene Eve night, the heavens open up, which makes it the strongest night for magic spells, especially for the love spells. Also it is said that the plants harvested during this night will have tremendous magical powers. The tradition says that the Sânziene fairies don’t like to be heard and seen by men in the Eve night, especially when they dance in the air, blessing the bodies and bestowing health for people. So, whoever (man) sees or hears them will be maimed or the fairies will take their hearing and speaking or worse, make them mad.

On the Sânziene night, in some areas of the country, people light a big wheel of hay from the ceremonial bonfire and push it down a hill, as a symbol for the setting sun, from the solstice to come and until the midwinter solstice when the days will be getting shorter.

On the same night, when the heavens are said to be opening, strange events, positive or negative may happen, and it is believed that in forests many weird things happen in the midsummer night.

All these folk traditions related to the Sânzine night fascinated not only the common people but Romanian writers and poets.

One of the best known novels based on the Sânzine night fairy tales is The Forbidden Forest written by Mircea Eliade (historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago, 1907-1986), where he describes paranormal events which happen in the Baneasa forest in the north of Bucharest during that night.

A Romanian novel with symbolical references to these beautiful and fascinating women is Camil Petrescu’s Jocul ielelor (The Iele’s play). In the Romanian mythology the “iele” are supernatural women who usually dance in the forests and other hidden places during the night and having – in many respects – similar features with Sânzienele, including their effect over men.

The Sânziene night celebration is similar to the Nordic midsummer holiday tradition of the pagan celebration of the summer solstice in June, but in Romania June 24 is a double celebration, on one hand the folk tradition of Sânziene and on the other, the Orthodox Church celebration of Saint John, who baptized Christ.

Mariana Ganea holds a PhD in Economics and she has been working in banking since 1991. Now, she is senior training consultant in banking and she is also freelancer authorized trainer in soft skills and financial banking techniques. She studied banking techniques, communication, sales, NPL, coaching and transactional analysis. She is passionate about education, travel, history, politics, music, reading, movies, cultural events and photography.

Wikipedia 21 June 2013

On this day...
1848 – In the Wallachian Revolution, Ion Heliade Rădulescu and Christian Tell proclaimed a new republican government.

Romania's Orphans: Young Adults Leave Horror Behind

20 June 2013
BBC News
by Tessa Dunlop
Siret, Romania

After Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, the world learned of the shocking conditions in which many children lived in the country's orphanages. More than 20 years later, those children are adults—and for some of them at least, life is far, far better than it was.

To arrive in Siret is to arrive at world's end.

The train from Bucharest—clatter-boom, clatter-boom, through the night—goes only as far as Suceava. An historic city mauled by the communists.

Immediately after the revolution of 1989 I travelled from here to Siret in an elusive taxi.

Now Catalin—with his own car hire firm and a canary yellow cap—waits for me at the station, ostentatiously dusting down his Vauxhall Astra.

The drive, hurtling between cabbages and corn, horses with their carts and a pink sky that crashes into the Moldavian plains, is a reminder of how far you have come from the dusty fug of Bucharest's Gara de Nord.

Siret was a quiet border town, spitting distance from the vast expanse of the USSR.

Change came abruptly in 1990, when its secret was exposed on an international stage. In a four-storey former Austrian army barracks, Romania hid its largest gulag for abandoned and disabled children, far away from the capital.

Communists did not cope well with imperfection.

In came the foreign do-gooders. The broken orphans learned to cry and Siret's entrepreneurs sourced German beer for their prestigious newcomers.

Some charities lasted the course—others moved on with the rolling tide of news but amidst the global opprobrium Siret and many of its abandoned young stayed put.

They are adults now. Few were adopted—it turns out Westerners do not cope well with imperfection either.

Eventually the barracks was abandoned.

The 100-plus adults unable to live independently were moved to another austere stone building—smaller this time with wire-nettings and landings overlooking a concrete court yard.

Dribs and drabs of foreign money have paid for new sheltered accommodation for the lucky few.

But more than 20 years after the revolution the most vulnerable adults still rock back and forth in a building that resembles a human hen coop.

When they saw us the young adults ran over, euphoric, anticipating attention, touching the camera, hugging me and the other visitors, keen for a small shard of love.

A reminder of what it used to be like when the foreigners came to play.

Two decades on and the familiar smell of sweat and wet stone walls has not gone away, nor the disturbing noises of those unable to express themselves.

But there is a key difference between now and then.

He is called Tibi Rotaru—a man with his clear kind blue eyes and a crumpled shirt. He was there to meet me.

A local lad of just 17 when the first wave of foreigners came, Tibi was roped in as a translator.

The volunteers had found their first and most-important ally.

He went on to Bucharest then Germany and Holland to study psychology, before eventually moving back to Siret and taking over responsibility for the orphans.

"Their lives were stolen from them, and still they don't have what they need" Tibi Rotaru

It is this unassuming man who has turned a small community once scarred by a legacy of child abuse into an oasis of tolerance.

The young adults now wander freely about the town, they sweep the church steps, cadge cigarettes and laugh with the locals.

You can spot the ones from the hospital, they are smaller than everyone else, even the able-bodied are hunched—despite their tender years they have haggard faces and their stumbling gait gives away the horror story that was their childhood.

Tibi shakes his head. "Their lives were stolen from them, and still they don't have what they need," he says.

His young adults, and make no mistake they are his—to watch him with them is to watch a father with an unruly loving brood—now have a bright shiny new home to move into.

The undignified rows of beds will at last be history.

"Of course," Tibi reminds us, "this building has been ready for over a year, sitting empty".

He knowingly points to the crow's feet in the corners of his eyes.

"I have travelled fortnightly to Bucharest in the hope of meeting a minister.

"A lot of funds have been spent on this project, but they couldn't find the money for a boiler."

He laughs: "How can I move the young people with no heating?"

But Tibi has the patience of a man born into a system he knows he must work with, not against.

Siret's young adults have now been told their new house will finally have heating and hot water.

In a town where the winter temperature drops -30C (-22F) Tibi has once again proved that dreams can come true—so long as you are prepared to wait 23 years.

New Bridge Over Danube Helps Dissolve Old Enmities

Construction workers put some finishing touches on a new bridge spanning the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania. Boryana Katsarova for The International Herald Tribune

14 June 2013
New York Times
by Matthew Brunwasser

VIDIN, Bulgaria—The European Union hardly basks in popular favor these days. But in this isolated corner of the bloc’s poorest periphery, leaders and locals on Friday celebrated a tangible benefit of membership—a $340 million bridge spanning the Danube that should help strengthen trade and ties between two impoverished members, Romania and Bulgaria.

Despite much history and present poverty in common, these two Balkan nations had to be prodded into negotiating the construction of the bridge, which began in 2007. Both prime ministers and the European Union’s commissioner for regional policy, Johannes Hahn, attended the opening ceremony, where Plamen Oresharski, the head of Bulgaria’s new government, joked: “I am sorry that this bridge has such a long history. We heard that the Romans built faster.”

Romania, population roughly 22 million, and Bulgaria, about 7 million, share a 290-mile border along the Danube that, until Friday, had just one bridge connecting them.

Under Communism, neither country was rich, but the collapse of their state-run economies deepened the impoverishment on both sides of the river and hastened depopulation. Vidin, which in bygone Ottoman days was a thriving river port, shipping agricultural produce along the Danube, has suffered the worst depopulation in Bulgaria, losing 16 percent of its residents in 2012 alone.

Across the river, the Romanian town of Calafat, population 18,000, has fared little better. Its central pedestrian street, recently fitted with new paving stones, remains sleepy.

Yet it took until 2000 for European officials to coax the two very different Balkan nations into talking about the bridge, largely because they could not agree on a location for it.

Romanians speak a language they prize as descended from Latin roots; Bulgarians are Slavs and in Communist times were derided as being so close to Moscow as to be the virtual 16th republic of the Soviet Union. Each country adheres to its own Orthodox church, and for decades were simply disinterested in each other.

Their shared status in European development post-cold war has gradually brought them closer, as they have discovered more in common.

Both joined NATO in 2004, and the European Union in 2007. European Union officials have since criticized both nations, the bloc’s poorest members, for corruption and organized crime—some of which originated in the Vidin region in the 1990s, when criminals helped smuggle oil and other goods into neighboring Serbia, which was under United Nations sanctions for its role in the Balkan wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia.

“The illusions we created about what enemies the Romanians are and how different they are have disappeared into dust,” Gergo Gergov, the 35-year-old mayor of Vidin, said in an interview in the 15-story, Communist-era municipal building, by far Vidin’s tallest.

“We have stopped acting like we are locked up alone,” Mr. Gergov observed. “We have seen that there are other people around and have started to get to know them, to interact, trade, travel and work with each other.”

The bridge, he said, is “the biggest event in the modern history of the region.”

Vidin—which has a population of 63,000, down from 90,000 during the Communist era—could use the help. Its center, replete with decaying architecture from 19th-century glory days, offers some exotic sights for visitors who disembark every summer day from luxurious Danube cruise ships. A balmy river breeze spreads the sweet smell of linden through the city. But Vidin remains the poorest city and region in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member state with average monthly wages of 400 euros, or about $574.

The common market offered by European Union membership has catalyzed trade and business: trade between Bulgaria and Romania totaled 3.5 billion euros, or about $5 billion, in 2011, up from 900 million euros in 2005, about $1.09 billion at the time.

Ovidiu Cernatescu, 45, a Romanian from Craiova who started a metal construction business in Vidin two years ago and sells 90 percent of his product in Romania, is confident of further expansion and relishes the protection offered by European Union trade rules rather than capriciously applied local justice. “I’ve been waiting for the bridge like the coming of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Ten years ago, Mr. Cernatescu said, Romanians had heard only negative news about Bulgaria as a country where former Communists still held sway. Now, Romanians enjoy it as a cheaper, nice place to visit and trade, he said.

Bulgarian businesspeople in the region like Kostas Grivov, who employs 100 workers in two factories processing nuts and dried fruit, are expecting a short-term boom in tourism, shopping and investment.

Mr. Grivov, who is also Romania’s honorary consul in Vidin, said the bridge would halve his transport costs and greatly increase the speed and reliability of supplies and deliveries. The sole way to Romania had been an unreliable ferry that crosses only when it fills with cars.

In Calafat, the deputy mayor, Dorel Mituletu, sits in a restored late-19th century mansion that might be the envy of his Vidin counterparts. He welcomed the bridge, but said he feared merchants in his town would lose out to Vidin, where prices are 20 to 25 percent lower.

He also voiced concern about what he saw as difficult and complex procedures required to secure European Union financing for local projects—processes that have become stricter because of concerns about corruption and mismanagement.

“Romanians are not accustomed to begging,” he said. “Despite what the rest of Europe might think of us.”

New Bridge Opening on River Danube

14 June 2013
BBC News
by Nick Thorpex

A long-awaited new road and railway bridge across the River Danube is opening with great ceremony between Vidin, Bulgaria, and Calafat, Romania.

At 1,791m (5,876ft), arching 43m above the water, it is one of the longest on the Danube, and only the fourth on the lower reaches of the river.

Bulgarians hope it will revitalise the neglected north-west of their country.

Romanians fear losing precious road usage tolls from lorries on old routes close to their capital Bucharest.

The new structure adds to existing bridges at Cernavoda, between Ruse and Giurgiu, and between Vadu Oii and Harsova.

For the European Commission, which provided the lion's share of funding, the new bridge is a significant piece in the jigsaw puzzle of "transport corridors" designed to stimulate growth and opportunity across an open continent.

Short cut

Ilia Iordanov, whose office is on the main road out of Vidin, has a fleet of 70 lorries, 16 Danube freight ships and four barges in his company, Fanty-G Transport.

"Crossing this bridge," he explained, "will take 500km off the route for lorries from south-east Europe and the Middle East to Western Europe."

Most importantly, he said, it will help the closer integration of rail, road, and river transport - one of the key EU objectives.

"I believe it will also encourage Macedonia and Serbia to lower their road tolls," he added.

At the moment on the old "diesel road" through the Balkans - the shortest of the options for freight from the Port of Piraeus - lorries wait for days crossing out of the EU from Greece into Macedonia, and several more days crossing back into it from Serbia to Hungary.

"So much of the cost of goods lies in the transport," Mr Iordanov said.

"I'm deeply convinced that some of the new wealth travelling past Vidin will stay here, and bring investment to the area."

He waxed lyrical about the local soil, the excellence of vegetables and fruit grown here in communist times and how the bridge would re-connect north-west Bulgaria to markets far and wide.

New business

In the bus station in Vidin, Krassimira Senova shared his enthusiasm.

Her Eurotouring company has promised its customers that the first coach on their new Vidin to Craiova route will roll over the bridge at dawn on Saturday.

Only 84km away, many Bulgarian students go to university in Craiova but until now they faced the dilemma of either an expensive ferry crossing or a huge detour, to cross the old Friendship Bridge at Ruse, then double back.

"Students will be able to get to school in little more than an hour, instead of half a day," Ms Senova said.

She was also planning new routes to Timisoara and tourist excursions to Dracula's castle in Bran.

In a part of Bulgaria where everyone counts their stotinky - the smallest unit of the leva currency - she calculated that the bridge would enable her to cut between 50 euros (Ł42; $67) and 100 off the price of a week's excursion per person, whether to Transylvania, or to Paris.

In the carpentry workshop he shares with his mother and father inside the Ottoman-era fortress of Baba Vida in Vidin, Ognian Evgeniev explained that taking a lorryload of his chipboard furniture to Craiova cost 350 euros before the bridge was built.

Now it will be barely more than the diesel cost for the 180km round route.

His parents Veni and Iliana make beechwood childrens' swings, cots and toys. Veni gave up his job as a television repairman ten years ago, when he saw a niche for himself in the children's toy market in Bulgaria. Now he hopes for the same success in Romania.


Sitting at a cafe, close to the pretty Danube shoreline in Vidin, with its ice-cream stalls and fish restaurants, the head of the chamber of commerce, Krassimir Kirilov, sounded a note of caution.

"It's twenty years since many people in this region had a job," he said.

"Many young people have left the area. We are not yet in a position to offer investors a skilled workforce."

He saw the best chance in turning Vidin into a transport hub. Transformed from a backwater into a road, rail and river crossroads, it could become a centre for spare parts from all over Europe, he suggested.

On the edge of town, an old industrial estate stands gaunt and empty, offering unlimited space to would-be investors.

"I don't think we should pretend that this is the missing link of a well-structured, ready-built network," said Shirin Wheeler, spokeswoman for regional development at the European Commission.

"There isn't one motorway, for example, that links Romania and Bulgaria at the moment. But it will provide a real impetus."

The Truly Hidden Treasures of Transylvania

The main living room in the "Green House," in the village of Copsa Mare, Romania. It was the first property bought by Giovanna and Paolo Bassetti in the village.

13 June 2013
New York Times
by Palko Karasz

COPSA MARE, Romania—Transylvania, with its dense forests and green hills at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, is for only the boldest of house hunters.

There are properties for sale, but sometimes they are not easy to locate. Land records can be difficult to check. It is hard to find skilled laborers for restorations. And some remote villages in this historic area in central Romania are only accessible by sport utility vehicle.

Giovanna and Paolo Bassetti say they destroyed two Land Rovers in their yearlong search for just the right property. But after visiting around 30 villages, in 2005 they finally found what they were looking for in this peaceful hamlet, which is dominated by a 14th-century fortified church and stands at the edge of a vast forest on the Tarnava Plateau.

The Bassettis paid the state the equivalent of €20,000, or what is today $26,000, for a farmhouse built around 1850. The purchase also cost an additional €6,000 for lawyers’ fees and administrative and legal charges.

The building was “rotten and collapsing,” Ms. Bassetti said, and renovations of what they now call the Green House took a year.

While Mr. Bassetti was doing business in Bucharest, Ms. Bassetti returned to the work site once a week to supervise the local crews. As Ms. Bassetti is an environmental consultant, she ensured that traditional but ecologically suitable materials were used.

The €200,000 renovation created a total of 450 square meters, or 4,844 square feet, of living space. The house and barn were merged, and some of the interior rooms were combined into bright, open areas. The stable, a freestanding building, became the two children’s bedrooms.

From the street, the house has a traditional Saxon appearance: walls built of stone and red brick and a roof of red tile; chalk and sand were used instead of concrete where possible.

The common spaces and the compound’s total of five bedrooms and four bathrooms kept much of their original features, like exposed oak beams. The rest was refurbished in pastel colors and with rustic furnishings. “We have lived in many places and houses and always liked to be surrounded by nice things,” Ms. Bassetti said by e-mail. “I love harmony in spaces, light, nature and objects.”

The project turned out so well and the allure of preserving an old home proved to be so strong that, over the years, the couple have bought nine other houses in the village.

Three of the structures have been refurbished as guesthouses, using many of the same local workers. But, Ms. Bassetti noted, she became more experienced and was able to have the work done for €80,000 to €140,000 per house. (Real estate and major expenses usually are priced in euros rather than lei, the local currency, even though the government acknowledged in April that it does not have a target date to adopt the euro.)

Now the Bassettis are based in Brazil and the children are older. But Ms. Bassetti returns to Transylvania a couple of times a year to check the guesthouses and supervise continuing repairs, and the family comes for a two-week vacation. The rest of the time their house and the three refurbished homes are rented to tourists, whose vacation spending has joined agriculture as an economic engine for the region.

Ms. Bassetti has the rest of the houses up for sale, but only to buyers who promise to renovate them in a traditional manner. (She is willing to manage the work for a fee, and then rent the completed residence as part of her guesthouse group.)

One of the properties is the “Red House,” named for its salmon exterior. Built in 1789, as a carving in the original wooden beams shows, it has been restored completely. It has two bedrooms and bathrooms within 140 square meters, with a 2,000-square-meter garden. Official permission is being sought to permit reconstruction of the barn, which with €150,000 to €180,000 in renovations would add a living and kitchen area and two bedrooms to the structure.

Some people think of Transylvania as a place out of time. Part of Austria-Hungary until the end of World War I, its current population of about 6.5 million is mostly made up of Romanians, Saxons and ethnic Hungarians.

The mix of languages is upheld by local law, with minority populations of a certain size guaranteed that their languages will be presented alongside the official Romanian. For example, in Miclosoara, west of Brasov, the main street is labeled Strada Principala, which is Romanian, as well as Fo Utca, which is Hungarian.

The linguistic split has resonance with Count Tibor Kalnoky, who was born in Germany and raised in France after his family fled the village in the early 20th century.

In 1997 he began restoring the two dozen buildings on his family’s estate here. “This has been my life ever since,” the count said, speaking in Hungarian. “Battles, problem solving and constantly untangling situations.”

His most well-known achievement has been in a small village nearby, at the end of a bumpy country road—a place called Valea Zalanului in Romanian and Zalanpatak in Hungarian.

There, starting in 2008, the count began restoration of three wooden cottages and a stable that Prince Charles of Britain bought that year as a nature retreat.

The prince, who is an outspoken supporter of environmental causes and the protection of cultural heritage, has been coming to the spot for about a week each year, most recently this month. The rest of the time the count rents the cottages to tourists, and the income is used to finance additional restoration. (Renovations still are being completed on one of the houses.)

Each of the painted wooden cottages, which are about 200 years old, have sitting areas, bedrooms and bathrooms; the prince’s own cottage has three bedrooms with en suite baths. The stable, made of brick and stone, now houses a central living and dining room and a communal kitchen.

The count, echoing Ms. Bassetti, said it was difficult to find the right workmen for the project. For example, many local builders now use windows framed in plastic or metal rather than the traditional wooden ones, and concrete rather than red brick and stone. But over the years, he has gathered a group. “They always tell me that I am their eyes and they are my hands,” he said.

Despite the complications, the count says he has enjoyed the work. And “it would be good if more foreigners showed interest” in properties in the region, he added — as long as the influx did not push up prices so severely that locals could no longer afford to live in their own communities.

Queen Marie of Romania

Regina Maria a Romaniei

7 June 2013
Radio Romania International

Writer and analyst Stelian Tanase, president of the “Orient Expres” Foundation, makes a portrait of Queen Marie:

“She was coming from England, she was half British, half Russian, with such great forerunners as the Czar and Queen Victoria. And here she comes, in the middle of nowhere, so to say, in a world that was completely unknown to her and that she didn’t understand. But even so, from the very beginning we see the signs of what Queen Marie was to become.”

Marie Alexandra Victoria, chosen at the age of 17 to be the future Queen of Romania, was born on October 29th, 1875, in Eastwell Park, the daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and of Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. Marie got married to Ferdinand of Hohenzollern, crown prince of Romania, on December 29th, 1892, and the two were crowned in 1914. Here is Dinu Zamfirescu, president of the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism:

“This young woman who came to a country she knew nothing about, managed to earn everybody’s respect, thanks to her powerful personality. She played a great part in persuading her husband, King Ferdinand, to be on the side of the Allies in World War I, somehow against the wishes of the late King Carol I, who had made an alliance with the Central Powers.”

Queen Marie was dubbed “Mother of the Wounded” and “Mother of Soldiers” thanks to her active role during WWI, when she could be seen both on the front line and in hospitals, to ease the suffering of soldiers. Here is Dinu Zamfirescu again:

“We should also remember the important part she played in the Peace Conference in Versailles in 1919, and how she pleaded the cause of Romania in the USA, whose president, Woodrow Wilson, was not necessarily a friend of Romania.”

Talking about that period, historian Ion Bulei explains:

“Marie is the one who talked to Clemenceau, the one who represented France at the Peace Conference in Versailles. Clemenceau said: ‘I’ll take my hat off to the Romanian people, but not before the Romanian politicians,’ but Marie replied: ‘How little you know us, Mr. Clemenceau!’ Marie was also the one who arranged a meeting between the then Prime Minister of Romania, Ionel Bratianu, and Wilson, and in that meeting she was also their translator, because Wilson did not speak French and Bratianu could not say a word in English. At that time, in Paris, Marie played a key role for Romania.”

In addition, Queen Marie was involved in the cultural-artistic life of Romania. She was particularly attached to two places, on which she left her unique mark and of which she used to say, “Balcic and Bran are my dream homes, they are my heart.”

She is said to have discovered Balcic, a small town on the north-eastern Bulgarian border thanks to painter Alexandru Satmari (1872-1933) who convinced the queen to visit the place in 1924. One year later, she began the building of the property in Balcic. Historian Ion Bulei explains:

“Balcic is more than a residence built by Queen Marie. There’s also a church there, called Stella Maris, where her heart is buried. She also built a cactus garden there, which is still the biggest of its kind in Europe. She basically developed that town. She saw in it what the painters saw, a town where light can change every two hours, something they captured in their canvases.”

The town hall allotted land to the artists who used to come to Balcic every summer to paint, artists who started building houses there.

Queen Marie was a fascinating person, with her own individual lifestyle, as can be seen in Balcic. She collected and even created art works and would decorate the interiors and exteriors of her dwellings, being one of the promoters of the Art Nouveau style.

In 1933, when drafting her will, Queen Marie expressed her wish that, after her death, her heart be laid to rest in the small chapel, Stella Maris, that she had built on the Black Sea Coast, and her body be entombed in Curtea de Arges, next to her husband, Ferdinand, and the other members of the royal family. The chest carrying Queen Marie’s heart is now in the custody of the National History Museum, in Bucharest. Fully understanding her role and mission during those times, when she stood out as a Queen deeply involved in promoting Romania, Queen Marie wrote her memoirs between 1914 and 1936. Written in English, they were published between 1934 and 1936, under the title of “The Story of My Life”. The book was later translated into Romanian.

Queen Marie’s ardent wish to win the respect of her people emerges from the book. Marie wanted to be loved and she was loved indeed. Ion Bulei has further details:

Marie’s words in her will: ’It is not for me to judge you, I’ve loved you’ disclose much of her feelings, of a caring person which made her become a Romanian by heart.”

Queen Marie’s biography also mentions a gesture rounding off her unique personality: on March 26th 1926, on Annunciation day, Queen Marie converted to Orthodoxy. Queen Marie did more for the Romanian people than hundreds of diplomats, ministers and presidents.

When Mighty Danube Floods, Europe Is Shaken

6 June 2013
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP)—The mighty Danube is not the only river in Europe bursting its banks this week, but it packs the biggest punch.

Winding 2,850 kilometers (1,777 miles) across 10 nations, the Danube is the second-longest river on the continent, making its way from Germany's Black Forest to the Black Sea bordering Romania and Ukraine. Only the Volga in Russia is longer.

In the last decade alone, the Danube has been at the center of two major floods, several devastating droughts and a winter cold snap that froze the vital waterway for hundreds of miles. Its bridges have been bombed by NATO, its waters have been temporarily poisoned by toxic chemical spills, and yet it still provides drinking water for millions.

Immortalized by Johann Strauss in his "Blue Danube" waltz, the river is closer now to a murky green. From fishermen in prehistoric times to modern industries, many have harnessed its power for energy and transport, while derivatives of its present name go back to Celtic, Roman and Thracian times. It has inspired works by musicians as diverse as classical composer Richard Wagner, American satirists Spike Jones and his City Slickers and even the German industrial metal band Rammstein.

This week, however, the Danube is in its bad-boy mode.

The river reached heights not seen in over 500 years in the German city of Passau before surging downstream to crash through a levee in the southern village of Deggendorf. Dozens of village residents had to be airlifted to safety Wednesday by helicopters. On Thursday, the river smashed through another levee, engulfing entire neighborhoods in the same village.

"We would have risked our lives had we stayed at home," Deggendorf resident Hans Loefflmann said, adding that he and his wife had to leave all their valuables behind when the floods gushed into their house within minutes.

Those living in Passau, meanwhile, were glum, facing football fields of mud, uprooted trees, demolished cars and flood-wracked furnishings to clear away.

At least 16 people have died in the flooding of the Danube and Elbe rivers in central Europe this week and at least four others are missing. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in the region, including over 700 in the eastern German city of Dresden, where the Elbe crested Thursday at 7 meters (21 feet) above normal levels.

For residents of Budapest, the Danube River is a source of pride and wonder, its waters providing an imposing setting for the city it divides in two—Buda on the right bank and Pest on the left. But now the Hungarian capital is now in a state of emergency, bracing for the river's raging floodwaters, which have already caused havoc upriver in Germany and Austria.

The Danube is normally around 370 meters (400 yards) wide as it passes the city's imposing Hungarian parliament building. Now its waters are lapping at the back steps of the neo-Gothic structure and cover large sections of the heavily used roads on both sides of the river.

Authorities are confident that the Budapest embankments, which date to the 1870s, will withstand the Danube's current assault, expected to peak here on Monday. Yet several hundred guests at hotels on low-lying Margaret Island, a popular park in the river, have already been evacuated.

"I had to find another place for my running routine, but at least here in the city the walls on the river are high," said Monika Pele, a physical education student who usually jogs around Margaret Island. "Actually, the Danube is beautiful when it's this wide."

Hungarians are well aware of the destruction the Danube can cause. A flood in 1838 killed more than 150 Budapest residents and left at least 50,000 homeless. Memorial plaques high on city walls, some hundreds of meters (yards) from the river, indicate just high the waters rose.

In the Austrian capital of Vienna, the Danube peaked Wednesday at levels above those of the 2002 floods that devastated Europe. The city's extensive protection system held, however, although the highway to the airport was temporarily inundated.

Floods are not the Danube's only problem.

A severe drought hit the region in 2011, stranding 80 big cargo ships on the Danube at the Serbia-Hungary border and causing sunken German World War II-era ships to break the surface of the water. In Romania that year, the Danube's water levels were so low there was concern about not having enough water to cool the reactors in the nuclear power plant in Cernavoda, which produces 20 percent of the country's electricity.

In 2003, another lengthy dry spell caused by a lack of rainfall and high temperatures lowered the Danube's levels so much that the river had to be dredged in Romania to allow hundreds of stalled barges to pass.

Last year, a deep freeze produced huge ice chunks and froze over hundreds of miles (kilometers) in the Danube, paralyzing the shipping of raw materials, coal, grains and other goods.

Natural disasters have alternated with man-made calamities to threaten the river and those who depend on it.

The 1999 bombing of several bridges over the river in northern Serbia by NATO forces during the Kosovo War paralyzed shipping on the waterway. It was years before the debris was hauled out of the river and navigation fully restored.

In 2000, the Danube suffered a bout of cyanide poisoning, when a spill at a Romanian gold mine flowed into its tributaries. The toxic waste killed off most of the fish and plants along stretches of the Tisza River in Hungary. Although most of its power was diluted by the time it reached the Danube, some measurements showed concentrations of cyanide at 50 times over the maximum levels.

Another spill in 2010 of red toxic sludge—a byproduct of aluminum production at a plant in western Hungary—killed 10 people after flooding three towns and reached the Danube through tributaries. Fortunately, the highly caustic waste was greatly diluted by the Danube's abundant flow.

Now, Hungarian authorities are making sure the red sludge tragedy isn't repeated in the town of Almasfuzito, which sits on the Danube just across from Slovakia and has its own red-waste reservoir.

Zoltan Illes of the ministry of rural development said there would be round-the-clock surveillance at the 74-hectare (184-acre) reservoir until Saturday, when the flood threat is expected to pass.

"Building a red sludge reservoir on the shores of the Danube was a very bad decision made decades ago during the communist regime," Illes said after visiting the site. "Since we don't have a time machine, it's a fact we have to live with."

AP writers Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, George Jahn and Noura Mann in Vienna, David Rising in Berlin and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

Treatment Still Harsh for Roma in France

3 June 2013
New York Times
by Steven Erlanger

PARIS—In the last three weeks alone, the French police have dismantled Roma encampments in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, and along the Var River west of Nice. In Lyon, 200 Roma were temporarily housed in a gymnasium when someone set fire to their squat in a disused factory, killing two women and a 12-year-old.

President François Hollande’s Socialist government came into office a year ago promising a better deal for the Roma, also known as Gypsies, an end to the shantytowns and the rehousing and integration of those displaced. But like other promises, including a return to economic growth, reality has been a recalcitrant political partner.

Having criticized the previous center-right government of Nicolas Sarkozy for being careless with individual rights and flirting with the anti-immigrant far right, the Hollande government has done little to change policy toward the Roma. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, who has been praised for his organizational ability and toughness, has expelled at least as many non-French Roma as his predecessor and continues to order the police to dismantle illegal camps and shantytowns, without rehousing most of those displaced.

On Jan. 1, the rules will change, as Romanians and Bulgarians, seven years after entering the European Union, will have the same right to travel and work in member countries as others in the union. But that will not make them more welcome—most illegal Roma immigrants come from those two nations. Fanned by anti-immigrant and nationalist parties of the right and far right all over Europe, the coming change has led to new fears of a large influx of poor workers and criminals seeking to take jobs from citizens and benefit from lavish social welfare systems.

“In principle, things are different in France, but in practice, things are pretty much the same,” said Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. “We expected a different approach, to reduce social exclusion and economic problems, instead of taking a problem and moving it from one place to another.”

The complexity and tragedy of the problem are easily seen here in Paris at the Gare du Nord, one of the busiest transportation hubs in France. Near the third glass door from the left of the older building, young Roma men hover. Small, thin, often wearing bright clothing like green pants or a pink scarf, the men are prostitutes, looking for work or waiting for prearranged rendezvous.

Some are as young as 14, though they insist they are older; some are 16 and married, sometimes with children. They come from a community around Craiova, in south-central Romania. They troll the station to earn a living, which they say gets them about 100 euros a day, or $130.

A young man named Ruset said he was 19 and had left Romania as a child. He and his friends, like Bogdan, 17, and Gutsa, 17, whose wife is pregnant, “do business” at the station, he said; they live in a shantytown in a forest east of Paris, near the Noisy-Champs station on the suburban railway line. None wanted to have their family names used.

“France is terrible for us,” Ruset said, watching for the police, whom he called “superracist, hassling us all the time.” Echoing many of France’s estimated 20,000 noncitizen Roma, he said: “I would like to stay in Romania, but there is no chance to work there. France I liked well at the start, but today things are very hard.”

Despite the coming change in the rules, expulsions from France are increasing. In 2012, an election year, 12,841 citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, nearly all of them Roma, were deported from France, compared with 10,841 in 2011, an increase of 18.4 percent; 9,529 were deported in 2010, according to the Interior Ministry.

While the Sarkozy government provided airfare home and 300 euros for every adult and 100 euros for each child to induce a “voluntary” repatriation, the Hollande government called the system perverse and wasteful. But Paris still provides 50 euros per adult and 30 euros per child, Mr. Valls has said, while emphasizing that France is instead financing “80 microprojects” in Romania “to improve living conditions.”

Guillaume Lardanchet is the director of Hors la Rue, a Paris-based organization that works with young Roma and other foreign minors in trouble. “Valls reproduces the same security strategy as Sarkozy,” he said. “We haven’t seen a concrete difference compared with the old government.”

Robert A. Kushen, the chairman of the European Roma Rights Center, agreed that Mr. Hollande “has really continued the policies of his predecessor.” Under pressure from the European Union, France introduced “some cosmetic changes to the law, but the substance hasn’t changed,” he said.

Perhaps even odder, he said, the government is pursuing its expulsions even though the rules will soon change. Although Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, special restrictions were put in place requiring their citizens to obtain work permits, and only in certain industries, within three months of visa-free entry or leave France. The Hollande government eliminated a special tax on employers for each person hired, but with France in a triple-dip recession and unemployment high, jobs are scarce.

A recent joint letter to the European Council and European Commission from the interior ministers of Britain, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands asked for new penalties against those who travel across visa-free borders to “abuse” social welfare systems. Citing support for freedom of travel, the four wrote: “We are equally committed to preventing and combating the fraudulent use of the right of free movement by union citizens or by third-country nationals abusing free movement rights in order to circumvent national immigration controls” to prevent “excessive strain on the social systems of the receiving societies.”

The politicians have also focused on petty crime, like pickpocketing and the theft of smartphones, which they associate with Roma. Recently, the Louvre was shut down for a day in protest because groups of young men were harassing staff members and visitors. (The museum is free for those under 18.) The Louvre now has a warning on its Web site about pickpockets.

The police support Mr. Valls. “We salute the firmness of Mr. Valls in his Roma policy,” said Christophe Crépin of the main police union, UNSA Police. “These are people who sell themselves, who racketeer, who construct criminal networks, and their way of life is totally incompatible with that of our modern societies.”

The legal limbo for Romania and Bulgaria has been bad for the Roma, said Alexandre Le Clčve, a former director of Hors la Rue and member of Romeurope, associations that work in six countries to improve the health and lives of Roma. “Paradoxically, their situation has worsened since the entry of Romania into the European Union,” he said. “The Roma lost certain rights, like state medical aid, that they had as non-E.U. foreigners.”

The new rules, Mr. Le Clčve said, “will put into relief all the contradictions of this government.” In the United States, he said, “people talk of regularizing immigrants. Not here.”

At the Gare du Nord, Ruset said he would prefer to return to Romania. “But there is no work, and here there is plenty,” he said. “There you earn 15 euros a day, if that, and here at least 50 to 100.”

In the forest, he and his extended family have built cabins of discarded wood. There is no running water. Asked about toilets, he laughed and said, “It’s a big forest.”

Mr. Le Clčve, who speaks Roma and has worked with these young men, said Roma were often denied housing, in part because they are dark-skinned and so recognizable. “The problem is that they are very visible,” he said. “But, institutionally, they’re invisible.”

Pierre Desorgues contributed reporting

Prince Charles Returns to Romania for Private Visit
to His Transylvanian Guest Houses

31 May 2013
Romania Insider

Already a regular in Romania’s region of Transylvania, Prince Charles (in picture, right), the heir to the British throne, arrived at the Targu Mures airport in central Romania yesterday (Thursday, May 30), heading to the houses he owns in the region, according to local media. He went to Micloşoara in Covasna county, to the residence of Count Kalnoky Tibor, where he usually spends time when in Romania. According to local sources, he was to spend Friday night in the village Valea Zălanului, where he owns two restored properties.

The prince arrived by a private charter flight to Targu Mures airport, where the airport manager and representatives of the British Embassy to Romania greeted him. This is a private visit, and the prince is expected to visit the village Archita, to where the prince’s foundation in Romania will move its office. The village of Viscri, where the prince also owns several guest houses, is also included in the visit schedule.

According to Romanian media, his last visit to Romania was in June last year. Prince Charles is a supporter of Romania, having recently appeared in a documentary called Wild Carpathia, and should appear in another episode of the documentary series about Romania. Prince Charles has become something of a spokesman internationally for Transylvania. During the interview, the Prince talks about his family connection with the infamous medieval ruler, Vlad Tepes, known to the world as Vlad the Impaler. Prince Charles also speaks of his great interest in Transylvania during the film.

The Prince, who has been visiting Romania regularly since 1997, started buying properties in rural Romania, restoring them and turning them into guesthouses. The property at Viscri is one of the best known.

Fight to Get Back Homes is Legacy of Romania's Communist Past

28 May 2013
by Luiza Ilie

* New law seeks to pay back all dispossessed owners

* Romania trails other states in tackling past

* Old mentalities weigh on economy, frustrate investors

BUCHAREST, May 28 (Reuters)—Mihail and Valeriu Nitu spent 12 years fighting bureaucracy, corrupt officials and murky legislation to win compensation for their childhood home, which had been confiscated by Romania's former communist government.

By then, the government had suspended all payments.

The Nitus are among thousands of Romanians still waiting for the return of their property or compensation nearly 25 years after the fall of communism.

"Every government has come up with its own laws and has stalled for time," said Valeriu Nitu, 73. "I hope we will get the money in this lifetime, since there isn't much of it left."

Land ownership is still disputed, many communist-era officials remain in power, and inefficiency and corruption are entrenched. All that delays the move to a fully open economy to match other central European countries, much to the frustration of investors such as restitution fund Fondul Proprietatea .

With the exception of Poland, which deals with individual claims in court, former communist central European countries have restitution laws. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all largely completed the process.

But Romania has dragged its feet, compensating only some 15 percent of all claims but spending billions of euros in the process. The European Court of Human Rights, which has a backlog of cases against Bucharest, pushed it to adopt a new law in May.

Romania aims for full restoration—further straining a tight budget after a recession—but while the new law states property will be returned or replaced where possible, it also says cash for unsolved cases will be paid in tranches from 2017.

The Nitus' case shows the system at its cumbersome worst. They filed their claim in 2000 and went to court in 2010.

The court ruled in 2012 the family was entitled to 1.2 million euros for the sturdy brick house and 3,000 square metre yard, some of which was received for their grandfather's service in World War I, which was torn down in the 1980s to build drab apartment blocks. They have one other claim pending since 1998.

"That court trial we won was just for practice, so that we won't lose our touch," said Calin Ispravnic, the Nitus' lawyer, who heads a restitution organisation.


Up to two million Romanians are believed to have been killed, imprisoned, deported or relocated under communism and the country still bears the scars of Nicolae Ceausescu's repressive regime.

Swathes of old Bucharest were torn down to make way for his colossal, marble-clad parliament building.

Though it is now in the European Union, Romania is still in transition to a market economy and governments have failed to privatise large energy and transport firms that are inefficiently run, something the International Monetary Fund wants addressed before completing an aid agreement.

Romania ranks 116 from 144 states by institutional strength in the World Economic Forum's competitiveness report, far behind neighbours Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

The $4.4 billion Fondul Proprietatea - managed by emerging markets veteran Mark Mobius's Franklin Templeton—has pressed heavily for reform. Set up to compensate victims of communism, it holds stakes in many state-run companies and is pushing for more sales and better governance, with mixed success.

According to the Fiscal Council, an independent watchdog, Romania had 645 state-owned companies in 2011, accounting for only 6 percent of the economy but a third of all unpaid debts.

"The political establishment here still has a very big role in these companies, so it makes it more and more difficult to reform," Mobius told Reuters. "You meet these government people, they are young people but they are sticking to old ideas."


Many communist-era officials still hold prominent positions, even though current President Traian Basescu sought to draw a line in a 2006 speech which condemned the regime.

Basescu has been accused of allegedly collaborating with the Securitate secret police and was cleared by officials after its archives were opened. That was when many Romanians found close family and friends had spied on them.

Former President Ion Iliescu—who took part in the 1989 overthrow of Ceausescu that some claim was an internal party coup—is influential in the governing Social Democrat party.

Dan Voiculescu, a former senator whose family owns a media trust, was elected despite records showing he collaborated with the feared Securitate, as have several other lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

Fighting for property is so complicated that many plaintiffs sold their claims to others, who then made a quick profit. Government data showed one case went for $35,000 to an unnamed third party and was soon after settled for $69 million.

The 1900th Birthday of a Timeless and Important Monument for
Romanian History: Trajan’s Column

Trajan Column Site

24 May 2013
Romania Insider
by Ana Soviany

Guest writer Ana Soviany puts the spotlight on a monument located in Rome, but which is crucially important in the history of the Romanian people: Trajan’s Column.

As it is the case with almost all things related to our own ancient history, we as Romanians don’t really know much about Trajan’s Column. Sure, Romanians vaguely remember textbook stories on Decebalus and the Dacian wars, but the truth is that most of us never actually felt the need to ask “what on Earth is that Column thing and why should we care?”

Firstly, the facts: the Column was completed by May 113, 7 years after the ending of the war between the Dacians, the ancient inhabitants of today’s Romania, and the Roman Empire ruled at the time by Emperor Trajan—who emerged triumphant from the war. The monument, which is 30 meters high and built by Apolodor of Damascus, was meant to be a visual depiction of the wars, but also to serve as a dignifying final resting place for Trajan. According to historical documents, after his death in 117, Trajan’s ashes where buried in the monument’s base, but have since gone missing. However, the Column is still in excellent shape. Though the rest of the Trajan’s Forum (the architectural complex built in Rome after the Dacian wars) is mainly a ruin, the Column is almost intact, and it still clearly shows the bas-reliefs of Dacian and Roman soldiers.

It should be noted that the Column was erected at a time considered to be a peak of Roman art. Maybe that’s why, apart from being a historically meaningful monument, the Column has had, across the ages, an enormous impact on world art.

Among the artists who studied the Column and created works inspired by it were huge figures like Michelangelo, Raphael and Rubens. Michelangelo is actually noted to have said in awe: “There is only one Trajan’s Column!” Also, surrealist master Salvador Dali is believed to have said that, in order to have a better understanding of the world, people should rather study Trajan’s Column than reading the all so different kind of columns, those found in a newspaper.

Since its completion, the Column has inspired the design of some of the world’s best known monuments: Nelson’s Column in London, Colonne Vendôme in Paris and the Washington Monument is Baltimore, USA, among many others.

Surprisingly enough, art is still influenced by the Column. Even now, 1900 years after the monument’s completion, there are still artists who create works inspired by the Column. A selection of these works, made by Romanian artists, can be found here.

Why should we care about a column erected 1900 ago? Because history is part of our cultural heritage and thus part of who we are.

Also, we don’t get the chance to say “Happy 1900th birthday!” too often, do we?

The Association for Contemporary Cultural Identity is organizing an anniversary gala dedicated to Trajan’s Column. The event will take place on Friday, the 24th of May, at ArCuB Showroom (Batistei 14), from 6.30 PM. For more information on the Column, you can visit (Romanian only).

Ana Soviany, guest writer

Ethan Hawke to Attend Premiere of Latest Movie Before Midnight
at OvidiuRo’s Fundraiser Event in Romania

Ethan Hawke & Julie Deply (source: Before Midnight Facebook page)

22 May 2013
Romania Insider
by Irina Popescu

American actor Ethan Hawke and film director Richard Linklater will be in Bucharest on June 26 to attend the fundraising event Before It’s Too Late, organized by the charitable association OvidiuRo, and premiere their latest film, Before Midnight.

This fundraising event organized at Palatul Copiilor in Bucharest will support OvidiuRo’s Fiecare Copil in Gradinţa (Every child in kindergarten) program, co-founded by the American actor’s mother, Leslie Hawke and by Maria Gheorghiu. The event supports early education for all, within OvidiuRO’s long-term goal of making early education a standard public policy in Romania. More about the event here. Tickets cost EUR 35 (RON 150) and can be purchased online here.

Ethan Hawke, the two-time Academy Award nominee, is a board member of The Alex Fund and a long-standing supporter of the NGO that his mother and Maria Gheorghiu founded in Romania, Asociatia OvidiuRo. He previously came to Romania on the occasion of Ovidiu Ro’s Halloween Balls. Actor Hawke is also a writer and director, and is known for his appearance is movies such as Gattaca, Hamlet, Reality BitesBefore the Devil Knows You’re Dead, among others. Before Midnight is a third part of a series which includes Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Hawke plays alongside Julie Deply (both in picture). “Each of the “Before” movies is a window onto a stage of life, sharply attuned to the possibilities and disappointments of one’s 20s, 30s and 40s,” according to a NY Times review.

Leslie Hawke and Maria Gheorghiu started in 2001 with several programs in Bacau to help families in extreme poverty become better equipped to support themselves. They established Asociatia Ovidiu Rom in 2004 and expanded the programs to Bucharest. In 2010, OvidiuRo initiated Fiecare copil în grădiniţă program inviting mayors across Romania to apply for a grant to help them get every impoverished child in their community age 4-6 in preschool. A year later, the program expanded to 20 communities in 12 counties in Romania.

Irina Popescu,


Russian Lawmakers: Don't Criticize Soviet Actions In WWII

A column of Russia's T-90 tanks rumbles over the cobblestones in Moscow's Red Square on May 9 during the country's Victory Day parade celebrating the anniversary of its costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

19 May 2013
National Public Radio
by Corey Flintoff

World War II remains a monumental event in the collective Russian mind. It's known as the "Great Patriotic War," and Russians believe no one made greater sacrifices than the Soviet Union when it came to defeating Nazi Germany.

The end of the war is celebrated with a huge military parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9, commemorating the millions of men and women, military and civilian, who died during the struggle.

Any criticism of the Soviet war effort is rare. But even the rare comment has Russia's lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, looking for ways to control the narrative and make sure that the Soviet role is never portrayed as anything less than selfless patriotism.

The trouble is that World War II was fought under the leadership of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and his repressive policies continued throughout the conflict.

In the latest flap, legislators in the Duma have called for an investigation into remarks made by an opposition deputy criticizing Stalin's wartime counterintelligence agency, SMERSH.

The agency's name comes from the abbreviated Russian phrase "Death to Spies." A fictionalized version of SMERSH appeared as James Bond's main foe in the early novels by Ian Fleming.

A recent program on Russian state television portrayed SMERSH as a heroic unit that fought Russia's enemies.

However, the opposition lawmaker, Leonid Gozman, wrote in an online column that SMERSH actually belonged in the same category as the German SS and the Gestapo.

He wrote that the name should "cause horror and disgust, but not be part of a headline for a patriotic movie."

Gozman said that's because SMERSH, at Stalin's bidding, took part in the repression of the Russian civilian population as well, resulting in the killing and deportation of thousands of Soviet citizens.

Such talk runs counter to President Vladimir Putin's call for more patriotic education for Russian children.

The Russian government is currently working on an initiative to establish a "canonical" version of Russian history that will be promulgated countrywide in a single set of textbooks.

Gozman told The Moscow Times that the Duma should also check the comments of revered Russian authors such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "because they said the same thing long before me."

The head of the Duma's Security and Anti-Corruption Committee, Irina Yarovaya, said a bill addressing criticism of Russia's wartime history could be brought up for consideration soon.

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Bucharest

People sit near a statue of King Carol I, the founder of Romania's royal dynasty, as the moon rises in Bucharest May 5, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Radu Sigheti

17 May 2013
by Sam Cage

(Reuters)—Got 48 hours to explore Romania's capital and its eclectic mix of western architectural ideas, eastern imagery, 20th century totalitarian megalomania and buzzing nightlife?

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors map the city's shift from one of Europe's most progressive urban centres at the start of the 20th century to a chaotic maze of dusty boulevards and quaint neighborhoods bearing the scars of brutal communist policies.


4 p.m.—From the airport, take a taxi or 783 airport bus straight to Piata Universitatii and the old medieval merchant district of Lipscani, which escaped the attentions of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who razed much of its surroundings.

The area, all but abandoned until just a few years ago, is now a dense network of cobbled streets and period buildings in various stages of refurbishment and center of the city's burgeoning nightlife scene.

It's an easy area to wander around at random but you shouldn't miss the exquisite Stavropoleos Monastery, built in 1724 and an example of Brancovenesc style of Romanian architecture, a rich mix of Byzantine and baroque motifs.

Browse the cafes, bars and small textile and antique shops before having a look at Curtea Veche, the 15th century residence of Vlad Tepes—also known as "Vlad the Impaler"—a bloodthirsty ruler who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The courtyard of Hanul lui Manuc, a 19th century merchants' inn, is an atmospheric location for an aperitif.

Keep an eye out for stray dogs, a major problem for the city but which have become an offbeat attraction for some tourists. You're unlikely to have problems in the city center, where dogs tend to be alone or in small groups and rarely fierce.

7 p.m.—There's no shortage of options for dinner in Lipscani, including French, Turkish, Italian and Hungarian food. Caru cu Bere ( is a 19th century brewery that serves traditional Romanian fare under impressive vaulted ceilings and offers sarmale, minced meat wrapped in cabbage, and mamaliga, a polenta-like dish often served with cream and cheese.

9 p.m.—Take a stroll through the elegant Pasajul Villacrosse and find a cozy place for a nightcap.

You are spoiled for choice in Lipscani, which is packed with an ever-changing line-up of bars and clubs. Mojo has regular live music ( A string of trendy industrial-themed bars dot the area; Atelierul Mecanic, designed to look like a workshop, Papiota as a tailor shop and Energiea as a printing press are well worth a visit.

Or continue to Calea Victoriei, the city's most famous street, which leads you past the monumental Beaux Arts Cercul Militar and Art Deco Telephone Palace to hip club Control ( Nearby are indie hangout Panic! and Green Hours jazz bar, a long-time Bucharest favorite (


10 a.m.—Hop on the efficient metro (two journeys for 4 Romanian lei or $1.20; 6 lei for a day pass) to Piata Romana and stroll past Amzei market to Piata Revolutiei, lined with historical buildings including the former royal palace, now the National Museum of Art, a gallery with Romanian and European art (

The square was a focal point of the 1989 revolution and facing the royal palace is the former communist headquarters, from where Ceausescu fled the crowds in a helicopter only to be caught and executed. In the middle is a monument to victims of the revolution, which some locals derisively refer to as a potato on a stick.

Don't miss the titchy red brick Cretulescu church and pillared Athenaeum concert hall, renowned as the city's most beautiful building and venue of the world-renowned George Enescu classical music festival, before popping into the Athenee Palace Hilton ( for a drink or early lunch.

Built at the start of the 20th century, the hotel was a notorious meeting spot for spies in the 1930s. Under communism, rooms were said to be bugged and many staff on the payroll of the pervasive secret service, the Securitate.

1 p.m.—Take a walk up Calea Victoriei, passing historic churches, parks and the Cantacuzino Palace, which houses a museum dedicated to Enescu, Romania's most famous composer.

Continue across the traffic-clogged square to the Romanian Peasant Museum ( The building is an essential example of Neo-Romanian architecture, a trend contemporary of Art Nouveau and Antoni Gaudi's Modernism.

The cafe at the back offers traditional Romanian food, including "ciorba" or sour soup and platters of cold meats and cheeses.

The museum has a collection of folk art, textiles and other articles of peasant life and a shop sells craftwork. A cinema screens arthouse films and often a market with woodwork, ceramics, bric-a-brac, food and wine brought wholesale from the countryside clusters around a small wooden church.

4 p.m.—Cross a small park toward Bulevardul Aviatorilor and a tangle of leafy streets behind it, lined with spectacular Modernist and Art Deco villas—many now housing embassies—that earned Bucharest the nickname "Paris of the East" at the turn of the 20th century.

Or for something a bit different, hop on the number 1 tram, which circles the city from nearby Piata Victoriei. The journey of nearly two hours takes you through residential and commercial areas just outside the center and over the new Pasajul Basarab bridge with views over the city.

7 p.m.—Try La Taifas, a bistro tucked off Piata Victoriei which serves Romanian specialties chalked up on a blackboard—staff can translate ( Metuka, not far away on Bulevardul Lascar Catargiu, offers hearty food, a friendly atmosphere and great ribs.

Head back to Lipscani if you still have energy for a night out.


10 a.m.—Take a taxi to Casa Poporului or Palace of the People, the monstrous building concocted by Ceausescu in the late 1970s. Now housing parliament, it looms over Bucharest.

Don't go by foot as you will need the energy to walk through its cavernous halls and seemingly endless corridors. Ceausescu hoped the building, made with thousands of tons of crystal, marble and wood, would become Romania's "Acropolis" but it came to symbolize the destructiveness of his social policies.

Construction of the building and demolition of huge swathes of houses, churches and synagogues, to be replaced with a new "Civic Centre", evicted thousands of residents and devoured large chunks of the state budget at a time when food and energy rationing tormented much of the population.

1 p.m.—In the back of the building, find the Contemporary Art Museum, with a cafe overlooking the city which gives a wider perspective of Ceausescu's efforts to remodel Bucharest.

3 p.m.—Head toward the Armenian Church on Bulevardul Carol II—but only walk if you want to see the outsized and lifeless streets of the Civic Centre. Once you arrive, you can stroll through a picturesque district of French-style villas, modernist apartment blocs and tiny Neo-Romanian castles complete with vine-covered turrets.

Continue north to the Gradina Icoanei park and more villas around Bulevardul Dacia, with another cluster of embassies. Try Gargantua ( for a coffee, or Have A Cigar, a newly opened art pub on Strada Vasile Conta that serves great cocktails, pasta and sandwiches.

Beyond here the expanse of drab apartment blocks, Bucharest's communist legacy which are slowly being refurbished and brightened up, starts again. ($1 = 3.3413 Romanian lei)

(Reporting by Paul Casciato)

Wikipedia 9 May 2013

On this day...
1877 Romanian Foreign Affairs Minister Mihail Kogălniceanu (pictured) made a speech in the Parliament that declared Romania was discarding Ottoman suzerainty.

Analysis: From the fringe of Europe, Romania and Bulgaria seek EU Acceptance

8 May 2013
by Ethan Bilby

BRUSSELS (Reuters)—Addressing an audience of dignitaries in Luxembourg in 2005, Bulgaria's then prime minister extolled the virtues of European Union membership, declaring his nation ready to take its place at the heart of the continent.

"Bulgaria is returning politically to the family of European nations to which it has always belonged," Simeon Saxe-Coburg announced as Bulgaria and Romania signed the documents that would bring them into the EU two years later, in 2007.

The rhetoric was full, matching the occasion, and heartfelt, with the memories of Soviet influence fresh in the minds of most Bulgarians and particularly Saxe-Coburg, the country's child tsar before the monarchy was overthrown in 1946.

But eight years on from that upbeat spring day in Luxembourg, and as a divided Bulgaria prepares for parliamentary elections on May 12, the gap between the one-time aspirations of EU membership and the everyday reality of belonging grows wider.

Rather than feeling pulled into the heart of Europe, Bulgaria and Romania find themselves on the edge of the debate, with questions frequently raised by their EU partners about their commitment to the rule of law and willingness to crack down on corruption, organized crime and illegal migration.

Membership has not delivered a one-way ticket to democratic stability, economic growth and greater opportunity for all. Diplomats from other member states often quietly question the wisdom of allowing them in.

"The European Union was seen as some sort of golden rainbow on the horizon," Amanda Paul, an east Europe expert at the European Policy Centre, a think tank, said of the image many Romanians and Bulgarians had in their minds before joining.

"As a whole I think both Romanian and Bulgaria have benefited from membership, but they still have significant democratic deficits," she said, explaining that if citizens wanted to understand the gap between expectation and reality, they should look first to home, not to Brussels.

"They should be more disappointed in their own leaders and politicians rather than in the EU institutions and what the EU has been able to do for them."


Whether living in their home countries on the southeastern periphery of Europe or working in Brussels, Romanians and Bulgarians increasingly have a sense of isolation.

While per capita incomes have risen steadily since joining the EU—by around 30 percent between 2006-2011 for both, according to IMF data—and opportunities to move and work across Europe have increased, there is still not a feeling of being fully integrated into the union of European states.

Romania and Bulgaria remain outside Schengen, the agreement that allows for the free movement of citizens across 26 European countries, and plans to join the euro currency are on hold for the immediate future.

When either country pops up for discussion in EU debates, it is all too often about whether they are meeting targets for bolstering their judicial systems or doing enough to combat smuggling and limit the influx of migrants from further east.

"We are second-class citizens of the union and we are being left out of major decisions taken in Brussels," said Ion Miciu, a 64-year-old engineer living in Bucharest.

"Our politicians are incompetent and have not fought in the last six years for Romania to have a more important voice."

At EU summits, the leaders of Romania and Bulgaria have just the same opportunity as any other head of state or government to speak up, and often do. But when it comes to decision-making, especially during the last three years of economic crisis, Sofia and Bucharest barely figure.

"You see two countries that have to spend quite a lot of negotiating capital and goodwill on key issues for them, like Schengen membership," said one EU diplomat familiar with dealing with both and who has seen the limits of their influence.

"While they are certainly working hard, it just gives them less room to maneuver."

Another hurdle they face is getting experienced staff to drive their diplomatic efforts. As the newest of the EU's 27 member states—at least until Croatia joins in July—it takes time to generate critical mass and influence in meetings, not just at the ambassadorial table, but across all levels of the bureaucracy and the myriad policy files diplomats handle.

"When it comes to major decisions, it's a big boy's game in being aggressive to steer the little circle that makes decisions," said another diplomat from an older European power.

By way of example, they pointed to negotiations earlier this year over the EU's 1 trillion euro long-term budget, a large portion of which is spent on development funds for poorer EU countries, making it critical for Romania and Bulgaria.

"When it comes to the budget, Romania and Bulgaria only got scraps," the diplomat said, lamenting their lack of influence.

For their part, officials from both countries said their voice was always present in EU discussions, and questioned why the two were being treated like second-class citizens when it came to Schengen, probably their biggest frustration.


In Sunday's election in Bulgaria, the centre-right party lead by former prime minister Boiko Borisov is expected to come out on top, although it may not have sufficient votes to form a government on its own and has said it won't join a coalition.

That raises the prospect of further political uncertainty in the country, and raises doubts about its economic program too, both of which will muffle its voice in Brussels.

"We're effectively dealing with a Wild West country," said an EU official who handles east Europe, voicing doubts about Bulgaria's ability to enforce the law and live by democratic norms.

With a "what can you do?" shrug of the shoulders, the official said it wasn't possible to turn back history, that Romania and Bulgaria were members of the European Union. Other states had to accept that reality and make it work, however challenging it may be.

For Carmen Pop, the 32-year-old owner of a small Romanian restaurant in Brussels, EU membership is a double-edged sword. It has allowed her to work in the capital of Europe and send money home to her parents. But it is far from a perfect world.

"The advantages of the EU community are not for Romanians," she said with frustration. "You are part of the community but you can't work like other Europeans. We always carry the label of being Romanian or Bulgarian."

(Additional reporting by Ioana Patran in Bucharest and Justyna Pawlak and Luke Baker in Brussels; writing by Luke Baker; editing by Janet McBride)

Romanian Holy Week Tradition

2 May 2013
New York Times

A woman stood near a fire she lighted on a grave in a village in southern Romania, as part of a Romanian Holy Week tradition. Andreea Alexandru, Associated Press

The Death of a Countess in Exile

26 April 2013
New York Times
by Vivian Yee

An undated photograph of Ilona Teleki de Szek at her family home in Transylvania. Her father was the country’s representative to Hungary, where his cousin was prime minister.

They knew her as the slender, straight-backed woman with an independent streak and a head for numbers. She told them she had immigrated from Hungary, and her colleagues at Merrill Lynch did not pry with more questions.

What most of them did not know was that their colleague, the quiet market analyst with the Italian name and the Hungarian accent, had been born a countess and grew up in a castle. They had no idea that Ilona DeVito, as they knew her, had had little formal education before arriving on Wall Street, or that she and her family had fled to New York with no more than few small suitcases to escape the Romanian Communist government.

The death of Ilona DeVito di Porriasa last week, at 73, went largely unnoticed beyond her family and friends. But if nothing else, her story, as recounted by surviving relatives, peels back the hard shell of the city, proving, perhaps, that even the most anonymous apartment dweller can be a countess in exile.

Born in 1939 in a Transylvanian Baroque-style castle given to her parents as a wedding present by her grandmother, Countess Ilona Teleki de Szek spent the first years of her life surrounded by nannies, maids and cooks. Her mother was a baroness, her father a count who served as Transylvania’s representative to Hungary; one of his cousins, Pal Teleki served as prime minister of Hungary on two occasions and was said to have been responsible for the passage of a number of anti-Semitic measures.

Pal Teleki was said to have fatally shot himself when Hitler’s troops crossed the Hungarian border heading to Yugoslavia; the Hungarian Army joined in the invasion. Winston Churchill called Teleki’s suicide “a sacrifice to absolve himself and his people from guilt in the German attack on Yugoslavia.”

Ilona’s daughter, Elisa DeVito, said this week that her mother had not expressed embarrassment about her relative’s place in Hungarian history, believing, as other members of her family had, that he had not been anti-Semitic and might not have committed suicide.

But the family was vulnerable in the waning months of World War II, when the Soviets took control of Hungary and Romania, to which Transylvania then belonged.

As recounted by Ilona’s daughter this week, the government imprisoned Ilona’s father, whom she would not see for another 20 years, seized the Telekis’ properties and eventually pushed her, her siblings and her mother out of their castle. (It is now a clinic and botanical garden.)

The Telekis moved into a converted stable with no running water. The baroness took in laundry and sewing; Ilona worked in a shoe factory, her brother Paul on a farm. Ilona wore shoes made out of her grandfather’s old bedroom slippers, and her older sister’s dresses were made of old curtains.

At one point, Ilona lived with her grandparents in a library her family had founded. It was so overrun by rats, she would later recall to her daughter, that they would sling wooden planks over the bookshelves at night to sleep.

As anti-Hungarian sentiment rose in Romania, the government repeatedly pulled the Teleki children out of school and opened the family’s mail.

Count Teleki finally escaped and sought asylum in the United States. His family joined him in 1964 after the count had bribed the Romanian authorities to allow them to leave.

Ilona spoke no English, but she took a series of jobs—first at a hosiery factory in the Bronx, eventually as a teletypist at a financial firm.

And though her father continued to advocate for Hungarian people across Central Europe, she rarely mentioned her past.

“She didn’t really want people to know, because people think of nobility as having something, and my mother really had nothing when she came here,” her daughter said.

Once on Wall Street, she showed enough aptitude that despite having no college degree, she was promoted to market analyst, studying trends and making investment recommendations. She joined Merrill’s securities research department in the early 1970s and stayed until retiring in 2005, developing a reputation for quick calculations and prescient recommendations—as well as a certain reserve.

“She worked very hard at it, and she didn’t suffer fools,” said Robert Farrell, one of her managers. “She had no trouble disagreeing about what was going to happen or voicing her own opinion.”

But she never acknowledged her background to most colleagues until they read her mother’s obituary in the 1990s. Some did not find out until her death.

“In all the time I talked to her every day, we talked about Hungary and everything, but she never said a word about her being royalty,” said Tom Webster, a Merrill Lynch broker.

In 1975, she married Lino DeVito di Porriasa, who came from an Italian noble family.

Mr. DeVito died in 2008, a few months after his wife learned she had breast cancer. Even while ill, she loved to follow the stock market, even making a profit after the 2008 financial crisis, her brother said.

She died on April 15.

Ilona DeVito di Porriasa in a recent family photograph.

Elisa DeVito remembered hearing stories from her grandmother about the family’s past and lavish lifestyle. But her mother usually dismissed such talk, saying, “That’s ancient history. We never need to talk about that anymore.”

As her cancer metastasized, however, the former countess changed her mind. To her daughter’s surprise, she asked to have her title engraved on her gravestone.

“The last few years,” Ms. DeVito said, “she started to remember good things, not just bad things—where she came from, and what she became.”

Romania Moves Toward Closure on Compensating Communism's Victims

17 April 2013
by Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania expects to pass legislation this week to compensate all owners of property seized under communism, seeking to draw a line under a haunting past more than 20 years after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Bucharest has lagged behind other former Soviet satellites in central and eastern Europe in addressing its communist past. Some senior officials from that era remain in high office, while hardly any crimes have been prosecuted.

Long-entrenched bureaucracy and corruption still hold back an economy that is the European Union's second poorest and struggling to emerge from a deep recession.

Seizures of property began in 1945, immediately after World War Two when Soviet-backed communists set about eradicating the middle classes by abolishing private ownership. A special nationalization decree was issued in 1950.

"The law we propose aims to bring historical reparation to all those who suffered confiscation since about 70 years ago," Prime Minister Victor Ponta told parliament on Wednesday.

He asked the assembly, where he commands an overwhelming majority, to endorse the plan, a step expected later this week.

Since the 1989 revolution that led to Ceausescu's trial and execution, human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Romania for failing to restore property. An earlier restitution scheme was derailed by inefficiency, red tape and scams.

Despite prior legislation, only 15 percent of all restitution claims have been solved. Under the new bill, Ponta committed to a clear time frame and set aside 8 billion euros ($10.5 billion) to ensure all claims of victims of nationalization are settled by 2017.

The leftist cabinet had been given a May 12 deadline by the European Court for Human Rights, which has about 3,000 lawsuits on property issues filed against Romania, to pass the law.

The government said it was needed because previous legislation was too complicated and 200,000 restitution cases had yet to be solved in the country of 19 million people.

Many dispossessed owners were forced to live in tiny storerooms or bathrooms. The 1950s, under Ceausescu's predecessor Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, were the harshest period for land, building and industrial plant owners.

Ceausescu deepened the problem with his plan for "village systematization", under which he wiped out entire rural communities and moved people to towns - a scheme that was stopped when he was overthrown.

Ponta said Romania has so far paid 150 million euros cash in compensation for seized property, about 4 billion euros in shares of Fondul Proprietatea - a fund set up to compensate victims of communism, as well as turning over some 10,000 buildings and 1.3 million hectares of farmland. ($1 = 0.7616 euros)

Thousands Protest Chevron's Shale Gas Plans in Romania

4 April 2013
by Ioana Patran

(Reuters)—Thousands of Romanians across the country protested on Thursday against Chevron's plans to explore for shale gas, demanding the country's leftist government withdraw concessions and ban drilling of the U.S. company's first test wells.

About 500 rallied in the town of Barlad on the eastern border with Moldova where Chevron has a nearby 1.6 million acre concession, some wearing gas masks, many chanting "Chevron go home."

Chevron has exploration rights for three blocks of 670,000 acres (270,000 hectares) near the Black Sea, and has also bought the concession close to Barlad for an undisclosed amount.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking to extract shale gas involves injecting water and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations.

Experts say that if it is done according to best practice it is environmentally safe, but the technology still evokes public concern.

Many countries in central and southeastern Europe see shale gas as a way to wean themselves off Russian supplies, though Romania only imports about a quarter of what it uses due to conventional reserves.

Analysts say that Romania's shale gas deposits, added to its conventional reserves, could make the Balkan nation self-reliant in gas use—a proposition many of the protesters say is not worth the risk.

"Shale ... will only wreak havoc here," said 63-year-old pensioner Elena Arsenie.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates Romania and neighbouring Bulgaria and Hungary could have 538 billion cubic metres of shale gas between them, slightly more than Europe's annual consumption and enough to cover Romania's for almost 40 years.

In the United States, fracking has revolutionised the energy sector, bringing a drop in domestic power and gas prices. Environmental risks and denser population groupings have made Europeans more cautious.

Over the past weeks, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has softened his views on shale gas since a parliamentary election in December, which earned his ruling leftist alliance an overwhelming two-thirds majority in parliament.

But analysts say if public opposition heightens further, authorities might need to reconsider their stance on shale for fear of alienating millions of voters and thus prevent the company from setting up one of its biggest operations as the country is gearing up for a presidential election in 2014.

Chevron said in a statement on Thursday that it would only produce gas from shale using what it called were safe and proven technologies.

"Chevron respects that individuals have the right to voice their opinions... We recognize the importance of informing the public about the technologies employed in the prospecting phase, technologies which are commonly used in the conventional oil and gas industry," Chevron spokeswoman Sally Jones said.

She said Chevron will only carry out prospecting activities this year.

Romania is another emerging central European state along with Poland where officials see vast potential shale reserves as a key plank in ensuring future energy security.

But investors in Poland have grown concerned about protracted work on a tax and regulation regime announced in October as well as a steep cut in initial estimates for potential shale reserves.

Kings of the Roma

4 April 2013
New York Times
by Jesse Newman

                                                                 Karla Gachet and Ivan Kashinsky
Small houses abut unfinished mansions on the back streets of Buzescu.

See photo essay at article website

To reach a surprising place, follow Route 6 south of Bucharest as it unwinds across the Romanian countryside, past fields of wildflowers and flocks of sheep. Turn west before the Danube River and head toward a grid of neatly laid streets, set down among farms.

This is Buzescu, where a small, prosperous group of Roma lives among mansions and Mercedes.

Like most visitors to Europe, Karla Gachet and Ivan Kashinsky had never heard of Buzescu nor met any wealthy Roma. They thought most Roma—often pejoratively called Gypsies—were poor and lived in slums on the fringes of big European cities. On a trip to Europe from their home in Ecuador in 2010, they learned about the Roma of Buzescu and set out to see the town.

“We wanted to break the image of Gypsies in the street, begging where the cars stop, stealing whatever they can and living in total poverty,” said Mr. Kashinsky, who lived with his wife, Ms. Gachet, in Buzescu for six weeks to document daily life in the thriving community. “Here, the Roma were not the maids of Romanians, but the Romanians were the maids of the Roma. It was an amazing switch.”

Buzescu itself looks fantastical, like something drawn from the pages of a remixed Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Along the main street, colorful mansions rise four stories, boasting painted columns, pointed towers and sparkling metal roofs. Shiny BMWs sit in their adjacent driveways, and marble lions stand guard at the gates.

The palatial homes belong to the Kalderash, a once-itinerant group of Roma who made their fortune trading metal across Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism.

“When Communism fell,” a Roma man told the photographers, “you had to be dumb not to make money.”

So the Kalderash, whose name means “coppersmith” in Romani, went to work, traveling across Eastern Europe, dismantling abandoned factories and selling the scrap metal for handsome profits. Until recently, some Kalderash also roamed the countryside in traditional horse-drawn caravans, peddling handcrafted cazanes—copper stills for brewing brandy—for hundreds of dollars each.

Today, the lavish mansions lining the streets of Buzescu, an otherwise modest farm town, are a testament to the wealth of a people deeply impoverished elsewhere in Europe and widely condemned as beggars and thieves.

The Roma have faced oppression and violence since their ancestors came to Europe from India centuries ago. During the Holocaust, the Nazis exterminated Romani people by the hundreds of thousands. In 2010, France’s president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, deported thousands of Roma and bulldozed their encampments. His successor, François Hollande, has continued the expulsions. Roma communities face discrimination in Romania too, as evidenced by recent forced evictions across the country.

Given their painful history, many families in Buzescu are wary of new arrivals like Ms. Gachet and Mr. Kashinsky. Even after one family offered the couple a place to stay, many of the wealthiest residents refused to let them inside their houses.

“A lot of people were scared of us,” Ms. Gachet said. “They thought we were thieves.”

But the couple persisted, slowly gaining trust and access. Luckily, they shared a language with the residents of Buzescu. Like Ms. Gachet, who is from Quito, Ecuador, and Mr. Kashinsky, who is from Los Angeles, many Roma speak Spanish—they have been traveling back and forth to Spain for work since Romania joined the European Union in 2007.

It also helped to work as a team.

“When we do stories together, Ivan usually gets more access with men, and I get more access with women,” Ms. Gachet said. “A Roma girl couldn’t walk down the street with Ivan because that would have been bad for her, and I couldn’t just go into a casino with a whole bunch of guys.”

As the doors of Buzescu swung open, Ms. Gachet and Mr. Kashinsky said, they revealed fantastic abundance—winding staircases that led to vast rooms with marble floors and heavy chandeliers—but also great emptiness.

“They build these giant houses,” Mr. Kashinsky said. “But they don’t really use them.”

Many parents and teenagers still have to leave Buzescu to find work or conduct business elsewhere in Europe, leaving only elders and young children to live in the outsize homes. Even when families do reunite for holidays or funerals, they tend to congregate in small rooms toward the back of their houses, using outdoor kitchens and bathrooms rather than those inside. Some of the mansions with ornate facades remain unfurnished—or even unfinished—inside.

Despite the signs of modernity in Buzescu, the Roma still abide by many of their age-old customs. Family is of utmost importance. Holidays are faithfully observed. Schooling is irregular, work is encouraged from a young age and girls are married while in their teens.

“We were there for funerals, for Easter and for their Day of the Dead,” Mr. Kashinsky said. “Even though they all had BMWs and Armani clothes and are really modern in a lot of ways, they really hung tight to their traditions.”

In many ways, the photographers said, the opulence in Buzescu was simply for show, a demonstration of individual pride and a communal challenge to the perception of Roma as Europe’s lowest caste.

“Being Roma, they can’t just go out there to the world and get a job anywhere,” Ms. Gachet said. “The lady we lived with said: ‘Karla, my kids are not going to be lawyers and doctors. You need to understand that. We need to give them tools to survive in our world, and that’s money.’ They don’t get the opportunities that everybody else gets. They’re so discriminated against in their own country.”

60 Years After Stalin - What Lay Beneath

5 March 2013
Radio Free Europe
Series: 60 Years After Stalin

The reign of Josef Stalin was a time of terror, mass executions, brutal collectivization, and the most horrific war the world has ever seen.

Officially, Stalin's Soviet Union was a land of peace, progress, harmony, and—most of all—unending love for and devotion to Stalin himself. He was "the father of nations," "the gardener of human happiness." His image was everywhere.

"Centuries will pass, and the generations still to come will regard us as the happiest of mortals, the most fortunate of men, because we lived in the century of centuries, because we were privileged to see Stalin, our inspired leader," gushed one Soviet writer.

Historians around the world are still working to uncover the real story of these "most fortunate of men."

The Gulag

The Stalin era was one of rapid economic development for the Soviet Union. State propaganda lauded the huge infrastructure projects that were put up at breakneck speed, transforming a rural, agricultural empire into an industrial power. But many showcase projects—such as the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Belomor Canal, and the Trans-Siberian Railroad—were built partly or entirely by prisoners in Stalin's notorious Gulag, a network of prison camps set up across the country.

From 1929 until Stalin's death in 1953, an estimated 14 million people passed through the Gulag. About 1.6 million people died there. Those in the camps were provided meager food, minimal medical care, inadequate clothing for the often-brutal weather conditions, and a near-total lack of modern tools and machinery.

The Gulag was set up along economic lines, with most camps being assigned specific economic tasks within the framework of the industrialization drive—logging, mining, the construction of industrial projects.

After World War II, more than 1 million Soviet soldiers who had survived Nazi prison-of-war camps were shipped off to the Gulag.

After Stalin's death in March 1953, the communist state began to dismantle the Gulag system. Political prisoners began to be released in 1954, and the system was officially canceled by an Interior Ministry decree on January 25, 1960.

The Gulag Through the Years

The Soviet Secret Police archives recorded prisoners in camps and colonies on January 1 each year. However, Anne Applebaum notes in “Gulag, a History” that these numbers do not account for high turnover throughout the year. While the Gulag generally continued to grow throughout Stalin's reign, the sharpest increases came during the Great Terror, between 1936 and 1938, and in the period after World War II.


Stalin's goal of rapidly transforming the Soviet Union into an industrialized power drove the push to increase agricultural production, both to feed growing numbers of workers and to generate hard currency to buy foreign technology through grain exports. His solution to this problem was collectivization—forcing all private farmers to give up their land and work for enormous state-owned, state-managed agricultural enterprises.

Between 1929 and 1939, the percentage of farmland controlled by collective farms went from less than 5 percent to more than 99 percent.

But the Soviet peasantry resisted Stalin's drive with all its might—denouncing collectivization as "a second serfdom" and a betrayal of the Bolshevik revolution that had promised them "peace and land." In addition, the religious peasants came to believe widely that the Soviet government was the Antichrist and that joining a collective farm would condemn them to hell.

The heavy-handed mismanagement of collectivization and the active resistance of the peasants led to horrific famines in the early 1930s.Scholars estimate around 3.5 million people died in Ukraine alone in a disaster that many Ukrainians argue amounted to a policy of genocide against them. (More contentious figures, like those from the All-Ukrainian Association of Holodomor Researchers, estimate as many as 10 million died.).

More died in European Russia, Siberia, the North Caucasus, and Central Asia. Hunger and despair drove as many as 1.5 million people to emigrate to China.

 The Soviet Union was—unlike past imperialist states—to be a harmonious multiethnic construction. "Friendship of the peoples" was one of its most ubiquitous slogans, and Soviet leaders claimed they had solved the "nationalities problem." However, between 1939 and his death in 1953, Stalin implemented policies of forced resettlement, or deportations, against many of the Soviet Union's ethnic minorities.

Forced Migrations

He used the brutal policy against Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Volga Germans, ethnic Finns, Crimean Tatars, Crimean Greeks, Kalmyks, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Koreans, Chechens, Ingush, and others.

It is estimated about 6 million people were subjected to forced migration, of whom about 1.5 million died. Most of the deportees were resettled in remote locations in the Far East or Central Asia. In some cases, more than 40 percent of a deported population died of disease or hunger.

In his famous 1956 de-Stalinization speech, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said the Ukrainians only avoided the same fate because "there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them."

The policy of deportation continued on a smaller scale even after Stalin's death. In 1959, Chechens who had been allowed to return to Chechnya were forced to move from the mountains to the lowlands. Likewise, in the 1970s, several mountain groups in Tajikistan were forced to move to the plains.

The Great Terror

The period from 1936 until 1938 is known as the Great Purge (or Great Terror). During this brief time, roughly 1 million people were executed or died while in custody. During the peak period of terror in 1937 and 1938, Stalin's security organs carried out an average of 1,000 executions a day.

In its initial phases, the purges focused on the security organs themselves and then on the Communist Party. Almost all the leading revolutionary figures from Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's time, the so-called "old Bolsheviks," were executed, many after being tortured and subjected to humiliating show trials.

Later, Stalin cast his net wider, ruthlessly eliminating intellectuals, leaders of various ethnic and religious groups, "anti-Soviet elements" from the Tsarist period, foreigners or those with foreign ties, and others.

Stalin personally oversaw the purges in great detail. Soviet archives reveal that he personally signed execution orders for 40,000 people.

He often made notations next to individual names, urging the secret police to step up the torture.

After Stalin's death, a Soviet commission declared that he had "committed a very grave crime against the Communist party, the socialist state, the Soviet people, and the worldwide revolutionary movement." During Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika period, many purge victims were posthumously rehabilitated.

Stalin's archenemy, Leon Trotsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and murdered by an agent of Stalin's secret police in Mexico in 1940, has never been rehabilitated.

The Great Terror had deadly consequences for those closest in power to Stalin. The 1924 Politburo had nine members who met a violent death or committed suicide.

World War II

World War II—called the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union—was a defining event of the Stalin period. The war on the Eastern Front was the most enormous and costly conflict in history and made the decisive contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Of the 70 million people estimated to have died in World War II around the globe, more than 30 million—soldiers and civilians—died on the Eastern Front. The Soviet Union alone suffered more than 20 million dead.

Stalin's legacy in the war is mixed. He is criticized for authorizing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Germany, which partitioned central Europe and gave Hitler a green light to begin the war knowing the Soviet Union would be sidelined.

Historians also argue that Stalin's prewar purge of the military leadership and his decision to advance forces into vulnerable positions in Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic States contributed to the country's enormous losses in the early months of the war.

But the rapid industrialization of the 1930s laid the groundwork for the Soviet victory. Unlike Adolf Hitler, Stalin learned from his mistakes: he gradually appointed fiercely capable commanders, and he largely abandoned Communist ideology in favor of a more motivating religious-patriotic one.

Today, many of those who still view Stalin positively cite as their main argument his role in securing the victory that left the Soviet Union a global superpower.

Stalin Today

According to polls at the time, in 1988 less than 1 percent of survey respondents in Russia said that Josef Stalin would be remembered "as a major figure of the Soviet era" in 20 to 30 years. Now, however, Stalin has the highest positive rating of any figure in Russian or Soviet history.

Forty-eight percent of Russians think Stalin played a positive role, while only 22 percent rated him "harshly negatively," according to a 2012 poll by the independent Levada Center. In polls conducted in 1988, that figure was 60 percent. At the same time, the percentage of people who admit that they "know nothing" about the Stalin period has increased from 30 percent in 1988 to 70 percent in 2012.

Sociologists explain Stalin's rehabilitation by citing the change of generations; the loss of personal experience of the Stalin period; and the generally positive portrayal of Stalin and the Stalin period in the media, films, and literature. The state has also "taken control" of the teaching of history in the schools, and the main lesson taught is that Stalin was able to create a global superpower despite some "excesses."

Interview: 'Gulag' Author Applebaum On Enduring 'Distortions' Of Stalinism

5 March 2013
Radio Free Europe
Series: 60 Years After Stalin

A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta in Russia's Far North

Anne Applebaum is a columnist with "The Washington Post" and director of Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute. She is also author of the 2004 book "Gulag: A History" and last year's "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956." RFE/RL's Robert Coalson spoke with Applebaum about the enduring legacy of the Gulag in Russia.

RFE/RL: Your book makes the argument that the Gulag was not tangential to Stalinism but was an integral part of his economic, social, and political system. Could you elaborate on that?

Applebaum: It is very hard to separate the history of the Gulag from the history of the Soviet Union. It was, in some ways, the logical consequence of so many other policies. The Gulag had two functions. No. 1, it had a punitive function. It created fear. It was very spread out, it had branches all over the Soviet Union and everybody knew about it. Everybody was aware that it existed. It wasn't some kind of hidden part of society. It functioned as something that would scare people, but it also had a very important economic function.

The Gulag actually had the task of digging coal mines, of digging uranium mines, gold mines. The Gulag was enormous at its height in the late 1940s, early 1950s, which really was its height. It was an enormous economic empire, controlling factories and whole areas of Russia. Northeast Russia was settled by the Gulag—prisoners and guards. Some of the Far Northern cities were effectively built by the Gulag—Vorkuta, Norilsk, cities like that.

It also distorted in some ways the way the Soviet Union thought about economics. So, when a large deposit of coal was discovered in the Far North, the Russians didn't, as one would have done in Alaska, they didn't send a few teams of workers to work there for a few weeks and then send them back again to recover and then go back up again. Instead, because they had free labor, because they weren't counting costs, they built enormous cities in the Far North, which basically no one else has done anywhere. So, the city of Vorkuta, the city of Norilsk, Magadan. These were large constructions, big cities built because there was free labor, because there was slave labor. So you can see the distortions that the Gulag created for the Soviet economy. You can still see them today.

RFE/RL: In your book, you write that Russia has not done a very good job of reckoning with Stalin and Stalinism. What is the state of this process in Russia today?

Applebaum: Now, at this moment, the current Russian government and the current Kremlin doesn't try to repress discussion of Stalin—as, of course, once would have been the case—but it tries to deal with it selectively. So there is very little discussion of the Gulag; there is very little discussion of industrialization even or collectivization. And there is quite a lot of emphasis placed on Stalin's victory in the second World War and on what the current Russian leadership thinks of as the most glorious moments in Soviet history. This, of course, is extremely distorting because it leaves out the context of that victory and what it really cost Russia and Russians. And it gives modern Russians a very skewed view of their past.

The danger about forgetting Stalin is not so much that it will repeat itself, because history doesn't ever really repeat itself in the exact same way. But it can leave Russians insensitive to some of the flaws that still exist in their society which are left over from that time. In other words, much of what is wrong in Russia now or what seems unfair in Russia now, these are things that are left over from the past.

There are still institutions that exist from the past. The way the prison system works; the way the judicial system works; the role of the political police, which is in some ways unchanged for the last 30-40 years. Its power goes up and down but it is always there. And the fact that Russians don't feel more sensitive about these institutions, that they don't feel a deeper desire to reform them and change them, I think, is partly because they haven’t dwelled on, thought about, or absorbed the lessons of Soviet history.

And one of the reasons they haven't is that the current Russian leadership doesn't want them to. There is an active attempt to suppress discussion or to keep discussion focused only on positive aspects of the past.

RFE/RL: Some argue that Stalin was a good manager, that he won the war, that he left the country stronger than he found it. You don’t have a lot of patience for such views, do you?

Applebaum: No, I would really contest that. You need to look at counterfactuals—what might Russia have been if it had been developed in a different way? You wouldn't have had millions of people—lives wasted, talent wasted, education wasted—working in slave-labor camps. All those physicists who were sent to dig coal in Magadan might have invented something faster and better. People might have lived better. You might now have a more developed infrastructure. I think to imagine that what Stalin achieved was some kind of triumph is to ignore how Russia could have developed differently.

Even the war—Stalin started the war. He and Hitler divided Europe between them in 1939 at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They jointly invaded Poland and the Baltic states. It was Stalin's decision to do that that allowed Hitler two years in which to invade Western Europe. And the Soviet Union—the Russian people—then paid the price. They then suffered when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, for which the Soviet Union was basically unprepared. The many, many millions of people who died all died unnecessarily. Had Stalin not participated, had he not had a union with Hitler at the beginning, then maybe [those people] would be alive today.

RFE/RL: It is interesting that even people like Putin who praise Stalin as “an effective manager” don’t have anything good to say about Stalinism or advocate a return to Stalinism.

Applebaum: I don't think anyone wants to revive the system that Stalin created. Of course, it still exists in some places in attenuated form. North Korea, as far as I can tell, is potentially a Stalinist system, for example. But no, Stalinism doesn't hold any appeal for Putin. What he is trying to do is to cherry-pick Stalin's record, to focus on elements of the Soviet period that he wants to celebrate because he wants to rally Russians behind him; he wants to create a sense of patriotism because he wants, in some ways, to renovate himself.

He worked for many years in the KGB, which was the secret-police branch of the Soviet Communist Party, and the KGB was responsible for the Gulag and [its predecessor organizations] did create the terror of 1937 and the waves of other terror before and after that. So he is looking for elements of that past to rehabilitate. But nobody has suggested reviving the entire system. It probably, it couldn't be done now because you can't cut off Russia in the way you could before. And it would be suicidal. It is widely acknowledged that it was an economic disaster for the country.

Sacrifice at the Altar of Intolerance

1 March 2013
New York Times
by Larry Rohter

                                                                                                      Sundance Selects
Cosmina Stratan, left, and Cristina Flutur portray women reunited in a Romanian convent in “Beyond the Hills,” directed by Cristian Mungiu

Two girls grow up together, friends and allies, in a decrepit Dickensian orphanage. When they turn 18 and have to leave, one goes abroad in search of work, while the other, after drifting for a while and out of other options, enters a monastery led by a charismatic monk and becomes a nun. After a few years the émigré returns to visit her friend and finds her changed, a bit distant.

That is the starting point of the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills,” which won two top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival last year and opens in New York on Friday. Before long, however, the story takes a series of odd and increasingly menacing turns, as the viewer is plunged into a circumscribed world in which the word “iconoclast” recovers its original Greek meaning, and exorcism is a tool that true believers wield in hopes of keeping apostasy at bay.

“For me it was very important to see all the things this story can reveal,” Mr. Mungiu, one of the leading exponents of what has come to be known as the Romanian new wave, said in an interview in New York last fall. “Actually I am speaking about people who are condemned from Moment 1,” he added. “There’s nothing much for them to do in life.”

“Beyond the Hills” is based on a pair of best-selling “nonfiction novels” by the Romanian writer Tatiana Niculescu Bran, a former Bucharest correspondent and editor for the BBC. The books, in turn, are a dispassionate examination of a notorious real-life incident that took place in a Romanian Orthodox monastery near Romania’s northeastern border with Moldova, in the spring of 2005.

In that case a 23-year-old novitiate nun began hearing voices, which she believed were the Devil talking to her. After efforts to solve her problem failed, her fellow believers bound her to a cross, gagged her with a towel and left her for three days without food in a damp and chilly room at the monastery, where she died of suffocation and dehydration.

While in New York in 2007 to promote his award-winning abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Mr. Mungiu saw a stage production based on Ms. Niculescu Bran’s book, mounted by the acclaimed Romanian-American director Andrei Serban at the East Village theater La MaMa with her collaboration. At dinner afterward Mr. Serban, a theater professor at Columbia, said he could feel Mr. Mungiu’s fascination with many of the same themes that had also attracted him.

“In the international press a big deal was made of this as an act of witchcraft in the country of Dracula, how could this behavior from medieval times happen in a European country in the 21st century, and all that nonsense,” Mr. Serban said. “But what touched me on a deeper level in the book, and which is beautifully portrayed in the movie, is that everyone wants to do good, but this is not possible, and everything ends up in tragedy.”

As in Mr. Mungiu’s two previous films, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Tales of the Golden Age,” Romania is depicted as a deeply dysfunctional society. Under the rule of Nicolai Ceausescu orphanages like the one where the girls met were notorious for their neglect and abuse, and the modern-day health care system in which the victim was enmeshed was unresponsive and ineffectual. By the end an encounter with a byzantine justice system also looms.

“People used to ask, ‘So who’s guilty?,’ and who is guilty are all the institutions present in the film,” Mr. Mungiu said. “And there is something else about such misfortunes. When you live in a very civilized society and something bad happens, it’s an awful thing, and you will react. But when you live in a very poor society where awful things happen every day, this becomes like the way things happen, and you are desensitized.”

Still, Mr. Mungiu cautioned against reading the film as a condemnation of Romanian society. His real target, he said, is “any kind of fanaticism,” religious or otherwise.

“I think this is a local story speaking about things that are very general,” he said. “What people are asked to do in the name of love for God, for example, this is the same in a lot of different religions” and often leads to intolerance and authoritarianism. “I don’t think this belongs to a society that is underdeveloped,” he added. “I think this can be understood to speak about things in a more general way.”

When it came time to cast “Beyond the Hills” Mr. Mungiu took a bold gamble. The role of the monk was no problem: he had written the part specifically for Valeriu Andriuta, a collaborator on two previous films who was at the time working as a gardener in Ireland, telling him to grow his beard before even beginning on the script.

But for the twin lead roles of Alina and Voichita, Mr. Mungiu chose a pair of actresses with limited experience. Cristina Flutur, 34, cast as the seemingly tougher Alina after Mr. Mungiu saw her Facebook page, and Cosmina Stratan, 28, had never made a film.

At Cannes last year the women ended up sharing the prize for best actress, with Mr. Mungiu winning the best screenplay award, so his instincts proved correct. But initially, with supporters of the Romanian Orthodox Church predicting that Mr. Mungiu intended to make an anti-religious film, they felt some trepidation about signing on.

“There was a little moment of doubt, because it’s a taboo issue, such a heavy subject,” Ms. Flutur said. “I’m from a religious family, with a religious background, and she’s doing things that are judged very negatively by the Orthodox community. I was aware of the case, and I knew it would be a controversial character also, that many Orthodox people won’t probably like, will even hate, because they will not get under the surface and to the profound level of the character.”

In the movie it is clear that the two women forged a strong emotional bond in their early years, with Alina acting to protect the more vulnerable Voichita from bullies and rapists. But erotic undercurrents in some scenes suggest that the women may have been lovers, not just friends or nearly sisters.

Alina returns from Germany “because of love,” Ms. Flutur said. “Because no matter what you have, no matter where you go, if you don’t have love, you don’t have enough. You can have a house, family, whatever, but if it’s not based on love, it’s nothing.”

Mr. Mungiu said he deliberately cultivated the ambiguity about the women’s relationship, even leaving his two actresses guessing. “They were very close together, but it’s not important for the story to make precisely clear if the relationship was sexual,” he said.

“Beyond the Hills” was filmed on location last winter, with Mr. Mungiu pushing his cast and himself to meet an ambitious deadline that would allow him to edit the film to two and a half hours to have it ready for showing at Cannes. As a result he shot even in the midst of blinding snowstorms, a choice that helped give the film a bleakly beautiful look that echoes the mood of the story.

“All those shots in the snow are so beautifully filmed that it reminds me of a romantic old Russian film,” Mr. Serban said. “Even though the movie is cold, it has warm images, and the camera work is extremely lush, in the style of ‘Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.’ ”

For long stretches “Beyond the Hills” also has an air of atemporality. The monk and his followers shun most of the conveniences of modern life, subsisting in medieval simplicity and isolation and cultivating beliefs to match, so when outsiders drive up in a battered Ceausescu-era Dacia or a cellphone suddenly rings, the effect is jolting.

Ms. Flutur recalled a showing of the film at a festival in Vienna where a member of the audience “was very angry such a thing could happen in Romania in the 21st century.” That, she said, is precisely the wrong lesson to take away from “Beyond the Hills.”

“It’s very comfortable to say, ‘Oh it’s Romanian, we don’t have that here.’ It’s very easy, and you just detach yourself from something which is everywhere. Because this film is also about violence and how violence enters under the guise of good intentions. They really believed they were doing a good thing.”

Romanian Lands Award at Pictures of the Year International
with Image of Autistic Child

8 February 2013
Romania Insider

Photo by Andrei Pungovschi

Luca is five years old. He is autistic. Five days a week, his mother wakes him up at 5:30 in the morning, to prepare him for the daily train ride to Bucharest, 62 miles away, where he was accepted by an Applied Behavior Analysis center, run by an NGO that covers three quarters of the costs. For the rest, the family relies on donations. The monthly disability payment from the Romanian government, that comes up to roughly 160 US Dollars, hardly covers his mother's train tickets.

Romanian photographer Andrei Pungovschi received an Award of Excellence and ranked fourth in the portrait category in this year’s Pictures of the Year International photojournalism competition. His winning picture, of a five-year old autistic boy riding the train early in the morning to Bucharest, 100 kilometers away from his home, was shot for an autism feature in the Romanian non-fiction magazine Decat o Revista – DoR.

Pictures of the Year International, a program of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, only posted the wining pictures, without mentioning the names of the photographers as many images are entered in multiple categories and the judging will only end on February 26. All the portrait category winners here.

Andrei Pungovschi is a photojournalist based in Bucharest, Romania. He holds a BA in journalism from the University of Bucharest and studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri, on a Fulbright scholarship. His work has been recognized by Pictures of the Year International, College Photographer of the Year, The Missouri Press Association and Norhtwest Regional Emmy.

Manners Please! Romania Is a Country Worth Staying Friends With

5 February 2013
Huffington Post
by Tessa Dunlop

Cabinet Minister Baroness Warsi made a half-hearted attempt on BBC Question Time (31 January) to refute the rumour that our government plans to actively discourage Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants from coming to the UK when restrictions are relaxed next year. But it was too late, the horse had already bolted.

Last week the idea crossed the continent in all its arrogant glory and Romanians duly responded with a dollop of humour. 'Half our women look like Kate. The other half, like her sister.' Under the slogan 'We may not like Britain, but you will love Romania. Why don't you come over?' the website gandul invited readers to contribute to a viral poster campaign enticing Brits to sample the delights of Romania. 'We have Dracula, you have David Cameron.' 'Charles bought a house here in 2005. And Harry has never been photographed naked once.' What else could they do? Romanians are used to coming bottom of the European pile. I know, I'm married to one. He lives in Britain, and is often told he 'sounds English' - lucky chap. For those back in Romania, life isn't as straightforward. Common obstacles include a 25% pay cut across the public sector, the lowest wages in the EU, endemic corruption and a shoddy infrastructure. Britain's xenophobic outpouring this week, driven by scaremonger headlines and Tory angst, is just the latest knock for a country that is desperately trying to find its feet.

Romanians are poor, but they are also well educated. It is a toxic mix. Believe it or not most don't want to leave their family, their friends, their culture, they do so because they are frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their homeland. Since the Revolution in 1989 its estimated three million workers have already left Romania. Britain was not their first port of call; more popular destinations include Italy, Germany, France and Spain (before the crash). In the last 20 years young educated Romanians have proved much more adaptable than their nation's sick, struggling economy. That this ex-communist country has already haemorrhaged huge numbers of people - so many, a Romanian politician wanted to pay them to come home - is 'good news' for anxious Brits. There might not be enough willing Romanians left for the predicted flood next year. But, anti-British campaign or not, there will be a trickle.

The idea that we can keep Romanians out by waggling our economic woes at a country where the average salary is scarcely 300 euros per month, (doctors are lucky if they get more than 400 euros) is deeply patronising. Our rain and recession can't argue with basic economics. Romania is broke, limping along on an IMF bailout; Britain is one of the richest countries in the world. Romania is lumbered with no democratic heritage, a mafia style political system and a closed-off communist past; Britain meanwhile boasts the 'Mother of all Parliaments' (and an unelected queen). Young Romanians look to the West not only for a way out but also for experience. How else does a fledgling democracy learn? Isn't that one of the great visions behind the EU?

Surely even Europhobic little Britain wouldn't want to alienate the second largest country in South East Europe? After all there is nothing we like more than hopping about on the military stage and Romania is a good point from which to keep an eye on the unpredictable Balkans (and has proved a willing assistant in Afghanistan and Iraq). It is also the last bastion before that vast, vague and unsettling space left behind by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Not to mention the country's considerable economic potential. Romania boasts the sixth highest density of certified information technology specialists in a world, (Britain doesn't come close), and their plentiful primary resources make them closer to energy self-sufficiency than any European country other than Russia. They are friends worth keeping I would suggest. Indeed, with a bit of EU help Romania might even reclaim its one-time title as the grain basin of Europe. I know Britain's politicians revel in short-termism (the shimmering horizon rarely stretches more than five years into the distance) but surely it is in our interests to stay in with this tenacious, educated people and their extensive rich landmass? Jokes aside, they are quite keen to be friends with us. They speak good English. And I can confirm, their women (the thinnest in Europe), have a certain royal quality.

Tessa Dunlop's memoir To Romania with Love is published by Quartet Books.

Romania Campaign Mocks UK Anxiety about Worker Influx

1 February 2013
BBC News

Gandul suggests that Romania's attractions rival the UK's

A Romanian media campaign called "Why don't you come over?" is poking fun at British anxiety about a possible influx of Romanian job-seekers next year.

The news website Gandul boasts in English: "Half of our women look like Kate. The other half, like her sister."

The pro-Romania campaign is a response to British media reports that the UK government is considering negative ads about Britain to put off migrants.

UK curbs on workers from Bulgaria and Romania are set to be lifted next year.

The last Labour government agreed transitional controls on immigration from the two Balkan countries when they joined the European Union in 2007, but these expire next year.

Kate Middleton - the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William - is not the only British royal featured in Gandul's playful campaign.

Another Gandul ad notes that Prince Charles bought a house in Romania in 2005. He is known to be a big fan of Romania's Transylvania region and its rural traditions.

Gandul also boasts that "our draft beer is less expensive than your bottled water".

Another ad refers to the hugely popular British TV show Top Gear, whose presenter praised a highway in Romania.

The campaign teases the British with the words: "We may not like Britain, but you'll love Romania".

How many will come?

Media reports say the UK government is considering restricting access to public services for future migrants, among potential responses to the easing of immigration rules.

Next year Bulgaria and Romania will enjoy the same rights as the other 25 EU member states in the European labour market.

The think tank Migration Watch, which supports tighter immigration controls, estimates that about 50,000 people from Romania and Bulgaria will come to the UK each year until 2019 and that this will have "significant consequences" for housing and jobs.

The EU's eastward enlargement in 2004 brought a huge wave of East Europeans to the UK, at a time when only two other EU countries - Sweden and the Republic of Ireland - were allowing unrestricted access to their labour markets.

Most of the new EU jobseekers in the UK were from Poland - in numbers far greater than had been predicted by the UK government at the time.

Socialist MEPs from Bulgaria and Romania have sent a letter to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, voicing concern about possible UK moves to keep restrictions in place.

The letter, quoted in Bulgarian media, says: "We are facing the danger of citizens of the newest member states being prevented from exercising their rights guaranteed to them by EU treaties."

"What is more, we believe that a wave of hostile statements since the beginning of the year aims to stigmatise these citizens as second-class Europeans who pose a threat to the social systems, just because they want to exercise their basic rights to free movement and work."

The letter was supported by the chair of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda.

Shia LaBeouf's "Charlie Countryman" Finds Love in Gritty Romania

23 January 2013
by Piya Sinha-Roy

Park City, Utah (Reuters) - Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood spin a twist on classic fairytales in their new film "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman," a modern day love story that swaps castles in the sky for the underbelly of Romania's capital, Bucharest.

The film, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival this week, is a dark story of love unfolding between two unlikely people against the backdrop of a violent and crime-filled eastern European city.

Charlie (LaBeouf), an American, finds himself on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to Bucharest, where he meets the mysterious and captivating Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), and puts his life on the line for love.

"Love is always the easiest answer, but somehow it's the hardest place to get for some people. I love the contrast of this world, which is filled with violence and hatred and crime, and above all there's love," Wood said.

Director Fredrick Bond picked Bucharest because he was looking for a place that has not been captured in film prominently, and would compliment the complex nature of Charlie and Gabi's story.

"Charlie has to go through quite a tough journey and a very romantic journey, so I needed a city that had an edge," he said.

Wood, 25, said the connection that Charlie and Gabi feel the moment they meet resonated with her because that is what she felt for her husband, actor Jamie Bell, when they first met at Sundance and started dating in 2005.

"It's almost this karmic connection, this kindred spirit, this soulmate of some sort, where he looks at her and he immediately falls in love. He's never said a word to her - that really happens. That's how I met my husband," Wood said.

"We fell in love immediately, because it was almost meant to be, it was fate."


"Charlie Countryman" is the feature film debut from Swedish director Bond, an award-winning creator of commercials. Bond said he was eager to work with LaBeouf and Wood, calling them the "most talented young actors of their generation."

"They have such a sense of truthfulness," Bond said. "It's a wild, crazy journey, I needed actors who could ground their performances ... Evan and Shia are about truth."

LaBeouf, a former child star who became a box office staple as the lead in the "Transformers" franchise, has been taking on grittier roles more recently, such as a bootlegger in gangster drama "Lawless."

The 26-year-old actor said he had been drawn to the role of Charlie when he read the script three years ago.

"It spoke honestly to me, it was really original. It had a Zsa Zsa Gabor narrative and it just read like 'The Graduate' with a bloody nose," he said.

Wood, who shot to fame as the troubled young lead of teen drama "Thirteen" in 2003, said she had wanted to work with LaBeouf for a long time.

For the role of Gabi, a complex Romanian cellist who has a penchant for bad boys, Wood had to perfect a Romanian accent without the help of a dialect coach, turning to her surroundings in Bucharest to draw inspirations.

"It's very stressful because you want to do it justice, and I wanted it to be spot-on because a lot of times, it can be very distracting. You can overdo the accent," the actress said.

The film co-stars Mads Mikkelsen and Til Schweiger as Romanian mobsters, with British actors Rupert Grint, best known as Ron Weasley in the "Harry Potter" movies, and James Buckley as Charlie's errant friends.

Bond said the biggest filming challenges were the action-packed fight scenes, especially because LaBeouf did his own stunts.

"Shia wants to do everything for real, so he takes hits for real ... which is fantastic, because it gives a reality to it, but you also have only so many takes, you have to be really well prepared to do it," Bond said.

"Charlie Countryman" may defy the archetype of a traditional love story with its fierce characters in a harsh yet beautiful setting, but LaBeouf and Wood said they hoped audiences would take away messages of honesty in love from the film.

(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Mohammad Zargham)

A Window To My Soul – An Introduction

16 January 2013
Romania Insider

This book had its starting point in the correspondence between Mihai from Romania and Yvette from Sweden, between the years 1985-2011. This friendship made a big impact on both their lives, despite only meeting in person once for an hour in Mamaia, Romania in 1985 (in picture).

The first part looks at Communism through the eyes of two teenagers, Mihai in closed Romania and Yvette in open Sweden. Dreams about going abroad glues the second part together. Mihai wants to get out of Romania for the simple reason of living his life in a free, open and democratic society, Yvette for the lust for adventure and seeing the world. The last part is about new Europe and the new Europeans, the Eastern Europeans and more specifically the Romanians. How do attitudes towards Eastern Europe still color views in the West? The last part also brings the adult Mihai and adult Yvette into the Romania of today, which still struggles, but could be blossoming with all the resources the country has.

Below is a first extract from the book:

The family lived in Constanta, by the Black Sea. As a matter of fact, only ten minutes away from the sea. The house had 4 rooms, bathroom, hallway, kitchen,1 small warehouse in the back, 2 separate small rooms outside and you could store things between the roof and ceiling. Outside they kept a vegetable garden.

They had a few chickens, a few ducks and geese. They had plenty of vegetables: tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, hot peppers, paprikas, grape vines , herbs like mint, basil, thyme, dill, parsley. They had green spring onion, yellow onion, potatoes, fruit trees such as a fig tree, which split and went dry then died exactly on the day Stan died.

The family also had beautiful roses! Angelina made rose confiture from the big, thick petals. How wonderful that must have been, in Ceausescu’s Romania, to have the joy of smelling the making of the confiture and the tasting of that heavenly jam. Some colour in the grey.

Their home had a nice outside area with a grape vine hanging over a patio. For hot summer days this was a great place to sit under, eat and talk. Summers were indeed long and could be very hot. Commonly summer was playing around +30-40 C degrees in Constanta.

Nina had a pleasant and friendly, yet very strong and focused personality. She was working and teaching up in Zamostea. The 1970s were times when Ceausescu’s Communism controlled the Romanian society. For example, at work—places short skirts were not allowed among women, but the stories told by her ex-colleagues, reveal that Nina was truly revolutionary and courageous at all levels. She put her short skirts on, taught biology and all her students and all staff loved her for her omnipresent boldness.

However,one of her colleagues ratted her out to the Ministry of Education, so they sent an inspector to check on her. The inspector came, and was told by Nina, to either get out of the classroom and wait until she finished teaching the class or stay in the class and be quiet.

The inspector got so impressed by her way of teaching that instead of punishing her for wearing short skirts, congratulated her and gave her the best reference.

This was unheard of at that time. The inspector must have been courageous too.

Nina’s courage was at least praised! She went her own, fierce way. Paved the way. She had a strong spine and integrity.

A window to my soul is a book for people who are interested in the the development of the new Europe and wish to build positive collaborations between West and East, for those who are interested in leadership and for those who want to be inspired by a story of a very special friendship and love.

English is chosen to reach out to as many people as possible. The author Yvette Larsson holds a Masters of Arts in English and an Upper Secondary School Teacher diploma in English. She has also lived 3 years in London and spent 6 months in Manchester on a University exchange programme.

Yvette Larsson is Swedish, born 1972 in Gällivare, Lapland. Between the years 1991-1998 she studied English, Swedish, Education, Media & Communication and Science Journalism at the University of Umeĺ.

Her University studies were followed by one year in Stockholm and 13 years abroad. Her first overseas move was to French Reunion Island, followed by Stavanger/Bergen, Norway; Cassis/Aix-en-Provence, France; London, UK; and now Copenhagen, Denmark.

Her continuous education constitutes of numerous courses within the field of Sports and Health and she dedicated ten years to Sports Management. When the children came she trained to become a Coach and Leadership Trainer, passionate about making individuals and organisations the best they can be, and she had her own practice for four years.

She runs the blog and a Facebook page called The Bucharest Lounge, where she displays the beauty and meaning of Romania, seen through the eyes of a Swede.

He Snips, He Flirts, He Stays

11 January 2013
New York Times
by Corey Kilgannon

Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

ASTOR PLACE HAIRSTYLISTS has gone through many changes since it became, in the early 1980s, the renowned East Village hip haircut factory, but one constant has been Valentino Gogu, 65, who has been cutting hair at the shop for nearly three decades.

Mr. Gogu puts in 12-hour days, seven days a week, with no vacations, except for the half-dozen holidays a year that the shop is closed.

“What else am I going to do with myself?” asked Mr. Gogu, a Romanian immigrant.

After arriving by subway from Ridgewood, Queens, where he lives alone in a railroad apartment, he settles into his longtime corner stall, surrounded by hip-hop haircutters, punk-rock stylists and Latina blow-dry specialists. Amid all this is Mr. Gogu, with his old-world charm and accent, his devoted clientele of men and women, and his equally indefatigable scissors and mouth.

No one in the shop can remember the last time he willingly took a day off. Well, he once came in a little late.

“We were all waiting here wondering, ‘What’s wrong? You think he’s O.K.?’ ” recalled Mike Saviello, the shop’s burly floor manager, who is known as “Big Mike.”

Another time, Mr. Gogu had heart palpitations and agreed to see a doctor.

“He was back two hours later, cutting hair,” said John Vezza, who helps run the shop, which his grandfather opened in the 1940s.

Mr. Gogu said he had no family in America and nearly no social life. He spent a miserable week off recently, when the shop closed during the recent blackout in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, he said.

“I couldn’t sleep. I stayed home watching TV all day and night,” he said.

His customers are his life, and because of his constant presence, he may have the most regulars of any barber in the shop. Of his hundreds of steady clients, dozens have been coming for nearly 30 years, including a 105-year-old woman and a billionaire real estate developer, he said.

“Customers don’t have to call for an appointment — they know I’m always here,” he said on Thursday, pausing to rub ointment into the narrow fingers of his scissor hand.

“I never see daylight, but I enjoy always seeing new faces in this place — it’s never boring,” he said. Posted above his mirror are dozens of pictures of customers and their children. Next to one shot of a mop-topped teenager is a picture of a well-coiffed Sheldon Silver, the longtime speaker of the New York State Assembly, who has been coming every month for years.

Even Mr. Gogu, who often vetoes customers’ coiffure decisions, cannot persuade one of the most powerful elected officials in the state to change his hairstyle.

“Very powerful man, but a straight-ahead guy — no left, no right,” he said of Mr. Silver.

If prodded, Mr. Gogu will reveal a few celebrity stories. He claims to have given a young Anthony Michael Hall a geeky cut for one of his teen films in the 1980s, and to have cropped Hilary Swank’s hair for her Oscar-winning role as Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

“When she came in here, she was this skinny,” he said, sticking up his pinkie.

Now a female customer came in for a reshaping of her short haircut, and Mr. Gogu asked her: “You want Jamie Lee Curtis, or Mia Farrow?”

Mr. Gogu said that he split his fees — haircuts start at $16 — with the shop’s owners, and that he sent part of his income to his family in Romania. Even a workaday life in New York City is better than living under Communism in Romania, where he grew up in a labor camp watching his parents work long hours on a farm, he said.

In high school, he began cutting hair as an alternative to factory work, and after 15 years as a barber, he drove to Germany, entered a refugee residence and was eventually sent to the United States as a political asylum seeker. Speaking no English, he settled in Ridgewood, where he could speak German, Russian and Romanian with locals. He began learning English from customers at several hair shops and finally at Astor Place.

“He flirts with every woman who sits in this chair,” said Judy Rosenblatt, an actress from Greenwich Village who was now in Mr. Gogu’s chair.

She told Mr. Gogu, “I’m doing a film next week so don’t cut too much.”

He called her “a pain in the neck,” and soon they were squabbling like a married couple.

“He doesn’t obey you,” she said. “He says, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and then he does what he wants.”

“Come on,” he responded. “I know your hair for 25 years.”

“You see?” she said. “This is why people come from all over the world for Valentino.”