Feudalism and Futility in Romania

BUCHAREST: Months of political infighting in Romania seemingly ended with the recent, not-so-unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Viktor Ciorbea. Little more than a year after he led the country’s "democratic forces" to stunning parliamentary and presidential victories, the ruling coalition of Christian-Democrats, liberals, social-democrats, and ethnic Hungarians now seems on the brink of disintegration. Although the ex-Prime minister had been held personally responsible for his government's failure to follow through on its ambitious economic reforms, that failure goes far deeper than one man.

Last year's bright hopes for an economic upturn have vanished. Salaries now lag so far behind prices that most people cannot meet their everyday needs. In 1997 GDP dropped by 7%, hitting hard the already meager state budgets for health and education. Enterprises, even private and relatively efficient ones, suffer because of slack demand. Despite some acceleration of the privatization process -- not hard to achieve given that little privatization took place under the former regime of President Ion Iliescu -- no state banks have been privatized, and large state companies like Romanian Railways (SNCFR), and the National Electricity Company (RENEL) blithely continue to pile up huge unpaid debts.

To cope with these gargantuan economic challenges, Romania required a determined cabinet, a united parliamentary majority, and a clear, resolute roadmap for reform. It has had none of these. Although Ciorbea's goodwill, personal honesty, and commitment to reform remain undisputed, he was a man of weak resolve, blown this way and that by President Constantinescu and other leaders in the coalition cabinet.

But personal shortcomings alone did not undo Ciorbea’s government. Rather, a pervasive confusion about what really is at stake in the process of reforming Romania’s economy, institutions, and society is at the heart of this failure. Our shortsighted politicians are captives of their momentary and monetary interests; our journalists prefer scandal to the hard slog of investigation and analysis. Few people are willing to go beyond superficial approaches to politics and reporting on politics, at least not while rooting out scapegoats remains so rewarding an activity.