Twenty-three years after the bloody uprising that freed it from the grip of the Ceausescu dictatorship, Romania seemed to have become a consolidated democracy, boasting membership in NATO and the European Union. Then came the summer of 2012, when the southeastern European country, already a cause of concern to Western Europe because of reports of creeping lawlessness and political corruption, tried on a more authoritarian political identity, as a second Belarus or a second Venezuela. Officials in the EU and US winced and unequivocally called upon the new Romanian government to abide by its commitments.
The country’s summer of discontent actually started in January, when street riots challenged the country’s leadership. Partly spontaneous, partly organized by the left-leaning, populist, anti–International Monetary Fund (or IMF) opposition, including the Romanian equivalent of “Occupy Wall Street,” the winter demonstrations may have failed to produce a robust social movement with coherent goals and a credible strategy, but they did preview the serious political tensions that would explode later on.
President Traian Basescu, a former sea captain twice elected to five-year terms in 2004 and 2009, has received the lion’s share of blame for drastic IMF-required austerity measures adopted in May 2010 and has suffered steady declines in popularity among voters. A reformist government headed by a former foreign minister and head of foreign intelligence, Oxford-educated historian Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, was voted down in April and a left-center coalition, the Social Liberal Union, formed the current government in May. The new prime minister, thirty-nine-year-old socialist Victor Ponta, is a self-proclaimed admirer of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. Writer and Nobel laureate Herta Müller, who was born in Romania, called Ponta’s party “fake Social Democrats” and the new governing style “a play of crooks.”
After Ponta’s ascension as prime minister in June 2012, Nature magazine published a devastating article showing that his Ph.D. thesis contained more than one hundred plagiarized pages. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde, and many other European newspapers picked up the story. The Romanian Ministry of Education’s Council on Ethics was about to condemn Ponta when its membership was suddenly expanded to include a majority of his supporters. The reconfigured body exonerated the prime minister, although the Ethical Commission of the University of Bucharest, Ponta’s alma mater, unambiguously condemned him for plagiarism. To counteract the effects of the scandal, Ponta and his closest ally, Liberal Party leader Crin Antonescu, touched off an outburst of xenophobic and anti-Western attacks about the motivations of the foreign media reporting on the story, while also announcing a populist program of wage and pension increases.
The political situation in the country became further inflamed in June when former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (a Social Democrat luminary, law professor, and also Ponta’s Ph.D. adviser) was sentenced to two years in jail on charges of corruption and reportedly attempted suicide at the time of his arrest. Once perceived as an omnipotent figure, Nastase, who amassed a large fortune during and after his years in office, became the first post-Communist premier, not only in Romania but in any EU country, to go to jail. Whether or not he actually tried to kill himself—he has maintained the suicide version from prison, where he continues to blog about his unjust imprisonment and political ambitions—he has whipped up a national soap opera monopolizing Romanian television.
Traducerea textului complet al articolului va aparea in primul numar pe 2013 al revistei 22.