Great books about Romania in English No. 3: Romania and the EU. How the Weak Vanquished the Strong

Romania and the European Union:
How the Weak Vanquisjed the Strong

By Tom Gallagher

Reviewed by Christopher Lawson

What are the key events in Romania over the last 20 years? This is a much abbreviated version. For 10 of those years, the former minor functionary and Ceausescu lieutenant Ion Iliescu held power. Communism was superficially transformed.  Several political parties emerged even if elections were tainted, there was a free press which criticized those in power, travel abroad was permitted, and foreigners were allowed to reside in the country. But, in general, democratic institutions failed to take root and economic growth was minimal.

Romania only gained the title of market economy in the early 2004. Iliescu’s blood-stained hands are all over the June 1990 mineriada, the third of five, in which rampaging miners wreaked death and destruction in the capital. Official figures say that there were a thousand injured and six or seven dead, but some NGOs and other sources claim that many more protesters and bystanders were killed.

At the beginning of the Basescu government in December 2004, the crusading Monica Macovei was appointed Minister of Justice, only to be dismissed early in 2007 by Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu as soon as EU membership was ensured.

Shortly afterwards there was a failed attempt to overthrow the democratically elected President Traian Basescu, whose chief historical legacy may well be the somewhat controversial Commission on Communism, which reported to Parliament in December 2006. Some adjustments to the Commission’s condemnation of Communism were made in January 2007. 

And what impression of the country might a tourist take away in 2010?

Western sales engineers descend from planes and gather for breakfast in Romania’s international hotels. Shiny high-rise buildings rise in city centres. Well-fed Romanian businessmen attend backslapping Rotary meetings and travel from the provinces by train to the capital in comfortable sleeping compartments, or in sleek new cars which clog the overcrowded roads. 

The wares on sale in the supermarkets compare with those they are used to in the West. Fresh fish from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is delivered daily to the French hypermarket chain Carrefour. Young people clad in the latest fashions patronize chic restaurants and cafes, leaving in glossy cars or on Kawasaki motorbikes. Top names come to give concerts in the capital. The nouveaux riches flock to the stadiums and concert halls. Ambitious students seeking their fortunes opt for business or law, and graduate with a good knowledge of English and the Internet. A ruthless win-lose attitude prevails in

Meanwhile tens of thousands of peasants live in grinding poverty, with no electricity or running water, while employees of the State, notably teachers and doctors, struggle from month to month. The same kleptocrats, generally Securitate officers who once informed on their fellow-citizens, inheritors of the Stalinist system which once prevailed, sabotage numerous projects to improve the villages. I live on the university hill in Romania’s second city. Nearly every time I visit my rubbish dump, I meet poorer residents picking through plastic bottles and discarded clothes. Corruption holds sway, especially in justice,
education, medicine and tenders for road construction.

Whatever a “normal” post-Communist country may be, Romania does not count as one, despite appearances to the contrary. Tom Gallagher tells us why. 

His new book analyzes those 20 years, especially the more recent ones. Meticulously researched, written with the pace of a thriller, and in the final analysis endlessly depressing, Romania and the European Union confirms Gallagher’s position in the front rank of historians of, and commentators on, post-Communist Romania. 

The book, Gallagher’s third on Romania, and his sixth with the Balkans as Schwerpunkt, documents how old-guard, predatory kleptocrats have continued to enrich themselves, trousering millions, much of it cash from EU funds, while consistently blocking substantial reforms in key ministries. Meanwhile EU officials at all levels, alternatively complacent, deluded, indecisive or just plain feckless and lacking willpower, have, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, allowed Romania into the world’s most successful economic and political grouping without having made these vitally necessary reforms. Brussels was deceived.

So-called European Social Democrat leaders share the blame. Many praised Romanian leaders whose corrupt behaviour shrieked to the skies. In particular, it is clear that the acceptance of the PSD, the former Communists, into the international centre-left family of the Socialist International was a catastrophic error.  

The Romanian ex-Communist elite deployed the full panoply of Balkan wiles to outwit the European negotiators. They bestowed honorary doctorates on visiting or resident Eurocrats. Following ancient Phanariot tradition, they even provided bedmates for high-level EU representatives. They prevaricated, protected their own and pretended to implement reforms while preventing them from biting.  
From the pages heroes, heroines and villains arise. The villains, all of whom are well-known, outnumber the heroes and heroines. Not a single corrupt politician has been successfully prosecuted or served a full custodial sentence. The EU’s wish to have a number of heads on a plate, dripping with blood, has not been granted. Experts say the real progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime is measured not by the number of arrests, but by simple indicators: convictions by a court in a fair trial, the amount of dirty money confiscated, or the number of illegally acquired properties taken away. And such efforts have not yet been seen. (1)

I have three comments.

While the Orthodox Church and religion do not feature in the book at all, there are 13 references to the powerful intelligence services. I would like future editions to add to, check and expand these references to form an additional chapter with an in-depth analysis of Romania’s intelligence services, which Gallagher describes as sprawling and bloated. In the Appendix, Jonathan Scheele cannot have made the speech at Cuza University, Iasi, as transcribed, because the text is in Romanian English. The speech does not appear in the Romanian translation of the book, which I expect to sell as well in Romania as the author’s Theft of a nation: Romania since communism.

Its $4 billion fortune makes the Orthodox Church the country’s sixth-biggest enterprise. On the burning moral issues of today, such as integrity in politics, public-spiritedness, honesty about history and compassion for the unfortunate, the church seems to have little to say. Its recent past has been marked by cowardice, compliance with the regime in power, and, no doubt, corruption, although I have no evidence for this. Despite its ineffectiveness, the Church enjoys high public trust. About 19.5 million Romanians out of a total population of
21.5 million – 90% – declared themselves as Orthodox believers in the latest census.  A recent study shows about 4,000 churches have been built in Romania since the fall of communism in 1989, while the number of schools has been more than halved.

During the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, Romania’s sympathies quite clearly lay with Serbia, for at least three reasons. After the concession of the Serbian Banat after World War One, Serbia had no territorial claims against Romania. There was a certain sympathy for the underdog, but the main reason for the solidarity probably lay deeper in the psyche: both countries are Orthodox. (Orthodox-Christian solidarity with Serbia, coupled with domestic secessionist issues and a strong line on territorial integrity, also lies behind Romania’s refusal to recognize Kosovo.) Of course Bulgaria and Ukraine are
Orthodox countries too, but the same sympathies are not in evidence here. I would hesitate to say exactly why.

When the government overrode national sentiment and nevertheless sided with NATO, notably by granting overflying rights, this proved to be an important step in Romania’s admission both to NATO and the EU. Leading Western politicians, especially Tony Blair, used Romania’s support as a clinching argument in Romania’s EU application.

Mention of the role of the Orthodox Church would have helped clarify this episode.

Twenty years ago, the much dreaded Securitate metamorphosed into a “modern, professional and efficient” Romanian Information Service (SRI).

But the ‘new Securitate’ continued to function in an opaque manner. Its presence and activities were felt throughout the political turmoil that led up to Romania’s EU accession in January 2007.

The first SRI director was Virgil Magureanu, a “professor” at the Communist Party’s elite Academy who had made his first public appearance on a film showing the “trial” and execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He now runs a consulting company.

In 2010, the institution is still mistrusted by most Romanians. Public suspicion of its role lingers. The refurbished Romanian secret services never explained in which way they were reformed or how it was possible that Magureanu remained at the top until 1997, during Iliescu’s first presidency and half way through the mandate of his follower, the Conservative Emil Constantinescu.

One of its divisions used to be involved in “combating hooliganism, delinquency and parasitism” (pure Ceausescu-era language), and economic crimes. (2) Similarly, the early wish of the SRI to control “Romanians living and studying abroad, those of dual nationality, employees of foreign companies and foreign residents” harked back to the Communist era.

The SRI’s rebirth coincided with violent ethnic clashes between Romanians and members of the Hungarian minority in the Transylvanian city of Targu-Mures, in March 1990, which left six people dead and hundreds wounded, an event widely believed to have been staged as a pretext for the rehabilitation of an institution still dominated by Ceausescu’s henchmen.

What was the role of the SRI in the descent on Bucharest of the Jiu coal miners, in June of the same year, to crush opposition demonstrations? The miners benefited from support by the public transport system and the police, which would not have been possible without the SRI’s approval.

The surveillance of the opposition to Iliescu’s Social Democrat party and the illegal tapping of phone conversations continued until at least 1996, when a whistle-blowing SRI officer exposed them. He was fired from the SRI, and sentenced by a military court to a suspended two years in jail for “misuse of secret documents.” However, as Gallagher shows, both Baroness Emma Nicholson and EU Commissioner Scheele had cause to notice surveillance and phone-tapping.

After the period of “privatization”, when large chunks of the country’s economy went to shady characters who in the past had kept close relations with the Securitate, the SRI initially opposed Romania’s bid for NATO membership. Very quickly though, the benefits of both NATO and EU accession became obvious and the “services”, as they are known, fully embraced the nation’s rediscovered European identity.

Today, people close to the “services” belong to every political party in Romania, effectively making the SRI the most efficient cross-party network. Until now, the SRI has refused to allow the National Council for the Study of the Archives of the Securitate (CNSAS) full access to the archives of the Communist era, arguing this could harm national security.

In 2006, President Traian Basescu nominated the new SRI director, George Maior, a former Social-Democrat senator known for his consensus-building skills. But Mr Maior has failed to distance himself from the old regime’s heritage or express regret for crimes committed by the “services”.

The SRI and the SIE (the internal and external services, respectively) have at least seven separate agencies, a personal security service for the President, at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in the Police Inspectorate, Foreign Intelligence, the Army Directorate within the Ministry of Defence, yet another service within the prison service, and a Special Telecommunications Service for communications security, another military body. All these agencies answer to different people and in no way to the SRI.  The SRI and SIE answer to the President directly, Military Intelligence to the Defense Minister, the services of the Interior Ministry to the Minister of the Interior, and so on. Moreover, there are also diverging factions within these organizations. Much in-fighting results.

When, within the auspices of the DGA (the General Anti-Corruption Directorate), tough, resolute prosecutor Marian Sintion tried to clean up the Ministry of Administration and the Interior, which employed 150, 000 staff , among them many generals and colonels, he was forced to resign after two years. Sintion wrote a report on the reasons for his resignation, which Minister Vasile Blaga had classified.  

Cotroceni, the Palace in which the President resides, controls the SPP service (Serviciul de Paza si Protocol). Originally the service did indeed protect officials, and set diplomatic rules of courtesy and etiquette. Now its use is wider and more nefarious.

Under Iliescu and Constantinescu there were 600 to 700 employees. Now there are 2,000. Its employees, involved in electoral campaigns, also follow people, including journalists considered hostile to the President, and provide disinformation to the media.

Too often the Intelligence Services themselves are entangled and entwined with corruption, quite apart from their more sinister involvements. They require further investigation in the next edition.

I borrow my conclusion from the late and much-missed Tony Judt. In his excoriating chapter on Romania (3) in Reappraisals, now entitled Romania between history and Europe,  he quotes from a British friend of Romania and from a former Iron Guardist.  In his History of the Roumanians (1934). R.W. Seton-Watson wrote:

Two generations of peace and clean government might make of Roumania an earthly paradise, for she has great natural resources and all that is necessary to a well ordered economy. 

At the other extreme E.M. Cioran, a cosmic pessimist with whom even Samuel Beckett lost sympathy, wrote:

Some countries are blessed with a sort of grace: everything works for them, even their misfortunes and their catastrophes. There are others for whom nothing succeeds and whose very triumphs are but failures. When they try to assert themselves and take a step forward, some external fate intervenes to break their momentum and returns them to their starting point.

(1) Lack of Political Will Thwarts Anticorruption Efforts, Gordana Igric et al,
Balkan, 4 June 2010

(2) Baleanu V. The enemy within: The Romanian Intelligence Service in
transition, Conflct Studies Research Centre, Sandhurst, January 1995

(3) Also available at

The last time we were in there, Anthony Frost had copies of both Tom Gallagher’s Romania books, Romania and the EU: How the Weak Conquered the Strong and Romania, Theft of a Nation.

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  • Caroline

    When someone points out corruption and dysfunction in Romanania, many Romanians in turn point to a shady conspiracy controlling their nation masterminded from elsewhere, or else resort to “Neener neener, your country’s corrupt too.”

    Kinda like Parmalat is doing.

    • Parmalat

      Of course it was masterminded from Washington and Bruxelles, Romanians didn’t have money to buy each other after ’89 and the proof is that today, the country’s biggest companies are owned by foreigners and were usually bought for less than 30% of their value (BCR, the Mittal factories, Petrom, BRD etc…)

      If those companies would have been bought by Romanians, Bruxelles and Washington had the right to say about corruption in Romania but as long as they created and benefited from corruption they can at least shut up about it.

  • You know the ex-Communist elite are doing something right when you see more black Mercedes CL 63 AMGs around than you would ever see in New York let alone any other EU capital. Every day I go out to photograph I see a number of them all around the city. Their sticker price is 130,000+ Euro. For the second poorest country in the European Union and a land with a rural life long forgotten in the rest of Europe more than a century ago, that is saying something.

    For me, because of the spectacular nature of Ceausescu’s legacy, Bucharest remains an infinitely fascinating place to photograph:

  • Parmalat

    No, it’s the other way around:

    – Washington and Bruxelles bought Romanian politicians after 1989
    – The purpose was to lay their hands on the national fortune of Romania which Ceausescu built and was worth many billions of Euro
    – Now Washington and Bruxelles achieved their purpose and they don’t want to buy Romanian politicians anymore
    – That’s why they’re yelling “Corruption!” everytime they get the chance – because they know damn well who they bought

  • Geronimo

    I left over 9 years ago and I still come back…

  • Neil

    Interesting stuff. Having recently left Bucharest I’m still finding myself drawn to this page…I shall be looking for a Seoul version very soon.