Existing impressions of Romania are usually a hangover from Ceausescu's iron-fisted stranglehold: starving orphans, the systematic destruction of cultural monuments, and industrial plants spilling toxic waste. Indeed, Communism did a great deal to break the spirit of this nation. But the Romanian people broke the back of the regime in a small but bloody revolution that, back in 1989, was only the start of a long road to recovery. The transition from Communism has been uneven and uneasy; Ceausescu's replacement is widely considered to have been just another Communist in disguise and insiders will tell you that he is a murderer responsible for the death of innocents during the overthrow of the Communist regime.
Chat with the locals, and you'll hear much about a country beleaguered by corruption (a 2006 World Bank report stated that 50% of businesses are troubled by the level of graft) and a general lack of confidence in political leaders, underscored by schizophrenic election results. Even after E.U. accession, corruption and red tape continue to dog its business environment. And while minister-level officials play dirty-tactic politics, people on the ground continue to experience widespread economic impoverishment, particularly in rural areas -- about one-third of the workforce continues to earn a living through agriculture. Romania is seen as a source of cheap labor, and a number of foreign companies have set up shop here mainly to take advantage of these low-wage expectations. Many young people with skills and education, as well as those disheartened by limited work prospects at home, cross the border for better wages and opportunities; with E.U. accession, the drain of human resources has increased, and will likely continue until local wage prospects improve. Equally, locals complain, it is impossible to "get things done" in Romania, as a stultifying bureaucracy strangles entrepreneurial efforts.
In some ways, these ongoing problems are a residue of Communism, where the regime primarily served those who were connected to the seat of power, and a centralized public sector tended to curb anything resembling entrepreneurship. There was no such thing as foreign tourism, and therefore a general absence of service-industry culture. Jobs were there to be filled, not necessarily performed with any aplomb (if, indeed, at all), so the status quo -- no matter how frustrating and dehumanizing -- was fastidiously maintained. Some say that the twinning of Romanian bureaucracy with E.U. protocol presents even greater potential to subvert progress.
In 2009, Traian Basescu enters his fifth year as president of Romania. Heading a large coalition, Basescu has long professed to hold real democratic ideals and genuinely oppose corruption; he has been uncompromising in this regard to the extent that he has alienated his prime minister, who entered office a close ally of the president. Amongst his achievements have been the new government's imposition of one of Europe's most liberal tax systems, and wages are rising along with a slowly emerging middle class. But cultural problems persist in the form of corruption and red tape which continue to handicap the business terrain. Driven partly by the depreciation of the currency, rising energy costs, a nationwide drought affecting food prices, and a relaxation of fiscal discipline, inflation rose in 2007 for the first time in 8 years. Naturally, people on the ground blame E.U. membership, which perhaps came at a difficult time, when discussions about a global recession have sullied European optimism.
National elections in 2009 are likely to produce yet another set of disruptive results. Despite a desire for steady reform, Romania remains one of Europe's poorest nations, and while the spirit of development may be evident in projects in and around Bucharest, rural Romania still appears to stumble along at an altogether different pace. But the capital's transformation clearly signals the aspirations for a prosperous future and -- despite ongoing public and media aspersions about corruption and political bungling -- urban Romania seems hellbent on careening into full-blown capitalism and reaping the fruits of free-market enterprise. The rest of the country may well be better off for the time being, unaffected by the tidal wave of change.
Ceasescu's Legacy on the Silver Screen -- To get a feel for the kinds of social hardship endured under Ceasescu's Communist stranglehold, rent Romania's 2007 Cannes Palme d'Or-winning film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, directed by Cristian Mungiu. Raw, emotionally gripping, and at times shocking, the harrowing drama -- shot on a shoestring budget -- unapologetically depicts the misadventures of two students who try to procure an illegal abortion from a corrupt physician. Be warned: It will put you in touch with the psyche of Romania during the 1980s.
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