what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Firm action from the EC

With the Danube and mid Balkan towns having hit 42 degrees on Sunday, we edged nervously out of the Bucharest suburbs at 07.30 Monday. But the forecasts had assured us of more acceptable temperatures - and the drive to Sofia was in fact a delight. The Bulgarian roads from Russe to Sofia are like the old RN French roads – narrow but straight – and offer very relaxed conditions (if you know where to watch for the cops). 
And Sofia welcomed us six hours later with a great rose wine and meal. Who can ask for more?
Every day since dawns coolly – with the narrow streets and trees offering great cycling conditions until mid afternoon when we disappear into the Rodina Hotel pool and exercises.

In our absence the EC has acted, as Tom Gallagher argues here, with commendable firmness toward its wayward child and issued yesterday an appropriate judgement, the technical detail of which can be seen here 

The Romanian President will still lose the 29 July vote – and it is highly unlikely that the complex package of nationalistic outrage (“we obey only Romanians”) and admissions of guilt and remorse by the Prime Minister and acting President will in fact translate into anything significant thereafter. 
Most of the western commentators have taken Basescu’s side – mainly because of the sheer crudity and stupidity of the tactics used in the Ponta power grab (Iliescu,  Nastase and even Basescu were so much more clever). Basescu is credited by Westerners with being the real reformer and certainly is the one person who has pursued judicial reform with real zeal. But to those who excuse Basescu’s breaches of constitutionality (he ruled for several years, for example, on emergency ordinances while having a parliamentary majority) I simply reply that I have still to see an article (in English) which can convince me (judicial reform apart) that he has in the past 8 years actually been pursuing a coherent reform agenda. 
He seems to me just a bull in a china shop – who loves the sound of his own bellow.  
A leftist website gives, amazingly, a more objective perspective
And an article in Der Spiegel gives some useful background on the political party set-up -
Ponta's three-party alliance, called the Social Liberal Union, is populated by a worrying number of prominent politicians and businesspeople who are suspected of corruption, abuse of office or crime. Interim President Antonescu's National Liberal Party, for example, provides a political home to the oil magnate and billionaire Dinu Patriciu, who has successfully withstood years of investigations into allegedly corrupt privatization deals. Head of the insignificant Conservative Party, Dan Voiculescu, is a former Securitate employee who was instrumental in helping ex-Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu acquire hard currency. Now one of the richest people in the country, he owns the influential television broadcasters Antena1 and Antena3.
And then there is the Social Democratic Party (PSD) of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. The party has its origins in the days following the toppling of Ceausescu in December 1989. It rapidly became a collection of former Securitate and communist party elites and is seen by many in Romania as the ultimate symbol of a corrupt oligarchy.
Ponta's political mentor, former Prime Minister and PSD head Adrian Nastase, for example, is an icon of political corruption. On June 20, he was sentenced to two years behind bars for illegal campaign and party financing practices. It was the first time in two decades that a politician of his caliber was sent to jail. In an attempt to avoid jail time, Nastase last month acted out an elaborate suicide attempt -- which merely delayed his sentence by a few days. He is now in jail.
A 'Duplicitous Scoundrel'Nastase's sentencing, however, was the ultimate warning shot fired across the bow of Romania's corrupt elite. If someone at the level of Nastase can be thrown in jail, then it can happen to anybody. Indeed, observers believe that his sentencing is the primary motivation for the power struggle currently engaged in by Ponta and Basescu. "They are doing all they can to resist an independent judiciary," says the lawyer Laura Stefan. "They would rather that Romania was in a kind of gray area outside of the European Union."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Taking distance

I can see that some of my recent readers are more interested in painting than politics – and that my blog masthead does clearly state that, unlike most blogs, this one doesn’t “give instant opinions on current events”.
So let me explain why, in the past week, I have been commenting on the ongoing crisis in this country where I have residence and a mountain home.
Simply that I decided in 2007 – after 8 years in Central Asia – that it was time to return to Central/Eastern Europe and to see -
  • how its governance system was developing – ie both the administrative system which has been the focus of my work in various countries over the past 20 years  and the wider political system
  •  what lessons this held for the various tools international bodies have been trying to develop over this period for other “transition” countries eg in “neighbourhood countries”
I was lucky on my return from Central Asia in that, within a few months, I became Team Leader of a project in Bulgaria focused on training local actors in the implementation of the European Acquis. It proved to be a challenging reinsertion to Europe – not least because of the combination of Bulgarian and Italian cultures (the latter being the main contractor). But I survived – and enjoyed the experience – and Bulgaria. That allowed me to refine the critique I had been working up for some time about EC Technical Assistance.
My next project in 2009 was a not dissimilar one in Romania – but I could sustain the controlling and internecine Romanian bureaucratic culture for only a month before I resigned in disgust and protest. I was happy to have another Bulgarian project for the past 18 months and to divide my time between Sofia and the house in the Carpathian mountains as I pursued more of a cultural agenda.
Frankly the political antics in both countries didn’t interest me – a political animal if ever there was one as I had given 20 years of my life to regional politics in Scotland. But both countries have been pursuing a neo-liberal agenda – whatever their political rhetoric and labels may occasionally say. And, having spent some time with younger political aspirants in the mid 1990s in Romania, it was very clear they were being groomed (by American advisers) simply in the skills of political marketing – not of policy substance. Here is one of the best takes on the situation.  

One technical question I now have is the extent to which the semi-Presidential system of Romania is now contributing to the Romanian problems. They are a highly argumentative race – and such a system is doomed to impasse (let alone highly emotional conflict) in the absence of a powerful leader (such as Iliescu) who can informally control everything – despite the minimal powers the role actually gives. Basescu managed (with a sick psyche) to do this for some years but, in the end, political forces and public patience just ran out. 
What, I wonder, are the implications for the country’s future constitutional settlement? 
Sadly the country lacks the civil society to organise the sort of constitutional process Scotland developed in the 1980s and 1990s.
I’m driving tomorrow to the heat of Bucharest – and then on to Sofia for a week. Bulgaria is now performing much more positively than Romania - reflected in its financial ratings.

Hypocritical Europe?

Today's previous post tried simply to describe the latest developments here in Romania. This second post today reflects conversations with local people and is a comment.
European input to Romania’s ongoing political crisis is a delicate matter. It can all too easily become counter-productive. There are many educated Romanians - and they are highly intelligent, proud and touchy – and can quickly spot apparent inconsistencies if not hypocrisies in comments from Brussels and BerlinFor example -
  • Italy and Greece have been hotbeds of corruption, blatant disregard of rule of law and conflicts of interest for decades - and yet Europe took action only recently when its own financial stability was threatened. 
  • Romania’s (suspended) President has been overstepping his role for several years, acting unconstitutionally on several occasions and yet Europe said nothing. This week’s judgement of the Constitutional Court apparently agreed that Basescu has been usurping the Prime Minister's role - although most newspaper reports focus only on their agreement that due procedures were observed. 
People with no axe to grind in the present stand-off are asking why Romania is being picked on in this way. A lot of people believe that Europe is so hostile to Romania that it is looking for a reason to kick them out.
Europe therefore needs to tread carefully – and spell out clearly the basis for its concerns. Officially, Romania obtained membership of the European Union in 2007 only because it was judged to have satisfied certain basic conditions – ie of being a functioning democracy and market economy. Any sign that the rule of law is not being respected is a more worrying signal in a new state than an old member state – since such things take time to bed down. In that sense all member states are not equal (Can one take seriously a Constitutional Court which has taken three different positions in 3 years about the rules for a referendum to impeach the President???). Why else is Romania subject to these 6 monthly tests???
A year ago I drew attention to an important distinction a Czech discussant made  -
between democracy understood as institutions and democracy understood as culture. It’s been much easier to create a democratic regime, a democratic system as a set of institutions and procedures and mechanism, than to create democracy as a kind of culture – that is, an environment in which people are actually democrats
My old neighbour will be voting for the impeachment – most old villagers follow the socialist party line. But he does not appreciate constitutional niceties – for example, removing the next in line for the Presidency a few days before the removal of the President may not be unconstitutional in the strict sense - but it is in fact a profound undermining of the essence of constitutionality. If the beef is with Basescu's behaviour, then why not accept the next in line - also a PDL member? Removing him before he could take up the interim position demonstrates the attack is a wider political one - concerned to pack all institutions with yea-sayers. That's a coup d'etat! I'm surprised more commentators have not focussed on that.
Independent analysts such as Tom Gallagher and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi have spelled out in many papers and books over the years just how deviant the political class is here (Tom's latest in his 2009 book Romania and the European Union - how the weak vanquished the strong; Alina's in her chapter in the 2009 book Democracy’s plight in the European Neighbourhood).
The issue is how Europe explains to the Romanian voters that they are still under assessment - without driving them into the arms of the ultra nationalists???
So far, I've had no response from my brief letter to David Martin MEP. And the European Parliament seems to be splitting on political lines - with the Head of the Socialists and also of the Liberals siding with Ponta
The painting is one of Belgian painter's - James Ensor

Good cop, bad cop

We seem to have a good cop, bad cop routine going on here in Romania – with the Romanian PM (Ponta) being sweetness and light to Europe; whilst the guy who was positioned first as Senate leader and then, a week later, appointed by virtue of that position as interim President of the country taking a tougher line.
After talks in Brussels on Thursday with, European commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said that Romania's government "must respect the full independence of the judiciary, restore the powers of the Constitutional Court and ensure that its decisions are observed".
According to his press spokesman he also gave Ponta a list of steps he must take to restore confidence in his government's commitment to EU standards of the rule of law including -
  • repealing recent decisions curbing the powers of the constitutional court to check new or amended laws;
  • stopping the politically selective use of the official journal, in which legislation has to be published in order to take effect; and
  • ensuring the appointment of an Ombudsman who has the support of all political parties
But Romania’s interim president Crin Antonescu (National Liberal party), giving his first press conference yesterday in that role said: "The president of Romania, even the interim president, doesn't take orders... from anyone except parliament and the Romanian people." (someone needs to brief this guy about the implications of being a member of the European Union!!). Antonescu denied reports Barroso had given Ponta a "to-do list".
"The 10 or 11 commandments from Barroso don't exist, because we have no such document and because it would represent an unacceptable and unimaginable overreach of the European Commission's powers, which someone with as much experience and prestige as Mr Barroso would not have done." (He may be correct that no document exists but hasn’t he been following the developments in Hungary - some of whose government decisions have been referred by the European Commission to theEuropean Court of Justice )
There is actually some confusion about what actions Barroso actually set out. According to today's Hotnews.ro these are the requests which Ponta has promised to respond to -

  • No head of the National Anti-Corruption Department be designated or no new prosecutor-general named during the interim Presidency of Antonescu
  • No pardon be issued during the interim Presidency of Antonescu - a hint at the homes of former PM Adrian Nastase, the current PM's mentor Victor Ponta, who was recently convicted in the case Corruption
  • no Minister should hold office who has received a sentence regarding their personal integrity (don't ask me what this is).  Deputies who have final decisions of incompatibility and conflict of interests must resign also (as in the case of MPs Sergiu Andon and Florin Pislaru)
  • The People's Lawyer (Ombudsman) must be a person who has the support of all political parties
  • The Powers of the Constitutional Court recently revoked must all be returned and the emergency Ordinance annulled
  • The rules to validated the referendum to impeach the president must be re-established,
  • the Official Gazette no longer must be used for the "selective" official publication of Decisions
Coincidentally the European Commission next week will issue its regular report on the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which follows progress in combating corruption and organised crime.
And the president of one of Europe's top bodies on constitutional and human will next week head up a fact-finding mission to Romania. Jean-Claude Mignon, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, will be in Bucharest on July 18 and 19, the assembly said in a statement Friday. PACE pushes for improved human and democratic rights across its 47 member states and in other nations. Mignon is set to meet with Ponta, Basescu, the president of the constitutional court and other officials.


And it will be next week before Parliament meets to decide how to reconcile their decision to change the referendum rules (simple majority of those voting decides) with the Constitutional Court's (new) requirement that an outcome will require a turnout of 50% plus one (very difficult to achieve with such an outdated electoral register)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A pantomime which requires a boycott

With just over 2 weeks to the referendum on the future of the Romanian President, there is utter confusion on the rules which will decide its outcome. Simple majority of those voting (as parliament decided last week); majority of those entitled to vote (as it has been for a few years); or a requirement that a valid vote requires at least 50% turnout (the condition placed yesterday by the Constitutional Court. The ULR government has promised to hold an emergency session of Parliament to enact the latter condition and end the constitutional crisis which currently exists. And that was enough to call off the American Ambassador’s criticisms. Although Basescu is very unpopular (with only about 15% public support), this might just be enough to save him – since a lot of people are on holiday in late July (although they are able to vote anywhere in Romania).
However, this being Romania, people could interpret the situation in very different ways. As one of my compatriot’s blogposts puts it 
Some of today's papers say Victor Ponta will not respect the ruling, others are unclear. All is confusion. In theory we could have Mr. Băsescu losing the referendum with a turnout of below 50%, he and the Constitutional Court claiming he is president and the temporary incumbent claiming he is acting president - a situation like the Anti-Popes who waged war on one another in the Middle Ages or the three false Dimitris who bedevilled Polish history or the various people who claimed to be Louis XVII. 
Basescu is actually hinting at a boycott - "people should not be part of this dishonesty" - but the above scenario would bring the country to its knees. In a previous post I myself suggested that voters should spoil their papers - this perhaps remains the best option. People do need to vote to ensure this nonsense is ended - and, if a significant number of the votes were disqualified because of a "plague on the political class" scrawl, this would at least send a message that voter patience is wearing thin. Bear in mind that November sees parliamentary elections - and there is a far-right party waiting in the wings which could make all this look like a minor tiff!
At least it seems that the European Parliament people are taking a hard line with the Romanian government – the chairman of the European Parliament has spoken out;  and the leader of the conservative group (EPP) actually refused to meet with Ponta on the latter's visit to Brussels. And others are ostracising Ponta - as this highly symbolic picture shows

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Time for international action on Romania

A lot of us have been despairing recently about democracy - but the current crisis in Romania reminds us why millions of people have been willing to die for it. Basically it is about those in power not being able to ride roughshod (with jackboots) over opposing voices. It is about a default position which forces those with power to at least think twice - if not actually engage in dialogue - before they try to take drastic actions. The default position is created by constitutional (or semi-constitutional) institutional structures which you respect and change only through dialogue and consensus.
I asked recently why the independent voices of Romania seemed so silent in its present crisis of democracy. This morning, the country’s most distinguished intellectual Andrei Plesu published a powerful article in der Spiegel. A university professor under dictator Nicolae Ceausesucu, Plesu was banished to a small village and barred from teaching in the 1980s for associating with dissidents. After the fall of communism, he served as minister of culture and, from 1997 to 1999, as foreign minister (for the Christian democrats). He was, briefly, an adviser to Basescu at the start of the President's rule - but resigned after only a few months under circumstances which have never been properly explained. He was also a leading figure in the Romanian Cultural Institute whose sudden transfer to government control was one of the early moves in this escalating power sweep. So he is not a completely Olympian figure - but he is most certainly not someone who would take a party position. His commitments are, first and foremost, to principles of freedom of expression and rule of law. His piece includes the following -
In a suicidal declaration, the current prime minister, Dr. Victor Ponta, claims that he devotes "75 percent of the time in government meetings to political turf warfare." For weeks, he has been confronted with accusations that he plagiarized extensively when writing his doctoral thesis. Yet his behaviour leads us to conclude that he doesn't know what constitutes plagiarism. He believes that he can copy 85 pages from another work with impunity, and without identifying the text as a quotation. When the commission that was appointed to investigate the charges of plagiarism confirmed the suspicion, it was summarily dismissed.
Meanwhile, the prime minister travels to the EU summit in Brussels even though he lacks the mandate to represent Romania. In doing so, he ignores a ruling by the constitutional court that it was the president who should have gone to Brussels instead. And what happened next? The powers of the constitutional court were drastically curtailed.
Half-baked amendments are bulldozed through the parliament and institutional powers are restricted, established procedure is ignored without any plausible explanation being provided. The management of the national archive (which had been tasked with securing access to documents relating to the communist dictatorship) is dismissed as are the boards of the government-run television station and the institute for investigation of political crimes before 1989. The same fate befalls the ombudsman, who represents Romanian citizens in complaints against government entities, as well as the chairmen of both chambers of parliament.An atmosphere of amazement and uncertainty prevails in Romania. Two Nobel Prize winners, Herta Müller and Tomas Tranströmer, many foreign institutions, the ambassador of the United States in Bucharest, the European Justice Commissioner, leading European politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, countless Romanian artists and intellectuals, various institutions of civil society and youth organizations are protesting against current developments -- because it has clearly begun spinning out of control.
Who wants to live in a country like this? For my part, I feel burdened by the atmosphere created by the Romanian government. I want to be able to do my work, and I have no special demands. All I want is a minimum level of normalcy that makes it possible for me to bring my projects and my life to a successful conclusion.In essence, this is also the responsibility of governments. They should make it possible for the people in their country to go about their business in peace, and under humane conditions. But for some time now, I have been waking up every morning to witness the disconcerting signs of social decay.And now, for the first time in 40 years, I am not eager to return "home" from Berlin
.
For what some local papers are saying, see here and here. This is the second article this week in Der Spiegel about the situation. The first is here.
And here is an excellent post from another expat here which adopts the useful "devil's advocate" approach on the situation ie starting from the position that the President has indeed been overstepping his role and setting out -
  • what a more reasonable strategy would have been
  • the incredibly stupid mistakes which this Prime Minister has made
As someone who has been a Labour activist for 50 years (!), what I now want to know is what the Socialist International is going to do with these cretins. I'm apparently not able to contact them directly so have written to David Martin, Scotland's most senior MEP and an old political colleague to find out what action (if any) is being considered against the PSD who form the main party in the current unholy alliance of liberals, conservatives and socialists.
Incidentally, if ever you needed proof of how much the Romanian political class is out for its own interests, the composition of this alliance is it!
A decade or so ago, the EC sanctioned Austria (for 7 months) for daring to take the far-right Freedom Party into a coalition. What is happening here is ten times worse. The basic principle of the European Union is supposed to be its commitment to democratic principles. Standing by while they are thrown on the bonfire would be the final nail in the EU coffin. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Legacies - personal and collective

I woke this morning with thoughts of a website devoted to vignettes of those who had lived (or were living) “worthy lives”. The adjective perhaps misleads – it has a condescending note to it. But the “good life” which seemed initially the better phrase to denote the subject of my thoughts seems to hold such meanings as sybaritism; self-sufficiency and ecological sensitivity; or Christmas cracker lists.
Legacy is a word to conjure with. At one level, it has promise of future riches; at another level it is about accounting for our past actions. One of the most powerful mental exercises is imagining you are at your own funeral and anticipating what people will say about you. Then exploring what changes you should and can make in your life to be more like the person you would like to be (remembered as).
I’ve been re-watching the West Wing television series and was particularly taken with the episode entitled 365 days. After a heart attack, Jed Bartlett’s Chief of Staff has returned to the White House just before the final year of the President’s second term. He sits watching the President’s previous State of the Union addresses, then brings the staff together and says 
We’ve been here 7 years. Done some things we’re proud of; things we’re less pleased about…It may be time for us to take our own temperature, an internal inventory…What’s done. What’s undone. What’s done that we’d like to undo or do over.
Even as Leo McGarry speaks, people are being called out of the meeting to deal with various crises. When they return he reminds them of how much power they have to change lives, writes the numbers 365 on the whiteboard to emphasise how few days/little time is left – and asks them what they would actually like to achieve in this time. The relief is palpable – people’s cynicism disappears and ideas come thick and fast.  

Not only crises but routine and the need for survival make it difficult to give much thought to the question of whether our impact (both as an individual and as a group member) on other people is as positive as it might be.
I’m at the stage of my life when such questions matter. And find it sad that we seem to need to wait for someone’s death before we really appreciate them. And that, even then, we don’t seem able to celebrate them and their values properly. Twenty years after my father’s death I still can’t decide how his memory (and values) can best be served. And I now have this ridiculous idea that my various papers and scribbles (let alone strivings) might be worth preserving in some sort of way – only as an example, I hurry to add, of one 20th century man’s attempt to make sense of the life he was given. I have been lucky with the level and breadth of work opportunities I've had (both in UK and abroad); was given a love of reading and culture; and am keen to share. These are the distinctive aspects of my life. 
And there must be many thousands of people who are generous in their assessments of people and keen to share. Why don’t we connect more?  The media give so many bad role models. Isn't it about time we fought back?    
That's why I woke up thinking about a website celebrating the lives of those (particularly the less famous) who make other peoples' lives worth living........    

By the way, the link I've given to West Wing is a Clive James piece which must be read simply as an example of how to bring the English language alive. I have pulled from my shelves his Cultural Amnesia - notes on the margin of my time (2007) which must be one of the all-time great books, celebrating people we simply didn't know existed. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The wider context of Rule of Law

Those interested in the latest developments of the serious Romanian crisis now unfolding (with the President now out of office until a referendum on 27 July decides his fate) are best briefed here. And it's good to see Der Spiegel producing a good article on how the situation is being viewed in Germany.
All I know is that none of the hot air being expended makes a damn bit of difference to the people who live in villages such as mine here in Brasov County. Everyone still has their couple of cows, pigs and a dozen hens - and ensures that the hay is collected. True I have water from the municipal system - but most of my old neighbours draw their water from a natural source they themselves tapped 40 years ago - and need the state system only for the delivery of their mail; the small primary school and a badly maintained road.
And the EC has been a disaster here - trying to kill the systems on which they live and subsidising the disastrous carbuncle of a guest house being completed on the hill opposite - an eyesore which will simply take money from the older people who offer charming b and b (cazare) experiences in their old houses.

Those who think that such declines in political systems are to be found only in the East should read the latest UK Democratic Audit.

And those who want a wider view of trends in Rule of Law might listen to the latest UK Reith Lectures which, this year, are being delivered by the globally-renowned, right-wing historian Niall Ferguson - supposedly on this theme. I've listened to the first and a bit of the second but, so far, can't find much about rule of law. It seems rather to be about
  • the extent to which governments have  broken with the contract (I didn't know we had) with future generations
  • the scale of indebtedness (Japan and UK in particular)
  • the importance of institutions 
I'm hoping it sparks a debate. I’m no fan of Niall Ferguson  but he did make an important point when he suggested that there should be an additional criterion used in policy impact assessments – effect on future generations. This was part of his larger argument about how governments have in the past decade shoved a lot of debt on future generations – the British Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is just the most visible example (with 300 billion pounds being the latest estimate of what the final bill will be. Talk about a Faustian pact!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Romania's real tragedy

What passes in this country for political discussion has an increasingly paranoiac tone. I have found that venom between political personalities and groups generally reflects (a) an absence of significant policy differences between political parties and (b) their being "on the make" and committed to personal enrichment rather than (even the pretence of) the public good.
The result is those who lose elections are envious of every day the opposite lot has its snout in the trough (as distinct from theirs). Thus it has been with the two parties in America (the recent differences have been cultural rather than policy) - which are simply conduits for the cash which is needed in that country for candidates to stand.
Romanian political parties are opportunistic devices; they come and they go – and those elected often change their allegiance when they see the way voter opinion is going. Europe too easily assumed that Romania had an operational democracy!  

Citizens in Romania face rising prices and falling wages – but the political class has no time for such issues. For several weeks, all its efforts and time has been spent on power games. But parliamentary elections come in a few months. The people will not forget. We can expect the extreme parties – such as they are - to garner votes.
There seems a total absence of any independent voice of reason in this situation. Senior civil servants and those on a whole variety of state bodies are servants of the party which appointed them. Those who have been sacked in the past few days were the political appointments of “the other lot” – not the independent souls we imagine. Many of those in civil society (who signed the letters to Europe) have attachments. It is very difficult to survive without them. The media is part of the power struggle. And Universities are corrupted. And so it goes on. This is a systemic problem – not just the case of a crazy Prime Minister (or President) – and needs a systemic solution.
Romania has an incredible number of bright people – more intellectuals than any other country I know. At the moment they seem struck dumb. And, sadly, they are all highly competitive if not arrogant – and don’t seem capable of making alliances with one another to help pull the country out of its downward spiral. That’s the real tragedy!

If in fact there is a referendum later this month which asks citizens whether their President should be impeached, voters actually should be encouraged to score out the word “Basescu” on the ballot paper and replace it with “politicians”. That is the simplest way to tell them to start focusing on public problems and opportunities rather than on their own.
In the meantime, someone needs to start a discussion about the qualities Romania needs in its politicians and what sort of mechanism is needed to start recruiting and sustaining a new breed of serious people (on lower salaries and benefits) with some integrity.        

Is the Rule of Law under attack in Romania??

A couple of weeks ago, my blogpost heading read that Bucharest was becoming more like Budapest - in the insidious and autocratic way the new prime Minister (Ponta) was removing possible sources of challenge to his authority. This trend has now become positively unconstitutional - with, for example, procedures being altered overnight to allow the President to be impeached on a simple majority of citizens actually voting (rather than a majority of those entitled to vote) - and the Constitutional Court no longer being allowed to comment on parliamentary decisions. Parliament is now being invited to impeach the President - with a referendum scheduled on the matter for later this month (Basescu has already survived one such attempt a few years back). 
On the face of it, this is the replacement of politics by thuggery on a scale we haven't really seen since the 1930s
However, there is another point of view - that President Basescu's egotistical hyperactivity is preventing government; that institutions such as the Constitutional Court are still inhabited with a mixture of "place-men" (placed to do the bidding of those who placed them) and of old-Communists who are available to the highest bidder; and that, with the summer holiday almost upon us emergency decisions are needed to get rid of the President and allow some government.......It was, I am told, Basescu himself who changed the law to require a Presidential impeachment to have the support of 50% of citizens entitled to vote.
Another expat living in Romanian has done the "devil's advocate" bit much better than me.
So far we seen only a few people on the streets - compared with the numbers in the early months of the year (it's 40 degrees anyway) - but at least some prestigious organisations have been active in their protests. The following letter describing the most recent attacks has been sent to the Secretary General of the European Commission, Ms. Catherine Day

Bucharest, July 3rd , 2012
Civil society warning: the rule of law under unprecedented attack in Romania

Dear Mr President
Dear Commissioners
This is the third warning in less than two months, issued by a list of reputable Romanian civil society organizations, since the current Socialist-Liberal ruling coalition took power. The drift towards a non-democratic regime has continued, with serious steps taken in the last few days which will potentially affect the independence of institutions and the separation of powers.
  • There were open threats to dismiss and replace the judges of the Constitutional Court, which by Constitution are irremovable during their term of office, coming from the top government officials (the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice). On July 3rd all the judges of the Constitutional Court have signed an open letter and sent a protest to the Venice Commission, signaling the political pressures on the institution.
  • The ruling coalition has dismissed the independent Ombudsman during the parliament plenary of July 3rd , without due cause. The Ombudsman is the only Romanian institution entitled to challenge the emergency ordinances of the Government before the Constitutional Court. Presumably, it is by emergency decree that the dismissal of the Constitutional Court judges before the end of their mandates will take place. Though by law the Ombudsman may be replaced only if s/he breaches the Constitution or the laws, the speedy proceedings used in the present case show that no consideration was given to the legal requirements. The Ombudsman is an essential institution in any rule of law country.
  • In the notorious case of the ex-prime minister Adrian Nastase, who was convicted to two years in jail for corruption, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr. Rus, unusually called Mr Nastase after the verdict to negotiate with him the terms of the imprisonment. Political pressure was put on the police and the medical authorities in the hospital were Mr Nastase was taken after his failed suicide attempt, to extend his stay in the emergency hospital for about a week, with no medical reason, as the court has established subsequently. The prosecutors have started criminal investigations against three police officers and one doctor (who happens to be a former Socialist senator and under criminal investigation for corruption himself). The Minister of Justice called upon the Superior Council of Magistracy, the guarantor of the independence of justice, to refrain from taking position against the threats of Social-Liberal politicians to the judges and prosecutors. Fortunately, the Superior Council of Magistracy took a firm position against all interferences in the justice system.
  • The Prime Minister acted against the Constitutional Court decision which stated clearly that the prerogatives of external representation of Romania belongs to the President, not to the Prime Minister. This equals contempt of the constitutional court which in itself undermines the basis of democracy and the separation of powers.
  • The Official Gazette was shifted also by emergency ordinance, from Parliament to Government’s control, for the first time in Romania’s modern history. It cannot be a coincidence that among the first acts published in the Official Gazzette was the resignation of Mr. Voiculescu (one of the leaders of the ruling coalition) from the Senate, so that the High Court lost competence to judge upon his criminal file regarding graft allegations. The Government is known for its appetite for speedy legislation, when all acts enter in effect upon publication. This is why the legislator intended to put the Official Gazzette under the Parliament as a form of control between powers. Since the change, the relevant documents are published overnight in the Official Gazzette.
  • Two members of the Parliament from the ruling coalition were declared by final court decision as incompatible with their mandate, because of conflicts of interests. In spite of this, they refuse to step down. Their colleagues from the Standing Legal Committee of the parliament seem to protect them, without offering any plausible explanation.
  • On top of all, Mr Crin Antonescu, senator, president of the National Liberal Party and co-president of the ruling coalition, has declared publicly on July 2nd that all institutions that are “blocking the coalition from ruling”, and in particular the Constitutional Court, must be changed.
These are serious threats against the underlining elements of a rule of law state. Therefore we, Romanian civil society organizations, ask the European Commission to strongly urge the Romanian government and ruling coalition to stop their current actions against the rule of law and separation of powers.
We emphasize that the EU institutions have vigorously reacted previously, in the case of Hungary. We believe similar actions are necessary in our case. One such action would be to consider starting infringement procedures against Romania, based on the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Art. 47.
We also want express our strong belief that the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification (MCV) should continue, as an effective instrument for preserving democracy in Romania.

Group for Social Dialogue (GDS); Expert Forum (EFOR); Freedom House, Romania; Romanian Center for European Policy (CRPE); Romanian Helsinki Committee (APADOR-CH); ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency (MMA); Romanian Independent Journalists’ Association (AZIR); Center for Independent Journalism (CJI); Center for NGO Assistance (CENTRAS); and Resource Center for Public Participation (CeRe)

One thing is for sure, Ponta (the PM) doe not seem to understand that, in the absence of a coherent statement to the external world about his actions, we are bound to believe that he is undermining the rule of law. 
The outside world does not properly understand the extent to which Romanian institutions which, in the old member states, are bastions of freedom are here sinecures occupied by placemen. For example who can respect a body which, asked to judge the constitutionality of a 25% cut in the salaries of public servants, ruled that it was legal - apart, that is, from itself!!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Koestler

I’m spending a fair amount in the past these days. Not my own but of historical figures – eg the incredible group assembled by Peter Watson in his German Genius; Miklos Banffy’s novels and diaries about life and events in Translyvania andAustro-Hungary in the first few decades of the 20th century (I have just received his diaries); and some portraits of Berlin in the 1920s (by Otto Friedrich and Count Harry Kessler).
One thing it brings home is the exceptional nature of the normality in which I grew up and lived (the last 50 years). Now we face the turmoil which was normal for central Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century and have, I suspect, become so spoiled as to be unable to cope with what the future holds. 

One man perhaps embodies (by his life and open writings) that older generation - and that is Arthur Koestler (born in Hungary in 1905 and died in London in 1983). I have just finished his remarkable biography Koestler – the indispensable intellectual by Michael Scammel. This is a masterly account and analysis of the life of a brilliant polymath, a deep and restless thinker, first, about the political and ethical problems of his time, and, later, about the place of humanity in the universe. He was an ex-Hungarian, an ex-Communist, an ex-Zionist. He was exuberantly "continental", a cosmopolitan, frequently moving homes from one country and even one continent to another; a journalist, a campaigner against capital punishment, a hectoring controversialist, a political novelist, a voluminous autobiographer. He was usually (but not always) selfish, financially generous, arrogant but self-critical, introspective, neurotic, a manic-depressive, mercurial, sparkling, hot-tempered and uninhibited in behaviour, competitive, both repellent and charismatic

His writing made a powerful impact on me in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His book against hanging is one of these rare books (like Zola’s) which changed public policy (it certainly convinced me). And his essay on why we laugh was, for me, the first example of popular science.

Koestler rose from the lowest rung of the journalism profession, to a threadbare starving novelist, and finally to a man of distinction and of letters. While still in his 20s, he was appointed to a senior position in the prestigious Ullstein publishing company - but was sacked in 1932 just after he joined the communist party.
He migrated to
Israel, became a Zionist and lived briefly in a Kibbutz. But later, as he did with Communism (after Stalin's "Show trials"), gave them both up. He was imprisoned by Franco in Spain, the Vichy French in France, barely escaped being caught by the Gestapo there, and served eight months in a British internment camp as a suspected communist agent and alien. He caroused with Albert Camus, Andre Malreaux, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Simone de Beauvoir, to name just a few. He interviewed Albert Einstein and published with Sigmund Freud.
After Stalin's Show trials punctured his utopian ideas about the Communist revolution, Koestler spent the rest of his life in search of the political and philosophical Holy Grail of a revolutionary political system that would not yield to the morally bankrupt "means-ends" calculus of absolute power. And although he never found it, most of his books, including his magnum opus "Darkness at Noon" were spent in search of a solution to this and similar overarching philosophical problems. Here is an interesting article written about his writing by one of his many friends - George Orwell which is, of course, as fresh today as then.

Koestler's intellect range over such a wide range of subjects, that today, being able to do so, would never be though of. He was equally facile in discussing Quantum Physics, Political Science, Psychology or art and Anthropology. It is the depth and breadth of his knowledge that makes Koestler seem like the last of the Twentieth Century Intellectual Renaissance men.
His autobiographical writings (eg The Invisible Writing) probably give the most powerful insights into the first part of the 20th century - but, suddenly, in the mid 1950s, he put politics behind him and turned to science and para-science. You feel that he had lived such an incredible life by the time he turned 50 that he needed to reinvent himself.    

Monday, July 2, 2012

Milk Festival

Yesterday was Sirnea's mid-summer festival - traditionally a competition to choose the best milker of cows.
I'll lwt the pictures speak for themselves.......