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Originally published October 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 22, 2006 at 4:44 PM

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Guest columnist

The struggle for civil society in post-revolution Romania

A medical student has to pay a giant bribe to get a residency at a hospital. A former spy heads a political party. Lawyers and courts are...

Special to The Times

A medical student has to pay a giant bribe to get a residency at a hospital. A former spy heads a political party. Lawyers and courts are shockingly corrupt. Romania — a formerly communist state trying to join the community of nations — today has worrisome resemblances to the tyrannical socialist system overthrown almost two decades ago.

After dwelling in effective political quarantine for 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, Bucharest wants to step out of the shadows... to challenge the stereotype that Eastern Europe is backward and slow to modernize. A generation born after 1989 has no interest in "the unbearable burden of history" — the self-doubt and bitterness of their parents. They dream of Gucci and iPods. But there are causes for caution by the West.

Romania has made huge leaps toward democracy and free markets, but the persistence of former communists and former secret police in key positions, and the corruption and cronyism learned under communism, are hampering steps toward reform. To American or European observers, progress is often upstaged by headlines detailing pervasive corruption and constant political vendettas.

Ex-communists, although their numbers are declining, seem to be everywhere. For decades, with rare exceptions, you had to be a communist to get an education or a job. Those same people are today's managers and officials. Professor Dan Chirot of the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies warns about American smugness, saying, "Very few of us, including me, have ever really had to face these dilemmas, or to try to steer an honorable course during 50 years of vicious government," and adds, "With time, that generation will be gone."

Most important, civil society — in which government protects the public interest and earns respect of its citizens — has been painfully slow to emerge.

It is to the immense credit of post-revolution Romania that, after the bloodiest of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, it has conducted four orderly national elections, joined NATO, and made first steps toward a legal system in which Europe can have some confidence. The economy is growing at an 8 percent annual clip, and Europeans are lining up to invest. Bucharest's streets are teeming with the BMWs and Mercedes of a burgeoning middle class.

Romania has been given a green light — kind of — to join the European Union in 2007, but the Europeans have put stern terms on Romanian entry, saying in effect: "Clean up your courts and bureaucracy if you want to play with the grown-ups." The EU fears that courts, cops and national officials won't protect businesses against fraud, or individuals against human rights abuse.

The Europeans are also frustrated that Romania's bureaucracy has been unable to utilize massive loans being made available to aid with health, agriculture, mining and rural development. Romania requires applicants to get up to 18 separate approvals and signatures. Amounts in excess of $2 billion remain unspent.

EU Parliament members have expressed concerns about Romania's scandal-ridden orphanages and adoption system, and the treatment of its Roma minority, at 400,000 the largest of any country. Europeans are also jumpy about EU policies that would ease restrictions on Romanians coming to their countries.

Corruption is so widespread that a recent public opinion poll found that 84 percent of Romanians believed that bribe-taking was growing in the country, particularly in the health industry (38 percent reported bribes to doctors and nurses for service), among police, and among city officials. Three-quarters responded that officials regularly created difficulty for the public to force payment of bribes or tips.

In the finding most startling to an American sensibility, 46 percent saw bribes as a necessary evil, while only 42 percent saw bribes as bad for the country.

Political scams border on bizarre. The 2004 election brought to light the ingenious technique of "electoral tourism," where voters were bused from one polling station to another, to cast multiple ballots. Sen. Brandusel Nicitean lost his seat and was expelled from the Democratic Party after being caught red-handed voting at least five times.

A good-government agency, The Academy for Advocacy, reported that one in three parliamentarians had not shown up for any activity of the committees or sessions of the Senate or House of Deputies. A national paper reported that offices of legislators, opened with great fanfare, are now padlocked, the officials absent.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is the target of three criminal investigations. The cases allege he received bribes to make political appointments, and took improper campaign contributions during his unsuccessful 2004 campaign to be president. Nastase has been booted out as head of the major political party, and removed as speaker of the Parliament.

But the most painful and contentious issue has been the revelation that many prominent Romanians were employed by the secret police, or had been informers.

In June, newspapers reported that the Conservative Party president, Sen. Dan Voiculescu, operated decades ago under the code name "Felix," furnishing economic reporting to the much-feared Securitate — the KGB of Communist Romania. After initially denying the charges, he held a press conference here that was memorable for its brassy lack of repentance.

"I collaborated, just as millions of Romanians collaborated," said Voiculescu, adding, "no one was injured by my reports." The scandal forced him to abandon a bid to become vice premier, and shook the ruling government coalition.

But the daily soap opera of scandal in Bucharest must be judged against another yardstick. The country has conducted four democratic elections, and for the first time in a century, a government was retired by the voters in 1996 without violence. The mid-level communist apparatchiks that dominated early governments are less evident today. There were a staggering 60 political parties on the ballot in the 1992 election; now that has shaken out to about eight major parties... the nucleus of center-left coalitions that dominate politics.

And after a flurry of electoral success, the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party, rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-gypsy, seems to have settled into a less dangerous minority role. Trading on nostalgia for communism and the prewar Iron Guards, the party got 28 percent of votes in the 2000 presidential election, but now seems eclipsed by the reasonable center.

President Traian Basescu, in an important gesture to slay the ghosts of the past, has created a commission to pass judgment on the crimes of communism. He reached out to a distinguished American professor, Vladimir Tismaneanu, an expatriate and fierce anti-communist, to lead a kind of "Warren Commission" that is expected to condemn Romania's tragic 50-year detour into communism. But many are intensely paranoid about what will emerge.

"A democratic political community cannot be built on amnesia," says Tismaneanu, who recognizes the irony of his task, saying, "Who will de-communize the communists? Other communists?"

Tismaneanu has been ferociously attacked by those who want the past left alone. Fascist newspapers have written scalding anti-Semitic attacks on him (he is Jewish), and claimed he is a former spy. He has declined presidential bodyguards, and promises a report by January.

Civil society, after decades of totalitarian government, may take a generation to achieve. The Enlightenment ideals of liberty and citizenship were suspended for nearly a half century, and government was arbitrary and absolute. It was a culture of favors, fears and repression. Many of the formal institutions of a liberal democracy have been put in place since the revolution, and laws now speak to corruption in high places. But establishing a democratic culture, in which citizens embrace those ideals, is slow. "Sure, civil society is weak, and Enlightenment ideals are slow to catch on, but I find Western Europe to be inexcusably smug about its own supposed virtues and political purity. And, so are we," says the Jackson School's Chirot.

How do you measure progress? We sat for an infuriating hour one night waiting for a pizza in a Bucharest, and had to walk toward the door to force them to present a check. It's hard to sort out how much of this is the residue of communism — people accustomed to occupying a job, utterly without enthusiasm, giving terrible service, confused by the capitalist notion that you have to compete for people's money, not just collect it. We had to remind ourselves that two decades ago, there was little pizza, no German beer, and scant joy available in this Balkan capital.

It is hard not to root for the Romanians. For centuries trampled by the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians and Soviets, they have repeatedly had to accommodate cultures of repression and corruption. Learning civil society (we've been at it for more than two centuries) has just begun. They are learning that democracy is a messy, untidy, system not easily installed or nourished... but a system giving them control over their own lives. Romania is on its way to driving a stake in the heart of communism.

Jim Compton, a former broadcaster and Seattle city councilman, recently spent two months in Bucharest interviewing Romanian intellectuals about the transition from communism. He will return in March 2007 as senior Fulbright lecturer in journalism.

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