Out of the Darkness:
Romania Tries to Shed Its Traditional Past
for Entry Into E.U.

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 12, 2006

GOLAIESTI, Romania -- Inside the local bar in this frozen village in Romania's bleak northeast, Oana Gatu poured mugs of hot wine for a couple of farmers and talked about how the European Union is going to change Christmas.

In villages like this one, she said, families slaughter a pig for the holiday using the traditional method: Two or three men hold the animal down while someone drives a long knife through its neck and into its heart. The spouting blood is captured for sausage, and the pig can take several minutes to die.

Gatu said everyone here knows that cherished tradition will become illegal as soon as Romania joins the E.U., as early as Jan. 1. Membership in the affluent, exclusive club of nations will mean abiding by strict Europe-wide standards for everything from pig slaughtering to beach cleanliness, and it's a price most Romanians are eager to pay.

"We're too poor," Gatu said. "We have to get to the next level."

As the hoped-for entry draws near, Romania's experience illustrates how expansion of the European Union is changing not just the union but the states that join. Like eight other East European nations that entered in 2004, Romania is busy erasing the legacy of half a century of communism and trying to build institutions that bear the stamp of approval of E.U. headquarters in Brussels.

It is struggling to embrace Western-style market economics and multiparty politics and trying to control corruption. But some aspects of life here, such as discrimination against the country's large Roma, or Gypsy, population, remain stubbornly resistant to the E.U.'s pressure for change.

Much of Western Europe is feeling fatigue with the half-century-old project to stitch together a superstate on the European continent. But in this country of 22 million, enthusiasm for it is practically a national obsession. Polls consistently show that about 70 percent favor E.U. entry and regard it both as a final break with the Soviet era and a return to Romania's European roots.

Store names across the country capture the spirit: Eurovet sells cat food, Eurofarma fills prescriptions. Blue E.U. flags flutter alongside the Romanian flag on government buildings and utility poles in even the most remote corners of the nation.

"All of Romanians consider the E.U. accession like being a key moment, the moment when Romania will be back in Europe," President Traian Basescu, a former oil tanker captain, said in an interview. "We are very determined to fulfill all our obligations."

A digital clock in a main square in the capital, Bucharest, counts down the days to New Year's Day. E.U. officials have been publicly optimistic about a January entry for Romania, along with neighbor Bulgaria, which would expand the roll of members to 27 and extend the bloc east to the Black Sea.

But membership -- along with billions of dollars in desperately needed development aid and investment -- could be delayed a year if E.U. leaders decide at a meeting in June that the two candidates haven't made enough progress toward honest, open and modern government.

To some Romanians, that would be fine. Under the E.U. flag, "life will change in the countryside for the worse," said Emil Imre Szabo, a dairy farmer in Transylvania. "There are too many requirements, and we won't be able to meet them."

But 200 miles south of here in Bucharest, hundreds of bureaucrats in Basescu's government are working late into the night to harmonize laws with those of Europe -- upgrading border security regulations, modernizing environmental law, and changing hiring and promotion guidelines for civil servants to attack cronyism and graft.

A popular Sunday television show educates Romanians on the changes. Set in a country pub, characters poke fun at the E.U.'s stilted bureaucratic jargon and explain issues that come with joining Europe, such as farm credits and regulations about genetically modified soybeans.

"The Romanian people look at this integration on the 1st of January as a salvation," said Stelian Tanase, a political analyst. "But Romanians have started to understand the real price: We have to change our way of life."

Controlling Corruption

First and foremost, according to everyone from President Basescu to rural goatherds, that means attacking corruption. Bribery and kickbacks have long greased life in Romania, whether it's paying big money to win a government contract or slipping a train conductor a little cash for a cut-rate ticket.

"The low standard of living in Romania is caused by the high levels of corruption," said Marcel Daniel Ghemes, 37, a night watchman in the Transylvanian town of Targu Mures in the country's central region. He said rampant corruption has allowed officials to get rich while he and other hardworking people live in drab apartment blocks.

Ghemes, his wife and their two children survive on the $130 a month he earns and the $130 a month his wife earns at a glove factory. The children sleep in the apartment's bedroom while the parents bed down in the living room.

Ghemes predicted that E.U. membership will make life better for him by bringing more investment, jobs and prosperity, and tougher for corrupt politicians because of new laws scrutinizing their behavior. It's already happening, he said, citing the woman Romanians know as Aunt Tamara.

Officials from the National Anti-Corruption Department, created last year under pressure from the E.U., announced in January that they were investigating the wealth of Adrian Nastase, a prominent legislator who was prime minister from 2000 to 2004. At issue is how Nastase obtained three apartments, jewelry and cash, together worth more than $1 million.

He has said they were an inheritance from his wife's aunt Tamara, who died last year. That assertion became an instant punch line on Romanian television as local media reported that the deceased woman had no obvious signs of such wealth.

The property would likely never have come to light were it not for a financial disclosure form, introduced as part of the E.U.-mandated revamp, that Nastase filed on Dec. 30.

In February, prosecutors charged him with corruption violations connected to his purchase of an upscale Bucharest home in 1998, allegedly bought from a lawmaker's relative for a price 25 times lower than its market value.

Nastase has denied wrongdoing, and his supporters argue that he has been targeted in a political campaign to show the E.U. that big fish can be caught. But other people call the case a genuine breakthrough. "A couple of years ago, nobody thought that they would start to investigate one of the big politicians," said Integration Minister Anca Boagiu, who presides over a ministry created to help Romania join the E.U. "I think that this is a good sign that the system's started to work."

Anti-corruption prosecutors have also charged a former transport minister with accepting a bribe and announced that they are investigating Deputy Prime Minister George Copos on suspicion of tax evasion.

According to Justice Minister Monica Luisa Macovei, the court system has been sufficiently reworked to handle politically explosive cases. In an interview, she said that trials are now randomly assigned to judges by a computer and that millions of dollars have been invested in computerized databases for police and courts. Hiring and promotion of judges and prosecutors, she said, will now be decided by open competition rather than cronyism.

One of Basescu's first acts upon taking office in 2004 was to demand a review of several major contracts, including a $2.5 billion deal signed in 2003 with U.S. construction giant Bechtel Corp. to build a 250-mile highway through Transylvania. The contract was awarded without public bidding, which brought complaints from critics in Romania and, perhaps more significantly, the European Union. Bechtel was not accused of wrongdoing.

In the interview, Basescu blamed "very bad" procurement laws, which he said are being replaced with new ones that require competitive public bids.

The new laws, he said, are "very European."

Battling Discrimination

One recent day in Targu Frumos, a small town in northeastern Romania, Ionel Pandele's eyes flashed with anger. Under E.U. pressure, the Romanian government has promised to end discrimination against the Roma, but Pandele, 22, said he and his family have seen little change. "I have no rights in this country," Pandele said. "Everyone says they will do things for the Roma, but I don't see anything happening."

Pandele was showing a reporter a videotape made on Aug. 19, 2003, when police officers wearing black uniforms and hoods forcibly evicted his family from the fruit and vegetable stall they had run for more than a decade. A half-dozen officers are seen swinging nightsticks over and over as they beat Pandele's brother, Cristinel, then drag both brothers into a police van.

"They beat us like it was a civil war," Ionel Pandele said.

The family said the eviction, the beatings and the failure of any officer to be punished in the 2 1/2 years since the incident were racism pure and simple.

Town officials said that the stall was closed as part of an effort to renovate the market and that the Pandeles had violated the terms of their lease. The Targu Frumos mayor, Gheorghe Tataru, said in an interview that authorities had acted properly. He blamed the situation on the Pandeles, and on the Roma in general. If the Roma say life is difficult, he said, "it's above all because they don't want to make it better for themselves."

Europe has about 7 million to 9 million Roma, with the largest concentration, 1 million to 2 million, in Romania, according to the World Bank. Discrimination -- and often violence -- against this minority is a centuries-old reality in Romania.

Macovei, the justice minister, said she used to handle discrimination cases for Roma clients when she worked as a human rights lawyer. Anti-discrimination laws have vastly improved recently, she said, but anti-Roma attitudes persist. "In the real life, the majority, the Romanians, do still treat the Roma people as different and not their equals," Macovei said.

The government has passed new hate crime laws and created a National Council for Combating Discrimination, which recently ruled that the Pandeles' eviction was due in part to ethnicity. Town officials are appealing that finding.

Timo Summa, a European Commission official who oversees E.U. enlargement issues, said that despite advances in anti-discrimination laws, "the theory and the practice don't meet every time" in Romania. Discrimination against the Roma is decreasing, he said, but remains a concern: "What is needed is a change of culture, a change of mind-set. There is no way to do it overnight."

Pierre Moscovici, the European Parliament's special observer for Romania, said European officials were encouraged by the country's overall progress and want evidence that the country's course toward modernization is irreversible. "Poland was not perfect, Lithuania was not perfect," he said, naming two of the 2004 entrants. "Romania won't be perfect. In the end, we will have to take a political decision, which will be, 'Are they good enough?' "

Washingtonpost.com's Travis Fox in Golaiesti and special correspondent Alexandra Topping in London contributed to this report.

2006 The Washington Post Company

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