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  • Ilinca Stroe

The 30-year Travail: From the Bottom of Rankings to Powerful Romanians in the World

On 22 December this year we celebrate 30 years of regained freedom and democracy. Back in December 1989, Romania shook off a communist regime officially condemned as brutal and totalitarian, which left the nation severely impoverished, malnourished and terrorised. More than 1,100 people were killed and over 3,300 injured in the bloody Revolution which toppled dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. There are claims that 3,000 had died previously while building his dream bunker palace (the heaviest building in the world) [1]. The infant mortality rate was one of the highest in Europe, as was the AIDS prevalence due to reuse of hypodermic needles in hospitals. [2] A decade-long ban on abortion had produced around 170,000 unwanted children crammed into squalid orphanages. Ethically and psychologically, fear, bribery, deception and suspicion had a grip on us.

It is no exaggeration to state that the Romanians experienced a lasting collective trauma inflicted during 42 years of communism, which, as there is no such thing as a whole nation’s therapist, they had to overcome gradually on their own, as best as they could. Add to that a very, very bad image abroad (“There are countries in Europe with a bad reputation, there are those with a very bad reputation and then there is Romania” – journalist Juan Moreno from Der Spiegel pointed out), and the acute self-deprecation we have become proverbial for is starting to emerge as yet another affliction we’ve had to deal with.

The healing has taken decades. Socially, Romania has the fifth largest emigrated population in the world, with around 3.5 million Romanians relocated mainly in other EU countries. There, they’re very likely to have had to cope with and/or combat their native country’s appalling reputation. Despite that, as the same Der Spiegel writer shows, the Romanians abroad have, by hard work and grit, turned that negative image on its head: “If it weren’t for Romanians, slaughterhouse owners would be chest-deep in pig halves. Without them, real estate developers could forget about Germany’s glorious construction boom. The same goes for asparagus and potato harvests.” Economically, Romania has gone from a minimum wage of 135USD in 1989 to 518 at present, and from a GDP per capita of $1,817 in 1989 to $11,534 in 2018. Today, the country’s economy ranks 15th in the EU by total nominal GDP, and 40th in the world.

The healing has taken us from (self-)disparagement to more balanced (self-)acknowledgement, from shiftiness and mistrust to more confident assertiveness. Perhaps nothing can illustrate that shift of mindset, paradigms and perceptions better than the case of the Romanians who have been given, lately, increasingly more important cross-national responsibilities, and hence have acquired increasingly more international recognition and respect:

Dana Spinanţ is currently in charge of “communicating Europe”. A former journalist for 15 years, Ms Spinanţ worked as an editor and deputy editor for European Voice and EU Observer, and a correspondent for various Romanian TV channels (including PRO TV) [3] - only to be appointed Deputy Chief Spokesperson of the European Commission by Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the EC.

Cristian Măcelaru grew up in Timişoara as the youngest of 10 children in a family with a strict musical study discipline and daily routine. He emigrated to the US when 17 to become the youngest concertmaster ever of the Miami Symphony Orchestra, and then returned to Europe, where he secured a 3-year contract as the chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne (Germany). This November, at the request of the members of the Orchestre National de France, who loved his interpretive style on two occasions when he had guest-conducted them, he was appointed Music Director of that orchestra, effective September 2021. [4]

Bogdan Chiriţoiu did his undergraduate studies at the "Carol Davila" University of Medicine and Pharmacy, and holds two Master's degrees (from the Central European University and the London School of Economics and Political Science). A former State Counsellor with the Romanian Presidency and Head of the country's Competition Council since 2009, last November Mr Chiriţoiu was appointed Board Member of the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, in charge of the single European market in gas and electricity.

Mircea Geoană is a mechanical engineer turned top diplomat. The son of an army general in the Socialist Republic of Romania (against whom, incidentally, charges were pressed in the Trial of the Romanian Revolution), Mr Geoană served as Romania’s Ambassador to the United States, Minister of External Affairs and Chairman of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among many other offices. Last July he was appointed Deputy Secretary General of NATO, the world’s largest military alliance.

Laura Codruţa Kövesi used to be a junior professional basketball player before she did her undergraduate studies in Law at the Transylvanian Babeş-Bolyai University (Cluj). In 2006 she became Romania’s first female and youngest ever Chief Prosecutor at the National Anticorruption Directorate. Despite dissuasion and harassment by corrupt political circles in Romania, and supported by a huge anti-corruption civic movement, Ms Kövesi applied for the top position of European Public Prosecutor and secured that post in September 2019, for a 7-year term. This December she received, for “extraordinary political leadership in Europe through her notable work against high-level corruption in Romania”, the “Woman in Power” Award at the fourth annual edition of the Women of Europe Awards (Brussels). [5]

Slowly but surely, Romanians are not afraid or ashamed anymore to stand up in the world as competent professionals, reliable partners and responsible leaders - while Romania’s colours, leaving behind the country’s times of misery and disrepute, have come to feature proudly, affirmatively on the world’s tallest building in Dubai, as well as in iconic Times Square, New York City.

And thus have passed 30 years in the life of a young country, a resilient people and a millennia-old culture.

Notes & Sources

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