Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows Romania isn’t just about vampires.
Romanians have taken to the streets in early 2012 to show their displeasure with the Romanian leaderships’ economic reforms that have included austerity measures and plans to privatize part of the health care system. Boc and the Romanian President Traian Basescu’s efforts to reign in the budget deficit have only sparked vehement protest that have turned violent, forcing Boc’s resignation to spare Romania from a Greek-like response. President Basescu immediately appointed an interim replacement, and nominated Mihai Razvan Ungureanu the Romanian foreign intelligence agency director, as a permanent Prime Minister (who was just approved by Parliament today). Protesters are calling for even earlier parliamentary elections than the scheduled November parliamentary elections.
Following the ousting of Greece’s and Italy’s leaders late last year, and following the popular protests in Spain (they’ve also changed leadership along with other countries), Romania’s protests have revolved around government austerity measures and alleged government corruption. Indeed, this past week, the EU criticized Romania as being slow to reform their judicial systems to combat corruption (a charge that has kept Romania, a Euro zone country since 2007, from the Euro border-less travel free zone).
All throughout January, protesters have cited rising taxes, reduced government salaries, and frozen pensions passed without parliamentary debate as signs that President Basescu’s debt controlling government had become increasingly authoritarian. Basescu’s measures followed a bailout loan (from the European Central Bank, IMF, and World Bank) of $27 billion in 2009. The loan was intended to combat the 7.1% economic decline in 2009, and of course had repayment provisions (note: loans are not free money, no matter what the Greeks say).
So to make a general statement about the protests, we can say that the Romanian protests have followed similar patterns from other government budget belt-squeezing: people are frustrated over the loss of government wages, jobs, and benefits along with inadequate living conditions. But, every country and its people are unique.
So, lets take a look at Romania as a country and how their reaction to the Euro-debt crisis diverges through the looking glass of Romanian history (no red queen involved).
Romanian Identity From History
Romania is a bit of a anomaly: a language and developed culture based initially on the Roman empire (hence the name Romania) now isolated in an ocean of Slavic peoples – a region where Bulgars, Macedonians, Serbians, Russians, Byelorussians, Ukranians, and Poles all settled down. The original Romanian people, the Getaen, descendents from the Thracian tribes (of ancient times) fell under Roman rule in the 1st Century A.D. and developed a type of Latin language that to this day is the language most related to Latin (much to the chagrin of the Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese). Roman emperor Trajan invaded Getae in 87 AD and created a fusion culture with the Getae (although not always willingly) imparting Roman language (Latin), religious beliefs, and a Roman administrative system creating the Dacian province as an annexation of the Roman Empire.
The Roman emperor Aurelius decided to have his soldiers abandon Dacia citing “high risk of invasion” (easily penetrable flatlands and forest south of the Carpathian Mountains.) and left Dacia helpless to invaders such as the Huns, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Gepids, Lombards, and the Pechenegs (they also invaded Kievan Russia in the 10th Century). Most notable were the Slavs who decided to settle the land North of the Danube River, imparting their own culture and language. Orthodox Christianity came to Dacia in 350 AD and spread farther from the efforts of Cyril & Methodius in the Bulgar Empire in the 7th Century, and Russia in 988.
So from the origin of the Romanian people until the Middle Ages we know:
- the geographical weakness of Romania made it susceptible to invasion
- Romanian language and orthodox religion were from assimilation to conquering powers: Romans and Slavs.
Romania in the Middle Ages was established into three main principalities: Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia that developed as separate entities until the 19th Century. Hungary’s King Stephen integrated Transylvania into his Hungarian kingdom at the end of the 10th Century, converting many Orthodox Christians to the mandatory Roman Catholicism. Hungary held control of this area until the 18th Century (not counting the Mongols), creating a territorial and historical dispute between Hungarians and Romanians to the present over the original inhabitants of the Transylvania region. Many serf uprisings occurred, but were held in check by dominant noble overlords and the Catholic Church.
Beginning in the 15th and then completed in the 16th Century, the Ottoman Turks turned Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania into Vassal states. Ottoman princes blocked any attempt for Romanians in the three states to unite, and forbid Eastern Orthodoxy from being practiced (the Protestant Reformation had not influenced the Orthodox population in Romania). Essentially, the Romanian identity was erased by Ottoman rule except for the efforts of one Michael the Brave, Romania’s national hero.
He led an army that overran key Turk fortresses, and he ended up capturing Wallachia and becoming prince of Transylvania in 1600, briefly uniting the three provinces . He dreamed of creating an independent Romania, but failed to lead a Transylvania peasant uprising, instead quelling the rebellion to gain favor with the nobles and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph. Michael’s bravado in his attempt to free the Romanian people from Ottoman rule was short-lived, and he was eventually executed. His legend as as hero to the Romanian people has grown tall as history progressed, but his status as someone standing up and leading the people against tyranny and oppressive foreign rulers served as a model for the Romanian identity.
From our look at Romania in the Middle Ages, we see an
- Orthodox people split into 3 different regions
- Large empires ruling over a people bound in serfdom
- An emergence of Romanian nationalism and desire for unification and an escape from ethnic discrimination.
Eventually, the Ottomans lost control of their many holdings in Europe and a stronger Austrian army crushed Ottoman soldiers and removed them from Transylvania in 1688, but Moldavia and Wallachia remained under Ottoman control (for the time being). The Habsburg Empire (Austrian-Hungarian) took control of Transylvania (as a distinct protectorate) and reimplemented the semi-feudal system which relegated the Romanians within Transylvania once again to inferior status, “Romanians were forbidden to marry, relocate, or practice a trade without the permission of their landlords,” and the majority of Romanians that remained Orthodox Christian had to pay a small “tithe” or tax to the Catholic Church.
Like many countries in Europe inspired by the theories of political revolution and nationalism, a revolution in Transylvania erupted in 1848 after Hungary was unified (nominally) with Transylvania. Romanians rose up to protest and fight the unification with Hungary and end ethnic oppression. Serfdom was officially abolished from this fight, but a brutal campaign followed by an oppressive military regime to oversee Transylvania kept real change from occurring.
But what about Wallachia and Moldavia you ask?
Well, the Ottomans retained control of these two areas into the 19th Century, but Russia, starting with Peter the Great, began to influence more control in this region they saw as vital to access the Black Sea, the entry to the West. Russia played the principal role in quelling Moldavia and Wallachia’s 1848 uprisings until the Crimean War, when Russia lost much influence on the subject (having lost key locations to Franz Josef and the Ottomans).
Much discussion about unification of the two provinces led to back and forth talk about elections and about common commerce under Ottoman sovereignty. Eventually, a war in Italy distracted the Euro powers on deciding Romania’s fate, and an election held by Romanian Nobles in Assemblies from both provinces decided in favor of unification, finally bringing together Romanians held apart by competing ruling factions, and creating the first unified Romanian led principality (still technically part of the Ottoman empire). An independent Romania came in 1878 when Romania supported Russia in the Russo-Turkish war.
the creation of the first Romanian state was a long process that saw:
- A continued domination under the Ottoman & Habsburg Empires, and heavy influence from Russia
- An opportunistic people who recognized their sovereignty in the spirit of 1848
Despite the creation of a formal military, better schools for rural folks, and more investments in infrastructure, the great majority of land remained out of the control of the people who tilled it. Development was limited and serious peasant revolts in 1888 and 1907 forced military action to quell the protesters, and forced King Charles to redistribute more land to small households (though the majority remained in large landowners hands: “land to the peasants in parcels of 1 to 61 hectares; large landowners retained about 3 million hectares.”) Romanians also began to call for an integration of Transylvania as they began to recognize their autonomy from the Habsburg Empire.
With Austro-Hungarian power erased after crushing losses in WW1, Transylvania opted to use their right to self-determination, and by mid-1918, a vote for unification of Transylvania, Bukovina, and Bessarabia into Romania took place, finally bringing about a unified state. A highly centralized and corrupt state emerged though, that discriminated against an emerging Jewish population and smaller minority groups.
A rise of the Iron Guard, an authoritarian, pro-Nazi party emerged in the 1930s in the wake of an agrarian crisis and global recession, eventually gaining power after King Carol II abdicated the throne in 1940. This prompted Romania’s alliance with the Axis powers when threatened between choosing Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. Romania supplied oil to Nazi Germany, and assisted in carrying out the Holocaust. Romania’s leader Antonescu was toppled in 1944 and replaced by King Michael, who quickly changed sides assisting the Soviets in the defeat of the Nazi Army. Bucharest was occupied by the Red Army in late 1944 and in an armistice agreement, Romania agreed to pay reparations, repeal anti-Jewish laws, ban fascist groups, and cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. This occupation essentially began the Communist era in Romania as Soviet commissars forcefully put a Communist leadership into place in 1950 after 2 years of military rule.
Communist leadership was rigorous and dissent was repressed violently with the establishment of the Securitate (secret police) bent on ridding “enemies of the state” and “fifth columnists”. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Romanian People’s State leader Gheorghiu-Dej set Romania on a slightly different course: no labor camps, a hike to worker wages, and less industrialization (the Soviets had been draining Romanian resources for years). We could go into more detail on the Soviet era, but this is well documented, and as they say in the biz: “outside the scope” of this work.
Romania’s divergence from the Kremlin widened under a new Party Leader, Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1965. Ceaucescu attempted to create an individual national agenda and history: using actors to play up Romanian heros such as Michael the Brave, Stephen the Great, and others. Ceaucescu broke from the Kremlin by recognizing West German Republic, and not supporting the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Economic prosperity for Romania lasted until the late 1970s when Ceaucescu’s policies doomed his place in history as a corrupt autocrat ruler. Fearing a military takeover and losing power (as many a dictator has feared) Ceaucescu corrupted the politcal power bases to be controlled by his supporters and furthered the authority of the Securitate. Ceaucescu set about starting massive heavy industry projects that bankrupted the state, forcing Romania deep into debt (and left ugly unfinished projects in it wake). In the interim, Ceaucescu siphoned off public revenue for himself and his wife, Elena at the expense of the Romanian people (but what dictator doesn’t do that?).
The 1989 Romanian revolution was a climax of rising unpopularity for the once strong leader and followed the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and was in the wake of collapse of the Soviet Empire. Ceaucescu was overthrown and executed by a population that was fed up with a corrupt autocratic state that infringed on their basic freedoms, was unchecked in power, and that left the Romanian economy in a state of ruin (though many debts were paid off by ’89). The 1990 elections brought widespread student peaceful protests that forged several political parties and free market measures. Several democratic changes to the government came from the transition from a Communist regime and a closer relationship to the West; Romania applied to become part of the EU in 1993 (gaining membership in 2007) and became a NATO member in 2004. Economic growth took off rapidly in the 2000s until the global economic recession caused the unpopular Bacescu austerity measures.
So what should we take from all this chronology and summaries of Romanian history? First, we can conclude a few things about Romanian identity from its history:
- For Centuries, Romania has been under constant rule by other peoples: the Romans, the Slavs, the Bulgars, the Ottomans, the Habsberg Empire, and the Soviets.
- Romanians were delegated 2nd class citizens under these rulerships and not granted positions in nobility or in parliaments because of Orthodoxy and ethnic discrimination.
- Declining empires and opportunistic revolts finally led to a Romanian state; a state that struggled to reign in its own corruption and discrimination.
- Romania has had a long struggle with authoritarian rule that has forged a popular distrust with overreaching government processes.
With this in mind, let’s return to Bucharest 2012 and make a few connections. Romanians today have the innate fear of authoritarian regimes built from their history, hence the accusation of Government overextending their authority on austerity measures and health care privatization.
Romanians have also shown, since their escape from the Soviet bloc, a resounding success in popular protest to bring about democratic change. With their reaction to Basescu’s (Hey that sounds like Ceaucescu!) measures, Romanians have shown they are quick to distrust a government that makes sweeping economic decisions, especially those without Parliamentary approval.
Boc and Bacescu acted quickly, and prevented a probable largescale protest movement that might have escalated to a Greek debacle (if Boc had stayed in power). We need to see how the public reacts to the new Prime Minister and if November elections are moved up at all. For now, Bacescu has kept Romania stable both fiscally and politically… stay tuned for what happens next…
That’s all for now on Romania, I’ll write on a more topical subject for next time….. wait, you can’t get more topical than Romania!
Your Faithful Historian
Eric G. Prileson
Ovidiu Drimba – History of Romanian culture and civilization, Scientific and Pedagogic Publishing House, Bucharest, 1987
Watkins, Thayer. “The Economic History of the Western Roman Empire”
Eugene Horvath, Transylvania and the History of the Rumanians
Stephen Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts