Our Revolution Isn’t Finished Yet

An interview with Romanian political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, by IP Global, Jan. 2010

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, director of a Romanian think tank promoting good governance, is cautiously optimistic about Romania’s future. Twenty years after the Christmas revolution, her country is in the European Union, “just where it should be,” she responds to Romania’s critics. Today Mungiu-Pippidi teaches Democratization Studies at the Hertie School of Governance.

IP: Has the anniversary of the overthrow of communism in Romania made you think about where you were and what you were doing 20 years ago?

Mungiu-Pippidi: How could it not? At 25, I was a Ph.D. student working in a psychiatric hospital in Iasi in northeastern Romania. It was practically a lunatic asylum straight out of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. There were dramatic medicine shortages and we only had one anti-depressant, which was prescribed to just about everyone, and that was being shipped free from some Swiss company that needed it tested on human patients. I also wrote for a student dissident magazine that had been banned earlier in the year.

When the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fled on December 22, we marched into the local radio station, which had also been shut down by Ceausescu, and broadcasted an announcement to all the former editors and student journalists who had worked for our publication. We told them to come at once and started a cost-free daily, which we printed by confiscating all of the paper from the communist newspapers. The workers at the publishers were very happy to print us because everyone wanted to show solidarity with the revolution. They printed it for free for about 8 days. Then we ran out of ink, and they started to ask for money. This was our first lesson in capitalism…. Nevertheless, the newspaper became very successful. I moved my little manual East German typewriter from the hospital to the editorial office and never returned.

IP: One can’t deny that Romania has come a long way since then. What is its greatest achievement?

Mungiu-Pippidi: Most remarkable, I think, is the way we started a political opposition and civil society from absolutely nothing. In contrast to Poland or Czechoslovakia, Romania had no anti-communist dissidents, underground movements, or samizdat newspapers. All our typewriters were registered by the police. Collective action of any kind was thus unthinkable in a dictatorship in which people saw others only as possible informants. In Romania’s free elections in the early 1990s, the former communists, people who had been high-up in the regime around Ceausescu, won every time. The anti-communist opposition was in the process of organizing and crystallizing, but it came to power only in 1996, when the transition in Central Europe was nearly over.

Later we discovered that we also had to put checks on these anti-communist forces because they risked being as corrupt as the former communist party. Behavior in our society is not based on ethical universalism, so whoever wins caters to clients only, and it’s still more rational for people to join a patronage network than to try to change the system. Likewise, the new market institutions struggle against a culture of privilege reigning in the economy, politics, and cultural life as well.

IP: So Romania today belongs to the European Union. Is it a functional liberal democracy?

Mungiu-Pippidi: Romania is a democracy, though not a liberal democracy. Those who lose elections leave office, that’s for sure. Otherwise, don’t forget that Romania has the highest number of peasants in all of Europe, a factor that inevitably affects democratic standards. These are subsistence farmers, the kind of peasants that Western Europe had in the 19th century. In a population of 21 million, we have more than 7 million who don’t even show up in the statistics of Romania’s economic output. This informal Romania was like a black hole of politics. The rural elites are exactly the same as those from the communist era and they control everyone. In many rural areas the opposition doesn’t even manage to field candidates.

Only now, with the massive labor migration to Italy and Spain have these regions started to change slowly. Even if our migrants work the lowliest jobs, they learn what a normal functioning society is and they change their villages upon their return. The urban and most developed areas of Romania are fairly European. So the question how European is Romania turns into a puzzle: There is not one Romania, there is a European Romania, and an underdeveloped one. Our challenge is to narrow this gap in the country. This is a prerequisite for Romania catching up to the rest of Europe.

IP: So you think that migration has been positive for Romania?

Mungiu-Pippidi: Overwhelmingly so, in both economic and political terms. There was absolutely no alternative, nothing that the government could have done. Romania had to reduce the public sector, which had been the entire economy, to a normal limited public sector. The jobs in the new private economy only developed in urban areas. For suddenly jobless peasants there was no other option than to emigrate.

IP: Many experts argue that Romania would have made more progress more quickly had it not been admitted to the European Union in 2007, but rather when it met all of the Copenhagen criteria. Do you agree?

Mungiu-Pippidi: No. What were the options? According to the accession framework and the treaty Romania and Bulgaria signed in April 2005, the only options were between 2007 and 2008. One year more or less wouldn’t have changed anything. It was due to this fixed date that we managed to set up an official agency that vets politicians, top magistrates, and ministers. Before the European Union got involved I was doing it piecemeal with civil society money with an alliance of NGOs and investigative journalists, at great risk to ourselves. We received threats, we were sued, etc. This is just one example. We fought after accession to have this agency started and even now Brussels is helping it to increase capacity.

It’s true that after accession there was back-sliding, but this happened in Central Europe, too. Politicians tried to fire anticorruption prosecutors and to change the legislation adopted during accession. But they didn’t succeed. EU accession has not stopped the dynamic of a society that wants to cleanse itself for its own sake, not because Brussels tells it to do so. It takes decades of democracy to build an impartial government and an impartial judiciary—nobody has invented shortcuts. Ultimately, we had to ally ourselves with the former communists to bring the country into the European Union. They were so much stronger than we were and we never would have managed it without them. We had to fight for six years for free elections, and then another 10 to get into NATO and the European Union. We never had the upper hand. So it was a mixture of fighting the ex-communists and convincing them of the obvious advantages of the European Union. Of course, we didn’t convert them fully. They are the remnants of the worst communist regime in all of Europe. But we’d never have made it alone. Today we continue to monitor them, together with our allies in Brussels.

IP: The political party systems across Central Europe look different than in Western Europe. Is this true in Romania as well?

Mungiu-Pippidi: The most important common denominator in this part of Europe is history. Our left wing parties are basically the left-overs of the communist party. They have reformed and so on, but still have a fundamentally different pedigree than the Western European left. Our right is roughly based on anticommunist movements that appeared in 1989 and 1990. We now also have more and more anti-system populists, including some very radical parties among them. With their exception, all of Romania’s political elite supports transition, EU accession, and adoption of the euro. This means that whoever comes to power takes the same steps, which frustrates voters and plays into the hands of the populists.

IP: Immediately after the revolution, there was an unnerving nationalist upsurge in Romania marked by deep animosity toward the Hungarian minority and accompanied by strong anti-Semitism and anti-gypsy sentiment. Has nationalism been tamed in Romania?

Mungiu-Pippidi: First, the mass post-revolution nationalism was a reaction to the very self-assertive demands of minorities like the ethnic Hungarians in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Fortunately it was not as dangerous as in Yugoslavia. After the early 1990s, the attitudes toward Hungarians changed radically. There is absolutely no problem on this account today. They have full rights and this is considered normal by everybody. One Hungarian party was even part of government coalition in Bucharest for 12 years.

Another kind of nationalism is more persistent, and today dominates Romania’s intellectuals and elites. It is a Christian Orthodox fundamentalism grounded in interwar ideology, and very fearful of Europe in terms of the European Union. The number one question debated in Romania’s high brow magazines in 2007, the year of EU accession, was whether Christian Orthodox Romania was going to be subsumed by Catholic and Protestant Europe. The protagonists had no clue how secular Europe really is. There is also quite a considerable amount of racism against the Roma, which is not getting better. Through emigration we are exporting the Roma problem to Italy and other places in Western Europe rather than solving it ourselves.

IP: No country in Eastern Europe has dealt less thoroughly with its communist past. I can’t image you’re pleased with this.

Mungiu-Pippidi: Sadly, it couldn’t have been different. With four million communist party members, the largest per capita in all of Eastern Europe plus an enormous number of secret service informants, we were a deeply infiltrated society. So disclosing everything about so many people at once would have triggered a civil war in Romania. This didn’t happen because people connected to the former regime won the first three electoral elections. But even after anticommunists came to power, the issue of the past proved extremely difficult to redress. Most of the opposition parties too were infiltrated by people from the former regime. And the truth is, we still haven’t been able to bring to light all the secret service archives. So much time has now passed that these files aren’t complete or credible anymore. I thought otherwise in the past, but now I think Adam Michnik is right to say we should simply burn them.

IP: The most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature , Herta Muller, a Romanian-born ethnic German, claims she is still being persecuted by the successors of the Securitate. In Die Zeit she said she is still receiving hate messages and that she is followed in Romania. Is the Securitate still alive to that extent?

Mungiu-Pippidi: I’m absolutely certain that there’s no official agency in Romania following or persecuting Herta Muller. But this doesn’t mean the networks of former Securitate and regime cohorts that survived aren’t in some way involved. They privatized quite successfully into lucrative businesses and, for obvious reasons, fear anybody who can identify them. This is probably why they don’t like her. She writes about them, she exposes them. Today these types, successful entrepreneurs or politicians, have everything to lose.

IP: What role does the Christmas revolution of 1989 play today in Romania?

Mungiu-Pippidi: The struggle goes on. A civil society activist, Doryu Maries, went on a several week-long hunger strike last fall in order to make public official investigative reports on the revolution. There were 1,000 deaths and very few people were convicted for those crimes. There isn’t even an official version of the Romanian revolution after all these years. And thus all kinds of secrets and outlandish conspiracy theories continue to circulate. But I think the most important thing to understand is that the revolution isn’t finished. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, a revolution isn’t over until the emerging alternative elite fully replaces the old one. He said that the 1848 revolutions were nothing but the last episode of the French revolution of 1789. So look at us in Romania, we’ve only been at it for 20 years.

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