The nationalism of Romania’s pioneer aviator Aurel Vlaicu was reinforced by the years he spent in the citadel of Habsburg power. After 1989, Romanians who have received grants to study in the Atlantic democracies have also sometimes returned disillusioned.
When Western sponsors of civic virtue come to Romania, they often make impossible demands. In country without philanthropic bodies, they assume that NGOs delivering services or advocating better political standards, can soon become independent of their faraway donors. Perhaps yes if the NGO head possesses the formidable gifts of Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. Her Romanian Academic Society provides different clients with accurate surveys of public affairs. But it is impossible for more than a few NGOs to enjoy such independence and, facing a Liberal government ready to crush autonomous power centres, even SAR’s future may be uncertain.
The perpetual search for funds places a huge strain on NGOs. Often their donors insist on endless bureaucracy. Accordingly, the temptation is increasing to join the payroll of wealthy local patrons. Life usually becomes easier. Probably Dan Pavel, and the team at Academia Catavencu, have fewer headaches working for Gigi Becali and Sorin Ovidiu Vintu than they had answering to intrusive Western donors. Of course, disobeying these patrons orders is not easy. A maverick counsellor will sometimes rebel. Dorin Tudoran very publicly snubbed Dan Voiculescu when his troubles started with the CNSAS. Even more rarely, a subaltern like Cozmin Gusa can reject his rich sponsor by accepting a better offer from a political party.
With his saturation exposure on TV, he has helped to turn Romania into ‘an audience democracy’. It is one where political action by citizens consists of watching the manoeuvres of the powerful each night on TV. Russia has provided the model. In Moscow, Western-trained officials who used to work for the Soros Foundation and the Carnegie Trust have changed sides. They have abandoned the promotion of democracy in a land with such entrenched illiberalism. Instead they work for Putin and his business allies to manipulate the public space through the media and maintain an illusion of competitiveness.
Unless the oligarchs face reverses in the courts and a strong challenge from reformers, then Romania is likely to slide towards the Russian example. It makes political sense for Dinu Patriciu, Becali and the others to now set up foundations, and think-tanks. A ‘Gigi Becali university’, perhaps with the currently inactive Sorin Antohi as its rector, would not surprise me in the slightest. If well-funded, it could produce better graduates than most of the state universities and thus reinforce the lustre of the great wealth-creator. Oligarchs who use politics as an arena to conduct their personal business need intellectuals who can defend them. The Western strategy of promoting a civil society in the Balkans to supervise the political world is failing. The high watermark in Romania was the 2004 Coalition for a Clean parliament. If Alina Mungiu asked Tariceanu to remove the most compromised people from his candidate list in 2008, he would probably do all in his power to close SAR down. Civic activists who challenge oligarchical freedom face ruthless leaders who, because they are now in the EU, believe they are as untouchable as Berlusconi once was.