During the Communist era, the governments of East-Central Europe coordinated their policies with one another and the Soviet Union through a variety of institutions, including the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Opposition movements did their best to coordinate their actions as well, attempting clandestine meetings and communicating with one another through the good offices of émigrés in Western Europe. During the transition period, the new democratic governments made some effort to maintain cohesion as a group of countries going through a similar experience, and organizations like the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) still function. But for the most part, both government and civil society focused on joining the European Union and put considerably less emphasis on subregional solidarity.
The same has held true for Left movements in the region, which in their external relations have tended to look toward Europe as a whole or internationally. Political parties joined the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists (and the Global Greens and European Green Party). Progressive civil society organizations linked up with their counterparts throughout Europe and the world on an issue-by-issue basis such as economic justice or anti-nuclear power.
But more recently, Left movements in the East-Central Europe have begun to link arms regionally as they identify common interests. At the Subversive Festival held every year in Croatia, for instance, a Balkan Forum began in 2012 to promote stronger cooperation and joint actions. And the Romanian New Left organization CriticAtac recently launched LeftEast, which serves as a clearinghouse for Left voices in the region.
Florin Poenaru is a driving force behind both CriticAtac and LeftEast. He is currently at the Central European University in Budapest completing a dissertation on the post-1989 construction of Communist history. Born in Romania and studying now in Hungary, he is ideally positioned to reflect on the similarities and differences between Left movements in the region.
The Hungarian Left, he told me, was very different from what currently exists in Romania. “The Left here is more powerful and big enough to have its own internal debates,” he told me in an interview in Budapest last May. “They have a new generation here as well. The Left here is in their early 20s, which is different from Romania where they’re in their early or mid-30s. And they’re responding not necessarily to the leftist tradition but to the tradition of liberalism, which was actually in power and put forward a certain agenda before it collapsed in 2009-10 as Fidesz came to power. The Left here is focusing more on organization, public spaces, and networks, and less on theoretical work, like in Romania where less is actually happening, except in Cluj where there’s a mixture of critical thinking and activism.”
Conservatism is very strong in both Romania and Hungary. The difference in political culture between the two countries boils down to the relative position of liberalism. Liberals became a powerful political force in Hungary (though they are practically non-existent politically today). In Romania, on the other hand, “liberalism never really took root after 1989,” Poenaru explains. “It was a tiny minority of people, some of whom have become more open to Left ideas and more critical of these conservatives. Liberals never really had a response to 1989 and didn’t build a genuine counterforce to this conservatism.”
We talked about his academic work on the writing of the history of Communism, the tendency of Western Europe to assume that history is only a “problem” in the East, and the growing power of the conservative movement in Romania.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was very young. I remember images from the TV when people were destroying the Wall, and the small Trabants passing by. I have more memories of the Romania revolution.
How old were you?
I was six.
What do you remember from the revolution in Romania?
I remember my mother coming to the kindergarten and picking up me and my brother and taking us to my aunt’s house where my cousins and my grandmother were. We spent the entire revolution there, mostly watching TV and also watching shots being fired opposite our building. I remember the revolution quite well, the footage on TV. Those are the first and last memories I have of Communism.
Do you remember how life in your family changed after 1989?
Not dramatically at the beginning. Aside from some minor external changes, like the face of the dictator disappearing and what you were allowed to say in public, there was more continuity than change. For instance, my school textbook: the only change was that we had to take out the picture of the dictator from the beginning of the book. The book didn’t change for many years, all the way up to the mid-1990s. We were studying the same stuff.
In terms of my parents’ life, it was absolutely the same for many years until things became a little easier around 1996.
What did your parents do for a living?
They worked for the state, investigating murders. It was a kind of CSI type of work, but more on the legal side.
That sounds exciting.
It was for them. They did this work until they retired a few years ago.
Everybody talks about how difficult it is for pensioners in this part of the world. Is it difficult for your parents?
Not really. They don’t have a bad pension since they were part of the state system. That was one of the social guarantees that fared well during the transition. But it wasn’t like that at the beginning. Good things started to happen near the end of their careers. But they still grumble about how things are today.
Why do they grumble?
Because of the overall situation. They complain about the lack of opportunities — not for them now but rather that what had been possible for them is not possible any more for me or for our generation. They also realize the lack of status associated with former state employees these days. It’s all part of the overall attitude that everything has collapsed.
In your own life, is there a moment when you think you became politically conscious?
Yes. It was quite late. It was in my university years, in 2004-2005.
Yes. I was working for an NGO on electoral issues in Romania but also in the region as an election observer. That’s when I became more aware, more politically engaged, and that’s when I developed a leftist perspective. Before that, I subscribed to this liberal NGO agenda of democratization, transparency, and so forth.
You went to university to study political science?
One of my majors was political anthropology and the other was communication studies, so I had a double major. Back then it was a little bit strange because even in the university our professors made it pretty clear that we shouldn’t take our studies seriously. We should focus on getting a job — making the necessary contacts and getting into the labor market as soon as possible. Everything else they were teaching us was just knowledge for the market. Now I think it was a pity. But it was the professors’ doing as well. They weren’t marking absences so that people could go to work. So, university was more in the background compared to what was going on in everyday life. I learned more working.
After you had the experience of being an election monitor and moving to the Left, did you find likeminded students?
No, that happened later. Everyone at that time was either liberal or embracing conservative views. Later, when I went back to Romania for my PhD fieldwork in 2008-9, I discovered a group of intellectual friends, 5-10 years older than myself, who were putting together a network devoted to critical thinking. They started with a critique of anti-Communism and then they moved to other leftist issues, particularly labor. I befriended them, and we remain in touch. We have a group called CriticAtac. We don’t do much other than publish articles. It’s quite a new thing, just in the last few years.
You came here to Central European University to do your PhD in anthropology?
Sociology and anthropology.
What’s your PhD topic?
I’m writing about the process of writing history after 1989 about Communism. It’s an analysis of how the past is constructed, framed, interpreted, fought over, talked about. It’s historiography covering memory issues, the secret police archives, and how the files became part of writing history. I try to put it in a class perspective — how class and knowledge go together in forming a consensus around the Communist past and the transition.
It sounds great. But it sounds big.
Yes, that’s the problem. I’m still working on it. I have to cut some stuff, and shrink some things. When I got into the topic, I realized that I couldn’t cut things out because they’re interconnected. For instance, I can’t take out the issue of the secret police archives because they’re so much part of this story.
I interviewed Vladimir Tismaneanu in Washington, and I see that CEU just put out his book on 1989. I guess this is a good place to be doing this work.
Yes, Vladimir Tismaneanu figures prominently in my thesis, but more in a critical light because I’m writing about the commission that he headed. That’s the starting point for my discussion of history. It’s very much linked to politics and how the commission was a presidential initiative that served a political purpose in 2006. Tismaneanu is a very important figure for Romanian history and anti-Communism as well.
There was a piece on the CriticAtac website that was a critique of his report.
Yes, that was my piece, a short review of his memoir that came out last December. It was a translation. I didn’t write it in English. It was meant for a Romanian audience.
Did he respond to it?
No. Tismaneanu has this particular strategy of choosing his responses and his interlocutors, which has also been an issue for the Romanian intellectual milieu. He has preferred to address the criticisms coming from the very extreme Right and ignore some of the liberal-leftist criticisms. Even some of his friends think he’s crazy to respond to this extreme Right, the people who follow Vadim Tudor, and not have a proper dialogue with other critics.
If you had an opportunity to get a response from him, what issues would you hope that he would engage on?
There are two things coming from his writing and his own perspective on history. He has tremendous information about the nomenklatura. But the way he uses that in what he calls psychohistory basically reduces that history to individual trajectories or biographical details as a way to explain political divisions.
The second point is more political. He is not entirely consistent toward the Communist past. Before 2003, when he interviewed former president Ion Iliescu, he was more willing to acknowledge different perspectives on Communism and to try to understand what went on rather than just condemn that period as a catastrophe. He became very politically engaged in his assessment of the Communist past. I don’t want to diminish any of the monstrosities that happened during that period, but these would be the two issues I’d like to engage with him on.
In addition to your work, is there a group of historians in Romania taking a fresh look at this period, or is it still a taboo subject?
It’s still a taboo. The ant-Communist paradigm is still very powerful among historians. Some younger historians, like Florin Abraham who is now part of the CNSAS, have engaged this past more critically. But his association with the Social Democrats, the neo-Communists, has placed his credibility under doubt, which is not necessarily correct. There’s of course Iluzia Anticomunismului that came out in 2007 edited by a group of people currently around CriticAtac that contains a critique of the anti-Communist paradigm. But there aren’t really many people doing this Communist historiography. I try to read as much as possible of the Romanian historiography and I see the same trends. It is very frustrating. It’s like a bad mystery novel where you already know the culprit. You know who is guilty and you get to the end and you discover that you already knew that. There’s no suspense.
When you go back to do fieldwork, what does that consist of?
I did interviews with historians, people who were involved in this post-Communist intellectual debate. I did some research into Dilema Veche, the cultural weekly that had a debate about 1989. It had an anti-Communist agenda, but it was not very strong, more of a liberal middle-class approach to the past. I also did work in the archives, in the secret police archives as well. There’s a lot of secondary literature as well coming out.
You also mentioned that you’re looking at museums as well.
I am writing a chapter about the museums of Communism around the region. I also analyze the proposal for a Romanian museum of Communism. But last week the parliament decided not to allocate the funds, so there won’t be such a museum. But I wrote about the proposal. And I wrote about the museum in Sighet, which is an attempt to have a memorial and a museum of Communism at the same time. I’m also documenting the history of ideas behind some of the exhibitions in the museums in Bucharest.
I talked with someone in Bulgaria who is on the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. They’re putting together a memorial to totalitarianism in general, not just Communism but the fascist periods as well. For me this is an interesting trend. When I was here in 1990 and 1993, there were fewer links made between the Communist and earlier fascist periods. Is that something that you’re looking at as well?
Yes. The model is here at the Terror Museum in Budapest, which advances this idea of totalitarianism imposed on the Hungarian people from the interwar period to 1989, or even later. It’s an idea that’s also underpins this new regime of memory in East-Central Europe typified by this Declaration on European Conscience and Communism signed by Havel and others. It’s a new trend. It’s interesting to look at this comparatively in terms of historiography. I’m also interested in the political implications. Let’s not forget that this idea emerges against the background of conservative governments coming to power in this part of the world in the last five years or more.
It’s also important to look at why this comparison is being made. Politically it’s often about just suffering and absolving the nation. The outcome is that the nations are absolved of all responsibility and they become just victims. There’s no need to really come to terms with the past since it’s just a matter of blaming the foreigners or the national elites like the Romanian Communists. So I’m skeptical because of these political implications.
Is CriticAtac an island in Romania or does it have connections to other movements or trends? And how would you compare it to the Left here in Hungary?
CriticAtac started from this milieu of friends and intellectuals in 2010 with its criticism of anti-communism. It was liberal in a sense, with some leftist elements. It engaged from the beginning with people from Cluj who were more philosophical and more academic. So there was an alliance of different spheres of the Left — philosophy, literature, political science. After it came out, in the first year, CriticAtac generated a lot of enthusiasm. A number of artist groups were activated and academics as well. But it remains within a certain network, pretty much removed from the rest of society. It consists of young, middle-class professionals with a leftist outlook, critiquing the establishment and with some radical ideas, but removed from the larger part of the Romanian middle class, which is pretty much conservative. From this perspective, it’s an island. That’s a question for everyone involved: how can we open up this organization, with what kind of language and what means?
We have partnerships with people from Hungary and Bulgaria and have started LeftEast together. But the Hungarians have, first of all, a very different leftist position. The Left here is more powerful and big enough to have its own internal debates. They have a new generation here as well. The Left here is in their early 20s, which is different from Romania where they’re in their early or mid-30s. And they’re responding not necessarily to the leftist tradition but to the tradition of liberalism, which was actually in power and put forward a certain agenda before it collapsed in 2009-10 as Fidesz came to power. The Left here is focusing more on organization, public spaces, and networks, and less on theoretical work, like in Romania where less is actually happening, except in Cluj where there’s a mixture of critical thinking and activism.
Are you suggesting that there is a similar crisis of liberalism in Romania but it isn’t recognized as such?
Yes, but Romanian liberalism was very weak. You had the rhetoric, especially after 1989 when everyone said that liberalism was the new game in town and everyone should embrace it. But that was more rhetorical. What happened in practice was a real conservative turn after 1989. This was somehow masked by the constant fight against neo-communists, the so-called remains of the Communist elite like Iliescu. But this was a cultural rather than a political struggle with the past, and it enabled many conservative ideas to take root without being perceived as such. Romanian society is very conservative and becoming even more so with the economic crisis and the dramatic changes of the past few years. You see the enhanced role of the Church and of some groups of the extreme Right offering a moral conservatism around issues like abortion. Liberalism never really took root after 1989. It was a tiny minority of people, some of whom have become more open to Left ideas and more critical of these conservatives. Liberals never really had a response to 1989 and didn’t build a genuine counterforce to this conservatism.
Do you think an authentic Left — an independent Left — will only emerge in Romania once some version of liberalism takes root?
The funny thing is that what’s happening now is that these Left groups are actually building a kind of liberalism. With the many compromises within the movement and the heterogeneous nature of the movement, we have ended up with a kind of liberalism. But it’s too late for that. We’ll have to engage with what’s happening now and that’s the emerging conservatism. If that implies an alliance between liberalism and the Left, that’s fine. This conservatism is very powerful right now. Over the last few years, this set of ideas has gained momentum, but it’s not articulated politically within a certain party or movement. The future shape of this conservatism is currently hard to predict.
Are there any transformative political movements on the horizon?
Nothing from the Left, that’s clear. There are no resources available for this Left, which is located really only in Bucharest and Cluj, and maybe 5-10 people in other cities in the country.
On the Right, there’s a very strange and paradoxical situation. We had a right-wing government in power from 2004 to 2012, which was ousted by the Social Democrats in alliance with the Liberals. This new alliance continued the neoliberal agenda. They are less conservative in a sense, but not entirely so. Meanwhile, conservatives are in the opposition and have initiated a quest for a new right-wing party. One new movement is called the People’s Party. Some smaller ones have also formed. From this dynamic, we might get to a point when we have a real conservative political movement. The focus before was on economics, and took the form of a neoliberal approach to state spending and the notion that previous governments didn’t undertake the proper reforms. This was an attempt to reshape the state. This conservative movement will place more and more emphasis on conservative issues like abortion, religion, family values, and anti-gay policies. This will shake up the Romanian political landscape and rearrange both the post-Communist parties and the sensibilities attached to them.
You spent some time in the NGO world. There has been a pretty strong critique that has emerged against NGOs. On the Left, the critique is that NGOs are neo-liberal in orientation; and on the Right they are often seen as vehicles for the imposition of Western values over national values. What’s the situation in Romania?
We have both directions. We had first the more leftist criticism of the NGOs. Now we have the emergence of the conservative one, which was quite big this year. A small conservative group organized to boycott the actions of various NGOs, especially the LGBT ones, arguing that these NGOs were of foreign origin and were imposing devious Western morality. These criticisms were already starting when I was still working in an NGO. The NGO workers didn’t care very much about these criticisms. They professionalized very well in the mid-2000s, learning how to write project proposals and attract funding. Of course we shouldn’t disregard the actual impact and results that they had. At the same time, everyone accepted that NGOs were like businesses, and they would take their salaries from these businesses and everything was okay. It was part of the game. It was easier to do this with some issues, because no one really cared, like environmental issues. But then the Roma issue came under the spotlight and there was more controversy. Otherwise there was a tacit agreement that NGO people were doing their jobs, and the state turned a blind eye toward the way funding was being used. The state treated NGOs as part of the democratization process and didn’t bother to properly regulate them. But now the situation is changing because, particularly in a crisis situation, people want to see results.
People in the NGO world in Bulgaria felt that the EU brought their country in too quickly and lost the opportunity to use its leverage to raise standards — on transparency, rule of law, and so on. In some sense, the NGOs represented the outpost of the EU in Bulgaria. They built support for the EU, put pressure on the government to meet EU requirements. Did NGOs play the same role in Romania?
Yes, they did. Romania and Romanians were eager to join the EU no matter what. It was a goal in itself for everyone, including the political class. People realized that we were not quite ready for membership, but they felt that we should be forced to become more European. Even for the NGOs, when I was working there before EU accession, there was a shift in financing from U.S. aid agencies like USAID and NDI to European ones. At that point, it seemed more logical for the NGO world to push for postponing EU integration, because they could count on EU pre-membership status and still get money from the American sources with which Romanian organizations already had contacts. But there was no real opposition to EU membership. The NGOs realized that the transition had to take place, and they quickly learned how to apply for European funds.
There was a tremendous consensus in Romania about joining the EU and becoming more European. There’s a long history of thinking about how we should become Europeans. But there was also the feeling that we were not fully ready.
One thing I find frustrating about the discourse on totalitarianism is the reluctance to acknowledge that both Communism and fascism were essentially European trends. They were part of European history. They were not an import — from Asiatic Soviet Union. So, entering the EU was a way of rearticulating a European identity divorced from a European past, not only communism and fascism but older trends as well, including colonialism.
Exactly. That’s something I’m also writing about. The idea was to brush everything under the carpet, blaming Communism on the Russians in order to have an immaculate European past. We associate European civilization with Judeo-Christian values on the one hand, which sounds nice but it requires forgetting about everything else, or with some Habermasian legacy in which everything is reduced to constitutionalism, which has no historical grounding.
For many Romanians, the Communist legacy explains the backwardness of the country. We’re backward because of these 45 years of Communist history. It’s also convenient for West Europeans to imagine Eastern Europe as a place of memory and convoluted history. “Only the Eastern Europeans are dealing with their past,” they imagine. “And we Western Europeans are only concerned with the future, and building the EU, because we don’t have any issues in the past since we dealt with fascism in 1945.” This is the ideological game inherent in this historical construction.
You’ve spent a lot of time here in Hungary. How would you distinguish your analysis of the Fidesz phenomenon from the way Hungarian critics have looked at Fidesz? Or is it identical?
As far as I understand from my Hungarian friends, Hungarians experienced a traumatic moment with Fidesz coming to power. People on the liberal/left regard it as an outcome of the trauma of the collapse of liberalism. I don’t relate to that, because it’s not part of my experience. What I’ve seen is an overall trajectory of conservatism and neo-conservatism in the region. From this perspective, Fidesz is not really different, except for some local variation, from the Kaczynski brothers in Poland or Basescu in Romania. The overall picture is the emergence after 2000, especially after EU accession, of hardcore neoconservativsm in the region. It’s more interesting to look at them together instead of looking them at them as discrete figures like Viktor Orban.
Yes, I agree. That’s something I’m trying to understand myself. U.S. analysts tend to look at Fidesz as a sport of nature, a distortion in the political fabric, something different from “normal” conservatives like Vaclav Klaus or the Kaczynskis. One can even look beyond the region and identify a similar trend in other parts of the world.
Since you moved away from the NGO world and started to lean Left, have you had any major rethinking of your political perspectives?
What has changed has been my perspective on Communism. I only lived through this period for six years, but it was still shaping my trajectory in a way, especially since this was a bit of a longer trend in Romania. So, my way of understanding the Communist past, and the global context in which Communism emerged, has totally changed. I also look at the transition differently. Like many people, we still had the dream of joining this one Western civilization. For many people of my generation, this inspiration came more from the United States than Europe.
But this changed, our naive expectation of the transition and the way we styled ourselves as Europeans. In the 2000s, we became disillusioned. It happened in different ways. For me it was through my academic work. For others who are 10 years older than me, it came through the experience of the transition of the late 1990s to the late 2000s, up through the economic crisis. This changed the whole dream. You now have people who consider themselves liberal but have a very strong anti-colonial and anti-imperial critique of this civilizational outlook. Of course, there are still people who don’t think that Romania is Western enough. But for the rest of us, it just clicked.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Romania from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
4. And that’s optimistic for me.
The same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
That’s different. 7. But that’s because I’ve lived abroad.
Looking into the near future and evaluating the prospects for Romania in the next 2-3 years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Budapest, May 3, 2013