The classic novel about government structures in East-Central Europe is Franz Kafka’s The Castle. A land surveyor, K., arrives in a provincial town after being summoned for a meeting at the local Castle. But the summons apparently has been sent in error. The land surveyor tries to visit the Castle to get to the bottom of his predicament. But he can only ever seem to circle the structure without penetrating its secrets. No closer to the Castle at the end than he was at the beginning, poor K. has been thwarted by paperwork, malevolent bureaucrats, and contradictory instructions. Transparency International, if it had existed in Kafka’s universe, would have given the village and the Castle its very lowest ranking.
When they took over from the previous Communist apparatuses, the new democratic governments of East-Central Europe brought a degree of transparency to their political operations. Of all the countries, however, Romania was perhaps the least promising in this regard. There was less of a political break between the new National Salvation Front (NSF) and the previous ruling elite. The NSF held the presidency and dominated the parliament. The secret service – the Securitate – after a short pause reformed as the Romanian Intelligence Services and, at the beginning, attempted to destroy many of the more incriminating files by burying them in the forest. It was a grotesquely Kafkaesque effort, which was fortunately unmasked by local activists and journalists.
Today’s Romania is quite different. It has gone through several political upheavals with different parties taking the helm. Accession to the EU forced quite a few important structural changes. The result is a considerably more transparent set of political institutions.
“Until a couple of years ago, the focus was on freedom of access to information — access to information in any type of format,” explains Ovidiu Voicu, who works on open government initiatives at the Open Society Foundation office in Bucharest. “We have now a relatively good Freedom of Information Act, with some exceptions, but that can be improved. And we have moved to open data. Now we want more from our government. We want not only the information, but we want the information in open formats. In fact, we want every bit of information that is produced with public money available in open format.”
The Romanian parliament is also part of this new, open environment. “Actually the parliament here in Romania can be an example of open government because they put everything online,” he told me in a discussion at his office in May 2013. “You can find at any moment all the legislative proposals that are going through the parliament. You can see what stage they’re at as well as any kind of reports that the parliament has produced on them. There is even a consultation box where people can input their opinions. That’s the good part. Now the bad part is that nobody knows if somebody in the parliament actually reads those opinions.”
More transparent politics, however, has not made politics any more popular among average Romanians. They still equate politics with something dirty. Partly that’s a function of how political parties operate. Partly it’s because some politicians continue to engage in corrupt activities. And partly it’s because many politicians are happy with a status quo in which public participation is low.
Voicu quoted the example of changing the Romanian constitution. “It’s not a bad idea,” he conceded. “The constitution is 20 years old, and it has some obvious flaws. The rights part can be upgraded because, generally, the discussion about rights has evolved internationally. So they started to discuss the change of constitution. And the first thing they did was to change the referendum law, because in Romania the constitution has to be approved by referendum. The provision was that at least half of the citizens must participate for the referendum to be valid. One of the chambers of parliament has now passed legislation that only one-third of the citizens have to participate for the referendum to be valid. Even the politicians feel that the citizens do not want to be involved in politics — not even to vote for their constitution. But instead of changing how people feel, they’ve decided to change legislation so that fewer people would be needed to pass the referendum. That’s sad and worrisome. If fewer people are involved, it will be easier to manipulate the election, easier to engage in fraud, and easier to go in the wrong direction.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was 13 years old. I was in the countryside with my grandparents. My father, who was there as well, was listening to Radio Free Europe. I didn’t understand too much about that. I heard about it, and then I saw the media reports. I was too young to understand the historical moment – and also the historical moment of Ceausescu’s fall here in Romania. It took some time to acquire a political viewpoint. It didn’t occur to me that my family kept me apart from politics. That was the usual thing with families in Romania – to keep the children outside of politics.
Do you remember how the revolution changed things in your school?
We finally were allowed to wear something other than the damn uniform. Everybody hated those uniforms. It was the first thing that changed immediately after the revolution. The change happened in the winter. We went to the school in the second semester. Other than the uniform, in the second semester Latin class replaced the constitution class. It was taught by the same teacher. Somehow people were more relaxed or happier at school.
Were you here in Bucharest?
No, in Ploiesti, about 60 kilometers from here. It’s an industrial city. The oil industry is centered there.
You studied political science at university?
No, first I studied computer science. I started with that because of the way the Romanian public education system was conceived at that time, and still is in many ways. I was a good student and entered high school among the top ten or eleven students. The top 30 students were allocated to the first class, which was an informatics class. Nobody asked if we had any abilities or if we liked the subject. We just went to the informatics class because it was new. Computers were new. Everybody thought that the best students should do computers. So I did four years of computers in high school. Half of our class went on to computer engineering at the Politehnica University in Bucharest. I graduated from that, but along the way I decided that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. So I started to study political sciences, which I then did as a career. I’ve actually combined the two. I specialized in social statistics. So I’m using the math from the engineering and the social skills from the political sciences.
Tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing here at the foundation and the work of the foundation in general.
Right now I’m the director of the public policy department. I started doing that last year. It is a change in our work. The foundation is on the way to becoming completely independent. Two years from now we won’t have any kind of institutional support from the Open Society Foundation (OSF). We will still be allowed to apply for grants and so on, but we will have to build something sustainable. We’re transitioning from what used to be a grant-making organization to an operational organization. We decided we want to have an integrative approach. We are doing community intervention but also public policy focusing on democracy and policy analysis. I’m in charge of the policy part. I have a small team of six people, and we are trying to build something like a social policy think tank, inside the foundation. It’s an ambitious goal.
Why do you say it’s ambitious?
Because most of us, and I include myself, are very young. To have a think tank usually requires more senior analysts. But we’ll see how we’re going to cope with that. Probably we’ll get more people on board. But mostly we’re investing in young people.
Think tanks of older people aren’t necessarily better. They have better contacts, but they don’t necessarily think any better.
That’s also true. We are putting a lot of enthusiasm in it, so it should work.
Have you identified the priorities for public policy right now or was it pretty much evident from the beginning what work you’d do?
It was not so evident because previously, with the support of OSF, the foundation was involved in a lot of issues connected to the public scene. We have to choose something to focus on because with fewer resources it’s more difficult to build something sustainable. We went with what we felt is both of interest for Romania today and something around which we have some capacity inside the organization to address. So, on one hand, we are still working on human rights and democracy. We make strong interventions on access to information, open data, open government, open access. And we are also addressing some social issues, in particular the Roma issue and the migration issue. We’re trying to do not only policy but also social intervention. We’re trying to synchronize the two.
When you look back at the 13 years you’ve been working at the foundation, what would you say are some of the most important achievements?
For 12 of those 13 years I’ve been coordinating the social research programs of the foundation. We’ve created here in Romania in the social research field something that was badly needed: standards of doing social research. We have helped people to go abroad and study. We’ve built schools of sociology and political sciences. We also helped them be more relevant on the European and international stage. And we have created a stock of knowledge that is still used here in Romanian labs.
In the larger perspective, the foundation has had tremendous impact on civil society itself through the grants and through the scholarship programs. A lot of people that act today in important positions, in leading NGOs here in Romania, have received scholarships or grants from the foundation at least once in their lifetime.
We are still working on social research. It’s one of the things that we are doing well. We don’t have the resources to do as much research as we want. But on the other hand we have been successful in attracting funds from the European Union, from the stabilization funds allocated to Romania, and integrating such projects into larger interventions. The funds that we attract are mainly for developing human resources here in Romania. If we can integrate a very strong social research component, it allows us to have better results in the end.
From the interviews I was doing up in Cluj and Targu Mures, I got the sense that civil society culture is at a difficult moment because many of the American foundations and organizations pulled out when Romania entered the EU. To access the EU funds requires considerable bookkeeping and paperwork. Many small NGOs just can’t do it.
It’s true, and it is a problem of deep concern right now. What happened is that not only the American but the private foundations in general have withdrawn from Romania, saying that Romania is okay now in terms of development and their funds are needed in other parts of the world. OSF is doing the same. It’s a valid argument. But on the other hand it’s one of the failures of civil society, including our foundation, and we acknowledge it. We don’t have solutions yet, but we are working on it. One of the failures is that the philanthropy of the population is still at low level. People are not donating, and people are not getting involved. It’s not necessary only to donate money. Volunteering is important. It’s just not happening here in Romania.
On the other hand, there is a gap of funding when it comes to European funds. But European funds are social funds oriented toward very specific aspects of social inclusion, human resource development, and economic development. Part of civil society, the watchdogs, works on democracy and human rights. They have no other source of funding than the private donors that used to be here in Romania. There is no real alternative. What’s happening now with strong organizations is that we want to try to combine consultancy with NGO work. If we have strong people that are able to do consultancy, then they can add the civic involvement. This had advantages, but also these are disadvantages. Once we are involved in consultancy, it will be difficult to criticize the client if the client is the government. But the real issue is a lack of funding for the civic NGOs.
Have you already started this consultancy work or is that just something in the future?
We have started. As you know, NGO work is very nice. But it doesn’t pay well. It was always a trade-off moving to consultancy then back to the usual work. And now we are developing an institutional approach to it because it’s easier to have somebody do the logistics and the consultant just do the content.
Let me ask you about the open government initiatives. Specifically what work is being done here on that issue?
Until a couple of years ago, the focus was on freedom of access to information — access to information in any type of format. We have now a relatively good Freedom of Information Act, with some exceptions, but that can be improved. And we have moved to open data. Now we want more from our government. We want not only the information, but we want the information in open formats. In fact, we want every bit of information that is produced with public money available in open format.
In 2011 Romania joined the Open Government Partnership Initiative. In 2012 an action plan has been adopted. We participated in that consultation, and we were happy with the result. Unfortunately in 2012 we had two changes of government, so the politics just put everything on hold. There was a major political price for the fight between the president and the prime minister: more or less nothing happened in the field of open data. Now with the new government, we have new hopes. They’ve taken up one of our main recommendations by creating an office for open data and open partnership directly under the prime minister, who has put more emphasis on the issue. We are also working now with the minister of education on open educational resources such as open textbooks.
What would open textbooks mean?
The ministry of education buys new textbooks annually. Open textbooks means that the content of educational resources bought with public money is put online and made available for everybody on an open license. From there everybody is free to use that information. We have that legislation already, but it’s not implemented. We also want to create an educational Wiki with additional resources, not only the textbooks, because more are needed. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Dutch model. It’s exactly this kind of educational Wiki. Everything produced for students and teachers in the public system is put online. Teachers can work on the content, improve it. We are aiming at something like that here. The first step will be hopefully this year when they put the textbooks online in PDF format.
One of the complaints people had in Serbia was that the politicians really didn’t respond to their constituents, that there wasn’t really much interaction if there were complaints from a particular district. They also complained that there wasn’t much democracy within the parties themselves. The parties were rather hierarchical in their structures, and so the transmission of information even from party people at the base to party people at the top was limited. And I’m curious about the situation here.
I’ve heard of this kind of problem, and we have discussed regionally with colleagues with other countries this general lack of democracy in political parties in the region. For example, in Romania the situation has evolved. It’s no longer a hierarchical pyramid of parties. Rather, it’s an oligarchy of parties. The local branches are now very important, and they can negotiate for influence within the party, not openly but behind closed doors. But the decisions are manipulated, and most party members don’t have a real say in what happens.
A very good example of how they are manipulated is what’s happening right now in Romania with shale gas. A left-wing alliance of social democrats and liberals organized rallies last year in April and May against fracking because the previous right-wing government supported the exploitation of shale gas here in Romania. That left-wing alliance is now in power, and it has forgotten everything about it and is doing the same. It concluded an agreement with Chevron and Exxon. I’m not saying anything about the exploitation of shale gas: I have no information on that and it’s beyond my technical capabilities. I’m just noticing how politics is done. Last year they were in the opposition protesting against it; this year they’re in power and continuing the same program as the previous government.
Do the right-wing parties now oppose fracking?
No. Surprisingly they are still in favor of it.
And the shale is located in one particular area in Romania?
There are at least two areas, or even three. We are almost certain it is located on the Black Sea shore and in eastern Romania close to the border with Moldova. There are also signs that it might be in the western part, on the border with Serbia and Hungary, but those are less optimistic reports. The more promising ones have already been licensed to Chevron. The western ones, meanwhile, have been licensed to Nis, the Serbian gas company, which is now a subsidy of Gazprom. So it’s equally shared between Americans and Russians. Everybody’s happy.
Well, everybody in Moscow and Washington is happy, I don’t know about everybody else. What about the other side of the question, in terms of constituency relationship? How do people feel as citizens? Do they feel like they have access? One of the complaints that people had in Serbia was that members of parliament didn’t even have an e-mail address on their website, so you couldn’t even contact them. Whether they responded is another issue. But I’m curious about that aspect of open government.
Actually the parliament here in Romania can be an example of open government because they put everything online. You can find at any moment all the legislative proposals that are going through the parliament. You can see what stage they’re at as well as any kind of reports that the parliament has produced on them. There is even a consultation box where people can input their opinions. That’s the good part. Now the bad part is that nobody knows if somebody in the parliament actually reads those opinions.
They are open to organizing debates. For example, if we go to a special committee in the parliament and raise what we think is an important issue for Romania, and if ask for a hearing in that committee, they’re very happy to do it. But there is no clear connection between this consultation and the opinions of the people on the one hand and the decision on the other. Decisions are made by the power brokers in the parties who meet together and decide the interest of the party. The result is that many people feel – and this feeling is growing here in Romania – that they have no say in national or local decision-making. People feel that politics is ugly, dirty. They don’t want to have anything to do with it. They do not participate anymore. They do not vote anymore, for example.
The parliament wants to change the constitution. It’s not a bad idea. The constitution is 20 years old, and it has some obvious flaws. The rights part can be upgraded because, generally, the discussion about rights has evolved internationally. So they started to discuss the change of constitution. And the first thing they did was to change the referendum law, because in Romania the constitution has to be approved by referendum. The provision was that at least half of the citizens must participate for the referendum to be valid. One of the chambers of parliament has now passed legislation that only one-third of the citizens have to participate for the referendum to be valid. Even the politicians feel that the citizens do not want to be involved in politics — not even to vote for their constitution. But instead of changing how people feel, they’ve decided to change legislation so that fewer people would be needed to pass the referendum. That’s sad and worrisome. If fewer people are involved, it will be easier to manipulate the election, easier to engage in fraud, and easier to go in the wrong direction. That’s why we are worried about what’s happening in Hungary, for example.
Have there been any parties that argue for a different kind of politics, like the Politics Can Be Different party in Hungary?
We have these kinds of parties. There are two types. One was successful, and now it’s in parliament. It’s the People’s Party, which is like the party of Beppe Grillo, if you know Italian politics. This is the party of a guy that runs a television station, Dan Diaconescu, and he was on his channel every day saying that everybody’s stealing, everybody’s bad, and he’s with the little people. At some point when they started to discover some fraud that he was engaged in behind the scenes at the television station, he said, “Now you are accusing me! I will make a party.” And he did make a party. And he got around 15% of the votes. So he’s in the parliament. But he’s not a real alternative to the democratic route. He’s just a radical populist. About half his MPs have already left the party. Actually, he sold positions in his party. It cost about 50,000 euros if you want to get elected.
He sold the seats? These people bought them, and then they left the party?
They paid just to get into parliament, and then they affiliated with whomever they want.
They are affiliating with the one guy in power because they want access to public resources. Those who are leaving now are actually counting on a potential fracture in the majority. The alliance in power is between the liberals and social democrats. They are fighting among each other because next year we will have presidential elections and they can only have one candidate. The liberals should have the candidate, but the social democrats are not so sure they want to give that up. So they may split. In this case, the larger party, the social democrats, will need another ally. They will need more parliamentary support. So, these guys from the People’s Party are guessing that “they will need my vote, so they’ll pay.”
So, that’s one side.
Yes, that’s the populist side. There is also some kind of movement coming from the right wing. After the previous right-wing government failed, the main right wing party, the presidential party, started to break apart. It is a more heterogeneous party. They have conservatives. They have liberals in the European sense of “economic liberal.” They have some moderate conservatives as well as radical conservatives. They are moving apart, and small groups of people are trying to get support outside the establishment by getting in touch with their constituencies.
They are not so successful until now because we have an important problem with freedom of political association. To create a new party in Romania, you need 25,000 signatures from at least 20 counties of Romania. That costs a lot of money. It means that if you want to create a party, you have to organize it in 20 counties simultaneously. It’s very difficult for a group initiative to do that. Usually in other countries in Europe it only takes maybe a couple hundred people to create a new party. So, this barrier to entering politics is keeping outsiders from interfering in the establishment.
One last question on the open government issue, and that’s access to Securitate files. I understand that individuals can check their own individual files, but it’s not so easy to do research in the archives. Is that an issue that you’ve also been addressing?
We haven’t worked directly on that. Personally I have no problem accessing the file of my father when I want. I didn’t have a personal file — I was too young for that. I know from other people that there are some restrictions on who gets to research there. But people from academia usually don’t have problems. There are good people in charge of the archives. So those files already available at the agency in charge can be fairly easy accessed by people from university, from research institutes, and so on. The real problem is that not all the archives went to that agency. Some of them are still hidden, even from those that are legally in charge of them.
That’s a challenge. There is, however, a commission that vets candidates for political office based on those files. Has that been a relatively effective institution? Is it relatively transparent, and are people happy with that process?
In the beginning, it was. It was transparent, and it was relatively efficient. But it was changed by parliament – in the wrong direction. Now they’ve cut a serious part of the powers of those who determine who collaborated with the Securitate. They still can do it, but the process is more difficult and it can be lengthened by challenges in court. But in theory, every person that is elected to an official position — in parliament or nominated to government or elected mayor must be verified as not being a collaborator with Securitate. Before becoming elected, they submit a statement saying if they did or did not collaborate with Securitate. Unfortunately, there is no punishment if they lie in the statement and are found to have been a collaborator. We have this notorious guy, Dan Voiculescu, who’s a media mogul and leading one of the parties. It was determined that he had collaborated with the Securitate, but he had no problems winning two subsequent elections to the Senate.
Has he admitted that he was?
He did not admit it. He said something about doing it in the interest of his job because he was working in foreign trade and they had to have connections with officers of the Securitate. He challenged the decision in court. But he lost. And that’s the final decision. He’s still not admitting it. Others do admit their collaboration, and are proud of it, and some of them get elected too. There’s this guy Antonie Solomon from Craiova who is a deputy now on the People’s Party list. He has very proud. He said, “I made my contribution to the security of the country.”
And that was a sufficiently popular position to get him elected?
What is the situation right now with the court system here? Is Romania experiencing some of the same kind of problems as Bulgaria and Hungary with the state interfering n the judicial system?
We are slowly improving since we got into European Union. The monitoring commission and the pressure from foreign embassies were the main factors in keeping things on the right track. It’s much better than ten years ago; it’s much better than five years ago. It’s a continuous struggle.
How would you say that it’s better?
It’s better in terms of the independence of the judiciary. We have strong magistrates. Both prosecutors and judges are showing important signs of being independent of the political system. For example, the high council of magistrates, which is an independent organization that supervises the justices, is challenging the political system by openly opposing the decisions of parliament. The High Court is not letting the government interfere in anything. We even have cases of important officials, for example, former prime minister Adrian Nastase, being jailed, and he’s not the only one. Former ministers from all parties have had trials ending in convictions. There’s this guy, George Becali, he’s an MP and a new star. He’s a gregarious guy, very rich. Two days ago, together with the former member of defense, they were convicted of some kind of fraud in parliament. So things are moving forward.
On the other hand, we are still seeing attempts from the parliament or the government to put an end to that. There are right now 24 MPs in parliament that are being prosecuted for criminal cases – fraud, corruption, or something like that. And there are several attempts by the government to change legislation so that parliament will have more control over the judiciary. So far it hasn’t worked. In this context, it’s important to mention the role of the constitutional court. The constitutional court has repeatedly repealed decisions of the parliament or the government when they were breaching the constitution itself. Every time, the constitutional court stood firm and took a position. This is another important sign. None of the parties dared to go against the decision of the constitutional court. Fifteen years ago under Iliescu, he would have changed the constitutional court if he thought it was necessary.
And the current coalition doesn’t have enough votes in parliament to do what Fidesz does in Hungary, which is to change the constitution.
It does have enough votes in parliament, but the difference is that it’s a coalition, not a party. Fidesz is one party. Here it’s a coalition of two major parties and two minor parties. They are fighting against each other. They disagree on some of the issues. It’s difficult for them to monopolize the power in the way that Fidesz did.
You mentioned that the courts have been prosecuting politicians and government ministers for fraud. I’m curious whether there’s been successful prosecution of the oligarchs who made so much money during the privatization or the huge transfers of assets during the last years of the Ceausescu government.
Yes, there are at least two examples. One of them is Becali, which I mentioned. He made a lot of money by speculating on the restitution of nationalized properties. He got the rights from former owners and then bribed his way to get the land, which was very valuable land here in Bucharest. In one of the deals, he exchanged some of his less valuable land for the more valuable land of the minister of defense. Both he and the former minister of defense have been jailed. Another one was this guy Vantu who is still in jail. He will be out this year, but he’s been in there for a while. He was a speculator, a crook, who made a lot of money from financial evasion. And there are others on trial.
This is one of the things that has not really improved. The lengths of the trials here are a huge problem. For example, this guy Becali was convicted two days ago. But the process started ten years ago. The criminal investigation, then the trial itself, and the appeal and the second appeal all put together takes a lot of time. And I don’t know how that can be improved.
In the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus just declared an amnesty for anybody whose trial lasted longer than eight years. Everybody knew that it was precisely these kinds of trials that take so long. So it amounted to amnestying the people who were being prosecuted for economic crimes during the privatization process.
Actually, there is a proposal of some MPs here in Romania to do the same: a general amnesty. But I don’t think it will go through because here in Romania, fortunately, corruption is still an issue for the people. People react. They don’t react on the streets. They don’t get angry and revolt, but they react by voting. All elections here have shown that corruption, or allegations of corruption, can be the little thing that makes the difference in Romanian elections.
Do you sense at the level of the street the impact of these decisions: both the court decisions as well as the incremental improvement in the rule of law? Are people more law-abiding? I’m talking economically, not breaking traffic codes.
Yes. People feel a little bit more confident about the legislative system. It’s also important to say that we didn’t really have a strong problem of average people not abiding by economic laws. We have a problem in the labor market – in the black or grey labor market – where people are paid minimum wage on paper and get more money illegally. But in terms of not paying taxes, the real problem is with the big companies. The major debtors to the government, to the public budget, are state-owned big companies and private big companies, not necessarily the general population. But in terms of confidence in the justice system, there is a small but significant change.
You mentioned that there’s also some work on Roma issues. What is the focus of that work?
Here in the foundation we are working on developing a kind of integrated community model that includes housing, social support, and jobs. That’s one side, working directly with Roma – actually, with multi-ethnic communities, because there are no real communities here in Romania that are solely Roma.
On the policy level, we are focusing on monitoring the national strategy of Roma inclusion, proposing improvements, amendments, and generally keeping one eye on the funds allocated to the Roma inclusion strategy. It’s a painful issue. The Roma are one of the most, vulnerable groups. There has been very little improvement in the last 20 years. The country, in general, has improved. If you were here 20 years ago, you certainly have seen the visible improvement in every aspect of the country. But for the Roma, this is not so. The Roma have really been left behind, and we still have no solutions. We as a society still don’t have solutions.
Do you have anything to report from this community-based approach? Is there a model community for instance where a lot of work has been done or any other examples?
Yes, we did work in two communities. In Calarasi County, which is not so far from here, we started with the problem of housing, which is usually neglected. There’s very little government funding, and the localities don’t have enough resources of their own. But it is an important issue. If you don’t have a house, a property, or some place to live, there’s no social inclusion and not much possibility to get a job. So, structuring the strategy around housing – and then adding educational components, social inclusion components, and labor components, pretty much works. But it requires time.
We are also working in Dor Marunt, for the last four years. There is a gradual improvement. We didn’t have so much money to affect the whole community, but it started to grow. And we are hoping to develop this model in terms of “selling it” to the political authorities. In this way we can show how to use wisely the state resources to make a visible improvement in the community.
I understand that the absorption rate is still relatively low in terms of the amount of European funds that are being brought in for use here in Romania. It’s a little over 10%?
It’s 13% I think. It is very low.
And are there strategies for improving that in order to really bring more money to bear on either infrastructure or specific issues like Roma inclusion?
We have strategies. But I’m not so optimistic about the efficiency of those strategies. Because the analyses show that the main problem is with the implementing authorities, which are in the hands of the ministries. If there’s no change there, there’s no use changing the procedures of the beneficiaries because the result would be insignificant overall. The latest proposal is to unify the management of European funds under one ministry. The ministry was created. The minister seems to know what he’s doing, at a decent level for a politician. Let’s see if they will be able to change it. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen for this budgetary year. It’s too late to make an impact until the end of 2014. But at least for the next budget period we may be able to see an improvement. Still, I’m not so optimistic. It’s a deep problem of lack of initiative and competence.
Romania and Bulgaria have recently switched places in the Catch-Up Index, but both of them remain pretty low on the list. Do you think the Index is a good representation of where Romania is, in terms of these four indicators of government, quality of life, democracy, economy? And what’s the most important thing that Romania can do to improve its position, or is improving its position in the index the most important thing for Romania to be addressing at the moment?
The obvious answer is yes. You don’t need an index to see that Romania and Bulgaria are in the last place in the European Union, in fact fighting for the last place. But it’s also visible from the fact that Romania and Bulgaria needed three more years, compared to the other countries, to join the European Union itself. Those problems are not solved. So, yes, the index is accurate on that perspective.
But the index itself is not the objective. The objective is to improve governance, to have a better living standard, and so on. And here the problem is still at the level of society’s ability to produce competent administrators. The people in charge of administering public affairs are generally mediocre here in Romania. We, as a society, have failed to produce good leaders and good administrators. I don’t have a solution to that. But probably sector by sector, the country is still managing to work. I’m still here in Romania, unlike many people who have left over the last ten years. So I still maintain a little bit of optimism that we can move forward. And year by year, it’s a little bit better in Romania. It’s not a lot, and sometimes we have taken a step back — for example last year, when we had a major political crisis. But we move forward according to our slow pace. Maybe this is just our pace.
We have been a little unlucky recently. We were very close to a tipping point in 2007-2008 when the pace of development increased. Economic growth increased. It was a very good situation. It was when we joined the European Union. And then suddenly we had elections in December 2008, and we had more political crises. It took three months to form a new government. And at the exact same moment when we were having our small political crisis, the big economic crisis hit us. We were so unprepared for that. We were so caught up in the political fight that the new government, which was put there to implement measures to counteract the economic crisis, had no idea what to do. The only thing they were able to do was wait a year because they thought that acting in 2009 would be much better. They finally acted in 2010. The only program they had was IMF austerity measures connected to the bailout. So, I think we’ve been a little bit unlucky. Maybe we need 15 more years to get to that tipping point again.
I hope it’s not 15 more years.
I hope so. I hope it will be in my lifetime.
When you think back to when you started here at Open Society, have there been any major changes in the way you look at the world, based on a dozen years of working on these issues. Have you had any second thoughts?
I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I’m working at Open Society or more about my age, but I’m becoming more conservative in my views. I’m starting to appreciate stability. Well, I’m only half-joking about that. What I’ve learned–and this is important—is that we have to look at a longer time perspective. Often I discuss these things with other colleagues or friends or family, and they are very unhappy. They say, “It’s so bad in Romania! Look at what’s happening every day.” And I think, “Okay, but look at what is was like 10 years ago.” If you look from that perspective, we can see the improvement and we can maintain optimism. We can see the ways that things have changed, and we can see the things that need more change. And we can adjust our expectations and our plans in order to be more realistic. So, maybe I’m not more conservative. Maybe I’m more realistic or pragmatic. But I have some colleagues who are very idealistic. So, it’s important to mix the approaches.
When you look back to 1989 when you were 13 and everything that has changed or not changed in this country since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1-10, with one being most dissatisfied and ten being most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
I would say eight.
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Romania on a scale from 1-10, with one being most pessimistic, ten being most optimistic?
I would say eight.
Very optimistic, very good.
I have a 10-month-old daughter, so I tend to be optimistic.
Bucharest, May 22, 2013