Romania has 275 kilometers of Black Sea coastline. The country tries to attract tourists by touting its sandy beaches, temperate climate, spas, and resort hotels. It’s tough competition. I met a couple of Romanians who said straight out that they prefer to vacation along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. And Turkey is a more popular destination for European and American travelers.
Tanase Barde, along with two colleagues, owns two hotels on the Romanian coast. They’re located near the town of Mangalia in two resorts named after Roman gods: Jupiter and Venus. They’re seasonal hotels. Even though we were meeting in season – at a restaurant in the Black Sea port city of Constanta in May 2013 — business, he told me, was not particularly good.
“The Romanian state doesn’t help businessmen,” he told me. “No one wants to help. No one wants to develop. Everybody just wants to take.”
Barde put much of the blame on Romania’s political culture. “I’m very disappointed about the evolution of Romania,” Barde observed. “The people involved in politics are at a very low level of education, of knowledge, of vision. We don’t have an evolution. We have an involution. This has happened because we can’t talk about democracy without responsibility, without education. It’s very good to have democracy. It’s the only way, and I don’t know another way. But if we don’t have responsibility, if we don’t have a minimal education, then democracy can be very bad. And this is what has happened in Romania now.”
Barde, who by profession is an engineer, tried his hand at politics. Some time after the changes in December 1989, he joined the National Peasant Christian Democratic Party. Five years later, he was elected to parliament and served one term. He was happy about some of the changes that his party was able to push through in coalition with the Liberals.
“At that time, we adopted the law on privatization, which helped us moved further along on our road to Europe,” he recalled. “We also adopted the law on the banking system. In 1996 when we came into power, we had very big problem with the banking system. Iliescu and his party stole a lot of money because we didn’t have good clear laws and rules. So, at that time, we adopted these laws. Laws like these made it difficult for Romania to backtrack from its commitments to join the EU.”
But ultimately, politics was not for him. He had a falling out with his party’s leadership. He jumped ship to Traian Basescu’s Democratic Party, but couldn’t make a go of it there either. So he went into business.
Some of the frustrations that Barde with politics have carried over into the business world. He complains about the lack of infrastructure devoted to tourism. This makes it very difficult to attract foreign tourists to his hotels. But it goes beyond the physical shortcomings.
“We don’t know how to treat tourists,” he confesses. “When I say this, I’m talking about the ordinary people: the people who come to the table to serve you. They don’t have the right attitude. They’re not happy to serve you. It’s a very big problem.”
I told him that I’d encountered that attitude a few times in Romanian restaurants and hotels. “It’s also a big difference between Turkey and Romania,” he continued. “You were in Turkey? The Turkish people from my point of view are number one in tourism. They are very happy if you sit down at a table. If you ask for something, he doesn’t say, ‘I don’t have that.’ He says, ‘Okay, okay,’ he goes out to buy it, and then he gives it to you.”
He’s trying to change that image with his hotels. “We try to offer good service,” he concluded. “We carefully select our staff. We stay in the season all the time there. We invest.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was a student at that time. I was in Bucharest, staying in a workers’ neighborhood. Of course I was very glad to hear about the fall of the Berlin Wall. My father had been in prison when he was 12 years old so –
Really, he was in prison when he was 12 years old?
It was something like prison. They took the whole family from their village. And they put them in a place where there was nothing. Nothing. Just the earth. And they said, “You live here from now on.”
Ah, yes, I heard about this.
They made him cut reeds when he was 12. I grew up hearing stories about this period. And that’s why I was very happy to hear about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
You grew up here in Constanta but studied in Bucharest?
And what were you studying?
Electronics and telecommunications. I’m a telecommunication engineer. After I graduated, I worked in the national telecommunication system. At that time, we had only one national telecommunication system.
Were you also in Bucharest on December 21?
I was in my last year at the university. For those of us in the last year, we were allowed to finish school early to prepare for the final exam. We had three or four months to prepare for that exam. So, in December I was here in Constanta.
And what happened here in Constanta at that time?
The people went out on the street. Everybody went over to the headquarters of the Communist Party.
Is that where the city hall is now?
Yes. They broke down the doors. They went inside, and they declared the end of the Communist Party and the Securitate. Everybody was happy.
Were there any casualties? Did anybody get killed?
Not in the Constanta area, but in Cernavoda. Three or four young people were killed there. But it was a mistake. Here in Constanta the revolution was very peaceful. In Bucharest there was a big fight. Also in Timisoara and in Sibiu. But not here.
Did you participate? Did you go inside the building?
Yes, I was in the front.
How did it feel?
I felt happy. And hopeful. I thought everything would be shining and beautiful and free.
Did your parents also participate?
No. My father was at work at that time. After a few hours, I went to see him and asked if he’d heard that Ceausescu had fallen. He’d heard.
And then what happened? Did you go back to your studying?
Yes, I went back in Bucharest to prepare for my exam. I participated in the protests in University Square. I was there every day for three weeks because I didn’t like Iliescu. He was a Communist, and now he’s a former Communist. I didn’t like his politics. We were not successful at University Square. I was there when the miners came. I talked with the miners. There were three miners at my school.
I asked one of them, “Do you like what’s going on? Do you think it’s normal for miners to come here to fight with students? With innocent people?”
And he said, “I have nothing against you. I respect you. But Iliescu said that democracy is in danger, and we came to protect the democracy.” They were manipulated.
But there was violence, too.
Yes, very, it was very violent. There was too much violence.
What was it like during those three weeks in University Square? What did you do?
I stayed there and talked with people. I listened to the people making speeches from the balcony. And I supported a free country without Communism.
Were you getting good responses from people walking by?
Yes, all the people from that area were like me. They thought like me. They came to that area to support a free country without Communism.
Did they give you food?
How did you organize food?
We had what we needed around there. We could go and buy everything.
I interviewed Marian Munteanu. What do you remember about him in those days?
I remember when he talked from the balcony about the situation of Romania. And I remember from TV the moment when the miners took him and beat him. It was a terrible moment. It’s very hard to describe.
Then what happened with that student organization after the miners intervened? Did it continue?
Yes, we continued our fight. But nothing was like before. It was a moment of reflection.
You never felt hopeful the way you felt before?
Yes. We realized we didn’t have the support of the majority of the people.
You had the support of people in Bucharest around University Square but not…
Not the majority, yes.
That was very disappointing.
Very, very disappointing.
And the elections at that time…
The election was a disaster. The Iliescu party won with 66% of the vote. And Iliescu himself, I think he obtained 89% in the 1990 presidential election.
Were you surprised?
Yes, for me it was a surprise. When we’re inside a group of people, and everybody in the group thinks like us and talks like us, it’s hard to get a sense of the dimension of the problem. You think that everyone understands what the problem is. Then it turns out that that’s not true.
So, you took your final exam?
Yes, and I came to Constanta to the telecommunications company. But I was very angry about the situation in Romania. I was very unhappy because of my job, my life. I waited until May 20. On May 20, 1991, I became a member of the National Peasant Christian Democratic Party. I waited for that day, May 20, because that was the birthday of the president Corneliu Coposu. Perhaps you’ve heard about Corneliu Coposu? He was a very, very big personality. He spent 18 years in prison.
Under the Communists?
Under the Communists, yes. And from that moment I became member of National Peasant Christian Democratic Party.
Did you quit your job? Or were you still working?
No, I was still working until 1996 when I became a member of the national parliament representing the National Peasant Christian Democratic Party from Constanta.
That must have been quite an experience to run for office. How big was your constituency, or did you run on a list?
I ran on a list. And the constituency was the whole region of Constanta.
Did you go to talk to people door to door?
Yes, in every town and every village.
That took a lot of time, I imagine.
Yes, but we did this not only in the campaign. We did this because we had to reorganize the party. So, we did this two or three years before the election.
What percentage did your party get nationwide in that election?
We were in a coalition with the National Liberal Party, and the coalition won with 31-32%.
And when you were talking to people a couple years before the election, what did you say your program was? How was your program different from the National Salvation Front, for instance?
There was a big difference. We talked about NATO and Europe, saying that we wanted Romania to keep its face toward Europe and the United States. Mr. Iliescu had just signed a treaty with former Soviet Union! So, there was a big difference between the two programs. Before 1997, Iliescu and his party didn’t want to give back property to the owners.
How long were you in parliament?
And did you like it?
Yes, I like politics.
What was the biggest surprise for you when you went into parliament?
Nothing. There were no surprises.
It was what you expected.
Yes, when it came to the work in parliament. But I was a little bit disappointed when I saw how difficult it was to resolve a problem. People would say something and then do the opposite. Because I was very young at that time, I was a little disappointed. Now, I think it’s normal. I am not surprised now.
Can you give an example of that?
When we wanted to adopt the law on the former secret service, the Securitate. When we wanted to adopt this law, we didn’t have a majority because our partner, the National Liberal Party, didn’t support us on this law. They said, “Yes, we agree, we want to do this.” But when we put the law to a vote, every time they voted no. This was because their leader from that time was an informer for the Securitate in the Communist era.
That law did eventually get adopted, yes? Under Constantinescu.
And what do you think now about the situation of Securitate, in terms of access to the archives?
My opinion is that we lost the fight with Securitate. They won. They are everywhere now. They control Romania.
Even here in Constanta?
Wherever they have interests, even here. For example, in the harbor – where there’s a lot of money.
Did you look at any of the files yourself in the Securitate?
No, I’m not interested. No.
Let’s go back to the time when you were in Parliament. You were unhappy about that vote around the Securitate. Were there votes or laws that you were very happy about?
Yes. At that time, we adopted the law on privatization, which helped us moved further along on our road to Europe. We also adopted the law on the banking system. In 1996 when we came into power, we had very big problem with the banking system. Iliescu and his party stole a lot of money because we didn’t have good clear laws and rules. So, at that time, we adopted these laws. Laws like these made it difficult for Romania to backtrack from its commitments to join the EU.
What about land for farmers?
Yes, we adopted another law in that period, and my party supported this law. But this was a very, very difficult law to get adopted because our party in parliament at that time only had 25%. And the Liberal Party had only 10%. So, we had 35% together. It was just enough to adopt a law like this.
What about the situation today for farmers?
In Romania, it’s a big problem with farmers and with agriculture. We can do agriculture at the top level. We have good earth for agriculture. But we don’t have a national irrigation system. If we have rain, it will be a very good year. If we don’t have rain, it will be a disaster.
You should bring people from Israel here to set up a national irrigation system. People from the desert usually have good irrigation systems. Is anybody proposing a national irrigation system?
In the election, all the parties do.
But you still don’t have one?
In other countries in this region, there’s sometimes a conflict between big farmers and little farmers.
Here, no. As I told you, agriculture right now is just a big potential.
Have foreign agricultural companies come here to Romania to buy land?
Not yet. Because of the legislation. But now we are in European Union, and from now on I think they’ll be here.
And do you think that’s a good thing?
Yes it’s a good thing. I don’t see how it can be a bad thing.
Were there things you could do in parliament for Constanta?
For Constanta and for the country. For Constanta, I could only do little things, for instance if someone had a problem with the mayor, or something like this. We adopted a law in which the people of Constanta pay 30% of their taxes to the locality.
So 30% stays here?
Yes, 30% stays here. After we adopted that law, we can talk about MPs who support their regions by getting money from government.
So you served from 1996 until 2000 in parliament and then afterwards you came back here to Constanta?
Were you still involved in politics?
Yes. But in 2003, the president of the party excluded me from the party.
Because I wrote a letter telling him to take back all the people who’d been kicked out of the party. I also sent the letter to the leader of the People’s Party group in the European parliament. The leader of the party here was very angry. He said, “Why did you send the letter?” I said that it was because we are a member of the European People’s Party group, so I thought it was normal. He didn’t think it was normal, so he kicked me out.
So, you wrote a letter asking him to take back all the excluded members, and as a result he excluded you!
Yes. After that, I joined Basescu’s party. For the 2004 election, I was proposed to be in the top of the list. And 48 hours before the deadline to register the list, Basescu squeezed me out.
For revenge. At that time he believed I was the source of their problems with the prosecutor about our former national shipping company. You heard about his problem?
He was being prosecuted for corruption, or…?
Yes, for corruption. But it was not true. But at that time he believed this.
So you left that party, too?
No. But I am not active.
Have you gone back to working as an engineer?
No, I have my own business now. With my three associates we have two hotels on the Black Sea coast. They’re not here in Constanta. They’re south of here.
What’s business like these days?
Very hard. The Romanian state doesn’t help businessmen. No one wants to help. No one wants to develop. Everybody just wants to take.
Do you get support from a local level?
No, no, no. I’m very disappointed about the evolution of Romania. The people involved in politics are at a very low level of education, of knowledge, of vision. We don’t have an evolution. We have an involution. This has happened because we can’t talk about democracy without responsibility, without education. It’s very good to have democracy. It’s the only way, and I don’t know another way. But if we don’t have responsibility, if we don’t have a minimal education, then democracy can be very bad. And this is what has happened in Romania now.
Is there any political party that you think is better?
No. They’re all the same.
Are there any political figures that you think are above the rest?
Not even one?
Maybe there’s somebody I don’t know about. To have political success in Romania, you must be a bit of a clown. You have to be foolhardy. At this moment, Romanians don’t respect the value of politicians. There was a big poet here, a Communist: Adrian Paunescu. When he died, 100,000 people were at his funeral. He was a big poet, but I think 90% of those people hadn’t read even one poem. They liked him because he was a Communist. He talked about poor people, about workers. And when Ion Diaconescu died, the president of National Christian Party who spent 17 years in prison, there were only 100 people at his funeral. That says everything about how Romanians value the lives of these two people.
I’ve been told that some people here in Romania, even a lot of people, talk about how much they liked the situation before 1989 better.
Do you ever talk to people like that?
Yes. For instance, taxi drivers. I think 80% of this kind of people, if you talk with them, they’ll say, “Oh, it was better back then.” It’s natural when the situation is hard that people forget what was bad in the past. They remember only the good things. And now, they say it was better. They remember that they were younger. But me, I cannot find anything good in the past. Believe me, I cannot find anything.
Do you argue with them?
No. The Communist system was a terrible system, believe me. Now it’s difficult, and I’m very disappointed. But we cannot compare the two situations. Today I am free. I can talk with you. I can say what I think. And I’m not afraid. I am free. In those days, something like this was impossible. So, it’s very hard now, but it’s much, much, much better than that time.
I was in Varna in Bulgaria, and people there told me that the Russians were coming to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast and buying up properties.
Here, no. It’s for two reasons. Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast was developed by a German investor. And here we have a very bad visa system with Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians. I don’t know why. But they need a minimum of three months to get a visa to come here, and that’s a very big problem for tourists.
Would you like to see more Russians come here?
Yes, because that would mean more money.
I was also told that the level of tourism here in Constanta has dropped.
Yes, there’s no interest from the national authorities. Here in Constanta, however, the local authority supports people who want to invest in tourism. The mayor of Constanta is very involved in developing tourism here.
He’s a good politician?
He’s in his third term. So, yes, that means he’s a good politician. He’s popular. And he’s helping tourism develop. But only here. Not south of here. There’s no interest from the local or national authorities in developing tourism there.
And that’s where your hotels are. In what cities are they located?
One is in Jupiter, and one is in Venus, which are summer resorts. The nearest city is Mangalia.
Is it easy to get to Mangalia from Bucharest?
Yes, by a four-lane highway. It’s very good now – but only from Bucharest to Constanta. If you want to go, I don’t know, to Baia Mare, it will take like two days. There’s still no highway after 20 years. We have only three highways now: Bucharest-Constanta, Bucharest-Pitesti, and Bucharest-Brest.
And there’s nothing from the Hungarian border until Bucharest?
But I would think the most tourists would be coming down from Hungary.
Yes, and not just tourists. We can’t talk about development in a country if we don’t have highway. Without highways there’s no telecommunication, no development.
You’re still here in Constanta. Did you think about emigrating?
No, it’s too late for me now. I stay here because I love this country. I have a lot of friends who have left. One works for Ericsson. A mathematician friend works for Citibank. Another is a very, very good teacher at Pennsylvania University. But I chose to stay here. I don’t have any regrets. I just regret the situation of the country. But I think very, very seriously about what will happen with my daughters. Because, as I told you, we cannot talk about an evolution of Romania: we can only talk about an involution. I’m talking here about the political system and the educational system. Economically, yes, we have development. But the educational system and the political system are more important than the economic system.
How old are your daughters?
One of them 22 and the other 14.
Do they go to school here in Constanta?
One is a student in Bucharest. The other is here in Constanta.
Does she go to public school here in Constanta?
Yes. In Romania, like in all Europe, the public schools are better than the private schools. In the United States, it’s the opposite.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Maybe because of the tradition.
You have to pay money to go to a private school, don’t you?
So you’re paying money for a worse education?
It doesn’t make sense.
For an American. But for a Romanian, it makes sense because he doesn’t need the knowledge: he needs just the paper. This is the problem.
Do you think your daughters will leave Romania?
I don’t know. They must decide. But I don’t know what to advise them. I don’t like the evolution of Romania, but on the other hand, it’s not easy to go to another country.
Do they speak other languages?
They speak English very well, not like me. One of them speaks English and Spanish very well. And the other speaks English and German very well.
Are you seeing many people come back to Romania? In Bulgaria, they’re starting to see some people return.
Yes, here it’s the same. Because of problems in Europe. A lot of Romanians go to Spain, and now Spain has big problems, so they come back.
That’s good, though. They can bring back capital, and experience.
Yes. But the most important thing is a different mentality.
How many people do you employ at your hotels?
These are seasonal hotels. We have six permanent employees, and in season we have 55.
Has the season already started?
Yes, it has started. But nobody comes.
I don’t know.
It’s difficult to get Romanians? Is it difficult to get people from other countries?
People from other countries it’s very difficult to get. Because we have no infrastructure, we have no service. We don’t know how to treat tourists. When I say this, I’m talking about the ordinary people: the people who come to the table to serve you. They don’t have the right attitude. They’re not happy to serve you. It’s a very big problem.
That’s a big difference between Hungary and Romania.
Yes, I know. It’s also a big difference between Turkey and Romania. You were in Turkey? The Turkish people from my point of view are number one in tourism. They are very happy if you sit down at a table. If you ask for something, he doesn’t say, “I don’t have that.” He says, “Okay, okay,” he goes out to buy it, and then he gives it to you.
It’s true. Here sometimes it seems like people are very unhappy when you sit down at the table. Like they don’t want you to be in their restaurant, like you’re just a problem.
And there does seem to be a difference between Transylvania and Bucharest.
Yes, there is a difference.
You don’t know why? Transylvania was 1,000 years under Austrian occupation. And here, we were under Turkish occupation. That’s why.
But you just said that Turkey is a great place to go, that they have the right attitude.
Yes, but they feel this. The difference is that the Turkish occupation was very relaxed. As long as we paid the tax, they didn’t have a problem with us and we could do what we wanted to do. In Hungary it was much harder. But now, Transylvania is better because of this experience.
So what are you going to do to change the situation for the hotels? Advertise?
Yes. We try to offer good service. We carefully select our staff. We stay in the season all the time there. We invest.
Are you on hotels.com?
You should do that. It’s a good site. I make all of my reservations, even here in Constanta, through hotels.com. You can see pictures of the hotel, it gives you very clear information about the room, about the services, tells you where the hotel is located. Sometimes you can make a reservation and cancel it without penalty within a certain period of time. And you can pay with credit card. So, that’s my “payment” to you for this interview!
Where do you think you will be in 10 years?
Romania. No, it’s difficult to say. I hope to be in a better situation. But in this moment, I have no hope. When all the power is in the hands of people who have no education, it’s very difficult to do something important and good. Maybe you know about Gigi Becali? He’s in prison now. Everywhere on television, people say what a bad thing this is that a man like this has to go to prison.
They think he should be free because he has a lot of money?
Yes, yes. And he gives some money to the poor people. Here in Romania, we don’t have a critical mass of people who want to make radical changes.
Did you have that critical mass in 1990?
No. We never did. Our party won in 1996, and our party wanted to make those changes. But we had only 25% in Parliament. The other side had 75 percent.
Would you consider going back into politics? Would you run again?
Maybe. But first it’s necessary to change the political system and the election system. Here the people are very poor and can be bought by the politicians. For Romania, the better system would be a list system. If we had a list system, the leader of the party would have the responsibility to choose the candidates. Without this, we have no chance.
When you think back to 1990 when you were a student and protesting in University Square, have you had any major changes in your worldview?
About Romania or about the world?
In 2000 when my party failed to get enough votes to get into parliament, I realized that this would be a big change for Romanian society. And I think I was right. That party represented a segment of the population who believed in real values. When the party disappeared from the parliament, those people and their ideas were no longer represented politically. I expected that Romania would go in a very bad direction. And I think I was right. At this moment we need a party like that again in parliament.
So, a new party that is like the old one.
Yes, with the old people of the party like Corneliu Coposu and Ion Diaconescu: people who spent time in prison, who believe in democracy, who believe in Romania and Romanian values.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed in Romania or didn’t change in Romania from 1989 until today, how would evaluate that on a scale from one to ten with one being most dissatisfied and ten most satisfied.
We are free now. And this is very, very important. But the education system, the health system, the political system: they’re all terrible. So, I’d say five.
The same scale, the same period of time, but your own personal life?
For my personal life, I can say eight.
Finally, looking into the future, the next two or three years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Romania? Again on a scale from one to ten, one being most pessimistic, ten most optimistic?
Constanta, May 25, 2013