Tags: Romania Balkans Romanian politics
Romania’s once-invincible ex-communist party nearly imploded a week ago, and is now simmering in an uneasy armistice.
Senior figures in the Party of Social Democracy (PSD) almost succeeded in pushing former prime minister and former party president Adrian Năstase and his supporters out. It’s hard to be sure who was the engine, but judging from statements and interviews, and the history of the last fifteen years, likely candidates are former Năstase ally and current party secretary general Miron Mitrea, and parliamentary leader Viorel Hrebenciuc. In the process, they succeeded in obtaining support from current PSD president Mircea Geoana, and, for a time, PSD founder and former state president Ion Iliescu.
Năstase, with great reluctance, but under pressure from mounting scandals and government investigation of his family’s wealth, resigned recently from the post of speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Romania’s parliament). His supporters had been pushing for an extraordinary party congress to debate a platform proposal, nominally over the party’s political identity, but in all likelihood a cover for launching a leadership struggle.
PSD’s current leadership has been a fragile, tense compromise since the April 2005 party congress following electoral defeat at the end of 2004. Inconclusive earlier votes and hallway negotiations at that congress produced the surprising dethronement of the party’s “spiritual leader,” Ion Iliescu, in favor of Geoana as president. The deal also installed Năstase as executive president, formally the number two post, and Mitrea as secretary general, the number three post.
Iliescu by all accounts was furious at being suddenly deserted by old lieutenants and the party more generally at the April 2005 congress.He had expected to win with no trouble, and had been shooed-in as the party’s leader in parliamentary opposition after his 1996 electoral defeat for the state presidency. (The Romanian president is constitutionally barred from holding formal party membership, and gives it up upon entering office, though all post-communist presidents have nonetheless frequently behaved in partisan ways.) He even reportedly contemplated leaving the party after the April 2005 congress.
The corruption scandals around Năstase personally, as well as perceptions of his arrogant behavior as prime minister from 2000-2004, were the pretext for the trading of public barbs since the beginning of the year. Those scandals, however, could only trigger more finger-pointing over party-wide corruption that has dogged the PSD's ranks since its earlier incarnations as the governing party from 1992-1996, and the continued corruption of 2000-2004 that played a major role in the party’s defeat in the 2004 local and national elections.
Under threat to his post as executive president, Năstase apparently tried to negotiate a golden exit for himself and his supporters, particularly parliamentarians, to the Conservative Party of media magnate Dan Voiculescu. Năstase was ultimately rebuffed, in part because the Conservative Party’s nominal partners in the ruling coalition view Voiculescu and his small party as opportunists they might prefer to dump at the first opportunity. In fact, the much larger Democratic Party (close to President Trăian Băsescu) responded by threatening expulsion from the governing coalition if the conservatives implemented their deal with Năstase.
Năstase thereby endured withering criticism from his own party. In fact, in a stunning display of “spontaneity,” several party branches in the provinces declared any proposals for a new platform and congress to be close to internal treason, and moved to start excluding Năstase’s supporters. Geoana all but indicated his willingness to see Năstase leave the party. Iliescu, once the dominant patron who had brought Năstase into the party and its senior leadership in 1993, was at one point apparently prepared to see his former protégé go as well, in revenge for the April 2005 congress.
But Iliescu, grudgingly empowered by Geoana to arbitrate and smooth over the turbulence in the party ranks, rethought matters on the way to a last minute compromise a week ago.
Part of the calculation may well have been that the PSD was not going to slide farther in the polls (hovering around 20-25%) so long as it remained united with core support in the electorate, whereas a fracture into three smaller splinters implied a much narrower fight for survival in a bitter competition for the same ideological space.
The end result was that the expulsion of Năstase’s supporters stopped in its tracks (though a few have resigned from the party anyway). Geoana, Mitrea, and Hrebenciuc have reluctantly agreed to the extraordinary party conference and debate over programs that the Năstase faction wanted. Most importantly, Iliescu, once a simple party member after his fall from grace, is now back in his familiar saddle as the informal, indispensable arbiter of feuding factions. And Geoana, who reputedly never had much of a following in the party prior to the April 2005 congress, though he may have moderately increased it, has effectively ceded a great deal of what decision-making authority he had to the factions around Iliescu as well as Mitrea and Hrebenciuc.
If anyone should be nervous before the party congress, therefore, it should be Geoana. Nor can Năstase rest easy, given his willingness to sabotage the party by attempting to weaken its parliamentary strength. (Iliescu himself suggested that Năstase stay silent for a year as a simple party member.) At this point, the party branches and their barons (often parliamentarians doubling as branch presidents) are the prize in what will be a monumental battle, as factional leaders bid for their allegiances before the congress. That has been the pattern in every leadership crisis the party has faced since 1991.
From the perspective of the party system, governance, and pressing policy issues, however, the infighting in the PSD is not serving Romania well. There is a strong argument to be made that a responsible, disciplined opposition is exactly what Romania needs. First, it would keep a viable party system operating, helping to define issues, aggregate opinion, and improve government accountability to voters.
Second, in an ironic twist, the health and strength of the PSD could be especially important for the current coalition government, if past experience from 1996-2000 is any indication. Perpetual bickering, deepening corruption, and the resulting incoherence of the ruling coalition of 1996-2000 not only cost the CDR-PNL-PD-UDMR government power, it cost Romania precious time and immense state resources in reforming the economy, the justice system, and protecting civil liberties, and produced a surprising showing by the radical nationalist Greater Romania Party in the 2000 elections.
But if that bickering over 1996-2000 delayed Romania’s domestic reform agenda, its resumption under the current PNL-PD-UDMR coalition risks being even more costly, given the effort to join the EU in 2007 (or, given the EU’s escape clause), in 2008.
A strong PSD in opposition is thus exactly what the current ruling coalition needs to refocus and redouble its policy efforts. The trouble is that however PSD might resolve its leadership battle, some subset of leaders with stained reputations will remain. PSD has never been able to undergo a thorough housecleaning, and no party is ever likely to eliminate its top ranks in toto – let alone scrutinize all the mid-level figures who would have to carry out such a spectacular coup.
31 March 2006
Tags: Romania Balkans Romanian politics
24 March 2006
I love learning languages.
In the past, I did that badly. Mostly because I was a time-wasting, unfocused secondary schoolkid and then undergraduate who did not have a larger personal or professional interest to motivate language retention and practice.
Going to graduate school to study Eastern European politics helped fix that. Both because I had to learn to read large amounts in Romanian and Serbian as a professional matter, but also to function in those countries overseas. I wanted to be able to do more than point and grunt at store clerks, as I would have to do with the French and Russian I studied before and during college.
OK, I'll be honest, I also wanted to date foreigners. No faster way to learn a language than dating people who don't speak yours very well. :-) But it was also a deeply enriching experience to be able to shoot the breeze and get in heated arguments over a beer at an outdoor cafe with non-romantic friends in Romania, too.
So that's the first tip: find a strong professional or personal reason to learn a language. Set the right goal that's important enough to you, and you'll stay with it. The right goal will concentrate your efforts.
The second tip is to prioritize what you want to be able to do in that language: reading, aural comprehension, speaking, writing. Which of those things do you want to do most of all? (It's OK to pick more than one. I'm just thinking in terms of streamlining your efforts to make the most of the time you have available.)
Studying with the best teacher you can find is always a good idea, especially for your first foreign language or two, as well as in the early stages. Someone who makes the experience fun and not so stressful. I was lucky to have a total comedian as a Serbian teacher. I've never looked forward to going to a class so much as I did going to his. (Eliot Borenstein, if you're out there, kudos to you!)
Teachers will introduce you to that basic architecture of grammar that you need to have under your belt. However - don't assume it's just a case of boring verb conjugations and adjectival endings. The way you make all this fun, simultaneous with sitting in a classroom or tutorial session, is to make it concrete in subjects that interest you.
If you want to read it, read selections in subjects that interest you from the target language. The Internet makes this sooooo easy with a quick Google search. My favorite example: I'm a big fan of the BBC, because you can immediately see news items in your target language by going to http://www.bbc.co.uk/targetlanguagename . Voila. Daily lessons for free.
If you want to hear it, flip on some Internet radio. Something else you can do on the BBC, thanks to their RealPlayer radio buttons in a wide array of languages.
If you want to speak it, well, there's nothing better than hanging out with the natives if you can manage it, whether in the target country or in expatriate communities nearest you. By the way, if you're in country - stay the heck away from your own countrymen. That's a defense mechanism that will imprison you in the native language you already know. You need to find places where you can't speak your native tongue. If you're not in-country - look around for language clubs in your area. Organize one if you have to. Try the local university's international office. If you're intrepid enough, look up nearby churches of a major religion for your target country, and stake out the potlucks. ;-)
If you want to write it, make new friends in the target culture and ask for their patience - and guidance - while you write them.
Tip number three: you need to build your vocabulary steadily, so make up flash cards. I use small 3"x5" index cards. As I read, I put six new, numbered words in the language on one side (often adding a bit of grammar information that I think important), and flip it over to number the other side, in order, with the English translation(s). Some additional blank index cards, one rubber band and a quart-sized Ziploc bag later, I have an easy way to port it around, keep it dry and relatively untorn, and whip it out while sitting on a bus or airplane or standing in line at the pharmacy.
Which brings me to tip number four: there are lots of odd moments that you can use to study your vocabulary cards (or otherwise recover wasted time). I've already mentioned some. You can find more (grocery store, sitting on hold on the phone, doctor's office, you name it). My current routine - defined by the goal of reviving my Russian for reading purposes (priorities!) - is to pull out 20 new vocabulary cards (from a commercial box I should've opened 12 years ago) and flip through them during breakfast. I flip through them at least two, often three times, while I work on remembering them (more on that in a sec).
Notice that I said 20 cards in one of my breakfast sessions. You can alter that number to your speed, but the point gets back to the old proverb about how you eat an elephant - it's not likely to be possible in one sitting, but it will happen over time with many small bites. As with so many other things, persistence is everything.
This isn't grunt work, this is fun. You get to hear cool, new sounds coming out of your mouth. (How do you not like learning that the Russian word for 'match' is 'spichka' (спичка, pronounced SPEECH-kah)??)
Pretty soon you'll speak a code that most of your neighbors don't. If you're irreverent like me, it's fun to swear in little-known languages when you can't find what you need in American grocery stores. But I digress.
Just to finish the example: if I'm reading 20 new words in Russian every weekday at breakfast, that's 100 new words in a week. (Reviewing also helps). Give me 10 weeks (2.5 months, say, with interruptions) at roughly that pace, and I'll have a pretty good-sized passive reading vocabulary that I didn't have before.
One other trick I developed for speaking purposes while I was in Romania: out of the ten or twenty new words that I tried to learn on a given day, I would seek to use at least two or three in conversation with kiosk and store owners, or people I bumped into on the street, or with friends. That's how I could bump words up from my passive knowledge of them, and cement them into an active vocabulary.
I'll close by offering two more sources that I have found very, very useful and motivating in terms of learning languages and improving memory retention more generally:
One is Barry Farber's How to Learn Any Language (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1991, 1998, ISBN 0-8065-1271-7). Farber is not just infectious, he advocates a total frontal assault on the language you're after. I.e., by any means possible. He's also the guy who turned me on to the next useful book:
Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, The Memory Book (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974, ISBN: 0-345-41002-5), still widely available. I find it to be a great help, as a set of mnemonic techniques for improving memory overall. There is one chapter on how to memorize foreign words that will make your life much, much easier.
Granted, there are always words I can't easily solve with the Harry Lorayne method, like прибывать ('to come, arrive', I'll have you know). But that method works for some 70-90% of the words I run across at any given time. I'll take those odds!
Sorry for the long post. I just needed to get it down in one place. If you get the bug, I warn you - this is one of the fastest, most rewarding pursuits I know, opening doors to a deeper, satisfying awareness of the world around you.
Posted by Frank Sellin at 3:30 AM
22 March 2006
Thought I'd quickly share this link from newscientist.com.
It's a short, interesting blurb on the antibiotic rifampicin found in a January 12 sample of Milošević's blood, and raises questions about the strategy behind his requests to get to Moscow for treatment.
Or at least, the wisdom thereof.
Posted by Frank Sellin at 10:15 PM
Serbia, politics, Milosevic
When I first heard of Slobodan Milošević's death at the Hague, my initial reaction was not much different from others: he had found a way to deny justice to the dead, bereaved, raped, and displaced of Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, regardless of confessional or ethnic extraction.
I was also bothered that there would be no final, definitive end, complete with a sentence and a gavel, for residents of Serbia proper, who watched Sloba* squander over a decade of their lives without second thoughts on the way to preserving his personal power and enriching a business class of party-state-manufactured bandits. The thought of an entire generation of young people growing up with a bleak economic future after the downward spiral of four wars, and no small amount of regime-inculcated resentment against the international community, still gives me pause.
However, Aryeh Neier (Human Rights Watch, Soros Foundation) argued in a recent op-ed that the dictator's demise does not demonstrate the futility of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. On the contrary, as Neier points out, the ICTY not only spawned other tribunals accomplishing considerable work on other countries' criminals and their acts, it accumulated a huge mass of records on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession (as my former dissertation advisor used to call them).
I want to push that point farther. Let's not forget that Milošević's trial was now on the side of the defense. Yes, we lost the opportunity to see rather spectacular exchanges between Milošević and other wartime celebrities (regional or international), but the prosecution's job was completed on those particular dossiers.
I concede that there may well be room for arguing that many more dossiers on the conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo should have been opened and filled than actually were.
But the fact is, the ICTY's evidentiary holdings are still quite impressive. We now have reams of evidence - including access to records of some telephone conversations and documents that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Milošević's own statements and arguments, however self-serving and ex post facto, open up insights into his thinking. For once, he had to answer to someone else's questions about his own deeds.
In short, even if there will never be a verdict for "closure," whatever that might mean for conflicts the size of what Milošević helped to unleash - there has been a victory for history.
The record of the late defendant might never be complete, and some of his wartime counterparts (Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, for example) escaped the tribunal's reach altogether - but the dossier is deeper than it ever would have been without this trial.
And I repeat: for once, a dictator had to face uncomfortable questions in a public spotlight.
*For those who don't speak Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, and wonder about the difference in spelling: 'Sloba' with an 'a' is the nominative case for the dimunitive of Slobodan, much as English speakers might say 'Tim' for 'Timothy,' or 'Tony' for 'Anthony.' 'Slobo' with an 'o' is the vocative case, which some of us refer to as the 'hey, you!' or 'Walt Whitman' case ("O you trees! O you dockworkers! O Captain!" etc.). As in, 'O Slobo!'...
Posted by Frank Sellin at 3:40 PM
21 March 2006
This is the inaugural post to my blog, as part of this month's effort to get my website up and running. Be sure to visit the website for more information on the Balkans/Southeast Europe generally, and if you really are a curious cyberhunter, my professional and personal pages on that site.
As for the blog's name, that's courtesy of a good friend's moment of inspiration, fueled by a group beer event earlier this month in Central Virginia. Thanks Jon! When it comes to other people's good ideas, I don't have much pride - I'll run with it. :-) At least until someone smacks me.
This blog will most frequently offer insights and notes on the margin of news and culture from Southeast Europe. I'll also treat (spank, mangle, praise) other subjects as they strike my interest.
It's inspired by the kind of reflective essays and editorials you'd find in numerous newspapers or books in former communist countries. That's been my passion for the last 17 years: engagement with the peoples, languages, and cultures of Southeast Europe. So once again - I'm going to crib liberally from the things I think are cool, however quirky. If I'm lucky, maybe some of the better wordsmithery has rubbed off.
Unlike some otherwise very interesting East European writers, I will do my dead level best to offer you shorter paragraphs. Especially not ones that consist of eight semi-colons, six commas, and more subordinate clauses than you can beat with a stick. I may be a former academic, but I believe in clarity.
Much of the subject matter may be serious - but as you've probably already guessed, I'm easily amused. This blog won't be completely dry, I promise!
Something else I have to learn is whether I have the additional publishing space/option for the kind of short, razor-sharp, boxed anecdotes I sometimes see by Dan Perjovschi (normally a cartoonist for the Romanian weekly Revista 22) or others.
What I can't promise is how regularly I'll get to post. Part of my motivation is to post frequently so as to improve as a writer (and, if necessary, to prove to the IRS that I am one...). But given that I'm also a part-time freelancer looking for various forms of work, I hope you will understand if much of my efforts and time are directed towards shingling the (rented) roof over my head and silencing my stomach.
I'm glad you stopped by, and I hope you'll become a regular visitor! I love feedback (preferably of the constructive kind), as that guides me in providing more and better value to you!
Posted by Frank Sellin at 9:41 PM