MANY FACES OF EASTERN EUROPE:
The Failing Hope of Transition
August 29, 2000
Ten years have passed since the euphoric ending of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. The people of these countries rejoiced at first in finding the personal freedom been rejected for 50 years. True goals have been achieved - people won back their individuality, their freedom to pursue their own aims. But sadly, the promised economic recuperation is still a distant promise for some countries.
It is erroneous to group the countries of former Eastern Europe into one block: these countries have differing cultural, societal and ethnic histories. The countries bordering Germany, Austria and Italy are traditionally more Central than Eastern European. They are now reclaiming their place in Central Europe. (Especially Hungary, Slovenia and Czech Republic are doing this relatively well.) But the countries further east have not been so fortunate. Bulgaria and Romania, with relatively little experience of independent statehood or democracy, are struggling. As the traditional borderlands of Christianity and Islam, of Europe and Asia, they have little tradition to build upon. Inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption engulf them. 'Transition' is a phoney word for such a state of affairs. There is no transition; there is just organised chaos. The current system seems determined to be more than a transition. However, one can, and some people must, make a living out of it.
This is a story of three men living in Romania and Bulgaria. Men with different survival strategies, dreams and hopes. I met them during my trip to these countries.
Sarcasm as a survival strategy
Stanislaz is a 25-year-old Bulgarian. He has a University degree in Turkish language. He is working in a kitchen utility import company, taking care of the importation logistics from Turkey. He has heard many promises of a brighter future for him and his country. He does not believe in them any longer.
He says that someone who visited Bulgaria 10 years ago would now be shocked by the state of the country. The cities are poor and there is no investment. In the early 90's there were some efforts towards improvement. But corruption and inefficiency eroded investments. Money ended up into the pockets of the Mafia, or corrupt politicians and businessmen.
Now the more educated young people are leaving the country. Stanislaz says that half of his friends have left the country. The ones who remain are frustrated by the lack of productivity in any economic efforts. It is impossible to be successful in Bulgaria without being mixed up in corruption. Stanislaz is considering leaving his home country himself.
The Bulgarian people have a knack for survival, though. Stanislaz himself credits the sarcastic, survivalist kind of humour that remains popular in the country as something that keeps people going. Humour and vodka are man's last friends. He told me a joke, one from the Soviet era, which he says still captures much of what it is to be Bulgarian:
'American, Polish, Russian and Bulgarian scientists developed a new generation supercomputer at the same time. They all wanted to test their computer's capabilities so they agreed to set the same difficult question for the computers to solve: "Why is there no meat in the stores?"
However, instead of answers, all computers asked questions. The American supercomputer asked: "What does 'there is no' mean"? The Polish one was wondering "what is 'meat'?" The Russian computer asked: "What does 'why' mean?"
And finally, the Bulgarian: "Who asks?" ....'
'This country has no future'
I have rarely - if ever - seen a man with such an anguished look on his face. There is something very serious about this handsome young man, something I could not imagine in anyone who does not have to fight for survival.
He is Claudiu, a 20-year-old Romanian. I meet Claudiu in a 2nd class wagon in the Sofia-Bucharest train. He is not on a luxury ride. He is on his way back home from Greece. He had been there for a month looking for work, but had been turned back. Claudiu has a different image of Greece than the hounds of tourists massing onto its beaches. 'Greek people are ugly', he says, and does not mean their looks. The Romanians are not treated well. They are considered second-class people. A friend of Claudiu's had worked in Greece for four years without being paid the promised wage! Now this man is trying to get his wage via the International Court in Hague.
We are standing in the wagon, watching the serene landscape. I say it is beautiful. Claudiu is resigned. 'Yes, Romania is a beautiful country. But there is no future.' Claudiu takes out his wallet and shows me a photo of his 6-month-old child and his lovely wife. They look happy. Claudiu says that it is because of his family that he wants to find a job abroad. He does have a low-paying job in a factory in his hometown of Sibiu, but the money is barely enough to feed his family.
Now he wants to immigrate to Canada. He has heard it is nice there and that Canada wants more immigrants. But it is not easy to get that far. First you need forged papers, which cost a lot of money. The official process would take years, and because of deeply rooted corruption it is going to cost a lot anyway. All officials will take their share. And then there is the journey - via illegal agencies, no doubt. He estimates that the whole procedure would cost $10,000. No wonder he does not have the money.
We arrive in Bucharest. I shake Claudiu's hand and wish him good luck. He does not even ask for money or for any favour. Which I could not give him anyway. I do not dare to say, but Canada is a long way from Romania.
'I know only a few people who are not corrupt and all of them are stupid'
Life is smiling to Radu. He is a 20-year-old proud owner of an Audi convertible. He enjoys driving it, showing off to be exact, in the streets of Bucharest. I happen to sit on the backbench in one of his outings. He drives fast with a steady hand. He does not care about the rules or about other cars for that matter. That is also how Radu lives.
Radu has his connections in the 'car-import business'. His friends go to Western Europe, steal cars and drive them to Romania with forged plates. He is only troubled by the fact that one can use such a car exclusively in Romania. Abroad you might get caught. Paradoxically he is also studying law in University. He does not read or attend however; exams are passed easily with bribes. He says it is good to study law, so you know how to use it to your own advantage.
We go out to one of the places patronised by the extravagant rich youth of Bucharest. It is a fancy cafe by a lake. All kinds of cocktails and drinks are available. And the people wear fashionable clothes from top to bottom. Which, for many girls, does not amount to much.
Radu says that corruption is a life-style in Romania. 'I know only a few people who are not corrupt, and all of them are stupid', he says, with a wicked smile. Foreigners do not understand what is a fact of life for a Romanian. He enjoys the flashy life-style and the privilege of being in the elite. He argues that Westerners would want to do the same as he does but they do not dare. They are afraid of the law. He is not, which he seems to consider a sign of strength. I mock him openly. 'It is not strength but weakness', I say. He laughs at me - nervously.
My friends, who have known Radu for years, say he did not use to be like this. It seemed like success was all too much for him. He is looking for more and more, but never gets satisfied. Deep inside, there is this nervous sense of unhappiness, which turns his glittery life-style and his words around. I felt pity for him. The more he gets, the unhappier he will be. But he has made his choice - for now.