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Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s new president-elect, viewed from abroad

IohannisTheEconomist

A victory for Iohannis, a step forward for democracy and minority rights in Romania: Klaus Iohannis viewed from abroad

by  Claudia Moscovici

I have not seen the Romanian public so enthusiastic and optimistic about a political event since the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. On November 16, 2014 the Romanian center-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, won the presidential election. His victory over Victor Ponta came as a welcome surprise for many Romanian voters. Ponta was ahead during most of the presidential campaign and had won the first round, on the November 2nd election. Many Romanians view Iohannis’ victory as a step forward for democracy. What are some of the factors that led to Iohannis’ unexpected victory and how is it perceived by the press abroad?

Reuters recently briefly covered the Romanian election with some ambivalence. In an article published on November 16, Matthias Williams claims, “Analysts had said that victory for Ponta might have helped make Romania a more stable nation, with the main levers of power held by one bloc. By contrast, Iohannis’ win could trigger renewed political tensions in one of Europe’s poorest states.” Despite these misgivings, in next sentence the author expresses the other side of the coin, which coincides with what I’ve been reading in the Romanian press: namely, that Romanians had grown increasingly critical of the Ponta regime and were ready for a change: “Thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest to voice their anger at Ponta’s government on Sunday night and demand his resignation.” Williams brings up one of the main issues at stake, which is the country’s growing disenchantment with political corruption: “Growth rebounded to more than 3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but corruption and tax evasion are rife, and progress to implement reforms and overhaul a bloated state sector is mixed.” (see http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/16/romania-election-idUSL6N0T608D20141116)

Young voters, the educated elite and Romanian citizens abroad (the diaspora) voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of Klaus Iohannis. Romanians would like to build a country with less political corruption, more transparency in the government, a thriving economy and a more democratic voting process in the country and especially for Romanians living abroad. In fact, the difficulties in voting for oversea Romanian citizens, which got international media coverage, drew widespread sympathy for Iohannis, both within and outside Romania. “Overseas voters, “ Williams notes, “played a key role in swinging the vote at the last presidential election in 2009. Romania’s large and growing diaspora is widely seen as anti-Ponta, and many voiced their anger when long queues and bureaucratic hurdles prevented them from voting in the first round. The uproar triggered the foreign minister’s resignation, sparked protests in cities across Romania and may have helped galvanize the anti-Ponta vote.” In Paris and Munich people lined up for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to vote. In Munich, some people showed the cameras their toothbrushes, to indicate they’d be willing to spend the night there if that’s what it took.

For many Romanians, Klaus Iohannis represents a change for the better. Although much of his political platform remains to be seen, in the eyes of his supporters he stands for political accessibility, honesty and good character. A former physics teacher and current mayor (of Sibiu) of German origin, Iohannis also represents a victory for ethnic Romanians. Ethnic Germans living in Romania were brought into the international limelight a few years ago, when novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Despite the fact that ethnic Germans have been living in Romania for hundreds of years, they still face some prejudice and obstacles. In fact, As Alison Mutler points out in The Associated Press article of November 17, Victor Ponta tried to play the nationalist card by depicting Iohannis as a cultural outsider. This strategy backfired. Mutler notes, “His win was also the failure of the nationalist card played by Ponta, who mocked his rival’s minority German ethnicity and the fact that he is a Lutheran and not a member of the powerful Orthodox Church.” Iohannis supporters, The Economist reports on November 17th, 2014, “greeted the mayor of Sibiu with cries of ‘Danke Schön’. He will become the first member of an ethnic minority, and the first non-Orthodox Christian, to serve as president in Romania’s post-communist history.” (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/11/romanias-elections-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/Transylvaniansurprise)

This unprecedented win represents not only a victory for democracy in Romania, but also a step forward for ethnic minorities. Ethnic Germans, or Rumaniendeutsche, were numerous in the country before the end of WWII, numbering almost eight hundred thousand. Most of them immigrated to Germany (or were evicted from the country) shortly after WWII, when Romania became Communist. By 2011, their numbers fell to less than 40,000. A second wave, over 100,000 ethnic Germans, immigrated to Germany following the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. Although still perceived as “foreigners” by some native Romanians, ethnic Germans have lived in Romania—mostly in the region Transylvania—for centuries. The majority belong to the ‘Saxons’, who are descendants of Germans who settled in Transylvania during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Iohannis, who states that his family has lived in Romania for over 700 years, is most likely a descendent of this ethnic group. The second group, the Swabians, are descended from Southern Germans who settled in the Banat region during the eighteenth-century. The third group, the “Lander” Germans, came to Northern Transylvania during the eighteenth century. While ethnic minorities may still face some prejudice in Romania, the country has made great strides over the past ten years in representing ethnic minorities.

“Conditions for minorities in Romania today have been significantly improved through reforms pushed through in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU. An accession treaty signed in early 2005 resulted in Romania’s full membership in 2007. … Minorities are currently represented in both chambers of parliament.” (for more information on Minorities in Romania, see Minority Rights, (http://www.minorityrights.org/3521/romania/romania-overview.html).

CurteaVecheKlausIohannis

Romanians have a lot of hope for the country under the new government. They hope for a healthier economy and more job opportunities. They would like to see the continuing integration of Romania into the European community, less political corruption, and a more democratic—and easier–process of voting, especially for the diaspora. Iohannis has expressed his commitment to fulfilling these hopes, so the country has reason for optimism. He has also shown his accessibility to the public—and graciousness–during a recent book signing of his autobiography, Pas cu Pas (Step by Step), published by Curtea Veche Publishing, where he spent hours with fans, signing over 3000 autographs. This presidency wouldn’t be the first time a member of a minority group has paved the way for the majority. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Upside of Romania’s Culture Wars: When Culture is Politicized, it Matters

 

photo by Andreea Retinschi

With the recent change of regime in Romania, what ensued during the past few months could be described as a downright culture war. Rumors of corruption and accusations of plagiarism against political and cultural leaders in the country abound, while Romania’s leading intellectuals are taking sides.  Victor Ponta, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) since 2010, became the Prime Minister of Romania in May 2012.  The shift in political power became more pronounced when Traian Băsescu, the President of Romania since 2004, was suspended from office on July 6, 2012. These political changes affect not only Romanian society, but also the realm of culture in particular: writers, artists, movie directors, architects, musicians, professors etc. This is why Romanian intellectuals are reacting so strongly–on both sides–to these political changes. It is perfectly understandable. Many of the cultural leaders in the country are political appointees. When there’s a drastic change in government, there’s a corresponding change in their lives and livelihood. The New York Times recently printed an article about the repercussions of the change in government upon Romania’s cultural institutions, both in the country and abroad.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E5DE163AF93BA15755C0A9649D8B63

As Larry Rohter states in this article, an emergency decree of the coalition government that was passed on June 14, posits that the Romanian Cultural Institutes, “a non-partisan entity that formerly reported directly to the president, now responds to a Senate driven by partisanship. Its new mandate: to direct its activities at the Romanian diaspora community. As a result, collaborations with American arts institutions – including Lincoln Center, co-sponsor of an annual Romanian film festival, and publishing houses specializing in translated literature — could be in jeopardy.”  Rohter continues to specify that Horia Patapievici, the leader of the Romanian Cultural Institutes, Cristian Mungiu, winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for his movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, as well as several influential cultural institutions, “including the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum and Melville House have sent letters to the new prime minister and other government authorities, urging them rescind the measure.”

The response of those supporting the Ponta regime has been equally vehement. I have been following the unfolding of these political and cultural events in Romanian newspapers and via Facebook, which, not surprisingly, have divided many of my Romanian friends. I have always been extremely proud of my cultural heritage and viewed part of my role as a writer and art critic to show the merits of Romanian culture abroad. In fact, I still do.  This is less from a perspective of hopeless naivete and nostalgia than from a sincere appreciation of my cultural heritage and sense of pride in a country where culture still matters.

The idealist in me believes that whatever happens in the realm of politics in Romania, the reality is that the country has produced great artists, writers and philosophers–Eminescu, Caragiale, Brancusi, Ionescu, Eliade, Cioran–and it will continue to do so. Simultaneously, the cynic in me believes that you can’t have it both ways: writers and artists being detached from politics and economics, as is largely the case in the U.S., and culture mattering to the general public. Where culture is politicized, it will be subject to the kinds of tensions, ruptures and battles that occur routinely in countries like Romania and France. Where culture is largely separate from economics and politics, it will be–as I believe it is in the U.S.–a pleasant, harmless diversion and not much more than that. Few will pay attention to it or care about it

In this country, while economics may govern books, it does not govern culture. Certainly in the U.S. there’s a large and profitable publishing industry. But the genres most associated with “culture”–literary fiction, art books and scholarship–are not the money-makers that receive most media attention or a large publicity budget. They are often relegated to specialized, academic or  smaller publishing houses that are either non-profit (university sponsored) or low profit. Most of the big publishers’ annual publicity budget–millions of dollars– goes to a very tiny percentage of their books, usually in the categories of self-help, celebrity biographies or genre fiction (fantasy, horror and mystery). All this to say that the realm of “culture” in the U.S., which is largely detached from politics and economics, receives very little attention from the  media and the general public.

Thus, from my perspective, as a Romanian-American writer who has a partly external and partly internal perspective on both societies–or Intre Doua Lumi (Between Two Worlds) as the title of my novel was aptly translated into Romanian–the current tumultuous situation in the realm of culture in Romania is on the one hand a tragedy–because the country is so deeply divided–and on the other hand a triumph–because intellectuals are taking sides in a country where culture still matters. Henry Kissinger is said to have stated that “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” I believe  this statement is absolutely true. In my estimation, the saddest fate for a culture is not strife, but irrelevance

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

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