Sinaia - Peles Castle, Romania. Photo: Alan Grant
Sinaia - Peles Castle, Romania. Photo: Alan Grant

"What is exceptional and needs some explanation in Romania's case is not her difficult separation with her communist past, but the final positive outcome: the signing of the Accession Treaty with the European Union in April 2005." (Alina Mungiu-Pippidi)

Romania's post-communist transition got off to a rough start. The demonstrations that led to the collapse of the Ceausescu regime initially won Romania the hearts of many Europeans. Soon, however, doubts about the legitimacy of the new leaders began to emerge. According to Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a leading Romanian analyst, the legacy of the brutal Ceausescu regime rendered transition to a market-economy democracy particularly difficult.

"In November 1989, Romania had only a few, isolated dissidents. In fact, some were actually former communists. However, political mobilization had attained unprecedented levels: by 1989, Romania had 4 million party members, a third of the adult population, more than double the average percentage in the Soviet bloc. While in the Universities of Ljubljana or Warsaw many faculty members were not party members, not one student could register for a PhD program in Romania by the late 1980s without a PCR membership card. The entire faculty were party members. Clearly, the party membership card had become a sort of driving licence, a convenience tool. The 1980s brought a tremendous deterioration of life standards, with the collapse of heating systems and shortages of basic goods, putting Romania in a specific situation: no organized opposition, a huge party, but widespread hatred of Ceausescu's regime, even among its own party members. Listening to Radio Free Europe, which was forbidden, was the only, but generally widespread, act of opposition."[1]

The lack of an organised opposition, of the sort that had emerged in the Central European communist states, allowed an unreformed political elite borne of the communist party structure to take over the state apparatus and run the country.

"The policy distance between incumbent and challenger elites was initially far greater in Romania than in Central Europe. The more elites agree on essential issues, such as privatisation, the smoother and faster the transition from communism to capitalism. In the case of Central Europe there was a consensus for capitalism from the onset of transition, simply because the communist parties there had already exhausted the possibilities of reforming the socialist economy prior to 1989. In Romania, Iliescu tried an in-between approach in the first years of the transition and failed. The attempt only managed to create over one million property-related lawsuits, generate hyperinflation which impoverished millions, prevent the emergence of a land market until 1999, and shape an entrepreneurial class closer to the Russian oligarchic model than the Central European one."[2]

Ex-communist Ion Illiescu governed for the first seven years after 1989, allowing several former communist organisations to maintain and consolidate their hold on power. Nicolae Vacaroiu, Prime Minister from 1992-1996, was very reluctant to pursue economic reforms of any scale. When Vacaroiu left office at the end of 1996, the government had privatised only 12 percent of the assets under its control.[3]

When the opposition finally took over in 1996, it found it hard to maintain a united front and to change Romanian bureaucrats' entrenched methods of running the state apparatus. Hampered by the lack of experienced executives, efforts to deliver an accelerated reform process were basically stillborn. In March 1998, the IMF suspended a 1997 stand-by agreement, the fifth since 1989. (As was the case with the other four, IMF money was never paid out in full as Romania failed to meet the Fund's conditions each time around.)[4] Led by long-term National Bank Governor Mugur Isarescu from December 1999 to December 2000, the government performed better and introduced important economic reforms. Dragos Paul-Aligica, a senior research fellow at George Mason University, underlines the Isarescu government's contribution:

"By mid-2000, the Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu had managed, for the first time in Romania's post communist history, to establish a solid institutional anchor for the country's economic policies and thus to create an unprecedented premise for their stability and continuity … The concept of an articulated national economic policy grounded in the EU enlargement process was embodied in the Medium Term Economic Strategy, adopted in March 2000, and in an implementing Action Plan, adopted in May 2000. The merit of Isarescu's approach was that it translated a broad but irresolute consensus among the main political parties into a concrete plan. He formalized this vision into a set of precise targets, with clear evaluation criteria and deadlines. As noted with satisfaction by the EU Commission in its Regular Report, 2000, he created and managed the political process necessary to back it."[5]

Time was too short, however, to be able to translate the reforms into visible benefits for the population. As Mungiu-Pippidi explains,

"By 1999, two-thirds of Romanians still thought that communism had been a good idea badly put into practice … Support for post-communist parties throughout the transition remained higher than support for challenger parties … Had the PCR successor parties ran united in every election, the Romanian anti-communists would have never managed to win."[6]

When Romanians returned to the polls on 26 November 2000, a combination of low turnout and disappointment with the transition process gave the ex-communists 37 percent of the vote (45 percent of the seats in the chamber of deputies). The nationalist Greater Romania Party of Corneliu Vadim Tudor, meanwhile, claimed a staggering 20 percent (26 percent of seats). The liberal forces were reduced to shambles.

The government of Adrian Nastase, in an informal alliance with the Democratic Union of Hungarians, proved considerably more effective than most observers had expected. The economy started to expand. The rate of poverty, which had grown from 20.1 percent of the population in 1996 to 35.9 percent in 2000, fell back to 25.1 percent in 2003. It has fallen further since.[7]

By the time Romania was allowed to start EU membership negotiations in February 2000, the EU (and NATO) perspective had become the most credible promise of a stable and prosperous future. Mungiu-Pippidi, like many others, argues that the EU accession process played a crucial role in the dramatic transformation of the last decade:

"Politics changed importantly after Romania applied for EU membership, and furthermore, after it was granted 'candidate' status in 1999. This meant that tutorship from Brussels had become acceptable even for the PDSR … The prospect of accession to the EU opened the door for a new type of political change, a change pushed from below but taking advantage of external conditionality, necessary in a society where powerful people remained above the law. From 1996 on, democratization progressed slowly but irreversibly in nearly every field."[8]

Mungiu-Pippidi also argues that the public desperately wanted Romania to join "Europe". The "laggard status" was bitterly resented.

"The PDSR/PSD [Iliescu's party] needed the Romanian economy to become successfully integrated with the European one, and after securing their domestic domination, seeking European recognition was their next important objective. Romania's former communists have been genuinely convinced of the EU and its advantages."[9]

The prospect of EU membership not only fuelled the reform process, but also left a mark on most areas of public activity, from the functioning of the administration and the rebuilding of civil society to dynamics between the main political actors and inter-ethnic relations. Writing before Romania's entry into the EU in 2007, Lazar Comanescu stated:

"EU accession proper will also represent the pinnacle of the transformation of the way we, as new members, perceive ourselves and of the way we relate to our European partners. In a sense, it will represent the moment when the journey towards 'we and they' becoming 'us' will have reached its destination."[10]

Romania's EU convergence, its effects on full display in Bucharest, has also made itself felt outside the capital. According to Enikö Baga, who researched the impact of the transformation on one of Romania's counties,

"Europeanisation made a double impact on local and regional development policy in Romania, and implicitly, in Timis County. First, reforms of local and regional governance can be regarded as a particular dimension of catch-up modernisation and adoption of Western standards. Second, the financial assistance provided within the framework of the pre-accession process represented a major incentive for the creation of absorption capacities and thus enhanced cooperation on the local and regional levels."[11]

After an initially painful and nearly 20-year-long transition – from one of the most repressive authoritarian regimes in Europe to a democratic market economy – Romania has now entered a period of consolidation.

Romania still faces numerous challenges. The bitter political fights of 2007 and 2008 have exposed high political tensions. The dismissal of Justice Minister Monica Macovei in early 2007 undermined the continuous struggle to address corruption and embezzlement. The implementation of some EU laws has created new problems; some of the newly set up institutions have to be further strengthened. Finally, the economic crisis has begun to take its toll, having already produced a decline in FDI and a leap in unemployment rates during 2009.

This, however, does not cloud the big picture – that of a remarkable transformation. Looking back, analyst Alina Mungiu-Pippidi maintains that

"The existence of a European option prevented Romania from staying as Albania or regressing to become a new Belarus … More than any constitutional or electoral law, European integration and the prospect of accession to the EU have shaped Romanian politics, and it is in this challenging environment that Europe achieved its largest success to-date. Romania's transition may have seemed long and strenuous for Romanians, but from Ceausescu's snipers and Iliescu's vigilante miners to the signing of the Accession Treaty with the EU [it] has taken only fifteen years."[12]

21 September 2009


[1] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, "Europeanisation without Decommunization: a case of elite conversion", in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 17-28, p. 18.

[2] Ibid., p. 27.

[3] Tom Gallagher, Theft of a Nation. Romania since Communism, Hurst, 2005, p. 114.

[4] Ibid., p. 179.

[5] Dragos Paul-Aligica, "Romania's Economic Policy: Before and After the Elections", East European Constitutional Review, Volume 10 Number 1.

[6] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, "Europeanisation without Decommunization: a case of elite conversion", in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 17-28, p. 25.

[7] Alan Smith, "The Romanian Economy since 1989", in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 29-37, p. 36.

[8] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, "Europeanisation without Decommunization: a case of elite conversion", in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 17-28, p. 25

[9] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

[10] Lazar Comanescu, "The European Union and Romania: Interests and Aspirations", in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 95-102, p. 100.

[11] Enikö Baga, Towards a Romanian Silicon Valley? Local Development in Post-Socialist Europe, Campus, 2007, p. 100.

[12] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, "Europeanisation without Decommunization: a case of elite conversion", in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 17-28, p. 28.