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Sibiu: Regime Change, European Style

Sibiu - flickr-CamilG
Sibiu. Photo: flickr/CamilG

Elizabeth Pond is a journalist based in Germany, a former Europe correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor. In 2006 she published this book about the Balkans. Unusually, but usefully, it covers not just the former Yugoslavia and Albania but Romania and Bulgaria too. The first chapters are descriptions and analysis of each country but the last cover "Europeanizing the Balkans," and "Reaching Critical Mass". Getting there has been a far longer process than was hoped but still she argues, the EU's "novel exercise of soft power" in what she calls "fundamental regime change" across the region "may not yet have ensured the end of Hegelian history in Southeast Europe. But it is certainly better – and cheaper, in blood and treasure – than any conceivable alternative. Anyone who doubts this need only look at Darfur. Or Afghanistan. Or Lebanon. Or Iraq." In the extract we have chosen here Pond looks at Klaus Johannis, the mayor, since 2000, of the Romanian town of Sibiu which was to be European Cultural Capital in 2007. Johannis is an ethnic German in a city his people have always known as Hermannstadt, but where their numbers have shrunk now to less than 2% of the population. As Pond notes: "The German population of 745,000 in Romania before World War ll shrank to 385,000 after the war to some 200,000 in 1989 to 119,000 in 1990 and to a more or less stable 60,000 today."

When he first took office in 2000, Johannis started asking the obvious potential investors in Munich and Vienna why they were not flocking to an 850-year-old Germanic city with a well-educated labor force that demanded only a fraction of Western European wages. To his surprise, he found that the answer was not primitive infrastructure, but rather the evasiveness of would-be landlords who kept changing their terms like wily peasants instead of acting like long-term business partners. He solved the problem of the lack of city funds – decentralization has not yet gone far enough to let municipalities tax for the money they need – by trading unused city land until he could make a contiguous industrial park, extend electric cables and water mains to it, and offer businessmen fixed costs for leases through a single negotiator, who would also facilitate permits without delays or bribes. Johannis's ingenuity and probity impressed his voters as well as investors like Krupp and Renault, and townsmen in Mediasch, fifty kilometres away, also elected a German mayor, Daniel Thellman, a proselytizer of the democratic gospel of letting local communities make their own decisions. Thus, in a sense the Germans are reclaiming the proto-democratic spirit of their Saxon forebears in the region; and as such it is no coincidence that Sibiu – along with Luxembourg, from whence came some of its original settlers – has been named European Cultural Capital for 2007.

Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style. Elizabeth Pond. 2006.
[p. 70 / Brookings]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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