Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

February Books 7) Theft of A Nation

7) Theft of A Nation: Romania since Communism, by Tom Gallagher.

Romania is a puzzling place. I first went there on a family holiday when I was eight, and not paying a lot of attention; I recently discovered the roots of my grandmother's interest in the country; and I've had a certain amount to do with Romanians through my various thinktanky activities. In that context I've always found it puzzling that Romania punches well below its weight, as the largest country in south-east Europe: where you find bright Bulgarians and Serbs all over the place, Romanian experts seem about as numerous as those from the smaller ex-Yugoslav republics, which have perhaps a tenth the population. I don't know why; Gallagher mutters here a bit about the failures of liberal activists, civil society and the education system but I think there's more to be told.

Tom Gallagher is a lovely guy, and I have very much enjoyed his recent couple of books on the politics of the Balkans, while also wondering at the same time at the energy of an academic author who can turn out 350 pages of densely-researched text at such regular intervals. While I was slightly embarrassed to receive a review copy of his latest, since I don't write regular reviews for any academic source, I feel I can discharge the obligations of expectation and friendship by writing it up here.

There are some very good things about this book. Gallagher's account of Romanian politics in the decade after the 1989 revolution is detailed and probably definitive. I certainly came away with a much better understanding of the shifts between the various political parties. The account of the rise of Ceauşescu and of the West's fervent but short-sighted and ill-fated embrace of him and his wife is also pretty compelling. On a personal level, I was pleased that two people in Romanian politics who I know and like, Adrian Severin and Daniel Dăianu, get good write-ups from Gallagher.

The other real strength of the book is its description of Corneliu Vadim Tudor and his extremist right-wing Party for a Greater Romania. Gallagher gets deeply into the party's support base, its rhetoric, its leader's very dubious past, and most crucially its links with the state security services. I found the whole story very reminiscent of the Serbian Radical Party and its allies immediately west of Romania, and almost wonder if there is some merit in doing a comparative analysis.

He's also very good on the broken promises of the West to Romania after the government's difficult and unpopular position to support the NATO campaign on Kosovo. But to be honest if I get started on the genesis and early history of the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe (in Gallagher's phrase, "less than meets the eye?") I may never stop. I know from my own conversations that the Bulgarians had similar concerns to those Gallagher suggests the Romanians might have had at the time. The one serious puzzle I'm left with is, why did they not join forces? They would have been in a very good position to get more out of the West as a united front.

Gallagher's basic argument about Romania's future is that Romania is stuck between the former communists, led by Ion Iliescu, and the far-right forces of Corneliu Vadim Tudor; that the democratic centre-right is so badly burnt from its disastrous experience in government in 1996-2000 that is it now unelectable; and that the EU is not sufficiently monitoring the accession process.

This would have been a really good and timely message if the book had been published in 2001. However at the end of last year Iliescu retired, and the centre right managed to win both the parliamentary and (narrowly) the presidential election over the ex-Communists, with Vadim Tudor's nationalists doing badly in the presidential vote (though picking up a bit in parliament). That very important development of Romanian politics kills much of Gallagher's thesis in the final section. It rather mirrors the one serious weakness of the mid-section of the book, that we never really find out how it was that Romania went from effectively a single-party state in 1992 to a fragmented democracy in 1996.

Also, given that the EU is crucial to Romania's future and to Gallagher's argument, it's rather a shame that he doesn't seem to have done much research on the view from the EU itself, almost entirely sourced from media reports as far as I can see. His one extended comment on the topic, on p. 326-327, appears to argue that both euro-sceptic and europhile nations appear to be supporting Romania's membership bid for diametrically opposed reasons. I'm not so sure. From the mutterings I have occasionally overheard in the corridors, I think there is a very interesting story to be told about the Romanian accession process as it has played out in Brussels. My own perception is that to a certain extent Romania has been able to piggy-back on Bulgaria's relative success.

For what it's worth I think he's right to be very worried about the consequences for the EU of Romanian membership, but wrong to be too apocalyptic. Romania is probably in a worse mess now than any EU candidate state has ever been two years before accession. The explicit conditionalities of accession do indeed disappear in 2007. But as the ten new member states are now finding out, they are replaced by a whole new set of demanding rules of how to play the game - look at how Hungary's championing of its minority in Vojvodina has backfired with the other 24. If one looks at the recent history of Greece, Portugal or even Ireland there's no real reason to feel that Romania cannot make the same kind of progress given the right policies at the top.

I find myself at the end a bit puzzled by the book's title - Theft of a Nation - there's not in fact much evidence that national assets have been stolen on the same large scale as in Russia or Serbia, except for the EU structural funds, which the nation never got hold of in the first place. I also had to smile at an accusation against one of the main political forces - that, "under the guise of conducting polls, party employees reportedly telephoned several hundred thousand voters and while quizzing them propagated negative views about the opposition" p. 136 - <IRONY>scandalous behaviour which would not be tolerated in any western democracy.</IRONY>

So much work and knowledge has gone into this book that it is depressing to have to report that the editing seems pretty poor. There are numerous repetitions and awkward transitions between topics which could and should have been smoothened by a guiding eye. Some errors are obvious even to the non-specialist, for instance, that Valter Roman, the betrayer of Imre Nagy, was the father, not son, of Petre Roman (p 53). The word "algorithm" gets a horrendous mangling especially on p 155 where it is part of a sub-chapter heading. The use of Romanian diacriticals is annoyingly inconsistent: Constanţa is spelt Constanta throughout, but balanced by Petrovici being spelt Petroviçi; Adrian Năstase on p. 125 becomes Nāstāse, in a sort of Latvian way; and I even spotted an ã somewhere near the end. If you can't get the orthography right, it's better not to try it at all.

But for anyone interested in Romania, this really needs to be on your shelves. Now.
Tags: alphabets, bookblog 2005, romania
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