Thursday, March 05, 2015

Walls of Disappointment

Lumme. I haven't posted here since the day I made it clear that Victor Ponta would win the presidential election. What a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. I'm very familiar with being wrong, but in some cases I'm delighted to have been so.

Anyway, moving on...

Last weekend a travelling exhibition visited Csikszereda. It is called Walls of Silence (or Hallgatás Fala in Hungarian). It's purportedly an exhibition about the years of Communism in Romania and the 1989 revolution. It has been displayed in Brussels and in various locations around Romania (I think, though I can't find much detail on when and where.)  The website of the exhibition is here:  - though you will note when you try and open the English version of that site that, despite it claiming to have one, it doesn't. The same happens with the Romanian version.

Anyway, along we went, to see what it was like and to also educate our teenage daughter on some things that might be new for her regarding the period pre-1989.  It was a series of poster panels, depicting various aspects of post WWII life, of the events of Timisoara and beyond in 1989 and then various post 1989 events.  There were a couple of videos too, such as an interview with Tőkés László made on Hungarian TV before the revolution in Romania.

Now the first thing that struck me about this exhibition is that it was in two languages. But these two languages were not, as you might expect, Hungarian and Romanian, but rather Hungarian and English. There was no Romanian at all (well there was a sort of sort of take away pamphlet in Romanian, but the exhibition itself was in just the two languages). An exhibition about Romanian under communism and the Romanian revolution, on display in Romania. But not in Romanian.  It just struck me as needlessly and wantonly provocative.  Obviously in Csikszereda the vast majority of people who visited it would be Hungarian but some Romanians at least would be interested (and indeed the guest book featured an angry comment in Romanian),

The exhibition itself was OK for the most part, at least in terms of the section pre-1989 and the revolution itself.  The focus was very much on Tőkés, and it seems that he, or his people, somehow were behind the exhibition, so it felt a bit like the Tőkés show, but obviously his role in the 1989 revolution was fairly big and so he deserves to be included in such a thing. But then there were two sections that really jarred a bit.  One was a large section documenting all the awards and medals he has been awarded around the world in regards his role in the 89 uprising, which then concluded with a long section on how some Romanian politicians last year had tried to have one of his national medals withdrawn because of his Hungarian nationalism. There was no mention of what kind of nationalist actions might have triggered this, and while I fully believe that whatever he has done since should not detract from what he did to actually win that medal in the first place, the lack of any form of explanation was slightly troubling.

That was a minor quibble, however, and had that been the only issue I never would have bothered writing this blog post. No the thing that really got my back up was a panel depicting the events of 1989 in Hungary. Front and centre in this display, in the photos and the text, were a young Orban Viktor. Now I recognise that as a student Orban was there and was involved in the protests against the government, but he was not the  Tőkés or the Havel or the Walesa of Hungary (The wikipedia article on the end of communism in Hungary doesn't even mention him for example). He was one of many involved in a groundswell of popular unrest that eventually led to the toppling of the system.The highlighting of him is particularly jarring give that the exhibition is about the lack of freedoms before 89, the control of the media and the silence imposed on the population of Romania .  And here, in the middle is something conveying hero status on the European leader who is the most undemocratic and most authoritarian and the most acting against a free media in his country. Orban is not Ceausescu, but he is also not a democrat and he is clearly not someone who believes in freedom of speech.

In short, this exhibition was deeply disappointing, and basically a pro-FIDESZ whitewash (Tőkés  has close ties to FIDESZ). I left it feeling much more antipathy towards Tőkés than I had before for putting his name to such a poorly argued and presented piece of propaganda.  I suspect that wasn't the intention. It is difficult to know what the intention actually was, in fact.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why Romania is screwed

We are now firmly in the endgame of the presidential election, with Victor Ponta facing Klaus Iohannis. Regular readers of this bog will have a fairly good idea as to where my sympathies lie (or in fact where my hostilities lie).

A video is circulating today showing the President of Satu Mare County Council, shouting and swearing for a lengthy period of time at various people, threatening to fire them if Ponta does not win in Satu Mare County.  This follows the first round in which - in the county- Iohannis beat Ponta by 0.6% of the vote. The County president in question is clearly a PSD man, and equally clearly irked by the disloyalty shown to him and his party by the voters (and quite possibly has himself just been at the mercy of a tongue lashing from party HQ in Bucharest).

But what is really telling about this video is not the shouting and swearing and threats. What is really telling is that the people he is bawling out are all political appointees.  A huge number of jobs in Romania are filled by people who have been awarded that job primarily through party affiliations.  Sometimes it seems nearly all civil service jobs are filled in this way.  So, the shouting president almost certainly feels that these people who are in post because of the PSD in the first place really do need to get their fingers out and drag people kicking and screaming to the ballot box this coming Sunday to get them to vote Ponta.

But, but, but.  This is Europe in 2014.  Why are so many jobs filled by party apparatchiks and the loyal card carrying members? This is not Ceausescu's Romania, this is the modern, EU member Romania.  But sadly this is still how things work. The party makes the man. OK so it;s democratic now, so there is more than one party, but it still works like this.  And the PSD is the worst offender because they effectively are the old communist party so they have all the systems and local functionaries in place already, from the village level to the city. [Here in Hargita County, it is the UDMR rather than the PSD who have this power of awarding positions to their friends]

This is the problem.  This is why this election is a scam. People will do whatever they can (including breaking the law) to get the vote out for Ponta. It is very telling that the votes for the diaspora went very much against Ponta in the first round.  Taken from the control of the system, taken from the villages where their votes are bought, cajoled, and coerced, people do not want the same old system again.  They want Romania to be more modern, less corrupt, more genuinely democratic.

I don't hold out much hope. The Ponta army will be out on Sunday and they will ensure their man wins, and then we will go back to 1990, and every positive step forward that Romania has made in the last 25 years will be shelved.  The party will again rule, and the corrupt will walk free and safe in the knowledge that their liberty to rip off the people is assured. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Romania's Presidential Elections (2014 edition)

While the number of people in Romania continues to drop like a stone, the number of people who want to be the President of those who are left seems to be rising just as fast.  At some point at this rate there will be as many Presidential candidates as there are people.

This autumn's election features no fewer than 14 candidates. Including some people who clearly just want to do battle over the odd 0.1 of a percentage point with each other.  We have, for example, two candidates who purport to represent the Hungarian minority.  In some ways there is a logic to that, because since the UDMR's candidate is not ever (ever) going to get into the second round, "splitting the vote" of the Hungarians doesn't really matter and it gives the other party a chance to challenge without being accused of treachery to the Hungarian cause.  We also have two extreme right wing candidates who used to be the leading lights of the same xenophobic party, the PRM. But clearly they've fallen out (possibly over whether the Hungarians are more dangerous than the Jews or the other way round, or some such), and now Vadim Tudor and Funar are going head to head in a battle to the death, a chance at the end of the voting to wave their (no doubt minuscule) dicks at each other and proclaim themselves a bigger shitstain on the Romanian flag than the other.

But enough of the minor candidates who stand as much chance of making the second round as I do (even though I'm not standing).

On the 2nd of November voters will pick two candidates to run off against each other 2 weeks later (unless of course someone gets 50%+ in the first round and wins before that.  But that won't happen.) The favourite (in terms of the polls), and the one who is virtually guaranteed to make the second round is the current PM Victor Ponta.

Now Victor Ponta is, and I say this with absolute certainty, a complete dick. He is the ultimate party apparatchik, the protege of Adrian Nastase, a man so corrupt that he is actually doing time for it (almost unheard of in Romania) Nastase in turn is the protege of Ion Iliescu. The whole house of cards is as bent as a paperclip.  Ponta, you may remember, was also the man who cheated on his PhD thesis, plagiarising large chunks of it and then denying that he had, and when it was proved, he refused to resign anyway.  After all, why should one be excluded from high office just for being a proven liar and cheat? Ponta's hubris of late has even extended to him hosting a rally in his own honour on his own birthday in the national stadium. Something that his political grandfather Iliescu learned from being Ceausescu's right hand man I suspect. Craig at Bucharest Life has a good summary - with pictures - of the whole desperate event. I'm not sure how one can build the cult of personality around someone who apparently has none, but anyway.  It was deeply revolting.  (By the way, the media - particularly it seems the foreign media, present Ponta as the left wing candidate.  he is not.  Unless a socially illilberal populist xenophobe can be considered left wing. In UK terms he is as left wing as Nigel Farage)

Who might face Ponta in the run off?  Well the current money is on Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu. Iohannis seems sort of not bad. He's clearly done a good job in Sibiu (though it's a big step up from running a smallish city to running a country), he's not a party apparatchik, being a physics teacher originally (and most pleasingly from my perspective, he's married to an English teacher).  I can't help feeling that there is a bit of a cultural cringe at play here though. "Well, clearly we're not to be trusted to run our own country so perhaps we can persuade this German bloke to do it for us". To me, however, he's a bit of an enigma. What kind of president would he be?  No-one knows.  Would he be better than Ponta? Hell yeah.  [Ponta, by the way, "left winger" that he supposedly is, has launched attacks on Iohannis based on his ethnicity and his religion]

The only other two candidates who get much of a mention in polling are Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu and Monica Macovei. The former is an ex Prime Minister and one of the few long standing national politicians in the country that I have any time for.  The latter is a former justice minister and the face of the anti-corruption efforts in Romania. She has been, I feel, excellent in that role, and has genuinely given anti-corruption investigators teeth, and has set out her stall to do something about it. She won't win unfortunately. (There's some old case involving both Mocovei and Tariceanu, which means that while they used to work together successfully they now seem to be in one of the many feuds that characterise Romanian politics).

All in all, the three possible people who might oppose Ponta in the run off represent about the only three national politicians in Romania that I actually partially trust. So, it could work out well. But Ponta leads the polls quite significantly and with the PSD's grass roots actions (which is to say they basically run many villages in Romania and will "get out the vote" in the way that they used to when they were the Communist Party), the stronger possibility is that Ponta will win.  But you know, we can always hope.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On pro- and anti-

Anyone who is connected to me on facebook will have noticed that of late my  updates have tended to be ones of support for the people of Gaza, and horror at the actions of the Israeli state. There seems to be a tendency to categorise all such comments (from me or anyone else) as pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. I want to reject that characterisation.  My wish that Israel ends it slaughter of Palestinians, that it ends the siege of Gaza, that it ends this brutal occupation are NOT an anti-Israel position.  On the contrary I feel they are a pro-Israel position. An Israel that is not acting in this way is a much better (and, ironically, a much more secure) Israel.

I am, therefore, reclaiming these labels.  I am pro-Palestine AND pro-Israel. I am anti-occupation, and I am anti-massacre and anti-brutality and anti-bombing children.  I am also anti-Likud, anti-Netanyahu, and anti-the actions of the Israeli state and it's military wing, the IDF.

I've spent time in the occupied territories and I know full well how the IDF operates.  And it's not pretty at all. There are, of course, some good decent soldiers in the Israeli army.  But there are also some real shits, and the overall policy of the army is to subjugate, humiliate, brutalise, dehumanise and oppress the Palestinians  This is what I am anti-

In supporting the liberation of the Palestinians, I am, at the same time, supporting the liberation of the Israelis from their owns state's appalling inhuman actions.

"A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations." (Engels)

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

More collective punishment, more war crimes

There will come a time, in the not too distant future, when those who seek to justify Israel's destruction of Gaza will be looked upon as craven and disgraceful as those western communists who applauded when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Testing my patience

So, I wrote last week about the important tests for 8th graders which go a long way to deciding their next 4 years. I mentioned then that I don’t believe in testing in general, because I think it tends to favour those who are good at tests .  But I do see that they at least provide something of a level playing field.

Except when they don’t

There are times when my patience for the way things work in Romania is tested to its limits.  This last week has been one of those times. It is not an exaggerated rant to say that the testing system in this country is an absolute fucking disgrace.

Let me explain:  The marking of these tests is done pretty much the same day (or the following day) by local teachers who are paid almost nothing for the job (they get a gross payment of something like 3.70 Lei per test marked, which, after taxes and everything probably works out at about 40p net). These teachers have a mark sheet to refer to, which they use to score the tests. But – and it’s a very big but – there is no standardisation.  Essentially the teachers mark as strictly or leniently as they like. Indeed on the markers' information sheet it actually gives the marker the leeway to decide whether they think something deserves a mark or not.  If your paper ends up with a strict marker you get a low mark. If it ends with someone willing to give the benefit of the doubt, then you get a much better one.  The test grade is, to all intents and purposes, a lottery. Your grade depends, very heavily, on the marker your paper is randomly assigned.

Now, I know a fair amount about testing and assessment in my professional work.  I'm by no means an expert in that field, but I have read a fair amount on it, taken training courses, and have attended testing and assessment conferences. In short, I know something (less than many, more than most) about how tests work and what their function is. In addition, I am an oral examiner on a well-known international English test, and in that capacity I have to attend thorough and extensive annual standardisation meetings.  

In these tests, though, far from levelling the playing field, the testing system does exactly the opposite (the papers are marked anonymously, so at least we can say the process is not corrupt, but it’s still based on pure luck).  And levelling the playing field is, and I want to stress that I'm stating this in the most calm, objective, thoughtful way possible, levelling the playing field IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT OF HAVING A FUCKING TEST IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE.

The maths test is reasonably balanced, because obviously in maths (especially at the 8th grade level) there isn’t a great deal of potential variation in correct answers. It’s either right or not. But the literature tests (and here in this town most kids take two of those – in Romanian and Hungarian) are pretty much marked by whim.

So,  one can draw the short straw in the Romanian and/or Hungarian marking lottery and get a terribly hard marker.  The best in the class can get the worst marks.  To give an example, there are two identical twins in another class at her school, who are both brilliant, and who both score more or less exactly the same on any work.  Their marks for the Romanian test were 9.10 and 5.25 out of ten. This is simply not a possible split. Some of the best in Romanian in Bogi's class got some of the lowest marks (including the two kids who have a Romanian parent, and who are therefore functionally bilingual. Though, of course, as I've mentioned before, the test does not test language competence, but literary analysis)

There is an appeal process.  But everybody in the know says that the second marker tends not to alter the mark much because it’s perceived as undermining a fellow teacher. 

The Romanian test in particular has been the subject of much debate in the country over the last week, since a teacher from Bucharest last week complained that it was (a) testing things that were not on the curriculum; and (b) subjective in the marking.  She gave an example of a question of synonyms in which two answers were given but others were possible.  (Her letter here, in Romanian).  The Ministry of Education has responded on their website by pointing out that (in the case of (b)) it states quite clearly that the teacher/marker has the flexibility to decide whether an answer not given in the key is acceptable or not. (Link here). In other words, they have proudly stated, defending themselves against the charge of having a subjective grading system, that they do in fact have a subjective grading system. 

The function of the test is essentially a competition. Having your test marked hard is not a problem – if everyone is marking the same.  But they are not. So, the upshot is that some kids get punished through no fault of their own.  And these tests (or rather the grade given for these tests) decide which school you can go to and which subjects you can study. They are, in short, extremely important.  Much too important, it would seem, to be left in the hands of whichever people at the Ministry of Education are currently responsible for them. 

I love living in this country for many reasons, but sometimes the way it is run makes me want to scream. Perhaps I should not expect more when the Prime Minister is an unrepentant plagiarist. 

Maybe it's an important lesson for 8th graders to learn that their lives are subject to the whims of fate and that ability and hard work count for nothing.  But I figure they'll learn that eventually anyway.  It seems shameful to institutionalise it.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Day of the flag

Yesterday, I learned while watching the news, was "The Day of the Romanian Flag". WTF is that? There's also a day for the national anthem, and a day for the constitution.  I am not yet sure if there is a "National Day of the Romanian Penal Code" or "National Day of the Romanian Currency".  I mean seriously, what exactly do people do on a day which celebrates a piece of cloth? Do all countries have one of these? What's the point of it?  Can anyone tell me?

Not really the same thing, but anyway:

Slightly later update:  I made the day of the currency up, imagining it to be an impossible date... but it exists! April 22nd, if you ever want to pay homage to your Lei.

Seriously though.  the day of the flag. What's it all about?  "The day of the symbol of the national day".  Does the flag get its own symbol, that you can wave in its honour?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Romtelecom, setting Romania back 30 years

Customer service in Romania is frequently (though by no means always) a haphazard affair, with there still being a significant number of places where your custom is seen as more of a burden than a positive.  But things are changing for the better, and noticeably so.

So when a large company with - no doubt - up to date processes and a focus on customer service manages to piss you off so much through treating you like the old days it can be really shocking.

Romtelecom is the company that used to have a monopoly on all telecom type services in this country, but these days they are in competition with other companies, and they provide internet, land-line telephone services and cable TV.  Of late I've actually heard reasonably good things about them.  And so, when we decided to get a much better Internet connection in our house, we had no problems in going to them.  Last week we got in touch and put in our request to be connected to their service.  "OK, we'll let you know", was the response, which we took to mean "We'll call you when the guy is coming round to connect you up".  We checked in today and ... well it wasn't like we had imagined.

Today's message was "The fact that you asked for internet does not mean we will give it to you.  That was just a logging of your request.  The village you live in is not part of our "development plan", and so, well,... "(you get the picture). Now, Romtelecom has cable here.  Our neighbours have internet through Romtelecom, as do most people in the village.  it's not that they have to lay cable out here or something.  They just can't be bothered sending someone out to the village.  It's an absolute fucking joke.   I feel like I jumped back in time 20 years to a Romania where the customer is just a pain in the arse to be ignored or treated like shit.

I'm flabbergasted, to be honest. 

Monday, June 23, 2014


This week is exam week for the 8th graders of Romania.  Essentially, they have 2 (or 3 - see below) big exams, after which their futures (or the next 4 years of those futures anyway) are decided.  Roughly, how it works is this: Over the 4 years from 5-8th grade they have been receiving marks for everything they do at school, and this continuous assessment goes towards their final grade.  But it only constitutes 25% of the total, and the exams they are taking this week make up the other 75%.  But they don;t have exams in all the subjects they have been studying, just 2 (or, as I said, 3, in some cases).  So there are large amounts of subjects that have almost no weight in this process - Physics, English, chemistry, geography, history, biology, etc etc are all sort of left behind here.

The exams that they do have are in Romanian (that was this morning, Monday), and maths (that's on Wednesday). For those kids whose first language is not Romanian, they also have an exam in "limba materna" - in my daughter Bogi's case (and the case of 90% of Harghita County, and about 7-8% of the country) that means Hungarian. Seems a bit unfair that they have to do 3 rather than 2, but them's the breaks. (It will be this way after the 12th grade too).

Next year, from the 9th grade, they will all be at high school.  These tests will decide (a) what "track" they will be able to take in high school, and (b) what high school they can go to.  Because while there isn't any form of streaming in the Romanian system, the "good" high school can choose the "good" students to fill its places (this happened to me too when I was at school choosing sixth forms, so it;s not exactly a Romania-specific issue).  So it does make a difference.

Over the years the weighting of the continuous assessment and the exams keeps changing (to the point where you only really find out what it will be during that final, 8th, year.  4 years ago, there was no test at all, and it was all on continuous assessment.  Last year it was, I think 50/50.  Now the test is dominant.  I'm intellectually opposed to the primacy of the test as a form of assessment, but the argument that I hear a lot from parents is that in schools in villages, everyone knows everyone and the teachers tend to give higher marks during the year than do teachers in towns.  Thus when the reckoning comes, kids from villages end u taking the places in the "good" schools, squeezing out the town kids who have had much tougher teaching and more exacting standards.  I have no idea if that's true but it sounds like a valid concern - especially in a community like this where it's very rural and this is the point at which kids from a large hinterland are all feeding in to a few schools, all in the town.  The national test, it is thought, at least provides a level playing field.

Anyway, the stress will all be over in 2 more days, and then it's just about trying to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to get to your chosen school.

Today, then, the kids are not 100% happy, but just to wrap this up, here is a video that Bogi's class made to celebrate the end of school.  You get to see lots of shots of the town and it is really, genuinely  a very high quality video.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Modern slavery in the free market

My neighbour has just come home from Sweden. She's been working there for a month or so picking asparagus.  She came home early because she started suffering from a heart condition and basically was advised that she should no longer work.

Now the reason that she may have developed this heart condition is that she was worked like a dog.  Well harder than that.  They got up to start their day at 3am.  yes, that's right 3am.  And they worked, some days as late as 11pm (it being light late in Sweden).  They worked 7 days a week at this appalling pace, in terrible conditions - they were told they would be picking strawberries, which wouldn't have been much better, but is not as bad as picking asparagus.  Before she got the heart problem she also had an infected leg wound from working in the wet fields. For the time that she was there, just over 5 weeks, of this punishing, brutal schedule, she has brought home 600 Euros. 7 days a week 16-20 hours a day.  For 600 Euros. Away from her husband and daughter, away from her home.

And, let's not forget, this is in Sweden, one of the best places in Europe and the world for conditions for workers we always think.  God knows what she'd have gone through somewhere else.

Now we've heard a lot recently about the EU's open borders for workers, the migration of people looking for work.  But we don't hear that much about the unscrupulous bastards who use this fact to treat people like virtual slaves.  These vile, cruel, workhouse capitalist pigs. Scum of the earth, using and abusing the poor and disadvantaged to furnish their own profit margins.  Sweeping up poor, undereducated people from SE Europe, transporting them half way across the continent and them working them (literally) into the ground, until their bodies fail.  This is inhuman and absolutely disgusting.  This is where the EU's policies are failing the continent - failing to protect people from these slave-drivers, these rapacious monsters who abuse the system and those they "hire" into their appalling schemes.

And, yet, repugnant motherfuckers like Farage and Le Pen, focus their ire, their hate, their attacks on the people who are forced by circumstances to take these "jobs".  The victims are not to blame, and to make them the scapegoats is just piling misery on top of those who can least fight back.  The EU needs to change its policies - it needs to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged.  Instead it creates the conditions for the exploitation of people in the name of free movement.

It's time to fight this shit.  The market may be free.  Those that are used by it most definitely are not.  Just another commodity to be mined for profit.