Saturday, December 18, 2004

Last news post of 2004. Probably.

The parting shots of a corrupt old bastard. Or, Iliescu leaves office.

So Ion Iliescu is coming to the end of his time as president of Romania. He’s been president three times now, despite the fact that constitutionally he’s only supposed to be able to do it twice. Since Christmas 1989 when the Ceasescu’s were booted out of office (and off this mortal coil), he has been president aside from a four year aberration from 1996 to 2000.

So, now, though no-one expects him to go far, he is no longer president, but he has decided to just do a few little errands before he walks off into some senatorial role. The first was to pardon Miron Cozma, the leader of the miners who swept into Bucharest in 1990 and 1991 looting rioting and burning stuff in a clearly state sponsored (i.e. Iliescu sponsored) attempt to ensure that the democratic reforms sweeping Eastern Europe didn’t take too much of a foothold in Romania. These events are often credited with being responsible for Romania’s sloth in adopting reform and in keeping up with the rest of Eastern Europe. And since of all the former Warsaw pact (nonUSSR) countries Romania is the least advanced in the sense of implementing democratic reforms, having a functioning economy and not being corrupt, something must be to blame. Cosma was of course jailed (eventually) for his role in this anti-democratic palaver, and the rumour always was that it was Iliescu that was behind it. Freeing him as your final act, tends to leave people with the same impression.

But people were well pissed off about this. Even the American government (not one currently to be pro-democracy) were shocked, as was the vast majority of Romania. So, 24 hours after he had announced his release, Iliescu took it back “No, only kidding! Free Cozma? The very idea” I don’t know if Cozma actually got out of jail during this time or whether he was just packing up his suitcase in his Bucharest cell when the news came through. I have this image of him walking out the prison gates, taking a deep breath and walking off down the street, when round the corner, sirens blazing comes a police car. They pull him over and say “You’re re-nicked, mate”.

The other thing that he (Iliescu) did was to award some Romanian medal of honour to that complete psycho nationalist fascist nut job Cornelius Vadim Tudor. That’s right. I guess this is an award given to great Romanians (or people born within Romania’s borders) for their services to the world, or Romania or something. Anyway, giving it to that right wing nazi is like slapping the world in the face and saying fuck you. Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and writer, who was born in Maramures, and was a previous recipient of this medal, promptly, and unsurprisingly, sent his back. CVT actually is (or at least was until recently) a holocaust denier, so to give him the same medal as Wiesel is a sick joke of horrendous proportions.

The good thing about all this, is that surely, if there was any lingering doubt in anyone’s mind about Iliescu's wankishness, then this must have dispelled it.

How to win friends and influence people

One of the countries in Europe where the US still has some friends is Romania. Romania is one of members of the “coalition”, and is in the New Europe that that mofo Rumsfeld referred to in one of his infamous speeches. (Have I ever told you how much I hate Donald Rumsfeld? Cancer’s too good for him). Anyway, to get back to the USA and its friends in Romania, well, they may just have lost most of them. You see it’s like this. A few weeks ago, a US embassy employee who was pissed as a fart was driving some US Govt vehicle through the streets of Bucharest. He runs a red light, and slams straight into a taxi, killing its passenger. Now, just possibly the embassy could have got away with this, and just shipped the offender home, but unfortunately for them the passenger was not just anyone, but was in fact the bass player with Romania’s answer to the Rolling Stones. So this is not some random unknown Romania being killed and having his death swept under the carpet. This is Teo Peter we’re talking apart (that’s his name by the way, I don’t know if it means Uncle Peter as it sounds like it ought, but if so, it sounds like a fictional paedophile. But with that all similarities with Bill Wyman must end). So, the US Embassy shipped this drunken moronic murdering bastard home, and of course the Romanian press and people are up in arms about this incident. The embassy spokesman came out and said how they’re going to definitely prosecute him in the US, honestly, but frankly the damage has been done. I suspect the general Romanian sanguinity with the US in general may be evaporating as fast as Iliescu’s brain cells.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Random nothingness

It’s about time I wrote something, so I’m just going to start typing and see what comes out. I’ll be away from this blog for a good while soon – first I’m off to the UK for a week next week to visit my nephew Ben, and to coincidentally have Christmas drinks and food with various people around the country. At about 1kg per day, I should put on about 7kg.

The presidential election run –off was won – much to everyone’s surprise – by Traian Basescu. I think it was the orange jacket wot won it. That whole Ukrainian thing coming through. Ironic really that given the orange revolution in Ukraine that the whole thing may have been sparked by Yushenko being poisoned with Agent Orange. Is there a fruit based version of the Chinese astrological calendar? If so, it’s clearly year of the orange.

What does Basescu mean for us? I think no-one really knows. People I know are happy that the PSD is gone, but most are suspicious and concerned about Basescu’s lack of experience. The one thing that he has done which everyone knows about is ridding the streets of Bucharest of stray dogs. Other than that his record is a mystery. Now he has to organise a government. As the PSD-PUR alliance has the most seats, it might be tough to do that without their support. And the real fly in the ointment is nightMare party. The UDMR (the Hungarians) threw their hat into the wrong corner and may end up getting screwed. But no-one really knows. Just as long as Vadim Tudor, henchman of Voldemort, doesn’t get a sniff of power, all should be well.

Religion in Romania (he says, shifting the topic for no apparent reason) is something I haven’t covered yet. Romanian Orthodox is the official state religion, and as such there are elaborate monasteries and churches of that church dotting the countryside. The most prominent building in Csikszereda for example is the Orthodox church, despite the fact that its congregation probably numbers in the single digits. The other churches (at least in these parts) are the Catholic and the Reformat. I mentioned this to my brother the other day and he pointed out that “reformat” is something you do to your computer, which though it now seems obvious, was something I hadn’t even noticed before. They’re not some kind of doomsday cult though, waiting patiently for the day that God decides to wipe and repartition the earth’s hard drive, but rather some kind of Lutheran faith from Hungary. I don’t know anything about them really aside from the fact that their graveyards are dead interesting with elaborate totem-pole style monuments carved from wood.

God, I’m really running short of ideas aren’t I? I’ll stop now, for a while, and come back before I leave the country (on Wizz Air, which sounds like I may be pissing in the wind) and fill you in on the other randomly boring thoughts coursing through my brain (and for coursing, read “sluggishly struggling”)

Friday, December 10, 2004


On Tuesday we went to Iasi. Iasi (pronounced - more or less- Yash) is the biggest city in Moldavia, which if you remembered your hexagonal geography lesson in an earlier post, is the Eastern region of Romania. I'd never been before (aside from the abortive drive through the Csango valley back in the summer, which had got me about 10 km into the region before being forced to turn back), so it was an interesting trip.

Thing I immediately noticed about Moldavia:
  1. The roads are way way better than roads in Transylvania.
  2. There are tractors
  3. It's flatter than Cambridgeshire (well, maybe not that flat)
  4. The theft of infrastructure is even more obvious there

To elaborate:

1. As you may remember I have previously said that roads in Romania are crap. I may have spoken too soon. The road from Bacau to Iasi is really good. Transylvanians tell me this is because the national government is punishing Transylvania for not being Romanian enough (this would certainly explain why Harghita county where I live has some of the worst roads). I haven't asked a non-Transylvanian yet, but I'm guessing they would tell me it is because Transylvania wastes its money or something.

2. Well, I saw one anyway. And it was quite modern too.

3. Vast windswept plains that stretch into the middle distance. We did pass through one area which was a bit less uncompromisingly two-dimensional, but it was on the "gently rolling hills" scale rather than seriously troubling the people who draw contour lines on maps.

4. Stuff in Romania gets nicked a lot. When you drive at night you notice a lack of the reflective posts you have at the sides of the road in most places, or the cats eyes and things on the road itself. This is not because Romania is so backward that it doesn't have such things yet, but that people steal them. As soon as they are put up, they are gone again. I don't know what people do with all these reflective devices, that they have purloined, but they go somewhere. Perhaps there is a thriving rural rave scene at which people turn up wearing elaborately be-sequinned clothes, each sequin being a large reflective circle taken from the roadside. Anyway, this trend is very noticeable all over Romania, and it frankly makes driving at night very unpleasant (that and the fact that every village you pass through has a horse cart or a cyclist or a drunk bloke wandering around in it without any reflective devices on at all). However in Moldavia, and this may not be a regional thing, but just something I never noticed in Transylvania before, other stuff was missing.

In one town there was a couple of long aluminium pipes running through the village carrying something (gas, water, who knows). Or rather there once had been. These pipes had been carried on short concrete pillars alongside the road, and occasionally up and over buildings or through gardens. As the route passed through gardens, this was where the pipe still was, cut off at the point where it left private property, to leave these forlorn concrete stubs aimlessly sitting there doing nothing. (Perhaps they could kill two birds with one stone and paint them with reflective paint).

In another town (Roman, if you must know. The interest stops at the name believe me), as ones eyes scanned the endless brutal ceasescu concrete blocks of apartments, there were some minor points of interest. Some windows with rounded corners, that looked somehow familiar. Mostly white framed with black trim. To make more room in smallish flats, many people close off the balconies and these windows had been placed there to that effect. The windows were stolen from trains. It wasn't just one or two houses either, it was loads. All over town. Fascinating.

I am told that this wave of infrastructure crime was a feature of the late 80s as the Ceasescu regime began to fall apart and leave everyone with virtually nothing to live on, heat their houses with and basically repair anything with. I have no idea if it still goes on or if these mysterious pipelines going nowhere and rail windows are just leftover from those days.

I got ripped off by a couple of corrupt cops on the way home too. Bastards.

Mind you, I ought to add here, as it appears I've done nothing but complain, that Iasi was lovely and the people there great and very friendly. Actually Iasi could be one of Europe's great cities if it had not been ruined by Systematisation -what buildings are left are really really gorgeous, you just have to face the fact they are broken up by hideous concrete monstrosities. Bit like Oxford really. Not content in ruining everyone's life when he was alive, Ceasescu, perhaps uniquely among Euro-dictators insists on ruining it from the grave too. What a complete and utter wanker.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Hungary and the referendum

It didn't pass. Only 37% of Hungarians bothered to vote on it which means that it didn't have a quorum. Of those who did vote yes beat no by about 51% to 49. While for Hungarian Hungarians (ie those who could vote on it) this was a fairly straightforward political/economic question, for those outside of Hungary (ie those who couldn't) it was much more of an emotional issue.

People here are very saddened by this result. Nobody I know wanted to move to Hungary, but they feel some deep rooted and historical connection to the country. Essentially this poll has been like being slapped in the face by the whole nation. Like having your parents turn their back on you and tell you they don't care what happens to you. It sounds like I'm being dramatic, but truly this is the way that it feels to people here. People have tears in their eyes when they talk about it this morning. It would have been better if this referendum hadn't happened in the first place.

Mind you, had I been a Hungarian citizen presented with this choice, I don't know how I'd have voted either. One side calling back memories of the past, the Hungarian Empire, the glory days of Magyardom, the kind of faux-nostalgic nationalism that I can't stand when British people come out with it. The other side arguing that "we'll be flooded with people, we can't take care of all of them, they'll take our jobs and our welfare and bankrupt the country" - an equally unappetising proposition, and equally despicable when little-englanders use it in horror in reference to asylum seekers and other immigrants. So, the choice facing Hungarian voters was pretty unappetising, and the resultant effect on Hungarian non-voters was pretty unpalatable. A disaster all round.

Oh, and the Mikulas I mentioned on Friday (note correct spelling) is the Hungarian equivalent of Father Christmas (St Nicholas). For whatever reason he shows up on December 5th, and puts things in shoes and boots rather than socks and stockings. Up until recently he left sweets and apples and fruit and nuts and things, but these days thanks to the rise of the glory that is capitalism he is expected to leave toys and games and rubbishy plastic tat.

Which brings me nicely onto ... Lego. What the hell happened to lego? When I was young it was little bricks from which you could build houses and stuff. It was durable and creative and constructive. Nowadays it's "bionicle" and "knight's kingdom" and stuff - weird alien monsters and baffling models of what medieval castles would have looked like if they'd been made of plastic and designed in Denmark. It costs a bloody fortune and all the bits are so specific that they're not really useful in creating other things from. In lego of old you could take your house apart and build a castle. You can't take your Takanuva* apart and build a fluffy bunny rabbit. It's rubbish. (*Takanuva is the name of one of the bionicle characters. No really, it is.)

I fear I may offically be old.

Friday, December 03, 2004

A mixed bag of stuff

Bureaucracy day 2

First up, an update on yesterday's farcical tale of bureaucratic hilarity. Having completed all the relevant paperwork, as stated to us by the guy at the police station who we asked in the first place, we went today to see him and hand over all of our paperwork. I was optimistic, Erika less so. He went through all of the papers and found that one paper as stated in a new rule book (that he hadn't produced formerly) was not there. This was a paper which had exactly the same info on as the other pieces of paper but in a diferent order. So we have to get that piece of paper, have it signed by the justice office or something and then return on Monday. I'm pretty certain that there is an unstated rule that officials cannot accept paperwork the first time it is offered for fear of setting a dangerous precedent. As soon as you make life vaguely easy, who knows what floodgates will open. There'll be people all over the country expecting to get through the system quickly and relatively easily. That can't be allowed to happen.

The other thing we had to do was go back to the mayor's offie and pay another tax. One of the taxes that we paid earlier this week was for 2000 Lei at that office. Those of you paying attention will realise that this is approximately 6 cents in US money, or about 3p in the UK. Now apparently this has gone up (in the two weeks since we were told to pay it) and is now a whopping 4500 Lei. So we had to go back to the Mayor's office and get another receipt for an additional 2500 Lei with which to supplement our previous one. This is a computerised print out that takes up some civil servant's time, and I now have 2. One for 3p and one for 4p. I will say no more about the logic of this.

Elections continued

The Romanian election I wrote about a couple of weeks ago happened with polls predicting (broadly speaking) the result. The presidential run-off goes ahead next weekend (I think) between Nastase and Basescu. Basescu has spent the week complaining of electoral fraud, but since the OSCE and subsequently the EU have said they think it was broadly fair, he seems to have the ground whipped away from under him. He looks a bit like he's trying too hard to be Yuschenko. I think it will cost him votes in the second round. Although one Romania paper today has published some revelations about Nastase and Ceasescu (that I can't really understand as they're in Romanian), so maybe he has hope yet.

In Hungary this weekend there is a referendum which will potentially have more impact on Miercurea Ciuc than the Romanian general elections. It's a referendum asking Hungarians if they want to offer dual citizenship to all Hungarians living outside of Hungary (or, if I understand correctly, all the Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine). The impact of this in this region could be dramatic, since the vast majority of people here are Hungarian. Those people will then have the right to have Hungarian passports along with their Romanian ones. They thus become EU citizens ( a minimum of two years before the rest of Romania's citizens become part of the EU), and can move around freely and easily.

Romania is pretty ticked off about this - particularly the EU thing - but can't really complain about it because they did the exact same thing for Romanians in Moldova. One foaming nutter from the (night)Mare party (Vadim Tudor's ultranationalist psychos) was on (Romanian) TV last night going crazy about it. I don't really know how I feel about it, but when I see people like this wanker going off on one it's hard not to support it.

The first indications were that the law would really only have an effect on the Hungarian population of Vojvodina (Northern Serbia), as they are the Hungarian minority who are most oppressed. The Hungarian populaton here are well established and pretty large (1.6m) and while they do suffer from discrimination it's not exactly oppression, so the thought was that very few would choose to go to Hungary. But apparently they've recently done a poll which suggests 17% would. This would severely effect Csikszereda as you can imagine. The size of that number though probably means that the measure won't pass the referendum anyway, as Hungary doesn't want to be flooded with more people - even if they are Magyar "brothers". The other issue that has come to light is the problem that will arise when all these citizens suddenly have the vote. How will this effect the political scene in Hungary? I hadn't even thought about it, but it is seemingly the biggest and most divisive issue in the referendum camp.

Last bit

I was going to write smething about Miklos, but I don't really know how to spell his name, and so I'll leave it until Monday. Has that enticed you? I bet it hasn't.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Adventures in bureaucracy

So, I'm working on getting my legal status in Romania. It's an experience. Today for example we (Erika and I) went to the tax payment office to pay the two taxes that I need to pay to fulfil one of the requirements. One is a 30,000 Lei sum (not sure what for) and the other is a $60 (ie US Dollar) sum payable in Lei. So we showed up at the office and queued for a while, and when we got to the window the woman said that for the $60 fee we had to have a receipt from the bank showing that we had changed $60 into Lei, and what this worked out at. I don't have any dollars (well I do, but thy're sitting in a bank account in the US and I access them through the cashpoint at which point they instantly get turned into Lei). So, we had to go to the bank, queue up again, change $60 worth of Romanian Lei into dollars, and then change it back again into Lei. It's brilliant.

As everyone knows you lose money when changing back and forth through currencies, and in this case the bank was prepared to buy my Lei at 29,500 to the dollar*. And then to buy back those self same dollars at 28,500 Lei. Thus in the course of the transaction the bank made 60,000 Lei. The somewhat (he says understatedly) ridiculous aspect of this is that I would actually have been quite happy to pay the state this extra 60,000 Lei, but object to paying it to the bank. The closest bank to the tax office is in fact an Austrian owned bank, so it's not even going to Romania at all.

Once we had thrown 60,000 Lei in the direction of Jorg Haider or Kurt Waldheim or whichever nice Austrian person owns Raffeisen Bank, we took our Lei and our receipt and our slightly older selves back to the tax office queue and finally got the receipts necessary. Next up in my exciting trek to be officially legitimate in Romania: health insurance. I can hardly wait.

[* the fact that the dollar is now worth aproximately 29,000 Lei is proof if proof were needed as to what a worthless and useless currency the dollar currently is. 4 months ago the rate was about 33,500. In other words the US Dollar has lost over 13% of its value in the last four months against the Romanian Leu. Yes, that's right, you heard me correctly.]

The other fascinating (and somehow funnier) manifestation of rampant bureaucracy here is the cult of the stamp. To do anything you need to have a stamp. An inkstamp with which you stamp all offical documents and receipts etc. People carry around multiple stamps. They're really hi-tech also, they have ink somehow inside them and you can buy different styles and different sizes. I don't know if people look down on others with old or unfashionable stamps. There are entire stores devoted to selling stamps. (Really, I swear I'm not making this up). They're everywhere, almost more popular than mobile phone shops.

You don't believe me do you? Look, this is the website of one of the leading shops. Here you can see some of the vast array of stamps available, pictures of their store fronts around the country, a map of Romania with their locations marked, accessories to go with your stamp, and everything stamp related.

But I am not promoting their wares. I have no idea of the value for money in stamping that they offer, or cannot verify the quality of their stamping products. I myself did not buy my stamp from them, but from a local merchant. I take no responsibility for any of you if, transfixed by the Trodat Printy 4922, you find yourself unable to resist ordering a gross of them from Stampile. On your own head be it.

I'd stamp the bottom of this blog entry if I could. But you'll have to just imagine it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

December 1st

Today is an important public holiday in Romania. I can’t tell you exactly what it is for – something like Romania Day, or the Day of Unification or something like that. It celebrates the day in 1918 when Romania became the country it is today. Everybody gets the day off work, and happiness reigns throughout the land.

Except of course in the bits of the land which are less happy with the concept of the Greater Romanian Dream. Like this bit, for example. While it’s not quite Al Naqba (The Palestinian marking of the “Catastrophe” of the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948), it is certainly not a day to be celebrated. In fact, despite being a public holiday, most people are working here today as a way of demonstrating their lack of celebration of the day. Working on a holiday. That to me is the clearest indication of refuting the celebration. (But then, I’m a lazy bastard, so working on a holiday seems like the greatest sacrifice one can make).

There will be a big something in the main square later today. Some form of Romanian dancing and speeches and stuff. The Romanian Orthodox Church has had to bus people in to make sure there are enough people there to make it worthwhile. I can see the square out of the window of this office and despite the police having been out to direct traffic for hours now, there is still absolutely nothing going on out there.

It’s all quite fascinating to be in a country which is celebrating its biggest holiday in a city which is almost entirely uncelebratory. I hope Romanians elsewhere are actually enjoying their day.