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A Tale of Two Villages

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Chapter 8. Between the Past and the Future

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  • 1 Sandu, Spaţiul social, 144–9.

1Seven million peasants, who barely reach subsistence levels, have no idea of the difference between the political right and left, and buy on average a single toothbrush in a lifetime pose a development problem not just for Romania, but for the European Union in general. It is hard to believe that by the twenty-first century the peasant problem in Romania had not only remained unsolved, it had actually been recreated close to its historical original, in spite of efforts to eliminate rural underdevelopment. In 2000, the Romanian village compared unfavorably with the city in most categories: access to services, communication with the rest of the world, human capital, and health statistics.1 By then, the great myth of a healthy life in the country had given way to overwhelming disappointment. The poor quality of drinking water, the lack of domestic hot running water, and the difficult access to good-quality health care mean that the life expectancy of peasants is nearly two years less than that of city dwellers, and that peasants are more prone to diseases. If we take rural underdevelopment in Romania to be the last century’s main unsolved problem for the country, then we must question to what extent there ever was a political will to solve it. The issue was certainly on everybody’s agenda, from the liberals to the conservatives, and from the agrarianists to the communists and postcommunists. But it is its place in the hierarchy of issues on the political agenda which explains its resilience. It appears quite clearly now that the priority for the communists, by far the strongest regime, was not to solve the development problem as much as to assume control of society. Consequently, the creation of a substantial proletariat—which Romania lacked entirely at the end of World War II—was the key issue. The one of rural development was subordinated to the purely political project of subjecting the peasantry and to the chiefly economic one of bringing agricultur- al productivity closer to Western levels, in order to increase its contribution to national income.

  • 2 Stahl, Satele devălmaşe, vol. 4.
  • 3 Janos, “Modernization and Decay in Historical Perspective,” 96.
  • 4 Stahl, Satele devălmaşe, vol. 3, 375.

2Communism was successful in bringing the peasantry to its knees politically. The material condition of the peasant homestead was irrelevant, given that the regime’s priority was to destroy any economic role that it might have had. In the hands of unscrupulous politicians, political liberalization did not contribute to a real emancipation of the peasantry, either in 1918 or after 1989. By enfranchising the peasants, the historical Liberal Party believed that it was securing the rural vote in the first elections based on universal suffrage. The concomitant land reform was supposed to give peasants the economic autonomy that would make them enlightened citizens capable of meaningful political participation. It was impossible to avoid land reform, when over half a million peasants had fallen in World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution was in full swing just beyond the country’s eastern border, and the Romanian populists were creating quite a stir with their inflammatory speeches. In addition, as Radu Rosetti, Constantin Stere, Nicolae Iorga, and Ion Mihalache correctly observed at the time, Romania did not merely have large estates, but real latifundia. Yet, it was not difficult to foresee that land distribution would fail to create a class of farmers and would have a negative impact on agricultural production. Two-thirds of Romanian peasants were illiterate, the reproduction rate per family was extremely high, and basic institutions such as agrarian credit banks and competent “input-level” suppliers of agricultural services were lacking. Farming tools were primitive, and the size of the plots, as well as the credit shortage, made it difficult to purchase agricultural machinery. The “historic problem” of the Romanian peasantry was being unanimously identified with the shortage of land, lost to “rapacious boyars,”2 but this was a subjective perception which corresponded only partly to reality. It was not land shortage, but the compulsory labor (corvee) on the boyar’s land which, added to labor on the peasants’ subcontracted land, made it impossible for the peasants to earn enough to buy land. Also, even if more land would have been made available, there were simply too many peasants: Due to the absence of any significant industrialization in the nineteenth century Romania had an agricultural overpopulation by 1900. The first consequence of abolishing the corvee was that pay for agricultural labor plummeted. And still the inability to create employment opportunities outside agriculture for the rural population persisted. Andrew Janos was right to say, when examining the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, that Romania’s development was inferior to that of its neighbors even in that period of relative boom.3 There was no industry to attract peasants into the city, and there was added political tension as the towns and cities continued to be populated largely by a non-Romanian population of Greek and Jewish immigrants, living uneasily with the ethnically Romanian population of the countryside. Romania’s historical failure to create towns prior to the nineteenth century was reinforced in the twentieth and was largely responsible for the difficulties of the peasantry. The absence of an ethnic Romanian urban population deprived the country of a counterweight to the regime of large landowners, who can be regarded as Romania’s earliest “predatory elite” in a historical model defined by Henri H. Stahl as “the Prussian way to agricultural capitalism.”4 Henry Roberts was right to see the first half of the nineteenth century in Romania as a time of lost opportunities. Later, the political expression of the land - owning class, the Conservative Party, was equally slow in deciding to abolish the corvee. The reforms of Cuza and Kogălniceanu came too late and achieved too little, and subsequent reforms collided with the intractable issue of overpopulation.

  • 5 Interview by the author with anthropologist Paul Stahl, son of Henri H. Stahl, April 2002.

3Further attempts to solve this problem in the interwar period overlapped with the Great Depression and the crash of grain prices worldwide (within a single year, in 1929, the price fell from 70,000 lei a wagon to 20,000 lei). We cannot say if the project of political Peasant Party leader Virgil Madgearu to create peasant cooperatives on a voluntary basis might have worked. What is certain is that twentyfive years after the agrarian reform of 1919–1921, the moratorium on farming debt, and countless lessons in agriculture delivered in the countryside by itinerant teams, the paternalist regime had still not solved the issue of rural overpopulation, although it had managed to strengthen individual peasant property. The communist rival project, initiated after 1945, undid these small achievements and brought the peasantry into a state of total economic and political subjection to a second “predatory elite.” In doing so, it seriously affected its lifestyle and its identity as a social class. The communist state—as Stahl used to observe in private conversation, the only forum for such views during communism—had replaced the erstwhile feudal lord.5 Ultimately, the postcommunist regime, with greater resources than previous regimes, failed even more miserably, reducing the peasantry to abjection.

4This latter failure deserves closer scrutiny. Leaving aside our two villages, in this final chapter we shall consider agrarian policies as a whole from 1990 to the present day. At the same time, we shall look at the equally important aspect of the system of incentives and constraints which led to the choice of these particular policies rather than others.

Agrarian policy 1990–1996

5After the 1989 Revolution the socialist legacy in agriculture proved difficult to divide among its natural heirs. In early 1990, agricultural land, still the chief Romanian resource (over sixty-five per cent of the country’s land is agricultural, of which eighty per cent is arable), was divided between two categories of inheritor. The first included over 5,000 agricultural cooperatives, created out of individual plots voluntarily surrendered or taken by force after the last war. In the second category were the state farms, created from what had remained of the bigger estates, some individual peasant plots, and new terrains regained after the clean-up of morasses in areas such as the Great Lake of Brăila. Law 18/1991 protected, as we have seen, the state farms which had gained from the incorporation of private lands. Former owners were given shares as compensation for their lost land. But the law had major flaws, which undermined its successful application: As shown earlier, by 1995 not even half of all title deeds had been issued, and by 2000 the final target was still far from being met. It was not just those flaws which delayed the law’s application, but also the passive opposition of the bureaucracy, especially at the prefectures. The rural councils committed mistakes and abuses in returning land, and the prefectures—which are accountable directly to central government—delayed issuing the title deeds for years after the councils had already solved matters satisfactorily. Even leaving aside private lawsuits over property arising from legal ambiguity, gaps in the archives and the poor performance of land restitution commissions, the complaints against the county commissions account- able to the prefectures amounted to over 200,000 (Table 14). The delays, combined with the statutory ban on the sale of land to prevent people from legally selling land until 1998, put off the creation of a land market.

Table 14. Complaints against decisions by the county commissions created under Law 18

Table 14. Complaints against decisions by the county commissions created under Law 18

Source: Composite data from the archives of the Justice Ministry.

6Besides the land itself, the entire inventory of farming equipment was gradually transferred into private hands. Ten years after the Revolution of 1989 around half of the pool of tractors was in private ownership, but by that time the pool dwindled to eighty per cent of what it had been at the end of the communist period, notwithstanding replacements and new acquisitions. The same decline was noticeable in irrigation equipment.

  • 6 See Teşliuc, “Agricultural Policies: Achievements and Challenges,” section 3.1.2.
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 See Negrescu, Politica agricolă.

7Exempt from privatization were all the state support companies, from the input level (producers of seeds, fertilizer, and farming machinery for instance) to the output level (including wholesale buyers of grain). Firms such as Romcereal—the main integrator firm in agriculture— became monopolies or, as the case might be, monopsonistic firms. The state, therefore, retained its control over important instruments which it could deploy at will to intervene in agriculture. And the state decided on such an intervention after the drought of 1991, in order to prove that the agricultural market was malfunctioning on its own and that it was in desperate need of a helping hand from the state.6 Consequently, instead of liberalization of the market, the private agricultural sector was placed in the “straitjacket of being practically state institutions acting as monopsonistic firms in the acquisition of inputs and the collection of outputs alike.”7 The ideal template for this intervention was created by means of an obscure law called the “Law on state support for agricultural producers” (Law 83/1993). In conjunction with Government Ordinance 353/1995, which established prohibitive taxes on agricultural imports, Law 83 offered automatic and comprehensive assistance to producers, from free allocations of fertilizer and soil enhancers to subsidized minimum guaranteed prices, subsidized interest rates on loans, and “output bonuses.” Like most postcommunist laws, this one, too, was passed without an assessment of the requisite budgetary resources and, as a result, proved largely inapplicable. It was one of a set of populist laws promoted by the postcommunist legislatures which were then quietly improved upon through selective application by the executive. As one analyst observed, the law implied practically “that agriculture is entitled to a redistribution in its favor of a proportion of the resources generated by other sectors of the economy.”8

  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 The most celebrated of these was the “Agricola” holding in Bacău, which represented the interests o (...)

8The mix of controlled prices, taxes on imports and exports, and a centralized, planned approach to agriculture from 1990 to 1994 has led, as happens in planned economies, to unforeseen effects. A World Bank study of 1994 showed that the aggregate effect of government intervention in the agricultural sector in 1992 amounted to a net transfer of considerable9 resources away from agriculture towards the rest of the economy. This was done chiefly through capping prices for agricultural produce—in order to protect consumers—which led to an artificial compression of farmers’ incomes. Between 1990 and 1996, the Romanian transition was distinctly marked by interventionist laws with contradictory, paradoxical, or downright unwanted outcomes. At the same time, the state merely went through the motions in playing what should have been its crucial role in the recreation of property market. The combination of chaotic interventionism and political reserve in matters related to private property prevented until 1998 the emergence of a land market, a process which is still incomplete today, owing to delays in issuing property title deeds. Subsidies were wasted in bailing out inefficient and underperforming compa- nies such as farms and agricultural firms, especially in the state sector. The main bank which was supposed to support agriculture, the Agricultural Bank, was practically bankrupt by 1996, having built grand marble-decorated branches throughout Romania and given loans to the underperforming agricultural firms of the political establishment’s clientele.10 In 1997, the Victor Ciorbea government had to channel cash once again from other sectors to cover the losses of the Agricultural Bank, in response to fears of an imminent collapse of the banking system—something which had already occurred in Bulgaria. The bank was later privatized in a low-valuation deal.

9The combined effect of such transition policies was a twenty per cent contraction of agricultural output between 1989 and 1998. Yet revenues from agriculture were not too seriously affected. Productivity was low: By 1998 only half the fields had been treated with fertilizers and pesticide. However, many of the poor-quality Romanianmade products, such as tractors manufactured by Roman Brasov, which were hardly suitable for small plots, and countless other goods of doubtful value for money, were all stuffed down Romanian farmers’ throats. The state not only intervened, but did so in an absurd manner, trying to salvage the autarchic economy left by communism, and not realizing that what it gave to some sectors it took from others, thereby undermining the functioning of the market everywhere. An Agency for Rural Development, projected under Law 18, was to be given pre-emptive rights to buy back land from those unwilling to farm it and sell it on. But its task in creating economically manageable plots using the methods of the planned, centralized economy was so outdated and unfeasible that the agency ultimately never materialized. Real life, with its informal sales of land, was already miles ahead by the time plans for the creation of the agency were scrapped. At the same time, the integrator firms had accumulated debt after debt, and the preferential loans given to state farms were clearly never going to be paid back.

  • 11 Madgearu, Evoluţia economiei, 400.

10The postcommunist governments committed, on a larger scale, the historic error already made by the interwar regimes, and defined by the most prominent of Romanian economists, Virgil Madgearu, as “chaotic, spasmodic state interventionism, in which anything goes.” In 1940, the agrarian economist saw two possible choices for the country’s economic future: “the path of pure liberal-capitalist econo- my or state-controlled, planned economy.”11 The centrist government which succeeded the postcommunists in 1996 obviously had only one of these choices left. The other had been experimented with for fifty years, with grave consequences for Romania’s economy.

Agricultural politics after 1997

11The post-1996 centrist government was based on a coalition of parties. Consequently, its policies with respect to the peasantry and agriculture reflected, sadly, the absence of a clear consensus among the parties. The National Peasant Party (NPP) was the inheritor of the historic peasantism of the party’s founders, Ion Mihalache and Virgil Madgearu. They were in the mainstream tradition of Romanian populism, and therefore the small peasant landholders constituted their constituency, although this category had been totally destroyed by communism. They sought to recreate it. In 1990 and 1991, the NPP— notwithstanding the fact that it was a party composed of gulag survivors— was highly vocal in deploring the farmers’ associations scheme promoted by Ion Iliescu and in encouraging the peasants to take over their former lands completely and individually. The party’s post- 1990 program was guided by the illusion that the restoration of the small peasant holding would recreate the agrarians’ electoral base of 1946, when most peasants in Nucşoara and Scorniceşti, alongside large sections of the Romanian peasantry, voted for the NPP.

12The second party in the coalition with an interest in agriculture was Petre Roman’s Democratic Party (DP), which split in 1991 from Ion Iliescu’s postcommunist party. The Democratic Party had many state economy managers among its membership, and many more joined after the party won the elections. Triţă Făniţă, a representative of a powerful group of state farm directors, emerged as the most influential DP member and a defender of the old social order. He promoted policies which differed considerably from those of the National Peasant Party and, although publicly disowned, he was never really silenced by his DP leaders.

  • 12 See Sandu, Spaţiul social.

13Therefore, after 1997, Romania had a succession of governments which were politically weak because they were based on undisciplined parliamentary coalitions, and administratively weak because they had inadequate resources to implement policies. What these governments did was attempt to put into practice programs designed by international aid agencies, such as the World Bank’s ASAL and rural development programs, and programs proposed by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Agricultural and development policies were tackled separately, but, at least, it was the first time one could speak of governments having development policies at all. Pre-eminent in this respect were the European Union’s pre-accession programs designed to prepare Romania for spending adequately the structural funds for rural development after accession. Yet, because of governmental instability and weak capacity on the Romanian side, at the end of the mandate of the only government not to have roots in the communist past rural development aid was barely emerging from the research phase. Research was, of course, very necessary: It divided the country into agro regions (areas with a similar farming profile) and “statistical” NUTS regions after the European model (clusters according to development indicators). In particular, research showed that differences between these areas were small and that the country was fragmented in islets of uneven development which overlapped badly or hardly at all with the traditional, historic regions.12

  • 13 Private interview with Dragos¸ Negrescu by the author in 2001. Negrescu worked for the European Com (...)

14Policies meant to strengthen efficiency in agriculture and consolidate small farms were thus designed to correct the policy failures of the pre-1996 period. The second land law, in particular, finally authorized the sale of lands and buried the unborn Agency for Rural Development. Up to 1997, agriculture had been managed by agronomists, in line with the entrenched idea—inherited from communism—that only trained agricultural technicians can be good managers in agriculture. One of Romania’s few economic analysts of agriculture complained bitterly of the absence of economists from the picture: “Debates among ‘initiates’ broadcast in the public media focus ad nauseam on specific aspects such as the ‘optimal’ amount of fertilizer per hectare, the ‘optimal’ period for applying herbicides, the ‘optimal’ distance between rows of seeds. The Ministry for Agriculture and Food, the institution chiefly responsible for formulating agricultural policies, employs an overwhelming number of agronomists.”13

15After 1997, a better policy re-established the role of economists in this process, only such experts were almost entirely lacking. In 2000, Editura Economică, the Bucharest-based publisher of economic literature, published a manual for the Academy of Business and Commercial Studies (where Madgearu was once professor) in which Romanian agriculture is discussed in the chapters “Labor,” “Capital,” “Land,” and “Indicators.” Significantly, the only chapter which, as the title “Agricultural Policies” suggests, should have treated Romania’s agricultural policies—the book’s topic—merely outlines the European Union’s common agricultural policy. The general impression left by the volume is that the state of Romania’s agriculture, highlighted in the tabled figures, is somehow beyond human intervention. This also explains why one of the major reforms of the post-1997 period, the transformation of the Ministry for Agriculture into an agency for agricultural services, was successful only in small part. The trained experts to staff such services were lacking, pure and simple.

  • 14 Teşliuc, “Agricultural Policies: Achievements and Challenges,” section 3.2.2.

16The greatest failure, however, was the government’s inability to privatize the state farms. The draft laws on state farms, as well as on the restitution of forest land, were the object of fierce battles in the parliamentary commissions, presided over by Triţă Făniţă. As the governing coalition did not have a majority without the Democratic Party, and as the DP de facto joined forces with the opposition postcommunists on this particular point, this sealed the fate of both state farms and the forests, controlled by the state monopoly, the Forestry Authority. The two laws were delayed until 2000, which led to accrued debts and arrears for the state farms. The delays also gave an opportunity for the postcommunists, who were returned to power in the autumn of that year, to intervene once more, by restricting the applicability, and therefore also the outcomes, of this legislation. Ultimately, these outcomes largely offset the positive effect of the reforms. As far as private farmers were concerned, two measures had immediate positive results: one was lifting the ban on land sales and the other was a rechanneling of subsidies towards the private sector by means of the “voucher” scheme. Agricultural policies in the period studied generally suffered from two structural flaws in the government’s overall economic policy: improvisation and a lack of confidence in the processes of the market, which led to many half-based and inconclusive actions.14

A vicious circle renewed

  • 15 Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures.
  • 16 Catanus and Roske, Colectivizarea agriculturii, 154.
  • 17 Ibid., 155.

17Any policy regarding the peasants is, openly or not, grounded in some particular ideology. Even the most evidence-based, utilitariandriven policy cannot escape a degree of ideological touch, as it has to draw on some vision on collective action. Yet, as Geertz observed, even the most partial or the most immoral of ideologies has something to teach us about their object, something which otherwise might remain difficult to grasp.15 In the same way, a metaphor cannot make any claims to precision, but it may shed light on areas which might have remained closed to science but are worth knowing about. For example, when reading what the communists had to say about the peasants, in the available minutes of genuine discussions rather than in stiff, official documents, one finds that their criticisms are not far removed from the bitter reflections of interwar authors such as Dumitru Drăghicescu and Constantin Rădulescu-Motru. The first First Secretary of the Communist Party, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, for instance, said: “Our peasants are happy living from hand to mouth, but we have to make them work because work will improve their living standard and their political standard, while also contributing to the country’s economic growth.”16 Elsewhere, he said: “If his child dies, the peasant will be mourning less than if his cattle die. There are places in this country where cattle enjoy better living conditions than the peasants. […] The man walks ahead with his walking stick, like a petty master, while his wife walks five paces behind, carrying a heavy bag and a child in her arms.”17

  • 18 Entry for “Politica agrară,” in Gusti, Enciclopedia României, vol. 3, 154.

18Those who worked to raise the development level of rural Romania in the interwar period—the paternalist stage in dealing with Romanian agriculture and peasants—were equally perplexed, although more polite about it than Dej, seeing the peasant’s resistance to attempts at changing his lifestyle and working habits. The founder of Romanian agronomy, Gheorghe Ionescu-Siseşti, deplored the “routine” of the peasant household, while his student Nicolae Cornăţeanu (his future successor as Minister of Agriculture) reflected sadly in the Enciclopedia Romaniei: “The main role of peasant agriculture is to take full advantage of the labor resources of the family. Hence the peasant landholder needs to privilege labor-intensive cultivation. Our present peasant agriculture is based on a system of cultivation which does not correspond to a modern agrarian structure […] The peasant […] does not copy any of the farming techniques routinely practised on the large estates. Therefore, modernizing peasant farming raises major social and psychological problems.”18

19The ideologies about the Romanian countryside can be grouped into two main categories and a variety of subcategories. The first one is a modernizing ideology, which covers a range of subcategories in - cluding liberalism and communism. It regards the peasants as emanating from a particular stage in social development, one which is destined to disappear as technology advances and productivity increases. In this view, the peasant and his household are seen as obstacles to progress and must be either transformed by turning peasants into farmers, for instance, or must disappear altogether through urbanization, cooperativization, etc. Champions of such views, from modernizing agronomists such as Ionescu-Siseşti to brutal reformers such as Dej, believe that peasants are essentially passive and therefore incapable of political participation. In any case, modernizers placed the emphasis on industry. For them, agriculture is secondary, and their tariff policies reflected this ideology.

  • 19 In Ionescu and Gellner, Populism.
  • 20 He was assassinated by the Iron Guard in November 1940.

20The second ideology is the populist one—with many subvarieties in Romania—according to which the peasantry is essentially capable of political action and even of self-government, provided it has a guaranteed socioeconomic base. In addition, populists in all subcategories believe that the peasantry is an important part of the Romanian identity and will remain so in the future. Peasantism is only one ideological subvariant of Romanian populism, as Ghiţă Ionescu pointed out.19 There are pragmatic populists such as Ion Mihalache and the agrarianists in general, there are populists of a mystical orientation, such as Mircea Vulcănescu and Horia Bernea, but the views outlined above are characteristic of the populist vision as a whole, irrespective of differences among its subvarieties. On the few occasions when they found themselves in government, the populists relaxed tariffs and attempted to eliminate the protectionism which favored industry at the expense of agriculture. But the period in which they could have had impact on policies coincided with the worst ever global economic crisis. The meager outcomes of such attempts made Virgil Madgearu—who paid with his life for his globalist economic views20—come to the bitter conclusion that free mar- ket was utopian and Romanian economy could be saved only by total state control.

  • 21 Ion Iliescu won presidential mandates between 1990 and 1996 and from 2000 to 2004.

21In spite of wide differences in political freedoms from one regime to another, all regimes were net contributors to peasant dependency. Therefore, all peasants, landless and landholders alike, have failed to come to enjoy genuine political autonomy and have remained dependent on a local elite with disproportionate political power. The sources of this dependency varied over time: First it was the illiteracy of peasants and the strength of traditional authority (before the war), then the lack of economic sustainability of their farms, then various forms of coercion, more or less subtle (before the agrarian reform of 1919, under communism and postcommunism). The traditional authority was largely destroyed with the prewar elites, and the only remaining mechanism for controlling the peasantry politically was a combination of coercion and patronage. The postcommunist period further refined this mechanism: Populist legislation signaling political support for the peasantry was accompanied by measures which pumped state subsidies into state agencies and farms, de facto channeling them towards the predatory elites which controlled such institutions. Given that in 1990 the peasant vote went unanimously to the former Communist Party secretary Ion Iliescu, the paternal figure identified with the state, such a development, of all the other developments in the transition period, was not inevitable. While Ion Iliescu may have looked like the guarantor of order who sent the Army back into the barracks at the Revolution, he certainly did not depend for support on the state farms and the managers who composed the predatory elites. Both Ion Iliescu and his party, as well as the Democratic Party until 1999, made an unambiguous political choice when they decided to give their support to the predatory elites. The state of dependency of the Romanian peasants at the end of the transition period was an outcome that resulted partly from policy failure, but partly from design. It came about as a result of a disastrous combination created to a large extent by Ion Iliescu’s long reign over Romania’s postcommunist politics.21 Despite Iliescu’s personal claims to honesty, matched by his rigorous and unostentatious lifestyle, he was the undisputed patron of such elites. His retirement in 2004 after three terms as president (one shorter, 1990–1992) opened for the first time the door to some genuine political competition in the countryside, as the elites had to reorient themselves and find a new patron.

  • 22 See Mungiu-Pippidi, Early Warning Report Romania.

22In 2002, the young mayor of Scorniceşti was sitting in his lastgeneration office chair under a large portrait of Iliescu, with another framed one on his desk. Whose portrait would sit there next? As we called on peasants in their homes, our guide, a young civil servant from the mayor’s office, was greeted with: “I haven’t seen you since the campaign, when you came to tell me whom to vote for.” In Scorniceşti, as well as in Domneşti, the predatory elite was already looking past Iliescu to Vadim Tudor and the Greater Romania Party. They share a large chunk of history.22 In contrast, the National Peasant Party was led so badly that it was practically pulverized in the elections of 2000 and subsequently descended into almost total obscurity. The Liberal Party has got a powerful branch in Scorniceşti town, but, as an essentially capitalistic and urban party, it garners no votes in the neighboring villages. The Democratic Party, which broke with Iliescu in 1991, still enjoys the allegiance of rural elites, and their leader Traian Băsescu, a former ship’s captain elected President of Romania in 2004, fits the image the peasants have of a leader quite nicely. By 2009, after losing most of his urban support, Băsescu was defending his office for a second term based mostly in the countryside.

European prospects

23Romania was invited to join the European Union in December 1999 at the Helsinki summit. Accession negotiations started the next year and were the slowest among the twelve countries invited to join. Accession is a technical process, involving a regular review of the progress made by a candidate country in adopting the acquis communautaire, the total body of EU law accumulated so far. The acquis is adopted by the national parliaments in a first stage. Subsequently, it has to be transposed into each state’s domestic legislation and applied. Of the new candidate states, Romania had the hardest time concluding negotiations and implementing the acquis, although, together with Bulgaria, it was anyway scheduled to accede three years later than the other postcommunist countries. Accession strained the already low capacity of the state and tested the limits of political will. However, since popular support for Europe, seen as a rescuer, particularly in material terms, has always been strong, no party, including Mr. Iliescu’s, could afford to be perceived as failing at it. Policy distance between parties thus decreased considerably, as they all had to implement the same legislation and struggle with the substantial difficulty of having to catch up economically as a country where GDP was a quarter of the EU average by 2000. Some of the more serious difficulties lie in the harmonization of agriculture and rural development. Allowing these areas to sort themselves out is unlikely to prepare Romania for European accession: only consistent, coherent, and confident policies, based on cross-party consensus and EU support, can gradually solve the difficulties—both inherited and created—in the Romanian countryside, as well as their effects on the rest of the economy. The most serious challenges to Romania’s European integration lie in the countryside.

Problems of Romanian agriculture in the context of EU accession

24In 1989, the year when Nicolae Popa’s statistical data were being further inflated in Bucharest, Romanian agriculture produced 33.6 tons of wheat per hectare. In the same year, another socialist country, Czechoslovakia, produced an average of 52.6 tons, compared with 61.5 in France and 68.4 in Germany. Today the yield in Romania is even less because of the structures of property and lack of adequate inputs. In other words, Romanian agriculture is still underperforming. Yet it is a very important part of the country’s economy. Its average contribution to GDP during transition was around nineteen per cent, well above not just the EU average but also that of neighboring countries. The proportion of the workforce engaged in agriculture is also considerable: At thirty per cent it is, for instance, well above Poland’s (thirteen per cent), a country which most closely matches Romania’s economic profile in the region (Table 15). In spite of the steady development of the services sector over the last decade, the contraction of the state sector—suffocated by debt arrears—and the pace of growth in the private sector mean that cities have not managed to create sufficient job opportunities for the rural workforce. The urban private sector struggled primarily to absorb the workers made redundant in the state sector. The countryside has been left to itself, and has to be reinvented economically from within. The entrepreneurs and services likely to create growth will have to operate from the countryside itself. Development on the basis of migration into cities has exhausted its possibilities. Only upgrading and modernizing the countryside is likely to solve the problems of rural underdevelopment and farming in Romania.

Table 15. The comparative position of Romanian agriculture in the region

Table 15. The comparative position of Romanian agriculture in the region

Note 1 : Data for 2009, Source: Eurostat
Note 2 : Data for 2008, Source: Eurostat
Note 3 : Data for 2006, Source: UNESCO

  • 23 For a very good action plan, see Teşliuc, “Agricultural Policies: Achievements and Challenges,” 32– (...)
  • 24 Both Negrescu and Teşliuc reach similar conclusions on this subject.

25Trade development with the EU, as well as with members of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) which replaced the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) of socialist times, has highlighted the low competitiveness of Romania’s agriculture and food industry. Romania imports far more than it exports to CEFTA countries. Only in Hungary’s case could it be claimed that the higher competitiveness of Hungarian agriculture is due to higher state subsidies. Most Romanian products are below the standards required by the EU, which is a problem even for exports outside the EU. Achieving higher competitiveness will depend on the continuation of structural reform and on the creation of a functional agrarian market which works on the basis of competition rather than of preferential loans.23 Slogans heard in Bucharest about the massive subsidies to agriculture in EU countries ignore one essential detail, namely that EU countries can afford to subsidize their agriculture, given their economic profile, which differs so profoundly from Romania’s. In the EU, non-agricultural sectors account for 90–97 per cent of the total workforce, hence the relatively low cost of subsidizing the remaining 3–10 per cent. In Romania, this ratio is 2:1, and subsidizing agriculture would be like two people having to pay to maintain a third. Another fundamental difference is that the two are not doing that well in the first place. In the European Union, a four-member household “transfers” 1,000 USD annually to agriculture, which would be impossible in Romania, where total annual income per household is 1,500 USD. The same could be said of consumer subsidies. In Romania, the consumer spends 58 per cent of household income on food, and so cannot afford what the Hungarians—who spend only 24 per cent on food, or EU citizens with only 17 per cent—can easily afford.24 In brief, the countryside cannot be subsidized by the city.

The dependency model and European integration

26In a society which is only partly modernized, dependency, which prompts peasants to vote for those who oppress them, is part of a more general pattern of dependency and particularism afflicting the entire society, not just the countryside. This pattern of a rural culture extended to society as a whole poses serious problems in countries aspiring to European integration. The model described in detail in the present study survived the coercive communist system and prevents the creation of a genuine rule of law. Romanian postcommunist elites considered EU accession a good bargain, and converted themselves into Europeans. But how deep has this conversion been? Barely a few weeks after accession in 2007, the parliament tried to fire the Justice Minister and the anticorruption prosecutor credited for convincing Brussels that the country is fit to join. The political history of Romania from 2004 to the present, as reflected in the Freedom House Nations in Transit reports, is a story of an unfinished struggle between predatory elites and new EU accession-driven institutions.

27European integration is correctly perceived in Eastern Europe as a last phase of modernization, emphasizing an altogether different type of culture from communism, based on an impersonal rule of law and an impartial government. Can a country such as Romania, which has incompletely modernized in terms of political and administrative culture, achieve such a substantial change in the space of only a few years? Is European integration an incentive strong enough to change such predatory behaviors and make them obsolete? Alternatively, can Romania gain access to the European Union without changing? Corruption has often been singled out by the European Commission as Romania’s main problem. But the term “corruption” (the use of public office for personal gain) applied to Romania is misleading, as the phenomenon encountered is a systemic arrangement, not some individual infringement of the norm of bureaucratic impersonality and fairness. If we consider good governance the process by which a government distributes public goods equally and fairly to all citizens, ranging from their legal treatment to health and education, the opposite results: This is particularism or systemic corruption. In the former type of society, individuals expect equal treatment from the state. In the latter, their treatment depends on their status or position in society. Peasants do not even expect to be treated fairly by the state, what they expect is treatment similar to that received by everybody with the same status. Favors—i.e. discriminatory treatment— are not always offered for money, they can also be a means of creating obligation, a reward, a recognition of superior status, or a means of establishing superior status. The distribution or withdrawal of favors is part of the arsenal of traditional authority. Every group or society steeped in traditional authority—i.e. every premodern society— will have its “godfathers.” When representatives of the modern bureaucracy behave like “godfathers,” they do not necessarily expect monetary profit or influence-peddling. Quite often, they wish only to affirm or enhance their own status. A culture of privilege reigns in societies based on particularism, making unequal treatment the accepted norm in society. Individuals struggle to belong to the privileged group rather than change the rules of the game. There is a wide - spread infringement of the norms of impersonality and fairness, but also, depending on the openness and mobility, equilibriums are easily reached and are stable, making these regimes difficult to change. We know that societies undergoing transition have competing normative regimes which strive to become dominant. We know very little, however, of how universal government historically succeeds over the norm of particularism and what determines this development. A survey of developing countries returns rather a pessimistic answer to this question.

28Being an EU member or not, Romania will face tremendous difficulty in changing the model described in this study, the model according to which, in the words of Ion Mihalache, “politics […] is a matter of seeing to personal interests at the expense of public interests.” The capture phenomenon includes law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, and even the private media. The incidence of such behavior across the political spectrum, as well as the frequent defections from one party to another of politicians and members of the managerial class, suggest that there are no fundamental differences in political culture among parliamentary parties. Even the more enlightened politicians in all parties appear unable to propose and support a change of system. In Romania and other East European countries, an elite alternative to the communist one was destroyed in the Stalinist era. But in Romania (and Albania) the process continued well into the late years of the communist regime, at a time when elsewhere in Eastern Europe timid oppositions were burgeoning under perestroika. In 2000, Romania lacked significant political alternatives to the predatory elite, and the foundations of collective action, largely dismantled by communism, were far from resurfacing. It takes time and political will to bridge the distance from decent people and farsighted politicians to organizations really capable of changing the system, and from individual or group interest to the public interest. The champions of such changes are lacking in Romania. Intellectuals fixated on historical identities and on the ideas of Eliade, Noica, and Cioran, and a Church with delusions of grandeur, whose priests dream of state salaries, will not become the heralds of change. The only likely partisans of a paradigm shift are a handful of embattled entrepreneurs in a private sector which does not benefit from sufficient state support. They are carrying the Romanian economy on their backs, but, because of a dysfunctional system, they are unable to produce enough to narrow a huge historic gap. They are the only likely promoters of an open society against a status-based society.

29It is to be expected that Romania, like Greece before it, will develop gradually, but without its fundamental institutional arrangements changing radically. The country will remain particularistic. Its rural problem is unlikely to be solved by policy means as much as by natural means. The dependent peasantry from subsistence farming areas is an aged population, prone to biological extinction in the next ten years. Migration to the informal labor markets of Italy and Spain has removed from the country about two million Romanians since 2005 (when Schengen visa requirements were lifted): Most of them work in agriculture and construction. The old village will die, being gradually replaced by the new town: Nucşoara will fade away and Scorniceşti will transform.


1 Sandu, Spaţiul social, 144–9.

2 Stahl, Satele devălmaşe, vol. 4.

3 Janos, “Modernization and Decay in Historical Perspective,” 96.

4 Stahl, Satele devălmaşe, vol. 3, 375.

5 Interview by the author with anthropologist Paul Stahl, son of Henri H. Stahl, April 2002.

6 See Teşliuc, “Agricultural Policies: Achievements and Challenges,” section 3.1.2.

7 Ibid.

8 See Negrescu, Politica agricolă.

9 Ibid.

10 The most celebrated of these was the “Agricola” holding in Bacău, which represented the interests of top postcommunist politicians such as Dumitru Sachelarie and Viorel Hrebenciuc.

11 Madgearu, Evoluţia economiei, 400.

12 See Sandu, Spaţiul social.

13 Private interview with Dragos¸ Negrescu by the author in 2001. Negrescu worked for the European Commission Delegation in Bucharest at the time.

14 Teşliuc, “Agricultural Policies: Achievements and Challenges,” section 3.2.2.

15 Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures.

16 Catanus and Roske, Colectivizarea agriculturii, 154.

17 Ibid., 155.

18 Entry for “Politica agrară,” in Gusti, Enciclopedia României, vol. 3, 154.

19 In Ionescu and Gellner, Populism.

20 He was assassinated by the Iron Guard in November 1940.

21 Ion Iliescu won presidential mandates between 1990 and 1996 and from 2000 to 2004.

22 See Mungiu-Pippidi, Early Warning Report Romania.

23 For a very good action plan, see Teşliuc, “Agricultural Policies: Achievements and Challenges,” 32–40.

24 Both Negrescu and Teşliuc reach similar conclusions on this subject.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 14. Complaints against decisions by the county commissions created under Law 18
Crédits Source: Composite data from the archives of the Justice Ministry.
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Table 15. The comparative position of Romanian agriculture in the region
Légende Note 1 : Data for 2009, Source: EurostatNote 2 : Data for 2008, Source: EurostatNote 3 : Data for 2006, Source: UNESCO
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k

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