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Romania's Fragile New Left

Romania is perhaps the last place to expect an independent Left to take root. Unlike in Poland or Hungary or Yugoslavia, a critical socialist movement didn't emerge in response to the orthodox Communists in power. And the Social Democrats that crawled from the wreckage of the 1989 revolution -- first as part of the National Salvation Front and then in their own Social Democratic Party -- embraced a politically and economically conservative platform. They signal left, as the Romanian joke goes, but turn right.

But Romania's New Left has begun to coalesce. A group of young intellectuals -- academics, journalists, writers -- launched CriticAtac a few years ago to discuss "banks, the health system, trade unions, state institutions and services, elections, public policies, the Church, urbanism and any other topics of major public interest" and to do so "without academicism, snobbery or preciousness." The group's irreverence is evident in its own self-description: "Our ideology is leftist, but we are not a sect and we don't go around patting each other on our backs for the brilliant and concerted line of our ideas."

I sat down with one of the coordinators, journalist and writer Costi Rogozanu, in Bucharest last May. At a café in the park across from the massive parliament building, he told me about his own political trajectory.

"I had a liberal approach," he said of his school years. "Liberalism was the mark of progress. Every young guy wanted to be this way. We would talk all day long about rights. This was the only way back then in the mid-1990s. Then, when I was 23 and I finished the faculty at university, something changed. It was also because I entered the workforce. I was a journalist then. Every day I saw all the problems in society and started to develop a new approach. I moved to the left. So many things that happened in the 1990s I couldn't explain with the liberal approach."

The 1990s were not a particularly happy time for most Romanians. The country suffered a large drop in GDP, and unemployment rose sharply into the double digits. "The liberal story was of moving forward with free market and privatization," Rogozanu explained. "But these things were catastrophes for 60 percent of the people. There was also a lack of transparency about what happened with these processes. This was enraging for young guys like me and my friends. We conducted some anti-mainstream strikes when we were at the college in Bucharest. All our professors were liberal. They all said that we had to suffer in order to get to the free market in a good, neo-liberal way."

One beneficiary of the disenchantment with neo-liberalism was Romania's far right. In 2000, the Romania Mare (Greater Romania) Party polled nearly 20 percent in the parliamentary elections, and its presidential candidate came in second.

The independent Left has been less robust. "We cannot have manifestations because we don't have power of any kind," Rogozanu lamented. "We're just writers. We have some good people on the academic side, but they are not very powerful. We don't have important jobs or big support from parties. This is our advantage. But it's also our disadvantage when we want to create something big. We want to create something new, so this will take some more time."

The Interview

When did you become involved in politics yourself?

It was when I was 17 or 18. I had a liberal approach. Liberalism was the mark of progress. Every young guy wanted to be this way. We would talk all day long about rights. This was the only way back then in the mid-1990s. Then, when I was 23 and I finished the faculty at university, something changed. It was also because I entered the workforce. I was a journalist then. Every day I saw all the problems in society and started to develop a new approach. I moved to the left. So many things that happened in the 1990s I couldn't explain with the liberal approach.

Can you be more specific about the failures of the liberal approach?

The liberal story was of moving forward with free market and privatization. But these things were catastrophes for 60 percent of the people. There was also a lack of transparency about what happened with these processes. This was enraging for young guys like me and my friends. We conducted some anti-mainstream strikes when we were at the college in Bucharest. All our professors were liberal. They all said that we had to suffer in order to get to the free market in a good, neo-liberal way.

I discovered at 25 that I was not interested in my parent's past. I practically accused them of lack of vision when they voted for Iliescu. But this was not the case. It was a very complicated story for them. They didn't rate Iliescu very highly. But they knew that the other guys were worse. And that's what happened when, in 1996-2000, the Right came to power. Iliescu returned to power after that, but it was with a neo-liberal face.

The Right has embraced neoliberalism, and the liberals have embraced neoliberalism. What other alternatives are there in Romania at the moment?

There are no alternatives. This is a very sad thing. But this is also a very good point to start. The Social Democrats are now in power, but they are very neoliberal in what they do. They say all day long that the Romanian state doesn't have the capital, can't make investments, can't be Keynesian. But it's not just that. They've been pushing privatization in education, in health: very bad policies. And the voters do not punish them like they should do. The last two prime ministers, even though they were from the Left and the Right, conducted the same policy. Okay, the IMF doesn't allow for much flexibility. It's a vicious circle.

A half hour ago I was talking with a leftwing parliamentary representative who was telling me that a strike would scare off investors. Every demand from the workers' side is a no for investment. We've been saying this for 20 years, and this is what we get.

You said earlier that you didn't think there was a Left here in Romania.

No, there isn't. A Communist minister once said that they signal left, and then turn right. That was Iliescu's doing. I kind of agree with that. There's also the explanation of Ivan Szelenyi, that the technocrats from the Communist era came to power. That happened here too. This very small group was intellectually hegemonic in every sector -- economic, political - and they had the same discourse even if the parties were different. It was all about privatization. After December 22, even the people who didn't trust privatization asked for democracy. And democracy was free travel in Europe. When did this free travel in Europe happen? Seven years later. And if I want to work in Europe, I can finally do so next January.

But there's CriticAtac.

Yes, I am one of the founding members.

How big and how influential do you think the organization is?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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