The State of Romanian Extremism

04/05/2015 08:04 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

Romania Mare (Greater Romania) was founded in 1990 first as a magazine and then as a political party by two former court poets of the Ceausescu era: Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Eugen Barbu. As its name suggests, the ultra-nationalist party has been dedicated to expanding the borders of Romania to encompass Moldova and parts of Ukraine. It has also combined anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment with efforts to combat the political influence of ethnic Hungarians.

In the 2000, Romania Mare reached the apex of its popularity. In the parliamentary elections that year, the party came in second with approximately 20 percent of the vote. Even more surprising perhaps was the performance of the party's leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who captured 28 percent in the presidential election. By 2008, however, Romania Mare was no longer pulling in enough votes for even a single seat in parliament. And Tudor, serving in the European parliament, had drifted to the margins.

Had Romania suddenly entered a new era of tolerance? To the north, one-fifth of Hungarian voters were still supporting the ultranationalist Jobbik, while to the south, a significant number of Bulgarians continued to back the ultranationalist Ataka. Romania, it seemed, has bucked the trend.

Journalist Petru Clej disagrees. When we met in 1990, he had recently started his new profession at Romania Libera. We talked, among other things, about the anti-Semitism of the Peasant Party. I caught up with him in August 2013 in London where he has lived for more than two decades, first working at the BBC and now working as an interpreter in the court system. He still follows events in Romania closely, visiting the country several times a year and writing occasional pieces.

Anti-Roma sentiment remains pervasive in Romania, and anti-Semitism is rising, he told me. As for Tudor, "his place was taken to a certain extent by Dan Diaconescu, who is a populist and whose party got 14 percent of the vote in the last elections," Clej explains.

His political program is even more ludicrous than Tudor's. He was promising at one point 20,000 euros to anyone starting a business, the suspension of payments on mortgages for one year, and all sorts of other populist promises.

Many of his party's parliamentarians in December 2012 started to defect to other parties. He was even promising to impose a fine of 2 million euros for any parliamentarian who defected. Obviously it was illegal. This shows that Romanians are not yet over voting for fruitcakes.

But it's not just populism. Not far from the surface of Romanian politics is a deep strain of intolerance, including anti-Semitism. "It starts with denial of the Holocaust," Clej noted.

This is a very sensitive point in Romania's recent history. There was a Commission set up by President Iliescu and chaired by Elie Wiesel about Romania's role in the Holocaust. A report was published and endorsed by Iliescu in 2004.

The gist of it was that the Antonescu regime was responsible for the deaths of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews as well as 11,000 Roma. As I mentioned, there's a law that criminalizes Holocaust denial and cults of people like Antonescu.

There was an appeal of the death sentence of Antonescu in 1946, which the Supreme Court rejected on the basis of the charge of crimes against humanity. But go on the Internet and where there is a story about Antonescu, you'll see anti-Semitic comments. And Antonescu was the fifth greatest Romanian in the contest in 2005.

It goes beyond interpretation of history.

"The second aspect of anti-Semitism is international capital -- the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union - which they believe is controlled by Jews or the Freemasons," Clej continued.

There are also quite a few Israelis of Romanian origin who have come back to Romania. They have recovered their Romanian citizenship, which is more valuable now because of the EU membership, and reclaimed their properties. And this too has created irritation.

We don't have parties like Jobbik, so it's not headline news, but it's always very close beneath the surface. It's not like in Russia or Hungary. It's not violent. In Romania, anti-Semitism was never really mainly ideological as it was in Russia or Germany. It was mainly economic, generated by envy.

Relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians have improved to a degree, and the border between the two EU members is no longer a point of contention. But there are still tensions, particularly around the top of regionalization, which would provide greater autonomy to different parts of the country, including the area with a Hungarian majority.

Some ethnic Romanians complain that "the Hungarians want to use this autonomy to impose their own ethnic cleansing," Clej explained.

The more realistic underlying theme is that you have the so-called barons, the local political leaders in the countries, who risk losing their power bases. That's why you have all this brouhaha about regionalization.

It's a growing trend in Europe, moving toward larger regional entities that are more efficient from an economic point of view. Hungarians obviously want a homogenous region. It's difficult for many Romanians to accept -- not just Romanians in Transylvania.

It's Romanians outside Transylvania who view Hungarians in that part of the country as a threat. They don't live there, and they have a wrong perception of inter-ethnic relations.

We talked about a range of issues, from the mysteries of 1989 and his early forays into journalism to the challenges facing the Romanian countryside and the community of Romanians now living in the UK.

The Interview

The political leadership in Romania is of very low quality today, as you said. Was there a point in the last 20 years when you were more hopeful about a newer generation of politicians?

There were two very important moments. The first was in 1996 when Emil Constantinescu and the Democratic Convention won the elections, and the country was pushed in a firm, pro-Western direction. It ended in disaster in 2000 when Iliescu and PSD were elected again, and when Vadim Tudor and the Greater Romania party polled 28 percent of the vote and took second place in the presidential election.

The second point was 2004 when Traian Basescu was elected. There was a move toward the rule of law, and the fight against corruption intensified. But then it all descended into farce. Basescu, well intentioned though he may be, doesn't have the political skills to attract support for his stance. That's partly why there were two attempts to impeach him, which is unheard of in the whole of Europe. From that moment on, it was downhill.

And then remember, from 2004 to the present day, the governments were formed by four parties in combination of two or three: the pro-Basescu party PDL, Prime Minister Victor Ponta's Party, PSD, the party of the chair of the Senate Crin Antonescu, PNL, and the Hungarian Union. At the present time, ideology doesn't count any more. It's an empty word.

It's just a rotation of elites.

Yes, pseudo-elites.

Elites in terms of their power though perhaps not intelligence.

Definitely not.

I didn't know that Romania Mare did so well in the election.

Tudor got 28 percent and the party got 21 percent in the Senate.

I've never understood Tudor's popularity.

It was a revenge of the "little people," the people who were the losers of this transition and who want easy answers for difficult questions. That's what Vadim Tudor was offering.

He's now in the European parliament, isn't he?

Yes, but he lost a lot of his popularity. He hasn't managed to enter the last two national parliaments. His place was taken to a certain extent by Dan Diaconescu, who is a populist and whose party got 14 percent of the vote in the last elections. His political program is even more ludicrous than Tudor's.

He was promising at one point 20,000 euros to anyone starting a business, the suspension of payments on mortgages for one year, and all sorts of other populist promises. Many of his party's parliamentarians in December 2012 started to defect to other parties. He was even promising to impose a fine of 2 million euros for any parliamentarian who defected. Obviously it was illegal. This shows that Romanians are not yet over voting for fruitcakes.

I have difficulty separating populist economics and nationalist rhetoric. Sometimes they go together, as with Ataka in Bulgaria. In Romania, I was happy to see that what seemed so dangerous in 1990, the resurgence of nationalism, seemed relatively quiet now. Some people in the country told me I was mistaken and that there was still a lot of anti-Hungarian sentiment and obviously anti-Roma sentiment.

And anti-Semitism, which is on the rise. You just need to go on the Internet and see that the popularity of the Iron Guard is on the rise.

Is it a legal organization?

Some parties claim to be continuing the tradition of the Iron Guard. It's not legal in Romania. There is a law prohibiting fascist organizations. The same law criminalizes Holocaust denial and the cult of people sentenced for crimes against humanity, and this applies to Ion Antonescu. But it is seldom applied. We don't have a party like Jobbik, but you have those kinds of politicians in all the parties. And the anti-Roma sentiment is visceral, even with educated people.

And has the sentiment translated into actions?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.