Second book on Transition Dialogue online

In “Challenges of Transition in Eastern Europe: Lessons for Civic Education” eleven experts from Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, Romania and Hungary share their observations on the biggest challenges and obstacles in dealing with the past of transition in democratic ways today. The compilation is based on the outcomes of a conference that took place in Sofia on 22nd-23rd of November in 2019. It entails contributions from Thomas Krüger, director of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), Stefan Melle (DRA Berlin) and Louisa Slavkova (Sofia Platform). Some of the topics discussed are:

📌 The Elusive Nature of Communist Nostalgia
📌 Urban vs. Rural during the Transition Period in Central and Eastern Europe
📌 A Soft but Mighty Power: Transition and Trust
📌 Dealing with the Past and Teaching History – Civic Education on the SED Dictatorship
📌 Memories and Narratives of Communism. Selectiveness and One-sidedness
📌 The Generation of Transition in Eastern Europe. A Generation of Uncertainty, a Generation of Distrust

Contested Memories – or Where does Nostalgia Lead us?

The transition dialogues are about experiences and memories about the very recent  history. For Ukraine, the communist past is a taboo issue, only fragments appear on the surface, but trigger conflicts in families and entire regions. Clashing beliefs about the past are not new and and have become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society – as you can read from the voices below. We were diving into the see of thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.

Voices below are taken from are discussion on the eve of 2017 in the Kiev “Museum of Dreams” – a museum that is exploring how the dream meets reality in human life. Could there be a better place to talk about the time of change since the end of communism?

How to Remember Communism?

Tatyana (born 1957): Communism was only good because we were young

“It scares me speaking with people who are 20-30 years old, and they tell me how cool it was in the Soviet time, how lucky it was, not such a cannibalistic time. I studied in Leningrad, and went through Moscow [in the time after the end of communism]. And I remember I saw happy people on Gorky Street. […] And when I hear of this young nostalgia, I ask again: “Wait, you are 30 years, how do you know what it was like back then?” I had a conversation yesterday. And one woman told me, “I understand everything, I understand, but in that time I was young!” – “Of course, that’s great, but the youth does not return. Do you want to get back to those circumstances instead?”. So go back to youth, yes! But it would be good if there was also a thing like the internet back then (all laugh). Because now I can go to any museum, walk around any city online.”

Victoria (1981): Things would have changed anyway – with or without the Soviet Union

“But imagine if it was the Soviet Union, but with what we have now. Perhaps the Union would rethink itself as a country. We are simply different, as a whole […]. Perhaps the Union would now have the same challenges, the Union would also change.”

Victoria (1970): You were not at the elections in the Soviet Union.

Elena (1982): I remember – caviar, music. Everybody went to eat there.

Tetyana (1957): Suddenly election results depended on the people’s choice

After 1985 my  first impression – a congress of deputies. I was in Kherson and was walking along the Ushakov’s street. There were no mobile phones, but  small receivers, that shouted out to the whole Ushakov’s about the  candidates. People listened. They wanted change. Then they were all waiting. We then first realized that something now depends on us. We realized that the election would not be approved by a district committee member. It was great what happened that time. People listened and turned around.

We all love to believe in illusions

What would happen if people in 1914 would have been prepared for what would be in 1917? If people would have anticipated this terrible transformation [the tough time of revolution, shortage of food and civil war]? They probably also would have thought that this would be over eventually and all would be all well in the end. I also once had this illusion . Now I know that there is no stability – history never ends. Ludmyla spoke about absence of ideology. But there is a humanist ideology, we all believe in people. We all want a good world, warm and well for everybody. It’s also an ideology, but it is good.

Clashing values, clashing generations

During the discussion, a conflict evolved between two women – Victoria, born in 1970, and Ludmyla, born in 1981 – about the question, if there was a freedom of choice even in the Soviet Union. Was there really no choice in life (says the one born in 1970) or was it just convenient to deny the fact that there is more than one possible way to go (says the one born 1981).

Victoria (1970): “There are things that unite us with the European Union, but there are also our personal changes: changing of values, transition from paternalism to justice.”

Victoria (1980): “You talk about changes of values. What kind of values did Soviet people have?”

Victoria (1970): “First, this is Paternalism. The question of choice for them did not exist.”

Victoria (1980): “This is not a value.”

Tatiana (1957): “The value of the military communism and stability.”

Victoria (1970): “I mean the paradigm of paternalism. Nothing depended on you, they [Soviet power] could give something to you or not. You lived in set frames and they said that you should be comfortable within. This imposed value, which raised more than one generation. Now these people do not have these frames anymore and it’s not comfortable for them. For us however, the main sense is in that change. The more people accept free values, not the values of the Soviet Union, the faster our country will develop.

Ludmyla (1981): We did not just move out of a closed, capsular existence. We actually have changed the ideology [the whole framework of values, the political ideology]. I have no personal experience of living in the ideological space of the Soviet Union. I have not had time to put forward some unwelcome ideas that could be suppressed.  I was too young, just 9 years old. Now we can choose freely. Our mission is to carry this memory.  People are now developing a collective  consciousness [on the past] and this can be dangerous because it can be manipulated.. We must remind people how it really was. The only task I see for the transition generation is this explanation.

What also makes me angry is when people say, that the Soviet people had to act like they did because they grew up with these values. That people had no choice. That is not true! It was just convenient. And even now, people choose what is more convenient – no influence on policy, not affecting anything. This is perceived also normal.  This is a dangerous narrative: to tell people that they have no choice.

Victoria (1970) You have such a position, because you have not lived in that time. Today you said that at the age of  nine you did not have to make a choice. You just did not see that the scope of available information was so  very narrow, as you may not have been aware of the choices that you could theoretically have made.

The time of the 90s that you have experienced is a very different time. When you lived in Soviet Ukraine, you did not even know what was going on in other countries. There was no choice.

Ludmyla (1981) I think, that you just liked to live like that. Sit and wait that someone decides for you. It was comfortable for you.

Victoria (1970) You had no expectations, because you just lived in this system. You just didn’t know any other varieties of existence.

Tatyana (1957): Luda [Ludmyla], if you did not like the government and the system, you simply went to a psychiatrist.

(Ludmyla laughs) Yes, Luda, this is serious, you lived and you had to be happy, because how can a normal person do not like the Soviets? You were considered crazy if you did not like it.

Interview with Adrian Schiop

Adrian Schiop (born in 1973) is writer and independent journalist. He published three novels and has a doctoral degree in manele music, a genre that is rather associated with Roma people and lower social class and rarely finds its place in the academic environment. Adrian has a fine anthropological eye, sensitive to social changes of the generations and on how impact of economic changes on the society and individuals. His latest novel ‘Soldații. Poveste de Ferentari’ [The Soldiers. Story of Ferentari], partly an auto-biographic story about a gay love, is taking place in Ferenatari Neighborhood – a ghetto of Bucharest that seems like stucked in the ‘90, a social universe full of taboos and complex social relations of what can be considered the periphery of the society.

When did the transition begin and how long did it take?

It took place between 1990 and 2007, it was transition until Romania joined the European Union.

And afterwards did you feel it was different?

Yes, the situation has certainly become more stable. Institutions begin to function… even the judicial branch begins functioning independently later… but you no longer get the same amount of rip-offs and scams like it used to, that’s my perception.

And to you the transition period is the time when a lot of rip-offs took place?

Yes, naturally. Industries of all kinds have been bankrupted and stolen. The whole communist industry was stolen. I mean, it was happening at all the society’s levels, from the highest to the lowest. A lot of people ripped off the state and bankrupted state enterprises for personal gains… simple citizens would also get ripped off in masses, especially in the early 1990s when people didn’t have the right economic education. Like that pyramid scheme which tricked people to invest money with the promise of getting rich.

On a personal level, how did you live during the transition?

In poverty. First of all, poverty… when I decided to leave for the New Zeeland, it wasn’t for being oppressed, or other social reasons, it was strictly an economic decision. Meaning that I used to work as a high school teacher, live in a dorm room in the campus… and I would live in that small room because I couldn’t afford paying rent for an apartment. Of course, I was also lazy because I could also tutor students and give private classes for extra money? My subject was Romanian language and literature. But I didn’t like teaching in private, so I had to live off the salary.

And back than there were that soft drink Frutti Fresh [fizzy beverage with fruit flavor, one of the cheapest of its kind] if you remember. I was already working for the fourth year as teacher. And everything was going down, less and less money, everything was becoming more expensive, inflation, whatever. The recession was at its peak, and the next year I couldn’t even afford to buy that bottle of Frutti Fresh. That’s why it was so much “fun” and I said to myself “Fuck this country” if I can’t even afford a shitty chemical soft drink. And that was when I decided to migrate.

That was the hardest burden of them all: poverty. On the other hand, everybody was equal in poverty. At least, as students. As students, we were all poor, very few had money. For example, none of us owned a car. Nowadays if you walk around student campuses you see lots of good and expensive cars. Back when I was a student, there barely was anything to create material differences between us. Students didn’t have cars, and only a few more fortunate wore better clothes, that was the whole difference. But since people didn’t really have money and we were all equal in poverty, we also didn’t have relations based on competition, you see?

 During which period were you abroad?

At the beginning of the 2000s, I think it was 2001 or early 2002. What was interesting about it was that I left in what seemed to me as a maximum level of poverty, when it all seemed to go downhill in terms of living standards. And when I returned in 2003, thinks were starting to get better. People would complain “Oh no, it’s worse than last year” and I would say “Definitely not!”. That’s what leaving for a while means, you clearly and more objectively see the differences. I was away just when the situation was transitioning from its lowest point and facing an improvement.

You had an interesting perspective about Romanians, and especially immigrant Romanians from more developed countries, who aren’t critical at all about the situation of poverty. They consider poverty to be somewhat of a temporary situation and think that whoever is in poverty is guilty.

Yeah, they have this meritocratic discourse with slightly fascist ideas, some sort of social fascism. But in reality they have no empathy or considerations for the poor, and generally it still is a problem in Romania. This is also a problem that wasn’t overcome yet. And the reason it wasn’t overcome is that we didn’t get to have a second bourgeois generation, because the first generation that makes the money considers that they started from a low point and have a sense of entitlement and self-worth for their efforts. And this discourse of a person who made it by oneself, this enriched person who say they knew how to make it on top… they think that the poor person next to them should also do it. Why doesn’t he/she? It must be that they’re lazy, right? And in the case of immigration, it has further developed this feeling of merit because they left when they were very poor in Romania… When you leave Romania with a salary of 10 million [approximately 220 euro] and arrive in a place where you’re paid at least 1000 euro, you think you are God-blessed. If you get a loan from the bank and start exhibiting a higher social status, you already start saying “I’ve picked myself up and reached a different social status”. And that’s where we get this meritocratic discourse from. It marginalizes and excludes the poor and heads towards an area of social fascism. It has a lot more depth than one might think.

Is this happening among the middle class only?

It’s among anybody who’s made money, do you understand? It’s not about the middle class and maybe that thugs will say the same words if you ask them. Mobs say the same too. “It’s his/her fault if they didn’t have the right mindset or weren’t smart enough to get as rich as I”. But, of course, there’s also the never-ending excuse of not being fortunate enough, but anyway, people who made money have this meritocratic viewpoint. We need to switch to the next generation to develop that sense of guilt and consciousness. Because, if you look towards Western states, you see a lot of education in this direction. As a bourgeois, you are induced with this feeling of guilt, which is socially-beneficial if you ask me. The whole concept of the guilty person’s consciousness was also developed among the bourgeois. It’s this sense of guilt that the second generation feels “Look at me, I’m privileged, I was raised in a really good family, I have everything I need, I went to university, and never had to try too hard to get something. That poor guy has a harder time reaching the top.” We don’t have this kind of mentality in Romania, or at least it’s underdeveloped… this conscience of the privileged to acknowledge that you were privileged since you were brought into this world and had access to what others could only dream of. And this is how the guilty consciousness is born: “That poor guy isn’t guilty for the family he was born in”.

But how are the poor perceived?

Well, it’s the same situation. I think it’s practically a depression. They have developed a lot of complexes and they perceive their poverty as a shame. They are shamed for what they don’t have for reasons they aren’t responsible for.

How did you perceive the change from communism to the new democratic regime?

Well, I have to acknowledge, I was 17 around the time when communism fell and I felt very, very happy. The system was oppressive, Ceaușescu was an idiot… I mean he wasn’t the brightest communist leader.

And how do you position yourself now in relation to communism?

Right now? My positioning is much more nuanced, there was oppression… but how should I put it? It was a cost-benefit situation: the cost was the oppression. Otherwise, the society was very organized. We had a functional society under communism. To whomever disagrees, I have to say that it wasn’t a dictatorship, but a functional society. After the transition, society and the whole body structure of the society have been a mess, Romania has become a dysfunctional state during the transition. Which, again, is a matter of costs and benefits.

Returning to communism, it was a functional system, but the dictatorship costs were too high. What the elders say: you had a job guaranteed; they [the state] would give you a house, holiday through the union, and stuff like that. You had no movement of freedom, you had no free speech… but there were some gains.

Do you perceive the nowadays Romanian society as more functional?

Now, yes. It is more functional. Less democracy now than in the ‘90s. but this is because of there is a tendency nowadays to restrain the liberties. This is in all the Occident and in America. In the moment when a society is functional one needs to be become responsible for own deeds. You need to get responsible for what you do, what you say. In transition everyone was careless because everything could be solved/ bribed.

Why do you say there is less democracy?

There is more surveillance. There is much more supervised society. Police was not functional in the ‘90s. Secret services, no one was caring about them. Justice was not functioning. Now phones are listened, you are under surveillance if you done something wrong.

How do you position yourself in relation to the older generations, given the fact that you lived the transition from communism to democracy in your teenage years? How do you view communism in comparison to your parents?

I feel less nostalgic about communism, even though I do have some small degree of nostalgia. I think I feel anarchy. I mean, the older ones aren’t capable of anarchy. The younger generations that are growing up right now aren’t capable of it either, they seem to be more obedient than we were. We, those who lived our youth in the 1990s, were bigger anarchists. But the feeling is starting to get weaker and rarer in newer generations. I look around and see that the youth are drinking less. Okay, now they have access to more drugs and sometimes they just smoke a joint instead, okay… and after that they drink a couple of beers or take a pill on weekend days. But they no longer have that drive we had, they’re not as self-destructive as we were. They’re healthier and more aware about their lives. “I better not start smoking, oh my God it’s bad if I smoke and only losers do it”. Anyway, right now I’m talking about a middle-class zone. I’m not sure to which extent I can extrapolate other social categories, but in this bourgeois area there is a contrast with what used to be before, as well as with what I think comes next. This anarchic and self-subtle feeling that I want to drink until I pass out under the table, that I don’t care about anything… that’s something that fades. It faded in communism by force because you were being watched, and now you have to act properly and be responsible. It’s a movement that starts to work. You can no longer “fuck everything” like in the 1990s. You could do it in the 1990s, now it’s getting harder.

Why are the 1990s your favorite era?

First of all, it’s because that’s when I was young and secondly… there was a lot more liberty than now. There was less responsibility, I mean why would you enjoy being responsible? Could you please tell me what is the pleasure in responsibility? Let me answer that for you: there is none. There was this kind of liberty in which you could not care about anything and could do anything you would think. No you can no longer do it… you used to be able to tell anything, it was all allowed. It was anarchy!

There is these saying used by elderly people ‘that there’s too much democracy or that democracy has gotten to your head’…

Something like that, in the 1990s there really was too much freedom. But it couldn’t go on like this, you couldn’t build a society on the foundations of everybody not giving a damn, everybody stealing one way or another, nobody doing anything, do you understand? It just wasn’t possible. The problem is that you don’t have solidarity among larger bodies of social classes, and there isn’t solidarity above the middle class. We have this problem among the wealthy. I mean, let’s solidarize ourselves a little bit, shall we? You don’t have this kind of solidarity which is essential to form a society among ourselves. If we keep it like this, at some point it will seem impossible and unconceivable to build this solidarity.

And from the perspective of citizens’ rights and minority rights, what do you think is the situation now as compared to the situation during the transition? What about the situation now as compared to communism?

[Sigh] Let’s refer to communism… as compared to communism, of course you enjoy more liberties. I mean as a citizen, or as a minority and… in comparison with the transition? The transition was cool because nobody knew, in the sense that nobody spoke about taboo subjects [such as being gay]… and people were not aware of this thing.

But wasn’t there a negative attitude towards the gay people?

There was, but nobody could tell who was gay and who wasn’t… it was a very abstract thing. They were subject of jokes, it wasn’t… like in the case of the Roma people towards whom there was a lot of racism because the majoritarian population could distinguish them. Who acknowledged being a homosexual, anyway? Let’s get real about it. In the 1990s nobody would come out of the closet and it was a non-existent category. But what was good about the situation… in a way it was great that you could express yourself and manifest your feelings, and people wouldn’t realize that you were gay. You could hit on a guy whom you thought to be either straight or gay and see how they were surprised and confused. Now people are much more aware “Ah, that guy’s a queer”… they get it when you’re acting differently. I’m trying to describe a filter that tells who is gay and who isn’t. However, nowadays they are trying to establish more freedoms and it’s great. I know that in the 1990s or the beginning of the 2000s we had some parties in Cluj [one of the top largest Romanian cities in West of Romania], every 2 weeks. This happened before article 200 [decriminalizing homosexuality by removing its actions from the penal code]. And I think it was awful until 1995 or 1996, that’s when it was harder to be gay. It was before activists from abroad came in and said “Leave them alone, don’t be a bunch of morons. Cool down!”. And back to the story: even though it was the year 1999 or 2000, the parties would take place across the street from the police station. Cops would come to check once in a while, but they never shut down the bar and didn’t ever arrest anybody. There was this tacit toleration, and I think there were higher orders by police officials after the mid-1990s to tell everyone to leave the gay alone. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

Until 1993, I think, there were people who would get punished with time in jail.

Oh yes, that’s when we had the biggest problems regarding human rights and the gay community – locked-up gay people. I told you, up until that case with the handball or basketball female player who became famous on national television, it was a lot worse. And people started to get it “Wait a minute, she’s with the green and red lights, we can’t burn her anymore”.

Could you please tell more about that case?

It was a scandal with a female basketball player, who went to a colleague at the gym, and her colleague turned her in for being gay or they got caught, I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, this basketball player ended up doing 5 years of jail time. That was when a proto version of the Accept association [the largest pro LGBTQI+ rights organization in Romania] emerged; activists felt enraged by this scandal and took matters into their own hands.

What was your experience with peoples about you being gay?

In the countryside, people isolate and marginalize you… nowadays we at least have some demographic niches where we, as gay people, can breathe. In central Bucharest, among hipsters, among corporate employee… do you get my point? You can breathe relaxed. But if you start descending the social ladder and scrutinize among the lower classes, problems start to appear. When you head towards the working class, or people who are less educated in general among which you can find the people from rural areas and the underclass… then the beautiful story about tolerance ends there. They wouldn’t even listen to people. Well, personally I have encountered violent reactions due to the fact that I openly expressed my sexuality, you see? However, I’ve more often encountered isolation. I’m talking about people who put it plainly “Okay, we understand, you like penises. Don’t tell me about it because I’m not interested to hear it.”. And these people don’t feel in the mood to have a drink with you or do any other social activities. I feel a little disappointed about the situation, but I’ve also noticed a certain degree of fear to be considered gay when you talk to somebody who is openly gay. People are afraid others will start asking “Why are these two staying together?” So a lot of regular persons decide to just stay away and avoid any conversation longer than a few words. The men in my village do not talk much to me because this thing [being gay] is known.

And from 2007 and up to the present day, did you have you feel an evolution in regards to other people’s perception towards you?

Yes, you can feel that. They become much more aware, more tolerant. You can tell that this is being associated with Western ideas and culture, and people want to be hip. It’s in the snobbish nature of the Romanian to try to appear open and avoid looking foolish or backwards thinking. “You have to understand gay people”… but yes, you can feel progresses from one year to the other. When you start watching television, please tell me which channel is openly homophobic. Is there any?

To make a parallel: Why do you think that the gay community benefits from a better image and has made more progresses in comparison with the Roma community?

It’s because gay people come from all social classes. First of all, you don’t really see them and I think that in this country only about 1000 people are openly gay in the way they dress and act in public. The rest of them are much more reserved. Conversely, the Roma community is associated with poverty and that’s the end of the story. That’s where the problem is in people’s minds: poverty. It’s the same with people from Moldova. Poverty is stigmatized. Gay people cannot be associated with poverty; they’re just about different sexual preferences.

As this is one of your strongest field of expertise: how is the transition reflected in the manele music [a genre of Turkish, Balkan influence often associated with lower social class]? Were there traces before the Revolution about what the music would shape up to become?

During the communist era, manele was the first so called “polluted” folkloric cultural movement. Since the communist days, manele have had a capitalist discourse: people envy you for what you have; it’s all about the money… It was about this kind of hustle and swag since the communist period. But no, the wording was a little different and I couldn’t identify the word “șmecherie” [tricks, swindle] in any of the lyrics from the time. It’s all about people who envy you and human relations based on competition, you know? It’s all about being wealthy, not trusting anybody due to your privileged status, and putting money in the center of it all. Even in communist days, this was the music of “entrepreneurs”. In those cases, the entrepreneurs were illegal smugglers. Who could be an entrepreneur in a time with so many restrictions? Petty salesmen of smuggled goods who were conducting illegal activities. And their music has to reflect their views about life and that’s when an early form of manele shapes up.

And how did manele evolve in the transition period?

They gained more depth, in the sense that they were brought forward to the public. In communism, manele were a part of the prisoners’ folklore and part of the orchestration draws inspiration from those times. But very few artists or “muses” for their songs about illegal activities had the distinction of exceptionality. But after the 1990s, we were exposed to this capitalist discourse with hustling, the fetishization of money, women as porno mistresses, this kind of grey economy where only money matter and the moral principles are irrelevant. Moral principles are limited to own family but not further than that.

And how do you see the relations during the transition in relation to the capitalist discourse? Does it become to strengthen its roots in capitalism? Do manele start containing a criticism of capitalism?

No, not even for a second. They’re not critics of capitalism, not even critics of poverty… it’s all about the American dream: “I either want to get rich or I’m already rich”. They always talk about a past when they were poor, but never write song lyrics about currently being poor. It’s all about “I used to be poor, but I’ve made a lot of money through my own efforts”, like in the American dream.

Interview: Irina Ilisei

Translation: Vlad Costea

December 2016

Dividing Memories – on a Generation

For Ukraine, the issue of knowledge communist past is a taboo topic. While only fragments of the issue appear on the surface, it divides families and entire regions in conflict. Dealing with beliefs about the past has become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society. We therefore propose to dive into the thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.

This post collects thoughts, memories and statements taken from a discussion that took place on the eve of 2017 in the “Museum of Dreams” in Kiev that is exploring how dreams meet reality in human life.

The quotes explore the memory of communism as well as the time that succeeded communism and lasts until today: The time of transition. But what exactly is transition?

transit – an attempt of a #defintion

Transit – this is where you don’t stay long. A transit passage is something temporary, moving from one point to another. But the transition we speak about, is not temporary – it is the life that we live. Generally speaking, life is a constant transit, it moves from one state to another. But in some periods we move faster. [from many voices]

Tatiana (1982)

“I think transit should be considered through acceleration. Stability can’t be detected, we find it only in the memories. When we remember – we fix a certain time. Get a different decade of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s – very different Soviet times. We summarize these periods. This generalization suggests one thing – it’s time for respite. The analyze possible when you are not in action. When you’re in a revolutionary time – you do not analyze, you are acting. Transitiveness is the revolution and the education. Transition is not attributed to any generation. There were people who could spend five months on the novel by Tolstoy, do they believed that their time was changing? Do they felt so these changes?”

Talking about our #generation

Artem (1976): a broken generation

“We are a broken generation. I was 15 years old when it happened. In Germany it is about unification. But here we called this times – the collapse of the Union. […] My generation – it’s the guys who became the criminals of the 90s. We are the separate generation – a transit and broken one.

This is a generation whose socialization time, 14-16 years, coinciding with the collapse of values. In adolescence, there was a complete breakdown. We grew up on the values, believed in honest, fair, good. And suddenly we found ourselves in a vacuum. In this Nietzschean «nothing».

We are the generation who can self-sacrifice themselvs for those children who are growing up now. They grew up in other picture: independence, freedom, liberalism, access to information and so on. I felt very homeless. Of course, I tried to flip this feature to advantage: the ability of quickly re-education, a willingness to change. All of these events: Maydan and the war – for me it was very natural. I quickly found myself like a fish in the water. Therefore, I perceive us as a broken generation. At the front are lots of guys of my age and my generation […]. They try to protect the future and they think their lives were broken anyway. This generation is the core bone of the war with Russia now.”

Lyudmyla (1981): need to move

“We are really romantic generation. But if we see something stable, we for sure need to change it (smiling). Well, at least we move the furniture.”

Sergiy (1972): nothing special

“Wandering through our lives, we change the world. Generation change itself brings something new. Over the past 50 thousand years this happens. It is not right to say that this is some special generation of transition. The time change occurs every forty years, as global change of everything. Technical progress give the fast opportunity to share the information, your idea spreads by second. To check the information on social networks simply is not possible. And future generations will have to learn how to control and filter the information.”

Alexandra (1987): We can make a difference

“It reminds me of metamorphosis of a butterfly. […] I think that every generation is a cluster of individuals of a certain age and that creates the understanding of a “generation”. Living this metamorphosis is not a goal, no purpose or process. I feel that the metamorphosis happens faster: We have more faith that we can make a difference and a willingness to do something. Transit isn’t an understandable word, but it speaks about the process. This is a motion vector. That I’m going in this direction.”

Alexander (1987): At a t urning point

“I do not remember the Soviet Union. I want to change the world, I want to act. I constantly desire to do something, run forward. That turning point for country, I do not remember. Now we also are at such a turning point, maybe it would be analysed later. Now I just want to do.”

Interview Andreea Petrut

Andreea Petruț (born in 1990) is a young and talented researcher working in the field of public policies for higher education. Her academic background is in Political Science and Management of Organisation. She is active in several non governamental organisation and civic actions that promote integrity, equality of opportunities, participative democracy and protection of the environment.

What has the transition meant to you, your family and for the community you used to live in?

Well, that’s a long story. First of all, the transition has influenced my early life, as I’m born in 1990 in a small town with 20.000 inhabitants, close to the city of Brașov, practically in a small urban area. At that time, I used to think that the area I was born in is something big, mainly due to the fact that my interactions with other communities took place primarily in the rural area, and the largest community I would see was the city of Brașov. And I had the impression that I’m doing well and had somewhat of an opening in terms of culture and information.

Going back on what transition meant for me, I associate transition with poverty, the poverty that I, my family, and especially the people around us would live in. I cannot make parallels to what happened before 1990 because I wasn’t even born at the time, but what was more difficult compared to the communist times was the fact that you felt poor, but you would see the wealth on the other side, around you, on the television screens, in friends’ houses and houses of rich people, and that’s how I think the feeling of frustration and injustice were been born. Because I’m thinking that before 1990, you didn’t have a standard to refer to or compare yourself with, so that you never knew that you could have more and better. Everyone was doing badly, we were all equal somehow, but from the moment of the transition and the beginning of capitalism, the inequalities have practically begun to grow, to become more visible and to feel stronger. To put things in a chronological order: In the ‘90s when I was born my parents had a small studio (one room apartment) and from what they told me, the only moment when they felt helped by the change to a new regime was when they managed to buy the studio. They were renting the place during the communist times and through the inflation they managed to buy the place for very little money. That was the first moment when they and other people managed to become homeowners and I think this helped them a lot.

You were talking about poverty in your family on one side and the richness of the others on the other side. Could you feel the economic disparities since the beginning of transition or only later?

I felt those from the very beginning, since my first years of life. I was comparing myself to my cousins and what they were getting. That was the period when people started to go for work in Germany. The only things of wealth that I remember are the help coming from Germany. When they were coming with the clothes and toys from there, that was the holy time of the year. But because we were having relatives who were connected to Germany, they were having much more thing than us, they were having TVs… and you were starting to wish to have a Barbie doll or to have what other people have. My father was always telling me: “We are poor, you need to understand this. This is how we were born and this is how we will dye”… this is very interesting, I still have discussions with my father and we reflect on that. And I think a lot about that because 15 years after that I blamed my parents that we do not have a business, that we stayed poor. After that I started to understand that the practically they started a family in 1990. Being used to think after a specific pattern, that the state will help us to have a stable workplace and a slary, these are our life costs. They made a life plan based on that. And communism failed and I see them as a 18 years old child that you set free in the world: “Go and carry it off on your own”. This is how I perceived my parents and now I try to understand them from this perspective. My father had a very pessimistic nature. He was afraid to take risks. He never wanted to lend money from the bank. He was saying: “We do not have capital, we cannot do something [a business] because we do not have capital”… He was afraid to take risks. For some time I blamed him for our financial situation that was affecting even our family life but also at all other levels, but now I try to understand him. I lived with the TV on all the time, since I was very little, and I remember that period when people who were doing currency exchanges [selling foreign currency like dollars or DM which were preffered as safer during the times of huge inflation] and they were tricking the people. My grandfather lost money due to Caritas [pyramidal scheme which attracted a large number of people all over Romania and many lost their investment]. Risks were high with FNI [National Investment Fund, another system that was promising high gains, attracted people and many were left broke] later on and not many people remained happy after this story. I understand why my parents were afraid about the whole story with the capitalism.

Once the communism failed the citizens did not benefit of a systematic program that could explain to them what were their rights and their liberties, what the new regime actually means at political, economic level but also from the point of view of their rights. They were not taken care of. I was watching TV but at TV one could not understand anything. They were told only fragments, no one was saying the whole reality about what is happening and what is going to happen. Specially the people that were educated in the spirit of the Marxist ideology, in the ‘90s they did not know the rules any more and they did not know to keep the pace with that. This people got in the category that I call ‘the losers of transition’, people who only get to survive to the daily living costs in those years. I remember very clearly that phase when prices were raising and you were going today to the shop and the bread was this price and after 3 months the price was double. There were very high living costs. If I wanted to buy a youth magazine I was collecting coin by coin because my parents did not have what to give me. I was very much touched by this period of absolute poverty I would say. And my parents would say: “We are rich, you need to see how bad are others doing”. Back than I could not see the situation in this way. Now I realize that we were privileged. There were families in our town that were living in the ghetto area. Our town was built very interestingly in what concerns the social dynamic because in the communist area they moved people from Moldova [East of Romania] or from Oltenia [South West of Romania] in the period of industrialization.

What about the effects of mass-industrialization? What were its effects during the transition?

Our town wan an industrial one. During the communism there were workplaces for the inhabitants and for people living around the town. There were very large state factories in agriculture, mechanics, wood industry, etc. Across my apartment building there was Colorom, one of the most important producers of dye in the country, one day I should talk about some traumas concerning pollution as well. There was lots of industries and almost everybody was anchored in this work. In the coomunist times there were brought people from Moldova and Oltenia, from poorer regions to work over there. They got houses at the periphery area, even it was a small town we haf ghetto neighborhoods. The ghetto area were like it is Ferentari [well known ghetto in Buchares] nowadays and a lot of poverty. I really remember this because the image left me a strong impression, my mother was teacher in a kindergarten and the cleaning lady was a woman that I cared about very much. She was from a village in Moldova and she was raising her daughter all alone. I was staying with her when my mother was busy and she was taking care of me. She was living in a apartment house for people without families [precarious types of buildings built during the communist which were supposed to be temporary for people who came for work in industrial centres and did not yet got married, after the communist failed the people remained in those buildings and grow families over there], it impressed me that image with long corridors between the apartments, common bathrooms on the corridors and rats ad families staying together in large numbers in a single room and a tiny kitchen. My mother was teaching in the kindergarten in that neighborhood and there were coming children who were beaten, almost not educated at all, who did not know how to talk and my mother was responsible to educate them.

The social relations in the town… it was very wird because people staying in the ‘wealthy’ area, like my parents did – we were staying in the center, on the main road, not in in peripheral neighborhoods – they were not interacting with the ones at the margins of the town. It was a small town, everybody was knowing everybody, but there was practically a social segregation. There was a middle class of semi-intellectuals who were like “we are engineers, teachers we do not stay together with the ones who work in the factory”. Even they were respecting each other they were reluctant to interact with the ones of other ethnicities, the ones from other social categories. When I say other ethnicities I refer to Roma because we were not teached back than to respect the Roma people even they were around us. However the multiculturalism was respected in my place, it was a town where Hungarians and German minorities were living and there was a high inter-ethnic respect but in what concerns disadvantages social categories I do not remember any concern.

How did the transition influence the different generations? Did transition fueled a conflict between generations?

First of all, I don’t remember from the transition period, and this is something I also spoke about with my parents… we don’t remember to have met other rights, other than the right to vote that my parents would exercise. They never felt that the right to free speech has helped them in any way or that they enjoyed any other civil rights. To us, democracy hasn’t come with this added value. Maybe it was felt in big cities such as Bucharest and Brașov, where people had access to much more information, but in our community, we couldn’t enjoy the transition to the new regime.

My parents never perceived democracy as something that brought something good for ourselves, for our lives. They wanted me to become a doctor or pharmacist so that I can make a decent living, but at some point I opposed their will and expectations, I said that I want to study political science, understand how democracy works in this country. I used to watch television when I was a child and hear about how the 1990 generation, “children of the transition”, have to bring the change, or else this country will have a dark future. I really believed in this thing, that I have to do something for my country and I took seriously this role. That’s when I had a big argument with my parents, and I managed to convince them to allow me to study political science. I’ve started to go to university and be an active citizen from a civic point of view, participate protest movements, publically express my opinion, join different organizations, work for various projects, do community work.

After I became student I started to work for the community, to be part of student organizations, to volunteer, to help people from disadvantaged communities. And my family did not understood this: “How to do something like this? Where is this coming from”. There was a clash between their believes, even it passed 20 years since the communist regime failed, they did not know what democracy is and we learned together. There was a very hard period because my parents were forbidding me to go to protest. When the street protest started in 2012 they told me: “That is not possible. You just have to go to university, why put yourself in a risk situation. You damage your own future”. Or at university I had an argument with the rector, I was fighting for students rights. They did not understand this, why it is necessary to fight for your own righst and do not let abuses to take place in the society. 2-3 years ago it happened a funny episode because I was fined by the Gendarmerie during the protests for Roșia Montana [agains construction of a gold mine that was damaging for the environment and for the community over there]. There was a huge scandal in my family: “Our child started to fight with the system” – the fines were coming to my home/ parents address and my parents were not understanding why it is important to fight, to react as citizen when things are not going well in a country.

What were your impressions about the wellbeing of the community you were living during the transition and economic switch from a system to another? As Codlea, your hometown is a place where, like in many other places of Romania, industry fall apart, factories closed down?

I remember that period perfectly. You couldn’t be happy at home due to the fear that the factory would close down. My father was working there and you would always have this fear. Whenever he was coming home from work, he was always upset. There was no way to enjoy life due to the situation. I would understand my parents’ feelings very well, I was very connected to them. There were times in my childhood when I would play with dolls, and my favorite game was about privatization and closing down factories, because that’s what the universe around me was all about. I remember that between 1995 and 2000, when the privatizations started and they would give compensatory salaries and emergency ordinances to the people in town, that the shops (the few of them that could be found in such a small town) would simply get crowded and filled with people, as everybody wanted to spend their money. Unlike everybody around us, we didn’t have the money, and the first time I went to the shops I would feel jealous. “Dad, why don’t you go get your compensatory salaries too, so we can have the money others enjoy?”. But steadily, everything started to close down, we reached the highest degree of poverty, a lot of my colleagues and neighbors have returned to the Moldavian villages [Eastern part of Romania, where the economy is less developed] they originally came from because they could no longer afford to stay. After all the factories had been closed, they would go and work the crops to make some money. There have been 2 or 3 years when you couldn’t find a job anywhere and there were rumors that the unemployment financial aid of your colleagues would come to an end. Everywhere, even in school, people would talk about this situation, as it no longer was a problem of parents or employees since it had its direct effects on us, the children.

Everywhere, even in school it was talked about it, because lack of jobs became a problem that was no longer of our parents only or of the employees only. It was reflecting on us and of the children. I remember that the privatization was done by using MEBO method [Management Employee Buyouts]. There were shared stocks to the employees of the companies, everybody was buying shares, and everywhere there was lots of talk about it both in the town and on TV. I was imagining how my father will buy shares and we would get to be shareholders and we would get to be rich. That was my dream, maybe this time works out, this time we would get rich if he is going to be given shares from the factory. And that was an wave of enthusiasm. Of course that the shares were only papers and nothing happened with those and the factories were sold. There were some things through which we were kidding ourselves, they were giving us hope that maybe this time it will be better and finally we were seeing that the hope is burning down and we remain with nothing.

What were the stages of the transition according to you?

First of all, the 1990-1992 period is the one that I’d regard as an actual confusion, when people still had hopes for absolute freedom. People were making plans and still hoping that things can still take a good turn.

Then came the 1992-1996 period when people were simply not aware how to defend themselves from the robberies that were taking place at the higher hierarchic level, from the problems that existed at the top, and they were still trying to make a way for themselves. I perceived it as a period when people try to gather their resources and start something, but at the same time they would lose a part of their hope, that change would come. It was the time when prices were beginning to rise, there was the emergence of that story that was sold to you in the 1990s about people who died for your freedom, and you would realize that it’s far from that great and unachievable ideal.

Between 1996 and 2000 there was a time of hope because we had the story of PRO TV (private television channel which brought Western ideals and first promoted that Romania should become a member of NATO and the EU) which marked an opening. At least to me, a child who was living in an apartment, this was the main activity that would sell one hope. You would watch the screen and see that the ideals you dreamed about was possible and really exists: people win money for watching TV shows, they do some other exciting things. Additionally, a year after PRO TV first aired, the Romanian Democratic Convention Party got in government and its leader Emil Constantinescu was regarded by us with hope, even if we weren’t a family of intellectuals. When these new people come into the scene and bring experts, we believed that it will get better. I remember very clearly the times of riot, when every time you turned on your TV you would see a trade union protesting, and they would scream “With the goat and the one-eyed they lied to our people” – referring to President Constantinescu and Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea. At the political and economic level, that time too brought economic hope, but had disastruous consequences – as I know that the country was about to go bankrupt, and this fact was felt in the people’s pockets at a level that impact the quality of life itself.

In regard to the ‘90s I want to point out the coldness. When I say poverty I say coldness because the prices for utilities were very high and the boiler that was heating the town was shut down. The people did not had money to build their own heating system and they were improvising. In each house there was an improvised stove, like a clock bomb in the home. All the apartment building could explode, my parents were waking up during night to verify it. In the evening you were freezing in the house and this was happening the whole town. Making bath was possible only once a week, with water heated in over 16 pots. Everything was like a ritual, a poverty ritual and this only to cover some basic needs such as warming up, washing or eating Sibiu Salami which was a bit better than others. There were some major privations that one would not expect after the regime failed.

The next period, between 2000 and 2004, begins with Romania entering NATO. If I were to answer the question about how I perceived the NATO integration, I would answer that we were in joy, we were celebrating despite not having any idea what it means, what are the implications and what is NATO all about. Everybody was happy that Romania was a member of NATO. To this day I have no idea why they were so joyful about it, because I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand what it was all about, why would you be happy about militarization? But that was the general perception, of celebration and everything. I don’t know exactly with what I should associate the 2000-2004 period, the governing of Iliescu and Năstase but as far as I can remember things were starting to get better at the economic level. At the democratic level, I don’t think they ever got that good, but we never felt the consequences of this area. Where we were coming from, it was all linear between 1990 and 2005. I know that during the government of Năstase (2000-2004) people were very persecuted and there was a lot a pressure put on them, and this is something I found out later on, but we were somehow outside this universe and these practices, and this subject area did not affect us in any way.

There’s something I omitted: the association of the years 2000-2004 with the obtaining of Schengen visas and people going abroad, I think that’s something that market me and every other person in the country who saw his acquaintances and closed ones leave. I remember that in the building I live in, out of 20 apartments, there were a maximum number of 4 where no family member had left the country. I’ve seen this with school mates, friends who lost themselves and their future due to their parents who left just to be able to pay the bills. If I were to label the years 2000-2004 and what followed, I’d call it the people’s exodus and the halving of the population in small towns and communes.

From 2005 onwards I know that the economy got better, they started to open shopping malls, a real-estate development took place, even though this time it was done in the same chaotic and poorly planned manner. But at least you could feel that there was a trace of hope.

In regards to political rights, democracy, social system, cohesion between classes – or its lack, thereof, do you think that the transition period has influence on the events that are happening now?

The most concerning case to me is the lack of cohesion between social classes and inequality. The disappearance of the welfare state that existed before 1990 created an immense inequality between social classes. The biggest problem is a lack of solidarity between people. I don’t know how this culture of individualism has been appropriated so fast, a culture in which neither you, nor the state care about the ones that you leave behind. We will have to invest a lot to fix these gaps, to do policies of equity that will help those who were left behind in those times. Also from the field of rights and liberties, I think that the problem was that we didn’t have a state with strong institutions, and this fact has laid the foundation for many abuses against vulnerable people. If not even the middle class had whom to address and had no leverage, no help from the state, I think those who had less financial possibilities and less resources were put in even more difficult situations. There was no consistent support that could contribute to the raise of quality of life and to respect the rights of these people. In regard to minorities, back then, when I was living in my parents’ home, I was not even concerned about these issues and what are the problems that people from minority groups are confronted with. There is a distorted opinion of people in what concerns the (minority) social groups, that I was not even aware that there are these people confronting with problems and that society is diverse.

What is your opinion on the criticism that is now directed towards those who receive welfare money? Do you think they derive, along with the welfare policies, from the communist era?

I think they come from the transition era because that’s when this cult of individuality was born and developed. They practically began to reject everything that came before 1990. I think this criticism rather comes from capitalism and the transition period because people, had they been taught to not have this fear for what might come tomorrow and the very high risks that life has, and if there was somewhat of a stability in regards to their standard of living, then this pit between social classes could have been eliminated.

Do you think that the rejection of welfare policies from the transition period comes as a rejection for the system that came before the communist era?

Social policies have been rejected because people didn’t have trust in the state and in stability, and to the fact that regardless the risks they assume, at some point they will land on something soft – and they missed this. The ones who had success after 1990 are not aware about the lack of equality of opportunities. They have the impression that the responsibility of the welfare is an individual one, without realizing how many variables play a role in the evolution of the individuals and that in many cases there is the need that the state to intervene for balancing certain social disparities.Interview: Irina Ilisei

Translation: Vlad Costea & Irina Ilisei

December 2016


Interview with Adrian Szelmenczi

Adrian Szelmenczi (born in 1979) grew up in a multicultural environment in Nord East of Romania, in a Hungarian-Romanian family. He is human rights activist working for Active Watch NGO. He is highly engaged into defending national minorities’ rights and the implementation of the legislation in this matter in Romania.


What did the transition mean to you?

First of all, when we commenced with the T-zero moment of the transition, I had turned 10 years of age. The moment before it was very interesting because all the information I’ve had access to in order to find out about the events in Timișoara and Bucharest respectively, it came from the Hungarian television – the television of the Hungarian state, that is. I was somewhere in the northern side of the country, it was Baia Mare where that I grew up in, and during the moments when the communist regime fell I was visiting my grandmother who doesn’t speak Romanian, in the county of Satu Mare. And I’ve accessed all the information, learned about everything that was taking place in Timișoara, through the Hungarian language broadcasts on the radio and television. You could watch it clandestinely with a lot of white noise. As a matter of fact, in my family, and it wasn’t only us… Romanian ethnics would watch these channels too, especially the children who saw cartoons on Hungarian television – but we had the advantage of understanding what was being said. There was a lot of information we would take from there and I remember very vividly an event that took place during the summer, when events were taking place in the Tiananmen Square in China. And I remember seeing the images, but there was no sound, as it was blocked or interfered with. And there were news broadcasts by the Hungarian national channel, but you couldn’t hear what was going on. That was when I asked my parents “Why aren’t we hearing anything?”. “Because those who lead us don’t want us to hear” was the answer I got. And that was a special moment… my father was very informed about the international events, and I don’t know if he told me this or not, but he knew this would mark the end of the Ceaușescu regime. We had the model of Hungary, also a communist state, which was already taking steps towards democratization… I didn’t understand too much of what was happening, but to me it was weird.

The first moment, that I remember vaguely, was in March 1990. Some inter-ethnic conflicts that are still unclear have taken place at the time in Târgu Mureș, and there wasn’t much talk about them. At the time I didn’t know where they started, but I remember that one morning… or afternoon… I’m not sure what time of the day I used to have classes then, the school teacher told us that something very, very serious was going on in Târgu Mureș, and that Transylvania is in danger and can be lost. We all had to stand and sing Romania’s national anthem, the same one we have now, “Deșteaptă-te Române”. So I had to do this thing just because… we didn’t even understand why they were fighting and what they were fighting for. I know that my father was very angry and used to say that only lies are told on television. I know that on Hungarian television there were images of smashed cars belonging to the reporters who went to Târgu Mureș to make the news. The environment I was living in didn’t have developed inter-ethnic conflicts, but there was a tension in the air. Later on, my parents told me that they wanted to just formally divorce, so that my sister and I could take my mother’s maiden name, just because it was a time of turmoil when they were afraid. They were afraid and there was a weird feeling in the air… to me it was very important to somehow get close to… the majority. However, I had the advantage that despite bearing a Hungarian name, I would speak Romanian very well. I don’t think I had an accent and correspondingly, I could do a lot and integrate and fit into a Romanian environment.

Bearing a Hungarian name and not knowing how to speak Hungarian in Transylvania wasn’t something usual. So it was common to declare yourself a Romanian, there was no problem with this process. So that fact that my name is Szelmenczi hasn’t necessarily made me a Hungarian in the eyes of other people, but having an accent would have had. However, at the same time I felt that there was something wrong and the colleagues from school who attended the classes taught in Hungarian were regarded as something rather special, different. I haven’t interacted with them at all. Accordingly, my experience in this sense was dual: in Baia Mare, while attending school, I was in an exclusively Romanian environment, and when I was visiting my grandparents in Livada, the population was majoritarian Hungarian. In Livada, all my playground friends were Hungarian. In Baia Mare, it was the other way around.

During the transition times, did you feel any kind of pressure due to your both Hungarian and Romanina ethnic belonging? Have you had inner conflicts of ethnic nature? Or was it all natural to you?

In those moments, not necessarily. Even though there was a moment, I’m not sure when, I’ve had this discussion with my grandmother and I’ve told her that I’m not a Hungarian, but a Romanian who speaks the Hungarian language. I don’t quite remember what the reaction was, but I was trying to solve it somehow, in a certain way that was due to outside pressure: being a Hungarian meant that you would get called a “bozgor” [Hungarian word for person without a country, used with offensive intentions by Romanian ethnics]. It was an insult that I’ve heard often, though it was never directed towards me. But it was used against other Hungarian ethnics and I didn’t want it to become an adjective for myself. Also, when we talk about pressure… the school I was attending had this custom to organize an artistic show at the local House of Culture, at the end of every school year. The whole school would attend this ceremony, which means that the hall would fill with students, parents, and teachers. Every class would do something: we would recite poems, stage theatrical scenes and plays, sing with the choir, and all sorts of such activities. But I remember very clearly when somebody, a child, has recited a poem by Mihai Eminescu which says “he who beloved foreigners, his heart should be eaten by dogs”. And I know that I’ve really felt it, I took it very personally because indeed, for the first time in my life, I felt as if it referred to myself and my family. Let’s not forget that at the time, even though Corneliu Vadim Tudor [well-known far-right politician who run for presidency election in 2000] wasn’t active in politics, there was a lot of nationalism in the air. For example, there was a great fear of going to Hungary. Right before March 1990, for the first time ever, we scheduled a road trip with the whole class to Hungary. We finally had the chance to go outside the borders, and which country was the closest? Obviously, the one that’s 70 kilometers away. But when the tension started to rise at the time, we had to cancel the plan.

Did your classmates know that you were speaking Hungarian?

Yes! Yes, they knew. They were accustomed with this fact but it happened to me so many times that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about it anymore: when in a group they talk about “bozgors”, I usually tell them “Wait a minute, I’m one of them!”. They quickly reply “But we’re not referring to you, you’re one of us, it’s not you we have problems with”. I would always hear “I hate the Hungarians” and stuff like that. But when we finally managed to take that trip to Hungary, everybody was shocked, the teacher included, about the high degree of civilization… or maybe it’s not right to call it “degree of civilization”, but it was a much more advanced society. Even if it used to be communist just like Romania, it was much more advanced than Romania at that time. And we were also very well received in the country; we also visited a school in Nyiregyhaza without even announcing our coming – who had telephones at the time? You couldn’t make calls between cities without using the operator. We went there completely incognito. My father had also assisted us, he played the role of a translator, and with his help we could visit a school from Hungary and see how in 1990 they had closed-circuit television. It was something way beyond our imagination at the time, there was indeed a huge difference. I don’t know about the difference between Romania and Occidental states, but there was a huge difference between Romania and Hungary. This event has left marks in regards to my education. But anyway, I continued my studies in school in Romanian.

The next important event was the shocking and controversial mineriade [violent events of counter- protests, when it is suspected that former communist leaders who in power have called the miners to beat down the protesters from Piața Universității]. All I knew about what was going on in Bucharest was that there was a state of pressure, tension, and the elections from May 20th were somehow under the sign of fear. My parents haven’t voted for FSN [The National Salvation Front, a political party created by former communist elites], but they instructed us to not tell anybody who they were voting for. It was a much divided society, or at least that’s how I perceived it. There were many things you were afraid to talk about.

Why do you think that in Romania, unlike other countries such as Poland – where the former communist elites have taken a political break for 5 years, the former regime has been reproduced?

As opposed to Poland and other Eastern European states, what happened in 1989 wasn’t really a regime change. I think that the power has been seized by the second tier of Communist Party members, who were nevertheless communists. In Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, there was a real dissidence. In Romania, maybe also because the regime was much more brutal than in other Eastern-European states, this dissidence could not be manifested. Starting from that simulation of a revolution where we still don’t know what happened, it quickly became clear that the new rulers were not willing to renounce the leverages of power, to step back. And accordingly, the first peaceful power shift took place later, after 6 years. Some people say that it was then that the communist cycle in Romania ended – and I agree with them.

So practically it happened in 1996?

1996, I think, was the moment when Romania has become much more viable from the point of view of a democracy governed by rule of law. Because until then, it really wasn’t the case. Anyway, I know that in 1996 there was the tension that the elections would be lost by Ion Iliescu, but it wasn’t known if it will happen, nobody could guarantee if he would renounce power. So the moment he announced on television that he acknowledges his defeat. All this was the milestone. I don’t know if it’s true and I might not remember it quite precisely, but I have recollections of Adrian Năstase [Minister of Foreign Affairs] saying that before the second round of presidential elections the military tanks would be taken out on the streets. Had it happened, it would have been a demonstration of force, and that’s why people were not convinced that the neo-communists would give up on their power.

What did this transition period mean through the lens of a member of the Hungarian ethnicity? Did you feel like you were more exposed to these changes as a Hungarian ethnic, or did you perceive them just like your Romanian-ethnic colleagues?

Well, except for the events from Târgu Mureș and somewhat of an attachment for those who belong to the same ethnicity, I tried to run away and escape from this subject. I didn’t discuss it, and nor did I have the chance to discuss it while living in an environment that was predominantly Romanian culturally and in my school. It really wasn’t a discussed topic. On the other hand, I can remember some of the discussions that carried more ethnic weight: for example, there was something about the Romanian-Hungarian treaty and bilingual street signs – I had to assist to moments when some of my friends manifested anti-Hungarian feelings. Sometimes I would choose to reply in a manner that closed the discussion, while other times I decided to just keep my mouth shut. But it felt like a continuous discomfort. The way I decided to manifest my identity in relation to others… I certainly didn’t hide my ethnicity, but I applied the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” principle. I saved myself from nasty words and everything. However, I could see what the treatment was for my co-ethnics. I’ve noticed ugly treatment in rather stupid situations: for example, the color green was taboo. I know a case when a classmate of mine had a rock thrown at her in the middle of the street. She wasn’t hurt badly, but some other kid hit her because she was wearing a green piece of clothing… so he threw a rock at her and called her “bozgoroaico”, for no other apparent reason. There were some things that kids would pick up from their parents or the political world.

How did you position yourself in relation to the communist period? Do you think that, for example, your father’s joy at the regime change was a mere hope for a better life, or did it have a component for ethnic affirmation? Was it a hope to get rid of ethnic-themed pressure?

No, from this point of view, my father didn’t feel disadvantaged. First of all, he was a mechanic locksmith at a company that produced clothing, so he was never interested in climbing the social ladder. He was never a member of the Communist Party, he wasn’t interested in pursuing a political career or attaining power, and even if he did he would be disadvantaged as a Hungarian ethnic. So, from this point of view, he didn’t have disadvantages because he had no reason to: workers were not excluded. I don’t know what he felt, I have no idea how he went through these things throughout life because we never discussed these things, but as far as he is concerned, his liberation after the moment we heard that the Ceaușescu regime had fallen… we truly felt a hope for the better. A sense of fear quickly followed the events and I’m grateful to God that my parents were smart enough and my mother was open to differences, as ethnic matters that could have separated a lot of families at the time had no relevance in our family. That was one thing, but I think a lot of families separated due to conflicting political views – support for either the neo-communist leader Iliescu or the historical National Peasants’ Party, I guess. But there was a division, a certain separation in our society and it’s hard for me to imagine how people lived at the time because I was too young to understand. On the other hand, now that I am interested in the subject of the Hungarian minority, both in the communist era and during the transition period, I’m am more interested in the election regional election turnouts from 1990 – as a post-factum experience. And I see how in Harghita and Covasna [the counties in Romania with the largest number of Hungarian ethnics], Iliescu had 20-25% of the votes, while nationally he scored 85%. So in Harghita and Covasna we had a different candidate who was preferred to win the elections, and the situation is completely reversed to the national result. And I think this tells a lot about the Hungarian minority and the way it positioned itself in regards to the majority. Because Iliescu was… well, the elections also took place a month later than the events of March 1990. And it’s absolutely certain that those incidents, if they weren’t organized according to the orders of Iliescu or FSN (The National Salvation Front), they most definitely took place without Iliescu’s attempts to stop it.

If we speak at the general level, the political option was either the National Salvation Front which was an emanation of the Communist Party, or one of the two historic parties: The National Peasants’ Party and the National Liberal Party. First of all, that separation took place because the new power’s propaganda, which had complete control over the television and the radio broadcasts. There wasn’t any alternative television except for the national one, and this situation worked very well in demonizing the other side. They would demonize intellectuals with slogans like “We are the ones who work, not the ones who think” or “Death to intellectuals” – we’re talking about the Mineriade [violent riots of the miners, suspected to be organized by the neo-communist elites]. Therefore, the enemy of this propaganda was either the intellectual, or the party leader who returned into the country after years of exile abroad. We can observe that even for the upcoming elections (of December 11th 2016), the antagonization of the foreigners still works very well. At the time it was about the one who ate soya salami [ the one who sufferend the communist oppression, soya is symbolic food of the communist times as meat was rarely available and often products were labeled as being of meat but in reality they were made out of soya]. And of course, there’s the legacy of national-socialism, from the times of chauvinistic discourse in the Ceaușescu era… I didn’t feel its consequences personally at the time because I was too young, but I’ve read and researched extensively on this topic later in my life – about “the foreigner”. And the last of the foreigners were also very well represented politically or they were represented by UDMR [The Democratic Hungarian Union of Romania Party). There weren’t many German ethnics left since most of them had left, and the Roma were invisible, nobody would talk about them. But back then, all this chauvinism was propagated through television, as the newly-instated power had no interest to create a democratic state. The new power’s sole interest was to get to power by any means, even if it involved turning people against each other. I’m afraid that, sadly, things continue to be the same today, somehow there are things that Romania can’t get rid of. In 2014 we had presidential elections in Romania, and the political messages were directed against the idea of a “foreigner” candidate [current German-ethnic president, Klaus Iohannis] by a left-wing party which also uses similar means to antagonize George Soros – who is both a Hungarian and a Jew. So this hate is still prominent, but the difference is that unlike today, back then there was only one way to get informed – through the Romanian National Television. Newspapers printed by the political opposition weren’t powerful enough and couldn’t reach everybody like television did.

How do you see the evolution of inter-ethnic relations from 1989 to the present day?

Hm… it’s very interesting because there are a lot of things that still happen now, it’s all an ongoing process and we can still see state-level tensions between Romania and Hungary. This time, they are generated by the Hungarian side through totally uninspired action and discourse. If we think about how the relations look today, you hear the very frequently-used expression “the relations between people are good, it’s just the politicians that ruin the situation”. Of course, to some extent, it’s the politicians who destroy the good relations, but I don’t think we currently have tensions between Romanians and Hungarians on the Romanian territory. My personal opinion is that the main actors responsible for the events are the Romanian state and the media. Why? Because there is a lot of intolerance in regard to the political aspirations of the Hungarian minority. For example, the topic of territorial autonomy is not even negotiated and it’s automatically scrapped under the “extremist” label. And it isn’t quite like that. I don’t know if having autonomy among Hungarian minorities is a good idea, but we should at least talk about it. This Hungarian problem is a great stake for the Romanian democracy, and there are many points and criteria where Romania simply fails. Yes, important improvements have taken place, but the discourse is very chauvinistic. I’m not saying that Romania is the worst state in regards to respecting human rights, but it certainly isn’t the best either.

Do you think that the communist past has had an impact on relations? And I’m talking about the fact that for a very long time you couldn’t talk about belonging to the Hungarian ethnicity and this made Romanian ethnics believe this is a taboo subject that they shouldn’t hear about.

Not necessarily… back in the communist days, there wasn’t such a term as “national minority”, there were just co-living nationalities, and the propaganda directed against them was really considerable. For example, I remember reading a report about the events from March 1990, and the Committee of Helsinki stated that the communist regime had tried to create a feeling of embarrassment within the Hungarian community, as mixed families were especially targeted in terms of language and culture. It was something incredible and it was happening due to the way history was being taught and passed on at the time. Hungarians were being presented as assassins of Romanians. Of course, these facts have played a major role in the contemporary events. But it doesn’t have its roots in communism. After 1920, Romania has tried to create a national state that is exclusively ethnic and around the time there were also anti-Hungarian messages. Right now, even the national day is an unfortunate choice for us the Hungarians, and it’s like an arrogance directed against us [the 1st of December 1918 was the day when Romania had officially received the territories of Transylvania]. It’s like saying “We’re celebrating the day when we defeated you”. And this is one of the subjects that isn’t discussed, and right now there is a strong feeling in public opinion that works according to the principle “if you were born in Romania, then you can’t be anything else but a Romanian”. I don’t know If the same principle is applicable to the Romanians who get born in Serbia and Ukraine, but the Hungarians from Romania are supposed to be considered Romanians. This is a phenomenon that can also be observed in public policies.

Which rights have the Hungarians won since the 1989 regime change, and what was the evolution of these rights?

Of course, the first right they won was that of being represented among local authorities – but this wasn’t a right that was one exclusively by the Hungarians, it was much more of a consequence of the inevitable changes democracy brought about. This right came somewhat naturally after the spreading of democratization and organizing free local elections. The situation of education in Hungarian language has improved – despite the fact that there were such schools even in the communist period, their number was drastically reduced. As years were going by, the number of spots available for students who wanted to study in Hungarian was perpetually getting reduced, so that not all Hungarian ethnics could study in their mother tongue. It wasn’t my case because my parents decided that I should study in Romanian.

We won the right to use the Hungarian language in local public administration both in speech and in writing, but it happened really late, in 2001. So there are some very fundamental rights that have been won. Of course, there isn’t the same tense atmosphere that we had 25 years ago. I believe that today the events that took place Târgu Mureș 25 years ago would be quasi-impossible to be repeated, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it because well-planned manipulation can do miracles. These situations aren’t really unavoidable. And Romania, subsequently, has signed the framework convention regarding the protection of the national minorities, and has ratified it too. There aren’t many people who know about it, especially journalists. But it is what it is and there isn’t much you can do about it. Of course, these documents appeared after 1990 and I don’t think a communist country would have even considered ratifying them. The Romanian states assumes the protection of the Hungarian language as a minority and regional language, also through some international documents that were signed – though their application is not systematic. We still have a lot of sentences which are at least bizarre from certain points of view, which are clearly against the Romanian Constitution. We still have situations in which the repression organisms, if I may call them so, take action on ethnic considerations.

Do you believe that the changes from Romania in regards to the Hungarian minority gaining rights are connected to the transition to democracy, or are they connected to Romania’s attempt to become a part of international organizations? I mean, have the rights come as a Romanian will and initiative, or were they imposed as EU integration requirements?

I believe a large part of the changes were brought by external pressure. Romania has had very big problems in terms of international reputation since the events of March 1990 (the Târgu Mureș riots), and also after June 1990 [the first elections after the fall of communism]. Let’s not forget that the first attempt to join the Council of Europe has been rejected, in a time when Hungary was already a member. There have been lots of international pressures, and then came the moment when joining NATO was required, and in order to become a member of the organization, you need treaties of good neighborhood with all the bordering states. That’s how the treaty between Romania and Hungary was signed, even though the negotiations for that same treaty had failed in 1996. So the Văcăroiu government has failed in signing that treaty and it seems that the failure was due to the Romanian part. After the power has shifted in 1996 and UDMR [The Democratic Union of Hungarians from Romania Party] has become one of the governing parties, the negotiations have resumed and that truly was a moment of relief in terms of Romanian-Hungarian relations, as that was the turning point when Romania started to considerably improve its policies and we haven’t returned to the situation of the mid-1990s. No way, we are much, much better than we were then. So signing the treaty with Hungary has included, among others, a commitment by Romania to give rights to the Hungarian ethnic minority, and that’s where it all began. The public local administration law has been ratified also as a result of the treaty signed between Romania and Hungary. After this, of course, there have been the pressures and negotiations with the European Union – but at the moment when they started, Romania had already taken important steps in terms of reconciliation. There are still a lot of problems to fix, but for now the chances for ethnic conflicts are considerably lower, and not just thanks to the Romanian side.

What do you think about the fact that, in spite of a continuous mending of relations with the Hungarian minority, Romania doesn’t make similar progresses with other ethnic minorities – and I’m specifically referring to the Roma minority?

Yes, the way I understand the relations between the two minorities, I can sadly say that if there is a common element that Romanians and Hungarians would unite for, then it’s the hatred against the Roma. And the story isn’t singular, I remember attending a conference where I’ve listened to a Roma ethnic from Kosovo who said that he was being oppressed by a coalition of the Albanian minority and the Serbians. The Hungarian minority is much stronger than the Roma minority from a political point of view, and this is primarily an economic consequence, but also a matter of integration. A medic won’t refuse to treat a patient of Hungarian origins, unless there is a special case in which the patient can’t speak Romanian and communication cannot be made. Discrimination in the Hungarian case isn’t clearly systemic. In the case of the Hungarian minority, the problems are rather political, so all the problems regard the different mode in which the country is politically organized, or matters about identity expression, national day, and so on.

The Roma community, which according to unofficial statistics is much more numerous than the Hungarian minority, has more social problems and discrimination. So it becomes obvious that the Roma’s problems are bigger. The reasons are simple: the lack of education and the lack of political cohesion in organizations. And the Roma population is a lot poorer, less educated, it has lower chances of becoming integrated from an economic point of view, it has a higher degree of school drop-outs, and therefore there is much more isolation from a geographic point of view. The Roma communities are often subject to segregation. These are the differences that that’s why we should think of a better political homogenization of the minority’s interests: the Roma only have one deputy in the Romanian Parliament and he isn’t even voted by his ethnics, but gets the spot on the basis of the principle of representation of ethnic minorities. The fact that a political party of the Roma people doesn’t succeed to draw votes like UDMR (The Democratic Union of Hungarians from Romania) does is a problem: the party of Hungarian ethnics has never had problems entering the Parliament after every scrutiny. But in regards to the Roma, even though they are considered to be more numerous, they can’t organize themselves properly. Of course, this is also a problem of personal identity, as a lot of Roma people don’t openly declare their ethnic origins. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but first of all we have to remember that stigmatization leaves scars. It’s not something to be joyful about, but it’s the current reality. There is no pride in being a Roma ethnic, but there seems to be a pride of being a Hungarian. Of course, you have no reason to be proud about something that you cannot control, but in regards to the Roma, they really need a little nationalism of their own. Something has to happen among their communities in order to mobilize them towards affirming their own ethnic identity. But, of course, we should keep in mind the Maslow pyramid: until you get to that point, there are still a lot of problems to be solved.

For your personally, when has the transition ended, if you consider that it has?

I don’t know, if I look at the upcoming elections (Parliamentary elections, December 11th 2016), then it seems to me that the transition hasn’t ended. I can’t even say that there have been two distinct moments. Indeed, if I am to speak about the transition towards a consolidated democracy… well, that’s a continuous process anyway. But if we talk about the moment when I could really say for the first time that Romania was a democracy, then that’s the year 1996. Clearly, that was the key moment when the primary objective is a peaceful alternation to power, through free elections. 1996 was clearly that key moment. There have been some other weird moments too: the mineriad of 1999, for example, was something that caused a lot of fear and made me feel that the process is not irreversible at all, and a comeback of the former political establishment is possible. Then there was the moment in 2000 when Corneliu Vadim Tudor [outspoken xenophobe, anti-Semite and radical nationalist] has made it into the second electoral scrutiny for president [against the former neo-communist president Ion Iliescu]. And indeed, that was the moment when I voted for the first time, so I forcefully had to vote for the more moderate Iliescu. It was fear that made me go to vote. In terms of ending the transition, I don’t think that it ended yet.

What would the end of transition mean? How should Romania look like in order for this transition to be completed?

Romania should be a consolidated member of the European Union that solves, primarily, the problem of corruption. Sadly though, the European Union is getting increasingly weaker at this moment. I could have said that the changes are irreversible right now, but during the last 2-3 years I’ve began to ask myself if the European Union will still exist, if it will be able to face the challenges. In other words, I can’t see a democratic Romania with a completed transition outside the European Union, but for this thing to happen, we need a stronger European Union. From my point of view, the year 2007 has been extremely important due to Romania’s adherence to the European Union, and the idea that the organization might cease to exist is something that really worries me right now.

Do you think that the socialist or communist past… the political regime we had before 1989, is still following us in any way?

Of course it’s following us, and it’s a statement that is valid for every state in the region. I don’t know what will happen on Sunday [Parliamentary elections were about to take place at the time of the interview], but these elections are very important for the future government. Right now, Romania is the most stable and democratic country in the region. Hungary, Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia… all these countries are facing some severe issues in terms of rule of law, and the European Union appears to be unable to act when confronted with these problems. Somebody said a long time ago that Hungary no longer fulfills the EU adherence criteria that were established in Copenhagen – the ones about democracy and rule of law. It probably has a functioning market economy, but it appears that, sadly, the European Union didn’t mark the end of history. And a model state such as Hungary has managed to drift from democracy to… something that isn’t totalitarianism yet, but certainly a kind of authoritarianism that Viktor Orban publically acclaims. Where was it? It was in Romania that he gave the speech regarding the illiberal democracy. It happened in Tușnad, at the Hungarian summer school, an event that is very important for the Romanian Hungarian community. Obviously, you can’t ignore him and you can’t ignore the fact that 95% of the Romanian Hungarians with double citizenship have voted for FIDES. This says a lot about the political complaints of the Hungarian community and sadly, these news are not joyful.

Interview taken in December 2016 by Irina Ilisei

Translation: Vlad Costea

Stories of Change from Kyiv

For many in the Ukraine, the Chernobyl-disaster marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Olena Pravilo from Congress of Cultural Activists talked to people, who were children back then, about the moment when they realised that everything started to change.

Romania 27 years after: Minority Rights and the Issue of Education

Iulian Stoian is a dedicated human rights activist, advocating for vulnerable groups such as LGBT and Roma minorities. He worked for several prestigious organisations and institutions such as the Romanian National Agency for the Roma, Council of Europe, Open Society Foundation, National Democratic Institute. He has an in depth expertise as program manager, trainer and researcher in working on issues such as Social inclusion, Anti-Discrimination, Trafficking of Human Beings, Roma political participation.

The interview was shortened. You can read the full transcript here: Interview_Iulian Stoian_Transition and Minority Rights in Romania_2016.

Interview with Iulian Stoian by Irina Ilisei in December 2016, Translation: Vlad Costea

Let’s start with a personal question: What did the experience of the transition mean to you?

I was a fresh graduate after the Revolution, and to me the transition meant a series of major experiences to which I felt like a spectator and sometimes like a Guinea pig. These experiments have somehow influenced my professional path, but also my personal life.

When I say Guinea pig, I mean that I experienced almost all the possible changes that a  student could experience at the time, from the modifications to the legislative framework which, naturally, impacted us as subjects of education, but I also career-changing events. For example, I have always prepared myself, from the earliest school years, to become a chemistry teacher.

When I graduated in 1996, I realized that the social reality no longer reflects my childhood dreams. Just like me, a whole generation of teenagers has had this opportunity to look for a different path on the labour market, as well as in career and life.

Did you feel like you were a subject to a kind of experimentation in the society?

I’ve learned to take life for what it is since I was a child. I’ve learned to try to adapt to the new realities. And I can say that from this point of view I was quite privileged, in the sense that everything I’ve done in my life so far has been a part of what I wished and planned.

In the early 1990s, when I was close to my senior year in high-school, I had the chance to work for “Revista 22” [prestigious magazine on culture and politics] and that’s where I got in contact with what is called nowadays ‘the civil society’, with debates on democratic topics, on human rights, and it was then that I realized that the career that I was about to pursue was in the field of human rights.

We were all learning and breathing democracy, and we were all eager to learn about what this new paradigm Romania had become a part of really means: Romania’s transition towards a democratic state, one that puts human rights at the core of its actions.

How do you evaluate the evolution of human rights or the legislation on human rights? You practically were both a witness and a participant to this process of change.

I believe that the evolution of the human rights is an on-going process: it’s a learning process for us all as a society, regardless if you were born and educated during the communist regime, or if you were born in this post-1989 framework.

During these 26-27 years, there was a process of adapting the national legislation to various juridical systems Romania was aspiring to. For example, Romania’s ascension to the Council of Europe produced a series of changes to our legislative framework: we abolished death penalty, we abolished article 200 from the Penal Code which would bring penal charges for homosexuality, and so on.

Lots of such rights have been progressively adopted, but this came at the cost of not educating the population properly during the process. Practically, we were all a part of a learning process, learning by doing if you may.

Was the transition period a continuous progress in regards to human rights, or did it have its ups and downs?

In the field of human rights, I can say that it’s a continuous struggle. For instance, the fight against racism towards the Roma community. It has taken various forms from the cases of violence in the early 1990s – inter-ethnic violence and all the way to more subtle forms of racism which become more and more refined by the day. People learn to refine, if you may, the way they express racism.

In 2008, according to public opinion surveys, 8 out of 10 Romanians didn’t want to have neighbours who were members of the Roma community or the sexual minorities. In comparison, today the number has decreased to 6 or 7 Romanians out of 10 who declare themselves openly against these unpopular minorities.

In regards to these statistics, I don’t think that racism or homophobia have decreased too much, I do believe there is an influence regarding the self-censorship of survey respondents, because we have all learned that we shouldn’t say certain things when we are being interviewed about sensitive topics such as these unpopular minorities.

What do you think would be required in order to grow the majoritarian population’s acceptance in regards to ethnic and sexual minorities? What should be done in our society?

We should also get used to the idea that we all have rights and should benefit from them equally and equitably as citizens. The major fault, if you may, for this high degree of intolerance in Romania is given by the communist regime itself, which used to try by all means to remove every difference between social classes. That utopia of creating the new man who would fit perfectly in certain pre-determined patterns and in which we all had to fit to be accepted in society.

In terms of evolution, where do you think the transition started and ended?

I believe that the transition has started from the moment when the dictator’s helicopter has left the roof of the Romanian Communist Party from Bucharest, from the days of the Revolution when we all wished to be accepted by the international community, to become an occidental state like we used to see in movies and magazines when they would escape censorship… I think that’s when it began and transition still continues to this day.

Were measures undertaken in the early 90s to support human rights?

1993 Romania has adhered to the Council of Europe. I think that was, if you may, one of the milestones for our discussion: the fact that Romania has adopted a series of normative documents which came to consolidate the human rights dimension from the legislation, but also the efforts that we’ve made for the population to know and internalize these values. I think that was a first milestone. The next one, I think that was technically in January 2007, when Romania became a member of the European Union. We have the obligation, through our member state status, to respect and comply to all these laws.

Let’s talk about the adherence of human rights laws now that Romania is in the EU!

As a human rights activist, I knew from my colleagues from countries that once these human rights regulations are adopted, the state’s interest in human rights will decrease dramatically. It also happened in our case, in the sense that it was assumed that as we adopted all the legislation required for Romania, we would also respect it. In practice, things weren’t this way and they aren’t today either. The big problem we notice for years is the wrong application or the lack of application of this legislation.

I believe that here, what plays a big role is the fact that we don’t make sufficient efforts to inform the population, the economic agents, and the institutions about these topics of human rights. I think that the lack of sanctions – even when the infringements are obvious – encourages the others to think that this is the normal state of affairs.

Do you believe that civic education could improve knowledge and respect for human rights in the population, and also make the population empathize with the rights of minorities?

Civic education and education for citizenship should be, in my opinion, the central component of Romanian schools, not only because we have to catch up compared to other states that became EU members before us, but also given the fact that Romania has had one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the former Communist Bloc, and this supressed the civic spirit.

Therefore, citizens associate civic education with the kind of education they would receive before 1989: patriotic education, combined with lectures from the speeches of the former State Secretary of the Communist Party. Because I will say it again, those of us who lived in that period do not associate civic education with education for citizenship as something where you put human rights in the centre. Because, in essence, that’s what it’s about: the rights we all enjoy and we should apply and promote to the others.

Are there visible changes of mentality from a generation to the other, in regards to human rights?

To those who were about 45 years-old during the Revolution hang on to the values and norms they used to respect strictly in the past. So, we can safely affirm that the younger generation which was born after the Revolution is much more sensitive to subjects like human rights and minority rights.

However, I realized that at least in the case of my generation – the ones who graduated from high-school when the Revolution was taking place or were still in school at the time –  among university graduates a very hard to explain conservatism. A kind of conservatism which manifests itself through racism and homophobia, sexism, ultra-nationalism, maybe, and also anti-Semitism. These things come packaged together and can sometimes be discovered among people with an education that would surprize you.

Still, we’re heading towards an area where acceptance towards diversity is higher than what it used to be in the communist period or in the first few years after the Revolution. We enjoy free movement within the EU for quite some years and see what is and what isn’t done abroad, but also have access to information (television, internet) … we all enjoy the right to free expression and right to free information so that we learn about these topics on the go, while doing.

Did the transition period have an impact on the daily lives of people who are part of ethnic or sexual minorities?

Well, we have to make a little distinction: among ethnic minorities, for examples the Roma, there is this widespread perception, that the situation was much better before 1989 in terms of finding a job or having a decent housing, as well as the chance to study if there was a desire for it. Of course, all these things came with drawbacks and inconveniences, such as no right to free speech, to free assembly, or to speak or use the maternal language. There are pros and cons that somehow make the discussion a lot more difficult.

But in my perception, Roma people have been the big losers of the transition. They were the first to lose their jobs, the first to be pushed towards poverty, the first to sell their homes due to poverty, and lots of them have migrated to rural areas or poor urban ghettos. They were literally and practically marginalized from society.

On sexual minorities, I think that they have faced an improvement in terms of perception, for instance some weeks ago, they had a march against the Christian-conservative “Coaliția pentru Familie” (The Coalition for Family), the organization that wants to limit the right to equality for sexual minorities: the right to marriage or the recognition of family life, which is an universal right. We see an increasing number of young people who become sensitive to the problems of this minority and decide to participate actively to associative movements by signing petitions, taking part in marches, manifesting themselves on the internet in favour of human rights and diversity of every kind.

I need to add that also Roma enjoy new supplementary rights since 1989: education in the minority’s language, class on the language, civilization and history of the Roma, special spaces for the Roma youth in high-schools and universities, a series supporting services and professions such as sanitary mediators, or school counsellors who bridge the communities with the local administration.

But these jobs and facilities shouldn’t exist in a normal society because the local administration should be inclusive enough to be able to discuss with the citizens of Roma ethnicity in their language, but also deliver to them high-quality services that are comparable with the services the other citizens receive.

I would say, these jobs and these facilities are transitory. We need to understand that they exist to compensate for historic injustice.

What has civil society done to support minority rights?

After 1989 there was an explosion of forces that were trying to coagulate at the level of political parties, NGOs, foundations, to quickly improve the problems that existed in our society. I remember that at the time there were many functioning foundations and associations which attempted to help children from orphanages, and still it took quite some time.

Minorities of every kind have tried from the very beginning to express their identity. Since the first free elections we have a deputy in Parliament, who benefitted the Roma by coagulating a movement and the establishing an association that gathered together the members of the Roma community at the time.

Also, on the topic of sexual minorities, there were a series of social actors who worked in this area.

I have been involved in civil society, and Roma society, and the one supporting the rights of sexual minorities since the early 2000, and as an evolution I can say that we have had ups and downs. But we are much more prepared right now than we were in the early 1990s, when Romanians would only see certain realities for the first time.

Were people ready at the time? There was a lot of need for people that had the right kind of knowledge, were sensitive towards the issues, knew legal matters, but also had abilities to organize communities. You simply didn’t have all these things in the communist period.

It often happens that the civil society functions primarily on the foundation of good intentions: in the sense that maybe you weren’t the best prepared in a certain field: But if you had the particular interest to work in that area and you were the only one offering these services, then it was clear that those entities, associations, and foundations that were established and deliver services. It went on like this until the accession to the European Union, when it all began to be much more specialized and exchanges became easier to do. The quality of the services provided, however, is questionable. It was a learning process for all of us.

Transition stories from Dnipro, Ukraine (Part II)

Transition stories from Dnipro, Ukraine (Part I)