When I hear or read phrases like "failed states," or "nations in transition," I think not of such lifeless abstractions but of the compelling human drama we saw and felt in the streets and squares of Romania in the early '90s. Back then, Romanians were digging out from under the rock of a brutal dictatorship that had sapped their lifeblood for decades. Newly liberated, they sought to improve their lives by joining NATO and the European Union.
To many, gaining admittance to those premier western clubs seemed like an impossible dream. The country was a mess, with a full platter of political, military, economic and social problems to confront. Yet somehow, within little more than a decade, Romania succeeded. It was an extraordinary national achievement made possible by the courage, determination and resilience of the Romanian people. Their struggle was passionate, exhilarating, rocky, sometimes comic, often confounding and always fascinating. It did not fit neatly into any pat political science category.
The reflections that follow are an effort to capture a bit of the flavor of those early, heady times, when Romania's quest was only beginning.
Our family was in Lisbon in late 1989 when word of our assignment to Bucharest came through, just in time for us to watch on Portuguese television as Romania exploded in revolution and the country's longtime dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu, and his wife Elena were executed--on Christmas Day. The usual congratulatory notes about our upcoming move were muted this time, though one from China, where change had just been nipped in the bud in Tiananmen Square, was openly envious.
After squeezing in a smidgen of Romanian language training, my wife Linda and I landed in Bucharest in the summer of 1990. Our teenage son Andrew stayed back in the United States, since there was no international high school in Romania. Over the next three years he joined us for school holidays and summer vacations and soon became something of a celebrity in the capital as "D.J. Grimace," a volunteer deejay offering English-language chatter and the latest pop music on a makeshift radio station. Such unlikely things happened regularly back then.
A capital in turmoil
Bucharest in that era was a dusty, chaotic, downtrodden city consumed by a struggle for political power that justified the Balkan reputation for intrigue and maneuvering. A National Salvation Front had theoretically taken charge, but it had multiple factions, personality clashes and conflicting visions for the way forward. Power was truly up for grabs.
Demonstrators gathered frequently in the central University Square, which they proclaimed a "communist-free zone." Not only students came there to protest. Jiu Valley coal miners also favored this ground, which was two blocks from our house, a grand old villa in the center of the city. Once, when the miners decamped after a fruitless siege, scores of weary and dispirited men marched silently down our side street before dawn, guided only by their tiny head lanterns. The scene conjured up images of the "thousand points of light" that President George H. W. Bush had evoked, in another world.
The day before the miners left town, I'd walked among them with our golden retriever, Brava; they'd never seen a dog like her, and were moved enough by her beauty ("Frumoasa!") to share some of their meager bread rations. She was shameless enough to accept, too.
There was not a lot of food or anything else to go around in those days. Store shelves were empty. One day, noting an international news report that Romania was running out of light bulbs, I asked our domestic helper whether it was true that Romania lacked light bulbs. "No," she said, "we have one." She and her husband unscrewed it and moved it from room to room, as needed. The bulk of the country's bulb production was sent abroad--for dollars, pounds and deutschmarks.
Restaurants had little to offer, and what was available was rarely appealing and not always healthy. (When the occasional U.S. military support flight came in, Embassy families would pitch in to unload the plane before drawing lots for such luxuries as grapes and bananas).
The country was down on its heels. The capital itself was gray, unpainted, unkempt. Streets, even sidewalks, were scarred with potholes. Once charming old buildings were falling apart; others had been razed in Ceausescu's mad drive to top North Korea's megalomania with a gigantic building of his own. His "house of the people" included seven separate offices just for the glorious leader and his various official titles; each of his suites was several times bigger than the living space socialist planners allotted for families in the poured concrete apartment building that...