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Romania Pressured by Brussels to Fix Agriculture Sector Payment Flaws, or Lose Funds

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- After an EC-commissioned audit, Romania was warned on 13 November “to tighten controls in its farm payment systems or face a severe cut in subsidies next year from the European Union,” the Financial Times reported yesterday.

The vast, largely agricultural country in the northeastern Balkans is hoping to receive 443m euros in EU payments to its farmers next year, the first installment of a 4.3bn euro total expected between now and the end of 2013. However, it could lose its first 180m euros of EU subsidies unless it can “correct problems in the information technology systems that it uses to distribute payments to farmers.” Along with food safety, judicial reform and corruption, agriculture reform was singled out as one of the trouble spots by Brussels as an area requiring more efforts when Romania was admitted to the EU at the beginning of this year.

A Romanian news website has reported that the government is working on the issue and that Bucharest “will not make any large scale payments [to farmers’ before the necessary checks are made and proved that it made functional its software module.” In its report, the critical EC allowed some amount of leniency by extending the deadline for reform implementation by one month, to December 16.

Quoting the EC report, the FT cited that Brussels had found “”major deficiencies in the software module designed to ensure that payments are made correctly’ to Romanian farmers and landowners.” These problems, reports the Guardian, more specifically mean upgrading the national livestock computer database and fixing software to ensure that necessary checks have been carried out on the farmers before payments are made. If the government fails to correct the problem by December 16, it will have to make the payments out of the national budget instead of from the EU. Agriculture accounts for about 40 percent of employment in Romania, a country of over 20 million people.

To reassure the Eurocrats that Romania is on the right track, Agriculture Minister Dacian Ciolos was dispatched to Brussels on Wednesday to affirm that the country “would do its utmost to correct any shortcomings,” reported the Guardian.

The underlying issue is not just of one reform, however. It’s also linked to the larger issue of European perceptions of Romania’s readiness for the EU.

Stating that the agricultural payments issue just provided more fuel for older EU members’ cynicism of Romania as unprepared when it joined the bloc on January 1st, 2007, the FT claimed that “opponents of further EU enlargement are using Romania’s difficulties as ammunition in their battle to delay or prevent the accession of other relatively backward Balkan countries such as Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.” Residents of at least the latter two countries might well take affront at being compared to Romania on the grand scale of backwardsness. Indeed, few really believe that Romania and Bulgaria, the latest successful candidates to join the bloc, were snapped up for any reasons other than their geostrategic location on the Black Sea and Europe’s periphery with Russia. Now Brussels is dealing with the not-so-hidden charges associated with that purchase.

Why the EU Needs a Strategy for the Black Sea Region

By Lara Scarpitta*

It is old news that geography matters in foreign policy. A dormant EC/EU had to learn this vital lesson in 1989, when communism crumbled behind its safe walls. Faced with the sudden prospect of bordering poor, unpredictable and unstable neighbours, it responded by anchoring the former soviet satellites of Central Europe with the offer of EU membership. But now that a new enlargement has been completed, geography matters even more. With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on the 1st of January, the EU’s new eastern border has moved south, to the shore of the Black Sea. Across its waters, however, lies one of the most unstable and conflict-prone regions of post-Soviet Eurasia.

For centuries, the Black Sea region has been a theatre of violent conflicts and power struggles, due primarily to its geographical location and character as a transit route. During the Cold War, all Black Sea states (except Turkey) were within the Soviet sphere of influence and at the periphery of international strategic interests. But as the Soviet Union began to break down in 1991, the Black Sea region plunged into chaos, torn apart by several ethnic and separatist conflicts. The end of the Cold War’s artificial stability freed long concealed (and suppressed) historical grievances and a number of new independent states such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Empire.

Nevertheless, most of them are still very weak democracies, facing territorial separatism, ethnic tensions, undemocratic trends in domestic politics, slow economic progress, environmental degradation and endemic corruption of public officials. The long years of armed conflicts have caused disruption to trade and damaged infrastructure. Due to its potential for conflict, the region has attracted relatively little foreign investment and most such countries are still today heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Unemployment rates are generally very high, with almost all states suffer from a hemorrhagic migration abroad of a consistent percentage of the working-age population.

Today the Black Sea region is also a major source and transit area of several security threats, from terrorism to international organised crime as well as arms and human trafficking. It is home to four so-called “frozen” conflicts — Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia – the unresolved separatist issues which followed the breakdown of the USSR.

Despite years of diplomacy and talks, hopes for finding a peaceful and long-standing resolution for these conflicts remain bleak. Apart from fuelling bilateral tensions, these “frozen’ conflicts have been a bane for the region’s democratic and economic development, breeding instability and corruption and favouring the proliferation of organised crime. Uncontrolled territories in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, have become safe havens for the activities of powerful organised criminal groups involved in people smuggling, human trafficking as well as goods and arms trafficking. The phenomenon of arms trafficking is widespread in the region and much of the large weapons stockpiles abandoned by Russia in the early 1990s have ended up on the grey and black markets. The region is also a major source of drug production and a trafficking route for drugs coming from Central Asia and the Middle East (especially Afghanistan) into Europe. Large profits are also being made from smuggling people across the region with a promise of a better life in the West, and there is evidence that these profits are being reinvested into drugs and arms trafficking, as well as financing terrorist activities, as a recent Europol report highlighted.

This situation carries significant implications for EU security. A power vacuum in the region can potentially result in a security vacuum with consequences which are self-evident yet highly unpredictable. Because of its sudden and new geographical proximity to the wider Black Sea states, the EU will no longer be immune from the backlashes of instability and conflicts in the region, but rather will be directly exposed to a whole range of security threats, from organised crime to drugs and arms trafficking, as well as refugee and illegal migration pressures.

Aside from these security concerns, however, the Black Sea region offers many positive opportunities. The most obvious is in the field of energy. Thanks to its proximity to the oil-rich Caspian Sea and its vast energy resources, the Black Sea region can play a major role for the EU’s energy strategy, to secure alternatives to Russian energy supply.

Many ambitious pipeline projects were launched in the 1990s to guarantee direct access to Caspian oil via the Black Sea. These include the U.S. East-West Energy Corridor and the EU Traceca project (Transit Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Central Asia).

Although these failed to materialise when conflicts erupted in the Balkans and in the South Caucasus in the 1990s, it is in the interests of the EU that these projects be reinvigorated to ensure greater Western access to Caspian energy resources.

Perhaps most importantly, the Black Sea region matters for its strategic importance, owing to its proximity to the Middle East. Since 9/11, the US has played an active role in the region to safeguard its vast security and economic interests, especially access to Caspian oil and gas reserves. American “pipeline politics’ has gone hand in hand with its war on terror and the U.S. administration has been keen to support the NATO aspirations of some Black Sea countries.

Yet is the EU ready take up these challenges with similar energy? Can it exploit the region’s huge and lucrative potentials and prevent the Black Sea from becoming a permanent source of security threats?

Most likely, it will only be able to do so partially. The reasons are multiple. First, the EU does not have a Black Sea policy, or at least not a coherent strategy as such. It has opted instead for a patchwork of policies and approaches: enlargement to South-eastern Europe and Turkey, the “European Neighbourhood” policy and a structured cooperation with the South Caucasus states.

Indeed, therein lays part of the problem. While the EU enlargement policy – with its strict conditionality and convergence to EU norms and standards – has (at least so far) been relatively a success story, other policies failed to deliver the expected results. Bilateral cooperation with post-Soviet Eastern neighbours like Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as well as with the South Caucasus states (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), put in place since the mid-1990s hardly proved a recipe for stabilisation and prosperity. The over 3 billion euros from the EU’s TACIS funds allocated in the last ten years have failed to convince reluctant post-Soviet governments to introduce sound democratic and market-based economic reforms. Part of the problem is that the EU lacks sufficient leverage to push for such reforms. This is hardly a surprise if one considers that most of these states are still heavily under Russia’s influence. The 2006 energy crisis in Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Russian import bans on Moldovan and Georgian wines and water are a stark remainder of Russia’s economic power over its neighbours.

The EU, by contrast, continues to have a limited impact on the region. But the EU “stabilisation’ policy has also been too weak in its incentives to push for reforms. The so-called Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PACs), lacked not only a prospect for membership but also a strict conditionality and were based primarily on a multidimensional cooperation on economic and cultural questions and a political dialogue on issues concerning minorities, human rights and security in Europe.

The “European Neighbourhood” policy, launched officially on the eve of the 2004 “big bang’ enlargement, was aimed at addressing some of these problems. But judging by the results so far, the innovative offer of “everything except institutions,” has not been the trump card the EU was looking for as an alternative to enlargement. The colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have not given way to the expected substantial democratic reforms. Moldova continues to struggle to control its separatist region of Transnistria and there are no signs of Belarus abandoning its totalitarian regime. Little progress has been made in fulfilling the various Action Plans, the EU’s own financial commitment for the region for 2007-2013 has increased but remains marginal and the EU has continued to politely dismiss the long-term membership aspirations of some of its pro-Western neighbours.

Paradoxically, with these differentiated approaches towards its neighbours the EU has in fact achieved the rather unexpected results of widening the economic, political and social gap between them. While in Romania and Bulgaria the EU accession process has arguably ensured the successful creation of sound democratic institutions and fast economic growth, the EU’s eastern neighbours have witnessed a halt or reversal of their democratic process, as highlighted by the 2005 Freedom House Report, with most struggling with macroeconomic and structural difficulties and declining standards of living.

So what should the EU do? For a start, think strategically. After the 2007 enlargement and with the accession negotiations already underway with Turkey, the EU has already become an actor in the Black Sea region. Developing a coherent and well articulated Black Sea policy to protect EU economic and strategic interests has therefore become imperative.

No doubt, anchoring the countries of the Black Sea region is not going to be easy, not least of all because without a realistic prospect of EU membership for most of these states, the EU lacks its most powerful point of leverage. On the positive side, however, the EU is now in a far better position to develop an ambitious and realistic policy for the region than it was some years ago. It can now draw on its expertise and the instruments developed in the past decade, by abandoning rhetoric and reinforcing its concrete actions.

The coming months may be crucial for the development of a coherent EU Black Sea strategy. German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier made it clear that Germany intends to achieve concrete results in Black Sea Region during its presidency by examining the effectiveness of the European Neighbourhood policy.

Still, by itself this policy is not sufficient. The stability of the region requires political courage and long-term strategic thinking. The EU should certainly put “some meat on the bone’ on its neighbourhood policy, by offering to its neighbours concrete and lucrative economic incentives in exchange for serious and tangible commitments to democratic and market-based reforms and the protection of human rights. But a credible EU Black Sea policy also needs to demonstrate that the EU is serious about the resolution of all the “frozen’ conflicts in the region. The support for the EU Border Assistance Mission between Ukraine and Moldova and the appointment of a EU Special Representative for Moldova in 2005 is a positive sign that EU commitment heads in this direction.

However, concrete steps must be taken at regional and bilateral levels to find durable peaceful solutions. In this respect Brussels must also find the political courage and determination to take the initiative diplomatically with Russia. Unfortunately, EU reactions to Russia’s allegedly “imperialist’ policy to its near abroad have remained weak and not much more has been done beyond expressing disappointment.

Finally the EU needs to step in with greater support and financial involvement to support regional cooperation efforts. So far the EU has paid lip service to regional cooperation preferring to focus instead on bilateral relations. As active regional partners and new EU members, Romania and Bulgaria are likely to play an active role in this respect.

Romanian President Traian Basescu has made it clear on several occasions that Romania intends to promote more assertively the idea of a strategic vision for the Black Sea region and a greater involvement in regional dynamics. Black Sea economic cooperation in particular can offer the EU an ideal forum for promoting projects in the field of energy as well as non economic areas, such as the protection of the environment, controlling immigration and fighting arms and human trafficking. Ultimately, the extent to which the EU will be able to secure its immediate and distant neighbours in the Black Sea region will depend on its ability to increase its role and impact on the region and become a pulling factor for democratic change. A democratic and fully integrated Turkey will be crucial in this respect.

The benefits of a coherent, realistic and forward-looking strategy towards the Black Sea region are enormous. If the EU’s “close’ and “distant’ neighbours can successfully complete their economic and political transition, security threats will be weakened. Similarly, the creation of stable democratic institutions, functioning economic structures and vibrant civil societies will undermine the operation of criminal groups. To achieve this long-term objective all EU instruments and forces should be mobilised. Otherwise, the region may well plunge once again into chaos. However, this time EU citizens many not be immune.

*Lara Scarpitta is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies of the University of Birmingham. Before embarking on a PhD, Lara worked in Holland, Italy and recently in Brussels where she worked as an intern in the Cabinet of Vice President of the European Commission Franco Frattini, EU Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice.

Politics of Water, Politics of Disaster: Flooding in Romania

By Paula Ganga

For many centuries, water and proximity to water have been important issues in conflicts the world over. Many wars have been fought at least partially due to the lack of this crucial factor of development. However, Eastern Europe has faced in the last few years the exact opposite situation. It seems that water is causing conflict and destruction not by its absence, but by a sheer overwhelming quantity of it that these countries cannot handle. This situation has come to the attention of the Western media only in the last week, when many important newspapers emphasized the meteorological warnings and high level of the Danube – the highest in a hundred years. Without wanting to neglect the current danger that many of the inhabitants in the Danube region face, this is not an uncommon situation. After all, this river increases its depth spectacularly every year following the melting of the mountain snows ; what makes one year’s meltdown more discussed in the national newspapers is the relative degree of preparedness on the part of the authorities. This is how water policy has become an extremely important factor in the internal affairs. Natural disasters such as flooding have thus affected the political culture and debate.

For several years now, Romania has been recurrently fighting “the most catastrophic floods since… Although we hear this every year, each new image of houses being destroyed and washed away, people clinging to rafts or old women crying at the sight of their entire life’s work drifting off downstream, we naturally become sympathetic with the plight of these unfortunate people. And we logically try to find who or what was responsible for their suffering. Usually, the culprit ends up being the government, for its inability to resolve a situation that repeats itself several times in any given year.

Usually the moment when authorities get most worried about this situation is at the beginning of spring; by the month of May, things calm down until the next year’s melt-off. The authorities then do some additional work to the existing infrastructure, but sometimes nothing more. Extensive work was promised by the Nastase government (2000-2004), and according to their statements this was achieved. The difficulties fell, however, on the shoulders of the D.A. Alliance (Dreptate si Adevar – Justice and Truth) that won the elections at the end of 2004.

After less that a half a year at the head of the country, the Popescu-Tariceanu government was faced with devastating floods in March-April 2005, in the south-western part of Romania (Banat). Later, in July and August, communication between the northeastern region of Moldova and the capital was cut, due to the destruction of the bridge connecting the two. Trains and trasportation were sometimes 9 hours late in this time.

To this was added the possibility that Bucharest itself could have been swallowed by the floods at the beginning of October. And, for an apotheotic end of the year, the areas that were flooded in March were once more flooded in December 2005. (For the detailed maps and other documents on the flows of the rivers go to the site of the Ministry of the Environment and the Administration of Waters- .PDF).

Faced with this endless flood, the new authorities started by blaming the previous government of corrupt administration of funds. In fact, when an investigation was made, it was discovered that most of the companies involved in territorial development which were hired to administrate the water utilities didn’t perform their jobs- and had also been chosen because of their connections with the government.

However, this excuse couldn’t be used indefinitely. The difficulty of the disaster situation put the minister in charge of Environment and Administration of Water, Sulfina Barbu, in a very delicate position. Due to some inappropriate declarations, she was put on the “black list’ of those who were meant to depart the government during the summer of 2005. However, despite this precarious positioning, Sulfina Barbu is still minister, and is trying to solve the current crisis.

The once-possible resignation of Sulfina Barbu was just one example that shows how natural disasters affect politics in Romania. What the floods brought was a sort of abrupt ending of the new government’s honeymoon period. From that point on (March 2005), the situation of the D.A. Alliance in the opinion polls deteriorated constantly. By May, the polls had already registered a decrease in approval from 59 to 49.9 percent, and in July, when the effects of the flooding became more visible, the government’s popularity fell again (but more slightly, to 48.7 percent), while the president’s popularity fell to below 50 percent for the first time since the elections. And in November approval of the D.A. Alliance was down to 46 percent.

What made last year’s floods more “special” was their great extent (the maps show it accurately) and the damages caused. In August, there were 66 deaths due to floods, and at the end of the year the evaluations showed tha Romania had suffered material damages of around 1.5 billion euros, equivalent to more than 2.1% of the Romanian GDP, according to Amos News.

But this year’s floods indicate that the situation seems to be getting worse. Of the three possible origins of flooding, Romanians are facing two already. The spring snow melt-off, as well as heavy rain, have swollen tributary rivers (this is the case with the floods generated by the rivers Danube, Tisa and Prut). The Danube itself is reaching more and more alarming levels. And rain showers are also ongoing. Weather predictions are pessimistic ; the April 19th forecast called for non-stop rain for the next 48 hours in most regions of Romania, a situation especially inconvenient considering that on the 23rd, Romanians will be celebrating Orthodox Easter.

The effects of the government’s inability to manage the situation for their approval ratings are obvious. If last year they were already pronounced, this year, due to other internal difficulties and the forthcoming report of the European Commission, the floods will probably have an even greater negative effect on the government.

Last year, Romanians almost saw the resignation of the prime minister (he changed his mind at the last moment) ; considering all these simultanoues stresses and the continuing dangerous weather, this year might end having seen a real resignation.

However, the significance of this year’s flooding will probably be greater than in past years, since the arrival of all this water into the Danube Delta will do more than destroy the houses in its way. Although the Western media failed to mention it, in this region there is another latent danger: avian flu. A combination of the two is highly undesirable and the Romanian authorities must prepare themselves for a period of intense work in the field in order to preventing the spread of avian flu, or any other type of disease whose transfer could be aggravated by the deteriorating conditions.

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Paula Ganga studies political science at Romania’s oldest university, Alexandru Ioan Cuza in Iaši, and is currently a Socrates Mobility Student at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Lille, France. Her thesis examines modern Russia’s diplomatic relations with the ex-Soviet states. Paula’s articles on Romanian politics and the role of France and Germany in the EU have been published in the Bucharest political science journal Paralele…Paralele.

Sibiu: A Hidden Paradise in the Southeast of Europe

By Andra Matresu*

Did you know that in only eight short months, Europe’s honorary cultural capital is moving to Romania? In the following travel article, Sibiu native Andra Matresu makes the case for why her city and its surroundings are eminently worthy of the honor- and why they will enthrall visitors with a unique Transylvanian blend of nature, history and magic.Paradise was lost long before people knew it had existed; but in Sibiu, paradise still exists and people don’t even know it.

This was my reflection when a university professor asked us, the students, why we Romanians deserve to become EU citizens and, hence, how would we be able to contribute to the EU’s multicultural world. I thought immediately of my hometown, Sibiu, which next year will be honored as the European Cultural Capital of the year, in partnership with Luxembourg.

Sibiu is a medieval city and like the best books, it constantly preserves its mystery within itself. Have you ever happened to read the same book over and over again, but each time to experience new feelings and to discover new aspects? Sibiu is rich in this way, always rewarding visitors with something different and previously unknown, each time they come. To get a sense of its magic, readers can find a selection of photographs here.

The “European Cultural Capital” project dates back to 1985 when then- Greek Minister of culture Melina Mercouri came up with the idea. She saw it as a creative way to celebrate and bring together European culture.

The process by which a city is selected always involves a combination of luck, competition and self-promotion. A vital role in the selection of Sibiu for 2007 was played by our special partnership with Luxembourg in organizing the event. But it was also clearly time for us to be acknowledged for Sibiu’s steady growth in cultural, social and economic importance – all mainly brought about due to the city’s flourishing tourism. It is wonderful to note that while Sibiu has existed for more than 1000 years, with the soon-approaching honor, it continues to create a bright future for itself.

Sibiu: Some Background

The city on the River Cibin, Sibiu (“Hermannstadt” in German translation, or “Nagyszeben” in Hungarian) is situated in the center of Romania. With approximately 180,000 permanent inhabitants, Sibiu is the biggest city in its county (which has a total of about 423,061 inhabitants), making it one of the most important urban areas in Transylvania.

This famous locale is the region “beyond the forest” (from the Latin, “ultra silvam”), and it covers 16 counties. Of course, Transylvania is most famous for its connection to the famous novel “Dracula” by Bram Stocker, who has been strongly influenced and inspired by Emily Gerard’s 1885 essay “Transylvania Superstitions.” Today, visitors to the region can also experience something of the local magic – but none of the dangers – vividly illustrated in history’s most famous vampire story.

Containing as it does a significant Hungarian minority that has constantly sought greater political, social and economic rights, Transylvania has been depicted as a potential hotbed for violent ethnic conflict. With the end of the Soviet bloc in 1990, ethnic clashes in two cities, Cluj and Tirgu Mures, fuelled predictions about future violent disputes. However, further serious trouble didn’t happen.

In fact, Sibiu’s demonstrated multiculturalism and cultural tolerance manifested when the citizens elected a mayor of German ethnicity, Klaus Johannes. The mayor has proven his efficiency in administrating the county since 2000, being rewarded with re-election in 2005.

An Introduction to the City

Ever since its establishment, Sibiu has served as a foundation for people with interests in cultural and commercial trade. In the 17th century, the old walled town was believed by many to be the easternmost in the European sphere; interestingly enough, it was also the eastern terminal of postal routes and was the farthest place where mail from across Europe was delivered.

Testimony to Sibiu’s inextinguishable value, which approaches the qualities of a novel, is the romantic “Bridge of Lies.” This famous addition to the city was made in 1859, and at the time it was the first Romanian bridge to be made of wrought iron. On it, young lovers used to date in the old times and tell each other the innocent lies of love – lies which eventually became reality. Another legend, however, warned citizens not to tell lies on the bridge, lest it collapse.

Whether the legend is true or false, the Bridge of Lies unites the city’s two distinct entities: the upper city and the lower city. So Sibiu is like Budapest, Istanbul and other famous cities with a “unifying” bridge. But in addition to this, there is the old walled part of the city.

What is known as the “Lower City” (in Romanian, “OraˆšÃ–¬üul de jos”), comprises the area between the river and the hill. It developed around the earliest fortifications. In the Middle Ages, Sibiu be bordered by fortifications made up of imposing walls, punctuated by 39 defensive towers, 5 bulwarks, 5 artillery batteries and 4 gates. Its rustic architecture sparkles here and there; small city squares appear at places, lined by typical Romanian two-storey houses, all united by the oldest church in the city, dating back to 1386.

On the other side of the river is the “Upper City” (in Romanian, “OraˆšÃ–¬üul de sus”), where most of today’s “important things” happen. As an evolution of human solidarity, three city squares and a set of streets along the line of the hill seem to be in eternal dispute over rank.

One of the grandest is the “Large Square” (in Romanian, “PiaˆšÃ–£a Mare,” in German, “Grosser Ring” or “Grosser Platz”). As its name suggests, this is the largest square of the city, and has represented the center of the city since the 16th century. At 142 meters long by 93 meters wide, it is one of the largest squares in Transylvania. It used to serve as a marketplace, and afterwards assemblies – and even public executions – were held there.

Nowadays, UNESCO protects this enormous quadrangle, one which houses cultural monuments and prime tourist spots such as the Brukenthal Palace, one of the most important Baroque monuments in Romania. In fact, a former Governor of Transylvania, Samuel von Brukenthal, used to live in this building, which dates from the year 1785. Superb masterpieces of painting, engraving and decorative arts form the main part of the National Brukenthal Museum, which opened in 1817.

To the west side of the museum stands the fairytale Blue House, an 18th-century Baroque home bearing the city’s symbol, the old coat of arms of Sibiu, on its facade. The Jesuit Church along with its dependencies is based on the north side and to the west of this is a political temple designed in an unusual Art Nouveau style, and housing the mayor’s office.

There is also an impressive Council Tower, one of the most famous symbols of Sibiu; it unites the Large Square and the Small Square through two tunnels. As with the bridge, so with the tunnels: the city of Sibiu was designed so as to link its people.

Outside the City: Mountains and Folk Tradition

There are numerous places of natural beauty and enjoyment near Sibiu. Some 35 km from the city is Paltinis, a ski resort which is the highest (1440 m altitude) and oldest in Romania. Buses go four times a day from the city to this stunningly beautiful resort.

An unusual getaway, Ocna Sibiului, is located 12 km from Sibiu. The town contains historic churches, an abandoned salt mine and several restorative thermal baths.

Third, for lovers of mountain climbing and hiking there is the impressive Fagaras mountain range. Running some 30 km south of Sibiu, Fagaras contains the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountains – Moldoveanu (2544 m), Negoiu (2535 m), Vistea Mare (2527 m) and Vanatoarea lui Buteanu (2507 m). Here there are mountain huts where hikers can rest from July through mid-September, and camping is also allowed. This breathtaking natural paradise is full of wildlife, untouched wilderness and glacial lakes.

Finally, a place where visitors can still experience the past, in the traditional life of rural Romania, is found in the foothills of the Cindrel Mountains, in southwestern Sibiu county. Consisting of around 18 villages, the area has a unique ethnological, cultural, architectural and historical heritage.

As a wise old Romanian proverb put it, “the man sanctifies the place.” In this picturesque landscape, scenic and mountainous, let shepherds tell you about their wanderings, inevitably linked to their traditional occupation and age-old traditions, while enjoying a snack consisting of the local cheese with tomatoes.

In this region, a complex variety of customs are kept alive, all associated with the most sacred moments in Romanian tradition. For instance, local people still maintain the custom of glass painting; in the famous, 25 kilometer-long village of Sibiel is kept the largest glass-painted icon collection in all of Europe. The tradition is strongly related with the Romanian Orthodox Church, by far the main religion of the inhabitants.

One folk celebration which has been preserved and which is often enjoyed by tourists too, Nedeia, is a spectacle held atop a high mountain plateau during summer. The festival usually includes folk songs, dance performances and traditional fairs beloved by people from the different sides of the mountain

In this mountainous area in the heart of Europe, a bygone world still exists. People here still wear traditional black-and-white folk costume, and men dispute their supremacy by wearing a particular round hat without borders. As for the women of the villages, they remain mostly reluctant to technological evolution – you may encounter women still shocked at the idea of a mobile phone! Amazingly enough, many still refuse to travel by train, and chose the carriage instead.

There is a widespread prejudice among these rural Romanians that if women get pregnant before marriage, a grave dishonor has been done; the father-to-be is thus usually obliged by the patriarch to marry his daughter. The idea of divorce in such villages is naturally a disgraceful one. However, Romanian villagers are friendly people and you’ll quite surely here them tell you, “we’re glad you are here and hope you will come back often!”

Architecture and Museums

Classic Romanian architecture was strongly influenced by the Saxons: the grand and imposing houses with their skillfully carved wooden porches are lined up along the narrow lanes, with an internal yard well closed in on all sides. Traditionally, wood was the main material used in construction, but over the last hundred years it has been replaced by bricks, so that today only a small number of wooden houses can be found.

Typical traditional Romanian architecture is well preserved in the dreamlike landscape of the open-air Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization (the Astra Museum Complex), the first ethnographic and historical museum of the Romanians in Transylvania. The Astra complex now comprises a consortium of museums with permanent exhibits of international (Franz Binder World Ethnography Museum), national (Museum of Transylvanian Civilization) and ethnic culture (the Emil Sigerus Museum for Transylvanian Saxon Folk Crafts and Ethnography).

There is also the Roma Museum, with a photographic and film archive, in the planning stages. The compelling Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization provides authentic Romanian folk culture in all its geographic and thematic variety and concentrates on the study of tools, technical devices and systems used by Romanian artisans. It is based in the Dumbrava Forest, some 4 km from Sibiu – a true paradise on earth. It mostly comprises houses from different Romanian cultural milieus. These original and unique monuments are significant for their cultural value.

While relaxing and admiring the simple traditional lifestyle of the Romanian people in the preserved homes, you may be overwhelmed by the silence and stillness of it all. The windmills from nearby Dobrudja watch over the Danube Delta, its floating bridges and fishing boats. One can enjoy the moment by having a hot cup of wine to mark the friendship. And perhaps it may seem so real that you actually believe people live here; but remember, it is called a museum, because this world doesn’t exist anymore, even though we might want it to.

UNESCO’s report of the year 2000 on global results declared Romania to be one of the two European states (along with France) and four Asian ones (Japan, Thaliand, South Korea and the Philippines) to preserve cultural tradition by safeguarding tangible aspects of cultural heritage. Our country has further shown its dedication to culture through the Romanian Academy for Traditional Art’s “Living Human Treasures” program.

Economic Gains: Sibiu Today

The above mentioned are the prime places to see for foreign visitors coming to Europe’s upcoming cultural capital. Finally we can say a few words about more practical things, such as the economic dimensions of life in Sibiu.

While Romania is still a poor country and some might wonder whether there are in fact any economic aspects to Sibiu, the city can proudly point out that its Bourse has become the strongest in Romania. According to its statement, in January it ended with total transactions of 261,231 futures and options – the equivalent of more than 36 percent of last year’s total, while volume is up to over 125 million euros.

Connection with the outside world was solidified due to the recent renovation of Sibiu Airport by one of the most powerful airline industry companies in the world, Dornier Consulting. The presence of such a prominent foreign company in this little Romanian city proves that Sibiu is on its wings to Europe.

Furthermore, important investments are being made in Sibiu, especially in the area of textiles and manufacturing – as it was way back in the 14th century, when Sibiu was an important trade center, its craftsmen divided into 19 different guilds. At that time, Sibiu was primarily an ethnically German city, and the most important among the seven cities that gave Transylvania its German language name of Siebenbergen.

Another unique aspect regarding the city’s economic life is the presence here of one of the few important Romanian exporters of domesticated livestock. SC Europeenne SRL provides donkeys, bulls and horses to buyers all over Europe, always marked by their high quality.

Sibiu: Let it Conquer Your Senses

All in all, it looks that the citizens of the European Union and other visitors as well are in for a pleasant surprise with the imminent arrival of Sibiu as Cultural Capital of Europe for 2007. And we can hardly wait to welcome those curious visitors who would like to enjoy a taste of Transylvanian culture in one of the most beautiful preserved cities in Romania.

For those of us from Sibiu, this represents an unparalleled opportunity to assert the city’s identity on the European cultural map, and of course to generate all-important media interest and tourism gains. So don’t be surprised if, as the year goes on, you start to hear more and more about this lovely city in the Romanian hills!

To return to the intriguing question of the professor mentioned in the beginning, I would therefore have to say that we Romanians deserve to be called citizens of the European Union, because we bring value through cities like Sibiu, highlighting our common European heritage. But don’t just take my word for it – come to visit Sibiu, and let this amazing city conquer your senses. For while any number of cities can be beautiful, historic, cultured, etc., none of them can have the unique magic that one feels all around this inviting little city in the heart of Romania.

……………………………….

A proud native of Sibiu, Andra Matresu is currently studying International Relations-European Studies at the University of Bucharest. She has done internships with the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Public Finances (as well as volunteer work with both young mothers and the elderly) and hopes to possibly go into the field of diplomacy in the future. No matter what job she finds herself in, however, Andra would most of all like to be a force for positive change in the world.

Promoting Romania’s Image in the EU: the Role of Diplomacy and Branding

By Paula Ganga*

There has been a great debate regarding Romania’s level of preparedness for joining the European Union in 2007. Controversy has also surrounded the issue of whether the EU can integrate such a large country, one beset by so many structural and institutional problems. But the question of whether the two partners are ready to fully accept each other cannot be determined until another question – how much each of them truly knows about the other – is addressed.The prevailing opinion among Romanians is that “Romania knows more about the EU than the EU knows about Romania.” European representatives are always interested in such matters of public opinion, not only for the new member states or those in the process of accession, but also for the original 15 members. The Eurobarometer survey is the most used and most trusted resource for gauging the opinion of EU populations, and it has also been introduced in Romania, where it has provided some interesting results. Through it, one can ascertain the approximate amount of knowledge that Romanians have about the union and, most importantly, compare this knowledge to levels gauged in the EU states (with separate columns for the 15 member states and the 10 new member states).

The latest Eurobarometer 63.4, conducted in May and June of 2005 and released to the public on the 8th of September, included new data on Romanians’ depth of knowledge of the EU. These results tend to contradict the popular perception among Romanians that they know more about the EU than the EU knows about them.

To test knowledge levels, survey participants were asked four simple questions regarding the EU and the way in which it works. The four true-or-false questions were: (1.) presently, the EU is formed by 15 states; (2.) the members of the European Parliament are elected by a direct vote from the EU citizens; ( 3.) the EU has its own anthem; (4.) the last elections for the European Parliament took place in June 2002.

Although the percentage of people who gave at least one correct answer was higher that that in neighboring Bulgaria (68 percent for Romania versus 60 percent for Bulgaria), Romanians polled lagged far behind citizens of the original 15 EU countries (80 percent), as well as the new member states (87 percent). So it would seem that Romanians in fact don’t actually know that much more about the EU than what has been said until now.

However, Romanians seem to know more about the union now than they knew 6 month ago (the study records a 14 percent improvement), whereas in most of the countries that participated in the survey the trend was downward.

Further interesting information can be drawn from another survey that tried to measure the compatibility between Romanian and European values. In this survey, more than 85 percent of the respondents stated a desire to know more about the EU (a full 49 percent were recorded as being very interested or extremely interested).

These surveys, which were based on direct interaction with the population, indicate that while Romanians still have a somewhat poor knowledge of the bloc they hope to join, they have expressed their strong interest in becoming more informed in the future. While one might hope that Romanians would go searching out information on their own, realistically speaking the task of educating the population regarding the EU will be given to the government and the media.

On the other hand, however, unionized Europeans don’t seem to know very much about Romania. In fact, their entire perception of this large and diverse nation seems to fall into very specific categories. For most Europeans, Romania’s only claims to fame are Ceausescu, Hagi, Nadia Comaneci, illegal immigration, gypsy beggars and, of course, Count Dracula.

However, Romania of course has a lot more to offer in terms of culture, history, economic products and tourism destinations. And it has a very smart and well-educated young workforce in areas like foreign languages and computer science.

It should be said, further, that personal experience tends to show that the Eurobarometer is not always applicable. Europe is so diverse that one can come across tremendously differing levels of knowledge when it comes to Romania, from those Europeans who swear it’s located near Canada to others who know everything about the significance of symbols painted on the walls of 16th-century monasteries in Northern Moldavia.

To this ambivalent situation, one can add the fact that the long decades of Communist isolation kept Romania far from any cultural exchanges that could have increased its visibility on a Europe-wide level, making it even more “exotic” in the eyes of other European citizens.

Yet it is likely that Romania will in fact come to know more about the EU than the EU knows about it. For centuries, Western culture has been ingrained in the Romanian mentality (especially French, German and British influences), and large amounts of EU-allotted money will continue to flow into the country, with the partial purpose of making the union’s institutions more popular. And with EU accession on the horizon, the Romanian population is naturally starting to become more inquisitive about the union and their future place in it.

The situation thus appears remediable. But on the other side of things, when it comes to making Romania more accessible to the greater European public, things get complicated once again. Who should have the main responsibility for promoting the country? Should it be the president or the minister of foreign affairs, or the tourism ministry, or the diplomatic corps, or perhaps private entrepreneurs?

Over the past few years, efforts to promote Romania on the internet, international television channels and through other country branding exercises have started to improve. And they have been led not only by the government but in some cases by private businessmen and the Romanian diaspora in other countries too.

An article published in the newspaper Jurnalul NaˆšÃ–£ional on September 12 provided the results of an investigation into Romania’s visibility on the internet. The results showed that with 130 million mentions of the country, Romania could be placed between Hungary with 138 millions sites mentioning it, and Bulgaria with 106 million references.

While it is important to have a strong media presence, in this case the saying that “even bad publicity is good publicity” definitely doesn’t apply. For example, in 2002 the Romanian government spent $3 million in 6 months on promoting the country’s image internationally, and all it took was a few articles in three influential French newspapers on Romanian beggars in Paris to ruin the campaign, reported the Jurnalul National on July 26, 2002.

Now that officials have admitted that a bad image could delay the accession process, a special working group has been created in order to redefine Romania’s national brand. “The brand is a term, a symbol, a design or any other element that could identify a certain product or a campaign as being different from others,” wrote Dollores Benezic, in an article of 12 July 2005 titled, “How do we sell our country?” and printed in the newspaperCotidianul. And, the author adds, it should be created with a long-term focus in mind, and accordingly is granted a consistent fixed budget for 10-20 years into the future.

The Agency for Governmental Strategies, which initiated the project, has already assigned a group of officials to create a strategy in order to improve Romania’s image. However, since the task of defining an entire country by just one label is very difficult, others have proposed soliciting foreign expertise as well, such as Romanian ambassador to France Sabin Pop, in the above-linked article. On the other hand, this group’s activity started only in May 2005, so a complete final strategy hasn’t yet been elaborated.

Another promotional strategy, the most important for some, is diplomatic activity. Diplomacy is seen by the researchers of the Diplomatic Studies Program of the University of Leicester as the “art of promoting national interests through the means of an intense exchange of information between nations and peoples,” in the words of George Limbeanu (Diplomacy, Protocol, Ceremony, Lucian Blaga University Press, Arhip Art, Sibiu, 2005, p. 108).

In his work The New Diplomacy (Antet, Bucharest, 2004, p. 113) Riordan Shaun also agrees that “the national promotion has always been an element of diplomacy”. In a textbook for students created by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1997, promotion of culture was considered to be one of the most important tasks of an ambassador (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The ambassador and the consul, Col. Racontte-moi, Nouvelle Arche de Noe Editions, Hemma, 1997, pp. 14-16).

However, while there is in Romania some recognition of the ambassador’s role in promoting the national image, Romanian law doesn’t have anything to say on this topic. One law, article no. 32, presents all the obligations and the responsibilities of the diplomatic corps; Riordan Shaun’s observation matches this situation. “National promotion limits itself to commercial promotion and cultural visits. Cultural promotion, including the promotion of values” should be left to other organizations, he says (p. 113).

Unfortunately, after studying the websites of each Romanian embassy in the EU member states, I came away with a not very rosy image of Romania’s efforts at self-promotion. Most of the sites failed to mention the activities of the diplomatic corps in terms of actively promoting Romania’s image. Either the websites of the embassy’s own information hadn’t been updated in a very long time (as the case of the Romanian embassy in Denmark’s website, which hasn’t been updated since 2002), or the embassy just hasn’t had any new activities to post on the site.

Romania currently has embassy websites for 11 out of the 25 EU member states. Some have very interesting designs and present all the events and activities going on within the institution. But the other 9 Romanian embassies in EU member states didn’t have any website; specifically, the embassies to Cyprus, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain (not available).

A bit of good news has arrived in the last months, in successive declarations of Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, which have been marked by a strong will to make Romanian diplomacy more dynamic and proactive in regards to its self-promotion activities. In response to a parliamentary interpellation, the minister cited the promotional campaign begun at the moment of signing the Accession Treatise, also stating that one or two diplomats in each European embassy should inform the institutions whenever specific efforts at Euro-integration are made.

Another important factor that influences the perception of Romania abroad is the diaspora. The Romanian communities in EU countries have organized themselves into different kinds of associations, each one keeping alive the Romanian spirit as a way of feeling in contact with their homeland. In countries such as Spain, for example, there is a federation of Romanian associations that manages to make the government aware of this community’s necessities.

Unfortunately, however, the diaspora groups as a whole have not been similarly organized into a European network, merely acting on the local level. So while Minister Ungureanu’s dream of using the joint action of the diplomacy and the diaspora is a very good one, the current lack of a central organization is an impediment to the realization of this plan.

Nevertheless, in some cases such groups are the only information source for many EU citizens regarding Romania. So their work does have significance, and with the right organization they could become a productive force for the promotion of the country, as other European diasporas have become for theirs.

Still, in the end Romanian diplomacy and the government’s actions have the main responsibility for improving the country’s visibility on a European level. In the next two years, the amount of money spent on this activity will be consistent enough to achieve the purposes settled at the government’s annual meeting on diplomatic strategy. Therefore, what will make the difference will be the degree of dedication Romanian officials have for making this dream a reality.

………………….

*Paula Ganga studies political science at Romania’s oldest university, Alexandru Ioan Cuza in Iaši, and is currently a Socrates Mobility Student at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Lille, France. Her thesis examines modern Russia’s diplomatic relations with the ex-Soviet states. Paula’s articles on Romanian politics and the role of France and Germany in the EU have been published in the Bucharest political science journal Paralele…Paralele.

Balkan Countries Beset by Heavy Flooding

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Romania is in the midst of the worst flooding in a century, according to the Red Cross, which has performed massive relief work while calling for more donor aid for heavily affected regions. Related flooding has also caused widespread damage in neighboring Serbia, while an unrelated deluge caused 650 people to be evacuated from their homes in Macedonia on Sunday.

In a press release published on Wednesday, the international aid organization summarized the list of damage caused by two weeks of heavy rain and the flooding in Romania of the Bega, Timis and Barzava rivers, where water levels surged to 11 meters higher than normal.Four entire villages (Ionel, Otelec, Foeni and Cruceni) were submerged completely.

According to the report, “…4,000 houses have been destroyed and 3,500 people evacuated. About 52,000 hectares of farming land is flooded.” The flood levels are expected to remain for at least a month “…due to the soil composition and the fact that there is no natural drainage possibility with the flooded land lying in a depression.” The BBC, which shows a photo of rescuers boating through the ruins of houses, reported that 2 elderly people died and that rotting animal carcasses and mosquitoes are exacerbating the health risks.

Further, near the city of Targoviste in south-central Romania, flash flooding of the Ialomita River over 20 localities caused widespread damage to homes and property as well as one death.

Serbia has also suffered from the effects of recent heavy rainfall as well. Serbian television footage of submerged homes in the northern province of Vojvodina showed the effects of the flooding, which has flooded 1,900 ha of land in the municipality of Secanj, and slightly less in the nearby municipalities of Zitiste and Plandiste making 600 people homeless, according to the UN. The area, close to the Romanian border, is similarly flat and susceptible to flood damage.

At this week’s Balkan leadership summit in Bucharest, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Romanian President Traian Basescu pledged that the two neighbors would work together to recover from the floods. The Serbian government is proposing property tax exclusions for those affected by the flooding in the municipalities of Secanj, Plandiste, and Zitiste.

Finally, in Macedonia unrelated flooding in the northeastern city of Kumanovo made 650 impoverished Roma homeless when the rising waters of the Kumanovo River invaded the shanty homes in which they live. Lacking good protective barriers and not being well-channeled, this debris-littered river bursts its banks almost annually- invariably ruining the improvised Roma settlement located directly above it. According to A1 TV, which reported on Sunday’s evacuation, “…since the year 2003, this is the third flooding of the Kumanovo River. In the previous two times, 50 percent of the houses in [the neighborhoods of] Sredorek and Bavci were flooded.”

 

Balkan Gold: Intrigue, Enrichment and Danger (Part 2)

By Christopher Deliso

The protests seen this week in Bulgaria (and documented in part 1 of this article) were not the first of their kind, and will certainly not be the last. In February 2000, the Romanian Baia Mare gold mine suffered a cyanide leak, which killed thousands of fish in the Tisza and Danube Rivers. It swiftly became an environmental disaster for Romania, Bulgaria, and especially Hungary and Serbia.

While the Australian owners of the mine, Esmeralda Exploration, were quick to deny any wrongdoing, local residents burying thousands of dead fish begged to differ. Serbia’s Environment Minister at the time, Branislav Blazic said it would take “at least five years” for the river to recover: “…the Tisza has been killed. Not even bacteria have survived… this is a total catastrophe.”

The next month, the Australian company went into receivership with undisclosed debts. Hungary and Serbia threatened lawsuits against both Esmeralda and the Romanian government, which owned 45 percent of the mine. The latter flatly rejected the possibility of compensation for what was called Europe’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

However, four months later, the mine reopened with Esmeralda claiming a new devotion to environmental safety. New modifications to the physical structure of the mine and smelter were announced – after it had been revealed that at the time of the accident they were not up to EU standards. Indeed, according to a damning report from Greenpeace, the warning signs that such a disaster could occur had been apparent well before the time when the accident took place. The Australian company had been negligent in living up to its responsibilities, the report charged.

After having been suspended from the Australian stock market in March 2000, Esmeralda was re-instated in the end of 2001, with legal cases begun earlier that year against it in limbo. In the interim, however, it had been able to get back to work, continue to turn a profit, and so repay some outstanding debts to NM Rothschild & Sons and Dresdner Bank AG.

The company was able to later flee the bad PR with a quick name switch. Reincarnated as “Eurogold,” the Balkan’s biggest polluters were soon able to get back in action and further capitalize on their monopoly position in Romania. In 2003, the company released an updated report on its activities in Romania. The only mention of the disaster was in small letters at the very bottom, when Romanian subsidiary Transgold was named as

“…the subject of various claims arising from a tailings dam breach in January 2000. Eurogold is confident that the eventual outcome of these proceedings will have no substantial bearing on Transgold’s financial position.”

According to the Rainforest Information Center, an Australian environmental group, gold extraction using cyanide – “heap-leaching, as it’s called” – has helped fuel a boom in the gold mining industry over the past decade. Only problem being that this method has inevitable and catastrophic environmental effects for the whole area in which it is used.

Meanwhile, the world’s biggest gold mining operation, Denver-based Newmont, recently purchased 19 percent of the Toronto-based Gabriel Resources Ltd.- something which caused this aspiring Balkan investor’s stock to rocket by 48 percent overnight.

Gabriel has its sights set on Rosia Montana, a mine project located in the heart of Romania’s historic Transylvania region. According to the International Herald Tribune, the controversial project

“…will require the relocation of 900 villagers and heavy metal waste has already polluted some valleys and rivers. The company said it was satisfied after ‘performing extensive due diligence’ at the Romanian site that ‘environmental and social responsibility standards’ were being met.”

Romanians disagree. On August 28 a symbolic march wrapped up in Bucharest, which saw local protesters as well as environmental activists from Austria, Germany, Ireland and France cover 140 km in 6 days. Starting in the northwestern city of Cluj, the marchers continued to Rosia Montana and passed through 20 affected villages on their way to Bucharest.

The protesters object to a plan that would not only “…rip out a swathe of the mountain range,” but also force the relocation of almost a thousand people.

The project is under fire not only from environmentalists, but from archaeologists and historians too. Even Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and other top Romanian officials have expressed unease with the plan. Now, the company has stated delays will force it to begin work next May. However, buttressed by the lobbying muscle of a heavy hitter such as Newmont, Gabriel will probably be able to steamroll the protesters’ objections in the end.

Yet could tragedy similar to the Baia Mare affair happen again? It just has.

On September 4th, at yet another Romanian gold mine – the Baia Borsa – a pipeline gave out, causing the release of toxic heavy metals into the Cisla River. The disaster caused neighboring Ukraine to cut off water supplies to 5 towns. A local television station advised hospitals to store drinking water for 3 days in advance. Residents were also warned not to fish “for the time being.”

It becomes hard to argue with the idea that the Balkans are exploited for their riches and left as a waste dump, just so that greedy foreign corporate bosses can fatten their wallets.

In every corporate report one reads, the concepts of efficiency and comprehensiveness are stressed insofar as exploration techniques go. What the Romans did only patchily, what antiquated technologies could unearth only in spots, all of this failure is a boon for modern corporations.

Yet the dream of globalization is far from the one that has always captivated the imaginations of treasure-seeking individuals, fired with the excitement of the hunt, the thrill of discovery, the salvageable sadness of coming up empty-handed. After all, even if one tries his luck and comes up with nothing, there’s always next time.

Industrial excavation, on the other hand, leaves little room for singular thrill. And the price of its “success” is often too high, as the Romanian river disasters clearly show. Yet in a battle between Balkan villagers and global giants, there’s not much doubt as to who will win out.

In the end, the Macedonian superstition about bad luck tormenting the treasure-seeker seems to have come true – but on a global scale – with the mining industry today.

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Despite New Air Routes, Macedonian Travel Remains Down-to-Earth

With the announcement that Bulgaria’s Hemus Air is planning to start flying to Skopje from June 17, a major breakthrough has been made in improving Macedonia’s regional travel connections. But another strike at Macedonian Railways yesterday, called to protest the government’s plan to lay off 868 workers, shows just how easily Macedonian travel can be brought crashing back down to earth.

Foreign businessmen and officials have decried the length of time it takes to traverse relatively short distances by land. From Skopje to Sofia, it takes around 4 hours by car, but around 6 hours by bus. In the summer, when the border crossing is flooded with buses, it can take much longer. As for Greece, the 230 km trip to Thessaloniki takes just over 3 hours by car. Yet while the former connection will soon be possible by air, the latter will not.

Without a car, the only real way to get to Thessaloniki from Skopje is via rail- meaning a dreary ride on smoky, dilapidated trains, lasting around 5 hours each way. Yet train travel is somewhat unpredictable, due to the chronic strikes from Macedonian Railway workers.

The government’s alleged plan to cut almost 900 workers (it’s hard to imagine there were ever so many to begin with) resulted in a sudden strike in the beginning of March, which brought not only national but international trains to a halt, leaving weary passengers stranded for days at the borders of Greece and Serbia. With no existing bus line to Greece (except for summer charters that also are forced to wait hours at the border) Macedonia remains the laughingstock of Balkan international travel.

At present, a return train ticket from Skopje to Thessaloniki costs 1,370 denars (22.5 euros). Yet one can shave around 7 euros from this price by purchasing a return ticket from Skopje to Gevgelija, and then buying a ticket to Thessaloniki from the Greek ticket station at their side of the border (6.60 euros one way).

Under no circumstances should one buy a ticket on the train in the border area, however; depending on the mood of the conductor the “international surcharge” can be up to 15 euros.

The reason why no Greek bus line exists is partly economic, and partly because of the Macedonians’ general difficulty with obtaining Greek visas. It’s not that qualifying for them is such a problem, but rather the process, expense and rising costs of life in Greece preclude the average person from going there on a regular basis. No market means no bus.

Contrast this with the very frequent bus services to Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey, places where no visas are necessary for Macedonian citizens. One can get to Belgrade, at all hours of the day, for roughly 30 euros return. And only 60 euros will buy a return ticket all the way to Istanbul. Comparing this with the usual 225-250 euro price to get there by air with Turkish Airlines, one can readily see why Macedonian shuttle traders and tourists are content to brave the 12 hours on the bus.

The price for bus travel to countries requiring visas for Macedonian citizens is somewhat higher, however. Continuing another 6 hours from Belgrade (itself around 6 hours from Skopje) one reaches Budapest, Hungary- but for 50 euros one way. Traveling to Ljubljana, Slovenia by bus costs 40 euros one way, and takes around 14 hours.

Yet going from Skopje to Slovenia by train is both slightly more expensive and infinitely longer (over 20 hours). One can thus sympathize with Greece-bound train travelers from Ljubljana who, already exhausted from this arduous journey, wind up being stranded indefinitely on the Macedonian border during railway strikes, as they were yesterday and today.

That said, other ground transport does exist in the occasional mini-bus services some travel agencies supply to Thessaloniki. Yet these are also unpredictable, and tend to go regularly only in the summer months, when people are heading to Halkidiki for vacation.

At other times, it can be tough to find enough people (4) to make the trip feasible. With a full minibus, one will pay 25-30 euros for a return ticket. Certainly, a lone individual can rent out an entire minibus and pay 100 euros at any time, but that is not terribly cost-effective.

Another drawback with this option is that in the off-season, passengers must usually pledge to return on the same day as they depart. Whereas in the summer one can usually make a reservation to go on say, a Wednesday and come back on a Saturday, during the off-season, when companies have no guarantee of getting a full load on the return leg, the one-day trip is usually mandatory. So when the railway authorities say, “my way or the highway!” one has no choice but to sigh and go with them.

Yet now that Macedonians have the option of flying to Sofia, will an air route to Thessaloniki soon follow? After all, the former is not too much farther than the latter (and arguably, also not as attractive a destination).

First of all, however, we will have to see if the Bulgarian air service proves successful. As one nonchalant Macedonian said, “if it costs 200 euros, or even 100 to go to Sofia by plane, I will continue to take the bus. It is just too expensive.” Perhaps only businessmen, politicians and the independently wealthy will be able to afford it. Plus, Bulgaria’s EU accession requirements mean that the country will be forced to start a visa regime for Macedonian citizens at some point in the next few years- cutting into the customer base yet again.

Hemus Air and the airports involved must therefore hope that they have enough customers to make the air route sustainable. If they know what’s good for them, they will offer summertime charter flights from Skopje directly to the Black Sea coast, as this is the number one Macedonian summer vacation spot. And many would no doubt be glad to forego the truly onerous 12-15 hour bus ride. In summer months the airline would probably have at least 2 full flights a week.

Only in the case of a successful Bulgarian air experiment can anyone contemplate a similar Thessaloniki run. Yet with no signs of Greece dropping its visa regime in the near future, and with Aegean Air set to stop its Skopje summer service to concentrate on the Olympic tourists, it’s not likely that anyone will take up this idea anytime soon.

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Romania Faces EU Holdups, but IT Investment Continues

By Christopher Deliso

Blaming the government of Adrian Nastase for failing to complete reforms in the judiciary system and the state administration, the EU Enlargement Commission is threatening to suspend aid to Romania. According to the Sofia Morning News, Baroness Emma Nicholson, the EP’s rapporteur for Romania, blamed the existing delay on Romania’s “…administrative incapacity of implementing all the laws it had already adopted.”

The suspension of pre-entry negotiations with Romania could leave the country deprived of a plump financial package for 2007-2009; it and neighbor Bulgaria could receive 9 billion euro of EU assistance between 2007 and 2010, according to the EU Observer.

The successful passage of the package, which would allow Bulgaria and Romania to conclude EU negotiations by early 2005, earmarks over 6 billion euro for Romania and the rest to Bulgaria. The package “…includes regional and farm subsidies for the first three years of EU membership.” Besides the 9 billion euro total, an additional 15.4 billion euro in “commitments” is being promised.

The EU states that Romania could receive 2.4 billion euro in aid for rural development over the next three years, and up to 6 billion euro for 2007-2009.

This, therefore, is Brussels’ dangling carrot. Yet it has other objections in addition to administrative reform shortcomings. By allowing the adoption of Romanian children abroad, the country has raised the ire of the EU and European Commission. Most objectionable, however, is the allegation of cronyism and non-competitive practices with foreign contractors.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Wednesday that hometown giant Bechtel, prime recipient of a $2.5 billion contract for highway development, won its contract without a proper bidding process. Bechtel, which faced a similar charge last year in regard to an Iraqi reconstruction contract, insists there was no wrongdoing on its part.

The highway, which will run from Brasov to the Hungarian border, is being built in cooperation with the Turkish company Enka. Viewed as an essential lifeline from the Black Sea to the West, the planned four-lane highway will be “…the largest new road project in Europe, according to Bechtel.”

However, since the Romanians handed down the contract in December without a competitive tender, the EU is displeased with this apparent ignorance of the union’s competitiveness agreement. Reports the paper, “…Romania won’t be obliged to follow the agreement until it joins the EU, something that won’t happen until 2007 at the earliest. But for now, the highway contract award has created friction, with the commission questioning whether Romania has backed away from its commitment to competition.”

Nevertheless, such practices are common to Balkan governments, and Romania’s success will not depend on its politicians’ intentions. The fact that it is a politically stable, non-threatened country of 20 million makes it one of the most attractive FDI destinations in the region. The formerly Communist state has already attracted significant foreign investment in several major sectors. And its unabashed support for American military adventures in Iraq meant that it has come under the Godfather’s protection. Just this week, US officials arrived in Romania on a “scouting” trip, to see if they will in fact move some of their military bases there from Germany and other places.

Apparently, Germany’s “…strict environmental regulations have made it difficult for the U.S. military to find places to train, and the distance from future flash points in Central Asia and Africa are considerable.” Romania- not in the EU yet- can oblige with easier environmental regulations.

One of the strongest sectors for foreign investment is IT. Romania has a talented young pool of IT workers (as is seen by the bizarre commonality of Romanian computer hacking). Besides, the race to the EU means that governments must be “wired” within two years. Microsoft entered the country last year as part of its new European strategy to profit from this policy.

Yesterday was announced a new contract with another foreign company having a similar impetus, Austria’s S&T. The company has signed on to expand a project which created new passports conforming to EU regulations. Now, the company plans to create “…forgery-proof resident’s cards for foreign nationals living in Romania, amounting to approximately 250,000 cards. The value of the project for S&T is somewhat in excess of EUR 5 million.”

The company will accomplish this in tandem with “Bundesdruckerei International Service GmbH” (BIS), a subsidiary of Berlin-based Bundesdruckerei GmbH, and the prime contractor to the Romanian Government:

“…S&T has project responsibility for the communications and data processing infrastructure including the maintenance of the entire system. S&T has planned, designed, will install and configure the necessary hardware and software at the 43 local offices of the Interior Ministry, and protect the ministry’s network with a firewall, anti-virus software and a finger-scan against unauthorised access. The communications infrastructure such as the e-mail system and the network technology will also be supplied and implemented by S&T. S&T will use technology from renowned manufacturers such as Checkpoint, HP, Microsoft and others. In addition, S&T will train ministry employees in the use of the new system and operate a support hotline.

As the data involved is highly sensitive, the main emphasis will be on data security and the identification of the designated ministry staff who are authorised to use the system. Data may only be accessed when employees have identified themselves by means of fingerprints which have already been stored on a central database.”

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