Wednesday

23rd Aug 2017

Focus

Romania's ruling party revives nationalism ahead of presidential election

  • Anti-Semitism for commuters: An electronic book dispenser on Bucharest's Underground train platform selling Hitler’s Bible - justification for the Holocaust ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (Photo: Michael Bird)

Romania’s governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) looks set to base its presidential election campaign on conservative nationalism that mixes religious devotion and home security.

The party won the European elections in May, getting 38 percent of the vote on a campaign based around the slogan: “We will send people to Brussels who are proud of being Romanians – who will defend Romania.”

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This nationalistic “defence” against an unidentified assailant was at the heart of a campaign which looks set to frame prime minister Victor Ponta’s pitch for the presidency in the November poll.

In his victory speech after the European elections, Ponta said his party would continue to focus on what he called the traditional values of Romania: “the army, church and family”.

“And we must protect these values,” he said.

He added that the core of the campaign for the presidential elections will be the party slogan: “Proud to be Romanians.”

Although politicians' rhetoric is not always taken as a serious indication of policy direction, this shows a hardening of religious nationalist doctrine in Romania.

This is in stark contrast to the social democracy face that the party shows towards the European Union.

For example, this month the ministry of education and the Romanian Orthodox church signed an accord giving the church the power to sack religion teachers in schools – a move seen by civil society as an “alarm signal” about the interference of the church in state matters.

The PSD has its roots in the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), which pursued a nationalistic, anti-minority and anti-semitic policy after 1946, especially in the last two decades of the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu.

One political scientist who has researched the political elite in Romania and who wished to stay anonymous, argues that the PSD is captive to the same electorate the Communist party created – a poor and uneducated rank and file.

“The PSD is responsible for the stagnation of Romania,” he says. “It took over the structures and mentalities of the former PCR and there is no authentic reform to free the country from this state.”

In its electoral campaign, the PSD used folk motifs and photos of the statues of Romanian independence fighters, such as Mihai Viteazul, the first unifier of the Romanian principalities in 1600.

Vintila Mihailescu, a leading Romanian cultural anthropologist, argues that nationalistic props are an important electoral resource for all parties.

But he adds: “The PSD electorate understands this language more easily, so there is a certain continuity [from the communist period].”

The communist party always invoked a defence against an external threat, such as fascists or Hungarians, and transformed historical figures who battled for Romanian self-determination into icons.

Mihailescu believes this is an electioneering strategy targeting a specific demographic, and does not represent a coherent move to return to using communist rhetoric. Nor, he said, is the PSD likely to make future xenophobic threats.

Nevertheless aspects of this language were revived recently in a personal attack by prime minister Ponta.

The head of government refused to give literary critic and PEN writers' club member, Mircea Mihaies, a national order of faithful service award.

Ponta said the 60-year-old writer was “an old fascist – we no longer believed neo-Nazis are in Europe, yet they exist in Romania”.

Ponta did not back up his claim with any evidence.

Mihaies said he was “disgusted by this slur”.

“Ponta has merely resumed the communists' rhetoric of the 1940s and 1950s, when their propaganda labelled any political opponent as ‘fascist’,” he told EUobserver.

“I am a liberal, and my views are in favour of pluralism, truth, diversity, democracy. For years, I have been a target of vicious attack from the far-right. To call me ‘an old fascist’ and a ‘neo-Nazi’ shows that Mr Ponta has serious problems with political concepts.”

History of anti-semitic behaviour

The irony is that Ponta’s own party has a recent history of anti-semitic behaviour, which has received international condemnation.

In December 2013, the PSD proposed that 71-year old lawyer Lucian Bolcas become a judge in the constitutional court, the highest court in Romania.

Bolcas is a former MP and vice-president of the nationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM), who later joined the PSD in 2010.

The PRM has made anti-semitic statements and has repeatedly called for the political rehabilitation of Romanian fascist leader and Hitler ally Marshall Ion Antonescu.

Bolcas has denied being anti-semitic, but he has lobbied against the removal of a statue of Antonescu from a Bucharest cemetery.

“Bolcas was for many years the number two in a heavily chauvinistic and anti-semitic party,” says Radu Ioanid, director of the international archival programme at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “He was on the record defending the glorification of war criminal Ion Antonescu.”

Under international pressure, Bolcas withdrew from the appointment as judge.

In June 2009, the social democratic Mayor of Constanta Radu Mazare dressed as a Nazi Wehrmacht officer at a party in the Black Sea resort of Mamaia.

He goose-stepped onto the main stage, while his son walked timidly at his side, dressed in the clothes of a Nazi stormtrooper.

Mazare said he was inspired by the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie in which the Nazi army attempts to kill Hitler.

“I wanted to dress as a Wehrmacht general, because I have always liked the uniform and I admire the rigorous organisation of the German army,” he said.

His position was defended by the then minister delegate for parliamentary relations (now prime minister) Victor Ponta.

“Mr Mazare is an adult and has the right to dress how he wants in his free time,” Ponta said, adding – in an attempt at a joke – “he has not come to party [meetings] dressed in Nazi clothes”.

In 2012, Mazare was re-elected mayor with 65 percent of the vote.

That same year his PSD colleague Senator Dan Sova denied aspects of the holocaust in a bungled attempt to absolve Romania’s responsibility for slaughtering Jews in the 1940s.

Quoting Romanian ’historians’, he told The Money Channel TV station that on “the territory of Romania no Jew suffered and that is due to Antonescu”.

He stated that Romanian soldiers “did not participate” in a pogrom on Jews in the northeastern city of Iasi in 1941, which saw 13,000 Jews killed.

However documents show Antonescu ordered his military commander to “cleanse” the city of Jews – and police and soldiers were involved in the mass-murder.

The PSD later dispatched Sova to the USA to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. He then refuted his comments and pleaded ignorance of the subject.

“It is clear that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial do exist in Romania,” says Ioanid. “Sova’s declarations denying Romanian responsibility in the pogrom of Iasi were totally unacceptable. It is however fair to state that he expressed his regrets about this statement repeatedly and publicly.”

Ponta then appointed Sova as government relations minister.

A sentiment of anti-Semitism is still present among many Romanians.

According to the National Centre for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) in 2013, half of Romanians would not accept a Jew as a relative and 35 percent would not accept a Jew to live in Romania.

But a shocking statistic reveals that one in three Romanians would not even allow a Jew to visit Romania.

Most of this is born of a knowledge gap and a lingering sentiment from the past.

“Anti-Semitism was a powerful force in the decades leading up to the Holocaust [in Romania],” says Ioanid. “It was central in government policy during the war, and was reinforced in a different form under communism.”

A telling episode last year shows how much there is still to go to root out anti-Semitism.

Public television station TVR3 in December aired a singing ensemble Dor Transilvan reciting an anti-semitic carol.

The lyrics, which were sung by children, went as follows: “A beautiful boy was born/ his name was Jesus Christ/ everyone bowed to him/ only the Yids were pretending to pray/ the cursed Yid/ God should not put up with him/ not in heaven, not on earth/ only in the chimney, only as smoke/ that’s where he belongs/ the smoke billowing on the road.”

The presenter then thanked Dor Transilvan for the carol.

Jewish groups and the US Embassy in Bucharest reacted furiously, with America’s state representative calling it “an unacceptable display of anti-Semitism that must be condemned in the strongest, most unequivocal terms”.

A TVR spokesperson at first claimed it was not responsible, passing the blame to the organisers of the concert. It later called the decision to select the song “uninspired”.

The channel ended up with a €11,000 fine from the national audiovisual council.

Situation not yet critical

Nevertheless anti-semitic actions and rhetoric have not yet translated into public policy.

Romania’s Jewish population, which now only numbers a few thousand – down from 728,000 on the territories of Greater Romania in 1930 – is not targeted in any policies.

In January 2013, Romanian president Traian Basescu in an interview with Kol Israel radio station said that Romanians are not anti-semites.

But he did concede there are few “sporadic declarations, some from political figures” which are not a reflection of reality.

In 2016 Romania intends to take up the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which should help consolidate a more progressive position on the issue.

“In Romania today the Government seems on a path to combat, rather than encourage, manifestations of antisemitism in the society,” adds Ioanid.

At an official level, Romania has recognised its role in the Holocaust, and this is now taught in schools.

Nevertheless, ignorance is also widespread.

Last year, according to CNCD, 30 percent of Romanians didn’t know what the Holocaust was. And of the remaining 70 percent, almost half do not believe it happened in Romania.

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