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A guide to Romania: Stereotypes

Current-day Romania has been in the news lately, especially since its application for EU membership is under review. For this reason I want to discuss some of the more frequent stereotypes associated with Romania. Here they are:

Corruption

Romania is often portrayed in the news as a corrupt and baksheesh-kickback motivated country. For sure, Romania is not Singapore. That does not mean that everyone will attempt to rob you blind and that you should trust no one, from public officials to law enforcement. Corruption in Romania has several sources: it is a legacy of the Turkish Empire, a consequence of the fact that Romania is still a rural, personal relationship-based society, and it is also due to the difficult times under Communism when basic goods could only be found through under-the-counter dealings. You will find honest Romanians all through the society; use judgment and do not assume that everyone is honest or that everyone is a crook. For example, a few years ago it used to be possible to “resolve” a minor traffic violation by slipping a $10 bill to the officer; nowadays there is a drive underway to reduce corruption in society, and this kind of action may be risky. As a rule, it is better not to have any dealings with the legal system at all!

Poverty

Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned [in Part 1], the ’90s brought a breakdown in the relative egalitarianism that characterised Romania during the Communist era. I say “unfortunately” because this has meant that a large percentage of the population (especially in the countryside and the industrial workers) has seen its living standards plummet. It can be argued that poverty was equally distributed before, since there was a general scarcity of goods; however, the fact is that during Communism healthcare, such as it was, was free, and the prices of basic goods were controlled by the state. Transition to capitalism dealt a severe blow to that part of the population whose salaries did not rise with the prices. While you will find very well paid Romanians, and indeed there is a wealthy class (most of whom made their money in a decade or less), the average Romanian still lives on a few hundred euros a month; with property prices skyrocketing in the last few years, decent housing is out of reach for many Romanians.

At the same time, you will notice that many Romanians like to put on a façade of luxury, as shown by the latest generation mobile phones (which are often more expensive than in the West), unnecessarily flashy cars (in a country with terrible roads), and the relative elegance that especially young women like to affect. Romanians place great importance on appearances, and many of them do not have a culture of saving/investing. At the same time, a rise in incomes and the explosion of consumer credit has made many trappings of “wealth” available to the 20- and 30-something crowd.

Even so, a trip to the countryside (sometimes reminding one more of the 19th century than of the 21st) or to the inner cities (with their dilapidated buildings and listless population) is a sobering reminder of the discrepancies prevalent in Romanian society, as are the beggars you will find in any large city. Poverty in Romania is not as intractable as in some places in Latin America or in Asia, but it is a blemish on the country’s face.

Treatment of children

Romania has unfortunately made a name for itself through its orphanages. While I am sure some very sad cases are true, I would take the recent news in the media with a large pinch of salt. There are political interests and pressure is exerted on the Romanian government to allow international adoptions of Romanian children, so there might be some biases in reporting. Romania is a developing country and is doing what it can afford to do to provide a better life for its orphans. It is unfortunate that neither the society nor the church has a strong tradition of charity. However, accusing the country of systematically mistreating its children is unfair and untrue.

On a related note, since Romanian society is relatively traditional, children tend to be strictly controlled by parents and are not as empowered as their counterparts in the West.

Gypsies

The Gypsy population is a difficult social problem that has not been solved satisfactorily yet. They are not exclusive to Romania, but they live in larger numbers in Romania compared to other countries in Europe. In Romania they used to be dependent serfs and were freed only late in the 19th century. They speak their own language and live in their own (often migrant) communities, with insignificant mingling with Romanian society. There is a not insignificant amount of prejudice against them from mainstream Romanian society (some of them engage in criminal activities, which unfortunately has led to the whole Gypsy community being branded as criminal).

1 Comment

EC 09-04-2011, 10:23

ref to the last point about gypsies: they are rarely migrant in romania; they have their own “quarters” at the border of the romanian villages; the gypsies were forced to settle during hundreds of years, as they were dependent serfs and thus “stuck” on their landlords’ territories.

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