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Saturday, 24 November, 2001, 14:47 GMT
Romanian action man: Traian Basescu
 Traian Basescu
Sleeves up: Basescu does not shrink from conflict
By Silvia Radan and Alina Hutt in Bucharest

After a decade and more of democratic government, Romania is still dogged by a depressingly long list of social problems.

Bumpy roads, leaky sewers and the infamous street dogs of the capital, Bucharest, are the sort of things governments have been readier to talk about than to tackle.

He is an action man who's got courage and that is exactly what we needed

Pirosca Dobre
travel agent
So when Traian Basescu, a former government minister, turned to local government and stood for mayor in Bucharest last year, he kept the promises short.

He offered electors a single page of basic jobs that badly needed doing - and a refreshingly direct slogan: "I never promised you a rose garden".

With a background in commercial shipping, the 50-year-old Mr Basescu only moved into politics after the fall of Communism in 1989, joining the centre-left Democratic Party. In 1991, he became transport minister - a job he held for six years in five different cabinets.

For Mr Basescu, the move to the mayor's office was not a step down.

"One obtains a minister's job through political negotiations, but the mayor is elected directly by people," he says.

"I have a clear feeling of the political power given to me by voters, and I'm making full use of that power, especially in my relationship with the government."

Dog fight

With inflation still running high, and many people feeling few benefits of a market economy, Mr Basescu is concentrating on trying to improve the basic quality of life for Bucharest residents.

In the past year, he has launched a number of campaigns and initiatives, without shrinking from the odd bruising battle with affected interest groups.

Stray dog
Basescu's war on strays has divided the city

He removed the kiosks which had sprung up all over the city, clogging the pavements and selling everything from liver pate to shampoo and stockings - most of it illegally imported.

There has been a crackdown on illegal advertising billboards, which also spread over the city's walls and buildings like fungus.

He has invested in schools, repaired street lights, and organised the first-ever public New Year's Eve party for the city.

Most controversially, he has taken on Bucharest's notorious stray dogs, paying animal welfare groups to round up and sterilise the animals, and encouraging people to adopt them.

It is a policy that has split Bucharest into two groups, and led to accusations of brutality from animal lovers backed by Bridget Bardot.

Even the mayor's supporters admit that there was a period when the policy went very wrong - with the money given to animal welfare disappearing and angry people killing the dogs with sticks and poison.

Tourist potential

Mr Basescu also has big plans to rebuild Bucharest's old town, which was partly destroyed in a fury of communist demolition, in the last decade of Nicolae Ceausescu's rule.

His programme, called "A Beautiful Bucharest", will cost $1.5m and restore 25 old buildings and six streets around the ruins of the Princely Court, not far from the University Square.

Building being renovated
Reconstruction means moving existing residents out
But this project too has its controversial aspects.

Most of the houses there have no heating or electricity, and people live there for minimal rents. Once the area is renovated, rents will shoot up - and the old residents, many of them gypsies, will be moved out.

Mr Basescu says they will be rehoused elsewhere in the city.

"For me this project is a priority and I hope that by the end of my term of office, at least 30% of the old town will regain its former style. There is architecture of extraordinary beauty here and the area has great tourist potential."

No nonsense

In a country where politicians are more than usually prone to an excess of hot air, Mr Basescu's no-nonsense approach has created a small sensation.

On taking office, he insisted that all city hall staff reapplied for their jobs, so that he could cut out the dead wood.

"He is crazy!" says Pirosca Dobre, 53, who works in a travel agency.

Justice is not negotiable

Traian Basescu

"I say this because when he decides to do something for the community he doesn't care about political interests. He is an action man who's got courage and that is exactly what we needed."

"He is pragmatic and not afraid of anyone" enthuses Orlando Rosu, a 31-year-old magazine art director.

"He is also the only mayor who did something for this city."

Property restitution

One area in which Romania has moved more slowly than much of Eastern Europe is the restitution of property nationalised when the Communists came to power after World War II.

A law was passed earlier this year allowing former owners to reclaim property, but the government kept very quiet about it, until the time allowed for applications to be filed was in danger of expiring.

Mr Basescu believes that the left-wing government was playing tricks.

Old building in Bucharest
Basescu has encouraged people to reclaim their former property

"It used the law internationally, to show western countries that look, we've done something, but in Romania they've never made it public," he says.

So he decided to publicise it himself - and within a few weeks, 15,000 claims were made at Bucharest's city hall.

"It's going to be," continues Mr Basescu, "a fast process, without any hesitations. Justice is not negotiable."

People living in property restored to its former owners will be able to stay on as tenants for five years before having to move out.

By that time, Mr Basescu believes the city will be able to help them find new housing.

See also:

21 Apr 01 | Europe
Romania dog cull starts
10 Sep 01 | Europe
Uphill struggle for Europe's Roma
02 Mar 01 | Europe
Bardot 'saves' Bucharest's dogs
11 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Romania struggles to escape past
25 May 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Going back to Romania
09 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Romania
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Romania
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