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Last Updated: Monday, 6 December, 2004, 14:28 GMT
Tough rebirth for Romania

Viorel Oancea
Viorel Oancea: First officer to address crowds during revolution
Romania is preparing to elect a new president, 15 years after the revolution that toppled the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The BBC's Brussels correspondent Oana Lungescu returned to her homeland to find out what had happened to those who supported the changes and those who opposed them.

One of the reasons why the revolution started in Timisoara - on Romania's western border with Hungary and Serbia - can be found in the city's name.

There are actually four different names, reflecting its multi-cultural and outward-looking nature: Timisoara in Romanian, Temisvaru in Serbian, Temesvar in Hungarian and Temeschburg in German.

In December 1989, historian Victor Neumann was leaving his native city for Germany, where he was planning to stay for the rest of his life. When he saw that a revolution was unfolding back home, he changed his mind.

Like most Romanians, he now thinks the revolution concealed a coup by disenchanted communists who wanted to keep their grasp on power.

But he is not sorry he came back.

"It was an opportunity to contribute to the rewriting of our history," he said.

"I'm confident that Romania has a future in the European Union."

Telecoms boom

Standing on the balcony of the opera house in Timisoara's central square, where 15 years ago he was the first army officer to address the crowds, Viorel Oancea also remembers those heady days.

"We had high hopes, as high as the cathedral," he recalls.

"But they were not fulfilled. We thought that democracy is like a door, you open it and step into another world."

Nicolae Ceausescu
Under Ceausescu, only 10% of Romanians had a fixed phone, because we weren't supposed to talk too much
Dan Bedros, CEO, Alcatel Romania
But, as Romanians have learnt the hard way, democracy is more like a long journey.

The country is ranked as the most corrupt of those seeking EU membership, and one of the poorest. Romanians earn just a quarter of the EU average.

But Romania's cheap workforce is also proving a tremendous asset in Timisoara's successful drive to promote itself as an outsourcing centre for the IT and telecoms industry.

Many of the talented students who graduate from the local university are snapped up by the 5,000 foreign investors drawn to the city, including multinationals like Siemens, Solectron and Alcatel.

"Under Ceausescu, only 10% of Romanians had a fixed phone, because we weren't supposed to talk too much," said Dan Bedros, CEO of Alcatel Romania.

"Today, the fixed network has doubled, while one in three Romanians owns a mobile phone."

Ciprian Jichici, a university lecturer who set up his own computer software company at 22, thinks companies like Alcatel are making a difference.

In the late 1990s, he told me, one in three of his students wanted to leave Romania. Now, only one in 10 wants to emigrate.

'No future'

Just 200 kilometres (124 miles) to the east, the Jiu Valley is a world away.

While in Timisoara, unemployment is around 4%, in this mining area it is six times higher - well above the national rate.

Once, 60,000 coal miners worked here. A quarter of them are left.

Miners in the Jiu Valley
Romania's mining communities are struggling for work and money
Sixty more mines are set to close in the next few years, as Romania starts to slash hefty state subsidies to prepare for EU membership.

In the early 1990s, the miners made headlines when they marched on the capital Bucharest to aggressively confront anti-communist protesters. Now, they are a spent force.

At Livezeni, I accompanied a group of miners 300 metres (990 feet) underground in a rickety metal cage.

I picked my way through the narrowing gallery, trying to avoid the hanging cables overhead, the pieces of discarded machinery underfoot, and the occasional rat scurrying past.

This is hot, hard and dangerous work. After a series of explosions last year, the mine is operating at half its capacity.

However, those who work here count themselves lucky to have a job.

"For my children, there's no future in mining," one man told me.

Democratic future?

Some of Livezeni's young people are studying computer sciences, others have found scarce jobs in the private sector. But many are looking for work abroad.

Ana Maria David and her mother
The David family regret the end of Ceausescu's regime
Alexandru David, 16, has not put much thought into where exactly he would like to go. All he knows is that he wants to leave Romania in order to have a better life.

The David family lives on $80 a month, in one of Romania's drab communist developments.

In the cramped living-room, Alexandru's father Paul showed me a huge stack of papers - the 999 petitions he has sent to the authorities to ask for help on behalf of laid-off miners like himself.

Paul David told me he dreads even the thought of Christmas.

"In summer, we picked berries and mushrooms to survive, but now we hardly have anything to eat," he said.

"We live on top of mountains of coal, but we freeze in our homes."

Paul David openly admits he misses Nicolae Ceausescu and the certainties of communist rule.

He has taught his grand-daughter Ana Maria a poem he wrote himself, called Democracy, sarcastically declaring he is "overjoyed" at having democracy when he is "so hungry that it hurts".

Ana Maria will be part of a generation of Romanians growing up as EU citizens.

Their definition of democracy will determine Romania's future.

Romania upholds election result
01 Dec 04 |  Europe
Romania curbs foreign adoptions
15 Jun 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Romania
30 Nov 04 |  Country profiles


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