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Sunday, 3 December, 2000, 12:59 GMT
Romanians gamble with their future
Corneliu Vadim Tudor
Tudor in focus: Will the people choose the poet?
By Nick Thorpe in Bucharest

As the results of the elections in Romania began to filter in, late last Sunday night, a thick fog descended on Bucharest - a real pea-souper.

The past four years were largely wasted in Romania, most commentators would agree

At its best, this city looks like Paris - with elegant, wrought iron balconies overlooking cobbled streets. At its worst, it's like a scene from Fritz Lang's film, Metropolis.

The House of the People, a lavish marble monstrosity built by the former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, has 21 floors, seven beneath the ground, and is bigger than the Pentagon. The Romanian Parliament meets here, with only a little exaggeration, in the cupboard under the stairs.

But on Sunday night, all was lost in the fog - a fog generated, many people told me, by the uncertainty into which this election has plunged their country.

Punishing the politicians

The past four years were largely wasted in Romania, most commentators would agree.

A five-party coalition government, which came to power in 1996 promising to privatise the economy and reveal the truth about the Communist past, failed to do either, and exhausted its energies on internal squabbles.

As a punishment, the electorate failed to grant the Christian Democrats who led it a single seat in the new parliament.

There is nothing wrong with being a nationalist... It means to love your country

Corneliu Vadim Tudor
Instead, the election has two winners: the left-wing Party of Social Democracy, closely followed by Corneliu Vadim Tudor and his Greater Romania Party. They could best be described as "national Communist".

Mr Tudor, the Greater Romania leader, is fond of presenting visiting journalists with a chunky hardback volume of his own poems - in eight languages. Printed in Italy, on quality paper.

And the first shock is, that the poems are not bad. Many are melancholy, and refer to the poet's relationship to his mother. His sadness as she grows old, and eventually leaves him.

His knowledge of world literature may not be deep, but it is encyclopaedic.

"Yes, I am a nationalist," he told one interviewer on election night. "Jonathan Swift was a nationalist. William Shakespeare was a nationalist. There is nothing wrong with being a nationalist. It means to love your country. What is wrong is to be an extremist, a chauvinist, a xenophobe."

But his political enemies fear that he is just that.

Hungarians' fears

For the past decade Mr Tudor's newspaper has preached hatred and intolerance. Two years ago, he said Romania could only be governed with a machine-gun.

The trouble with extremist leaders is that they whip up the worst in people

A frequent target for his invective is Romania's large Hungarian minority. "Tudor has said he will drive all Hungarians from Transylvania with an axe," one Hungarian woman told me.

I haven't yet found when and where, or even if he said that, but that is the fear now among the Hungarians who live peacefully with their Romanian neighbours.

Despite many historic problems between different ethnic groups, Romania could also be described as a functioning, rough and ready sort of multi-cultural society, where ordinary people get along just fine. Just like Bosnia in 1990.

The trouble with extremist leaders is that they whip up the worst in people. Mr Tudor's party also targets the gypsies, and the Jews.

Ceausescu's legacy

Under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, from 1965 to 1989, Romania was not just Communist, it was a country of national Communism.

Ion Iliescu
Socialist Iliescu helped sweep Ceausescu from power
Ceausescu was a great admirer of North Korea - with its cult of personality, and massive, public pageants. He liked nothing better than girls and boys marching past his podium in national costume.

Ion Iliescu, the Socialist candidate in the presidential run-off, once played tennis with Nicolae Ceausescu.

But he was exiled to the provinces for his dissent, and played a key role in the revolution which swept Ceausescu from power.

Corneliu Vadim Tudor wrote his worst poems in praise of the dictator, and has filled his party with agents of the much feared secret police, the Securitate.

One last chance

Romania's future integration into Europe, no less, will depend on next Sunday's vote. Although both candidates say they want EU and Nato membership, it seems certain that if the nationalist wins, Romania will face international isolation.

If Austria, with its long democratic tradition, could be so ostracised, after the entry into government of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in February - how much more so would Romania be, with its fragile democracy, and its stagnant, unreformed economy.

The reason so many people voted for Mr Tudor in Romania is desperation, and disappointment. Romania's political leaders in the past decade, of all complexions, have let them down badly.

They may have one more chance to save their country from the poet.

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See also:

27 Nov 00 | Europe
Election polarises Romania
28 Nov 00 | Europe
Romania's far-right contender
31 May 00 | Europe
Bank crisis 'threat' to Romania
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