William McPherson

William McPherson

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 24 1997 3:30 AM

William McPherson

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

A Descurca
       The price of gasoline is now 2,900 lei a liter, which is about $1.70 a gallon, more than it costs in the United States. At the average salary, it takes a week's wage, more or less, to fill the tank of a Dacia, which is the most common Romanian car. A person might reasonably think that the streets of Bucharest would be relatively free of traffic. On the contrary, the congestion is worse than ever. Every time the price of gasoline has gone up, in fact, the traffic has gone up, too, along with the fumes. How can this be? Who knows. Romanians have a word, a descurca. It means to manage, to get by, to figure things out. Somehow they do. Not even Romanians seem to know exactly how.
       "I do not know if I can resist much longer," one of them tells me, fairly frequently, but he does. A rezista is another word heard often here. It has the same meaning as the English verb "to resist," but with a stronger connotation of survival, of fighting the forces that have singled you out personally for destruction.

Advertisement

The Miners
       Coal mining is the only state-subsidized activity left in Romania now. Since the reforms that followed last November's elections, all others, of which there were many, have been stopped, including agricultural subsidies. "The mining industry is slowly but surely dying," Calin Popescu Tarinceanu, the minister of industry and trade, said last night.
       But the miners form a special social category in Romania, and they do not take kindly to their obituary notices. In the two years following the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989, they invaded Bucharest four times, maybe five, from their headquarters in Petrosani in the Jiu Valley, 220 miles from the capital. On two of these occasions the miners invaded in great numbers and the results were predictably violent. Hundreds of people were beaten, some killed, and the headquarters of opposition parties and of newspapers opposed to the government were sacked. The object of the last invasion, in September 1991, was to overthrow the prime minister, Petre Roman. It was successful. He escaped from the government headquarters in Victoria Palace in a fire truck. (The palace, or part of it, had been put to the torch.) As a result of that adventure--and again since the elections--the leader of the miners, Miron Cozma, is in prison. Exactly who called the miners on these occasions remains something of a question. That they were called is not in question. It was not a spontaneous trip.
       About 100,000 people will be affected by the closing of the mines. That figure includes miners and their families. The World Bank has allocated funds to bring the miners into modern Romanian society, but Tarinceanu doubts the project will be successful. There are simply too many people in the region. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders. Ceausescu's secret police and its successor organization under President Iliescu maintained a strong presence there.
       Although Tariceanu did not say this, for years the miners have held a privileged position in Romanian society. Their salaries are far above the average. Of course, the work is far worse than average and accidents are frequent. There was a serious one just this week. The mines look like something from the Victorian age, and despite their high salaries--a high percentage of which they appear to spend on alcohol--the miners live in appalling conditions. I once spent six days in Petrosani in a hotel without water. Fortunately I had a friend with his own well.

La Premiera
       Tariceanu was speaking at a small dinner of the Bucharest Foreign Press Association. (There is not a lot of foreign press in Romania, and most of them are Romanians representing foreign agencies.) The dinner was held on the terrace of the Restaurant La Premiera, which is at the opposite end of the scale--socially and price-wise--from Shorley, where I have been eating a lot these days.
       La Premiera was opened in the summer of 1992 by a Romanian of partly German descent from Transylvania, who'd spent the previous 20 years practicing dentistry in Munich. Tudor Oltean had always wanted to run a restaurant, and the opening of La Premiera changed not only the quality of cuisine in Bucharest but also the quality of life, at least for some of us. I don't know what he was like as a dentist, but as a restaurateur he is a master, a kind of impresario of the beautiful, people and otherwise, and a splendid host. He's also got a great location.
       At the beginning, the restaurant was relatively inexpensive. Many figures from what was then the opposition dined there, and few of them were very rich. It became the restaurant of choice for most of the foreign journalists--businessmen, too--in Bucharest. The Iliescu government was said to have regarded it as a hotbed of sedition, but there were others who thought that was only the story put forth as "a manipulation," that in fact it was a hotbed of informers. This is, after all, Romania, where, as a friend said only today, "anything is possible." In any case, the softly illuminated terrace on a balmy evening is a very agreeable place to dine.
       Unfortunately, the prices at La Premiera are now beyond my range for normal eating. Dr. Oltean drives a BMW Cabriolet these days, and has become the adjunct director for protocol and external relations of the new government of Romania. He brings Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea orange juice every morning.

The Foreign Ministry
       Earlier this week I passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hoping, among other things, to find an answer to the questions I'd posed about Ceausescu's lobbyist (and Mobutu's, and sometimes Saddam Hussein's, etc.), Edward van Kloberg III: Was he still working for the new Romanian government, and why is he dining at the embassy in Washington?
       The response was quick, a sign of the new times in Romania, but it didn't really answer the question. The program of Princess Margareta was arranged entirely by the embassy, said Adrian Petrescu in a written statement faxed from Washington. He is the director of the North American desk at the ministry in Bucharest, where he has been this week. Van Kloberg was "not for a moment" involved.
       This doesn't quite jibe with van Kloberg's assertion, but lobbyists have been known to stretch the truth in the cause of self-promotion. "Taking account of the political, humanitarian and historical aspects of the visit," Petrescu's statement continued, "I tried to assure a diversity of participants, including representatives of the White House, businessmen, journalists, and not least representatives of the local aristocracy. In this last category, aside from Baron von [sic] Kloberg ..." He's also considered an expert on the role of the royal house in the creation of the modern Romanian state, which will be news to the royal house.
       More than one Romanian government official has told me, and at least one Romanian newspaper has published, that Petrescu was an intelligence officer in Ceausescu's secret police, the Securitate. A lot of those guys found themselves in positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then, and have remained there since.
       As I said yesterday, many things have changed in Romania, and the signs of progress are everywhere. There is almost an ebullient spirit here. But a few things remain to be done, the political equivalent of the storm that swept through Bucharest last evening, cleansing and clearing the air and preparing the way for today's beautiful day.

William McPherson is a novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent much of the past seven years exploring and writing about Romania.