William McPherson

William McPherson

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 23 1997 3:30 AM

William McPherson

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Not very long ago the gates to Cotroceni Palace, the Romanian White House, were solid and forbidding, giving the place the look of a walled fortress, which, in a way, it was. On a couple of occasions the fortress was stormed, though the walls were not breached.
       I passed by the palace today. Now the gates are wrought iron, allowing a view of the beautiful park and the fountain splashing within. It's a small change, maybe, but a real one, and it seems to me to represent the serious changes that are finally taking place within this country. Romania itself is a very different place today than it was a few years ago, or even a few months ago. The energy and optimism and the spirit of openness are palpable. The elections of last November, in which a coalition of democratic forces led by President Emil Constantinescu soundly defeated the nationalists and former Communist Party activists under ex-President Ion Iliescu, have made a real difference.
       "It's the most rapidly and radically transforming economy in Eastern Europe," says Adam Brown, the Dow Jones correspondent here. Share prices on the new Bucharest Stock Exchange have soared by an average of 97 percent since April 1 on rumors that foreign money was coming into the market. The government is expected to put forth a new foreign-investment law tomorrow that will be the most generous in Eastern Europe. The law, which must be passed by Parliament, allows for immediate repatriation of funds and a capital-gains tax of 4 percent. The old slogan--"We don't sell our country"--is dead.
       In a glossy modern building over near the Foisor, the old water tower that is a landmark in Bucharest, the MediaPro conglomerate is running an operation that looks as professional as anything in the West. Its television station, Pro TV, is the first nationwide private television station in Romania, and it never stops. Its equipment, they tell me, is state-of-the-art. Most of its staff look as if they've yet to see their 30th birthday.
       The organization was begun several years ago by Adrian Sarbu, the man famous here for filming behind the scenes during the first few days of the new Romanian government in December 1989. In 1995 Ronald S. Lauder's Central Media European Enterprises invested $20 million, and the joint venture with Sarbu and the Romanian tennis player and coach Ion Tiriac took off.
       Today they are planning a major public-relations campaign that will begin June 1 with simultaneous live transmissions from the White House lawn, London, Moscow, Bonn, and Paris--all beamed back to Bucharest to show the people here how the world views Romania. If Ivonne Ghita, Pro TV's public-relations manager, who started out not very long ago covering sports (she's one of the under-30s), has her way, the world will be viewing Romania a lot better after the campaign.
       It's called Operation Pro NATO: Mission Possible, and the June 1 events are only the beginning. "But whether we get into NATO in this round is almost irrelevant to what we're trying to accomplish," she said. "We want to encourage Romanians to be a part of the future of Romania." The future, of course, and as everyone here will tell you, is with the West.
       To do that they're selling postcards all over the country for 5,000 lei (71 cents) surveying attitudes toward NATO. The reason they can sell the postcards at this price is because there will be a drawing--many drawings, actually--and the top prize is a billion lei. That's about $143,000. Daily drawings are for 10 million lei, and weekly drawings for 100 million. Then there's the apartment, and the car.
       I think I'll buy one myself.

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