Tom Gallagher is a political researcher and professor who has spent 30 years examining the political life of countries in Europe and has taken a special interest in Romania. He has published several books on different subjects, such as Britain’s politics, the EU crisis and the political situation in Romania:
Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism
Romania After Ceausescu
Romania and the European Union
Modern Romania: the end of communism, the failure of democratic reform, and the theft of a nation
He has published many articles throughout the years in Romanian newspaper Romania libera and he often visits Romania.
I was quite curious about his interest in Romania and his opinion on many things that happened in our country for years and of course our current situation. I was also interested to know what he thought about Romanians and the difference between Romanians and Westerners way of being.
Q: Do you remember the first time you visited Romania?
R: Yes, I visited Romania in May 1990. It was the time when the country had its first free elections in nearly 50 years. I don’t think I had a representative picture. Bucharest in particular was very disturbed, Timisoara and Cluj were much calmer places where it was easy to get an underline feel for what things were really like.
Q: Did you spend a long time there then?
R: I made 2 visits, one of two weeks and then I returned in the summer. I was obvsiously fascinated..for 3 weeks. I visited the country most years, in the next 20 years.
Q: Do you feel the country has changed a lot?
R: I think Romanians became less nationalistic. I think they have gone too far in the other extreme and they see their country just as a platform of Europe without any distinctive or valuable features. I am not saying that is the case with all young Romanians but it is the case with a lot of them. They became far less paranoid.
There were a lot of conspiracy theories. What I regard in relation to these ordinary tragedies that occur everywhere, many people thought of a hidden hand some Svengali who was operating the levers and as the Romanians became less traumatized this kind of attitude were off and I think the underlying personality of the country has burst to the surface. This happened in about 15 years. I compare the events of 1989 like a car crash and people are staggering shocked, disturbed from the incident so they can’t see things in a clear or rational way.
I think that feeling led to things like that financial scam like Caritas, people didn’t trust institutions, normal institutions that led to the brief rise of that crazy shovinist party Romania mare. But when you consider what Romania had gone through not just udner Communism but under very unsatisfactory inter war systems to me it is surprising that were not more upheavels after 90’s. They managed to get some kind of balance and equilibrium.
Q: We Romanians are always curious of foreigners that have an interest in our country. Why are you interested in this country?
R: In the 90’s at the beginning people were curious about why I was visiting this country. They were saying” you can’t be tourist here. Life is so tough and you must have some hidden reasons”. I got that on a train from Iasi to Cluj and I thought the countryside was marvellous and they were interrupting me saying “ Why are you taking photographs?, the border is near”.
Q: But why are you really interested in Romania?
R: First of all, it is very educational. A country starting from scratch, building legal, political order with no foundation, no experience. In terms of sociological exercise it is fascinating to observe that. I learnt a lot that I was able to transfer back to British politics. Our politics are becoming turbulent and you can observe some of the situations that were happening in Romania 10 years ago, here now and the same kind of politicians who are coming forward to seem to have answers for all problems, but they are rather opportunistic or completely amateur. The west now has difficulties and if you have been in a country with even more difficulties it gives you a framework for understanding your own society.
Q: What do you think about Romanians’ trust in local authorities?
R: I think Romanians are more cautious and they have a transactional relationship. Like “ I would not trust you to cross the road with me but you are in position to offer me this concessions that will make my life a bit easier”. To me this is a sign of certain maturity.
Q: This website tries to focus on positive side of things. You have also wrote many articles about Romania’s politics which would make one pessimistic about a country. Do you think there is anything good that is happening in my country?
R: I enjoy going to Romania maybe because I am less and less interested in politics. I think I would be a freak if I would be interested in Romania’s politics because it’s not really happening. There have settled in a long phase of stagnation. But I like wondering around, seeing friends, making friends and noticing some improvements.
I think Romanians are a civil people, they are polite, they are gracious. Even in a frenetic city like Bucharest you find a lot of human kindness and consideration. I think women are treated better than in a lot of neighbouring countries. There is still a lot of time for children. The generations talk to one another. Not in a lot of countries that happens anymore where grandparents are noticed, involved in social events, kids can talk naturally to them. So I think there is an underlying social harmony. I would find it very hard to imagine a civil war in Romania. People were saying that things were so messed up in the 1990. I think one good thing is that public services have improved.
Q: You think?
R: Well, if you had a problem in the street would you approach the police?
Q: I wasn’t really in the position of having to contact the police…
R: I noticed that people would approach police. Even if they are lost or for a small matter and they will expect the police to involve themselves at least to a certain extent, while in 2005 it was “ keep away from the police, they will complicate your life. Try to solve the problem informally”.
Now I think traffic police and other agents of the state… there are rising expectations. We have the constitutional crisis in 2012 and that was suspended. A lot of people wondered what would the civil servants do? Whose side would they join? Well, they remained neutral! Which I think was a great sign of progress.
Q: Can you say anything else about what you like about Romania?
R: The civilized dimension of Romania has triumphed over the barbarian element that exists in all countries which was prominent in the country when I first came because of the political experiences.
Q: If you had the power to make changes in Romania what would you do?
I would reduce the bureaucracy. I think bureaucracy has been reduced but it is still stifling and it means that there are a lot of people with energy, ambition that prefer to do something outside than at home because there are too many obstacles. This might contradict what I said earlier but I think Romanians need to have more trust in one another. I think the 20 century political experiences have created huge mistrust and people were unable to cooperate at local level for long term, because maybe someone will run away with the money, someone will betray us at a crucial point. I think there needs to be an emphasis on cooperation at civic level. That will only come with the emergence of the institutions to achieve concrete things, to raise the confidence of people and probably in terms of politics, in terms of social activism, Rosia Montana was an example of huge mobilisation around ecology. But it was around nature. It is very difficult to betray nature if you are all on one side and if you want some kind of social role it is far more complicated. This kind of trust and solidarity shown in Rosia Montana needs to be displayed in dimensions that will bring the country forward.
I think the 20 century political experiences have created huge mistrust and people were unable to cooperate at local level for long term because maybe someone will run away with the money, someone will betray us at a crucial point. I think there needs to be an emphasis on cooperation at the civic level. That will only come with the emergence of the institutions to achieve concrete things, to raise the confidence of people and probably in terms of politics, in terms of social activism, Rosia Montana was an example of huge mobilization around ecology. But it was around nature. It is very difficult to betray nature if you are all on one side and if you want some kind of social role it is far more complicated. This kind of trust and solidarity shown in Rosia Montana needs to be displayed in dimensions that will bring the country forward.
Q: Romania has a negative image in Europe but not outside Europe, such as the USA. You will not hear negative news about Romanians there.
R: I don’t think the media is different there. I suspect there are different types of Romanians going to America, that there are more determined, have more resources, whereas a lot of Romanians from very poor backgrounds and different kind of criminals can come here and they see opportunities to benefit by breaking the law.
The media in UK is sensationalist and also I think Romania has this type of media. But when good things happen, it is not overlooked like the most recent example is the baker who saved the lives of people at the Borough market attack. He was from Iasi and he was all over the press. A lot of people were angry because he was not given recognition by the government, by the mayor of London.
Q: Do you think Romanians have a certain view of the world and certain prejudices?
R: I don’t think they are racially prejudiced. I think non-white people are more easily accepted in Romania than in Slavic countries. I never really saw skinheads in Romania and they are easily to be spot in other countries.
Q: What do you think of Romanians’ personalities?
R: I think it varies. Most Romanians are Christians which means they are conservative and they are cautious and they don’t take too many risks. While the culture in the West it is a very hedonistic one in which you are encouraged to explore your personality and taking risks is not so bad because it is unlikely that anything bad will happen. There is an emphasis on experimentation with different facets of your identity. At the moment there are debates on sexual identity. This is a sign of a libertarian society and that’s not where Romania is.
I’m not sure if you will ever be there because this kind of cultural revolution will run out of steam in the west. It’s understandable that Romanians turning up here will look with a certain degree of curiosity and amazement. There are students at British universities they will see the popular ideas, some of them will be converted and they will go back home and they will try to reintroduce these ideas but I don’t think they will succeed.
I think Romania’s identity is re-emerging in Romania, perhaps it will recover from its Communist experience more quickly than many people thought. I assumed in the 1990’as it will take 100 years. There is still a strong family oriented concern with traditional things which were the norm in the west but are no longer the case where people are living hyper individualistic existences.
Q: You are right. However, I did notice that the new generations are a bit different from the old ones, for example they are more daring and confident. But you are right, I believe in the future Romania will still be family oriented.
R: There are exceptions. Cluj is a multi-cultural island in Romania. It is full of hipsters and people I’ve described in the west. But I do not think Cluj will convert the rest of the country that easily.
Q: What do you think about what the government is doing, trying to attract Romanians abroad to return to the country by offering deductions to encourage setting up businesses.
R: The recent governments have been exceptionally short term and superficial in the reports to problems and this is a long term initiative that needs a lot of patience, dedication to get anywhere. And these are not qualities that I associate with the current class.
Q: Do you think in 20 years there will be long term effect of emigration?
R: Yes, very harmful effects. You will have a skill shortage of people in their middle ages which have left for better salaries. A classic example is in medicine where doctors and consultants can’t earn lottery type salaries in UK while they get crumbs at home. It will be difficult to replicate it there. It seems Romania will have weak tax pays, who will pay the taxes? The effects of mass immigration are negative in the long term.
I think there are different kinds of migration. For example, people from Moldova who will go to Italy but they are thinking of coming back. Their children are still in Romania and they are thinking of investing their money in farms or buying a flat, etc. But there are other people who left Romania with very little, don’t have a stake in the country they will go to Spain and they will stay in Spain. Their children will be swelled up in the Spanish culture.
I think in UK there are all sorts of immigration. There are professional people but also very poor people doing agriculture work and everything in between. Some people will retain their identity, those who are strong, others will get lost in the British world.
Q: When you visited Romania what would you say are your favourite places to visit?
That is difficult to answer. My behaviour in Romania is strange. I’ve done a lot of writing in Romania so I shut myself up in a hotel where there are very good conditions for working and I spend the whole day writing. Things that you need silence to concentrate. I would walk in Cismigiu park in the morning and in the evening meet some friends.
I’ll go to a few places, maybe I like Campulung, the road up to Bran, Rucar. They are breath-taking and I go there occasionally. I am not trying to go to every corner. I used to enjoy going to Black Sea. Places like Slanic Moldova, I liked it a lot. I had quietness for working and relaxing. I have friends in Romania who offered hospitality, they have farms and I’ve taken advantage of that.
I am going next month. I am going to Bucovina.
Q: If you go to Bucovina you should visit the monasteries.
I would go but in August it will be full of tourists. I am heading for Cernauti, I’ve never been. There’s plenty to see in Romania for visitors. I think Sighisoara is incredibly overrated. It’s good to go as a young person to let your hair down, but there are other places …
Q: Do you think there are places that are underrated in Romania?
In the north of Cluj, where Banfi had the castle.
Q: Yes, they restored it.
It is Bontida. I might go in the summer.
Q: Do you know any Romanian words?
R: Vreme, intuneric, acoperit, mohorat.
Q: But those are negative.
The weather is like this. Well..soare senin, frumos. I don’t practice it very well, I can read I can survive easily, getting around where you need to be.
Q: Most people do speak English in the cities. However, if you go in the countryside, probably not so much.
Well, it’s better to go there. Most Romanians are charmed if a foreigner has taken the trouble to learn some of their languages. It helps in terms of getting good service.
The Romanian people. Poporul roman este what’s the word? Primitor. You are generally warm and helping. You have a traditional hospitality and in the 19th century and early foreign writers noticed.
Q: Let’s discuss a different subject. I know you are writing a new book now.
R: There are two novels. One is a sequel. It’s really how a European in the 2020’s sees Britain collapsing into an internal war. It is a war between generations.
Q: Why did you choose this point of view, of the East European?
R: Because I do not think this is entirely far-fetched. It is unlikely to happen but there are real tensions between the generations. It is not a Romanian, it’s a Russian who is the narrator. But there are Romanian characters. All of the foreign characters are first generation, there have been here only for a year.
Q: So, they come here with the views they have from their country?
Yes, they have a shock. They thought UK was a solid calm united country and they find all these poisonous tensions are bubbling to the surface. And Gleb, he is a philanthropist, he has been in prison for being framed and Scottish people helped him get him settle free. He realizes there is a need for this talents, helps refugees once the war starts. So he is working with Livia who is a student in palliative care (care of elderly people), Columbian soldier, a West African who is very important and they’re helping the resistance which is still in control of some parts of the country. There is quite a role for gypsies.
There is a Pentecostalism pastor, Dacian Ursu who works with the gypsies and helps the resistance and in the end, there is a battalion of Romanian gypsies who have joined the British army and who are engaged in sabotage work, sabotaging the vanguard which are basically the fascists taking over the country. The sequel is set in Scotland and the main thing at the moment is a big scandal involving the woman. She is on trial because she had a strong erotic drive and she accidentally killed her young lover and the blame was put on a Romanian gypsy. The story is how justice is done, how the gypsy is saved from being condemned.