Seen from the west, Romania has profoundly changed during the last three decades, since the collapse of the former Communist regime. Starting from a Soviet satellite-status, Romania has entered the path of western-style modernization and joined both NATO and EU and a new, younger economic and political elite emerged.
But many among these new leaders think that Romania hasn’t changed enough and that the modernization is too limited, and they call for a major structural reset of the country.
Historically, this is actually a very old debate in Romania, since the formation of the country following the union of two small principalities, Wallachia and Moldova.
A 19-century politician and writer, Titu Maiorescu, theorized this old Romanian problem as “forms without substance.”
A 21-century country in a 19-century structure
In fact, since the 19th century, Romania adopted western institutions and garment, but failed to adopt western spirit and industry.
This was a major source of discontent and may explain some of the current Romanian structural problems compared with other EU member states.
In fact, Romania is a large country that is still maintaining a 19-century administrative structure, hyper-centralized, with small counties ruled by powerful leaders – called “barons” by the Romanians – and no larger functional regional units.
This means that the central government is very powerful and the local authorities are rather weak. In the same time, most of the resources in the country are managed by Bucharest, often without carrying much about the needs of the local communities.
This power structure is in use in Romania since its creation, in 1859. At that moment, the local elites – mostly including very rich landowners – thought that this French model of a very centralized state is the best option for Romania, and this structure didn’t really change ever since.
This hyper-centralized structure coupled with a Levantine long tradition of corruption, nepotism and very limited meritocracy was a door wide open to extravagant waste of resources.
This model also meant very few incentives for innovation as a huge bureaucracy controlled and overregulated all aspects of economic and social activity.
However, this hyper-centralized model – which continued under the Communist regime, even if in a different manner – has weakened during the last three decades.
The first major blow was the collapse of the Communist regime per se: people didn’t fear any more, they didn’t trust the government and many found out that they can live on their own ignoring the government.
For a decade, in the 1990s, Romania had weak governments and many talented people created businesses, capitalizing on the low administrative capacity – including the capacity of the bureaucracy to block entrepreneurship.
This window of opportunity was partially closed later, in the 2000s, when the government became stronger again and began to redirect resources only to selected (few) businesses close to the political elites.
But the 2000s also brought another major change: Romania joined the EU and NATO, and the government was forced, for the first time since the fall of the Communist regime, to share some of its powers with other structures – the European Commission and the Americans.
This EU accession also brought substantial social changes: Romanians could travel and work without visas in the western European countries and millions seized the opportunity to escape their corrupt elites and voted with their feet.
In the same times, many among those who preferred to stay had the opportunity to travel and to study in western Europe, and this opportunity changed the mentality of many.
In the local economy, massive foreign investment created well paid jobs and opportunities, enabling the formation of a real middle-class in the big cities.
All these trends seem now to become mature: a new younger and westernized population search new leaders to represent it.
Structural problems to address
Some of these younger leaders, from the entire political spectrum, began already to propose some structural reforms.
The newest political party on the Romanian scene, USR, together with its ally Plus, announced some ideas of reform: cancelling special pensions, a form of reward for loyal supporters of the political elites, an administrative reform including a major cut of the number of state-employees, and a major reform of Bucharest’s administrative structure and the abolition of Ilfov county.
The leader of Plus, Dacian Ciolos, said that Romania needs also a Constitutional reform in order to better clarify the structure of power and to enable structural reforms.
Victor Ponta, the leader of another younger party, Pro Romania, recently proposed to halve the number of counties in the country and the number of communes.
The Liberal Party (PNL) has a more moderate approach, but it nevertheless proposes to limit the number of ministries to 14 and a large economic reform, including within the state-owned enterprises.
But a younger leader of PNL, Sebastian Burduja, recently said that Romania need a reset of its political debate and major reforms in many areas in order to allow better solutions for the country’s future.
However, many of these much-needed reforms are difficult to implement due to Constitutional obstacles or to other chaotic regulations.
But some doubt that the younger leaders, born in the predominant culture of a powerful Romanian state, are really ready for a strong reform of the nature of the state itself or are just thinking at smaller reforms.