Keeping up with the Romanians - Ep. 6: The Government vs Intelligence

  • Last week, former PM and EU Commissioner Dacian Ciolos was accused of shady ‘ties to the former Securitate.’ Historian Marius Oprea claimed in an article that a former intelligence officer, Alexandru Iordache, was behind the official registration of Ciolos’ party, PLUS, and thus this collaboration wholly discredits Ciolos & his party.

  • While Ciolos did not directly deny this, he claims the link is spurios, as Iordache’s son was involved in registering PLUS, and that the former does not have any role within the organisation. Ciolos was criticised for his weak response in a Facebook post which cast doubt in the minds of many, including potential sympathisers.

  • It looks to be yet another dirty, or at least muddy, situation that can be directly traced back to Romania’s failure to properly come to terms with 1989 and, most importantly, to conduct an overhaul of its intelligence services, whose extensive reach is almost the stuff of legends within the public consciousness. Even opponents of PSD concede that the power and opacity of the country’s intelligence services are a noxious mix with direct impact on public life.

  • That these accusations of ties to intelligence services only surface now, as the opposition is revving up for the next couple of years of elections, is not surprising. Romania, as many EU countries are nowadays, is also fertile ground for disinformation, with the lack of trust in government and public administration compounded by citizens’ lack of trust in each other.

  • What’s more, PSD has been talking about a “parallel state” for years now, and the latest attack fits the populist narrative perfectly: ‘we are the only option, the opposition is either bought by foreigners/Soros or in the grasp of illegitimate parallel power structures.’

  • To me, this episode raises concerns over the state of the opposition and its ability to withstand a battle-hardened and savvy PSD in the election period to come. This most recent attack has the potential to hound Ciolos, while his relatively muted response could be seen as an example of how not to communicate, as it raised more questions instead of being a forceful rejection of the narrative PSD is pushing; a good opportunity to stress that the opposition is not funded from abroad or used as a front by occult interests was wasted. At the end of the day, there are thousands of people working to make these 2 new opposition parties (PLUS and USR) work, to imply like the original article mentioned above does, that they're a way for the old Securitate to refresh its image is ludicrous and insulting.

  • The good news is that the government coalition is scared enough of the prospect of Ciolos as a candidate (he’s announced he’s standing in the EP elections which he might use as a stepping stone to a Presidential or internal parliamentary elections) to play this card. As an aside, if you’d like to read more about the source of the attack, try this (in Romanian).

  • Regardless, and at the risk of being accused of once again proposing a negative vote (voting against something rather than for), Romania needs to prepare to vote in May if it wants to push back on the populist narrative promoted by the government coalition. Also if doesn’t want more Viorica Dancilas (a former MEP) in the European Parliament.

IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT!?!?

IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT!?!?

Anyway. Here’s a good (no, great!) example of how to communicate and how to do digital diplomacy: Sweden’s MFA.

50472092_10155970433568314_2488364129857830912_o.jpg

In part to do with the MFA’s central strategy, in part to do with the personal efforts of the former Deputy Head of Mission, Alexandre Peyre, the Swedish Embassy in Romania has pretty much become the gold standard when it comes to digital diplomacy and public engagement by foreign missions.

Here, they take the #10yearchallenge and use it to poke gentle, collegial fun at Romania’s infrastructure struggles. I’d say this is better than repeating the word cohesion every 5 minutes because you’ve just learned what it means and want to show it off.

Fact checking Romania's propaganda video

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at what happened with The Romanians over the last week and why it matters.

In the meantime, the Government has released a promotional country video, ahead of 1 December which will mark 100 years of statehood. You can have a look here (sadly there are no English subtitles available):

It’s definitely a weird video, from the inappropriate telemarketing voiceover to the overflowing pathos. It is riddled with clichés, which is a cardinal sin in itself. Most notably, it perpetuates myths and lies about Romania’s history. I went through the clip multiple times to check the claims it contains so that you don’t have to waste your time and brain cells with it.


0:45

Claim: Romania is home to the last wild wolves in Europe.

Facts: In recent years, wolves have begun making a comeback across Europe, in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Finland etc. At best, the information is outdated. Additionally, the clip uses stock footage of wild wolves from Norway. Which definitely complicates matters. Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:03

Claim: Romania is the country of the immortal Dracula

Facts: Dracula is a fictional character. Read more.

Truth:


1:25

Claim: the first instance of human flight using a heavier-than-air vehicle took place in Romania.

Facts: Traian Vuia was Romanian, designed the first monoplane, and proved a heavier-than-air craft could fly. However, he received his degree from the University of Budapest, and went on to build his aircraft and test it in France. Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:30

Claim: The first jet engine and jet plane were both built in Romania.

Facts: In 1910 the Romanian inventor Henri Coanda filed a patent on a jet propulsion system. It was installed in his Coanda-1910 but there are contradictory contemporary accounts about whether the aircraft actually flew. Coanda himself only described it as the ‘world’s first jet’ in the 1950s, 4 decades after its creation.

FLIGHT - 14 October 1960 - link

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:35

Claim: The first woman engineer was in Romania.

Facts: Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu was indeed a pioneer, one of the first women engineers in history. However, she received her degree from the Royal Academy of Technology in Berlin, after being denied admission into the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest because she was a woman. One could argue she became a pioneer in spite of Romania, not unlike the two gentlemen above.

Read more about her here and here.

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:37

Claim: The world’s first oil refinery was built in Romania.

Facts: Romania was the first country in the world to have had its own production officially registered. It also was one of the first countries in the world to open a large oil refinery (as opposed to earlier ‘refineries’ which were simple workshops for manual processing of petroleum - i.e. nothing more than distillation). Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


1:40

Claim: The first European city to be electrically illuminated was in Romania.

Facts: Timisoara was one of the first European cities to be fitted with public electric lights. However, at the time, in 1884, Timisoara was firmly part of Austria-Hungary. Moreover, both Nürnberg and Berlin were fitted with electric public lighting in 1882. Read more.

Truth: ⭐


1:48

Claim: The fountain pen is a Romanian invention.

Facts: While reservoir pens date back to the 10th century, it was Petrache Poenaru who patented the fountain pen on May 25th, 1827. He invented it while he was studying in Paris (which is not in Romania). Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


1:50

Claim: Insulin is a Romanian discovery

Facts: Nicolae Paulescu was professor of Physiology in Bucharest and was quite close to the discovery of insulin but researchers in Toronto were faster and more efficient. Frederick Banting and John Macleod won the Nobel prize, which Banting shared with Charles Best and Macleod with J. Collip. Paulescu’s contribution in insulin discovery was recognized after his death. Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐⭐


1:56

Claim: The cholera vaccine is a Romanian invention.

Facts: Sir Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, Russian-Jewish émigré to Switzerland and then France, is widely recognised as the first microbiologist to develop an anti-cholera vaccine, tested successfully in India between 1893 and 1903. Read more.

Truth: ⭐


2:46

Claim: The Romanian Parliament is the largest building in Europe and 2nd in the world.

Facts: It helps when you know exactly what “largest” means. Obviously, it’s not the tallest building in Europe or 2nd tallest in the world. It also doesn’t crack the global top 10 if we’re talking volume/usable space or footprint on the ground or floor area.

The most it can claim for itself (despite having no alibi whatsoever for being so u.g.l.y.) is that it’s the largest parliament building in the world.

Truth: it’s definitely monstrously big ⭐⭐


These myths, many of them cemented in people’s consciousness over decades of nationalist-communist propaganda, are perpetuated by the government in the year of the Centenary, almost 30 years since the fall of communism. Why is this - beyond the immediate answer of ‘because it’s politically expedient’?

For starters, PSD lives and breathes nationalism and populism. It is the direct descendent of the Romanian Communist Party; this is how nationalist and populist parties like to talk, down to the telemarketing-style affectation and being loose with the facts. If by July 2019 this blog manages to persuade anyone to stop looking at PSD as a Social Democratic party and instead categorise it as a populist/nationalist party, I will be happy.

Then, I believe a good deal of it is pure incompetence. Someone drafted a list of factoids and ‘accomplishments’ they had memorised since primary school and regurgitated them uncritically into a script without a narrative line, probably deciding it’s not worth verifying that everything is correct. I’d go as far as to say this reflects the level of expertise and knowledge of the majority of people promoted through party structures into public administration, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

Lastly, this video is a microcosm of Romania’s inferiority complexes. Why does everything need to be superlative? Why is everything Romanian exceptional and the absolute best? The video also perpetuates the myth that Romania, this “isle of Latin-dom in the Balkans,” is the direct descendant of Rome and Dacia, as if in the 1700 year-interlude since, Romanians didn’t mix with migrating peoples and other neighbouring cultures. Being called a ‘Balkan country’ is still taken as an insult by many Romanians, as the modern identity was built in opposition to the Slavic nations of the region.

We are witnessing a resurrection of protochronism for the digital age: history is abused to serve the narrative of the ruling party, presenting an idealised version of history based on questionable data and dodgy interpretations. It is presented in an easily-shareable and visually appealing format that artificially inflates feelings of patriotism and belonging.

Has the government hit the right note? It may be too early to say. This bar is encouraging, though:

Happy 100th birthday, Romania!