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Romania’s Anti-Communist Straussianism

Romania’s Anti-Communist Straussianism

The decision of the Bucharest Court of Justice on Friday, September 20th 2019, to uphold the verdict issued in May by the National Council for the Study of the Archives of the “Securitate” (CNSAS) regarding former President Traian Băsescu’s collaboration with the Communist regime’s secret police has been received with a sense of avenged satisfaction on the part of his long-time critics and adversaries. This was doubled by a feeling of avowed surprise on the part of his most loyal and ardent supporters. Neither of these opposite attitudes is however justified by a careful analysis of the country's recent politics. 

Friends’ and foes’ feelings 

Although Băsescu has appealed the decision at the High Court of Cassation and Justice – known officially as the Supreme Court of Justice before 2003 – and there is some scope for hair splitting CNSAS’ verdicts, the facts are pretty clear and cannot be changed: as a naval cadet, young Traian Băsescu informed under the alias “Petrov” to the Department of State Security, colloquially known as Securitatea, that two of his colleagues were planning to leave the country, which in those times obviously meant derailing their careers and making their life in Romania not only permanent but also miserable.

When Communism imploded and the difficult transition to capitalist democracy began, there were two conflicting societal options for managing the process. The first was oblivion and amnesty for whatever wrongdoings happened up to that point and the other was remembrance and lustration of the political personnel involved. At first sight, the conflicting options overlap squarely with the (neo)communist-anti-communist camps, but, in reality, things proved to be a lot muddier.

All over Central and Eastern Europe, the fall of the totalitarian Communist regimes has generated a political cleavage between (former) Communists and anti-communists which, 30 years on, still polarizes public opinion, although it has become considerably muted. Unlike in Russia, where Communism lasted longer and marked an infant society under the Czarist autocracy more thoroughly, the fall of the regime in these countries generally brought to the fore the victims and various organized opposition groups which the former Communist elites, who continue to retain considerable power, could not ignore. These victims and opposition groups did more than simply delegitimize the former regime as such, which had gained the support and affection of a significant section of the working class population it nurtured, as shown by the recurring nostalgia for the job security and social stability of that era during times of economic stress. They also delegitimized or tried to delegitimize the former Communist elites, who were busy reinventing themselves as democratic politicians, technocrats and capitalist businessmen, thus reproducing their preeminent status from one regime into the next. Whence the moral and emotional charge of the revelation that Romania’s first President who unequivocally condemned the Communist regime as “criminal and genocidal” was himself involved with its most repressive institutions.

In the view of Traian Băsescu’s most prominent critics – mostly historians gathered around The Romanian Institute for Recent History (IRIR), who hinted at unconfirmed rumours regarding Băsescu’s collaboration with the Securitate since the middle of 2000 –, he was no less a man of the past and no less corrupt than the former Communist left-wing politicians he took aim at; a man with a dictatorial mindset and extraordinary versatility who embodied a neoconservative right-wing populism. His supporters, on the other hand, who are mostly philosophers among the Romanian intelligentsia, saw in his rough manners and socialist political career useful qualities to succeed against the “neocommunist” political “system” which, by his own admission, defeated the only previous right-wing Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu. 

The (re)call of duty 

When Communism imploded and the difficult transition to capitalist democracy began, there were two conflicting societal options for managing the process. The first was oblivion and amnesty for whatever wrongdoings happened up to that point and the other was remembrance and lustration of the political personnel involved. At first sight, the conflicting options overlap squarely with the (neo)communist-anti-communist camps, but, in reality, things proved to be a lot muddier.

The Communist regimes had a gigantic and multilayered bureaucratic apparatus specialised in enforcing conformity, ideological loyalty, propaganda and repression which involved millions of people in all aspects of their life. In Romania, for instance, around half a decade passed since CNSAS was established in 1999 for its board members to access classified Securitate files and settle on a new “nomenklature” of personal responsibilities for communist regime misdeeds: informant, collaborator, officer etc. Given the scale of the human effort involved, even some dissidents turned out to have sometimes collaborated with the Communist regime’s repressive institutions at one point or another, informing on fellow dissidents, friends and even family. As efforts to make the past clearer turned it murkier, even highly celebrated anti-communists such as the Polish intellectual Adam Michnik turned against lustration, in apparent agreement with the former Communist elites who argued that probing into the past fosters disunity, conflict and… injustice in the present.

The use of the national security apparatus – with all the Communist-era bad reputation and questionable democratic control that still surrounds it – to address grave social problems, such as corruption broadly defined, was not Băsescu’s invention, but a practice dating from the late 1990s, when in the mind of the Liberal elite it became a top-down way to correct what more transparent but weak ordinary police and judicial institutions failed to do in the chaos of the political transition, thus perpetuating in a way some Communist-era institutional routines and more general structural shortcomings of the Romanian centralized state.

Although Băsescu was an unbearably controlling type of personality, who live-called – and still does, now as a Member of the European Parliament – TV hosts whenever his name came up on the screen, and his party did try to cut corners whenever institutional rules put him at a disadvantage and pack independent institutions with loyalists whenever the opportunity arose, he was a far cry from the Putin analogy his Social-Democratic adversaries and – after 2007, in particular – Liberal former coalition partners made use of with too much liberality. Unlike Putin, who always had Medvedev as “Mini-me” by his side, in his ten years as President of Romania, Băsescu – despite his efforts to turn the presidency into a government oversight office – had to share power most of the time with a reluctant or hostile Prime Minister of a different party. His most controversial decisions, such as declaring the politically involved big business-owned press a national security liability, were indeed pushed through exceptional, though constitutional, institutions like the Supreme Council for the Defence of the Country (CSAT), where army generals and intelligence agency chiefs have an equal seat with Government Ministers at the table. However, the use of the national security apparatus – with all the Communist-era bad reputation and questionable democratic control that still surrounds it – to address grave social problems, such as corruption broadly defined, was not Băsescu’s invention, but a practice dating from the late 1990s, when in the mind of the Liberal elite it became a top-down way to correct what more transparent but weak ordinary police and judicial institutions failed to do in the chaos of the political transition, thus perpetuating in a way some Communist-era institutional routines and more general structural shortcoming of the Romanian centralized state. True, Băsescu’s brand of Western, or more precisely American-oriented, nationalism and steady support for George W. Bush’s war on terror, which included the deployment of Romanian troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as American resupply bases near the Black Sea, revitalised old Securitate-linked cadres and infused them with a new sense of purpose, medals on top, something that can be justified – even if not accepted from somebody who condemned Communism in such clear and harsh terms – by a policy of Machiavellian national interest which he also purported to embody. But, although such a thing cannot be excluded, there is currently no proof other than speculations that he used these secret services systematically and in a biased, around the law, manner against his internal adversaries in politics and big business as well, as many of them claim. 

“Good behaviour” certificate 

Then and now, the two failed attempts to impeach Traian Băsescu, in 2007 and 2012, appear groundless, hypocritical, and even comical as formulated, no matter how unpleasant and, in a very real sense, unfit his personality might have been for the office he occupied. They have polarized the country, since the procedure called for a popular referendum, weakened its institutions and – in light of the outrageous populism that followed Băsescu’s second term – offered no better alternative, but augured something worse: Trump-style “neocommunist” populism. Băsescu's active attempts to “presidentialize” the government, particularly after the governmental coalition between his former (socialist) Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party of Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu began to unravel, were mostly the result of a forceful use of Article 87 – which allows the President to chair Government meetings particularly when foreign and defence policy is discussed – and Article 86 – which grants the President the power to confirm the appointment of individual Ministers when there is a Government reshuffle – of Romania's 1992 Constitution, although his team of advisors tried in Gaullist fashion to turn the Presidency into a sort of Executive brain, with commissions analysing and writing strategies doubling almost every Ministry.

In reality, Traian Băsescu, leader of the junior party in a new two party centre-right coalition, was thrust into the presidential race precisely because he was the opposite of a President like Emil Constantinescu whom Theodor Stolojan – minus his Communist “technocratic” career – could only duplicate: well-educated, politically or ideologically clean, but highly ineffective in reforming an administration still run by former Communist personnel and routines probably to a much higher degree than Romania’s North-Western neighbours.

None of this was new in Romania’s postcommunist political practice, however, but it was a little out-of-step with the 2003 constitutional revision, which aimed however ambiguously to temper the weak semipresidential aspect of the regime set-up by Ion Iliescu. Although several of Băsescu's relatives (brother, older daughter, nephew, son-in-law… even presumed paramour and fellow politician Elena Udrea) were charged and even condemned for corruption and other misdemeanours, Băsescu himself – unlike many of his adversaries – was not found guilty of a crime, despite considerable efforts and a long trial to make him responsible for irregularities in the privatisation and disappearance of Romania’s communist-era commercial fleet in the early 1990s, then one of the world’s largest. He was obviously guilty of nepotism in mobilising his party to elect his youngest daughter, Elena Băsescu, as a pale and falsely independent Member of the European Parliament (MEP), but unfortunately no statute condemns electoral nepotism in Romania. The 2012 charge, in the aftermath of Romania’s Crisis-required austerity measures, that he impoverished the people and led the country to ruin were obviously nonsense and economically illiterate, since the political responsibility for the pre-Crisis policies that led to the 2010 austerity measures was shared with his adversaries and the spending cuts did at least prevent a Greek-style sovereign debt crisis. Finally, the lustration law which was adopted in 2012 by Băsescu loyalists was such a sham that, even if back then the public would have had proof of his Securitate collaboration instead of a 2004 CNSAS certificate of good behaviour, no sanction could be applied to elected leaders and it is doubtful that this blatant lie constitutes perjury in Romanian jurisprudence.

As a famous character in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard put it best, if things were going to stay the same, things now had to change.

Nevertheless, from a moral standpoint there is responsibility for Băsescu's failings, Securitate collaboration included, and that responsibility lies primarily with the close-knit group of people who promoted him, supported him, advised him and backed him up at critical points in his 10 years as President. These ardent supporters, who now claim naiveté or even deception regarding Băsescu’s Securitate entanglements, can hardly be more credible than the Putin-analogy group in their public interpretation of events. In 2004, when, a few months before the elections, Băsescu replaced in a surprise move Theodor Stolojan, a Communist era technocrat, as presidential candidate of the “Truth and Justice Alliance” and then in 2007, when the Liberal-Democrat alliance broke-up, they knew exactly who they were getting, CNSAS stamp of approval or not. True, back then, when the CNSAS was still in its infancy, Băsescu obtained a certificate of good behaviour under Communism, but, given incomplete archives and the Communist practice of destroying Securitate files for those who acceded to party positions, speculations continued. 

Majores terrae 

In 2004, Băsescu was the acting Mayor of Bucharest, viciously obstructed by the Social Democratic Government of former Communist Adrian Năstase, marred by accusations of corruption, who had a majority in the City Council and controlled the lower, sectoral, level mayoralties in the capital, which only succeeded in making him really popular, particularly among the young voters. As the leader of the Democratic Party (PD) – a reformist faction of the “neocommunist” National Salvation Front (FSN) of 1990-1992, which he took over from Petre Roman in a sort of party-coup organised behind the congress hall scenes –, he was up to that point viewed with suspicion by anti-communist political and intellectual circles, some of which even blamed him for the break-up of the National Democratic Convention (CDR) “anti-communist” government of 1996-1999, in which he was Transportation Minister, and thus for the failure of that centre-right coalition and in particular for the disappearance from Romanian parliamentary politics, after 2000, of what seemed until then as the most anti-communist of all the anti-communist revived parties: the National Christian-Democratic Peasant Party (PNȚCD).

Politics is for him an inescapable passion he theorizes intimately at length, a well-to-do man’s privilege as well as duty and true nature, pretty much in the sense of the Ancient Greeks.

In reality, Traian Băsescu, leader of the junior party in a new two party centre-right coalition, was thrust into the presidential race precisely because he was the opposite of a President like Emil Constantinescu whom Theodor Stolojan – minus his Communist “technocratic” career – could only duplicate: well-educated, politically or ideologically clean, but highly ineffective in reforming an administration still run by former Communist personnel and routines probably to a much higher degree than Romania’s North-Western neighbours. The man who arranged it all and who stood by him throughout his Presidency, former National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Valeriu Stoica, negotiated in 2001 a controversial parliamentary agreement with Năstase’s Social Democrats in the name of preserving democracy against the anti-system Greater Romania Party (PRM), which won second place in the previous year’s elections. When the agreement was signed, PNL was officially chaired by Mircea Ionescu-Quintus – a man who served several years in labour camps during the early days of Communism, but later it turns out he became a Securitate collaborator – and was the only parliamentary political force left which did not originate from Communist organisations, having gained around 7% of the vote. On the occasion, however, Stoica – a very successful lawyer, now owning one of the largest and most exclusive law firms in Bucharest; a former CDR Minister of Justice; and, less known, a judge during the last decades of Communism – also declared intransigent anti-communism dead. Clearly, at this point Valeriu Stoica no longer believed – to the extent that he ever believed – that the early 1990s anti-communist political program formulated by former political prisoners, dissidents and exiled Romanians, which included the restoration of the constitutional monarchy and the uncompromising lustration of former Communists, could be or was really worth putting into practice. But, in 2003, Băsescu, with whom he negotiated the D.A. (“Truth and Justice”) Alliance, presented Stoica with an opportunity for something different. As a famous character in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard put it best, if things were going to stay the same, things now had to change. 

 

Loyal lawyer 

Among Romanian political leaders, and Liberal political figures in particular, of the last three decades, Valeriu Stoica, quite an inconspicuous figure in an otherwise circus-like environment, is often overlooked, but his behind the scene political influence is quite extraordinary. By age, profession and career, he is very much like Adrian Năstase, Romania’s ambitious Social-Democratic Prime Minister between 2000 and 2004, whose presidential aspirations he thwarted with Traian Băsescu’s election. As in the case of Năstase, politics is for him an inescapable passion he theorizes intimately at length, a well-to-do man’s privilege as well as duty and true nature, pretty much in the sense of the Ancient Greeks, but, unlike Năstase, he does not relish the everyday personal exercise of power. Or if he did, he never really showed it. Among fellow PNL members (a party which he is believed to have saved in 1999 and 2000, when he pulled it out of the CDR coalition with PNȚCD, and whose rise to power in 2004 he masterminded), he was never really popular and, in fact, he entered into sharp disagreement with the more business-oriented Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, the new Liberal Prime Minister, and his friend Dinu Patriciu, although he was credited as a very able political strategist. If the microcosmos of the Romanian postcommunist political elite were Ancient Athens, one can picture Valeriu Stoica more in the role of Plato concerned with the “big things” than in the role of one of the Thirty Tyrants, although he will not hesitate to take the stage, advise or support them as long as they move the polity closer to his ideals of political perfection. And, like Plato, Stoica built his own sort of Academy: a network of benefactors, intellectuals and public opinion shapers who share his views or, at any rate, act as such since it is not always easy to identify the direction of causality, and who, in various settings, will back his political choices and narrative every step of the way.

As for Băsescu himself, he actually hinted candidly at an admission of guilt during the live debate of the 2004 electoral campaign, when in a much commented and sibylline scene he turned towards his opponent Adrian Năstase at the end and declared that it is a curse for Romanians to still have to choose between… two Communists!

Like every self-avowed Romanian Liberal, Valeriu Stoica professes admiration for the legacy of the Brătianu family, modern Romania’s “second dynasty”, and he personally got involved in the ongoing reconstruction of I.C. Brătianu’s monumental statue in Bucharest’s University Square to show for it, but his “followers” at least like him more in the role of Petre P. Carp, Ionel Brătianu’s Conservative rival in the years leading up to World War One. This analogy fits better with his critique of the narrow-minded, “elitist”, corrupt or even immoral, business-interests vehicle kind of liberalism that Tăriceanu and Patriciu wanted for PNL after his attempts to promote a fusion between PD and PNL failed and he was excluded from the Liberal Party for supporting Băsescu in 2007. But his simulacrum of the ancient Junimea Society – modelled more on American political patronage and pressure networks his godson Paul-Dragoș Aligică is intimately familiar with than on the original 19th century Romanian intellectual club and composed of various politicians, public officials, professors, writers, editors, journalists and so on, inside as well as outside the country – is no less “elitist” or sectarian and no less a political vehicle than the value-voided money and power interests he purportedly abhors, even though it finds strategic value in superficially catering to folk wisdom. In politics, there are rarely any disinterested Maecenas. 

Sailing in dark waters 

In the thought of the neoconservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, history is irrelevant for politics, because the issues that political action has to confront are engrained in the permanent and eternal aspects of human nature. From this perspective, there is absolutely no contradiction or tension in the fact that a former Communist, even Securitate collaborator, would condemn Communism if political rationale requires it, just as Strauss could find agreement between what most accounts would describe as irreconcilably opposing political thinkers. This is all the more the case if the person in question has achieved a true understanding of politics along the way.

Given Valeriu Stoica’s pretty standard career for the Romanian postcommunist political elite and the breadth and knowledge of the group he assembled, invoking ignorance regarding Traian Băsescu’s collaboration with the Securitate is hardly credible. During the communist regime, practically everyone who went to a Western country had to face the Securitate. This was all the more relevant for a privileged category of people within domains of national interest like that of maritime, long-distance, sailors, who by profession had to interact with Western countries. Even their training was done in an institution which, then, as now, is militarized and, even if they follow the civilian track, could and can be mobilized if need be as navy reserve. But Traian Băsescu was not just any maritime sailor. He was the relatively young captain of Romania’s largest ever oil tanker in the aftermath of the Arab oil crisis. Loyalty to the regime on his part had to be assured almost by definition, lest the regime would risk an embarrassing defection and asylum request in a foreign port. The notes that he gave to the Securitate agents regarding the plans of a colleague to leave the country on the basis of which he was declared a Securitate collaborator by CNSAS amount precisely to a test of regime loyalty which was an absolute requirement, not an exception, for persons in his position. Consequently, the best that this group of staunch supporters can claim – which counts among its ranks people such as the philosopher, book publisher and self-confessed victim of Securitate surveillance Gabriel Liiceanu; writer, philosopher and former CNSAS Board Member in the early 2000s Horia-Roman Patapievici; or the Romanian-born American expert on Romanian communism Vladimir Tismăneanu – is not deception or betrayed trust, but self-deception. And this is very much a charitable interpretation of the facts. As for Băsescu himself, he actually hinted candidly at an admission of guilt during the live debate of the 2004 electoral campaign, when in a much commented and sibylline scene he turned towards his opponent Adrian Năstase at the end and declared that it is a curse for Romanians to still have to choose between… two Communists! 

The postcomunist anti-communist Communist 

In the thought of the neoconservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, who is not an unknown reference to Valeriu Stoica and the many philosophers in his group, history (and even the little history that is biography) is irrelevant for politics, because the issues that political action has to confront are engrained in the permanent and eternal aspects of human nature. From this perspective, there is absolutely no contradiction or tension in the fact that a former Communist, even Securitate collaborator, would condemn Communism if political rationale requires it, just as Strauss could find agreement between what most accounts would describe as irreconcilably opposing political thinkers. This is all the more the case if the person in question has achieved a true understanding of politics along the way. Neither is it immoral in any sense to conceal any compromising detail that might derail his political mission, as democratic ethics might require, since most people are not actually equipped to opine on such matters political and this kind of knowledge in the wrong hands can produce more harm than good for the polity as a whole.

Neither is it immoral in any sense to conceal any compromising detail that might derail his political mission, as democratic ethics might require, since most people are not actually equipped to opine on such matters political and this kind of knowledge in the wrong hands can produce more harm than good for the polity as a whole.

Thus, Băsescu’s ascension to the Presidency, which at first sight amounts to a usual case of political pragmatism, hypocrisy and even cynicism treading over principles, constituted in reality a huge and deliberate political and ideological transformation of the Romanian postcommunist right, which Stoica correctly identified as moribund since 2001 and lacking any direction. He wanted a President and a political force that would deliver what Constantinescu and the CDR Government he served in could not before the window of opportunity closed and Romania would be left in the grey area alongside former Soviet republics like Ukraine: anchoring Romania in the American security space and in the European Union’s institutional structures. In 1996, Constantinescu and practically all of the CDR leaders bet on the left-liberalism of the American Democratic Party, but other than a consolation visit by Bill Clinton to Bucharest in 1997, they got nothing from the United States. George W. Bush’s “war on terror” now offered an opportunity for the former, while Western European countries were not yet experiencing enlargement fatigue and could still entertain the latter. Băsescu was, at that point in time, judged to be the man fit to steer the ship in this direction and – for the higher good of the country, as it were – all other Romantic and purist considerations regarding the past or the future had to be subordinated to this goal. The Romanian right, in the view of Stoica and his friends, had to get on board the neoliberal and neoconservative popular right before the train left the station instead of continuing its petty, provincial and outdated divisions and concerns.

…a President and a political force that would deliver what Constantinescu and the CDR Government he served in could not before the window of opportunity closed and Romania would be left in the grey area alongside former Soviet republics like Ukraine: anchoring Romania in the American security space and in the European Union’s institutional structures.

What Valeriu Stoica did not anticipate, however, was the fierce backlash against Traian Băsescu’s style of leadership and against his proposed grand presidential centre-right party modelled on Anglo-Saxon examples from the part of his PNL rival, namely Prime Minister Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, which dragged on for seven years and in a sense still does. This backlash was not reduced to mutual accusations regarding the betrayal of principles, of anti-communism or of true liberalism. It often took the form of a quasi-conspiracy theory regarding a hostile takeover engineered by a group of Romanians from abroad and their contacts in various foreign governments and international institutions under the auspices of the foreign intelligence service (SIE), which was prolonged inside the country through a bias fight against corruption orchestrated by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) in collaboration with the internal intelligence service (SRI). After Băsescu left office and the new PNL-backed President Klaus Iohannis – initially a candidate of the anti-Băsescu and anti-Liberal-Democratic Party (PDL) coalition – refused to support Tăriceanu’s and Dragnea’s Social-Democrats’ plans to roll-back the anticorruption institutions, this quasi-conspiracy theory became known as the “parallel state” theory, which claims that there is a state within the Romanian state entrenched in the intelligence services, the high prosecutors’ offices and other key state offices which follows its own agenda, possibly with outside involvement but in any case beyond the control of democratically elected institutions. 

The end? 

The majority of the Romanian public still support the fight against corruption and believe in the soundness of the judicial reforms made during Traian Băsescu’s two terms as President and in the impartiality of the former DNA Director Laura Codruța Kovesi, recently appointed to head the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. But Băsescu, who has become somewhat critical of too much anti-corruption activism, and his ardent group of neoconservative supporters have lost considerable credibility, a loss which the CNSAS’ late coming revelations regarding his Securitate collaboration only reinforces. Valeriu Stoica’s projected grand united centre-right party – the Liberal-Democratic Party (PDL) – imploded after the 2012 elections and what was left of it was absorbed ironically by PNL, the party it was supposed to consume, which has nonetheless officially turned conservative in international ideological affiliations. Some of the Stoica group’s ideas and many of Băsescu’s less prominent and younger supporters, including a much discussed network of Romanians from abroad, have jumped-started two new political parties which act as a sort of holding-party: The Save Romania Union (USR) and The Party of Liberty, Unity and Solidarity (PLUS). But the only thing these two new one-party consistently seem to do is to disassociate themselves from the neoconservative ideology of Băsescu and the now defunct PDL to the point that they claim to have no ideology whatsoever or adhere to a vague “macronism”, although the link between them is clearly there in the personnel as well as in many of the ideas promoted, like in a father-to-son relationship. Conservatism, it seems, is no longer fashionable or assumed in Romania, except at the small Party of the Popular Movement (PMP), of which Băsescu is now an MEP. Thus, one year before new legislative elections, the Romanian centre-right political space seems to have resolutely reverted to the CDR-era pluripartidism that the Stoica attempts of unification wanted to eliminate, due to the high costs and instability of the coalitions it can generate. But if some aspects of human nature are indeed eternal, this sort of reinvention and multiplication might be just another Straussian ploy.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016