Andreea Petruț (born in 1990) is a young and talented researcher working in the field of public policies for higher education. Her academic background is in Political Science and Management of Organisation. She is active in several non governamental organisation and civic actions that promote integrity, equality of opportunities, participative democracy and protection of the environment.
What has the transition meant to you, your family and for the community you used to live in?
Well, that’s a long story. First of all, the transition has influenced my early life, as I’m born in 1990 in a small town with 20.000 inhabitants, close to the city of Brașov, practically in a small urban area. At that time, I used to think that the area I was born in is something big, mainly due to the fact that my interactions with other communities took place primarily in the rural area, and the largest community I would see was the city of Brașov. And I had the impression that I’m doing well and had somewhat of an opening in terms of culture and information.
Going back on what transition meant for me, I associate transition with poverty, the poverty that I, my family, and especially the people around us would live in. I cannot make parallels to what happened before 1990 because I wasn’t even born at the time, but what was more difficult compared to the communist times was the fact that you felt poor, but you would see the wealth on the other side, around you, on the television screens, in friends’ houses and houses of rich people, and that’s how I think the feeling of frustration and injustice were been born. Because I’m thinking that before 1990, you didn’t have a standard to refer to or compare yourself with, so that you never knew that you could have more and better. Everyone was doing badly, we were all equal somehow, but from the moment of the transition and the beginning of capitalism, the inequalities have practically begun to grow, to become more visible and to feel stronger. To put things in a chronological order: In the ‘90s when I was born my parents had a small studio (one room apartment) and from what they told me, the only moment when they felt helped by the change to a new regime was when they managed to buy the studio. They were renting the place during the communist times and through the inflation they managed to buy the place for very little money. That was the first moment when they and other people managed to become homeowners and I think this helped them a lot.
You were talking about poverty in your family on one side and the richness of the others on the other side. Could you feel the economic disparities since the beginning of transition or only later?
I felt those from the very beginning, since my first years of life. I was comparing myself to my cousins and what they were getting. That was the period when people started to go for work in Germany. The only things of wealth that I remember are the help coming from Germany. When they were coming with the clothes and toys from there, that was the holy time of the year. But because we were having relatives who were connected to Germany, they were having much more thing than us, they were having TVs… and you were starting to wish to have a Barbie doll or to have what other people have. My father was always telling me: “We are poor, you need to understand this. This is how we were born and this is how we will dye”… this is very interesting, I still have discussions with my father and we reflect on that. And I think a lot about that because 15 years after that I blamed my parents that we do not have a business, that we stayed poor. After that I started to understand that the practically they started a family in 1990. Being used to think after a specific pattern, that the state will help us to have a stable workplace and a slary, these are our life costs. They made a life plan based on that. And communism failed and I see them as a 18 years old child that you set free in the world: “Go and carry it off on your own”. This is how I perceived my parents and now I try to understand them from this perspective. My father had a very pessimistic nature. He was afraid to take risks. He never wanted to lend money from the bank. He was saying: “We do not have capital, we cannot do something [a business] because we do not have capital”… He was afraid to take risks. For some time I blamed him for our financial situation that was affecting even our family life but also at all other levels, but now I try to understand him. I lived with the TV on all the time, since I was very little, and I remember that period when people who were doing currency exchanges [selling foreign currency like dollars or DM which were preffered as safer during the times of huge inflation] and they were tricking the people. My grandfather lost money due to Caritas [pyramidal scheme which attracted a large number of people all over Romania and many lost their investment]. Risks were high with FNI [National Investment Fund, another system that was promising high gains, attracted people and many were left broke] later on and not many people remained happy after this story. I understand why my parents were afraid about the whole story with the capitalism.
Once the communism failed the citizens did not benefit of a systematic program that could explain to them what were their rights and their liberties, what the new regime actually means at political, economic level but also from the point of view of their rights. They were not taken care of. I was watching TV but at TV one could not understand anything. They were told only fragments, no one was saying the whole reality about what is happening and what is going to happen. Specially the people that were educated in the spirit of the Marxist ideology, in the ‘90s they did not know the rules any more and they did not know to keep the pace with that. This people got in the category that I call ‘the losers of transition’, people who only get to survive to the daily living costs in those years. I remember very clearly that phase when prices were raising and you were going today to the shop and the bread was this price and after 3 months the price was double. There were very high living costs. If I wanted to buy a youth magazine I was collecting coin by coin because my parents did not have what to give me. I was very much touched by this period of absolute poverty I would say. And my parents would say: “We are rich, you need to see how bad are others doing”. Back than I could not see the situation in this way. Now I realize that we were privileged. There were families in our town that were living in the ghetto area. Our town was built very interestingly in what concerns the social dynamic because in the communist area they moved people from Moldova [East of Romania] or from Oltenia [South West of Romania] in the period of industrialization.
What about the effects of mass-industrialization? What were its effects during the transition?
Our town wan an industrial one. During the communism there were workplaces for the inhabitants and for people living around the town. There were very large state factories in agriculture, mechanics, wood industry, etc. Across my apartment building there was Colorom, one of the most important producers of dye in the country, one day I should talk about some traumas concerning pollution as well. There was lots of industries and almost everybody was anchored in this work. In the coomunist times there were brought people from Moldova and Oltenia, from poorer regions to work over there. They got houses at the periphery area, even it was a small town we haf ghetto neighborhoods. The ghetto area were like it is Ferentari [well known ghetto in Buchares] nowadays and a lot of poverty. I really remember this because the image left me a strong impression, my mother was teacher in a kindergarten and the cleaning lady was a woman that I cared about very much. She was from a village in Moldova and she was raising her daughter all alone. I was staying with her when my mother was busy and she was taking care of me. She was living in a apartment house for people without families [precarious types of buildings built during the communist which were supposed to be temporary for people who came for work in industrial centres and did not yet got married, after the communist failed the people remained in those buildings and grow families over there], it impressed me that image with long corridors between the apartments, common bathrooms on the corridors and rats ad families staying together in large numbers in a single room and a tiny kitchen. My mother was teaching in the kindergarten in that neighborhood and there were coming children who were beaten, almost not educated at all, who did not know how to talk and my mother was responsible to educate them.
The social relations in the town… it was very wird because people staying in the ‘wealthy’ area, like my parents did – we were staying in the center, on the main road, not in in peripheral neighborhoods – they were not interacting with the ones at the margins of the town. It was a small town, everybody was knowing everybody, but there was practically a social segregation. There was a middle class of semi-intellectuals who were like “we are engineers, teachers we do not stay together with the ones who work in the factory”. Even they were respecting each other they were reluctant to interact with the ones of other ethnicities, the ones from other social categories. When I say other ethnicities I refer to Roma because we were not teached back than to respect the Roma people even they were around us. However the multiculturalism was respected in my place, it was a town where Hungarians and German minorities were living and there was a high inter-ethnic respect but in what concerns disadvantages social categories I do not remember any concern.
How did the transition influence the different generations? Did transition fueled a conflict between generations?
First of all, I don’t remember from the transition period, and this is something I also spoke about with my parents… we don’t remember to have met other rights, other than the right to vote that my parents would exercise. They never felt that the right to free speech has helped them in any way or that they enjoyed any other civil rights. To us, democracy hasn’t come with this added value. Maybe it was felt in big cities such as Bucharest and Brașov, where people had access to much more information, but in our community, we couldn’t enjoy the transition to the new regime.
My parents never perceived democracy as something that brought something good for ourselves, for our lives. They wanted me to become a doctor or pharmacist so that I can make a decent living, but at some point I opposed their will and expectations, I said that I want to study political science, understand how democracy works in this country. I used to watch television when I was a child and hear about how the 1990 generation, “children of the transition”, have to bring the change, or else this country will have a dark future. I really believed in this thing, that I have to do something for my country and I took seriously this role. That’s when I had a big argument with my parents, and I managed to convince them to allow me to study political science. I’ve started to go to university and be an active citizen from a civic point of view, participate protest movements, publically express my opinion, join different organizations, work for various projects, do community work.
After I became student I started to work for the community, to be part of student organizations, to volunteer, to help people from disadvantaged communities. And my family did not understood this: “How to do something like this? Where is this coming from”. There was a clash between their believes, even it passed 20 years since the communist regime failed, they did not know what democracy is and we learned together. There was a very hard period because my parents were forbidding me to go to protest. When the street protest started in 2012 they told me: “That is not possible. You just have to go to university, why put yourself in a risk situation. You damage your own future”. Or at university I had an argument with the rector, I was fighting for students rights. They did not understand this, why it is necessary to fight for your own righst and do not let abuses to take place in the society. 2-3 years ago it happened a funny episode because I was fined by the Gendarmerie during the protests for Roșia Montana [agains construction of a gold mine that was damaging for the environment and for the community over there]. There was a huge scandal in my family: “Our child started to fight with the system” – the fines were coming to my home/ parents address and my parents were not understanding why it is important to fight, to react as citizen when things are not going well in a country.
What were your impressions about the wellbeing of the community you were living during the transition and economic switch from a system to another? As Codlea, your hometown is a place where, like in many other places of Romania, industry fall apart, factories closed down?
I remember that period perfectly. You couldn’t be happy at home due to the fear that the factory would close down. My father was working there and you would always have this fear. Whenever he was coming home from work, he was always upset. There was no way to enjoy life due to the situation. I would understand my parents’ feelings very well, I was very connected to them. There were times in my childhood when I would play with dolls, and my favorite game was about privatization and closing down factories, because that’s what the universe around me was all about. I remember that between 1995 and 2000, when the privatizations started and they would give compensatory salaries and emergency ordinances to the people in town, that the shops (the few of them that could be found in such a small town) would simply get crowded and filled with people, as everybody wanted to spend their money. Unlike everybody around us, we didn’t have the money, and the first time I went to the shops I would feel jealous. “Dad, why don’t you go get your compensatory salaries too, so we can have the money others enjoy?”. But steadily, everything started to close down, we reached the highest degree of poverty, a lot of my colleagues and neighbors have returned to the Moldavian villages [Eastern part of Romania, where the economy is less developed] they originally came from because they could no longer afford to stay. After all the factories had been closed, they would go and work the crops to make some money. There have been 2 or 3 years when you couldn’t find a job anywhere and there were rumors that the unemployment financial aid of your colleagues would come to an end. Everywhere, even in school, people would talk about this situation, as it no longer was a problem of parents or employees since it had its direct effects on us, the children.
Everywhere, even in school it was talked about it, because lack of jobs became a problem that was no longer of our parents only or of the employees only. It was reflecting on us and of the children. I remember that the privatization was done by using MEBO method [Management Employee Buyouts]. There were shared stocks to the employees of the companies, everybody was buying shares, and everywhere there was lots of talk about it both in the town and on TV. I was imagining how my father will buy shares and we would get to be shareholders and we would get to be rich. That was my dream, maybe this time works out, this time we would get rich if he is going to be given shares from the factory. And that was an wave of enthusiasm. Of course that the shares were only papers and nothing happened with those and the factories were sold. There were some things through which we were kidding ourselves, they were giving us hope that maybe this time it will be better and finally we were seeing that the hope is burning down and we remain with nothing.
What were the stages of the transition according to you?
First of all, the 1990-1992 period is the one that I’d regard as an actual confusion, when people still had hopes for absolute freedom. People were making plans and still hoping that things can still take a good turn.
Then came the 1992-1996 period when people were simply not aware how to defend themselves from the robberies that were taking place at the higher hierarchic level, from the problems that existed at the top, and they were still trying to make a way for themselves. I perceived it as a period when people try to gather their resources and start something, but at the same time they would lose a part of their hope, that change would come. It was the time when prices were beginning to rise, there was the emergence of that story that was sold to you in the 1990s about people who died for your freedom, and you would realize that it’s far from that great and unachievable ideal.
Between 1996 and 2000 there was a time of hope because we had the story of PRO TV (private television channel which brought Western ideals and first promoted that Romania should become a member of NATO and the EU) which marked an opening. At least to me, a child who was living in an apartment, this was the main activity that would sell one hope. You would watch the screen and see that the ideals you dreamed about was possible and really exists: people win money for watching TV shows, they do some other exciting things. Additionally, a year after PRO TV first aired, the Romanian Democratic Convention Party got in government and its leader Emil Constantinescu was regarded by us with hope, even if we weren’t a family of intellectuals. When these new people come into the scene and bring experts, we believed that it will get better. I remember very clearly the times of riot, when every time you turned on your TV you would see a trade union protesting, and they would scream “With the goat and the one-eyed they lied to our people” – referring to President Constantinescu and Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea. At the political and economic level, that time too brought economic hope, but had disastruous consequences – as I know that the country was about to go bankrupt, and this fact was felt in the people’s pockets at a level that impact the quality of life itself.
In regard to the ‘90s I want to point out the coldness. When I say poverty I say coldness because the prices for utilities were very high and the boiler that was heating the town was shut down. The people did not had money to build their own heating system and they were improvising. In each house there was an improvised stove, like a clock bomb in the home. All the apartment building could explode, my parents were waking up during night to verify it. In the evening you were freezing in the house and this was happening the whole town. Making bath was possible only once a week, with water heated in over 16 pots. Everything was like a ritual, a poverty ritual and this only to cover some basic needs such as warming up, washing or eating Sibiu Salami which was a bit better than others. There were some major privations that one would not expect after the regime failed.
The next period, between 2000 and 2004, begins with Romania entering NATO. If I were to answer the question about how I perceived the NATO integration, I would answer that we were in joy, we were celebrating despite not having any idea what it means, what are the implications and what is NATO all about. Everybody was happy that Romania was a member of NATO. To this day I have no idea why they were so joyful about it, because I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand what it was all about, why would you be happy about militarization? But that was the general perception, of celebration and everything. I don’t know exactly with what I should associate the 2000-2004 period, the governing of Iliescu and Năstase but as far as I can remember things were starting to get better at the economic level. At the democratic level, I don’t think they ever got that good, but we never felt the consequences of this area. Where we were coming from, it was all linear between 1990 and 2005. I know that during the government of Năstase (2000-2004) people were very persecuted and there was a lot a pressure put on them, and this is something I found out later on, but we were somehow outside this universe and these practices, and this subject area did not affect us in any way.
There’s something I omitted: the association of the years 2000-2004 with the obtaining of Schengen visas and people going abroad, I think that’s something that market me and every other person in the country who saw his acquaintances and closed ones leave. I remember that in the building I live in, out of 20 apartments, there were a maximum number of 4 where no family member had left the country. I’ve seen this with school mates, friends who lost themselves and their future due to their parents who left just to be able to pay the bills. If I were to label the years 2000-2004 and what followed, I’d call it the people’s exodus and the halving of the population in small towns and communes.
From 2005 onwards I know that the economy got better, they started to open shopping malls, a real-estate development took place, even though this time it was done in the same chaotic and poorly planned manner. But at least you could feel that there was a trace of hope.
In regards to political rights, democracy, social system, cohesion between classes – or its lack, thereof, do you think that the transition period has influence on the events that are happening now?
The most concerning case to me is the lack of cohesion between social classes and inequality. The disappearance of the welfare state that existed before 1990 created an immense inequality between social classes. The biggest problem is a lack of solidarity between people. I don’t know how this culture of individualism has been appropriated so fast, a culture in which neither you, nor the state care about the ones that you leave behind. We will have to invest a lot to fix these gaps, to do policies of equity that will help those who were left behind in those times. Also from the field of rights and liberties, I think that the problem was that we didn’t have a state with strong institutions, and this fact has laid the foundation for many abuses against vulnerable people. If not even the middle class had whom to address and had no leverage, no help from the state, I think those who had less financial possibilities and less resources were put in even more difficult situations. There was no consistent support that could contribute to the raise of quality of life and to respect the rights of these people. In regard to minorities, back then, when I was living in my parents’ home, I was not even concerned about these issues and what are the problems that people from minority groups are confronted with. There is a distorted opinion of people in what concerns the (minority) social groups, that I was not even aware that there are these people confronting with problems and that society is diverse.
What is your opinion on the criticism that is now directed towards those who receive welfare money? Do you think they derive, along with the welfare policies, from the communist era?
I think they come from the transition era because that’s when this cult of individuality was born and developed. They practically began to reject everything that came before 1990. I think this criticism rather comes from capitalism and the transition period because people, had they been taught to not have this fear for what might come tomorrow and the very high risks that life has, and if there was somewhat of a stability in regards to their standard of living, then this pit between social classes could have been eliminated.
Do you think that the rejection of welfare policies from the transition period comes as a rejection for the system that came before the communist era?
Social policies have been rejected because people didn’t have trust in the state and in stability, and to the fact that regardless the risks they assume, at some point they will land on something soft – and they missed this. The ones who had success after 1990 are not aware about the lack of equality of opportunities. They have the impression that the responsibility of the welfare is an individual one, without realizing how many variables play a role in the evolution of the individuals and that in many cases there is the need that the state to intervene for balancing certain social disparities.Interview: Irina Ilisei
Translation: Vlad Costea & Irina Ilisei