Cum sînt românii? Interviu Mark Baker

”Românii sînt proști și votează comuniști, hoți, borfași”. De cîte ori nu auzim asta? De fiecare dată cînd PSD și acoliții obțin majoritatea în urma alegerilor și fac praf țara, asta e mantra folosită de toată lumea. 

Dar cînd românii aleg președintele? Atunci nu mai sînt proști? Cum pot fi proști o dată da, o dată nu, alternativ? 

Este clar că avem de-a face cu mai mult decît atît și situația este mai mult complexă decît această abordare reducționistă. Pentru a încerca să ne deslușim, cine sîntem, unde sîntem și cum sîntem, i-am solicitat prietenului Mark Baker să-mi răspundă la cîteva întrebări. 

Născut în Youngstown, Ohio, rezident la Praga de peste două decenii, Mark este absolvent al universităților Columbia și Miami, fost editor la Bloomberg, National Geographic, Prague Post, Radio Free Europe, The Economist, în prezent autor de ghiduri turistice Lonely Planet. O persoană care a călătorit foarte mult în acest spațiu european, nu numai în România, un bun cunoscător al locurilor, al istoriei și al oamenilor.

Florina Neghină: What do you think about the Romanian people, generally speaking?

Mark Baker: I am a big fan of the country and of the people. I have traveled many times throughout Romania and have written three guidebooks about the country, and I am always amazed by the energy, the friendliness, and the unpredictability of the country. It is one of the few European countries that I do not find boring and I hope this never changes.

Florina Neghină: How do you see my people adapted or readjusted Romanian capitalism after the revolution of 1989? Easier or harder than other countries in the region?

Mark Baker: Romania had several disadvantages in 1989 compared with other countries in eastern and central Europe. It had a relatively low per capita income, approximately the same as Poland at the time. Because of the trade policies of the Ceausescu regime, Romanian companies had little experience in dealing with developed markets. And of course the political culture was probably the worst in the region. Of all of the revolutions in 1989, only the one in Romania ended in violence and death. For those reasons, the Romanian experience has been the hardest and slowest of all of the countries. I might make an exception for Bulgaria, which shared many of Romania’s disadvantages and was possibly even more isolated. It is not a knock on Romania to point out that living standards in the former Czechoslovakia, eastern Germany, Poland, and even possibly Hungary are now much higher than in Romania. Poland seems to be the true success story in this region, and the irony is of course that Poland and Romania were practically at the same level in 1989, and Poland was massively indebted.

Florina Neghină: What do you think it was – or has been, better saying – the most difficult part on the road returning to capitalism?

Mark Baker: I would say the biggest problem of has been the non-competitive start that Romanian industries had at the beginning of the transformation. This forced many factories to close, and these closures affected many workers and ultimately the political process itself. Politicians could draw on the disaffection of the population to manipulate public opinion. Many of these politicians and leaders were former communist themselves who had recently discovered the ‘religion’ of capitalism. There was no national effort made at the start to uproot and eliminate the political and economic networks forged under communism. And some of those people are with us to this day. When you add to these problems things like the brain drain, where young people choose to live in Italy, Spain and the UK, then you have the ingredients for a slow and difficult transformation.

Florina Neghină: What exactly do you think it has been difficult to adapt Romanians?

Mark Baker: I think the main difficulty has been to evolve politically from a passive population who accepted what the leadership said to a more active population that takes responsibility for their own future. This is not unique to Romania, but I think because of the country’s specific past, the challenges of political evolution have been greater here than other places.

Florina Neghină: What differences have you noticed between the Romanian historical provinces? 

Mark Baker: The differences between the provinces are interesting for me as a travel writer. It is obvious to any traveler that the most developed region of the country, at least superficially, is Transylvania. Perhaps it is simply appearances, but the cities themselves look like modern European cities and the municipal governments operate like typical European city governments. It feels as if, especially in this part of the country, Romania really is culturally, historically part of the European experience. It is also interesting for me to point out that it is now 100 years since the three provinces have been together as modern Romania, but that the road and rail links between the provinces are still so underdeveloped. It is a bit extreme to say, but it feels sometimes as if they are really three separate countries.

I cannot explain the reason behind differences between the provinces, but perhaps there is some truth in the fact that the western regions of the country were under ‘western empires’ for much of their history, and the eastern and southeastern parts of the country were under ‘eastern empires’, but the mentality continues into modern times.

I think that Romania still has work to do toward building a national consensus among all regions of the country. It is no exaggeration to go to cities such as Timisoara or Cluj and have residents there tell you that they simply hate Bucharest. Yes, of course, no provincial citizen likes their national capital, but in some ways these people are saying that they don’t feel completely part of the national conversation.

Florina Neghină: What similarities and what differences you noticed between the peoples in this part of Europe?

Mark Baker: Nearly everyone who grew up under communism in eastern and central Europe shares certain traits, mindsets and skills. I would say people from this region are pessimistic, even possibly fatalistic. They tend to see conspiracies, even where there are no conspiracies to be found. They tend not to believe in the honesty of human beings or the fact that governments can work positively. On the positive side of the ledger, they are unfailingly friendly and outgoing. Family, village and cultural ties are still meaningful. People are remarkably resourceful when it comes to preparing food or fixing cars or building homes. For travelers, these countries are ideal because people really do enjoy things like drinking, music and having fun.

Florina Neghină: What have you noticed Romanians are bothered and enjoyed from? 

Mark Baker: I will start with the enjoyment first. I love the fact that Romanians like to party, they like to stay out until the morning hours on special occasions. They seem to enjoy meeting people from other countries and take an interest in where they come from. There is a lot of energy in Romanian cities, and even now you have the idea that there is great possibility in this country.

On the negative side, some of my pet peeves have to do with the fact that some positive modern ideas and concepts have not fully taken root here. There is not sufficient care for the environment in Romania. It’s not uncommon to see litter on mountain trails and alongside roads. There are far too many cars in the country and this greatly impacts the enjoyment of the natural beauty in the mountains, villages and along the seashore. It destroys street life in Bucharest.

Romanians strike me as very nationalistic but are not always completely aware of their own national history. I don’t mind when a person is proud of their country, but I believe this pride needs to be balanced with some humility when it comes to understanding when and where their country did not live up to its own ideals. I won’t go into too many specifics here because these things always stir up lots of negative feelings, but I will point out that Romanians in general are not aware of their country’s role in WWII and in the Holocaust. And this troubles me greatly. All countries have these historical defects, but great countries recognize them and try to work through them.

Florina Neghină: What do you think is the fundamental difference between urban and rural? it is big, it is important, what do you think? 

Mark Baker: I would say that the differences between rural and urban in your country are as great or greater than any I have seen in any part of Europe. The fundamental difference between rural and urban populations is simply awareness. It is much easier for positive ideas to be transmitted among residents of large cities than it is for these ideas to penetrate into small villages and towns. Conspiracies and prejudices tend to thrive in places that are cut off. Without wanting to unfairly criticize people who live in villages or small towns, these places tend to be backward in their outlook and thinking. Romania has vast tracts of hinterland, and I believe the government and the educational system have their work cut out for them to try to bridge the gap between rural and urban.

Florina Neghină: Can you identify a significant difference between the Romanians and the other inhabitants of the former socialist countries? But a resemblace?

Mark Baker: I mentioned some of the ways in which people from the formerly communist countries are similar. These include ideas that any rational person would have under a communist system (a general suspiciousness of power, the ability to do basic survival tasks on their own because they cannot rely on the central government to provide services, etc.).

It is hard to see exactly how Romanians differ from other people in central and eastern Europe, but if I were to generalize I would say that Romanians are very good at learning foreign languages, they are very resourceful, and they know how to think around the system and outside the box. These are all useful qualities for succeeding in the modern world and under a capitalist system. That’s why I feel as if Romania has some natural advantages, and in the end will come out in good shape.

Florina Neghină: What do you think that is more influencial when we talk about Romanian electoral process? The level of education, the standard of living, the prospects of a better life or the political preferences? 

Mark Baker: The greatest divide that I see in Romanian politics has little to do with the traditional right and left wing of the political spectrum, but between those people who demand greater accountability from their government and those people who simply want favors from the government. Among the former group, a person’s age and level of education and whether or not they live in a large city is very important. All of these protests that we have seen in the past three years in Romania revolve essentially around the same issue. People are simply fed up with what they perceive as the old corrupt elite and want new accountable leaders. It doesn’t really matter if the issue is an environmental one or about corruption or about something else. The fight is always the same.

Florina Neghină: What other word besides welcoming, hospitable can you use to characterize Romanian people?

Mark Baker: I would say that Romanian people are clever, cunning, outgoing, proud and insecure (which is the opposite side of pride, but often go together).

Florina Neghină: What do you think is the most important quality and most annoying flaw of Romanians?

Mark Baker: I think the most important quality is the willingness to engage with the outside world. Many Romanians have traveled and lived abroad and this is great for interacting with people from other countries. Romanians are good at learning foreign languages. And I think that they are generally outgoing.

As far as flaws go, it’s hard to generalize. As I said earlier, very headstrong and stubborn people irritate me. And Romania has many of those. I think, at least in the cities, there is something of a superficiality to the way that people engage with foreigners. It’s hard to put my finger on this exactly but I have noticed it in my own interactions. And of course many Romanians greatly mistrust foreign influences. I think they usually do this without a compelling reason to do so.

Florina Neghină: Thank you very much!

(Foto reprezentativă, din arhiva Mark Baker)


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