Saturday, December 16, 2006

Right is Left

A wise guy's always right. Even when he's wrong, he's right.
- "Lefty Two Guns" Ruggiero

Unless successful business means wasting money, the top-three nightmares of your average Romanian company (and my daily job pesters) are by far:

3. Corruption
2. Social Taxes
1. Labor Code

Oh the Labor Code... In a country where less than two years ago the so-called "Right" came to power, one may have expected heavily-Socialistic laws to die vertiginously buried in amedments and abrogations.

Not the Labor Code. It is by far the single, most leftist element of the Romanian civil law; it sends chills down employers' spines and builds invisible Lenin-like statues to the wonder of it all, the one and only worthy product of a civilized society, the pinnacle of existence, the almighty social warrior - the Employee.

Decreasing but existent corruption and humongous social taxes are a strong deterrent to prevent investment. For a given net salary, an employer has to pay about 80% more in taxes; that means the cost of hiring someone for EUR 1500 net is actually EUR 2700. No wonder salaries stay low. Nevertheless, investors keep showing up motivated by recently-decreased income taxes (from about 70% to 50%), high-profile anti-corruption cases and the land of opportunity that is 21st century Romania. Until the gold runs out, that is.

While fiscal laws and EU-induced regulations are slowly but steadily steering the legal system away from the Communist path, the Labor Code and employment law in general show no signs of change. How is it possible, I ask, that in a country where the Liberal party took over the government on anti-Communist speeches and where the Right is supposably leading the country, a law recently passed (2003) so heavily favors the employee?! Just a few examples:

- overtime is limited to 8 hours a week, except for specific cases (legal field not an exception, of course);
- remaining vacation days cannot be reimbursed, nor do they roll over; it's an inviolable right that cannot be renounced unless you quit (and I thought only the French believed in the God-given right to relax);
- as an employee, you can pretty much break an employment contract anytime you wish, pending 15-day notice;
- determined contracts are just a capitalistic invention meant to trap the helpless employee, therefore all contracts are undetermined, with minor and almost impossible exceptions;
- you cannot fire your employees unless extensive anti-disciplinary investigation is carried through;
... and so on.

I cannot but conclude that as a foreign investor I would think twice about opening up a branch in Romania. Maybe the low salaries and the sharp minds are worth the trouble; maybe there are poor employees that need protection. But a government that sustains anti-capitalism laws and builds its policies on pro-capitalism speeches is all talk, no action. Admittedly, here I favor the "Right" more than the "Left"; honestly though, there is no true Right. It's at most a Center-Left government with delusions of liberalism. The Right is Left in as much as the Left is Communist.

In the U.S. I would disagree with Donnie Brasco's "Lefty Two Guns"; but in Romania, I concur: A wise guy's always right. Even when he's wrong, he's right.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Temporary Relocation

Still in Romania; random impressions and more personalized ramblings were temporarily relocated to another site. I will occasionally replicate here any posts deemed "worthy." When in Rome, one can't blog about being away from Rome.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A World Without Romania

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Avian Scare

Initially I was going to analyze the EU's renewed demands for 2007 accession; since I can't turn on the TV anywhere in Romania without hearing something about the Avian flu, the former will have to wait and the bird-flu scare shall take priority - for now.

The Deal
In a nutshell, the Avian flu virus (H5N1) originated in Asian birds; ducks seem to be immune to it, but it's lethal in other birds, chickens included. According to ABC News, "Since 1997, over 120 million birds have died of the flu or been destroyed in an effort to stop the spread." Humans can contract the flu by handling infected birds. The
WHO reports 218 human cases with 124 deaths since 2003. NONE of these deaths took place in Romania. In fact, if we regard Turkey (4 deaths) as a fully-Asian country, the human death toll hasn't reached Europe yet.

The Fear
At least one case of human-to-human transmission was reported in Asia in 2005. HOWEVER, the virus is not yet in a form that is easily transmissible from person to person. There is significant concern that it may mutate and change into a more lethal version, inducing human-to-human contamination; this is NOT the reality at the moment. In fact, according to Romanian health authorities, the virus hasn't changed since the fall - which could facilitate the development of appropriate vaccination.

Where does Romania come in?
Multiple cases of bird flu have been reported in Romania since October 2005. The scare accelerated over the last month following outbrakes in various counties. Perhaps the most alarming report accounts for infected birds in Bucharest - apparently the first capital subjected to the virus. After the "termination" of 450,000 birds, human quarantine and diplomatic havoc, distressful political hypotheses are taking shape, such as the possibility of delayed EU accession on account of poor handling of the Avian crisis by Romanian authorities.

I have to admit that quarantine of several Bucharest areas and mass vaccination of individuals with the only preventive medicine assumed to have some effect on humans (Tamiflu) may have been too drastic. WHO representatives in Geneva definitely thought so; their recent severe criticism of the measure triggered the end of the quarantine on humans, announced today.

Truth be told, I think we'd rather be safe than sorry. Killing the birds, vaccinating the population, controlling national traffic, spending considerable amounts on acquisition of appropriate agricultural equipment are but a few of the measures taken by the government. So far, the only human casualties of the Avian scare in Romania are of a professional nature: several top veterinary officials have been dismissed as a result of their mediocre crisis approach. At the moment, the Romanian President asked the Prime Minister to take over the issue. For a parliamentary republic where the PM is the most important power player, the change signifies a considerable reaction to an ultimately veterinary concern.

Speaking from a region in Romania that hasn't witnessed any outbreaks thus far, it's probably easier for me not to seek a scapegoat. This wasn't the case of the Romanian Secret Service (SRI): in a recent report, they claimed the bird flu escalation was caused by poultry imports from Hungary and Slovakia. It's not hard to imagine the diplomatic repercussion of this claim; the Hungarian reaction hasn't been pleasant and since the Romanian President himself criticized the SRI report, the accusations hold little credibility.

What may be the worst and most alarming factor specific to Romania's approach on the Avian crisis is the general reaction. I don't believe the nature of the virus is fully understood or taken seriously in many rural areas that are still heavily relying on poultry farming. Exaggerated media paranoia may have some beneficial effect after all.

In the end, while preventive measures and alertness are far from superfluous, I hope anyone hurrying to add the Avian flu to the black list of Romanian shortcomings will pay more heed to the WHO statement: "Bird flu mainly affects poultry and rarely represents a threat to humans." (Mediafax)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

There and Back Again

No, I'm not writing a book about hobbits; the title just seems oddly appropriate.
I'm currently in Romania; it's been about 1 year and a half since my last visit in the fall of 2004, so I figured I might as well profit and relate as many reactions as I can. From heartfelt articles in the likes of Washington Post about treatment of Romanian disabled children, to the Luxembourg's diplomatic support of Romania's accession to the EU, I'm far from lacking in subjects. The truth is, my physical presence here calls for more than just media analysis. I'll try to stick to personal impressions and hopefully take as many pictures as I can. A particular project I have in mind is going to a Roma village and potentially writing more about a previously-tackled issue - the striking difference between the poverty and opulence of the Romanian gypsy community.
Until then, here are some "memorable" thoughts thus far:

- NYC cabbies have nothing on Bucharest taxi drivers;
- I've seen fewer street beggars than in 2004;
- Prices increased, though market choice is definitely more eclectic;
- More local banks issue internationally-accepted debit cards;
- Mass media is less haunted by Communist paranoia;
- Even without Starbucks, $4 coffee can easily be found;
- Dial-up lost the battle to broadband;
- Books don't really sell;
- Polite customer service and decently-priced establishments are mutually exclusive;
- Reality TV is an international evil.

More to come...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

EU Preliminaries: Bucharest - Sofia

[courtesy of]

EU Says Romania, Bulgaria Made `Enormous Progress' for Entry
April 25
[reporter: Jonathan Stearns]

Romania and Bulgaria won praise from a senior European Union regulator for upgrading their justice systems, bolstering the likelihood that the two Balkan nations will join the EU on schedule in January 2007.

``Both of them under EU pressure have made enormous progress,'' Michael Leigh, head of the European Commission's enlargement department, said in an interview today in Brussels. ``We must give full credit where credit is due.''

The commission, the EU's executive arm, will recommend May 16 whether to delay the accession of Romania and Bulgaria -- or one of them -- until January 2008. Last October, the commission told both countries to strengthen their justice systems to avoid missing EU membership in 2007.

Romania and Bulgaria, with a combined population of 30 million, are counting on entry to help raise per-capita wealth from a third of the EU average. Their accession would expand the world's largest trading bloc to 27 nations and to the Black Sea.

Leigh stopped short of saying the commission would propose that the two ex-communist nations join on time, saying ``there are still a number of challenges to be met.'' The final decision rests with the EU's national governments.

Under EU rules, it would be harder to delay membership for Bulgaria than for northern neighbor Romania. EU governments can postpone Bulgaria's accession only by a unanimous decision and Romania's membership by a majority vote.

This reflects the fact that the EU was more concerned about Romania than Bulgaria when the two were negotiating membership. Romania and Bulgaria concluded their entry talks in 2004 and signed accession treaties in April 2005, before completing the process of aligning their legislation with European standards.

Safeguard Clauses

One scenario is that Bulgaria and Romania will join in January 2007 while being denied membership rights in areas where their standards haven't improved enough. Such ``safeguards'' can be decided by the commission on its own. [...]

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Adoption Dilemma

April 17th:
No child is to be adopted internationally [Bucharest Daily News]
U.S. Congressman to press for answers on Romanian adoption cases [American Chronicle, CA]

April 18th:
Adopted Romanian to testify before the EU on adoption success [The Ledger, FL]

Not to praise my own estimations, but the Romanian government’s response is far from surprising: some form of domestic protection is preferable to international adoptions and it's in the children's best interest; the law will not be changed despite international pressures.

And there is significant pressure. U.S. Congressman Jeb Bradley is trying to address the Romanian adoption issue in Brussels and a 16-year-old Romanian adoptee from the U.S. is expected to testify next week before the EU on the formidable success of her case. Considering that EU pressures lead to the 2001 moratorium on adoptions in the first place, it’s highly possible that the number of children adopted by foreign nationals not holding Romanian permanent residence decreased in direct proportion with the country's EU accession chances. Indeed, in February 2004 the invitation to join the EU by 2007 started to look less like a dark tunnel and more like the light at the end of it; coincidently or not, that's when Romania decided to pass a law that would permanently ban ALL international adoptions. While the moratorium had allowed for some exceptions, the new legislation left little room for bargaining and denied positive answers to about 1400 foreign adoption requests.

I don't think the EU was expecting an ad litteram compliance with its criticism of Romanian adoption policies back in 2001; and it should be pointed out that Romania has made enough anti-corruption progress to diminish said criticism and the government's reaction to it.

However, even if the adoption mechanism may receive better EU "ratings", the real reluctance lies somewhere else. It's not that Romania wants to facilitate the foreign adoption of its abandoned children, but it's holding back on account of European reprimands and fear of being scolded right before the big accession date in January 2007. The pros of the no-adoption law also include reasons such as the necessity to keep the children in their native environment by favoring domestic adoptions over foreign ones; lack of parental agreement; strong connection with at least one parent; reintegration within the biological or extended family; adoption by a legal guardian, etc. These are not all orphans living in miserable facilities and being denied a bright future as a foreign adoptee. Some cases entail at least one biological parent and the rational decision by such parents to leave their kids in homes or with foster families for strong financial reasons; other cases refer to abandoned children still in touch with their extended family.

Truth be told, the Romanian orphans may constitute a stronger case for the reevaluation of said law. I find little justification in denying their adoption by certified foreign families, especially when the extended family members - if they exist at all - are not able or willing to adopt. This is one point at least where the law could and should be more lenient.

Nevertheless, there is still an adoption dilemma. Considering the higher standard of living in most countries requesting adoptions (such as U.S. and Canada), adopted Romanian children could theoretically have many more financial, educational and healthcare options (to name but a few.) If the child's existent family members give their consent, does the Romanian state have the obligation to prioritize the best domestic option over a foreign one? Why does integration in one's native environment (be it through foster care, group houses, etc.) serve the children's best interest more than a potential future in - let's say - the U.S.?

There is no right answer, as far I'm concerned. Every case is different and it should be given considerable attention; however, I do believe that as long as there is no legal avenue for any foreign adoptions, Romania risks disregarding potentially better options. And that is not in the children's best interest.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Congressional Resolution Urges Romania To Amend Adoption Ban

In light of the upcoming May 16th decision on the country's EU 2007 adherence, I doubt that Romania will take any stands against the 2001 moratorium on foreign abortions imposed as a result of EU pressures.

However, since 5 years ago, the European Parliament has shown more leniency in supporting the international adoption of Romania's abandoned children - mainly in unique and imperative cases. Additionally, the moratorium was initially justified based on accusations of corruption in the adoption process; times are changing, there's a new government in place and the Anti-Corruption Department has "started hunting impressive fish" as The Economist pointed out earlier this year.

All in all, the Romanian government may just have enough leeway to finally reevaluate its no-foreign-adoptions policy, though after EU membership is secured. Until then, the choice between the U.S. Congress and Europe seems pretty simple - there will be little or no change at all before January 2007. In seeking an effective answer, this resolution may have been poorly timed.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

How Close We Came

For quite some time now I've been contemplating a post about Mr. Adrian Nastase's fate - former Communist, turned Prime Minister, turned Presidential Candidate, turned leader of the Lower House of the Romanian Parliament, turned deserted politician in search of a party.

Oddly enough, Nastase's life scale makes me recall the words allegedly attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller - Iron-Cross decorated WW1 captain, turned Hitler supporter, turned theology scholar, turned Allies-rescued concentration camp prisoner, turned right-wing Christian public speaker:

First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew./ Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist./ Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist./ Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me!

It's not that I'm trying to draw an analogy between the two, but rather point out that chameleon-like political figures have always existed and Mr. Nastase is but another example, rather than the exception. In fact, I wonder whether adaptability to profound change isn't the trademark of a skilled politician.

For Romania it's not uncommon to encounter former members of the Communist party in top political positions. Mr. Nastase's pre-Revolution period was quite prolific and I dare say he may have succeeded in his political career had Ceausescu never been shot. Married twice to daughters of prominent Commi figures, Nastase ironically represented the Romanian Communist Party at various international conferences on human rights and published exhaulted articles in the Romanian pre-1989 press. His avid attack in a Romanian Communist magazine against Freedom House for having ranked Romania at the time as a "Not Free" country is of particular notice, so are his illustrious writings on the "retrograde concept" of human rights.

Sarcasm aside, it's rather baffling to me that such a character managed to become the Prime Minister of "free" Romania for almost 4 years; he barely lost the Presidential elections in 2004 to Traian Basescu, the current President. It's baffling that a Revolution wasn't enough to shake Communist ties. It's baffling that no longer than 3 years ago my own father was still reluctant to make anti-governmental remarks on the phone for fear that someone "may be listening."

We came very close, indeed, to having a Communist chameleon as a President, once again. I don't think a lot of Romanians understand the weight of their decision to vote for Basescu. It's true that before the Revolution many current politicians had to be members of the Communist Party - or else. But there's a significant difference between belonging to the Communist Party and marrying it. Between silently adhering to a system for your own safety, and condemning human rights in the name of that system.

At the moment Mr. Nastase is what one may call a fallen politician. Following a corruption scandal, having resigned as the leader of the Lower House of the Romanian Parliament, ostracized by his own party, he may never be able to return to the Romanian political scene. But if he does, it would only prove that chameleons will always find a way to adapt.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

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