HUNDREDS of flashy magazines and impassioned lectures can’t accomplish what direct contact can when it comes to breaking down stereotypes and myths about other countries.
Such is the belief of Gheorghe Anghel, charge d’affaires at Romania's embassy in Slovakia. While for the older generation the mention of Romania evokes fond images from their youth, many young people these days are likely to put Count Dracula atop their list of associations about the country, he said.
But Romania joined the European Union last year, and is set to join the Schengen zone and adopt the euro in a few years.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Anghel about the challenges that post-communist countries share, such as corruption and education reform, labour markets, and the links between Slovakia and Romania, which Anghel says are much tighter than many realise.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Romania and Czechoslovakia were part of the so-called Soviet bloc, which severely restricted its people from communicating with anyone outside it. There was also an official friendship between these countries. How did the situation change after the fall of the Iron Curtain? How has Slovaks’ perception of Romania changed?
Gheorghe Anghel (GA): Unlike the older generation of Slovaks, who had direct knowledge of Romania, the younger generation knows much less about it, and what they do know mostly comes from media. This way of accessing information about a country presents certain limitations: if the only footage you see on television shows street kids, orphanages, and wagons on the roads, then it is the only image you will have. I have been meeting students at different universities, such as Comenius University, though I have also visited Nitra, Prešov and Banská Bystrica, and I usually ask them what they know about Romania. Many of them do not know the name Nicolae Ceausescu [the former autocratic Romanian leader who was executed after the collapse of Communism] or Nadia Comaneci [the famous gymnast who defected from Romania].
Yet I would not say that this is due to a lack of interest. It is very difficult to get young people excited about Romania unless we come up with something like the myth of Dracula.
Of course, the contact between the countries has been less intense. We aren’t obliged any more to have contact, the way we were before 1989, which is a good thing. But it means that we no longer know each other the way we used to.
People are sometimes surprised that Bucharest has two airports. During lectures, some students ask strange questions, such as whether they would face intimidation in Romania for speaking Slovak. Questions like that reveal stereotypes. I always tell them that in every country they will find both positive and negative things, and that disinterest or limited knowledge only reinforces stereotypes. There are beautiful places in Romania, places worth seeing and visiting.
TSS: What would help Slovaks better understand Slovak-Romanian relations, as well as Romania the country?
GA: Some people do not realise how deeply rooted Slovak-Romanian relations are. There are historical ties, both in older and modern history, and there is also the life of the Slovak minority in Romania that has laid the groundwork for the relationship.
We can reach back to around 1580, when a Romanian named Nicholaus Olahus, [who also served as Archbishop of Esztergom] was connected to Bratislava. He is buried in Trnava. Olah means “Romanian” in Hungarian, so basically he is Mikulas the Romanian. He was a significant representative of the Hungarian kingdom and he was someone who actually made Romania enter Europe.
In more recent history, there was the Little Entente, an alliance formed in 1920 and 1921 between Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia to prevent the Habsburg restoration. France supported the alliance. It ended in 1938. Interestingly, right before the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by Warsaw troops, in which Romania did not actually take part, the alliance between the same countries emerged again in the form of bilateral agreements. Shortly after Yugoslavia signed its agreement, Nicolae Ceausescu, three days before the invasion, signed a 20-year bilateral agreement with Czechoslovakia, which formally re-created a traditional link between the three countries once again.
Another historical connection occurred during World War II. Romanian troops liberated one-third of modern-day Slovakia. There are many war monuments in Slovakia that are very well taken care of. The countries signed an agreement two years ago about the mutual care for the graves of the fallen soldiers. During World War II commemorations, I meet locals who have stories and good memories about the Romanian soldiers. Of course this is the older generation, which is disappearing over time.
People also have fond memories of visiting Romania as tourists. Unfortunately, very few Slovak tourists go to Romania these days.
Another strong tie is created through the 18,000-strong Slovak minority in Romania who live in Arad and Bihor counties. Nadlac is a town with 9,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Slovak. The Slovak minority is very well integrated and they are represented in parliament.
Also, Slovakia was the first country that ratified the EU accession treaty for Romania and Bulgaria. I remember the day: June 21, 2005; 104 votes, with 102 in favour and two abstentions. Slovakia was the third country to open its labour market for Romanian workers.
Our countries should proceed as allies within the European Union, given the fact that we both are new EU member countries and thus can jointly defend the interests of newcomers.
TSS: Slovakia suffers from a 21st century employment paradox: while the country still has one of the highest unemployment rates, some industries continue to suffer from a lack of qualified labour. A Slovak car maker recently gave seasonal jobs to Romanian workers. Is Romania producing enough qualified labour? Is brain drain a problem in your country?
GA: We pretty much suffer from the same phenomenon. Our workers pick up jobs in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the United States. I do not have the official figures, but it might be a little below two million of the 21.6 million people in the country. Most of them accept unqualified jobs, mostly in construction, which pay well. But the trend has been going down since salaries have become more attractive. Also, more and more Romanians are coming back or do not leave at all. But this has nothing to do with nationality, as people are simply seeking out better paying jobs abroad. But people also balance how much they get in return for sacrificing closeness to their relatives, traditions, and customs. More and more Romanians are saying it is no longer worth it.
TSS: According to a statement by Romanian President Traian Basescu on July 31, the Romanian authorities have admitted their “partial failure” regarding the integration of the Roma community. What are the challenges that Romania faces in terms of minority policies? What are the challenges that the European Union faces?
GA: I attended some events in Slovakia dedicated to the Roma community, since we are very interested in how others treat the issue. Most speakers on the issue do not mention Romania as frequently as other countries. One of the reasons is that, unlike in other countries, the Roma community in Romania has very few places where it lives in segregated villages or settlements. They mingle with society. Of course, there are unsolved problems and stereotypes in Romania, but there is also a familiarity that perhaps makes it easier to overcome the stereotypes. We have Roma members of parliament. We are trying to encourage them to attend schools and make access easier for them. Education is the key, the most important approach.
TSS: Post-communist countries have been struggling to reform their justice systems and find ways to eliminate corruption at all levels of the society. But ethics watchdogs continue to warn that cronyism and corruption are still a problem at all levels of state administration. What approach has Romania taken towards the problem of corruption? Has the Romanian public become more corruption-sensitive?
GA: We have tried hard to fight corruption. We are still fighting. Earlier this year, the European Commission published a report on corruption in Romania. It was an objective report. We will treat it as a tool that indicates where we need to work harder. In fact, we read the conclusion of the report as follows: the country is showing results, but there is still much to do. We have a state-run body, the National Agency of Integrity, which monitors the income of high state officials and conflicts of interest. This shows that there is an interest in getting rid of state officials who mistake the citizens’ pockets for their own. Of course, you cannot just cut out corruption without eliminating the roots, we know that. It needs to be treated systematically, and there is no overnight cure.
TSS: Post-communist countries have been seeking a model for reforming their education systems that would meet both the requirement of business and provide a decent general education. While doing so, they have to face the challenge of a lack of funds. How has Romania handled this demanding task?
GA: The university education system is very similar to what you have in Slovakia. Probably the major difference with Western universities is that in many cases the emphasis might be more on memorising the curriculum rather than learning its practical application. If you look at some US universities, they teach like you’re on a guided tour: go read, come back and tell us how you understood the book and learned to build something. It is not based on memory in the sense that the more you remember, the better grade you receive, but rather how you can use what you have learned.
Our system is still evolving. Grades might be the result of how much the student remembers, rather than how he or she applies it in practice. We are injected with knowledge, but we often do not know how to apply that knowledge as part of a team. A hybrid approach would be the best.
As for links with Slovak academia, there are not that many student exchanges, but there are some ties. Comenius University has a Romanian language desk with 15-20 students and some of them went to Romania on scholarship. We have some students from Romania here, but there is the language barrier, since Romanian is a Romance language.
Also five young Romanian students attended a Slovak language summer school in Slovakia in August this year.
TSS: Some of the language barriers have been coming down, albeit slowly. Do Romanians speak foreign languages?
GA: Many Romanians speak English, French, Italian and Spanish, while very few speak Russian. If they do, it is usually the older generation. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Ceausescu decided that it was no longer mandatory to study Russian at schools as it had been before 1968. Romanians studied English, French and German and recently we have introduced Spanish and Italian, which is a very easy language for Romanians. I can understand 75 percent of Italian without much effort or lessons. But it does not work the other way around.
Romania is culturally connected to France. Romanians born generations before the end of World War II used to speak French. After the war, Romania imported communism from the Soviet Union.
The Soviets tried to invent a Soviet culture, but there was no such thing: there is only Russian culture, Ukrainian culture, Belarusian culture, etc.
The Soviets tried to stop the French influence in Romania, but they could not replace it with anything else, so there was a vacuum.
The Anglo-Saxon influence very quickly filled that vacuum, because of the movies, songs, magazines and mass media. This is why many Romanians speak English.
TSS: What is Romania’s ambition regarding entry to the eurozone and the Schengen zone? What are the greatest challenges in this area?
GA: We would like to join Schengen in 2012 or even 2011, while the euro is planned for 2014. This is what we want now; it depends on how we progress. The Romanian economy is performing well thanks to the economic policies of the governments that came after 2000. We have attracted foreign direct investment.
Schengen is a very technical issue and we have to work hard on anything that relates to the visa system.
Once you join that system you must be fully inter-operational with the others. We have a long border with non-EU countries, such as Ukraine and Moldova, as well as a coastline border with Turkey.
This is a huge challenge.
TSS: What aspects of Slovak culture are interesting for Romanians, and vice versa?
GA: In 2005, Mircea Eliade, an author of fantastic prose, was translated into Slovak. This year, a volume of Romanian poetry by the greatest Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu, was also translated into Slovak.
One issue of the magazine for Slovak translators was completely devoted to Romanian contemporary literature and poetry in 2007. But cultural dialogue would be much better served through direct contact.
You can print thousands of little magazines, leaflets or brochures about Romania and leave them in hotels, but what would that actually achieve?
Total area:238,000 sq kilometres
Romania's main natural resources include oil, natural gas, coal, iron, copper, and bauxite. Metal-working, petrochemicals and mechanical engineering are the main industries.
Source: EU website:
1. Sep 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová