Codru Vrabie: Social change in Southeastern Europe means more autonomy for the individuals

First part of the podcast on social change and agency in Southeastern Europe with a Romanian interlocutor from the NGO sector

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship

Codru Vrabie is a civil society activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, accountability and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to numerous justice and public administration reform measures. Vrabie holds a degree in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, USA) and a master’s degree in public administration, as well as a master’s degree in European affairs (Romania, Netherlands, Spain). Since 1998, he has worked for various civil society organisations in Romania. In 2010, Vrabie started working for the Leaders for Justice program in Romania, which has been replicated in Moldova since 2017.

See the contents of the first part of the podcast with Codru Vrabie:

00:00 Intro 

00:48 Presentation of Codru Vrabie 

02:30 Different versions about what change means in Southeastern Europe 

04:10 Codru Vrabie’s short answer to what change means in the region 

06:33 What change do our societies need? 

09:42 What does change mean when we think about transition and post-transition in Southeastern Europe? 

15:51 Polarization and change. Change as accumulation of power over the other side vs. change as renewal/transformation 

18:48 Polarization and politicians

21:08 People who are polarized cannot talk to each other and that is why they can never agree on anything and that reduces their capacity to make change. There is a need for people closer to the middle, who can listen to both sides and try to build something on the bases of similarities on both sides

Welcome to a Bridge of Friendship and Cross Border Talk, another podcast which we dedicate to the issue of social change and agency in Southeastern Europe. It is an issue which becomes more and more important as our countries look for their place, maybe in a changing world, and as we face various problems, social problems, political problems, and other problems in our societies. And we also need a positive version of what happens in order to be active and maybe want more.

So we are going to discuss a number of issues related to social change and agency in our region with a person who I believe could speak a lot and has a lot to say. This is Codru Vrabie, who is an expert on good governance from Romania. He has been a trainer in various programs for good governance, judicial reform, preparation of young leaders and others. In Romania and the Republic of Moldova. And he is also a graduate of the American University in Bulgaria, which I believe makes him well positioned in contact with a number of allies in these countries and knowledgeable about societies.

I hope we will offer a lot of good ideas and concepts about how to frame these ideas of change and agency. Because I have the feeling in our countries we tend to reduce these issues to something very limited. And for me, change is not so much being pro and anti somebody politically or geopolitically. For me change is maybe thinking in more complex terms about everything.

So welcome to the podcast. And let me start with first maybe some attempt at definition. We have had many theories about what change means in our region, which many people may agree with. It’s kind of a little bit peripheral to the EU. There is this theory that change means old elites or elites from the transition being replaced by new elites, by, let’s say, more modern, more technological or whatever you call them, more clean elites. There is this idea that change maybe means that oligarchical superstructure of society is replaced by some superstructure related to corporate and NGO sector. There is change which empowers workers and salaried workers especially. There are also some people. who fight for change in the sense of changing the balance between national capital and international capital into the benefit of national capital. That is also a version of change for some people. And there are many ways and many battles, let’s say, which people maybe lead in our societies under the banner of change. It could be human rights, it could be traditional family. It could be internationalization, it could be patriotism. We see different divisions and in a way, everyone fights for some change if he has some level of consciousness.

But let us start with your perspective on that. What does change mean in our region?

Zdravei, Vladimir (Hello in Bulgarian – note of the editor). Salut in Romanian. You post a lot of questions related to change. I would bring it closer to home, from a perspective that everybody is probably accustomed to. And that is a puddle of water. That simply sits and as time goes by it starts to produce organic matter and starts to rot. So if there is no change in that puddle of water to bring in a little oxygen or some other things, then little by little, that particular puddle of water will turn into murk. It will start smelling like a rotten body. And then ultimately, the water evaporates and everything dies. So to me, change is a synonym for life. And everybody wants to have a better life, prosperity, in a sense. So I think that’s the way I look at change in our societies, whether it be within the European Union or outside the European Union, as is the case for Moldova.

Okay, but that is very general.

Now let’s take it step by step and, and go back to the specific questions that you had, because it was just too much all of a sudden.

Okay, so what change do our societies need? If I may try to make the question a little bit more concrete, in what directions should we change? What is the direction of life which we should follow?

I think for all these three neighboring countries, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova: we have a lot of economic inequality, which translates in a high proportion of the population living in poverty or at the edge of poverty. So to say very specific problems related to social assistance and education in general, public health. And this is one area where all three countries need to change quite rapidly.We did have this summer a huge scandal in Romania related to health care centers for the elderly and disabled. One top politician, specifically the Minister of Labour, and another one the Minister for Family Issues – both of them related to social protection, generally speaking, were somehow involved in this scandal. It is sort of a big scale corruption scheme where, um. These health centers were simply milking state subsidies for the private benefit of the minister and their family. This is something that needs to change. In the sense that we need higher standards when it relates to social protection and health care, and we need to get rid of corruption in order to achieve more economic equality in our countries. If we manage to fix these particular systems in such a way that we provide, first of all, safety for our citizens. And I think this is an important component for change.

Okay, We are societies which have passed through some transition and it’s been a painful transition with a huge social price, especially for the older generations. And it’s been a transition which maybe has empowered some people who are called dubious or even mafia people like in Bulgaria. It is also a transition which is related to some kind of trauma as people who have had their relatively clear position about who they are, what they work professionally, what is their value system, had to go through some suffering and maybe destruction of what they believed in. So I also want to ask you about change in this context of transition and wounds of transition. What is the change in this regard which our societies may need?

I think from this particular perspective, transition is not over. And I will explain, looking at the research by Hofstede. That looks at specific social values. And one of the one of them that is very important is individual individualism versus collectivism. That’s how Hofstede puts it. I would rather say autonomy.
Since we are part of the European Union and we are looking at the so-called West. We want societies that work, that function, and state institutions that function as we see in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France or Italy. The very important distinction is that those societies, especially in Northern Europe, are based on a very high level of autonomy of the individual. This means that an individual learns from early childhood that, look, these are the rules of the game. And if you want to succeed, it’s only up to you to get better every day at playing the game within the rules. And it’s also up to you that if you don’t like one of the specific rules, you can get your friends together, put pressure on the authorities and try to change that specific rule in our part of the world, in Bulgaria, Romania, and in Moldova as well, possibly also even in the Ukraine or in Greece and Serbia or maybe in Macedonia. Maybe we are more collectivistic. We learn that our success in life depends on who we know. And our loyalty may be to a sort of a clan or a tribe or a family. And then the power of these particular tribes is enough to change the rules that we don’t like.

The problem that we face and where we definitely need change is that with European integration within the European Union we are forced to go towards a state, a society based on autonomy, not on the collective. But we do not accompany that change with specific measures in terms of education. Our school doesn’t have a set of criteria and standards and values that prepare our kids for a society based on autonomy. We still keep the system of education that enforces collectivism. So this is a tension. This is cleavage. This is a conflict. Between how we do things. And what we want to achieve. And you surely know and everybody who listens to us knows that only a fool can do things the same way but expect different results. So this is the type of change that we need. We need to do things another way in order to get a different result. But now the question is, do we really want a different result? Because when you look at our politicians. That is not always very clear. Does it make sense?

Yes, for sure. You spoke about politicians, and we see especially in Bulgaria, but also in the Republic of Moldova, maybe even in Romania, rising polarization, which some people like to label it as West versus East or Russia. But for me, the division as seen in the European Union or maybe even close to the European Union is more technocratic versus sovereignist. And I want to ask in this sense with regards to polarization, how does change look in societies of great polarization? I mean, some people have their version of justice, of righteousness, and they think that if they want to change something, they have to rally for one or the other pole. But I’m also curious, what stands in the middle between these poles? And is change affirmation of the poles or is change more transformation; is change more accumulation of power over the other side or is change some kind of renewal where this contradiction is redefined?

That’s a difficult question, Vladimir. With polarization I think comes a reduction in power. I’m thinking here about power in the sense of capacity. To make change happen in a reasonable span of time. To make a transformation that is hopefully sustainable in the long run. But to achieve this result in a shorter period of time, something that is reasonable sometimes related to the four year mandate that we have between elections. When the society is polarized, the capacity to make this transformation is lower. Because society is more brittle, fragile. That means it can break at any point. And of course, if society breaks, then you cannot advance. And this is a paradox.

Some politicians believe that polarization will help them achieve more power in the short run. But the result is specifically the other way around. They lose power because they cannot get all the resources that they need to make that transformation. They lose credibility and then the resources are wasted and they cannot be part of the conversation when it comes to a new attempt to make a change. So this is a paradox that I think is somewhat provincial in nature. We may have seen this in the past in Greece.Definitely in Spain and Portugal after they joined the European. Union. As soon as the politicians learn that power to make a sustainable change relies on the people in the middle, that’s when our political decision making systems will heal. And indeed, I think this is another matter related to change.

Our politicians need to change. I do have my doubts to what extent they have the capacity to understand that, because I don’t see many of them being educated well enough to understand this process, but to go back and make it simpler, maybe.People who are very far polarized on the left and the right, let’s say, or white and black of the political spectrum. They cannot talk to each other because they cannot talk to each other. They can never agree on anything. And that reduces their capacity either on left or right, white or black. It reduces their capacity to make change. What you need is some people that are moderate, closer to the middle, who can listen to the other side. They can understand the different reasonings, point out where there are some similarities and try to build something based on those similarities.

When you have people in the middle, these people can agree on some things, not on all things. And when they agree on some things, then they can create majorities, because that’s how our democratic systems work – with a majority that decides on how to make the change, when to make it with what resources, what are the results that we are looking for and who is going to be affected and how do we put some kind of a safety net for those people who are going to be mostly affected by that change. Whereas polarization means that people no longer listen to the other side. Again, whatever is not flexible will break.

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