Iulian Mareș: Romania is in a dangerous situation because the political elites are no longer in touch with the people

First part of the interview with the Romanian independent journalist, which focuses on his expectations from the political and social developments in the electoral year 2024 in Romania

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 14 January 2024

Iulian Mareș is an independent journalist and president of the Balkan Development Support Association, with a career of over 20 years in international relations, banking and public administration, currently a PhD student at the University of Bucharest. 

The Friendship Bridge approached it in the context of its own editorial project dedicated to understanding Romanian society in the electoral year 2024. As part of this project, we will discuss with several interlocutors who have an understanding of political and social developments in Romania. 

Mr Mareș, what direction is Romania heading in? What do you expect to happen not only in the elections, but in society in general in 2024?

It’s hard to say what next year’s election will be and what the outcome will be. It’s really hard to predict. Not just because there are four rounds of elections coming up. Unprecedented things are happening now. Romania has never had four rounds of elections in a single year, but also the moment, let’s call it historical, at which Romania finds itself is a strange one. It’s a strange one, because in my opinion, I think it’s the most difficult to make realistic forecasts about the elections. I don’t think things have ever been so hard to understand. You can’t easily figure out what’s going on. And I think this is primarily because, at the moment, Romanian politics has the least connection with the common man, with the people. I believe it with great conviction. Our politicians today have no connection with people’s aspirations, with what people need and so on. If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger in the year 2024, I would say that it is the disconnection of political life from reality. 

I understand and I have something to ask here, because more and more people write articles and posts online that Romania is living in the best time in its history, that incomes have increased, that there are opportunities, that the country is part of the West and so on. However, more Romanians seem to me to be disappointed in different things, each by something specific. Some are disappointed with the old parties for having a hegemonic position in society, others are disappointed with the rise of sovereignism, others are disappointed with public services, education, PISA tests, plagiarism cases. So it seems to me that in many respects besides being a better time I am left with the impression that it is a sad time.

It’s not a sad moment, it’s a dangerous moment. It’s not sad at all. Indeed, Romania is at its best moment in 30 years, in many ways. But I don’t think we are at a peak of healthy growth. I think we’re in a bit of a soap bubble. I’m looking right now at the parking lot in front of the building where I work: all luxury cars. And if you look around Bucharest, it’s full of expensive cars. And the question would be where some people have the money to buy cars worth tens of thousands of euros. 

Seriously, I think we are at the highest percentage of black economy in the last 30 years. We are at a happy moment, because a lot of money has come into the country in recent years, European funds and what Romanians in the diaspora have sent, investments and so on. But this cannot go on forever. It is, how shall I say, simply a happy conjuncture that will end at some point.

Okay. There is also a difference between Romanian regions. It seems that the big cities go at one speed, the rural areas and deep Romania at another.

Definitely yes. You’re absolutely right here. And that’s when polarization is born in big cities. Life is good. In other areas less good. And the confusion we run the risk of making is to think that everywhere is the same. Those of us who live in Bucharest imagine that it’s the same all over Romania, but it’s not the same all over Romania.

And do you think that this divide, let’s say, between developed or rich Romania and less developed and less rich Romania, could be used politically?

Definitely, I fear most that next year people will not come out to vote. Whereas people in poorer areas usually turn out in large numbers because they are also quite easily incentivised with electoral bribes and things like that. And then you will end up in a situation where people from less developed areas will decide in elections for others in more developed areas. And they’ll wake up in the cities not liking the outcome of the vote, but it will be too late.

But if people in big cities are not motivated to vote, maybe the political offer is not convincing?

Not convincing at all. That’s what I said at the beginning, that the political offer doesn’t have much to do with the ordinary man, even in the cities, especially. And there’s also a shortage of candidates. I mean the characters that are being pushed are not attractive to the public.

So is there a need for some kind of renewal of the political system and the blood at the top of politics? Is there a need for new elites and new people to enter the political game?

There will be new leaders and new people. Because we have reached a very perverse situation where the selection and promotion mechanisms of the parties are mainly based on money. The seats are simply auctioned off. And then the candidates who are put forward for the vote are not the most electorally attractive. They are the ones who have paid the most to the parties to be nominated as candidates.

So, is there not a need for an honest discussion in Romanian society about these things we are talking about?

Oh, definitely yes. But who’s going to wear it? Parties are not interested in carrying it. People don’t want to talk about it. That’s too little, they say. So there’s great, great apathy among the people. A great disinterest in political life.

Iulian Mareș (source: Iulian Mareș)

How do you see the role of the media in having this discussion?

Unfortunately, the press in Romania is currently marginalized. And it is marginalized, especially economically speaking, in the sense that a newspaper, a publication nowadays can no longer sustain itself. It’s very hard to make a living from what readers buy. Who pays for advertising nowadays? A newspaper can live on advertising, it’s true, but who pays for advertising also tends to dictate certain editorial lines.

Betting companies pay for advertising.

Well look, on this particular subject I’m not going to comment, because I don’t know. It would mean repeating what others have said, what I have read in other articles and I prefer not to do that.

The way you speak shows that you care. In fact more Romanians would care about what is happening. There must be a reaction in society to what you describe as deadlock and danger.

It’s true. That’s what I was saying, that it’s a very dangerous time, precisely because you don’t see any visible threat. Society is complacent in this situation. And it is, in fact, a moment of vulnerability, but it’s not being realized.

Isn’t it time for real elites who care and will do something?

I don’t believe in that. From that point of view I’m pessimistic. I’m not saying that there are no real elites in Romania. There are, but they are not united, they are not coagulated by anyone. In turn, they have been content with the various advantages, benefits they have received in recent years. I don’t see anyone among the elite trying to start a movement or anything. No, I really don’t.

Will you vote?

Yes, I will vote, I have voted every time. Personally, I feel I owe it to those who died in ’89. Every time I went to vote, I went with that in mind. It’s my duty to vote, because those who died in ’89 died for it, so that we can vote and our vote can count. But more and more people have come to Romania to say: “My vote doesn’t count, our vote doesn’t count.” I try to contradict them, but I can’t contradict hundreds of people, thousands of people.

I see.

I believe that a large part of the blame lies with the USR (Union Save Romania), because it has totally failed. The USR had at one point become the third political force in the country. A lot of people saw in USR a hope for a change in politics, but unfortunately this party failed. And so the new star in Romanian politics is AUR (Alliance for the Union of Romanians). It happens, when one good one fails, it leaves room for another bad one.

How do you see this offer by the four significant parties in Romanian politics? What do we need to know about each of the parties? What characterises these parties?

My opinion is that it’s a false offer. As they say, a multiple. Okay, you’ve got four parties, no one’s disputing that. But the offer of the four political parties is not so different in reality. If you look at the PSD (Social Democratic Party), for example – they’ve started borrowing from the rhetoric of AUR, because they think that’s what will get them more votes. I think it’s a big mistake, because the PSD should have gone back to being a truly European social democratic party and not slipped in the opposite direction. The USR doesn’t matter much at this point. I predict it will score very poorly, no matter what offer they put forward. The PNL (National Liberal Party) has its share of the electorate and it will stay at its share of the electorate, because it also has a good structure on the ground. Everyone expects an increase for the AUR, which will happen and then it will be very interesting. I don’t know. I wouldn’t want us to have a PSD – AUR coalition government in the future, that would be disastrous.

But what exactly has the PSD done to slide towards AUR?

Unfortunately, it has slipped into AUR precisely because the PSD did nothing. I mean the problem is not what it did. The problem is what it didn’t do. It’s like in Caragiale, if you know what that phrase was, to change, but stay the same. I mean, that’s pretty much what the PSD wants today. Pretending that it wants to lead the country in a modern, European direction and so on, when in reality it’s doing something completely different. There’s another Romanian saying: “Say like him and do like you.” We mime these things. Unfortunately, even though Romania is at a crossroads, I say that the country has to decide at this moment whether it wants to go forward or stand still or go backwards.

Romania is probably looking at what is happening in the world and maybe if the president changes in the US, if a Republican comes, Romania has to be prepared.

Romanians take little interest in international relations. Look at the share of foreign news in Romanian news bulletins and you will see that it is very low. We are one of the most inward-looking countries. The Romanian electorate is little interested in what happens abroad.

But the people who run the Romanian state follow international developments. If the wind changes, they will follow the wind. I think it’s like that all over our region.

They will do what they have done every time before the election. A few months before the election they will go to Washington in an attempt to find allies. They’ve all done that. Don’t imagine that politics in Bucharest necessarily changes as politics changes in Washington. There’s always been a gap and a numbness. Only if Washington intervened, had the initiative to ask for a certain political direction, then things happened in Bucharest too. If Washington is not interested in Bucharest, nothing happens in Bucharest.

Photo: (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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