The Accidental Activist

Romania’s revolution in 1989 was not as clear-cut as those in other countries in the region. There was not, for instance, a sharp divide between the Communist political elite and the post-Communist elite. And the street demonstrations that faded elsewhere in the region intensified in Romania through the spring of 1990. For instance in April and May 1990, thousands of students occupied University Square in the center of Bucharest for seven weeks to protest continued Communist influence on Romanian politics. The leader of the League of Romanian Students was 28-year-old Marian Munteanu.

After the elections of May 20, won overwhelmingly by the National Salvation Front and former Communist official Ion Iliescu, Munteanu and others urged the demonstrators to disperse. Some protestors refused to do so and maintained their encampment on University Square. The Romanian authorities appealed to miners to help “restore order” in June 1990. The miners violently broke up the occupation, killing six and injuring many others. Munteanu was arrested on June 13 and released shortly after. On June 14, however, he suffered a brutal beating that sent him to the hospital, where he was rearrested. By mid-July, Romania saw its largest demonstration since the fall of Ceausescu when 20,000 people gathered in Bucharest to demand Munteanu’s release. As a result of domestic and international pressure, he was released after two months of detention.

I didn’t have a chance to interview Munteanu in 1990 when I was in Romania because he was still in detention. But I met him last year for a conversation at a restaurant in Bucharest. I was surprised to discover that the activist who had captivated huge audiences of protestors for weeks at a time in 1990 never particularly relished that role.

“I don’t like noisy large gatherings, not only from a professional but also from a personal point of view,” he told me in May 2013. “I communicate better in small groups, not in large groups. My career plan, from the beginning, was focused on education. That was my life project. But in those moments, it was like in any catastrophic situation. In a fire, everyone must run to get water.”

Like many young people at the time, he expected his elders to push for a clean break with the past. “At that moment, I thought that the 50-something generation would be able to do something right,” he said. “But they didn’t, and when that happened, it was one of the reasons my colleagues and I decided to get involved. We decided to organize things in a proper manner. I was a simple student. It was difficult for me to have contacts with major stakeholders in society. But because of the events, I started to get to know them personally, through discussions with the Civic Alliance and so on… After participating in those discussions, I knew I had to step in.”

Today Munteanu largely focuses on his academic pursuits in folklore and ethnology. Although he largely left politics, he’s satisfied that at least some of the changes that he and his fellow activists promoted eventually became state policy. “Let’s remember that what we were asking for 23 years ago did indeed happen, with a major delay of seven or eight years,” he argued. “Our requests did actually become state politics, but badly implemented. Can we evaluate this as a good thing? Of course it’s good. But it’s not because of the politicians. It’s because of life. Because of pressure. And with lots of delays. If we analyze it within the system, it’s a disaster. I know that generally administration is not the place for quality anywhere in the world. Maybe under Confucius in China 2,500 years ago. But even Confucius was not pleased.”

He continues to take the long view. “We should focus on the perspective that some good things will take place over the long term,” he maintained. “We should anticipate these even if we don’t live long enough to see the results. I plant walnut trees in the garden of my house, in the mountain. It’s almost impossible to live long enough to experience the shade of those walnut trees. Somebody, nevertheless, will enjoy them and their shade. Just not me.”

We talked about his student activism days, his aborted presidential run, and his dissatisfaction with the management of government in Romania.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Yes, I heard it on the radio.

 

What were you thinking when you heard about it?

 

At that particular moment, when I heard the news, the situation here in Romania was not very clear, but there were some hints indicating some sort of change, especially the conflict between Ceausescu and Gorbachev. For me at least, that moment was a signal that the system was about to change, somehow. I was very young, and I was not so optimistic in those days. I’d figured that the regime was going to go on for several more years. When we are young, time has different dimensions. As a matter of fact,in anthropology, you can differentiate between generations by their definition of and relationship to time. Anyway, when I saw the visit of Gorbachev to Romania, for me at least, it was obvious that the end of the old regime was coming. Of course, I thought the change would occur in a neo-Soviet way, which, in fact was exactly what happened. I wasn’t very wrong with this interpretation. In Romania and Bulgaria, there were some conservative reactions to Gorbachev. But it was just a question of time. Even in regard to the whole population, there was a feeling that something was burning even though you couldn’t see the fire.

 

You felt the tremors in the earth.

 

Indeed… Anyway, it was an important moment, the fall of the Berlin Wall, an important symbol. At that moment, I thought the regime would last for another four or five years. In fact, that wasn’t such a big mistake, if we look at the transition period of 1990-1996.

 

Was there a moment in your life when you decided to be in the political opposition? Or was it a more gradual process?

 

Not at all. I never had this perspective. I don’t like noisy large gatherings, not only from a professional but also from a personal point of view. I communicate better in small groups, not in large groups. My career plan, from the beginning, was focused on education. That was my life project. But in those moments, it was like in any catastrophic situation. In a fire, everyone must run to get water. You just feel you have to do something. I tried to be useful in a way. Of course, society has its own trajectory. We know that in a society, might makes right, even when it is obviously wrong. That’s life.

My background in this kind of politics, in civil rights actions, was mainly focused on education and culture. Before 1989, I tried to sustain a relatively normal life, culturally speaking. Especially in a country like Romania, censorship was very strong. There were many books we weren’t allowed to read. I tried to organize cultural groups in different Faculties, at the University. The main area of my actionswas culture. But in fact, the real focus was on freedom, because culture is an expression of freedom. Without freedom, you don’t have culture, you have something else. So, we tried to find perspectives and solutions that could be useful for some later period of time.

When everything happened in 1989, we didn’t worry about the accountability and involvement of the older generation. This was one of my errors of evaluation. I just didn’t think in those years that the capacity for cohesion and organization of the older generation would be so low. I’m talking here about the intellectuals: the academics, the scientists, the writers, anybody who operated on the cultural level. Under Communism, only certain personalities had the chance to be published or had positions in institutions or cultural groups or universities — not to mention the media. The literary reviews were written by a very small group of people. Today, in fact, we have the same pattern – more or less the same groups of people! Of course, just some of the old ones remain. Some of them died. But they had disciples who were able and willing to take their places.

At that moment, I thought that the 50-something generation would be able to do something right. But they didn’t, and when that happened, it was one of the reasons my colleagues and I decided to get involved. We decided to organize things in a proper manner. I was a simple student. It was difficult for me to have contacts with major stakeholders in society. But because of the events, I started to get to know them personally, through discussions with the Civic Alliance and so on… After participating in those discussions, I knew I had to step in.

 

What was misguided about the Civil Alliance? Why were you disappointed?

 

They were under the control of the government. Let’s say 60 percent of the key leaders – that’s a schematic approximation. I could offer you specific data, but let’s stick with this approximation. They did what the government wanted.

 

You mean the National Salvation Front.

 

Yes. Just like today. There’s been no change. We have the same governmental policy from 1989 until today. You know the proverb — the more things change, the more they stay the same. My assertion is that the older generation didn’t really understand the chance they had. Most of the people who were involved, as I was, in those movements were later involved in the government, with very few exceptions.

The organizational structure of the students, which I helped establish, had 400-500 leaders at the top and a few thousand members. We were not very much liked by the government. The establishment had some people planted inside our movement. Since we were young and not very well developed, we tolerated these sort of actions. In those times we were able to rapidly gather several thousand people for a demonstration. For example, if the government passed a bad law, we were able to very quickly mobilize several groups of protesters at least in the major universities. From this point of view, we were a civic force. We were practically serving the society. We saw what some of the intellectual leaders were doing, that they were working directly with the government, and started to gain access to various positions in the establishments. But they were not able to manage even the educational and cultural institutions.

 

With what you learned since then, would you have done anything differently at the end of 1989 or beginning of 1990?

 

Yes, I think so. But this is what always happens in history. History offers us so many examples. When we are young, there are many things we don’t exactly understand, though we use our intuition to try to understand them. If we had the same mindset back then that we have now, then we wouldn’t have had the enthusiasm we had then. Some things can only be done by young people. Life has proven that. Of course, this kind of intervention rarely succeeds. But at least they result in some signals. That’s all. That’s good enough. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.

The problem was that our cultural establishment was not at all prepared for this kind of moment. They were so connected, mentally, with the Communist system. In Romania, it was difficult to have any kind of career without being at least a little connected. If you wanted to be a professor, you had to join the Party. Also, the genocide here was on a different scale compared to other parts of the Eastern Europe (aside from Russia, of course). Somewhere around 10 percent of our population was imprisoned. The intellectual elite was decimated, and for those who survived, it really affected their way of thinking. The mechanism of promoting intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s was based on specific extra-cultural factors. There were very important public figures with only a high school level of understanding.

In my field, for example, many of the professors and researchers were killed or imprisoned or sent into exile. Only a very few were left, and they were generally marginalized. I had a great professor who died three years ago, one of the real experts in orality. Imagine: he retired from the Institute of Anthropology at the second lowest rank. He was never selected for any major position in educational or cultural institutes! What kind of selection is this? You can’t build on a foundation of public debates, of talk-shows and magazine articles. You need expertise, understanding, and a lot of work.

 

When you look at other countries going through somewhat similar experiences — and that struggle with similar legacies — do you think that any of the other countries in this region did it right? Because of the level of cultural achievements or because they had smart leaders or because of strong civic movements?

 

Probably all the people and the leaders wanted this change. But they were not the ones who decided it. It was decided by the major players in global politics. And these were the same major players as the ones after World War II, with only one exception. Now these players also included one of the countries defeated in World War II – Germany – which was an obvious player in this select group. This was, in a way, normal. The ability and the intelligence of the leaders from these countries generated a better capacity of coordinating and influencing local contexts. The leaders in this region couldn’t change anything because they were not even invited to the big players table.

Apart from this, there were certain possibilities, at a local level, in these countries. These local possibilities can generally evolve in a better or in a worse way. Personally, I consider naive the view that participatory democracy is well established and that we get to decide everything on these matters. When you analyze the economic situation globally, and see how capital is distributed in percentages, you can easily find an overlap with a map of political decisions. Okay, that’s life. But at least let’s try to do something better at a local level. If I had a reproach to make, it would not be that these macro decisions are good or right or that I agree or disagree with them. They are like tectonic movements. You can’t fight them. But at least let’s try to do something with our life here. Many things can happen down here, at the local level.

Unfortunately, our establishment didn’t run things well. They succeeded in one thing only. They eroded any possibility for reconstruction. It’s funny in a very strange way. This “performance” turned out badly for them, as well. It’s not a win-win situation. It is a lose-lose one.

 

We call it self-defeating.

 

It is reflected at the level of social involvement, through the immediate things that impact our lives, form a social life point of view. Fortunately, there are some other layers of our lives: interpersonal relations, the spiritual dimension, the value we find in our lives. We should focus on the perspective that some good things will take place over the long term. We should anticipate these even if we don’t live long enough to see the results. I plant walnut trees in the garden of my house, in the mountain. It’s almost impossible to live long enough to experience the shade of those walnut trees. Somebody, nevertheless, will enjoy them and their shade. Just not me.

 

Do you see anything positive today on the political horizon in Romania?

 

There are many positive things. But they are not visible.

 

Can you make them visible to me?

 

Some things you can see only when you are inside a society. When you are outside of it, they are invisible. What’s happening here is similar to what’s happening anywhere: people working at their jobs and trying to do things in a slightly different manner, trying to create something and to contribute to their different areas of activity. And yet many resources are wasted. I’m sure this is happening elsewhere as well, not just in Romania. And there are situations when these resources are used very efficiently in other countries but not for noble causes.

Let’s remember that what we were asking for 23 years ago did indeed happen, with a major delay of seven or eight years. Our requests did actually become state politics, but badly implemented. Can we evaluate this as a good thing? Of course it’s good. But it’s not because of the politicians. It’s because of life. Because of pressure. And with lots of delays. If we analyze it within the system, it’s a disaster. I know that generally administration is not the place for quality anywhere in the world. Maybe under Confucius in China 2500 years ago. But even Confucius was not pleased.

 

What are the worst examples of what’s going on?

 

The selection of administrators.

 

For ministries?

 

Anywhere. Of course, there are probably some business groups that can focus on the selection process. But in the public sector it is a huge waste of resources, which is stupid for everyone. If I saw anyone extracting profit from this, I would say, “that’s okay.” But no one extracts any profit from it. It’s just a waste of resources. The dimensions of waste in our country are quite significant, almost the same as under Communism. Without any fantastic effort or brilliant administration, but having just a normal administration, I estimate that the quality of life would be at least double in our country. It just requires administrative change, just the elimination of waste.

 

You need good accountants?

 

Oh, no, we have good accountants. Sometimes they are too good. We actually have some rather badly prepared administrators… They could actually make more money in an intelligent manner and nobody would be angry. But they are like the ones who destroy the whole house because they are not smart enough to break into the place properly. They don’t even know how to pick the lock.

 

Where will Romania acquire professional managers who don’t steal and don’t waste?

 

No, it’s a problem of system not of personnel. With the same person, you can do many different things. You don’t have to change all of them. Many of them are very disciplined. And there are some very good managers. The system is internally flawed. And this is not just in Romania. The difference is in the degree of the problem.

 

The way you describe Romania sounds like the problem with cars. Because of the nature of internal combustion engines, cars are systemically inefficient. You can have a better engine that wastes less energy and goes further or you can build a different kind of engine that doesn’t waste energy in the same way as an internal combustion engine.

 

Or you can use a different kind of fuel, a kind you have but you don’t use. It’s like having bio-fuel and not using it and instead spending a lot of money to import traditional fuel.

From a structural point of view, the regime has remained unchanged since before 1989. I’m not talking about declared values. It would be hard for people to imagine that the regime before 1989 was not Communist. But it was not Communist. It was nothing. They could change the system label at will and they did. They could say, “I am Communist. I am fascist. I am democrat. I am Taoist.” Anything! They didn’t even understand what Communism meant.

 

It was not ideological.

 

Absolutely. That’s the way it is today, as well. This is not a problem of ideology. The problem is about the quality of the system and the capacity or the motivation of the decision makers. We have to understand that the source of everything that happens today is that previous regime — not from an ideological point of view but from the point of view of reflection. They are trained to be the way they are. They just didn’t kill or imprison so much after 1989. It’s not because they wouldn’t want to do these kinds of things. No, they can’t because of the Western countries. Fifty years ago, they killed people, literally. They are not better today. They are the same, in their internal structure. If the circumstances would change, they would act in the same way, again. Because it is deeply inside them, like a virus.

 

If I were to give you magic power to restructure the system, where would you start?

 

I would not give this information for free!

 

I won’t give the magic power for free either!

 

The first question is how you distribute the budget — the money. Reducing the establishment, the ministries, is also important.

 

Radical cuts?

 

The cuts would not have to be radical. The cuts would only be reducing the size to normal. Someone who worked for a long time in human resources once did a content analysis for a private body. He found that the working time allocated to public institutions is about 25 percentage of an eight-hour day. They are, in fact, not working.

 

That’s the case everywhere.

 

If they want only to stay there and not do anything — that would be good enough. The losses are worse because they are actually doing something in that 75 percent of the time. They are wasting resources during that time, and they mess things up. The main problem with public institutions is the human resources. First of all there are too many persons employed and secondly they are poorly qualified: in national government, local councils, universities, anything public. We can make changes simply through budgetary actions. After that, it’s a question of using resources in a better way.

There are thousands of examples of wasting resources. All we need to do is reorient some of this money for efficient activities. This is only a question of political will — that’s all. You don’t have to be a genius. In the villages, in the countryside, was financed, with public money, the building of playgrounds for children. Sounds nice, at first sight… But those villages have a lot of other urgent needs. Better schools, medical facilities and so on! And they spend money for stupid things.

 

In the United States, Senator William Proxmire used to give out a Golden Fleece award for the greatest example of public waste. “Fleece” also means “to steal” in English. You should have a Golden Fleece award here in Romania.

 

Yes. There would be so many candidates…

 

So, there are things that can be done. I always say these things to people I know in politics. But they don’t make too much of it.

 

Why don’t you try to enter politics?

 

I tried only one time. I was very close to running for the presidency in 2000. A small party (Party of Romanian National Unity – PUNR) invited me to run. We made a deal. And of course, they changed the deal a couple of days before the public announcement of my candidacy. I had time to withdraw and not submit my candidacy. In 2000, I believed that 10 years was a long enough period of time for something to change. But all that the party leaders wanted was someone who looked good, could speak well, and play the political game. They were not interested in any change of our political life and administration…It was an agreement that I could not accept. I didn’t accept to run only for a formal position in the establishment. I prefer to work, to do something useful.

 

What about creating your own party?

 

No. It’s too early. Maybe the next generation will do that. This establishment will remain in place another decade.

 

They also have nephews.

 

Yes. But they are not able to duplicate their own abilities. Their nephews are not as good as they are.

 

That’s what they say about North Korea. Kim Il Sung was a reasonably competent leader but his son less so and his grandson even less so. It’s like when you make a copy of a copy on the Xerox machine.

 

Exactly — that’s it. Here, to discuss about a party, I would have to make some kind of analysis of the real situation. The last time I did that, it was seven or eight years ago. You need persons who are already present in the current structures. I haven’t heard any significant interest in this. Furthermore, I have to finish three books.

 

You are working on three books?

 

Yes, I want to finish them. I don’t want to waste time running for office.

 

How much of your experience from 1989 to 1991 affected the work you’ve done in anthropology, like your work on the poetry of resistance?

 

It was an important experience, helpful for a better understanding of life and people, about state repression, about institutions and social conflicts and so on… I published, few years ago, a book about the forms of freedom deprivation in traditional society… The first book was the poetry of resistance. Now I’m working to finish a trilogy on freedom, hoping to provide an anthropological understanding of some values that determine human beings in general. I am very keen on this project. I’ve invested 20 years of my life into this research.

People have an integral way of thinking and acting. This is the grammar that I try to find. We’ll see if anyone is interested in reading it. But it doesn’t matter. You write the book and then, that’s it, you let it go.

 

Books are children. You work with them for a while and then they are on their own.

 

Yes. I hope to finish this research in, maximum, two or three years. Then I have another project on the research of oral tradition.

 

When you think back to 1990, what has changed in your perspective?

 

The fundamental aspects did not change. But I believe that people in general have started to open their eyes. The whole world is heading toward a very important moment right now. I’m referring to the long term here. I’m an optimist. I don’t think that barbarism, that evil, will prevail. I believe the good part of humanity will prevail. I believe in people. And we are closer than ever to understanding how the World is really structured, how it really is.

 

Bucharest, May 22, 2013

 


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