Thursday, March 12, 2009

Shame, fear and pride - notes on exceptionalism

The Romanian president, Traian Băsescu was very active this week, adressing the parliament with a speech on the state of Romania. (Although it was an event similar to the usual State of the Nation Adress, as Băsescu's prerogatives are very limited it was rather an act of substituting the premier, Emil Boc. It is quite interesting, how the president is acting as a substitute of the prime minister, the resons behind it, but not the story I would like to deal with here.) After one or two months of contradicting scraps of news, statements on the necessity of an eventual crdit from the IMF the president announced that Romania will receive support from the international financial institutions and the EU. In hard times it is far from being surprising and perhaps as an action to contain the spreding consequences of the crisis a wise one, or at least an inevitable one. But the long story of the credit once again reveals the importance of national pride, the will of being differentiated from "others", from neighbors considered as traditional enemies.

As it is well known, two of Romania's neighbours, Hungary and Ukraine have a running agreement with the IMF, those countries are receiving financial support in the form of credit. Although Romania was considered for a while as a possible next to the line of countries applying for IMF credit it was a very delicate issue in the country. Politicians, the governor of the Romanian National Bank were either denying any overture towards the Monetary Fund or downplayed it as a condition of the EU for its own support program. There were many contradicting announcments, even Băsescu was oscillating between denial of the necessity and the acceptance of compulsion. He once even spoke of the necessity to consult the people on the IMF loan. (As if it would be time enough to make such consultations in case of necessity.) Others were spreading fairy tales that the EU has no such condition (a member of the European parliament even told the press that the EU Commission is prohibiting Romania from an agreement with IMF!) and used the opportunity for attacking the government. Quite peculiarly the chairman of the coalitional partner of Băsescu's PDL, the social democrats, is opposing the idea even at the moment, arguing that Romania needs an own "anti-crisis plan". (The government, in wich Mircea Geoana's social democrats are sitting announced its budget in February as a complete anti-crisi plan...)

Although I personally have no real emotions over IMF loans and similar agreements, even if I'm not quite convinced of the usefulness of their recipes for the respective economies, such feelings are not completely incomprehensible. But in this case the reluctance is rather a sign of the traditional enmities than the expression of real ideological convictions. (The social democrats were so eager to be a governing party that they abandoned almost every points of their election program, even those that would be advantageous for the state budget and in line with the traditional leftist perception of social justice, like the progressive tax-system.) The relationship between Ukraine and Romania is far from being relaxed, a territorial dispute was settled by the International Court in The Hague, Băsescu mentioned some territorial reorganizations in favor of Moldavia and at the expense of Ukraine and the Ukrainian nationalism, having a strong official support in the last months caused problems for the Romanian minority in Northern Bukovina. The other neighbor, Hungary is one of the traditional "others" in the Romanian identity, an arch-rival. The ever graver political chaos and the steep economic contraction in the Ukraine and the very slow economic growth in Hungary in the last few years - while Romania was treated as a new economic miracle - certainly accentuated the self-esteem of Romanian politicians. It became even more emphasized when at the end of last year the IMF and the EU considered Romania as one of the few countries predicted to have growth in 2009. Against this background the necessity to ask for an IMF loan - and to admit, that Romania has to face a grave economic situation, first of all contraction, certainly was a shock for many politicians. The IMF loan is not only the loss of sovereignty (one of the most important elements in the consciousness of the Romanian political elite in the 20th century) but the loss of the favourable position compared to the arch-rivals - the missing of the chance of overtaking them. (Although regarding Hungary it was rather illusory in the short term even one year ago.) In this sense the crisis relegates Romania to its earlier position, threatens to lose its newly acquired "Wunderkind" status and to eliminate the perceived and precious differences between the country and ECE. The fact, that it is treated as a catastrophic result clearly shows the stance of the Romanian elite towards the idea of ECE. (Băsescu promised in his speech not only a fast recovery, but the chance to get loose from the region in case of hard work.)

In Slovakia, before the gravity of the economic situation and the budget deficit was revealed, the leading newspaper, the liberal (in European sense) SME publsihd sarcastic commentaries on Hungary's premier and economic situation, while at the same time pointing out the hypocrisy of Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister. Th surprising fact was not the negative opinion on Gyurcsány, but the scornful tone indicating a self-assured belief in the superiority in the Slovak economic reforms. Those were implied not as a possible and contradictory way of managing problems, but as the only, and self-evidently superior model, something to be followed obligatorily and at the same time conveying supriority to those who are pioneers of its case.

What about Hungary? Well, this country obviously does not belong to the region. The ridiculous story of the forint coming lose of the other ECE currencies continued to be spread, it was even mentioned as reality in the press at Wednesday. I'm not an ardent lover of the idea of national characteristic but there are obviously some people who are not happy without having the feeling that they are living in a doomed country. Moreover, the "analysts" of Raiffeisen Bank Hungary took it granted in their analysis published this week. I would say, that the usual distortion of time was somewhat reversed, and not complete history created based on ten or fifteen minutes, but ten minutes streched into a week or more, maybe into eternity. We are now living forever in that ten minutes last Wednesday....

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