Rapping the Commies Away
A New MTV Generation in Romania Tries to Drive out Corruption
National Post, July 17, 2004
BUCHAREST -- By now, even most non-Americans are familiar with the United States' famous 50-50 red-blue map, where the red counties and states are mostly rural, traditional and Republican, while the blues are urban, dynamic and Democrat.
Well, imagine if the red was really Red -- or at least ex-Red, as in formerly Communist -- and the blue was an unholy coalition of gangsta rappers, free-market economists and disaffected Generation-Y types. Add some second-world poverty and a dash of Balkan spice, and ... welcome to Romania!
This scuffling country of 23 million, long the redheaded stepchild of New Europe, received an unexpected and welcome jolt to its system this June, when a wave of youthful revulsion at government corruption rocked the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) in local elections, possibly paving the way for what could be Romania's most important political development since pro-government miners literally clubbed the anti-Communist revolution into near-submission 14 long years ago.
Septuagenarian President Ion Iliescu may finally be driven from politics in this November's national elections. Iliescu, an old Communist hack who once doled out punishment against sympathizers with the crushed Hungarian rebellion of 1956 and eventually rose to the Romanian Party's Central Committee, manoeuvred his way into the presidency in December, 1989, won elections in 1990 and 1992, called in the miners to assault his political opponents in 1990 and 1991, stayed in opposition from 1996 to 2000, and regained the presidency four years ago.
Under his watch, the country has staggered down the path of economic and political reforms, flirted with noxious nationalism and successfully bargained itself into a post-Sept. 11 NATO while managing to become regionally synonymous with the word "corruption."
Now, blue Romania is in open revolt against Iliescu's mafia-style "Local Barons," driving the fat-cat ex-Reds from the city halls of large municipalities like Cluj and the capital, Bucharest, while openly mocking the ruling technocrats' ham-handed attempts at manipulating the media.
For an example of the latter, on the eve of June 20's second and final round of local elections, the government arbitrarily informed news organizations at the last minute that they were prohibited from so much as covering candidates' public appearances on the last two days before the ballots opened. (With the media and the opposition heavily concentrated in Bucharest, this had the effect of muting PSD's bad press.)
Yet all Romanians had to do to see a strong anti-government message was turn on one of their handful of 24-hour music video channels. Around 40 times a day, especially on the all-Romanian-music Atomic TV, viewers were treated to a passionate political rant from ... Larry Flynt.
"Uh, I can't believe that, uh, Romania, being a country that should have learned from the past, is still exercising censorship," the Hustler publisher croaked daily, in the middle of the video for Jos Cenzura! (No More Censorship!), released one month before the elections by the acerbic and popular three-man rap band Parazitii (The Parasites). "Nothing worthwhile can come of this. And people have an inherent desire to be free, and they're gonna be free -- if not with the existing government, a new government that they will put in their place."
The sight of a famous American telling famously insecure Romanians to change their government in the heat of a campaign season is enough to make Parazitii manager Gianiny Munteanu grin like a wolf. "I mean, you really need balls to do that in Romania!" he said, laughing.
Like New York shock-jock Howard Stern, Parazitii didn't set out to get involved in the 2004 elections, but became radicalized by overly enthusiastic government censors. The band, which claims to have sold a whopping 850,000 CDs in 10 years (this in a country where the sidewalks are jammed with vendors selling everything that can be pirated onto a disc), sings more about the gritty realities of Bucharest street-life than about partisan politics. But along the way five of Parazitii's 12 videos have drawn fines from Romania's National Audiovisual Council, mostly for rough language, and two were banned outright. (The first penalty, to give an idea, was for the perfectly reasonable line "alcohol is life/life is alcohol.")
Last year, the PSD government fined four different television stations for playing a single Parazitii video, so the band finally struck back. "You really need freedom to do this kind of music, you know?" Munteanu said. "I mean it was them or us." Here's how "them" takes a licking in Jos Cenzura!:
Showtime Romanian style!
We don't pay our taxes so that you can shut us up!
Journalists are beaten up, kicked, threatened
This country is beginning to make me sick [...]
Communism is dead but the spirit is still alive."
This wasn't the only popular hip-hop video openly skewering the governing party throughout the campaign season. Ca$$a Loco, a goofy three-man rap/R&B crew reminiscent of the Beastie Boys, posed as smarmy, mafia-like candidates from a fictitious political party called "PSD" in their hit video, "I'm so happy that you failed."
But you won't see these clips out in the rural and under-developed countryside, where plumbing is a luxury, subsistence farming is the norm, and the PSD thrives (the party, though shaken by the June elections, still won more municipalities than any other). "The whole private television system in Romania is very urban," said Alfred Bulai, deputy dean of the Political Science Faculty at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration.
In the absence of quality media, news in the Romanian sticks travels by word of mouth, and retail politics takes on a surrealistic hue -- when I was in the south-central Romanian village of Visina Noua during the second round of the elections, word travelled that the increasingly desperate incumbent PSD mayor was offering anyone who would vote for him a useful gift -- a free coffin. (He's a coffin-maker ... and he won.)
In the big cities, by comparison, competitive newspapers describe the mechanics of corruption in pretty impressive detail, which the kids can then routinely cite. People generally know that the government attempts to influence newspapers and television by being one of the country's largest advertisers (spending millions on hyping such crucial monopolist services as the Romanian international airport's control tower); they know that Local Barons (such as the odious and recently defeated Bacua mayor Dumitru Sechelariu) threaten to "execute" journalists who uncover their dirty laundry; and they know specific cases of state assets being pilfered and/or stripped.
It's no wonder they're fed up with the generations that were raised under Communism.
This generation gap is particularly startling to behold in Bucharest. Restless teens and stylish twentysomethings hang out in vast packs on the streets, at outdoor bars, and in Internet cafes; while older Romanians straggle out in ones and twos, if at all. One seasoned diplomat here told me it was "the most youth-obsessed culture" he'd ever seen.
Whether this will translate come November into a new centre-right government, let alone one that can work effectively (as opposed to the 1996-2000 government, which was a disappointment), is a question not even the opposition pretends to guess. But something in the air suggests time is on their side.
"On a recent and fairly rare venture into Bucharest's club scene, I looked at the trendy crowd and felt for a moment that I could have been in Manhattan or South Beach," said outgoing U.S. ambassador Michael Guest, who led a daily crusade against Romanian corruption during his three-year tenure, in an exit interview with the English-language monthly magazine Vivid. "Then a series of young people brought me back to reality, stopping one-by-one at the table to thank me for speaking [out]. ... Those who think they're getting away with corruption are just fooling themselves. A new generation is coming, and it will demand, and indeed create, change."
Matt Welch is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. He visited Romania via a fellowship from the Mercatus Center. His stories are archived at www.mattwelch.com.