By Justin Keay
Until recently, Western visitors familiar with Bucharest took a deep breath before taking on the Romanian capital's urban chaos. As you left the airport arrivals lounge, hordes of unshaven, unlicensed taxi drivers besieged you with offers to take their rundown jalopies through potholed boulevards to the city center. Once there, bypassing touts offering girls or wanting to change money, you had to be wary of bites from Bucharest's 150,000 stray dogs. The mutts sent 30,000 people a year to the city's rundown hospitals, from where they often emerged sicker than when they went in.
In the 1930s, this city's graceful streets, chic coffee houses, and sophisticated shops earned it the sobriquet "Paris of the Balkans." In the 1990s, after 40-some years of communist neglect and the megalomaniacal projects of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, "Calcutta of the Balkans" seemed a fairer description. Half-starved orphans ran around neglected, garbage lay uncollected for weeks at a time, and the Dambovita River often stank. "Can't somebody do something about all this?" was the common refrain.
Well, somebody has. Just over 20 months ago, in June, 2000, Bucharest's citizens narrowly elected Traian Basescu as mayor, with 51% of the vote against 49% for the Social Democratic Party (PSD) favorite. Despite voting him in on a platform of cleaning up the city, many of its 2.5 million residents assumed that Basescu--head of the center-right Democratic Party--would disappoint them, like every other Romanian politico. Instead he has moved decisively, in the process becoming Bucharest's most popular figure and a probable presidential candidate for 2004. "To my mind, he's the most effective politician in Romania," says one senior diplomatic source.
Basescu, 50, began political life in the early '90s, when he was a minister in the government of Teodor Stolojan. As Transport Minister in the last center-right government until 1999, he reshaped Romania's railway system, cutting the workforce in half and winning a reputation as a tough, charismatic figure. "He's a fighter. He loves challenges," says Dorrel Sandor, head of the Center for Political Studies & Comparative Analysis (CPSCA).
Basescu shrewdly began his cleanup drive with quality-of-life measures that cost little or no money. Within weeks of taking office, he ordered police to remove the tens of thousands of illegal money-changing kiosks that were also notorious for selling counterfeit goods and dangerous, home-brewed moonshine. By doing so, he swept away much of the petty criminality that financed other illegal activities in the city.
"FIRST STEP." Basescu also jawboned local businesses to renovate schools, while bars and restaurants were encouraged to clean up sidewalks by their premises, which many actually did. Luxten Lighting Co., a Romanian company with French and Canadian investment, is busily repairing and renovating the city's street lighting under a 15-year contract. "When you have cleaner streets and better lighting, you've made an easy but vital first step toward creating a normal European city," says Guy Burrow, an Englishman who has lived here for almost 10 years and heads lobbying firm Central Europe Consulting.
Basescu also moved immediately to prevent Bucharest from going further to the dogs. Over the past two years, an estimated 75,000 strays were rounded up and killed despite howls of protest from animal-rights activists including Brigitte Bardot, who came to Bucharest in 2000 to protest the deaths. In April, Basescu threatened to use riot police to discourage protesters, firing one of the city's chief veterinarians for his reluctance to put down the dogs and stressing that he had been elected to serve the interests of the people, rather than the animals, of Bucharest.
HEATING WOES. Since he can deploy a budget of just $600 million, Basescu must look to private capital for help with his renovation drive. In November, 2000, France's Vivendi Universal began running Bucharest's water supply under a 25-year concession. It set up a new company, Apa Nova, which plans to improve water quality and sewage treatment, with support from international lending institutions. "Given our financial situation, we have no choice," admits Deputy Mayor Ioan Enciu.
Enciu adds that the city must soon tackle the issue of municipal heating, which absorbs a thumping 65% of the budget as a result of a centralized system that sends heating to every dwelling. "We would like to give management to a private company to allow us to get on with normal municipal matters," he says.
But will investors bite? Basescu is hoping they'll be lured by Romania's long-awaited economic recovery: After an almost 15% contraction between 1997-99, gross domestic product is expected to grow by 4% to 5% this year and in 2002. "Things are looking better than for many years," says Charles Robertson, east Europe analyst at ING Barings in London. "Romania is still six or seven years away at least from EU membership, but at least it's realistically on the agenda."
So far, foreign direct investment, at less than $1 billion expected for 2001, is still pitifully low for a country of 23 million. That's partly because the domestic market is so meager. According to a recent report from the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, 44% of Romania's population lives below the poverty line, up from 20% in 1996, while per capita GDP is just $1,644.
Bucharest's gap-toothed cityscape reflects the lack of investor confidence. Although gleaming buildings are rising near the National Bank and at the new Victoria complex, in Piata Victoria, reflecting high demand for quality modern office space, there are scores of grandiose but run-down buildings, both new and old, as well as abandoned shells and vacant lots. Basescu's efforts to revive the real estate market have been hamstrung by the drawn-out process of "restitution"--the program to return thousands of buildings seized by the communists to their former owners. "Restitution has made normal urban planning impossible," complains Enciu, adding that beneficiaries often lack cash to develop properties but hold off selling in hopes of a pickup in land prices.
POTHOLES GALORE. Then there's transportation, a sector in appalling shape. Bucharest is home to almost 1 million cars, compared with around 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Parking is a nightmare, and streets are cratered. The metro, unlike those built by the communists in Moscow, Budapest, or Prague, was constructed with little regard to Bucharest's actual needs. Its two lines leave much of the city unserviced. Track and carriages are decaying.
But Western institutions, impressed by Basescu's can-do attitude, are stepping in. In November, 2000, the European Investment Bank announced loans of $360 million to improve national and urban transport. About $100 million will help modernize 60 Bucharest metro trains and an extension of one line southward. This November, the bank announced a $200 million loan to repair roads and build a large, much-needed underground car park.
With such improvements on the way, residents worry that political wars will put an end to the Bucharest spring before it fully flowers. The CPSCA's Sandor believes the PSD, which runs the national government, is determined to destroy the popular Basescu. "His party may disappear as the PSD coopts his colleagues one by one. Opposition is disappearing. After 12 years of democracy, Romania is becoming a one-party system again," says Sandor.
Long-suffering city dwellers pray that's not the case. "You know the best thing about Basescu? He has given us hope that things can be normal again, that we can live decent lives like people in other cities," says Lidia Tanase, a homemaker buying broccoli in one of the new supermarkets in the center. The question now is how long such hopes will last.
Keay, based in London, has visited Bucharest regularly since 1985.
Edited by Harry Maurer