In recent times, more politicians have been successfully prosecuted for corruption in Romania than in any other democracy. This is a tribute to the tenacity of reformers in the justice system but also a testimony to the scale of venality at the top of Romanian politics.
When the macabre and highly restrictive communist regime was toppled in 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu left a legion of ruthless and resourceful figures in the party and state apparatus determined to profit from new times. The demagogic politician Corneliu Vadim Tudor was instrumental in ensuring that they would shape the new democratic rules on a restricted agenda of change.
He went from being Ceausescu's court poet in the 1980s to a serious contender for power in the election of 2000, when his Greater Romania Party won a quarter of parliamentary seats. In the 1990s he controlled a mass circulation newspaper in which politicians and intellectuals dedicated to genuine change were systematically defamed. Former and serving members of the intelligence services supplied him with information and resources to launch a movement in which minority groups, Jews and Hungarians especially, were singled out as enemies of the country.
Many poorly educated Romanians, traumatised by the abrupt switch from rigid egalitarianism to a chaotic form of capitalism that often benefited agile former communists, were taken in. But the ability of citizens to travel freely, especially after the arrival of EU membership in 2007, widened the horizons of many and Vadim's power waned.
Born in 1949 to an ordinary family in Bucharest, he made his mark in journalism with writing that brought Ceausescu's cult of personality to new depths of sycophancy. He was a mediocre literary critic but he enjoyed influence as a protégé of the talented nationalist writer Eugen Barbu. He dropped out of sight after the anti-communist uprising at the end of 1989, only to be swiftly rehabilitated by Ion Iliescu, President from 1990-96 and 2000-04, who had ordered the execution of Ceausescu. But Iliescu's rule benefited many of the dictator's supporters, who regrouped in the Social Democratic Party which rules today.
Vadim was given money, unlimited access to the media and immunity from prosecution to launch an ultra-nationalist movement. Nothing happened when his bodyguard beat up an opposition deputy in parliament in 1993, then on 18 December 2006 he took a mob to parliament, staging a riot as a report on the crimes of communism was formally presented (with the former Polish and Bulgarian presidents, Lech Walesa and Zhelyu Zhelev, in attendance).
Vadim's defence of the communist regime struck a chord with lots of Romanians who failed to do well after 1989. He eventually felt strong enough to launch his own power bid, and in 1999 he called on the army to mutiny during a march on Bucharest by thousands of coal miners which almost overwhelmed the authorities, and in December 2000 he won a third of the votes in the presidential election. His staying power sprang from his talents as a polemicist and agitator, but a crucial element was undoubtedly the readiness of President Iliescu's party to turn a blind eye to his excesses.
In December 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel, returned one of the country's highest honours after Iliescu had bestowed the same one on Vadim. But by now, Vadim's power was waning as his avarice and megalomania drove many followers from his movement. He lost his parliamentary seat in 2008, and though he was elected to the European Parliament the following year, a sign that his power was at last broken came in 2011 when a young female magistrate successfully evicted his party from the villa that had been its Bucharest headquarters, when a court restored ownership to the family from which it had been seized in the 1950s.
Once many Romanians ceased to be traumatised by the totalitarian past, Vadim's brainwashing abilities faded and his intolerant views lost their appeal. Romania is now a European country in which anti-Semitism has dramatically fallen in intensity and relations between the large Hungarian minority and other Romanians are generally cordial. But Vadim lowered political standards in what should have been a time of democratic recovery, and provided cover for the looting of state resources by whipping up imaginary nationalist fears.
Some television stations (controlled by figures already influential before 1989), provided obituaries which described him as a showman, while overlooking his xenophobia and his anti-democratic record. But Vadim had become an embarrassment to most Romanians and the pressure of public opinion ensured that the request of his supporters for his body to lie in repose in the Senate was turned down. µ TOM GALLAGHER
Corneliu Vadim Tudor, writer and politician: born Bucharest 28 November 1949; married (two children); died Bucharest 14 September 2015.
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