November 17th – Romanians and Czechs Choose Democracy

“A minor miracle occurred yesterday,” wrote Frank Fischer in an email on November 17th, “(it) marked a significant victory for democracy and justice in Romania’s long march from the end of the Communist regime.”

Fischer is an Englishman who transferred to work in Romania as a Regional Sales Manager for Central and Eastern Europe in 2003. Before that he spent most of his career working in senior positions in the hydropower and wind power industries. He lived in Romania for the past 11 years and married a Romanian woman three years after moving there. Since he retired in 2009 he has become increasingly interested in Romanian culture and politics.

Romania is indeed a little-known country. But especially with the political events going on in Europe right now, this event was very important. November 17th was an important day in the Czech Republic too. It was a national holiday and the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – where Czechoslovak students, led by playwright and later renowned president Vaclav Havel, gathered to stand up against Communism. This fueled a series of events that toppled the regime and changed the country. During the celebration there was a speech by the current Czech president Milos Zeman. He is a former Communist and he has been known for leaning towards the East. Thousands of Czechs held out red ‘penalty’ cards in protest as he spoke; and the peaceful protest turned into booing and boiled-egg throwing as he said the following three things:

– The revolution that was being celebrated had not played a role in ending Communism, nor was there any violence from the side of the police on November 17th 1989.
– Tibet is part of China.
– There is no Russian involvement in Ukraine.

His speech was considered very insulting to many people, especially on the day that ultimately gave Czech Republic and Slovakia freedom. But people united against him in the same spirit that they united against their non-representative government in 1989.

The Romanian presidential elections are also important in relation to Ukraine. Everyone has heard about the situation. Just over a year ago, on November 21st 2013, Ukrainians stood up to make a change away from the East. They showed the world that they wanted democracy, rule of law and trade with Western partners. Since then they have showed that they are willing to die for these ideals as well as to protect their country. This seemingly small victory in Romania gives a lot of hope to East European countries who are trying to develop and move forward (Westward). It also creates a great example for Ukrainians – it shows them that democracy can be achieved if people come together, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

Below is the letter that Fischer sent to his family members, including his wife’s daughter, Madalina. Madalina then contacted me with the request to spread this information that brings a very important and positive message: change for the better is always possible.

Hello to you all!

Yesterday marked a significant victory for democracy and justice in Romania’s long march from the end of the Communist regime in 1989 towards the accepted values of Western Europe and North America. Against all expectations and despite the truly Machiavellian machinations of the ruling party, the underdog candidate, a Romanian from the Saxon minority and a Lutheran to boot, in a staunchly Orthodox country, won the second and final round of elections for the new President of Romania by a substantial majority. I realize that for most of you Romania is a little-known country more than a thousand miles away in a remote corner of south-eastern Europe, where events are generally of little interest to the inhabitants of the British Isles. But Romania is important to Europe. With a population of around 22 million, it is the third largest country in Eastern Europe (excluding Russia, which my father always said was an Asian country!) after Ukraine (55 m., and going down rapidly) and Poland (48 M.). This means it is an important trading partner. Its proximity to Moldavia and Ukraine give it major strategic importance in the current political situation of those two countries. In this context, Romania also has significant international value through its membership of the European Union and of NATO.

The favourite to win the elections that ended yesterday was Victor Ponta, the current prime minister and president of the ruling PSD (the Socialist Democratic Party, formerly the Communist Party). He is an accomplished liar, cheat and fraud. In the two and a half years since he became prime minister, he has supported the passage of numerous laws aimed at curbing the freedom of the media, promoting the interests of the oligarchs, facilitating vote-rigging in favour of the ruling party, and re-orientating the country away from Western Europe and towards Russia and China: all indications of a return to the country’s totalitarian past. Yet PSD has a strong following, based mainly on a system of patronage that makes local adminstrators beholden to the central government and therefore obliged to ensure that at election time, votes are steered towards the PSD.

In the first round of the elections, earlier this month, there were 14 candidates, partly because the parties of the centre and right were unable to agree on a single candidate to oppose the left-wing Ponta. After that vote, the two leading candidates were Victor Ponta and the candidate put forward by an unholy alliance of the PNL (National Liberal Party) and the PDL (Democratic Liberal Party), who until recently were sworn enemies, but decided that opportunism was more important than principles. Their candidate was Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu (formerly Herrmanstadt, once a large Saxon settlement). He is a dour, rather humourless and slow-witted but seemingly decent man who claims to be more interested in deeds than in words, which would be a refreshing contrast with Ponta. In the first round, Ponta won about 40% of the votes and Iohannis 30%. Ponta famously said that the second round of voting was not important for him, as the result was clearly predictable, so he would stay at home and eat popcorn in front of the television on election night. So Ponta and Iohannis faced each other in the final, second-round elections yesterday.

How wrong Ponta was. A minor miracle occurred yesterday. The people of Romania turned out to vote in numbers not seen since the 1990s, and emphatically voted against Ponta. That’s really the point: people did not vote so much for Iohannis as to ensure that Ponta did not become president. All the numerous tricks employed by the government to ensure that they won the election (which included, for instance, bagging poverty relief aid from the European Union and distributing it as gifts from the PSD!) failed because of this surge of anti-Ponta sentiment. People had simply had enough of Ponta’s despicable trickery. Against all the odds, Iohannis won.

We were amazed and delighted by this result. The scenes of exuberance and jubilation in the major squares of central Bucharest as the election results became known were quite extraordinary, unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere else. In the run-up to this election, Gabi and I had seriously discussed selling up in Romania and moving to perhaps the south of France if Ponta won. Now the situation is different. Our move may still happen, but not under the pressure of political events.

A major part in Ponta’s failure was played by the Romanian Diaspora. Roughly three and a half million Romanians live and work outside the country. They generally tend to vote massively for right wing candidates, so the left-wing PSD government did everything it could to limit the voting at polling booths in other countries. They were so successful that thousands of Romanians in many European countries, including the UK, were unable to cast their votes. This also affected Madalina, who stood for many hours in the cold and rain on 2 November in London, but didn’t get to vote. This result caused widespread indignation and major protest meetings in most big cities in Romania. It was probably the spark that ignited the fury that compelled people who might otherwise not have done so to go out and vote against Ponta. After the debacle of the failed first-round vote outside Romania, the responsible minister was forced to resign. His replacement said that the second round of voting would not have the same result, but he lied. In London, Madalina stood yesterday in the queue outside the Romanian Embassy for eleven hours and was among the last group of ten voters to be allowed into the Embassy to vote – with thousands left outside who were not able to vote.

So – an historic event occurred, one that I will remember for a long time as a superb example of how close hubris and nadir can be in the world of politics! As the television pointed out, while Ponta was at home eating popcorn, his rival was being received in royal style in Piata Unirii, Bucharest’s biggest public square. I hope Ponta’s popcorn stuck in his craw.

A great day for democracy. Now it will be truly interesting to see what happens next!

Much love to you all – Frank & Gabi

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THE BLOG ‘This Place’ Exhibition in Prague in DOX

This Place is the name of an International exhibition currently shown in the DOX gallery in Prague. The DOX Center for Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design has been organizing and hosting exhibitions for six years now. It has presented over 120 exhibition projects and is ranked among the most progressive artistic institutions in the Czech Republic.

The exhibition shows the photographs of twelve artists, each with a unique angle of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The exhibition of over 500 photos opened on October 24th and will be on display until March 2nd 2015. After Prague the exhibition will move to Tel Aviv for six months. After that it will be exhibited in the Norton Museum of Art followed by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The exhibition will officially end on June 5th 2016. There are also thirteen original books produced for the exhibition – one with photos of each individual photographer and one comprehensive catalog. On Saturday October 25th, I saw four of the artists talk about their experience of creating This Place.

“I can’t call it Israel,” says photographer Gilles Peress while referring to flying to the location, “I call it Israelstein. It’s a combination of the two.” Peress’s photos are very clear; they show the different perspectives of one community. He remarked that in Israel and Palestine everything happens meter by meter, room to room. “You see stores disappearing one by one, I return to the same place again and again,” Peress explains his process of watching the changes. His pieces in this exhibition try to explore the reason why people don’t see the similarities between each other – “Desperate lives,” he sighs, “looking for differences.”

The content of Wendy Ewald’s project differed greatly from those of her colleagues. She explored what different communities in the area considered most important. Ewald had a total of fourteen different mini-projects exploring the lives of groups that ranged from women attending an orthodox military school to elderly villagers. She taught them seminars on photography and observed “how education forms the country.” Ewald taught these groups of people to take photos of what impacted their lives and taught them to use metaphors. Then she compared what different groups concentrated on in their photography.

Fazal Sheikh, like all the other photographers, had issues with photographing in the region. “I prefer an open perspective,” said Sheikh, “Israel is extremely constricting.” His project was about the transformation of the land. He visited a village that is now unrecognizable. It was transformed into a forest and the people who once lived there became displaced around the country. He decided to fly over the desert after spending time in a protest tent overlooking the dry barren land that would become a dense forest. He coupled taking photographs from a helicopter with listening to stories from combatants on both sides.

Joseph Koudelka, a Czech photographer, talked about originally denying Frederic Brenner’s invitation to cooperate with this project. “I bought my own ticket,” said Koudelka, “to avoid having any obligation.” He was born in 1938 and experienced the German occupation of his village. Later he witnessed the Russians first liberating the Czechs and then occupying them. “I grew up behind the Iron Curtain and always wanted to see the other side,” Koudelka expressed his sympathy for the people in the area. His book doesn’t always show the people, but you can see the impact of mankind in every photograph.

The subject of the title came up in the discussion. All the books and the project itself avoid naming the area that has had so many in its past. Art can be a tool of propaganda and the Israel-Palestine topic is a sensitive one with extremists on both sides. A name that didn’t lean to either side of the conflict seemed the most appropriate and most objective to allow the viewers to interpret the meaning.

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