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29 June 2019

Enchantment of Eastern Europe

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics, History, Languages & Culture
My wife and I recently took a cruise on the Danube which was advertised as ‘Enchantment of Eastern Europe’. We enjoy river cruises having cruised the Rhine, Rhone and Douro in recent years. The ships are smaller and more intimate than the ocean going vessels; the rivers are, of course, smooth for those who are not particularly good sailors; the views are ever-changing unlike sailing at sea; and it’s great to wake up in a different place every day without having to pack and unpack. We travelled through five countries in just eight days: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. Three of these were new to us and while this blog is not intended as a travelogue I’d like to give some impressions of these so called enchantments.

We started in Bucharest which is not on the Danube and stayed in a western style hotel. Before joining the boat we had a guided tour of the city. The highlight of this was to see the Spring Palace, Ceausescu’s Mansion, the best place to understand the double standards of the communist regime and the absurd cult of personality of one its most ruthless dictators. Opened to the public for the first time in 2016, Ceausescu Mansion was one of the best-kept secrets of the hideous communist regime. Only the closest members of the family and a few of the highest ranked party members had access.

Nicolae Ceausescu was born in 1918 to a poor family of peasants. He did not receive secondary education, but neither did many others in the communist party. The family moved to Bucharest where he joined the communist party. He was jailed a number of times, partly because the Romanian Communist Party had been made illegal since 1924 but partly for more conventional criminal activity, just like Joseph Stalin. Later in life he covered up his illegal activity through falsification, a common practice of the party. This even included falsified photographs as ‘proof’ of his revolutionary past that contributed to the cult of personality. There is nothing new about ‘Fake News’.

From 1948 onwards Ceausescu carefully built up a network of supporting members at local and central level. 1n 1965 the first communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej died and Ceausescu surprised everyone by winning the nomination as his successor.

Until his death in 1989 Ceausescu was in total control of all the decisions made in communist Romania. He pretended to act as a rebel of the Warsaw Pact to get funding and attention from the United States. He took the position of President and gave his stupid and wicked wife, Elena the title of Prime Minister as well as a range of other absurd titles.

They pretended to be humble and down to earth people but in fact lived in opulent luxury. Preaching the communist ideology of equality for all, they fitted out the mansion with a stunning indoor pool, a spa, thousands of dresses, a cinema room and much more. Their three children all lived in magnificently appointed suites  but were not allowed to bring their spouses there, even though Elena had arranged their marriages.

The décor is all of Louis XIV, XV, or XVI style; the carpets are Persian; the walls are hung with fine art or expensive tapestries; the bathrooms are all fitted out in gold.

On Christmas Day 1989 the army were reported to have executed the couple by firing party after a mass rebellion following the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, to this day there are rumours that they escaped together into exile.

In Bulgaria we moored at Vidin. I am afraid there is nothing enchanting about Vidin. The town is a dump with decaying buildings and roads.  We were told that before the ‘changes’ i.e. the end of communist rule and then the entry into the European Union, Vidin had been a thriving manufacturing town of 90,000 people with several large factories. All the factories have closed, unable to compete with more efficient Western European firms. The population has shrunk to just 30,000.

Those who have left have gone to Italy and Spain, to Germany and the UK where they pick fruit, wait on tables or work in domestic service as cleaners or carers. Their remittances back to Bulgaria are now the largest sector of the economy but, of course, outside the tax base. Overall two million people have left out of a total population of seven million. It’s the same story in Romania and in these two countries they don’t talk about the problem of immigration, but of emigration. The Bulgarians have a nice joke about their corrupt politicians: “Politics” they say “is made up of two words: ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’ in Greek and ‘tics’ meaning ‘blood-sucking insects’ ”.

In Serbia we stopped at Belgrade, a city that has changed hands over sixty times since the Romans first conquered it. From the hilltop above the river you can see why. It’s where the Danube meets the River Sava and it is the crossroads of the Pannonian Plain and the Balkan Peninsula. It could be the crossroads of Europe. It is now the capital of Serbia but was the capital of Yugoslavia from its creation in1918 to its dissolution in 2006. We visited the Mausoleum of Marshal Tito[i], the one Communist leader I admire.

Tito was born in 1892 in then Austria-Hungary, now Croatia. He fought in both the First World War and then the Russian Civil War. He was General Secretary of the League of Communists from 1939 until his death in 1980. He led the Resistance movement, known as the Partisans, against the Germans and this was generally thought to be the most effective in Europe.

After the war he was the Prime Minister (1944-1963), then President (later President for Life) (1953-1980) of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From 1943 to his death he held the rank of Marshal of Yugoslavia, serving as the supreme commander of the Yugoslav military. With a highly favourable reputation abroad he received some 98 foreign decorations including the Order of the Bath and the Légion d’Honneur.

Although he did not create Yugoslavia, that was King Alexander the Unifier, he managed to keep it together despite its multiple differences in race, religion and cultural tradition. That he did this by ruthless suppression when needed is not in doubt. But we all saw the tragic consequences when these divisions were allowed to open up with war and ethnic cleansing and the need for Western involvement.

Though a founder member of Cominform, Tito soon turned against it and maintained a positive neutrality with both Cold War blocs. He led the foundation of the Non-Aligned Pact with support from Nehru and Nasser and hosted its first meeting in Belgrade in 1961. At its peak over 100 nations joined the Pact.

Stalin was so enraged by Tito’s defection that he tried to assassinate him several times. Tito wrote a letter to Stalin saying “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle…. If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”

One thing he had in common with Ceausescu was to allow or indeed create some mythology about his origins. He claimed like Ceausescu to come from a modest background but this seems unlikely. He spoke five languages and played the piano to a very high standard. He claimed to have been apprenticed to a locksmith and then joined the Metal Workers’ Union. But on his state visit to the UK in 1953 the new Queen Elizabeth, after spending time in his company, said “If he’s a metal worker I’m not the Queen of England”.

Tito developed a form of market socialism in which workers could form cooperatives and share profits. In 1967 Yugoslavia became the first communist country to freely allow foreign visitors without visas. A thriving tourist industry developed. In 1972 I visited the Istrian peninsula on holiday with a friend. We went on various excursions and chatting to the coach driver I learned that he was indeed a member of a workers’ cooperative and shared in the profits of the coach firm. His service was of noticeably high quality. We visited Pula to see its famous Roman amphitheatre. While in the town, suddenly a motorcade of limousines flanked by outriders came roaring in. In the centre was the presidential car. I had seen Marshal Tito, or at least his car.

His funeral was attended by more heads of state and government than any other comparable leader in the 20th century. President Carter was busy wrestling with the problem of the hostages in the US embassy in Tehran so he was represented by his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Brezhnev was there from the Soviet Union. HRH Prince Philip and Margaret Thatcher were there from the United Kingdom, and there were over 100 other similar dignitaries.

[i] Known as the House of Flowers. Tito loved flowers and was a keen gardener.
PS. I had drinks with the Chilean Ambassador this week. He told me that Boris Johnson was the first Foreign Secretary to ever visit Chile in May last year. He was very highly thought of there because he made everyone feel that Chile was his number one priority.

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