Frontline World

Romania - My Old Haunts, October, 2002

Synopsis of "My Old Haunts"

On the Road in Romania

Exclusive Article and Archival Diary

House of Tudor

Examination, Interview and Quiz

Facts and FAQs about Romania

The Revolution, "Gypsies," Background




Reporter╣s Notebook: House of Tudor
Jason Cohn's passportJason Cohn, producer of "My Old Haunts," recounts his experiences on the trail to interview Vadim Tudor, an ultranationalist demagogue who wants to be Romania's next president.

In the hot summer months, Bucharest's outdoor caf╚s grow lively with young people discussing politics and culture over cold bottles of Tuborg and cigarette after cigarette. I sat one night on a popular rooftop terrace with three thirtyish Romanian intellectuals, a straight woman and two gay men who were charming, multilingual and funny. When the conversation turned to Romania's inflammatory ultra-nationalist opposition leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, I heard a sentiment I had already come across in Romania. "I can't stand him," said the young woman, a writer, in quick, singsong English. "But the other day, I was watching TV and he was making a speech, and I sat there fascinated for 20 minutes."

These cosmopolitan young Romanians admitted, with a touch of embarrassment, that Tudor speaks to them in a way that is direct and even honest -- at least to the extent that he says what others don't have the courage to. His right-wing oratory, the young woman said, moves Romanians like manele does. Manele is the wildly popular Gypsy pop music that combines sentimental melodies and aching lyrics with irrepressible rhythms.

Senator Tudor is the son of uprooted peasants who were evangelical Christians in a country dominated by the Orthodox Church. He was born in 1949 in a proletarian neighborhood on the outskirts of Bucharest. Tudor was a talented writer, romantic and passionate, with a realist's eye for where his bread was buttered. Under the Communist regime, he became a member of the state press corps, where he shone as a kind of court poet, writing odes to the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, along with florid verses on subjects like love, the nation and motherhood.

Senator TudorRomanian intelligence figures have asserted that Tudor was also an eager informant for the Securitate, Ceausescu's feared secret police. But in that regard Tudor would be far from unique: The Securitate was one of the Soviet Bloc's nosiest domestic intelligence agencies, and many of Romania's current leaders informed at one time or another for the paranoid dictatorship. Still, Tudor's critics say that he was worse than most and that his Romania Mare Party has become a dumping ground of unreconstructed former Securitate agents too tainted to fit in with Romania's current intelligence service or army. (Romania Mare, or Greater Romania, refers to Romania in the period between the world wars, when the nation included large parts of what are now Moldova, Bulgaria and Ukraine. In effect, the name constitutes a call to territorial battle with Romania's neighbors.)

Since the 1989 revolution that brought down Ceausescu, Tudor has stayed in the public eye, as publisher of the invective-filled Romania Mare newspaper and, since 1992, as a senator. He is a familiar figure on Romanian television and in the news. Now, the 2004 elections are approaching, and he longs for the presidency.

Tudor's presidential ambitions are improbable, but not unthinkable. In 2000, two years before the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by forcing a run-off in the French presidential elections. Tudor accomplished the same feat on a smaller stage. He garnered one-third of the vote in a second-place finish to emerge as an undeniable force in Romanian politics. The man who beat Tudor, current president Ion Iliescu, commented pointedly on Tudor's potential. "The phantoms of the totalitarian past can appear anytime from poverty," he said. In March 2002, Tudor was chosen as the presidential candidate of choice by 17.0 percent of respondents in a national poll, with 43.0 percent preferring current prime minister Adrian Nastase, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party. Four months later, 36.9 percent of those polled said Tudor's Romania Mare party was "capable of directing the country."

"Tudor will never be elected president," says Sorin Antohi, a professor of history at Central European University who has closely followed Tudor's career. "Romanians may show their discontent every four years and vote in large numbers for Tudor, but most Tudor voters do not actually see him in power. Romans used to say that populations need bread and circus. Tudor only provides the latter, and Romanians know it."

But even if Antohi is right, and Tudor merely benefited from a large protest vote in the last election, Romanians still have a lot to be unhappy about. Unemployment has risen from 8.2 percent in 2001 to 13.3 percent in March 2002, with the average monthly salary stuck around $100. Romania desperately wants to become part of the European Union, but will likely be humiliated by being accepted long after Hungary, its regional rival. Street crime and high-level corruption continue to test the nerves of Romania's honest citizens. These are all issues that Tudor exploits masterfully.

Tudor and Le Pen are often compared, and for good reason. Both politicians are loose cannons, capable of blunt anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic utterances that make moderates in their parties cringe; and both are populists, who benefit from widespread feelings of disaffection around racial and ethnic tension, unequally distributed economic opportunity, and perceived corruption in government.

Tudor wavesLike Le Pen, Tudor often seems willing to say anything to be provocative. He has advocated imposing martial law in Romania, offering himself as leader for the amount of time necessary to eliminate "the impostors and traitors." In speeches and articles, he has inveighed against Romania's large Hungarian minority, at one point even offering money to anyone who burned a Hungarian flag. He has suggested rounding Gypsies up and placing them in prisons and concentration camps to solve the problem of street crime. He has downplayed Romania's role in the Holocaust. He is a leading force behind the rehabilitation of the image of Marshall Ion Antonescu, the World War II-era fascist dictator whose troops carried out mass killings and deportations of Romanian Jews. And one of his favorite targets is Michael Guest, the openly Gay American ambassador.

But what interested me most about Tudor was the oddly ambivalent attitude Romanians I spoke with displayed toward him. "Vadim," as virtually all Romanians call Tudor (as if he were a favorite, somewhat zany uncle), is not nearly the polarizing figure that Le Pen is in France. People seem to like him, even the ones who should despise him.

I went to the headquarters of the Greater Romania Party to ask for an interview.
"DonÝt Miss Pearl Harbor"
My path to Tudor went through his communications director, Radu "Peter" Toma, who agreed to meet me at an outdoor caf╚ on the lively pedestrian promenade in downtown Brasov, a beautiful medieval city in the heart of Transylvania.

"Managing this guy really keeps my hands full," said the tall, broad-shouldered Toma, 60, in the idiomatic English he learned after defecting to the United States in the 1970s. "He's so hyper. If he should say 10 words, he says a hundred. What can I do about a guy who sits inside a tent in Libya with Colonel Qadaffi and says 'You and I are fighting the same thing -- we're both fighting Zionism'?"

Handling Tudor must indeed be difficult work. In the 2000 campaign, Tudor made the famous declaration that Romania "can only be ruled with a machine gun." Toma subsequently spent a good deal of time explaining that his boss meant the machine gun should remain slung on the shoulder as a deterrent.

But I soon realized that Toma was, himself, not the most circumspect of press aides. In response to my observation that all Romanians seem to refer to Tudor as "Vadim," Tudor nodded, saying that in politics it was useful to be known by a single, bisyllabic name. Hitler and Stalin, he noted, both changed their names. At one point, I asked Toma to compare Tudor's foreign policy with that of the current president, Ion Iliescu. "Iliescu is a much more responsible politician," Toma answered.

Clearly, Toma's press strategy was to paint an image of a reckless political force teetering on the edge of power in the center of Europe. The Western media was missing the boat on the story, Toma said. "In 1941, they knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened," Toma admonished me. "Don't miss Pearl Harbor, Jay."

No matter how enticed I was with a politician who was clearly capable of saying anything on camera and whose own press secretary equates him with Hitler, Stalin and Pearl Harbor, I did have reservations about interviewing him. Surely Tudor would capitalize on the attention from our correspondent, Andrei Codrescu, who is well-known in Romania. I squirmed at the idea of giving Tudor further opportunity to present himself as an important politician courted by American media. But for better or worse, Tudor is the voice of protest in Romanian politics. We set a date: Tudor would meet with our FRONTLINE/World crew to show us his country.
"I Am Not a Dictator"
Tudor wanted to meet us in Transylvania near Bran Castle, a tourist attraction promoted as Dracula's fortress. It might seem odd that Tudor would choose to bring us to this castle. But Romania loves a strong leader, and Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century prince better known as Dracula, was a real law-and-order man. Despite his gruesome habit of impaling his enemies on long stakes, Vlad is fondly remembered in Romania today for his crime-fighting and his promotion of Romania's independence from hostile neighbors. Tudor, who longs to be the country's next strongman, doesn't resist being compared with the man the outside world knows better as a maniacal, bloodthirsty fiend.

Tudor signing autographTudor often appears in public in an all-white suit -- he says white is the color of purity and the color of Jesus' vestments. With his big frame, chunky face, trademark enormous sunglasses and disheveled shock of hair, Tudor looks more like Elvis than Jesus. On the afternoon he met us, he was dressed in a pro-American motif, greeting us in a red, white and blue U.S. World Cup Soccer windbreaker and white Adidas sneakers with red and blue stripes.

We spent the day with Tudor, a superb and jovial host who presented our crew with books of his translated poems and Dracula T-shirts. He also attempted, elaborately, to disabuse us of any preconception we might have that he disliked Jews. (The three of us from FRONTLINE/World -- Andrei Codrescu, Marian Marvinsky and I -- are all Jewish.)

"I hope you don't believe I am an anti-Semite," he said, reaching for Andrei's hand, "whatever Elie Weisel might have told you." (Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Weisel had recently gone to his hometown of Sighet to urge Romanians to face up to their role in the decimation of European Jews, and Tudor had attacked him in the press. )

Many of Tudor's disavowals of bigotry were of the "some-of-my-best-friends" variety. He recited, for example, the names of two Jewish families he feeds as part of his "Christian Supper" charity program. "There is no Jewish problem in Romania," Tudor assured Andrei, who responded that there were hardly any Jews left in Romania. But Tudor maintained his warm congeniality, draping his arm over Andrei's shoulder as they walked.

On the subject of Gypsies, or Roma, who have been viciously persecuted in Romania and across Europe, Tudor talked rather unconsciously out of both sides of his mouth. "I have nothing against Gypsies," Tudor told us. Then, "They haven't come to America yet, but they will if you let them." Pressed on his solution to the so -called Gypsy problem, Tudor said, "They say that I want to put them all in concentration camps or that I want to kill them with machine guns. It's a lie. Everyone knows I save dogs and birds on the lake. I feed over 200 dogs a week."

Tudor is, in fact, fanatical about dogs, rescuing them by the dozens. And he insists that these acts of charity preclude him from being able to harbor any un-Christian feelings toward Romania's minorities. In the chaotic outdoor bazaar in Bran, Tudor called out to a Roma man, "Did you ever think I had a problem with Gypsies?" "No, never," the man answered enthusiastically. Meanwhile, Tudor and his entourage of aides and bodyguards made a point of reminding their American guests to keep close tabs on their wallets.

Later, when we told Tudor of our interest in interviewing the manele singing superstar known as Miracle Child, Tudor tried to dissuade us. "You will give America the wrong impression of Romania," he argued. "We are not only Gypsies. Why focus on the ugly, the dirty?" Manele lyrics, he said, were just "words written by retards."

"I have a big mouth," Tudor conceded. "But I am not violent. I talk, and nobody gets hurt from my talking.

Andrei closed our interview by asking Tudor what his presidency would look like. Whatever else, Tudor replied, the law would be enforced. "I am not a dictator," he said, "but I believe that Romania at this point needs an iron hand."

In Romania, that distinction has never been clear. But it might not matter to Tudor's diehard supporters, who see him as the only answer to Romania's troubles. "Nothing is right in Romania," a middle-aged man told us at the castle bazaar after he had rushed up to shake Tudor's hand. "This country is an absolute mess."

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