BOOK REVIEW: Kaplan revisits Romania, the “master key” for Balkans

BOOK REVIEW: Kaplan revisits Romania, the “master key” for Balkans
“In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond”, Robert Kaplan, published by Penguin Random House (2016)
By Kit Gillet in Bucharest February 1, 2016

For Robert Kaplan, acclaimed author of “Balkan Ghosts” (among other titles), it has been a long love affair with Romania – one that he feels it is now time to share with the world.

With “In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond”, which comes out on February 9, Kaplan attempts to delve into the rich culture, history and landscapes of Romania, touching on its distant past, but mostly exploring the depressing realities of the country’s 20th century – when it was pulled back and forth between East and West, often to devastating affect – and its slow re-emergence since the fall of communism in 1989.

“In Europe’s Shadow”, which blends journalism, memoir and historical exploration, focuses much of its attention on comparisons between Kaplan’s visits to Romania before and just after the 1989 revolution with far later visits in 2013 and 2014. We see through his eyes the vast changes that have taken place there, as well as the issues yet to be resolved for a country that joined the EU in 2007.

In the early part of the book, which focuses on his first forays into Romania, Kaplan is at his descriptive best. He describes his initial arrival into Bucharest in 1981: “The silence of the streets was devastating as I alighted from the bus with my backpack on Strada Academiei. The city had been reduced to a vast echo,” he writes.

These were his first glimpses of the country wracked by decades of communist authoritarian control. “Communism in Romania in 1981 appeared like something out of a grainy, nightmarish past, an industrial form of feudalism,” as Kaplan eloquently puts it.

These early scenes are raw and evocative, and reading them you get a real sense of the wonder of a young impressionable journalist delving into an alien environment.

Kaplan returns to Romania several times throughout the 1980s while working as a Balkans correspondent based in Greece, yet is forced to rely mostly on foreign diplomats for leads and information in the face of the tight grip exerted by Romania’s ubiquitous secret police, the Securitate. It is only after 1989 that he is really able to get under the skin of the country through its people.

Master key for the Balkans

Rather than an oft-overlooked corner of Europe, Kaplan sees Romania as something far more important. In the early days, “Romania was my master key for the Balkans,” he writes, “the Poland of Southeastern Europe in terms of size, demography, and geopolitical location vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.” Nowadays he sees it as equally important, given Europe’s increasingly strained relations with Russia.

There is a strong sense throughout the book of Russia as a bogeyman; at times it reads like an anti-Russia policy book, which distracts from the general content (though, in fairness, the author reminds us that Romania has been partially occupied by Russia ten times since 1711, and has long represented a geographical flash point between East and West and between rival global powers). At one stage Kaplan spends an hour pouring over maps of the region with Romania’s then-president Traian Basescu, looking at Russia’s growing involvement in the region, notably Gazprom’s influence in countries like Bulgaria and Hungary.

It is clear that Kaplan has a real passion for Romania. He chases down the home of former communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in the small, rundown town of Barlad, and of Nicolae Ceausescu in Scornicesi, “a dirty, unkempt, deserted world of weeds and rust and potholes,” where he chats with the former dictator’s nephew.

Kaplan is scathing of Ceausescu, the communist dictator overthrown and executed in 1989, who he describes as “a blend of Joseph Stalin and Juan Peron, stuck in the underbelly of Eastern Europe”. Yet he is also critical of those that followed, albeit in nicer terms. “Instead of Vaclav Havel, the Romanians in 1990 got [Ion] Iliescu: a Communist Lyndon Johnson of a sort, a scheming politician who is no thinker – but also no ideologue.”

As the author makes clear, today’s Romania still has much to do to become a modern European state, that corruption is rampant, and that even the capital, Bucharest, is “still in the process of rebirth”.

However, it is a 2014 trip across the River Prut into the neighbouring Republic of Moldova that offers perhaps the best example of the changes that have taken place in Romania in the time Kaplan has been visiting.

Kaplan visits and describes Moldova’s second largest city Balti as “so ugly all I could think of was rotten teeth”, and compares crowds in the city with provincial cities in Romania, noting the vast differences that exist. In Moldova he witnesses a country that resembles aspects of Romania from the early 1990s, when it was still struggling to get back on its feet immediately after the fall of communism. It highlights just how far Romania has already come.

“In Europe’s Shadow” doesn’t quite hit the tone of “Balkan Ghosts”, relying too heavily on literature and interviews with politicians, historians and authors rather than boots-on-ground fact-finding. It also suffers from Kaplan’s obvious nostalgia for the bleak communist era he personally witnessed – the Romania was so far removed from the West he knew, but which is missed by few in Romania today.

All the same, “In Europe’s Shadow” is an intriguing and informative read, though unlikely to have anywhere near the impact of “Balkan Ghosts” – which is credited by some with convincing Bill Clinton initially not to intervene in the Bosnian War – even if Kaplan does believe that the resurgence of Russian influence in the region elevates Romania and its neighbours to the top of the pile for those concerned about geopolitical issues on the eastern edges of the EU.

“In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond”, Robert Kaplan, published by Penguin Random House (2016)