Two relatively recent shows available on Netflix express the general way in which Romania and its citizens are often portrayed in Western media. The fact that they are labeled as documentaries endows them with a greater pretense of realism and authenticity. What they espouse, however, is an Orientalizing construction that mirrors and justifies the internal hierarchies and unequal relations on which the EU construction necessarily rests.
Flavors of Romania is a 2018, 9-episode long UK production, starring Charlie Ottley who travels the historic regions of the country on his motorbike. The opening of the show invokes the old trope according to which Romania is the crossing point between Orient and Occident, “a melting pot of different cultures”. The accompanying images show Old Rite Ukrainian Lipovens (a minority in northern Dobrogea) singing and dancing on a beach at nighttime, the only source of light being a huge fire around which people congregate. For an untrained eye they might look like Roma people as they are depicted in other well-known western representations.
Old tropes, new industries
But while Romania is recognized as culturally diverse, the next piece of information is about nature. The voice over tells viewers that Romania is the “custodian of Europe’s last great wilderness area”: the Carpathian forest and its brown bear population. This becomes the duality that structures the entire show, the lens through which the country and its citizens are presented: diverse pre-modern cultures that look like pagan rituals and wild, raw, untamed nature. A land sunk in mythology, ancient history and rituals. In this context, the invocation of Dracula’s myth right from the very beginning of the show appears to be only logical and predictable. There is nothing modern about Romania in this show. The camera and the narrative underline solitary priests, forgotten fisherman villages and exotic hunters. The intention of the show is to highlight the strange, the unique, and the ancient “traditions” of Romania. Its role is to make a strange place look even stranger. Even the food options and recipes are quirky and mysterious, something only some wild savages would eat.
At times, the images become familiar, however. They remind one about the way in which western reportages depict places in Africa or South East Asia. Out of time and out of touch - the series celebrates Romania for its backwardness and her disconnect from today’s modern world. But it also gently scolds Romanians for their indifference to their own huge natural and cultural heritage. Every episode lampoons the locals for failing to protect their past, while also ridiculing them for their inability to monetize their country’s status as a potential tourist magnet for western Europeans. The two injunctions are impossible to reconcile for the Romanians, which is why their performative power is enhanced. On the one hand the Romanians are encouraged to remain faithful to their “natural”, ancient-old traditions and habits. On the other hand, they are pressured to modernize, to turn their identity into a commodity and sell it on today’s modern tourism market.
Untamed Romania (2018) is a 92-minute documentary about the flora and fauna of the Carpathian forests and the Danube Delta. Here the focus is solely on animals, their habitat and ancient history. There are no people presented. Romania appears to be just the name of a vast animal kingdom in which fantastic creatures from immemorial times still live. The subtext of this documentary is also quite clear: Romania as the land of wild, untamed animals, the last surviving vestiges in Europe before civilization.
The “essential” labor of Romanian migrant workers
These Orientalizing depictions are a small sample of a general theme: the backward nature of Romania and its uncivilized, raw, wild and unruly population. They are not accidental constructions. They permeate everyday representations in media, politics and bureaucratic circles around the continent. Their status is not innocent either. It justifies the second-hand, disposable nature of Romanian citizens within European power and labor relations. Close to five million Romanians were forced to migrate in search for labor across the continent, especially in places like Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK. The intense labor exploitation to which most of them are subjected and the racial abuse they endure has been an open secret for long and recently has been the focus of careful scrutiny in academic and NGO circles. Numerous articles and experts highlight their improper working conditions, unfair pay, lack of social protection and access to health care.
The pandemic was a catalyst of all the previously underlying problems. Romanian workers were initially the first to be fired and sent home when the hospitality industry was closed in Italy and Spain, with no unemployment benefits. Then, as strict lockdowns were imposed in Western Europe, Romanian workers became “essential” workers again, that is, expandable. They were allowed to break quarantine, and thus risk their and their families’ lives, in order to become corona-workers: to pick asparagus and to man the meat houses in Germany, to pick grapes and to make wine in Italy, to offer care as nurses and doctors in Austria and to work the land in Spain. To be sure, Romanians were not the only Eastern Europeans with this status during the pandemic. Bulgarians, Ukrainians and Moldovans shared a similar fate, but what individualizes the Romanians is their sheer number of migrant workers as a proportion in the total population.
Construing their place of origin – Romania – as raw, backward, uncivilized and untamed helps to reinforce and justify their status as workers doing menial, backbreaking and dangerous jobs across Europe. Not fully developed yet to be integrated as proper Europeans, their status is akin to that of the Taillies in the Snowpiercer: they are allowed to be on board as long as they provide the necessary supply of labor to keep the train going. As the pandemic showed, it is precisely this type of labor that keeps the EU’s economy and distribution networks going.
Ideological formations such as those promoted by the aforementioned series (and others like them) are not simply false in the sense that they distort and mystify the reality. They are in fact “true” as moral representations of unequal power relations. What they miss, however, is a more complex outcome of unequal European integration. From the perspective of political economy Romania is fully integrated into the Germany-dominated export-oriented industrial activity that constitutes the driving force of the EU economy as a world actor. Thanks to cheap labor costs, small taxes on income and profit, friendly regulations for business owners, and a weak state, in the past 20 years Romania has become an outsourcing paradise for various economic activities, ranging from industrial production of car parts to IT, communication and logistics.
The investment of capital was unequal and targeted only certain areas of the country, chiefly the region around capital Bucharest and those around some important regional centers like Cluj, Timisoara, and Brasov. This led to an unprecedented economic growth, both before the financial crisis and immediately after, to the point at which Romania had one the highest economic growth rate in the EU right before the pandemic. The wealth was unequally distributed and contributed to the acceleration of inequalities between people and regions. This led to more labor-related migration, but this time not only to Western Europe, but also to the aforementioned growth poles. Some of them, as it is the case now with Bucharest and its surrounding region, grew to become one of the richest in Europe. The GDP per capita in Bucharest is now higher than that in countries like Croatia and Bulgaria and it surpasses that of Berlin and Helsinki.
A continent rife with divisions
What narratives about a supposedly pristine, uncivilized Romania obscure is precisely this internal uneven development, not only inside the country, but also within the EU itself. They represent a longing for the good old times in which neat divisions between a developed, civilized West and a backward, uncivilized East were enough to explain away the world. This imaginary geopolitics does not function in practice anymore. The very nature of EU politics and its underpinning economic relations created a continent rife with divisions and all sorts of inequalities. They go beyond national borders and affect in various ways all EU member states. Rather than being a throwback to the past, Eastern Europeans, and Romanians in particular, point in fact to the future of the continent, should the current relations of economic and ideological production continue to prevail.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette.
You can find more texts, works, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website.
About Florin Poenaru
Florin Poenaru is an anthropologist. He is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Bucharest and co-editor of CriticAtac. He works on issues of class and post-communism.