ONE of the largest and most passionate crowds President Bill Clinton has ever drawn was in Bucharest, where he stopped for an eight-hour visit on July 11 of last year. Though crowds of comparable size had greeted him in Ireland and Africa, the Romanian crowd was unique, because American officials did not expect it. In fact, they worried that the people who would come to greet Clinton on that frying-hot afternoon on dusty, treeless avenues in the Romanian capital would be too few, and even hostile. Only three days before, at a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Madrid, the American-led alliance had decided not to admit Romania in the first wave of its post-Cold War expansion but to admit Romania's historical adversary, Hungary.
Yet hundreds of thousands of people packed the wide boulevards from Piata Universitatii, where Clinton spoke, to Piata Romana, a mile away, shouting "NATO, NATO" in ecstasy -- more people than at Clinton's stop the day before in Poland, a country that along with Hungary and the Czech Republic had just been accepted into NATO. In an interview last spring at the Cotroceni Palace, in Bucharest, the Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu, said about the strength of the showing for Clinton, "In World War Two, American planes bombed Romania [an ally of Nazi Germany through 1944]. Some American pilots were shot down. What did the villagers do? They hid the pilots." Constantinescu exclaimed, waving his hands, "It was absurd. The villagers protected at their own, grave risk the very men who had bombed them. This can't have happened very often in the history of aerial bombardment. Whatever America does, Romanians love you, because America represents the West, to which we know we belong. In the late 1940s, naive as it may sound to you, Romanians literally watched the skies, waiting for American planes to rescue them from Russian communism. When the Americans didn't come, we were brutally separated from the West for decades."
For Romanians, Constantinescu and others told me, Clinton's visit symbolized nothing less than the closing of that dark historical chapter, which continued beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev-style Communists carried out the December 25, 1989, execution of the Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his equally sadistic wife, Elena, who had reduced the caloric intake of many Romanians to less than what it had been during the First World War enemy occupation. Those Communists held power until 1996, when Constantinescu, a geology professor, was elected President. He rammed through historic reconciliation treaties with neighboring Hungary and Ukraine, began to liberalize the economy, and filled the senior staff positions of the Romanian military with young, English-speaking officers. He was Romania's first moral head of state since the corrupt and politically disastrous King Carol II ascended the throne in 1930. Clinton's appearance on the podium with Constantinescu -- and his vow before throngs of Romanians that "the door to NATO is open ... and we will help you walk through it" -- has, in a part of the world where words and dates are remembered pathologically, assumed the aura of a sacred trust.
It is the purpose of many presidential trips abroad to raise vague hopes and obscure intractable local realities, so it should come as no surprise if Clinton has made a vow that he cannot fulfill. But this is no routine promise. Clinton's pledge to the people of Romania -- the largest and most populous country in the Balkans, with one foot in Central Europe and the other on the Black Sea -- is linked to issues at the very core of international relations: the growing but as yet unremarked economic and social split in Europe between the Catholic and Protestant West and the Orthodox East; Russia's new aggression, as expressed through organized crime and energy monopolies; the American need for reliable bases near the Middle East and the adjacent oil-rich regions of the Black and Caspian Seas; the disparate legacies of communism in various ex-Soviet bloc countries; the question of "national character" and its uses in foreign policy; and, most important, America's appetite for hegemony. It is hegemony, and hegemony alone, that has always accomplished the immoderate ambition of establishing one's political system throughout much of the world -- something that both liberals and conservatives claim they intend to do.
WHEN I entered Romania by train from predominantly Catholic Hungary last spring, the shock of crossing the border was greater than it had been during the Cold War. Because of Hungary's deeper roots in Central Europe and its market-oriented reforms of the 1960s through the 1980s, Communist Hungary had been far more prosperous than Communist Romania. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungary's economic acceleration has been so much faster than Romania's that the difference simply cannot be bridged in the foreseeable future. Since 1989 the total foreign investment in Hungary has been $18 billion; in Romania it has been $3 billion. Thus with more than double Hungary's population, Romania garnered only a sixth as much foreign investment money. Even as Debrecen, in eastern Hungary, is becoming a forest of chrome-alloy shingles, advertising foreign banks, cash machines, and computer-program providers, the Romanian side of the border is characterized by unpaved roads, few cars, mounds of garbage, rusting and deserted factories, and shacks with missing roofs. When my train stopped a few miles inside the Romanian border, an official slipped into the car's restroom and put the paper towels and toilet paper into his briefcase. When I changed $80, I received an inch-thick stack of cheapened local currency. As the train moved deeper into Romania, I observed a primitive and heartrending Europe that had changed little since my previous visit, eight years before: hordes of Gypsies washing their clothes along riverbanks, and peasants with pitchforks riding in horse-drawn wooden carts. Everywhere were the heirlooms of Ceausescu's Stalinism -- hideous industrial complexes marked by rust, pebbly concrete, and polluting chemicals, set beside the grinding reality of subsistence agriculture.
In Cluj, the city where I got off the train in the region of Transylvania, I saw a sprinkling of cellular phones, satellite dishes, flashy boutiques, and private security guards. But more meaningful as a sign of modernization were individual people. Communism, by denying individuality, fortified national stereotypes, turning Romanian streets into a sea of suffering expressions like those of icons. Now the Romanian population was less archetypal. I noticed would-be hippies, café types, nouveaux riches, sports enthusiasts, and so on, who by choosing their own self-images -- however derivative they may seem to us -- were launching a humanistic assault on the determinism of national character. The women, with their fashion consciousness, seemed far ahead of the men.
These changes, however, are taking place in Romania at a much slower pace than in former Communist republics of Central Europe such as Hungary and Slovenia, and must be understood against an imponderable degree of ethnic national consciousness, a near absence of significant foreign investment outside Bucharest and Timisoara, and a monstrously wasteful and environmentally destructive Communist-era infrastructure. Each of these factors is a drag on development.
Cluj, for instance, is a city predominantly of Orthodox Romanians and Catholic and Protestant Hungarians, who in the course of this century's wars have each occupied the other's territory. The twice-elected mayor, Gheorghe Funar, is a Romanian nationalist who during an interview with me wore the pin of the ultra-nationalist organization Vatra Romaneasca ("Romanian Hearth"). Funar denied the very existence of the 1.5 million Hungarians in Transylvania, telling me that such people were merely Hungarian-speaking Romanians confused about their loyalty. The mayor's antics, which have included removing Hungarian street signs and painting park benches in the loud colors of the Romanian flag, have made Cluj a hard sell to the international business community.
Westerners who are upbeat about Romania do not often venture beyond Bucharest. Indeed, the city has changed dramatically in the eight years since I last saw it. In place of a forbidding Stalinist city whose populace, in baggy, mud-colored clothes, looked like a terrified peasantry, I found a lively metropolis of people wearing modish Italianate fashions (including lots of black leotards and tight leather jackets), noisy young couples kissing passionately in the street, pulsing casinos, private money changers, and countless shops and sidewalk stands selling compact discs and books -- everything from Israeli pop music to Mein Kampf. In place of dowdy restaurants offering the Communist-era fare of greasy pork cutlets and plum brandy there were intimate establishments run by young people offering nouvelle cuisine. Topless clubs were common, and sexy Brazilian soap operas dominated local television. Particularly pervasive were cell phones -- the perfect product for hustler economies -- whose beeping filled the cafés. In the 1980s under Ceausescu it was forbidden to bring so much as a typewriter into Romania.