By Corina Chirileasa
Looking back at the year 2013, with its privatizations, street protests, gold medals and politicians sent to jail. A regular year in the life of a developing country.
The state-owned railway freight company CFR Marfa found its new owner mid-2013, after a previously failed bid. For EUR 202 million and with a promise to invest a further EUR 204 million in the company, Romanian Grup Feroviar Român (GFR), owned by Gruia Sandu, took over the majority of shares in CFR Marfă. The company is the largest railway freight carrier in Romania with a turnover of EUR 261 million in 2011 and a loss of EUR 22 million. GFR is CFR Marfă’s main competitor in Romania and the two companies together control 70 percent of the railway freight market in Romania.
Sometime mid September, the first stock exchange listing of the year took place. Electricity producer Nuclearelectrica raised EUR 63 million in funding by selling 10 percent of its shares. Nuclearelectrica runs the Cernavodă nuclear power unit, which produces 20 percent of Romania’s electricity. These listings came several months after the successful secondary public offering of Transgaz. The state raised EUR 72 million via the sale of 15 percent in the state-owned gas provider.
Elsewhere in banking, it was a good year for lenders UniCredit Bank and Raiffeisen Bank, which took over the retail portfolios of two competitors: Royal Bank of Scotland Romania and Citi, respectively.
It was, however, not the best year for American road builder Bechtel, whose highway contract with the Romanian state was canceled but, fortunately for the company, things were not all bad. The Romanian state, left with an unfinished Transylvania highway, and having already paid EUR 1.4 billion for around 50 kilometers of highway, agreed to pay additional penalties for canceling the contract. And, unfortunately for Romanians, 10 years after the contract was signed, the 412-kilometer Transylvania highway remains unfinished.
Russian steel company Mechel, which had entered Romania in 2002, sold its factories in the country to a company called Invest Nikarom, for a symbolic amount of around USD 70. Four factories, Ductil Steel S.A., Câmpia Turzii S.A., Mechel Târgoviște S.A. and Laminorul S.A were temporarily closed down however production was gradually restarted.
Mid-2013, Romania agreed with International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission on a new EUR 4 billion preventive financial deal over the next two years. The deal was to be discussed by the IMF board in fall. This will be Romania’s third agreement with the IMF since 2009. The first package was worth EUR 20 billion, out of which some EUR 13 billion came from the IMF, and helped Romania weather the financial storms. The second was signed in 2011 and was worth some EUR 5 billion, out of which EUR 3.6 billion came from the IMF, and was meant to be a precautionary credit line.
In late May, the justice system in Romania reported yet another victory: football boss and real estate mogul Gigi Becali, a former MEP, and also an MP in the Romanian Parliament was sentenced to three years in jail. The ruling came in a case involving a land exchange from the late 90s. Just before being convicted, Becali, known for his eccentric media appearances and for his fervent Orthodox belief, tried to flee the country, heading to Israel to pray.
While Becali was being jailed, former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase, who served most of his prison sentence, was enjoying the first months of freedom after his early release in March. Given a two-year jail sentence in June 2012, Năstase managed to be released on parole after displaying good behavior while serving time.
Jail time is most likely what the Romanians behind the art heist of the century face. In a scenario which has already inspired movie directors, a group of Romanians stole EUR 18 million worth of famous paintings from a Rotterdam Museum. Following the heist last year, the gang now faces a trial in Romania as well as an ongoing investigation in the Netherlands. Receiving much attention from the foreign media, the story took a twist when the mum of one of the alleged thieves declared she’d burned the paintings in her stove. Although she later retracted the statement, the paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gaugain are still nowhere to be found, despite the alleged thieves being in Police custody.
Creating almost as much of a stir as the art heist was the opposition to Romanians aspiring to work in the UK with Brits fearing an “invasion” of Romanians and Bulgarians to the country once the labor ban is lifted from the beginning of 2014. Countless media reports both in UK and in Romania have discussed and debated the topic, arguing on the number of expected migrant workers and their impact on the UK’s social welfare systems. The debate triggered some humorous reactions as well, including a cheeky ad campaign by Romanian newspaper Gândul, which invited Britons to visit Romania, a country much enjoyed by Prince Charles.
At home, thousands of Romanians took to the streets in Bucharest and other regional cities, protesting against the planned gold exploitation at Roșia Montană. The protests began in September, following the Government’s approval of a law allowing Canadian company Gabriel Resources to dig for gold at Roșia Montană. For weeks in a row, Romanians staged daily protests calling on Parliament to vote against the proposed project, especially its use of cyanide and its impact on the area’s environment.
Almost at the same time as these protests, another group of supporters took on the streets: stray dogs lovers. After the death of a four-year old attacked by stray dogs near a Bucharest park, the Parliament decided to permit euthanasia for stray dogs which were not adopted after 14 days in municipality shelters.
But it was not all gloomy and doomy in Romania in 2013. Saving the best for last: Romania’s brains again proved to be among the best in the world, with numerous medals won at different Olympiads across the world. Romanians ranked among the first in the world for math, chemistry, physics, informatics and environmental research. There were medals all year in sports competitions too: athletics, para-cycling (Carol Novak), fencing, judo, rowing and gymnastics, to name a few. In most European and world sports competitions in 2013, Romanians got their place on the podium.
And if these did not fix Romania’s slightly tarnished image abroad, then the new episodes of the Travel Channels’ Wild Carpathia series will surely help in promoting the country as a tourist destination. After a first successful episode featuring Prince Charles in 2012 and with financing now provided by the Romanian state, the series is set to continue with a second episode aired in the fall of 2013, and a third in 2014. The second and third episodes of the documentary will feature interviews with Romania’s Princess Margareta II and rower Ivan Patzaichin, who will promote Romania.
As well as taking pride in all the amazing places presented in the documentary, Romanians can now include their Bigăr waterfall, officially, among the most amazing waterfals in the world as of 2013. The Bigăr Falls are in western Romania, on the Bigăr Reservation, which lies between the Cheile Nerei–Beușnița and the Semenic–Cheile Carașului National Parks in the Semenic Mountains.
Last but not least, Romania proved to be the home of numerous recently discovered archeological treasures unique in the world. Several bone fragments of some rare mammals that lived 10 million years ago were discovered in the village of Crețești, in Romania’s Vaslui county, during work on a local road. The important discovery showed a savanna with tropical area features once existed on what is now the region of Moldova in Northern Romania. The paleontological site, which covers some 30 sqm, is unique in Eastern Europe, as it hosts bone fragments of rare mammals. Skulls of sword fang tigers, mandibles of tridactyl horses, a hyena mandible, mandibles of antelopes and gazelles, as well as a Chalicotherium skull were all found on a hill crest after digging two and a half meters into the earth.
Another discovery turned all eyes on Romania. Archeologists investigating the site of a former Dominican monastery in Cluj uncovered a remarkable tale of love, preserved in the bones of a medieval grave. Two skeletons, of a young man and a woman, were found clearly buried together with their hands clasped for eternity. Dubbed Romeo and Juliet by the archeological team, the couple are thought to have lived between 1450 and 1550, as the grave’s position and proximity to the monastery is typical of this period.
Another discovery was more accidental. A Romanian man playing with his recently bought metal detector unearthed 47,000 15th century silver Turkish coins buried in a forest. In a gesture commended and rewarded by the Prime Minister, the man donated his discovery, the largest find of its type in Romania, to a museum. The 54-kilo treasury, which was buried 30 centimeters in the ground, is worth some EUR 0.5 million at current market prices.
Corina Chirileasa is the founder & editor-in-chief of Romania-Insider.com, the most read English-language news and features website in Romania. A business journalist and entrepreneur, Corina has also been the editor of this guide for the last three years.