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October 27, 2020

Basescu and the intellectuals

Traian Basescu is no intellectual. This has nothing to do with his past job. Herman Melville wrote a famous novel based on his years as a sailor. Joseph Conrad did the same. Traian Basescu had other options: he liked to skipper ships, make real money, then lead institutions: a ministry, a municipality, a party, a state. Only late in his life did he get in touch with the intellectuals, when he embarked upon a large-scale electoral campaign. His PR advisors speculated the people’s sympathy for his direct approach, his cheerful – sometimes stinging – irony, his seductive honesty and even his candor as someone who appreciates effectiveness, even in culture.

At stake was more than just winning an electoral segment they could not afford to neglect; it was associating his name with high-impact campaigns. Initially an outsider, compared to the party-state colossus, Traian Basescu could not afford gigantic campaigns, but could link his image to campaigns staged by others.

As a mayor, he opposed the construction of the future Patriarchal Cathedral in a large park of Bucharest, which earned him the support of a very active intellectual minority. Later, the support of these intellectuals largely exceeded whatever he might have achieved through standard political advertising. He also made an attempt to embrace the cause of homosexuals, but immediately reconsidered, when he understood that losses could exceed benefits. Then came an image stunt in a big showdown on TV that made him president. Faced with a more cultured, but excessively arrogant Adrian Nastase, Basescu played the card of the respect for intellectuals – embodied by an enthusiastic (then) Mircea Cartarescu. Before a TV audience of millions, the opposition candidate of those years innocently claimed his respect for the author of the ‘Levant’ – a sophisticated poetic work, imbued with many cultural references.

Suddenly, Traian Basescu appeared as a stern and authoritarian politician, who however does not disregard the complex cultural dimension of life. Seduction thus was the second strategy, after the support for active minorities.

This was just the beginning of an ambitious plan. As he became a player-president, Basescu gradually attempted to revolutionize the Romanian politics. He pressed the attack against the whole political class, with the purpose of creating his own structure, a huge presidential party that would exert a discretionary control. To this regard, he needed more support than professional politicians could give. He needed the intellectuals. Obviously, he could not rely on them to organise and lead the party, but needed their cultural prestige for his own political project. Though this project failed, his association with some intellectuals gave him an extra dose of popularity, beyond this failure. His personal charm however was not enough to keep them close. He used two tactics. He appointed some faithful intellectuals to high positions. The most famous case is that of Horea-Roman Patapievici, who was placed in control of the institution that promotes Romanian culture abroad: The Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR). Vladimir Tismaneanu got in charge of the institute that investigates the crimes of the communism, replacing an “adversary” of the president – the ‘Liberal’ Marius Oprea.

At the same time, he rediscovered the tactics of solidarity with high-impact causes that have prominent supporters. He accepted to publicly condemn the communism, which improved his image in the eyes of many Romanians, mostly intellectuals. Little did it matter that this was just a formal gesture, another PR stunt. Traian Basescu was never an anti-communist. He used this rhetoric only to counter his left-wing opponents. He had a successful career during the communist era, without significant social frustrations, and ideology was never an impediment for his pragmatic nature. But he knew how to speculate the persistence of an anti-communist electorate, always reluctant towards the big leftist party. Unfortunately, lately some of the intellectuals have distanced themselves from Traian Basescu, starting with Mircea Cartarescu and, more recently, with philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu.

But Traian Basescu’s most ambitious tactics concerning the intellectuals was luring them to be partners of the power, in a decision-making process behind closed doors. The old model of the “tyrant” so fascinated by philosophy that he is willing to have it at his table is still present in the dreams of intellectuals. Basescu’s image of “enlightened despot” would have no effect upon someone lacking those intellectual inclinations characteristic to cultivated politicians. In fact, getting intellectuals involved in the drafting of a long-term strategy, rather than in the act of power (a few individual cases aside), has been minimal, because such a strategy did not exist. Wishing to place himself above the political establishment, Basescu did not encourage a circle of doctrine-related studies.

On the other hand, the “president’s” intellectuals themselves failed to display a real creativeness, when it came to political strategies. There is a huge difference between commenting with charm and acuity a political situation, while comfortably sitting in an armchair, and conceiving a sustainable and efficient political institutional project. The president’s latest idea is to reform his own party, in order to avoid an electoral disaster, by resorting to the “enlisted” intellectuals. Teodor Baconschi plays the card of Christian-Democracy, jointly with those willing to stand by him. Perhaps the ideas of this doctrine experiment will be unveiled to the public at a later moment, but for the time being they are sorely missing. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that this is another image campaign that speculates the political ambitions of some intellectuals. In fact, Traian Basescu’s relation with the intellectuals was never a fertile ground for a quality political culture.

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