Why is Romania so poor?

Imagine a science fiction scenario, a book (or film) set in the far future. A lone spaceship is hurtling through the galaxy, the humans on board desperately looking for a habitable world on which to settle.

Suddenly, on their long-range scanners they pick up what looks to be a suitable candidate. Further inspection of the planet reveals good news. There is a breathable atmosphere and liquid oceans of water. As they get closer, the weary humans happily discover that there is a land mass with a gentle, four-season climate and they begin to celebrate, realizing that they have just found their new home.

Now let’s further imagine that this imaginary planet’s terrain is identical to that of Romania. It has the same trees, flowers, forests and grasslands. It has the same mountain valleys, wide plains and sandy beaches. It has the same dark, rich soil. Computer scans reveal that it has the same mineral resources, from salt to copper to zinc and gold. It has the same energy resources, from (natural) gas to coal to petroleum. It has the same rich springs and rivers of clean water. And it has the same abundant wildlife, everything from pollinating bees to herds of deer and flocks of birds.

I think any imaginary spaceship of humans coming across a planet with all of Romania’s natural features would believe that they’d hit the jackpot. Literally everything necessary for a rich and wonderful life exists in this country.

And yet here on the real Earth, in this real country called Romania, life is very difficult and millions of its citizens are suffering from privation and poverty.


Why is Romania so poor?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for a long time. I’ve been to a lot of truly poor countries, lands where the soil is dry and broken, places where people can barely feed themselves and where disease, famine and war are endemic.

Once you get past the superficial political causes, in nearly every case the source of poverty in those countries is immediately obvious. There are simply too many people fighting over too few resources, whether that’s arable land or potable water (or both). Look at any country that regularly appears in the news because of fighting: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan. All four of those countries have vast amounts of deserts and sub-marginal lands and not enough clean drinking water for the people who live there.

Romania is only poor in comparison to its neighbors here in Europe. Compared to the billions of people suffering in Africa and Asia, Romania is clearly quite wealthy. But still though, why is Romania so poor compared to other European countries?

I’m not going to provide my answer to that question today, as it is part of a larger idea that I’m going to write about soon. But I’ve been asking this question for a long time and gotten a lot of answers that I think fall short of the mark.

Lack of resources – Certainly this cannot be the cause of Romania’s poverty as nearly every form of natural wealth, whether that’s a moderate climate, the planet’s most fertile soil, abundant wildlife and lots of fresh water is found here. Likewise, “commodity” resources such as gold and other valuable metals or fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are also abundant.

I really can’t think of a single country in Europe that is more blessed with natural resources than Romania.

On top of that you have millions of well-educated citizens, many of whom speak multiple languages and there is a large workforce here that is very adept at modern technology, particularly computers and programming. Certainly there is an abundance of “human resources” as well as natural ones.

Corruption – I’ve certainly written dozens of articles on corrupt and greedy politicians, so that’s certainly a factor. But taking a larger look at the European Union, you can see that corruption is everywhere, even in far wealthier countries like Sweden, Germany or France.

Nor is Romania the most corrupt country, as nations like Greece are far more corrupt than anything that exists here and the situation in Italy is pretty bad as well. So again, why is Romania so poor compared to those countries?

Low Salaries – Years ago I was riding on a train to Bucharest when I met a young man from China and we got to talking. He told me that in his country, his salary was roughly equivalent to the salaries that Romanians make. But what surprised him was that the prices were so much different. Where he came from, a bottle of water (or Coca-Cola) costs the equivalent of 20 bani, whereas here in Romania it’s well over 1 leu (or more than five times as much).

Likewise, prices in countries like Switzerland or cities like London are sky-high. But if your salaries are commensurate then the actual price of goods there is not that expensive. In other words, if salaries in Romania are low but the prices here were also low then it wouldn’t be a big issue.

Of course, prices aren’t low here and in many cases are far higher than anything I paid back in the United States. But why?

Stupidity – There are certainly stupid people here in Romania, as I’ve written about quite often. But you’d have to believe in some rather foolish racial theories to say that, on average, Romanians are stupider than all the other 400 million people living in the European Union.

I, for one, don’t believe that there’s anything special about Romanians as a race or nationality when it comes to intelligence. There are a few idiots here and there are also a few geniuses but the majority of people here are just like everyone else.

Victims of History – I can’t think of a single historical force in recent history that affected only Romania and not also the rest of Europe.

There were dozens of countries in Eastern Europe who suffered equally (if not more so) at the hands of Soviet oppression. There are lots of other countries who were also overrun by Nazi Germany. There are many other countries that were bullied and influenced and dominated by their more powerful neighbors. There were fascist leaders and cruel monarchs and Communist dictatorships and political prisoners and collectivized farms and population transfers and gulags in many other countries, all of which have somehow overcome those historical injustices to become wealthier than Romania is today.

Poland, for instance, was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, had half of its population shipped off to labor camps and saw its capital city of Warsaw completely destroyed once by the Nazis and then a second time by the Soviet Red Army. Poland had Russian troops on its soil right up until 1989 and Poland had its own fair share of domestic Communist dictatorships under Gomulka, Gierek and Jaruzelski, the latter imposing martial law on the country in 1981.

Latvia was wiped off the face of the map at the end of World War 2 and absorbed into the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia and 150,000 were sent to work (and die) in Soviet gulags while hundreds of thousands of Russians were sent to Latvia to “Russify” the country and the Latvian language was banned in most schools and universities. Even today its own capital city is deeply divided along racial and linguistic lines, with more Russians living there than ethnic Latvians.

And yet both of these countries managed to rise up from their pasts and become more prosperous than Romania. Why were those countries able to succeed and Romania not?

The Butterfly

No, I don’t think any of the above are the true answer as to why Romania is so poor. Those answers above are not inaccurate, but I think they are just symptoms of the problem and do not adequately address the underlying etiology. I truly do think something unique happened to this country but its roots are far, far older than most people would ever guess.

I believe that everything began on September 23, 1543 when a Chinese man named Wu-Feng had his boat was blown off course and landed on the tiny Japanese island of Tanegashima. What happened on that fateful day in that remote fishing village was the butterfly flapping its wings that would lead one day to a “hurricane” of poverty and suffering halfway around the world in modern Romania.

That’s a long story to tell but I’m afraid you’re just going to have to wait a bit longer to read it as it is an important one, and I want to make sure I get it absolutely right.

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29 Responses »

  1. @Andrei – Oh, stop. You’re killing me! This is the same crap every mediocre country peddles (olympians, hackers, etc). Really, guy. There are many hackers on the planet, Romania doesn’t have any that are particularly great. So no, let’s not flatter ourselves. Romania doesn’t win many Olympiads, actually, nor has it made many contributions to culture (science, art, etc, etc). And IT outsourcing? Please, that’s just embarrassing. Do you realize what IT outsourcing looks like? It’s grunt work. It’s the crappy work rich nations don’t want to do that usually requires no real skill. Indians do the same thing: you outsource the boring and time consuming work to save money. It’s good for the country, but it’s nothing glamorous. It’s completely obvious why Romania as Romania is poor: Romania is an infant nation. I know we don’t like hearing it, just like other new nations don’t like hearing it, but it’s true and no ego massaging is going to cover it up. I know it’s nice to think of yourself as being special, as being decedent from greatness, smarter than everyone else, blah blah blah, but that’s just so sad and so obviously bogus. Romanians are not exceptional. But back to nationhood, the old countries of Europe have national cultures and cultures of statehood that span a long time (though it gets a little complicated because Germany is both new as a singular nation and old as a collection of, for most of history, irrelevant principalities). Romania’s national culture and statehood is very recent. Hell, the name “Romania” isn’t that old (some people point to documents about Romans or bondsmen, but come on, a lot of that is inflated). Ukrainians are kind of similar. They hate hearing it, but Ukraine is recent nation as well. They like to pretend they have something to do with Kieven Rus’, but that’s Russia’s history. For most of history, Ukrainians were either Polish subjects and the Ruthenian nobility were Polonized, or they were Russian subject later on who were Russified. Hell, even the name “Ukraine” comes from “ukraina” which means “bonderland”. Romania is kind of like that. Romanians were Hungarian and Austrian subjects, for example. The name itself has a bit of an embarrassing history. And like all insecure newcomers, Romanians like to make a show of their Romanianness. They want to feel big and important but we’re just a bunch of Vlach shepards for crying out loud! Plus, the civil culture sucks.

    Granted, I think the English and French are a bunch of peasants, too. Hell, the English are sad, so don’t think for a second that I’m pissing on Romania and singing praise to the once fashionable Western Europeans. My point is what’s the use of pretending something you’re not?

    I always laugh when I hear a fellow Romanian say, as if you convince himself that he doesn’t come from a crappy and irrelevant backwater and becoming depressed over it, something like “Actually, Romania is the best ” and usually it’s just so pathetic or meaningless or bogus (“Actually, Romania has the best scientists” or “Actually, Romania has the best feldspar deposits in the world” or something corny like that). Why do you need that kind of pretense? Why lie? It’s just make you look stupid and desperate in company. You think it makes you look secure? Quite the contrary. We’re often extremely arrogant in the company of foreigners which probably has to do with low self-esteem while desiring high esteem. Why don’t we just accept the truth?

  2. Well, Mircea, I hope you will have the opportunity to expand your perspective,
    because a more positive attitude can be a powerful motivator, besides giving
    a fairer assessment of accomplishments by remarkable individuals.

    As Queen Marie wrote, in her autobiography published 80 years ago:
    “It sometimes needs a foreigner’s eye really to appreciate the beauties of a country…”.

    One example (since you brought up the IT field) is the size of your country,
    which made it possible for a tech-savvy 20-year-old to notice that Romania
    lacked an organized forum for discussing computer security threats, so he
    created one, personally visiting at least five cities to speak about his plan
    (I’ve seen the photos posted online), plus appear on TV. Now, after 3 years,
    his annual conferences draw audiences of several hundred to a Bucharest
    hotel for a weekend of presentations by tech-experts, from Romania and
    abroad, plus he publishes an online journal. I don’t think any young person
    of his age would be able to accomplish a feat like that in a big country like
    the USA, with its huge distances, high costs, established organizations,
    and general public skepticism about youthful leadership abilities. From
    this point of view, Romania’s size is one of its under-appreciated beauties.

    A book could be written about the young people of Romania today.

  3. are you a bitch you dick head im a romanian

  4. Corruption in Sweden? Check your facts before writing false facts or please show your sources. I live in Sweden and corruption is something that is extremely rare.

  5. Oh my god. the author of this article is obviously biased against romanians. Is it maybe because his boss is a romanian? Get your facts straight mister, before blurting out all your fantasies, here.

  6. I am a Romanian and I totally agree with this article, especially on stupidity – it is true that there are a few geniuses (not implying that I am one), but to compensate for those perhaps 2-3% geniuses the rest of the population is properly retarded , religion being a major cause. And on corruption? Well if we have greedy, stupid citizens of course we will have like-minded leaders and we so, so deserve them. We want them, we want to be poor, retarded and we want to blame each other for the shitty situation we experience. Corruption in Romania though might be the definition of the country itself. It happens on every level, everyone lowering themselves to get 1 coin more than the person next to him. We got used to it, we like being tortured so we can have something to complain about. We don’t want to earn more money for our family or ourselves, we only want the person next to us to earn less than us. It’s not about being being smarter than another person, it’s about making that person fall lower than us. This is the kind of mentality that runs through the mind of an average Romanian, I live to observe this everyday.
    I also hate those who try to ignore the shitty situation we are in by bringing forth that very insignificant percent of persons that “make us proud that we are Romanians” compared to the elephant in the room. It’s better to see these things as they are and eventually do something about it than trying to convince yourself that you are the luckiest man in the world for being born in Romania

  7. Marius: The problem I have with your sweeping claim, that 97%-98% of Romanians are
    stupid, is that I didn’t seem to meet any of them during my several trips to Romania — and
    I was in more than a dozen cities. So where do all the stupid ones hang out?
    Unlike in America, nearly everyone I encountered in Romania could speak multiple
    languages. My taxi-driver, my restaurant-waitress, and my hotel’s desk-clerk, all had
    earned advanced university degrees. My tour-guide said she’d been trained as an
    opera-singer. My baggage-handler at Gara de Nord told me, when I asked, that he’d
    taught himself English by watching CNN, and an elderly street-beggar I chatted with in
    Bucharest’s Old Town claimed that he’d read over 3000 books, in five languages, which
    I rather doubted — until he began listing names of the American authors who he most
    admired: Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau. So, if as many Romanians as you say really
    are stupid, then why didn’t I meet any or them?

    • Don’t mind him. He is a self-hating Romanian. He doesn’t know Romanian’s history, obviously he doesn’t know our inventors and remarkable persons(I can give you list with hundreds of Romanian inventors and smart people, from past and present), clearly he doesn’t know Romanians in general and so on. He is repeating what he reads and hears. There is a mentality in Romania, that Romanians are not good, they have to change to become respectable. Everything that is Romania is bad, everything that is foreign is good. It’s a colony mentality. If we are where we are as a country, is because of people like Marius.

    • They are stupid in life. They make stupid choices.

  8. You failed your claims the moment you said “obviously”. Assuming how a particular person is based on his first appearance is typical for a weak-minded person. I am used to this too as it happens a lot with most people in this country. I also doubt your ” If we are where we are as a country, is because of people like Marius”. I am glad the Romania you live in is full of joy and wonder. Unfortunately, mine is not quite like this. It’s natural to me to see people like you who daydream. And unlike you, I form my opinions on what I experience myself as a citizen in this country. Not everything in Romania is bad, but it’s such a tiny amount it’s not even worth taking into consideration. I didn’t even mention the history of Romania for you to criticize it. I am clearly not talking about the Romania from the past. I hope you are at least decently smart to realize that. To be able to afford to make a comment such as yours would mean that you either don’t live in Romania which is likely because I can’t see that you have a vague idea of how stuff works around here or you are a typical brainwashed Romanian citizen who likes to speak proudly of what the modern Romania has to offer while at the same time complaining about your income, politics and people you daily deal with. Romanians are too arrogant ( in the stupidest way possible) to admit what they lack, because it’s obvious they don’t lack anything.
    And Allan, obtaining an university degree in Romania in most professions is a common thing for a Romanian to be proud with. To be able to obtain an uni degree in Romania is in my opinion far easier than attending gymnasium or high school. I say “most” which means not really all of them. I need to repeat myself as my message is clearly bent by the time it reaches a reader like Lau. I am glad you had to deal with pleasant persons in Romania however it happens that at the same “Gara de Nord” last time I went through there, I’ve seen several foreigners complaining by right about the beggars which were all over the place, bothering one of them at the time, the transport and so on. This is only an example. It might be that I experience this kind of circumstances while the others have a great fun time in Romania and it happens that I am excluded from the party, which is likely. If those people obtained so many uni degrees then It is logical that they do jobs like taxi-driving. That’s clearly plausible. It is thanks to our wonderful system in Romania that we have highly trained people with dozens of uni degrees to do jobs like taxi-driving, waitress and so on. You guys might be right, living in this country is brilliant. Being blindly optimistic helps indeed. Again, this is only the comment of a normal Romanian citizen, not a person who visits Romania once in a while through luxury means only to see the best of it. Even Ethiopia has some interesting landscapes and people but that doesn’t make it the best country to live in. Nor it is Romania.

  9. I am a Peruvian citizen living in Bucharest and I believe the big responsible for Romanian’s socio-economic underdevelopment was the tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu who impoverished and destroyed the country

    After the fall of communism, Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with a runaway inflation and wide spread shortages, even in Bucharest you still have abandoned people living underground. Romanians complain that their national leaders are still corrupt and the best way to go rich is to get elected to a political office.

    When i speak to young Romanians, i denote a total disinterest in politics and therefore a severe shortage of honest new political leader determined to do something for Romanians. Poverty has a firm grip on Romania’s rural areas, where almost half (44 per cent) of the population lives. In 2008 the UNDP Human Development report estimated that 38 per cent of rural people were living in poverty, compared with 14 per cent of people in urban areas. Now let’s recall that Nicolae Ceausescu expropriated to all Romanian peasant from their lands back in his communist regime.

    I believe the only solution lies on the new generation of political leader in Romania if this actually exists…

    • i can t believe the ”peruvian” has the guts to comment like this on romania. A peruvian would never complain that his country of residence is the poorest in the EU. I wonder how poor is Peru compared to the EU.lol at the peruvian.

  10. Hey EU, I see you are unable to take some constructive comments.

    As for my comment about what helds back Romania’s development, what I wrote is absolutely correct on the eyes of a foreign observer whether you like it or not. After 50 years of a socialist and almost fascist regime is understandable that capitalism and relatively new and will take another generation to leave the centralized government state model that Romania currently experiences.

    You’d need to do more research about south america;s economy. Peru has enjoyed Asian-style growth averaging 6.4% a year in 2003-13. Although the country still has major socio-political drawbacks, Romania is nowhere close to Peru in terms of economic development.

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