A Winner Lacking Charisma – But Not Much Else

The surprise election of Klaus Iohannis as President of Romania is rare good news

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  November 11, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

Against all predictions, a political outsider, the long-term mayor of Sibiu, Klaus Iohannis, won Sunday’s presidential elections in one of the EU’s poorest member countries with a convincing 55 percent of the vote. Promising “less show, less noise,” and with strong anti-corruption credentials, he is Romania’s best hope yet for the country to leave its post-Soviet legacy behind.

photo:REUTERS/Radu Sigheti


Sunday night brought some rare good news to Central Europe. Romania voters, fed up with the  corruption-networked political, business, and judicial system in one of Europe’s poorest countries, turned out in a record 62 percent to upset all predictions and elect Klaus Iohannis president with a convincing 55 percent.

Iohannis might have been the model for Vaclav Havel’s ideal of the anti-politics politician. He shuns charisma. His election campaign is widely described as lackluster, with slogans calling for nothing more stirring than making Romania a “normal country,” a “Romania of thoroughness,” a “Romania of things well done.”

Unlike most prominent Bucharest politicians, he is not the head of a top-down clientelist party. He comes instead from the grass roots as the long-time mayor of Sibiu – and when he first won election in that Transylvanian city in 2000 he was an oddity even there, as a former physics teacher from the two percent ethnic German minority in the municipality and an active Lutheran in an overwhelmingly Orthodox land. Unlike most politicians, too, he has remained popular even after more than a dozen years in office, winning reelection in 2004 and 2008 with majorities of over 70 percent.

What Iohannis does offer his voters is a record of pragmatism, independence, and honesty.  As mayor, he began attracting German and Austrian investors to Sibiu (or Hermannstadt, in its medieval German name). Even in a post-Communist system with virtually no municipal authority to levy taxes, he built an industrial park by trading and patching together unused bits of land and installing water, gas, and electricity lines to the greenfield plots.

Along with Luxembourg, Sibiu was selected in 2007 as the European cultural capitals of the year, and wandering German apprentices wearing traditional black carpenters’ hats rebuilt the Lutheran cathedral and steep-roofed townhouses in jig time for the celebration. Manufacturing and tourism are now booming and produce full employment that stands out in a country with an average jobless rate of seven percent.

“I am running because I wish to establish a new kind of politics in our country. Less show, less noise, and more concrete solutions for citizens, for Romania,” Iohannis kept saying during his campaign. He also promised regularly to stem corruption. Voters – including especially the young and the franchised Romanian diaspora in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe – seemed to believe that he would do an impartial job rather than simply using an anti-corruption drive to send political rivals to trial.

As president, the conservative Iohannis will have more of a role in foreign than in domestic policy, especially since he must cohabit with a Social Democratic parliament. Crucially, however, he appoints the state prosecutor and has a say in judicial appointments. He can therefore lend strong support to the present lone-wolf prosecutor-general, Laura Codruta Kovesi. She has succeeded, improbably, in defying all death threats and getting prison sentences for an impressive roster of senior politicians – including a powerful former prime minister – on corruption charges.

Iohannis traces his ancestry back to the land-owning farmers and artisans who were invited to Transylvania by the enlightened Hungarian King Geza II in the 12th century. In later centuries this community and their urban guilds defended the autonomy and local democracy guaranteed in their royal charter and became a lobby for a developing rule of law against encroaching tyranny. (As part of this defense, they seem to have run the first campaign of character assassination against Count Dracula, a Wallachian monarch who was trying to extend his influence in Transylvania.)

During World War II, in a chauvinist groundswell that today’s German community renounces, they supported Hitler. When Romania became part of Moscow’s empire from the end of World War II until 1989, most of the community emigrated to (West) Germany, taking advantage of Bonn’s Ostpolitik and willingness to pay a ransom to Bucharest for granting exit visas to ethnic Germans. Although some children of émigrés have been returning to Sibiu and starting small businesses as the local economy improved, the number of ethnic Germans in Romania has shrunk to only 37,000 today.

The absence of any large ethnic constituency makes the victory of Klaus Iohannis all the more surprising.  In the best-case scenario, it might even signal the embryonic development of a civic rather than just an ethnic sense of citizenship in Romania.

ELIZABETH POND is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style (Brookings).


© Elizabeth Pond


Impressions of a November Night

25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, our reporter joined the crowds along the “border of light”

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  November 10, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond


photo: Elisabeth Wendt

This was Germany’s first real celebration of the momentous fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989. After 24 years of subdued anniversary commemorations, it took a new generation to realize that Germans can legitimately rejoice in their country’s first successful revolution in history and at the same time still mourn the victims of “Kristallnacht”, the anti-Jewish pogrom on November 9, 1938, and prelude to the Holocaust. The non-wall of interior-lit balloons along 15 of the 140 kilometers of the once-upon-a-time death strip was the perfect symbol – especially when the balloons were released heavenward and vanished, much as the VEB cement slabs disappeared a quarter of a century ago.

From the East Side Gallery, which has morphed from in-your-face counterculture to tourist shrine, to Bornholmer Strasse – where Heinrich August Winkler answered serious questions about Germany’s long road to the West – Berliners and guests celebrated. (At least I think Winkler was on the local podium, though the tall Germans amiably pressing into me on all sides made it hard to verify if the historian was really with us in person or only on the quarter of the giant TV screen that I could catch a glimpse of now and then.)

Certainly Harald Jäger was there, the Stasi deputy commander at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing between East and West Berlin who, instead of giving the order to shoot, as he was supposed to do, ordered the lifting of the boom to let the ebullient eastern crowd surge through to the West. So was the East German woman who was televized in 1989 spontaneously kissing the border guard who finally let her through there – and so was the embarrassed border guard. There was also the West Berliner who was unexpectedly visited by a friend from East Berlin in the middle of the night 25 years ago and decided on the spot to lend his own flat to the Ossi indefinitely and move into the one-room apartment of his girlfriend and future wife. That East Berliner was there too, of course – along with others from the thousands who partied through the night on Kurfürstendamm on November 9, 1989. None of them could stop grinning as they recalled the joy of the right decisions they made that cumulatively changed history.

At the East Side Gallery, a small convoy of those putt-putt East German Trabis, with chassis repainted as spotted giraffes, defied today’s strict pollution laws as they started on their mock Africa Safari. At Bernauer Strasse, where the apartment buildings were in the Soviet zone and their sidewalks in the French zone, guides who were toddlers when the wall fell reran on their tablets the films from 1961 as the wall went up and firemen held trampolines for those who wanted to jump out their windows and escape to the West – first the mothers, then the children, finally the fathers. Plaques on the ground mark the underground tunnels that were laboriously dug out by hand to enable later escapes.

As the balloons were released by their child and adult patrons into the night sky one by one, beginning at the Brandenburg Gate and progressing toward both ends of the “border of light,” those of us jammed together on Bornholmer bridge or sitting above us on its old iron arches waited patiently for longer than it takes the S25 train to travel from Potsdamer Platz to Bornholmer Strasse. When we finally saw the first freed balloons in the distant sky, we cheered. And when our time came and the local patrons released the night’s last balloons right behind us, we erupted in shared jubilation.

By then we had bantered with the drunk in our midst who kept up a slurred patter. We had overheard snippets of life stories from 25 years ago. And we had celebrated life lived in a way that embraced and honored not only the victims of the Berlin Wall, but also the victims of Kristallnacht.

ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification (Brookings).


© Elizabeth Pond

The Day the Berlin Wall Really Fell

To understand what led to Germany’s reunification, look to the “City of Heroes”

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  November 3, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

Contrary to popular lore, the Berlin Wall did not fall on November 9, 1989. Nor did it fall in Berlin. It fell on October 9, some 120 miles away in Leipzig. First, civil courage – a rare quality in German history – had to dissolve the four-decade-old mental wall of East German fear. Only thereafter could the cement wall collapse in Berlin. Here is how it happened.

REUTERS Photographer

 When Valentine Kosch set out to join the Monday peace march in Leipzig on October 9, she expected to be shot by the massed East German security forces. She explained to her 6- and 3-year-old daughters that she was going to take a walk with friends so that teachers would be nicer to their pupils – an accurate enough description in her case. And she told her husband that if she did not return by 10 p.m., he should take their girls, move to Dresden, and start a new life there, where the two sisters would not be branded as children of an enemy of the state.

Like most East Germans in the decades after Soviet tanks suppressed the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953, Kosch was apolitical. Rather than fighting the constraints of the Communist system, she adapted to them, the better to shape her private sphere with a minimum of outside interference.

However, a few years earlier she had spontaneously introduced Montessori methods in the class she taught in the city school system. For this breach of the rules she had been demoted, in effect, to a classroom for special-needs children. She felt stifled by the rigidity of the educational bureaucracy. She was fed up.

The weekly peace vigils that Kosch joined had begun eight years earlier at the Nikolai Church in the medieval town center. It was just around the corner from the St. Thomas Church where Johann Sebastian Bach was once cantor, and where Martin Luther introduced the Protestant Reformation to Leipzig in 1539. The Monday peace prayers followed a joint call by young East and West German theologians for removal from German soil of both NATO and (more discreetly, if more daringly) Soviet nuclear weapons.

Christian Führer, one of the originators of the appeal, was then the new pastor at the Nikolai Church. He conceived of his mission as succoring all who came to him in need, whether believers or non-believers. He is still revered today as the unpretentious denim-jacketed hero of the 1989 transformation, one of those clerics who showed compassion for all, did not collaborate with the Stasi secret police, and conferred on the Protestant Church a moral authority that it alone possessed in the (East) German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Throughout the 1980s, the Nikolai peace vigils had attracted a loyal but tiny number of participants. In 1989 the ranks swelled exponentially as two separate strands of exasperation came together. The first movement consisted of modest reformers, like Kosch, who wanted to hold the GDR to its own constitution and laws and their provisions for fair elections and human rights. The second consisted of the growing number of East Germans who simply wanted to escape to the normality of West Germany’s casual freedom and opulence, in the wake of more than a hundred thousand compatriots who had in recent weeks abandoned country and possessions to flee west via Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

People in the two categories disdained each other, but Pastor Führer – while personally urging everyone to stay and build East Germany – opened the Nikolai haven to both persuasions. Indeed, he reconciled them to each other, in part through their common interest in his Monday updating of the list of those who shouted out their names as they were secretly hauled off to jail.

With our contemporary knowledge of the outcome, it is hard to recall just how much courage Kosch and her fellow marchers required 20 years ago to carry their candles on that disciplined hour-long walk around the old town, right past the Leipzig Stasi headquarters. At the time many in both East and West feared that although detente was blossoming in Europe, an anachronistic hard-line East German hierarchy could hang on for a long time (on the pattern, say, of North Korea today).

The Stasi – whose ranks maintained a much higher ratio in proportion to the population than Hitler’s Gestapo and SS ever enjoyed – still held tight control. And East German citizens still shared with the Bulgarians the reputation of being the most quiescent people in the Soviet bloc.

Moreover, there had been a nasty crackdown over the weekend. On October 7 and 8, security forces had detained several thousand demonstrators in Leipzig, Dresden, and East Berlin on the occasion of the GDR’s gala 40th anniversary. In Leipzig the watchdogs, tone-deaf to history, had even rehearsed plans to inter thousands of dissidents in new concentration camps. Hospitals had been stocked with extra blood plasma in preparation for a Monday-night clash, and Leipzigers knew it. The city’s security contingents, reinforced to 8,000 – only 2,000 short of the record turnout of 10,000 peace watchers the previous Monday – had been issued with live ammunition and ordered to use whatever means were required to suppress the “counterrevolution,” the most serious crime in the Communist books.

By all measures of the previous 36 years, this show of power should have sufficed to keep would-be marchers safely at home.

But what was the fallback if intimidation did not work this time? Throughout the day, as confrontation loomed, the Leipzig party leadership tried in vain to elicit new instructions from East Berlin party headquarters. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra director Kurt Masur, theologian Peter Zimmermann, deputy city party secretary Roland Wötzel, and three others hammered out an urgent appeal for nonviolence, to be read in all the churches and broadcast on radio. Marchers braced themselves to hold each other back from any rash action or reaction.

At 6 p.m., the hour the Nikolai congregation was to leave the church and walk around the inner city ring, the top Leipzig party secretary made one last desperate phone call to East Berlin, to Egon Krenz, the deputy and heir apparent to veteran strongman Erich Honecker. Krenz had risen as high as he had by never sticking his neck out. This night was no exception. He equivocated and said he would have to consult the others.

After Leipzig party secretary Helmut Hackenberg hung up the phone, “a very, very long time passed,” said Wötzel later, recalling the eternity of the next few minutes. Then Hackenberg asked his deputies, “What do we do now?” One shot by a jumpy 18-year-old in the ill-trained factory militia, or one step too far by an angry marcher – or a Stasi provocation – could have triggered an explosion.

Under the circumstances, it was marginally less risky to nullify sacrosanct standing orders than to dare bloodshed that their superiors might later blame on them. The junior secretaries urged Hackenberg to disengage the security forces. He did so, by deploying them instead to guard official buildings (which were never under any threat). The Leipzig officials fully expected to be expelled from the party for taking such forbidden local initiative.

Yet their wariness about the new mood on the street was justified. Not only were the 10,000 of the previous week not scared away. Astonishingly, they were joined by 60,000 others who also cast aside their fear and walked past Stasi headquarters chanting, “Wir sind das Volk.” “We are the people.”

Germany’s first successful revolution in history was bloodless. Horst Sindermann, Speaker of the GDR rubber-stamp “parliament”, famously admitted later, “We were ready for everything – everything except candles and prayers.”

As Pastor Führer commented in an interview, reflecting on that night: “We were afraid day and night, but we had the courage of our convictions. The Bible had taught us the power of peaceful protest and this was the only weapon we had. … It still moves me today to recall that in a secular country, the masses condensed the Beatitudes in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount into two words: No violence!”

Observant East Berliners and Eastern Europeans quickly realized that in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s new era, if enough demonstrators turned out, the security forces would not shoot. Within weeks the East German, Czech, Bulgarian, and Romanian Communist leaders were all deposed.

“For the first time in my life,” confided a forty-something West German who had long been inured to the shame of the German failure to resist Hitler in the 1930s or to establish a republic in 1848, “I’m proud to be a German.”

(This article originally appeared in the October 8, 2009 online edition of The Christian Science Monitor.)

ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification (Brookings).


© Elizabeth Pond