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East European Perspectives: September 5, 2001

5 September 2001, Volume 3, Number 15

By Michael Shafir

Much has been made in Romanian post-electoral commentaries of Corneliu Vadim Tudor's and the Greater Romania Party's (PRM) success with two categories of voters among whom their previous electoral performance was poor: Transylvanian voters and the young. Indeed, in 1996, the PRM had elected in Transylvania only two deputies and no senators. In 2000, no less that 26 out of the 84 PRM deputies came from Transylvania and the Banat, as did 15 of its 37 senators. Of the two regions' 101 deputies elected in 2000, in other words, one-fourth were PRM members representing now these economically most developed and traditionally most-westernized regions, and, out of a total of 43 senators representing Transylvania and the Banat, more than one in three represented the PRM (calculated from Mediafax, 28 November 2000 and "Monitorul oficial," 4 December 2000). Tudor himself managed to carry in the first presidential round 13 counties, of which eight were Transylvanian and -- as the ultimate insult for those pinning hopes on Romania's eventual "westernization" -- the Banat, whose Timisoara capital sparked the 1989 revolt against Nicolae Ceausescu.

These most unexpected electoral returns appeared to question the wisdom of analysts who tend to attribute "protest voting" to poverty. Whether it is right to jump to this conclusion is, however, questionable in turn. Multiple regression models employed by the Romanian Academic Society (SAR) Center for Political Communication on exit polls showed that not the Transylvanian and Banat electorate as a whole, but rather that part of the electorate made up by the unemployed and the graduates of medium and vocat ional schools -- in other words, again the frustrated -- backed the PRM and Tudor in the first presidential round. There was no difference between this Banat and Transylvanian backing and the high backing registered for Tudor in less-developed regions suc h as Dobrogea and Muntenia. What did, however, change between 1996 and 2000 was the increasing representation of this electoral segment in the voting structure as a whole (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2000 and 2001c). Yet if one bears in mind the findings of Francisco Veiga on the PRM social structure of before the 1996 elections (see "East European Perspectives," ["EEP"] Vol. 2, no. 16, 2000), it seems that one can speak of a significant shift in the character of the PRM-backing electorate. That electorate is no longer limited to the Ceausescu-era frustrated, but has added the backing of those whose frustration is mainly perceived as stemming from the post-communist changes. While the PDSR continues to carry the poorest strata in rural settlements -- the very-poorly educated and the elderly -- the PRM has managed to make important gains in urban areas, enlisting the support of the poor living in developed regions -- particularly men -- of those who are graduates of vocational schools or those with a secondary education, and, last but not least, of those inclined to perceive the world in "conspiracy theory" terms, blaming their misfortune on the West and on ethnic minorities in Romania proper (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001c, p. 251). In other words, one can expect that Tudor, who excels in "externalizing guilt" (see "EEP," Vol. 1, no. 3, 1999) will be able to not only preserve, but substantially expand his backing if the country's social and economic situation widens the existing polarization.

Also alarming, at first sight, is the large endorsement of the PRM and of Tudor in the first presidential round by the younger segment of the electorate. According to IMAS exit polls, the bulk of that backing came from those aged 18 to 44 ("Adevarul," 28 November 2000). Based on sensat ional live interviews with young voters, some analysts even concluded that students had massively endorsed the party led by Tudor. The "explanations" provided by the interviewees for having backed Tudor himself fittingly satisfied the need for sensational ism. Some simply said he was "mad" -- thus explaining their choice in anti-establishment terms. Others went even further, perversely stating that a Tudor and PRM victory would open Western gates for Romanian applicants for political asylum. It seems, however, that the perception that the younger generation had opted for extremism was superficial. The younger age brackets did, indeed, back the PRM and Tudor, but did so along the parameters previously mentioned. In other words, if one eliminates those aged 61 and over, who by-and-large backed the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), age played no significant role in determining the outcome of the vote. Among voters under the age of 61, support for the PRM increased as a function of the different factors of "frustration" mentioned above, rather than vice-versa. The better educated --and hence the students -- and the wealthier voted both against Tudor and Iliescu (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2000). It is simply that their proportion among the Romanian electorate declined from 1996 to 2000 and, again, what is worrying is that this drop is likely to continue. This does not mean that Tudor and the PRM have not made gains into some segments from the young and educated electorate. At a polling station in Cluj at which students make up the majority, the PRM registered the backing of 65 percent of those who voted (Karnoouh, 2001a). But this seems, for the time being, to be the exception, rather than the rule. Yet it is a "signaling-exception," bearing in mind the fact t hat in 1996 the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR) victory was in part due to its success to enlist the support of the younger and well-educated electorate (Shafir, 1997, p. 148).

At least part of the PRM's Transylvanian success, however, can also be explained in political terms. The disintegration and parliamentary disappearance of the Party of Romanian National Unity (PUNR) and the joining of the PRM by its most emblematic nationalist figure, Gheorghe Funar (see "EEP," Vol. 2, no. 20, 2000), has pr actically "transferred" the most militant nationalist ethnic Romanian electorate in Transylvania from the fold of the PUNR to that of the PRM, as shown by the over 44 percent support the PRM drew from the former PUNR electorate (see above). Viewed from this perspective, the magnitude of the PRM's 2000 electoral success is less impressive than rendered by comparing it with the party's 1996 performance. If one adds the PUNR's 1996 backing to that of the PRM, their combined forces slightly more than doubled in 2000, rather than increasing fourfold. With the PUNR's 4.2 percent 1996 backing in the Chamber of Deputies added to the PRM's 4.5 percent, for example, the endorsement of the PRM in 2000 (19.48 percent) is certainly alarming, but not devastatingly so.

This brings up the need to analyze from a closer angle the validity of that second approach to explaining the 2000 Romanian electoral outcome, which views it as reflecting the population's lack of democratic maturity. It would be just as foolish to dismi ss this approach on the basis of the above analysis, as it would be to disregard the impact on the elections of the "protest vote." In a survey conducted in March 2000, the SAR and Center for Rural and Urban Sociology (CURS) found that a majority of Roman ians (56 percent) are of the opinion that "international organizations such as the EU or IMF should not tell Romanians how to run their country;" that an even larger majority (62 percent) are persuaded that "there are groups within Romania which pose a threat to sovereignty;" and that a substantial minority of 41 percent believes that "there is a conflict between Romanians and Hungarians" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001b). This is precisely what Tudor has long been preaching. The sophisticated survey further posed the question of whether it is nationalist leaders who influence these perceptions, or rather the other way around, that is to say the perception of an existing conflict that determines people to place their trust in nationalist leaders. It found that the latter, rather than the former, is the determining factor, but that nationalist leaders "induce the perception of a stronger conflict than people would otherwise perceive themselves." In other words, in political communities with an imbued sense of nation alism, nationalist leaders are likely to exacerbate that sense. This may sound like "Columbus's Egg" but is, in fact, an important finding that very much rounds up the relevance of both approaches discussed above. In a nationalist-prone community, the "tr ansition" difficulties are likely to render credibility to those political leaders that combine the appeal to the "protest vote" with that entrenched in perceptions of "the other" in terms facilitating the "externalization of guilt." One approach does not rule out the other, but rather reinforces it. This is very much reflected in Mungiu-Pippidi's analysis of the 2000 electoral outcome. She concludes that the Iliescu and Tudor constituencies both share "collectivism and xenophobia." But in electoral year 2000 Tudor has managed to add to his "classic constituency of current and retired Army personnel and former secret service informants" new cohorts "in the urban areas":

"Multiple regression models on the vote as expressed by the exit poll by CURS show that Tudor is equally endorsed by every age group except the most aged (supporters of Ion Iliescu), males residing in relatively well-off areas and [the] medium educated, especially graduates of vocational schools. He was not voted for by intellectuals a nd entrepreneurs, but rather by the unemployed and the poor in small towns. In other words, Tudor is the favorite candidate of the poor in better off regions, of urban neighborhoods created by the communist economy and bankrupt by transition. These people feel strongly 'to have lost the transition,' (despite the fact that in objective terms Tudor's voters are richer than Iliescu's). Members of this group are endorsing most of Tudor's conspiracy theories and in general paranoiac political outlook, such as blame of the West and the ethnic minorities for Romania's trouble" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001c, pp. 250-251).

However, the PRM's 2000 electoral performance may also have benefited from an additional, and to a large extent, involuntary contribution. That contribution came from apparently pro-Western intellectuals who are on record as having time and time again attacked Tudor and served as his target, as well as from the media in which these intellectuals publish. The mutual abhorrence notwithstanding, a n ot insignificant segment of this category had been unwittingly legitimizing the political outlooks of Tudor and his likes by finding "hero models" in personalities such as wartime leader Marshal Ion Antonescu, whose crimes they belittled not as much out o f admiration for the marshal, but as part and parcel of the artificial "Holocaust-Gulag" dispute. Furthermore, their unbound admiration for such interwar extreme-right intellectuals such as Nae Ionescu, Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Constantin Noica, and ma ny others, their readiness to transform contemporary admirers of the Iron Guard into "respectable" intellectual figures whom they readily published and publicized in their "mainstream" journals, may, at the end of the day, have transformed the "Tudor option" into a more respectable alternative than it would have otherwise been the case. Bucharest University Political Science faculty dean George Voicu has incisively shown how the cult for Nae Ionescu translates into embracing undemocratic postures (Voicu, 2000a), and Voicu's courageous taking of positions against attempts to "banalize" the Holocaust (Voicu, 1998) triggered the wrath of many of those who count themselves among the enemies, rather than the supporters, of the PRM. Yet among those self-declared Tudor adversaries, as Voicu amply demonstrated, many often embraced shades of the "conspiracy theories" so oft-encountered among PRM supporters, as well as some of the party's less strident, latent anti-Semitic postures (Voicu, 2000 b, 2000c).

In the absence of quantified data, these observations must, of course, remain impressionistic. But it was rather amusing to find Antonescu-apologist Alexandru Paleologu among the signatories of a "stop Tudor" appeal signed by pro-Western intellectuals after the first round of the presidential elections. In 1998, Paleologu had called for a "short-term dictatorship" to heal the country's corruption (as Tudor did on several occasions) (see "22," no. 49, 5-12 December 2000). And Paleologu's was not the only, and perhaps not even the most important name on the list. Several other signatories to the appeal had authored dubious articles or made controversial statements in interviews carried by the "mainstream" media in the last few years.

To call for voting for the "lesser evil," Ion Iliescu, after the first presidential round was undoubtedly a rational choice, and one must not belittle the personal costs involved in an appeal to cast the ballot for a candidate largely perceived as the personal embodiment of "neo-com munism" by the majority of the signatories. But the choice itself might have been avoided with some foresight that was sadly absent. While Gabriel Liiceanu would not tire from publishing at his Humanitas Publishing House the works of legionary sympathizer Petre Tutea, on the eve of the ballot the Petre Tutea Association and the revived Legionary Movement itself were organizing at the Students' House in central Bucharest a conference under the Logos "Let Us Punish Our Leaders"-- in other words precisely wh at Tudor and his PRM had been calling for (Campeanu, 2001a).

While in the 26 November presidential leg Tudor scored 28.34 percent, in the runoff -- when turnout was even lower, 57.5 percent -- he managed 33.17 percent. Iliescu, on the other hand, increas ed his electoral backing from 36.35 to 66.83 percent ("Cronica romana," 1-2 December 2000 and Mediafax, 12 December 2000). Unlike the first round, when the PRM leader came first in 13 counties, on 10 December he managed to carry only one county. Expectedly, he claimed that this proved that the electoral contest had been rigged, calling it "the greatest fraud of the 20th century," and unsuccessfully contested its outcome before the Constitutional Court. Iliescu's victory, he said, was the "victory of Anti-Christ" (Romanian Radio, 12 December 2000 and "Romania mare," 15 December 2000). To what extent was this outcome influenced by the above-mentioned appeal of Romanian intellectuals is, in the absence of hard data, again difficult to establish. It is more l ikely that the appeal's impact was marginal, or, at best, it had a cumulative effect. Following the 26 November result, the media had -- with the notable exception of journalist Ion Cristoiu -- unequivocally presented Tudor as an "extremist" whose electio n would signify Romania's outcast by the international community. In addition, Iliescu had wisely refused to debate Tudor, thus depriving the "Tribune" of his most important asset. But above all, the electorate had sent a clear message on 26 November, and was possibly scared by its own audacity.

One is rather surprised to find Mungiu-Pippidi dismissing the possible link between "preference for Noica and Cioran, and the vote for Vadim Tudor [which are] two phenomena of completely different origins, the su pporters of which are not only different, but also irreconcilable" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001a). The former may well be, as she puts it, "largely an intellectual phenomenon." Yet not only the saga of interwar Romania, with many of its most brilliant intellectu als undergoing "rhinocerization" and becoming fervent admirers of the Iron Guard, but also the contribution to the largely undemocratic climate that prevailed in the country in the fourth and fifth decade of the last century by intellectuals who did not n ecessarily join the guard or even became its ultimate victims (like Nicolae Iorga), and whose roots can be traced to Greater Romania's nation-building process launched after 1918, makes the distinction between the "two groups of supporters" far from "irre concilable" in historical perspective (Volovici, 1991; Ornea, 1995; Livezeanu, 1995).

Mungiu-Pippidi can certainly not be counted among the admirers of such authoritarian inclinations. Her remarks, however, must be read in the context of intellectual "a ffinity groups" whose structures defy simplistic explanations and call for a "sociology of knowledge" approach that is beyond the purpose of this article. Suffice it to mention that the affinities are strong enough to make even some of the most democratic Romanian intellectuals blind to the distinction recently made by Henry C. Carey 2001) -- following Israel W. Charny (2000) -- between "innocent" and "malevolent" Holocaust denial in Romania. "Mutatis mutandis," one can argue in favor of distinguishing be tween "innocent" and "malevolent" supporters of radical return postures in general, with "innocence" being large enough to include not only lack of familiarity with historical fact, but also attitudes deriving from militant anti-Left positions. Mungiu was coming to the defense of Liiceanu -- like herself, a member of the highly heterogeneous Group for Social Dialogue -- and explicitly argued against a "Letter to My Romanian Friends" published by Romanian-born Hungarian philosopher Gaspar Miklos Tamas, in which Liiceanu figured rather prominently. Implicitly, the argument was also directed at George Voicu, the Bucharest University's Political Science faculty's dean, whose criticism of Liiceanu's positions had earlier caused an uproar (see "EEP," Vol. 3, no. 7; Shafir, 2000, pp. 74-76; and Gheorghiu, 2001).

Tamas's long "letter" cannot be summarized without doing it injustice (Tamas, 2001). Despite numerous factual errors (wholly exploited by his "respondents" in their replies), Tamas made, basically, som e very pertinent arguments. Among other things, he wrote that post-Communist postures presenting Ceausescu as being merely an "accidental product" of a basically pro-Soviet regime ignore the deeply entrenched extreme nationalism of that regime, whose "National-Bolshevik" roots were "at least as fascist as they were communist, if not more so." He also insisted that while [genuine] Marxism had been, for all practical purposes, forbidden in Ceausescu's Romania, the fascist intellectual legacy was encouraged and promoted and that young Romanian intellectuals at the time were incapable of identifying with, or grasping the essence of, such "New Left" dissident postures as those encountered in neighboring Hungary and elsewhere in the former bloc. Tamas might have exaggerated when writing that among Romanian writers of his generation (he was born in 1948) "everyone was a supporter of the Iron Guard." But basically his argument was correct, in the sense that, what I called "radical continuity" and "radical return" postures (see "EEP," Vol. 1, no. 1, 1999) largely fill post-Communist Romania's political-intellectual space. "To this very date," he wrote, Romania's intellectuals belonging to the generation of the 1989 revolution "are [unilaterally] preoccupied by the spiritual exegesis of the Iron Guard." Noting that he is no "intellectual puritan" and does not contest the fact that interwar Romanian authors of the likes of Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, or Constantin Noica are "important authors," Tamas added that the intellectual satisfaction produced by reading authors such as Carl Schmidt or Louis-Ferdinand Celine "does not mean that I do not know who are the enemies of constitutional-liberal democracy, of liberty, equality and fraternity."

"Meeting, at one stag e, Gabriel Liiceanu -- perhaps the most influential theoretician among Romania's contemporary writers -- at the Frankfurt book fair, I asked him whether he intends to entrench Romanian liberal democracy on the writings of [Martin] Heidegger, Noica, or Cio ran. He replied with a joke, but in fact, did not answer. How do you, dear Romanian friends, wish to criticize Vadim Tudor's fascism, as long as your spiritual wells, which never underwent criticism, being in fact placed in the realm of the untouchable, a re the same as his?...You claim that "this animal," Vadim Tudor, is a boor. Is high-quality, refined, and elegant fascism better?...The political line promoted by Tudor undoubtedly has its roots in the articles published by Cioran, Eliade, and Noica in th e interwar and wartime period, just as the philosophy of his sworn enemies stems from essays by the very same Cioran, Eliade, and Noica...What reply can my Romanian friends offer to Tudor, as long as they have been conspicuously silent when Antonescu stat ues are being unveiled, when in nearly every Romanian town streets are named after Antonescu, when the past of Hungarians, Jews, Phanariote Greeks [in Romania] is glossed over in silence? Are you, my dear Romanian friends, respecting Antonescu more correc tly than Vadim Tudor does?"

The questions posed by Tamas cannot be easily dismissed. Mungiu-Pippidi may be right in the sense that no direct translation of radical return postures into electoral behavior favoring radical continuity parties such as th e PRM can be assumed. However, electoral behavior is seldom a cause and effect relationship. It undergoes the mediation of multiple factors, and the often unconscious contribution of intellectuals to making the "unacceptable" into the "salonfaehig" is even less seldom the outcome of a well-defined, singularly focused, let alone joint political program. As the sociologist Andras Kovacs has shown when studying the case of Hungary, anti-Semitism, and undemocratic postures in general, are likely to remain on the margins of society as long as their idiom and world-outlook do not penetrate "mainstream" programs and publications (Kovacs, 2000). Intellectuals may therefore turn into "socializers" of ethnocentric values and belief-systems even when pursuing a seem ingly opposite political agenda.

The reactions in Romania to Tamas's article illustrate this point well. Most of these reactions were positive -- but at the same time, the bulk of positive response came from Jews (Campeanu, 2001a; Cornea, 2001; Ornea, 20 01;) or ethnic Hungarians (Selyem, 2001; Biro, 2001), though they probably responded without any conscious separate ethnic identity in mind. Though there were exceptions to this general pattern (Iorgulescu, 2001; Pecican 2001; Ionita, 2001. See also Karnoouh, 2001 and Costin, 2001, for a different perspective), the negative response came precisely from the side that had been the direct or indirect addressee of Tamas's "letter." Thus, Orthodox theoretician and Romania's ambassador to the Vatican under the CDR, Theodor Baconsky, attributed to Tamas the rather commonplace label of a Leftist allegedly out to rehabilitate Stalinist crimes, though this was nowhere reflected in the Hungarian philosopher's "letter." Baconsky concluded that "it is not Mr. G. M. Ta mas, who, from where he lives is called to solve the problems of Romania's post-Communist intellectual legacy," expressing at the same time the hope that Romania's intellectuals "will gradually become 'reactionary' enough to be no longer satisfied with wh at they once had been" (Baconsky, 2001). These were strange, if not wholly surprising, echoes of conservative and radical right attacks on Tamas by his Hungarian critics, who often emphasize that the philosopher is a Jew born outside Hungary itself. Forme r Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu -- a Liiceanu-friend and fellow-disciple of Constantin Noica -- fully avoided to address the main points raised by Tamas, concentrating instead on his rather numerous factual errors. None of those errors, however, significantly diminished the relevance of Tamas's argument, as Cornea (2001) pointed out. The title of Plesu's article was in itself telling --"Amicus Tamas" signifying the well-known saying attributed to Aristotle "Amicus Plato, sed magis veritas" (Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is the truth).

Even more condescending than Plesu was Eliade-admirer Nicolae Manolescu (see "EEP," Vol. 3, no. 7, 2001). Right after the 2001 elections Manolescu had appeared to engage in a sudden, self-introspective re-examination of the common ground shared by Eliade's interwar pro-Iron Guard articles and the PRM-disseminated propaganda (Manolescu, 2000a), going as far as to call on his peers "not be shy of recognizing the mistakes we have all made" (Manolescu, 2000b). It was a position that would not last long. For Manolescu, Tamas was now nothing but a reincarnation of a classic ridiculous stage character in one of playwright Ion Luca Caragiale's most famous plays -- Master Leonida. Like Leonida, Tamas was facing imagined "reactionaries" and combating ideas whose essence he failed to grasp. Viewing the "tragicomic ascent" of Tudor in post-Communist political life as having roots in Ceausescu's Romania, and, furthermore, in interwar Romania, Tamas was "confusing the Right with the Extreme Right, Liberalism with Fascism." He was, in other words, doing precisely what the Communists had been indulging into in the 1950s, when "the Left, monopolized by the Communists, was viewing the Right as being a monopoly of Fascism." If he, Man olescu, is willing to grant Tamas the "right to be a man of the Left without considering him to be a Communist, let him also accept my right to be a Rightist without being a Fascist." Manolescu was thus returning to his pre-November 2000 postures. Admitting, however, that Eliade, Cioran, and Noica had embraced radical postures, Manolescu reminded Tamas that the three philosophers, as well as their mentor, Nae Ionescu, had encountered the opposition of Romanian democratic intellectuals. But at no point in his polemical response did Manolescu pose the question why many such democratic intellectuals had ended in the radical right camp, their initial democratic postures notwithstanding. Verging on the ridiculous, the literary critic who until recently had bee n a prominent member of the National Liberal Party (PNL) leadership, proceeded to exemplify the "struggle against extremism" by producing a list of intellectual publications, arguable in itself, in which he placed "last but not least," his own "Romania li terara." These publications, he claimed, had always reacted "in a liberal and democratic spirit" against both right-wing and left-wing extremism. Whence, he wondered, did Tamas take the idea that all and any contemporary Romanian intellectual is a "posthu mous fan of Marshal Antonescu?" (Manolescu, 2001). To wonder whether Manolescu read some of the articles in the publication whose "director" he was would not have been enough. One had to wonder as well whether he had read many of the editorials he authore d and published in "Romania literara" since the end of 1995 (see "EEP," Vol. 3, no. 7, 2001).

In lieu of conclusion, one must emphasize again that both approaches to explaining the 2000 Romanian electoral outcome are valid, and that none of the two null ifies the other. The runoff in the presidential contest showed that Corneliu Vadim Tudor had exhausted his electoral backing for now. In 2004 the outcome might be very different. After all, the electoral map that emerged after the elections, with a PDSR m inority government willy-nilly supported by other parliamentary formations, whether explicitly (the case of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania), temporarily (the case of the PNL and the Democratic Party) or implicitly, leaves Tudor as the only voice of the opposition. It is a role in which he excels and is likely to do most of. Furthermore, the postelectoral evolution of both the PNL and the Democratic Party as formations courting nationalism attests not only to the poverty of what post-Commun ist Romanian political elites are able to offer the electorate, but also is doomed to fail. Not, unfortunately, because the idea has necessarily been discredited, but because it has been successfully monopolized by a PRM ably combining it with postures of social protest.

*An earlier and shorter version of this article was presented at a seminar at RFE/RL 's Washington bureau on 27 February. I dedicate this article to the memory of Professor Ivan Volgyes, who tragically died in a plane crash in Hungary on 14 June.


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Voicu, G., 2000c, Zeii cei rai: Cultura conspiratiei in Romania postcomunista [The Bad Gods: Conspiracy Culture in Post-Communist Romania], (Iasi: Polirom).

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"22" (Bucharest), 2000.