BUCHAREST -- One of Romania’s best-known intellectuals' involvement in a controversy over a racist depiction of Roma is seen as symbolic of a larger problem with racism in the country.
Vladimir Tismaneanu, an acclaimed Eastern European scholar at the University of Maryland, posted a meme late on April 10 in which Roma were compared to crows, a widely used, derogatory expression in Romanian for Roma and Africans.
A Facebook post by Romanian-American Tismaneanu and the reactions to it exposed the prevalence of anti-Romany racism in Romania and the prejudice faced by the minority, of which an estimated 600,000 to 1 million live in Romania.
Tismaneanu called a photo of a group of crows sitting on a fence with an inference to them being Roma "very cool." He later deleted the post, saying he didn't understand the racist connotations because he doesn't "live in Romania," from where he defected in 1981.
On April 11, he issued a full apology in English on his Facebook page for the “racist, inappropriate, and most importantly, hurtful meme I posted yesterday.” Tismaneanu has been a contributor to RFE/RL's Romanian Service since 1983 and currently writes a weekly blog for its website.
"I know there are no magic words to fix the pain I have caused," Tismaneanu told RFE/RL on April 14, adding that he was "open to working with those active in the [Romany] community about how to combat hate, intolerance, and bigotry…. I will learn from this mistake and I hope the reaction has shown others that these sorts of jokes are not funny and hurtful to many."
"Racism is absolutely still rampant in Romanian society, as it is worldwide," he said. "If there is one positive from this situation, it's that the conversation is now being had in public."
One leading Romany expert said the episode had lifted a lid on the widespread racism that she says exists in Romania.
“It is not an accident that the anti-Romany racism manifests itself so brutally, both inhumanly and primitively, in all possible circles of our society,” Margareta Matache, director of the Romany program at the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, told RFE/RL on April 14.
“Romania has not made a break with its anti-Romany past and the sins of the enslavement and the Holocaust,” she said. “Many Romanians, from writers to policymakers, journalists, medical doctors, and teachers continue to embrace and practice, implicitly -- and most often explicitly -- anti-Romany racism.”
Europe's leading human rights organization, the Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), also cited evidence of such behavior in Romania.
It said in a June 2019 report that "racist and intolerant hate speech in public discourse and on the Internet has become a widespread problem, mainly targeting Roma, the Hungarian minority, LGBT persons, and the Jewish community."
It added that "violent attacks" against those groups occur sporadically and that the organization is "concerned about alleged cases of racial discrimination and racial profiling by the police, notably against Roma."
The ECRI concluded that Romania's National Strategy for the Inclusion of Romanian Citizens Belonging to the Roma Minority, begun in 2015, has had "little impact so far."
Before his apology, Tismaneanu received support from other Romanian intellectuals.
Some of them leapt to his defense, recalling he had faced anti-Semitic slurs in the past and had also been subjected to intense criticism while heading the 2006 Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania.
But there was little regard online for the Roma who are often seen as a fair target in Romania.
“The argument that 'he led the communism committee and condemned his father therefore he cannot be racist'...just shows how little 'intellectuals' understand about racism in Romania in the first place,” tweeted Simina Dragos, a supporter of Romany activism and integration, on April 11.
Support For Tismaneanu
Writer Mircea Cartarescu and historian Andrei Oisteanu defended Tismaneanu.
Others noted that he had not ever been cited for racism in any of his prolific writings over several decades and had also written in support of Romany rights.
Cartarescu said his post was “careless,” something that doesn’t characterize him, and called his apology “a noble gesture which many aren’t capable of.” He called Tismaneanu’s critics "Pharisees."
“Cartarescu took a very elitist and offensive approach, claiming that those who critiqued Tismaneanu were people who had nothing to say in the world. It almost brings us back to the master-enslaved mindset, as they see us, Roma, as too less of a people to claim or deserve their apology,” Matache said.
Csaba Asztalos, chairman of Romania's National Antidiscrimination Council, told RFE/RL on April 16 that the organization had received complaints from three or four nongovernmental organizations and the Roma Party about Tismaneanu's April 10 post.
He said he had written to Tismaneanu seeking an explanation. After the organization receives that, he said, it will issue a ruling.
He told RFE/RL that he welcomed Tismaneanu's apology.
The offensive Facebook post cited the southeastern Romanian city of Tandarei, where there is a large population of Roma, showing a dozen crows on a fence with the caption "Tandarei Airport: All flights are cancelled."
It was initially published on Facebook by Denisa Comanescu, a director-general at Romania’s largest publishing house, Humanitas.
Both she and Tismaneanu were criticized for their actions by the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. Like Tismaneanu, Comanescu issued an apology for "not realizing" the racism in the post.
WATCH: Sri Lankan Breadmakers Spark Anger In Romanian Village
The University of Bucharest, where Tismaneanu is the coordinator of the Hannah Arendt Center for Totalitarian Research, said it “distanced itself from the public position expressed by Professor Vladimir Tismaneanu.”
“Defending human dignity, the fight against xenophobia and racism, the defense of individual liberties are some of the nonnegotiable values which are part of the activity of the academic community of our university,” it wrote.
Matache noted that “both Tismaneanu and Comanescu allowed racist justifications from other 'intellectuals' on their Facebook accounts after they issued apologies.”
Tismaneanu, 68, is director of the University of Maryland’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies. He has written numerous articles and books on Stalinism, the communist period in Romania, nationalism, and the Soviet Union.
Romania received some ugly headlines in February when some 1,800 people in the northern village of Ditrau signed a petition against an "immigrant inflow" after a bakery hired two Sri Lankan men to make bread.
An angry city council meeting ensued with many racist statements made.
The men -- said by an Antena 1 report on April 13 to be learning both Romanian and Hungarian -- continue to work at the bakery.