On travelling to the mining region of the Jiu Valley in Romania earlier this year, I found myself once more facing a difficulty that had become familiar to me in a decade of reporting from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: how to reconcile my sense of shock at the misery and deprivation of the people about whom I was writing with my conviction that few of their demands, which mostly came down to a plea for things to stay as they were, could or even should be granted. It was a conviction born of witnessing the futile struggles of people suddenly exposed to the pressures of ‘globalisation’ after the collapse of the Communist economies which failed to shield them from it.

There are of course different views, often passionately held and argued for, about how to run the world economy. The debates are usually conducted by American professors of economics, with guest appearances by George Soros. The differences between them, however, are quite minor because everyone seems to agree that there is no fundamental alternative to globalisation. And it is because of this absence of an alternative that refusal or reluctance to adapt on the part of national or local leaderships can look like stupidity or cowardice to outsiders like myself – reporters from rich countries. Such reactions may be disguised, even for the purpose of deceiving oneself, but I believe they form the deep structure, the hidden wiring, the bias of Western reporting.

Journalists may rail against a particular government, or the Americans, or the IMF, and either say or imply that with a larger imagination, or a stronger political will, or a less slavish devotion to the cause of capitalism, things could be transformed, but if we know one large thing after the fall of Communism, it is that there is no such thing as a transformation, or at least not one accomplished with consent. A new world order can be imagined in which aid is carefully targeted and well used, conflicts are resolved early and decisively, and human rights are protected equally everywhere. Indeed, such a fantasy is implicit in much of the criticism of Western projects, from massive lending programmes in Russia to Nato bombing in Serbia. But it is a fantasy. There is no ‘order’ in the sense of a settled system. There are the remnants of Bretton Woods and the Cold War, on the one hand, and a range of Western policy aims, on the other: integrate Europe, reform the former Soviet Union, cope with China, ignore Africa. US hegemony and military force underpin a capricious stability and USconsumption presently provides an economic motor for the developed world. But this situation is fragile and full of constraints, some of them placed there by the democratic process itself, which allow little more than the grudging, cautious, post-facto interventions of the kind we now have.

By and large, those of us who report on foreign affairs outside the wealthy countries are guilty men and women who get guiltier as we get older and more experienced, less sure of how to roll up the experience and send it back to base with a satisfying thump. Instead, one is left standing before a scene, or a narrative, in indecision and irritation with oneself, anxious still to get it right, but more and more aware that getting it right is a goal which recedes as fast as you try to approach it.

I planned to visit the Jiu Valley to find out why the Romanian miners, under the leadership of Miron Cozma, had done more than any other group to oppose the process of economic reform in the country. Twice – in 1990 and 1991 – the miners had come to Bucharest; they had rampaged through the streets, attacking anyone who looked as though they might be an intellectual – i.e. anyone who had glasses or a beard or a briefcase. Opinions vary as to whether or not they were directly encouraged by the President, Ion Iliescu; what is certain is that, after the 1991 riots, the Prime Minister, Petre Roman, was forced to resign because his economic programme had been ruined by promises made to the miners that the system of state ownership would remain largely undisturbed. Iliescu had wanted Roman out. Virgilu Magureanu, head of the secret police under Iliescu and now a security consultant in Bucharest, told me that Cozma had come to meet Roman in August 1991, but had been refused an audience after waiting for hours. ‘He was furious; I calmed him down and talked of the difficulties in financing the valley. But I concluded, and later told Iliescu, that an uprising was possible. But nothing was done. Roman was supposed to go to the Valley and talk to the miners but he didn’t.’

Between 1991 and 1997, little happened by way of economic reform. But in 1997 Iliescu, leader of the Social Democrats, was replaced as President by Emil Constantinescu, a former rector of Bucharest University, who committed his government to a path of reform, and the IMF approved a schedule of lending.

None of the 13 mining complexes in the Jiu Valley was closed; but a programme was put in place which paid any miner who opted for early retirement 20 months’ salary in a lump sum – a very large temptation, given that miners’ wages were already much higher than the national average. The new government, led by Prime Minister Radu Vasile, also slated two of the biggest loss-makers for closure and dictated tough limits on wages for the miners in the end-of-year bargaining round. The miners protested, and threatened action. The Industry Minister said that if Cozma put his demands to him, he would throw him out of his office. The Interior Ministry said that Cozma faced a range of charges, including assault and undermining the power of the state, arising from the demonstrations of 1991. Details of pay were published to show how much higher the miners’ wages were than those of the rest of the population.

Cozma knew that a challenge was being made, and responded by mobilising his miners; estimates as to how many he got out range from ten thousand to thirty thousand from a total of around a hundred thousand. They began a march on Bucharest 200 kilometres away; near the town of Riminu Viclea, they were stopped by lines of militia. A confused battle broke out, with the miners having the best of the day; the officer commanding the militia, General Lupu, departed, leaving his troops leaderless, and the miners were able to continue their march. ‘In a state like Romania now, there is a great mass of people who are discontented because of their economic position,’ Magureanu said of the incident. ‘That includes the police forces. The troops had been kept outside in the cold and had not been fed for many hours. There were cases of miners giving food to them. When the state is unstable there is discontent at every level; there is no consensus on what to do; and the officers think they will be blamed for what happens, especially if the opposition comes back to power, as happened after the revolution, when those generals who continued to support Ceausescu to the end were dismissed.’

Vasile then decided to intervene. He asked for a meeting with Cozma at the nearby Kozia monastery, and there, in the presence of Cozma’s personal confessor, thrashed out an agreement which withdrew the threat to close the pits in return for a promise that the miners’ union would itself undertake to cut the losses by 20 per cent a year, thus making the pits profitable in five years: a worthless undertaking, given the dramatic slump in demand for coal from the Valley (from 13 million tonnes in the Eighties to three million today) and the steeply rising costs of equipment.

Vasile’s agreement was seen by the opposition parties – Iliescu’s Social Democrats, especially – as a collapse in state authority, and thus a victory. There was no agreement that the march on Bucharest constituted a threat to the state: indeed, Ioan Mircea, a senior member of Iliescu’s party and chairman of the Parliament’s Armed Forces and Security Committee, said that ‘the Government completely misjudged the miners and their capabilities. It also misjudged the Interior Ministry’s forces and their morale. After all, why should they fight? Their budget is being cut very severely.’

After seeing Mircea in his office – the Romanian Parliament is housed in a small part of the vast, still uncompleted palace which Ceausescu was having built for himself when he was deposed and then killed in December 1989 – I took the train up to the Jiu Valley. It jolted and squealed north to the city of Brasov, then west through the Transylvanian Alps to Petrosani, the central town in the Valley. It was after midnight when we arrived; a late-night kiosk had some bread and chocolate; the hotel was surly, cold and dingy. Yet from my bedroom window, in the lamplight and the snow, the town seemed quite Christmas-card romantic; mountains rose all around, and the squalor was softened by the presence of a surprising number of churches, Christian and Orthodox, most of them built before the First World War, in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I had expected to be received rapidly and enthusiastically by Cozma. I was the only foreign reporter in town; I was writing for the Financial Times, a paper whose name is now recognised almost everywhere; I had made the journey and done my homework. Three years before, Cozma had given Virginia Marsh, then the FT correspondent in Bucharest, a long interview, as well as serving her and her companions dinner in his flat, personally bringing the dishes to the table in high Transylvanian style. I had assumed I would be treated in like manner.

Around midday on the day after I arrived, Cozma held a press conference in the miners’ hall opposite his two-storey office building, next to the offices of the Romanian National Mining Company. The hall was packed with reporters; Cozma kept us waiting about fifteen minutes, then came in quickly, surrounded by aides. His appearance was a shock. He looked like an Italian football star a bit past his prime; with slightly arrogant Latin good looks and long brown hair swept back and curled carefully in a bushy mass behind his ears. His suit was fashionably baggy, though unfashionably three-piece, and his tie was fashionably bold. At the start a suppressed impatience contributed to his air of authority, but he seemed to be having some trouble keeping calm as a couple of leaders of the Revolutionary Organisations – self-styled keepers of a revolutionary conscience which, in this instance, seemed to mean support for the miners against a reactionary government in thrall to the IMF – dragged out their introductory speeches.

Cozma himself didn’t speak: he ranted, barely acknowledging the questions of the reporters. He said his opponents accused him of being a Communist, even a secret service agent: but that was slander, because the Jiu Valley miners had been the first to oppose Ceausescu’s rule. He talked about the charges against him, and said that the court which had been convened to try him was corrupt, and under the influence of the Government: ‘I don’t trust the justice here. It’s political justice delivered through a court. If they accuse the miners of beating people and destroying property, they must prove I did, and I did not. We are now accused of undermining state power once more by marching on Bucharest last month. But if we wanted to undermine state power why stop at Riminu Vilcea? I met the Prime Minister and we solved together the two small matters of the Dicja and Barabateni’ – the two pits threatened with closure. ‘When the Prime Minister agreed with Cozma, we went home.’

He often spoke of himself in the third person – ‘Cozma would never do that’ or ‘Cozma always does this’ – and sometimes represented himself as a Christ-like figure: ‘From the moment I arrived at the monastery to speak to the Prime Minister they knew I was a true believer. They even brought my father confessor there, who is a bishop . . . The monks there helped the discussion between me and the Prime Minister to stay calm; you cannot allow yourself to be disturbed. I plan to build a church in honour of St Barbara’ – the miners’ patron saint – ‘it will be dedicated to all the miners of the Jiu Valley.’

At the end of the press conference, I hung about until he was free of other petitioners, and asked for an interview. He smiled expansively, and said of course. I also asked if I could go down a pit; he beckoned, and two miners came up, literally running. ‘Arrange it with them,’ he said. In fact, the arrangement had to be made through the coal company; although the miners’ union has the kind of power the National Union of Mineworkers used to have in this country, the management has not lost total control.

Early the next morning, I went to the Vulcan mine, 15 kilometres from Petrosani. I had seen some Ukrainian and Russian mines over the past six years, and this one was in a similar state: the surface was littered with discarded and rusting machinery, the miners’ showers and changing facilities were primitive, only the administration bloc was kept to a reasonable standard. The manager, Emanoil Golgotiu, a calm, precise man in his late thirties, described what was in effect the slow death of his pit. He said he needed at least 16 billion lei (£1 = c.7000 lei) to keep it working over the next year, and he expected at best half that; it would mean shutting more of the workings. Cozma, he said, had concentrated power at the centre of his union, choked off any dissent and put men loyal to him in the leadership of each pit. Managers’ power was not much less than it had been in Ceausescu’s day (though he added that he carried no flags for Ceausescu): though the Party had been nominally in control, it had surrendered much of its day-to-day power to the technocracy, who made the decisions and effectively got much of the investment they needed. Now, they were trapped between rapidly falling demand and investment and a union which prevented them from managing and over which there was no political control. For example, the pit worked four six-hour shifts five days a week; it would cut costs drastically to work three eight-hour shifts six days a week, but the union vetoed it and nothing could be done. ‘There is opposition to Cozma,’ he said, ‘even a large one, including here. Only 300 of the 1900 miners went on the last march; the others didn’t want to go and stayed at home. But these are men with families; they won’t speak out. They just watch.’

Underground, the broad roadways leading away from the shaft were badly kept up, blocked here and there by piles of unused machinery. They grew narrower as we approached the faces. At one point, we had to squeeze past a motor driving the coal conveyor whose flywheels were unguarded – and inches from our faces. At another, we had to step on the conveyor when it stopped in order to get over to a new tunnel. Had it started (and there seemed no way of ensuring it would not) we would have been carried down the shaft. The main face was reached by climbing up slimy wooden ladders to a steeply sloping gallery, where a score or more men were shovelling coal onto the conveyor, having loosened it by detonation a little earlier. The only lights in the galleries were their helmet lamps; they worked naked but for underpants and boots. They stared at me dully: another bloody intellectual (though without a beard or glasses).

Back in Petrosani, I went to see Mihai Barbu, the editor of the four-page daily paper, Matinal, who treated me like visiting royalty. We spoke in French, which made us both feel cultivated. When, in January, Cozma was threatening to march, Barbu went to Bucharest and interviewed Prime Minister Vasile ‘about the real problems of the area and about what to do with the mines, which included a humane way of closing many of them. When we came back from Bucharest, we published a picture of Vasile and me in his office, with the caption: “This is the interior of Radu Vasile’s office which Miron Cozma will never see.” We wrote: “You don’t give an ultimatum to the Prime Minister. There are many people in the Jiu Valley who know how to speak to the Prime Minister of our country in a civilised way.”’ Barbu and his colleagues told Vasile and other ministers about the anarchy in the Valley. ‘We asked why don’t you arrest him? They said: well, the justice department is weak up there, no one dares. We said: we sit 200 metres from the miners’ offices with three pencils and we oppose him; why can’t you?’

However forceful and courageous Barbu seemed, there was little in what he said to support radical moves against the miners. The whole place existed on vast subsidies: electricity cost virtually nothing (1000 lei a month for an entire apartment building) and much of the industry linked to the mines was kept going at a loss. The miners who had taken the 20 months’ redundancy payment usually spent it in a splurge: outside, in the grim little town. A ‘Las Vegas casino’, many bars and shops stacked with Japanese TVs attested to the consumption boom. It is also a very small world. Matinal’s sports editor said he met Cozma every Sunday at the local football club, whose chairman is Cozma’s brother. ‘We stand together and Cozma insults me bitterly,’ he said. A policeman arresting Cozma would have difficulty in keeping him in jail or getting him out of the Valley: rather like the lonely figure in 3.10 to Yuma, who arrested the area’s chief hoodlum, he would have to face the active hostility of Cozma’s supporters and the passivity of the rest.

I got on so well with the editor of Matinal because we pretended to see each other as colleagues, and congratulated each other profusely, assisted by a language which lends itself to flowery compliments. He said he was ‘très gratifié d’avoir fait la connaissance d’un correspondant du journal le plus distingué de l’Europe.’ I said that I was ‘également gratifié d’avoir fait la connaissance d’un rédacteur qui avait suivi ses principes avec un tel courage.’ He asked me to write a message for his tenth-anniversary issue, and I filled it with similar sentiments. They were sincerely meant: he was a straightforward and bold man as far as I could tell, but I could not read his language and I had no idea how lonely or dangerous his stand was. While I was there, he took a call from Carol Schetter, the Mayor, whom I had met previously and who had also seemed a steady, decent individual, if much more cautious in his opposition to Cozma. Evidently there was a network in the town which wanted to see Cozma’s downfall, and which, given the direction of politics in Bucharest, probably had more power than he did, despite the appearance he gave of almost dictatorial control.

A few days after I left, the miners marched again. They were fewer this time and Cozma was arrested en route. A court had already decided he was guilty of undermining the state, and he received 18 years; he is likely to appeal. There has been no explosion in the Jiu Valley – at least, not yet. In the brief interview I finally got with Cozma, just an hour before the train back to Bucharest, which I had to catch if I wanted to slot back into my life in the West, he spent the time once more speaking in great bursts of self-justification, rummaging through files to show me letters of support from other trade-union leaders, or ordinary Romanians, and in one case a French Trotskyist organisation. Yet he was also perfectly correct in many things he said: about corruption in the ruling élite; about a justice system which served the powers that be; about an administration which couldn’t make up its mind whether to support mining in the Valley properly or to develop a robust system of assistance and retraining while reducing it. He spoke in a small, dark, well-furnished office, with football trophies on a stand to his right and a TV tuned to MTV. At the end, when I had to cut him short to dash to the station, he said in English in response to my thanks: ‘It’s my pleasure, sir.’

During the 48 hours I spent in the Jiu Valley I was more conscious than I had ever been in the past of my distance from the events and people in front of me. Though I have less experience than many on the foreign reporting beat, I think the feeling of discomfort I had is quite common. It was to do with the almost unconscious process of fitting Cozma and the other ‘characters’ into a narrative I was constructing as I went about: a narrative which, inevitably, had them – at best – as victims of powers they could not control. I knew before I met them that the men who stared at me in the gallery of the Vulcan mine were doomed to stunted lives. I could see no hope for them in further protest, whether it was led by Cozma or someone less volatile and likelier to be taken seriously as an interlocutor by the Romanian Government. As for the Government – any government in Romania – it could choose to agree to IMF conditions and cut expenditure or not agree to those conditions and ruin an already fragile economy. The arsenal of revolt and protest and solidarity, stocked with two centuries of experience, would avail these men nothing. They would be better off settling for what meagre relief was on offer.

Nothing one could write would do any good. The plight of the Jiu Valley miners was perfectly understood in the offices of the IMF, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; some of the officials of these organisations had probably even been to Petrosani but, like me, they knew what they would think about it before they got there. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm talks about betrayal as one of the besetting problems of journalism: betrayal by the journalist of his ‘source’, because the ‘source’ always assumes, or at least hopes, that his testimony will be treated as a unique document when it will at best become part of a mosaic, and may often, in this age of denunciation, be a condemnation of the ‘source’ from his own mouth. The ‘source’ wants the truth – his truth – told by the journalist: the journalist wants a story to glorify his name. Each one usually knows this about the other; and thus, Malcolm writes, the relationship is uniquely ambiguous, seeming ‘to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose. If everybody put his cards on the table, the game would be over.’

Malcolm was writing about domestic reporting. Foreign reporting is a little different. The murkiness is there, but it is complemented now, in places like the Jiu Valley, or the backward provinces of Mexico, or the banana plantations of the Caribbean, or the steel plants of Ukraine, or the coffee plantations of Kenya, by the fact that the visiting reporter cannot be a man or woman with a pencil or a camera, but is always a representative of the West. The West is now seen as an imperialist force by most people in the world. Nato actions in Kosovo are interpreted by the leaderships and media of hundreds of millions of people as an imperialist war, violating national boundaries and fought for self-aggrandisement. Reporters, too, are seen as agents of the West. And we are – in the sense that we bring with us Western values, assumptions, impatience – most of all when the West has humanitarian, or radical, or sympathetic pretensions. As the effects of globalisation increase the distances between the winners and losers in every way, the divergence of views becomes greater. I am for the allied intervention in Kosovo because I believe humanitarian goals can sometimes be served by the use of force; but it is clear that the use of force solidifies the Serbs around a leadership many of them have hated. Plenty of Russians came to see that their invasion of Chechnya was disastrous; they would not have done, had Nato intervened as the protectors of the nationalist aims of the Chechen leadership.

We cannot escape our role as ‘agents of the West’ even when we inveigh against our leaderships. We see many of the places in which misery is most intense as hopeless, or pitiable. Our view informs everything from the tone we adopt and the people we speak to, to the way in which we report them. Like them, we are trapped by globalisation: a force we don’t understand either, but of which we, at least, are beneficiaries. When the miners of Jiu looked at me, they saw another intellectual but not one who it would serve any purpose to beat up. So they stared, and went back to work.

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